Peak Oil News: Iraq and Tsunami: Living In Harms Way

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Iraq and Tsunami: Living In Harms Way


"It's entirely up to us. If we fail - if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so that it can no longer sustain us - nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea."
Ronald Wright A Short History of Progress

The war in Iraq and the earthquake-tsunami in South East Asia can be connected by comparing their respective death tolls or the amount of money spent by the US ($350 million in aid vs $148 billion in warfare), but there is a much more important unifying perspective

Recent books on societal collapse by Jared Diamond, Ronald Wright and Roy Woodbridge join Joseph Tainter's work in providing a context for understanding: billions of innocents live today in harm's way, in the path of predictable events which promise almost unimaginable tragedy to our global society.

Autopsies can be done on previous collapsed societies and we can understand the cause and effect of the death of these superorganisms and we can learn lessons from their demise, hopefully, in order to avoid similar accident.

But the focus on the reasons for societal collapse is but part of a larger dawning realization that humanity is just another species in the 3 billion year unfolding of life on Earth and that the crescendo of recent population growth and magnificent cultural and technological complexity must be akin to the last few bars of one of those classic Beatle songs from those far away 60s.

The line hugs the floor of the graph for tens of thousands of years but in the 16th century it starts to go up. By the time we all studied the graph in school human population had been growing exponentially in an awesome spike for several centuries. What goes up... a flat line for thousands of years then the glorious spike of amazing human complexity. Then over the cliff and a flat line hugging the floor of the graph for thousands of years again?

There is an emerging new story explaining today: humanities enormously successful use of fossil fuels combined with the coevolution of science and investment - engineering or technology - has allowed human populations to increase exponentially, building niches in almost every earthly environment and every layer of the expanding complexity of city life.

But every species that expands its populations in an exponential manner that science studies inevitably crashes; most often from overuse of limiting factor resources. The human population quadrupled during the past century while the total global economy increased forty times. This is a tremendous increase of demand upon the biosphere by a species that now has at least 100 times the cumulative biomass of any previous animal species.

There is reasonable evidence that global oil production is about to peak while demand continues to grow, especially in growing economies such as China and India. Energy from fossil fuels is a one time chance that has greatly expanded human population. Shouldn't we be giving proper attention to our perilous situation?

Insurance companies will confirm that there are now more people and more human complexity (property) in harms way, vulnerable to earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, flooding, fire or any other natural disaster. A seven billion human population interdependent in and forcefully connected by a growing global economy is also at increasing risk from disease.

War has always been the Horseman most feared by the vulnerable; severe resource depletion promised by the demands of billions on a finite planet, exacerbated by unrealistic dependence upon very finite and now increasingly tapped out supplies of oil - for agriculture in our modern world as well as transportation, industry, heating, etc., promises increasing and deadly resource wars of which Iraq must be only the first, small battle.

Earthquake proofing building standards and tsunami alert networks are examples of technological innovation that can be implemented to protect increasingly vulnerable populations from natural disasters. A 9.0 earthquake would overwhelm most prevention planning, but a tsunami warning system such as is deployed along developed countries on the Pacific Rim would have probably saved tens of thousands of lives in vulnerable populations surrounding the Indian Ocean.

Necessary preventive planning steps that need to be undertaken to safety proof humanity from the worst case scenario of societal breakdown due to severe resource depletion and subsequent resource wars include:

a much more developed world governance system with a strong rule of law,

PLUS international cooperation in much more rapidly developing potential non-fossil energy technologies - removing subsidies from fossil fuel development and using these funds to accelerate investment into government and business partnerships to develop solar, wind, tidal, etc. power, for example,

PLUS cooperative planning to safeguard globalization by among other regulation removing transportation subsidies and by building firewalls to protect regional societies and economies from contagion and corrosion,

PLUS greatly reduced individual consumptive footprints: weightless or much more efficient use of materials in living quality instead of quantity lifestyles.

Unfortunately for those billions of innocents in harm's way, we have chosen another path and are moving in a much different direction away from these necessary beginning steps to try and prevent an imminent catastrophic population crash.

The dawning realization of our precarious position is probably coming too late. Those that should be warning the vulnerable people on the beach are much more concerned with their own short term economic interests. Or, perhaps more accurately, human timeframes and preoccupation with subsistence and herd status in the short term does not allow for planning to safety proof against building 'slow motion catastrophes'.

Compounding the dilemma of those who advocate for needed change, is religious fundamentalist denial - in Rome, New Delhi and Jesusland as well as in the Islamic world. Powerful religious leaders and those who politically serve such leaders reject the whole scientific worldview and in particular it's vision of humanity as just another species subject to the constraints of nature. Plus know-nothings and greenwashers serving business interests who are powerful impediments to even informed debate about our precarious situation.

It will be very difficult to change paths to escape the rush over the cliff we are heading for. The crowd pushes us forward; we all have our lives to live. If there was adequate warning could anybody stop?

"It is essential to know where we are in history. If macroeconomic patterns develop over periods of generations or centuries, it is not possible to comprehend our current conditions unless we understand where we are in this process. We have the opportunity to become the first people in history to understand how a society's problem-solving abilities change. To know that this is possible yet not to act upon it would be a great failure...."
Joseph Tainter


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