Sunday, August 06, 2023

Why I assume "fixes" meant to prevent collapse won't work

There are those who believe our current way of life is not facing any near term threat and will go on indefinitely. In this view, any existential problems—should they ever arise—will be dealt with by new technologies.

Others assume the threat of civilizational collapse is real and can be and even will be addressed. They may believe that the threats include climate change, the challenge of evolving microbes that are rendering antibiotics useless, and the increasing toxicity of the biosphere due to human releases of novel toxic chemicals. This group frantically offers solutions which are emitted on an almost daily schedule from the world's universities and industrial research laboratories.

The solutions that are offered usually address an isolated issue such as carbon-free energy. A recent proposal suggests burning iron powder. As one reads about this "solution," it seems more and more like a nonstarter. There's plenty of iron, of course. But we need to ramp up dramatically the manufacture of iron powder. This gets burned to make iron oxide. Then we can make iron "renewable" by using hydrogen to strip away the oxygen from the resulting iron oxide so we get iron again.

Of course, the hydrogen is assumed to be "green hydrogen" made using renewable energy. Even if the amount of green hydrogen necessary for widespread adoption of iron oxide recycling were to become available—which is a real stretch—storing and transporting hydrogen is a nightmare because as the smallest molecule in the universe, it leaks easily and persistently from practically anything you put it into AND any hope of storing it economically means it needs to be turned into a liquid at minus 423 degrees F. Keep in mind that absolute zero at which all molecular motion theoretically ceases is minus 459.67 degrees F. Of course, this will be very energy-intensive.

I am reminded of the joke about the priest, the engineer and the economist stranded together on a desert island. They need food, and the logical source is fish. The priest suggests that they all pray for fish. The engineer recommends building a fishing net with materials available on the island. The economist ponders for a moment and then says, "Assume a fish."

That is what most of the "solutions" to civilizational collapse amount to. For example, fusion energy assumes a stable geopolitical environment capable of funding, building and running complex energy infrastructure. So does renewable energy. So-called vertical farming in cities assumes the capital to build environment-controlled buildings which use enormous water, fertilizer and electricity resources while sitting on high-value real estate.

For the various solutions to take hold we must assume ongoing access to huge sums of willing capital, geopolitical stability, plentiful resources to get us through any transition, and a climate that does not plunge us into a sudden catastrophic change that undermines food supplies and challenges the limits of existing infrastructure. And, we must assume that the multiple threats we face regarding depletion of fossil fuels, water and fertile soil and the continuous poisoning of the air, land and water will be addressed in tandem successfully. The smooth functioning of the existing system depends on it.

None of the solutions, however, get to the heart of the matter. I regard the heart of the matter as ever rising consumption (and therefore use of energy and resources). Dramatically reducing consumption is simply not in such plans for the future except among a few groups advocating for what has euphemistically come to be known as "degrowth." Degrowth means the same thing as the economist's "negative growth." It means less stuff and energy and a lot less over time.

As the dean of the steady-state economists, the late Herman Daly told us again and again, human civilization will achieve a steady-state economy one way or another. Either we will plan for it and execute a plan that takes us as a global society on average down to a fraction of what we consume today. Or, nature will take its course and we will collapse down to a steady-state level of consumption, probably one considerably below what would occur if we took the planned route.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Hydrogen is produced now. 99% the non-green way

Anonymous said...

I agree that we’re not going to change. Anyway the toothpaste is already out of the tube, so it doesn’t matter much what we do.

Joe said...

we will collapse down to a steady-state level of consumption, probably one considerably below what would occur if we took the planned route.

This likelihood has been obvious for decades, at least since the warnings of Limits to Growth were rejected by everyone in power. Now it is far too late to prevent collapse and the only thing to be done is for individuals, families and small communities to prepare for life with a very low level of consumption, as low or lower than the poorest people on the planet consume now.

My only glimmer of hope is that the internal vulnerabilities of modern civilization will be the cause of a rapid and nearterm collapse rather than environmental blowback. If so, collapse survivors may find the world continues to be a decent place to live.

Anonymous said...

Напевно спад буде нищівним і непередбачуваним...
Це не стартовий капітал, який мали мисливці-збирачі.
Ми випатрошили планету, і все те руйнування і т.д. буде більше схоже на Прип'ять.
Зарослі міста і естакади, занедбані заводи, знищена інфраструктура, смерть, розруха та жахіття.
Дякуємо тобі, Америко, Англіє, Голландія та Китай!)

Kurt Cobb said...

Google Translate provides this translation for the comment above.

The recession is sure to be devastating and unpredictable...

This is not the start-up capital that hunter-gatherers had.
We gutted the planet, and all that destruction, etc. will be more like Pripyat.
Overgrown cities and overpasses, abandoned factories, destroyed infrastructure, death, destruction and horror.

Thank you, America, England, Holland and China!)

SomeoneInAsia said...

QUOTE: ***Thank you, America, England, Holland and China!***

Hey, please don't thank China. China originally never wanted to adopt the whole stupid modern industrial way of life and way of thinking. She adopted it only because, if she didn't, then it would have been easy for those who did to continue to trample on her like they did during the 19th and early 20th centuries. If not for this reason, the very thought of adopting a way of life conceived of and followed by foreign barbarians -- and barbarians they were indeed -- would have struck the Chinese as utterly ludicrous, all the more so when they saw themselves, not without justification, as the proud heirs of a civilization that stood for several millennia.

China's old ways were full of problems, no doubt about that. But is the modern industrial way of life (1) an improvement in this respect, or does it present us with (2) far worse problems? Most people -- including most 'educated' Chinese today -- have no doubt that the answer is (1). But Prof Cobb here tells you otherwise.

Thank you very much, America and England. Thank you for where you have led and are still leading the entire planet. :)

Anonymous said...

fools blame a country... absolute fools

SomeoneInAsia said...

QUOTE:***fools blame a country... absolute fools***

Not necessarily. It depends on which country you blame.

Anonymous said...

There's plenty of blame to go around. Start looking for some land to survive on.