Thursday, 11 April 2013

Aiming for a Byzantium

While Europe will not likely end up as a new Byzantium (i.e. it survives with something similar to modern western civilization intact) and it is certain that the human world will decline quite drastically, that does not necessarily mean that Australia and/or New Zealand couldn't aim to be modern Byzantium's. There are major reasons why this is possible for both countries: invasion is unlikely or difficult, we're both partly insulated from the global economy (both due to tyranny of distance) which has caused our manufacturing to be less degraded than many other western nations and we have plenty of vital primary resources (food, uranium, rare earths etc.) for political and economic gain. While the global economy and industrial civilization is going to collapse during the next centuries, that doesn't mean all of it will suffer to the same degree. After all, Byzantium survived the roman collapse, Ireland was a cultural center (protected by England), when the Mayans collapsed the northern section actually gained population and some of the middle-eastern empires were replaced by a power center which hadn't decayed. So collapse doesn't necessarily hit an entire civilization, just most of it. Byzantium is odd in that it was a large section of the collapsing civilization (roughly half), while normally it’s a small or periphery part of the civilization that emerges relatively unchanged/undamaged. Australia and New Zealand are a small periphery part of Industrial civilization.

So Australia and/or New Zealand, using catabolic collapse theory, could only go through 1 or 2 rounds of catabolism and then reach a stable level resembling (not identical) to what came before rather than declining again. Now, this wouldn't stop the current industrial civilization in Australia from evolving into something else, Byzantium was not Rome (they spoke Greek) and went on its own trajectory, notably one without mass empire building. What instead happened is that the normal cycle of collapse then restructuring followed by collapse stops early, instead a small collapse happens that is followed by a long period of change and restructuring. This is something worth aiming for.

In terms of defense, there are no major potential sources for even major raiders external to Australia to attack our heartland, the main possibility for that is raids of new guinea or New Zealand, all which have serious limitations. The only countries close enough are New Guinea and Indonesia (and New Zealand + new Caledonia  but one is tiny and the other a current and likely future ally), both are likely to have many internal troubles, through Indonesia would be a major threat to the North Coast. New Guinea isn't a heavily coastal country; most of the population is inland and remember naval warfare is highly technical, even for raiders. Viking ships were quite advanced and the sea raiders that appeared during Rome's collapse had new technologies to help them. New Guinea, while its quite advanced in some things, like local organic agriculture, does not have the industrial or technical skill sets needed for large scale raiding of even Cairns, though small raids are a possibility. Indonesia is an coastal nation (mostly on the Island of Java), but is located in an even worse strategic position for attacking anything but the north coast and they have a big incentive to keep their southern border quite as we could retaliate in kind and destroy their ability to respond to their other neighbors, several of who have significant capabilities. They have several incentives to be friendly, or at least neutral, so that they can focus on the north, to countries such as China, Thailand, Malaysia etc, and protect the seas and borders that are important for them. This will only last while Indonesia is united, but until then it will help deter raids or invasions. If they become divided, less force can be projected outward but it is more likely to be projected. Yes, they could probably beat Australia in a war for the north coast in say 30-50 years, but only by sacrificing the ability to fight everyone else and even that isn't necessarily a massive loss to Australia given our population spread.

It does provide options that need to be discussed. Do we scrap the expeditionary parts of our military and keep only a defensive force, act like the ancient Greeks and provide elite soldiers (only viable option due to logistics) to anyone willing to pay or some other option such as a defensive land force (lots of infantry + artillery) with the ability to move it overseas (such as to new guinea). Do we build/buy a huge amount of cheap mines to place around the north coast to stop any Indonesian or Chinese aggression, note mines work just as well against civilian traffic (in fact better) than military traffic. So if mass migration does become a problem (however unlikely it is), minefields can simply be placed to stop any oceanic movements we don't want, since having any ship that tries explode is a good incentive to not try, or force the migrants to land away from important/hospitable places Yes, I have said that a mass migration is unlikely happen, but pragmatism is an important value.

Now Australia, despite a common belief isn't a small country population wise. Its mid-sized population; about the same as Scandinavia's (specifically Denmark, Norway and Sweden) which also about 20 million, 1/3 of Britain or France’s which are both about 60 million. It’s when it’s compared to Indonesia's population of 240 million that Australia looks small, but not to New Guinea's 7.5 million. Scandinavia is a viable power center (in Europe) and at one point Sweden had its own empire, while the Switz almost overcame their small population (currently 8 million) to conquer a Central European empire. When you consider that Indonesia is likely to break up, 20 million (or even 5-10) is quite a lot of people for a single country, especially once population decline finishes and our access to higher tech/skills is taken into account.  

On the link, sidebar there’s a prototype carrying capacity dashboard for Australia, go and play around with it. Note, read the question marks for food and climate; also, it’s a prototype not a finished product, so it doesn’t take into account climate change. If you press long-term defaults, carrying capacity is 9.5 million and if you then lower bio-fuel use to 75lt, it becomes 16.7 million. After that play around, find the worst case and the best cases. What I want to point out is that under many reasonable futures, Australia's population won't decline drastically when compared to most places on Earth. A drop from 23 to 17 million is only a 25% decline, less than the Black Death’s decline of 1/3, and when compared to the world’s likely drop of 7 to 2 or 1 billion, Australia comes out well ahead. A drop from 22 million to 6 or 3 million is the proportionate one Australia would face.  Heck, a drop to 20 million isn't out of the realm of possibility, it’s just rather unlikely. this comes about likely due to Australia being a 'new' country that didn't have massive migration waves and joined in the industrial world of smallish birth rates. One likely event to speed up the change  is the stopping of migration as Australia's population by itself doesn't increase.

Now, the difference is that overall population density is incredibly low. France has an area of 674,000km2 for a population of 65 million, while Australia is 7,692,000km2 for a population of 23 million (most of its desert). This is why we're resource rich and to explain the dynamics I'll use a recent example. In 2009 Australia used 946,300 barrels of oil a day, or .05 per person, compared to the USA who used 18,690,00 barrels a day, or .06 per person. If your wondering why our carbon footprint is so high, its because we export the good (and hence cleaner) black coal (Normally to Japan) and use the crap (and hence dirtier) brown coal for our own electricity, combined with several electricity intense industries, e.g. Aluminum smelting uses 24-35% of Victoria’s electricity which is produced from brown coal. In Cooper Pedy, they found between 3.5 to 233 billion extractable barrels of shale, if you've followed peak oil then you know how bad shale is and I’m going to use 3.5 as the recoverable reserves, but this is an example. Here that source would last 10 years, while in America it would last 6 months even though per capita consumption is similar (uses 2009 figures and assuming steady demand). While this is apparently good shale, it's still shale and so unlikely to matter a great deal. However, the dynamic works for other resources, especially Uranium (31% of the world’s economic reserves) which we don't use except for small niche uses. Black Coal is another example, if production continues growing at 5% a year, there is a 40 year supply, otherwise its 111 years (539 for brown coal), which is a ridiculously long time for overshoot. Australia can be a major resource provider because of that low population density, if our population density was closer to Frances, Australia's population would be just below a billion, then Australia would not be the resource provider it is. So when Zero Carbon Australia provides a fully costed plan that also includes manufacturing capabilities needed and resources (like silver), their several plans can be done with just Australia's resources. Also, remember that Australia has the best solar resources of any Industrialized country and doesn't need to use offshore wind like Europe does.

The lower overall population density does provide some problems, though not necessarily the ones Australian's have historically thought of. Since the low density is due to the land's inhospitably and not any lack of trying, most of the ideas of being swamped by Asia are unfounded. The distribution is more important and its lucky for us that Australia's coasts are the habitable parts and not the centre since that solves a great many transport problems. The low density makes Australia look a more tempting target than what it is to people who don't understand why its like it is, imagine a future Chinese leader who ignorantly thinks the north can feed lots of people. Otherwise it could in the future make extracting resources harder as labour replaces automation, mostly where people don't live and mineral resources are likely to be.

So, if Australia's government decides to prepare for scarcity Industrialism, that is seizing control of its resources for political and economic gain, a great opportunity is there. The mining tax was a weak version of this, a future adjustment is almost certain to happen, likely with a change to the carbon tax. And luckily, chances are that if Tony Abbot (current opposition leader) gets in, like GST it'll stay (GST was a labor idea, but the Liberals implemented it). Then there’s the carbon tax, here’s an Archdruid post about taxation, the carbon tax fits in the first reform. The Carbon tax lowered income taxes by raising the tax threshold while also being a resource tax. And in that lies the way forward. 

The behaviors and ideas that are helping drag industrial civilization down are by no means absolute and there exist factors which could help to make a Byzantium future possible. It would take a lot of work and as much elimination of the behaviors and ideas that aren't helping, but it is possible. The carbon tax raised the price of new coal power stations by $50 per megawatt hour (to about $150), so wind beats it clearly now by $63-94 per megawatt hour, so new coal stations are unlikely to be built and renewables are instead used. Permaculture and a few other organic agriculture techniques were started here, which will help implementation, and there are various small scale bio-fuel initiatives most of which are farm based and often farm used. Part of the reason my parents bought solar panels (it was also economic) was the idea that that's what good citizens did, could you expand that and include it with government conservation methods, probably. The focus on growth and the general ideology of progress does currently outweigh these factors, but this is where any change has to start and if a cultural/political consensus does emerge then a big difference can be made. It won't stop the first (or probably even the second or third) wave of catabolism, that choice was abandoned long ago, but it could shorten the downward phase and create a steady state society on the other end.

So if some public backing does appear and stuff starts happening, what actions can be taken? Lets start at the big scale and work downwards. starting with foreign policy and international trade. Currently there isn't enough uranium being mined to power all the current and planned nuclear power plants worldwide, the gap is covered by uranium scavenged from decommissioned nuclear weapons and the lowered demand due to recent shutdowns in Fukushima's wake, which will make it a sellers market in the near future. Australia sells uranium and doesn't use it (except for some research/medical reactors), it has about 31% of the economical reserves and is currently the third greatest producer. In this vein, a serious proposal is to implement a mixture of exchanges (uranium for oil or green tech) and inflating the price to buy the necessary transition tech/resources. Our isolation is a benefit in this since it makes resource grabbing invasions very unlikely and easy to counter (mostly mines). There is of course the ethical argument about selling uranium and this tactic may not be chosen because of that, but other resources (like rare earths) share this trait. Also increasing the mining tax, along with an extra levy against foreign companies, would be wise in this regard. Zero Carbon Australia has one fully costed plan that could be implemented with this funding and is creating 5 more for example, but there are other useful things the money could be spent on, like adapting the military, government buildings and infrastructure.

On the national scale, enhancing that vague feeling of good citizenship my parents had to a more potent and wide ranging force. Historical examples are the victory garden movement, America's WW2 drop in civilian petroleum use and the various scrap metal campaigns. Expanding it beyond solar panels to conservation efforts, local community heating + energy systems, organic agriculture (Permaculture has the advantage of Australian made) and so on. This sort of national idea's success would be measured by its effect on the local level, changes in state and federal policy (like building more trains or helping certain projects/industries), rather than any direct benefit it would create. Other things, like support for alternative transport systems such as sailing ships, airships and aerial rope-ways would also help. Another change on the national level would be to start using Major Cameron Leckie's ideas in the military and start using it to experiment and transition. Militaries can be a good test beds for technologies, so use that for reducing energy use and utilizing renewable energy in situ. 

On the links sidebar click on the Green energy bricks and have a look. Supporting local/state level industries and innovations like that, for those who didn't click it is a R8+ brick (super insulated) that's designed for quick and easy building, alongside the more traditional changes in agriculture (I.e organic agriculture) and basic manufacturing would put Australia well ahead in the game. On the state level, there was a good article in the Age (unfortunately I only have it in print form) on why the state systems are becoming dysfunctional, in brief a series of tax distribution changes that the constitution wasn't designed for happened and is degraded the whole system. Using this excuse to implement a new tax system better able to handle the coming transition, proposed by Herman Daly for one (among others), would increase the functioning of the Federal-State-Local system while also helping to birth the new economies that are needed. The states could also help by building more regional public transport (think V-line), rails for cargo and experimenting with alternate regional transport systems. Various new models for city design (new Urbanism, Eco-cities, Regenerative cities etc) applied to the capital cities, or for experimentation the regional cities, would help immensely since this would affect the majority of the population sooner rather than later.

Decline causes social stress and this needs to be addressed to reduce civil strife. Here's several ideas, use public housing as a test bed for good Eco house designs (low energy use, nice to live in etc) and building practices (like the use of CLT, see sidebar). Copying America's Conservation corps on various levels, I can think of uses for it at local, state and national levels (say building solar ponds in places) would provide a good labour force when unemployment rises and directly impart needed skills to the populace. Various inequality levelers should be employed as well, since excessive inequality causes quite a lot of social strife.

Response at the local level will probably be the most diverse and would benefit individuals, families and communities directly (most of the other stuff, while potent, is indirect). Increased insulation and retrofitting, energy conservation at the household level and access to local food, has to happen at this level. Politically it includes more funding for public transport, cycling infrastructure, changes to building codes and land use, and support for various initiatives (like local industries). Exploitation of certain resources is best at this scale; wood gas for cars, areas of high wind speed (due to local geography), micro-hydro sites and such, especially in rural areas where its more applicable. A rise in small economies of crafts, small farms, workshops or small factories will happen anyway, preparing support in the form of cargo-bikes, well researched and utilized energy sources and even oxen/horses where appropriate is a  good idea, it would certainly raise their resilience and productivity. 
 At the moment, the political and cultural will is lacking, but it is slowing appearing. Given time it would appear naturally, but unfortunately time is whats lacking. Here's an example, Getting ready for peak oil (due to problems in the party, the site may not always work) Update: Now they have a new site and peak oil is lumped under energy policies, the Australian democrat party is on the edge the mainstream and eventually the idea would make it's way into the mainstream and become part of the non-radical political landscape. Zero Carbon Australia is another mainstream group and while it doesn't focus on peak oil even a beginning of an implementation would help. Since that would happen over decades that the Industrial world doesn't have, we'll have to wait for some disasters to happen that pry the current hegemonic idea loose and allow something to take its place. If the concept of Overshoot and a response to it are present, the ideas expressed here could take shape in time.

Global Industrial civilization cannot be saved, that path wasn't chosen long ago. Here on the periphery, parts of it can be saved and the worst of the coming decline avoided. Remember, the goal here isn't to change the global industrial system, just the specific part the Australia inhabits.

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