Published on The Doomstead Diner on July 31, 2016
Discuss this article at the Psychology Table inside the Diner
Last week I wrote about the proliferation of Nihilists & Misanthropes now populating the collapse blogosphere, I am going to continue with this dissertation this week. If you hold out any Hopes for the Future at all and a Better Tomorrow, if you go to any website where these folks dominate the commentariat, you will be Brigaded and subject to non-stop criticism and character assassination. If you choose to do it (and I do periodically, although less nowadays since the Diner itself is a very time consuming task), then you have to prepare yourself for this and don your Fireproof BVDs before going into the Firefight. lol.
On the Diner, we try to take a more balanced approach to these problems. There are Diners who believe we are on the road to a Near Term Human Extinction, but they are not a dominant faction. They are not dominant because the principals who run the Diner have a different, slightly more Hopium Filled Spin, which is that while we are into the Deep Doo-Doo and things are likely to get quite awful, it is not a completely unsalvageable situation for the perpetuation of the species Homo Sap. A commentariat only tends to attract many Nihilists & Misanthropes if the principal Blogger or Bloggers running the site subscribe to these ideas themselves and promote them.
In this article, what I am going to try to do is outline the basic arguments made on the Diner AGAINST the likelihood of NTHE, and what strategies might be still undertaken to mitigate the results of resource depletion, population overshoot & climate change.
The first and easiest NTHE argument to deconstruct is the one that puts this on the incredibly short timeline of down to 10-20 years. While a MASSIVE Dieoff of the Human Population IS theoretically possible on this timeine, a COMPLETE wipeout is nearly impossible over such a short timeline. There are many individuals, groups and entire Nation States who have prepared Bunkers to survive long periods of time, upwards of 50 years or so. Virtually no matter what occurs including Global Thermonuclear War, some of these cells of people are likely to survive at least that long. So Homo Sap is NOT Extinct at this point.
In terms of rebounding in population after such a vast undershoot, this has been demonstrated in the anthropological record by the Genetic Bottleneck of Homo Sap which occured around 75,000 years ago. Reasons for that Bottleneck are disputed, but the bottleneck itself is generally accepted as valid scientifically via DNA analysis. During that particular Knockdown of Homo Sap, the species was reduced down to 10,000 Human Souls, or 1000 Breeding Pairs. From that small number, by exploiting the vast resources of the earth in various means, we ballooned the population up to a current 7.2B or so.
In the aftermath of such a knockdown now to 10.000 Human Souls, it is unlikely we could balloon up so far ever again. Most of that exponential expansion came from accessing the stored thermodynamic energy in Fossil Fuels, and those can't be replenished for millions of years. By the time that occurred, we would already be having problems with the Sun itself changing in its radiation output and making life unlivable on the earth surface anyhow, so there is virtually no chance of repeating that experiment. That does not mean however that we could not continue our existence for millions more years at lower population levels and lower levels of per capita energy consumption.
For the period from 75,000 BC to around 10,000 BC, the species Homo Sap lived mostly in Harmony with Nature, at a Hunter-Gatherer level. It was only with the development of Metallurgy, Ceramics and Agriculture that we bagan to use resources up faster than they were being replenished. The simple use of Fire for cooking and heating purposes uses up much less combustible material in terms of wood and grasses than natural Forest and Prairie fires do. Burning and Re-Growth are a part of the natural cycle of ecological renewal, like the Birth-Death cycle. Unless the population of Homo Sap gets wildly out of control (like now), they just don't burn stuff up that fast without metallurgy and ceramics.
The contention then made on the basis of this is that once the FFs become uneconomical in terms of EROEI to extract, Homo Saps will then burn down every forest left on earth to keep cooking and heating. Why is that unlikely? Because most large forests are quite far from where the majority of the population lives, on continental coastlines in large cities. You would have no means of transporting the wood from forests far away to where they would need to be burned. The population of these places will die off far before they could move out to places where there are large forests, and even if they did migrate in those directions there would not be enough local food to support them. So most of them would die off also long before they could burn down the entire Siberian Forest for example, or the Forest in the Yukon Territory. Most of us will die off long before the Trees do, and then when most of us are GONE, they will migrate back towards the places we used to live.
The next major argument in favor of NTHE revolves around Nukes, specifically the 400 or so Nuke Plants sprinkled around the world and the spent fuel ponds surrounding them. The hypothesis of many Nihilists is that when the grid fails, all those spent fuel ponds will go the way of Fukushima and Chernobyl, melting down and throughly polluting the water supply in the neighborhood as well as spewing out radioactive gases which will increase global backround radiation to unsurvivable levels for Homo Sap. Why is this an unlikely outcome?
Well, first off once the grid goes down irretrievably, it is unlikely that these spent fuel ponds are left to simply melt down in the spots they are currently located. Here in the FSoA, likelihood would be most of this Nuke Puke would be shipped to the Yucca Mountain facility, vitrified and buried there. Without cooling they would undoubtably melt down over some period of time, but it would take way more than 50 years. Could they go Super Critical and EXPLODE? Unlikely unless they are packed too tight. Could they pollute the water table and aquifer below them? WHAT Aquifer will be left there in 20 years? Who will be living in this neighborhood in 20 years? NOBODY! It's already a fucking desert.
So the only real danger here is radioactive gases that might escape in the decomposition process, but spread through the whole earth atmosphere it probably would only double or at most triple the background radiation we are already exposed to. This would likely lead to an increasing rate of Cancers and increasing Child Mortality rates, but it is not an INSTANT KILLER. This additional backround radiation would also be reltively short lived, since the half-life of most of these isotopes of gaseous radionucleotides is not that long.
Over in Europe where they also have many Nuke Puke plants, similar story. When TSHTF, they'll take the spent fuel and ship it over to Saudi Arabia and bury it in the Sahara Desert. Nobody will be living in this neighborhood either.
What about the Nukes in the BOMBS and the potential for Global Thermonuclear WAR? This DOES hold potential for a rapid wipeout of the entire global population of Homo Saps on a short timespan, but one does hope that the Neo-Cons and War Mongers with their fingers on the buttons don't push them based on the old MAD doctrine and not wanting to off themselves while they off everybody else. Never know on that one, these folks demonstrate insanity on a daily basis so it remains a possibility.
Next up is the question of Climate Change and loss of Habitat. There is a near certainty that over the course of the next 50 years due to sea level rise much of the current coastline where most people currently live will become inundated with seawater. Not all at once, just ever more flooding events at high tides and with onshore winds from storms and the like. So people in these locations that manage to survive the early stages will be forced inland, setting up battles for the still remaining land above the new sea level. This is bound to significantly reduce total population by quite a bit.
Of the remaining land available, a good portion of that will not be useful as regular floods in some neighborhoods and drought in others will make agriculture impossible. Reduction in the total amount of food it is possible to produce for the entire global population will significantly reduce, and starvation is likely to be the most powerful Death Vector here during this time period. However, will that make it impossible for ANY Homo Sap to survive this period?
This is unlikely also, the population will whittle itself downward until at some point the region they are living in supports the population size. Hard to say how low that needs to go, but it does not need to go to zero, and it is unlikely that would occur on such a short timeline as 10-20 years also. So some people probably survive this period even in the worst case scenario, although likely not too many with these parameters.
Now, how do you get all these Dead People besides the Starvation and Disease? Warfare obviously, but in basic sense one person kills and maybe EATS another if you go the Full Cannibal. But this only goes so far too, because at some point you have reduced the population enough that Cannibalism is no longer necessary, and the competing drive to procreate and continue the species takes over. If that were not true, Homo Sap as a species could never have survived at all! At some point in the collapse paradigm, Cooperation always takes over from Competition.
So, I think I have demonstrated fairly well why a low population, low per capita energy population of Homo Sap living with Stone Age technology could be a possible outcome from this clusterfuck. However, that is not what most Modernists and Cornucopians aspire to here, folks like Ugo Bardi and Louis Arnoux hope for better than this, a kind of techno-future utilizing various types of renewable energy to perpetuate the techno-industrial lifestyle we are currently accustomed to in 1st World countries. Is this outcome possible?
Well, IMHO it is highly unlikely, but it is POSSIBLE. I will make an argument on how such a society might be possible even though I think this is not a likely outcome. It is one worth striving for though, so worth making an effort for even if it ends in failure. It is always better IMHO to go out fighting than to roll over and die as a QUITTER.
The biggest criticism as far as Renewables go is that they cannot in any reasonable time span substitute for Fossil Fuels because they lack the energy density necessary, the battery technology for storage is not there, etc. I agree with these critiques, but only for the current global population of Homo Sap, currently estimated at around 7.2 Billion Human Souls.
IF you were to reduce the total global population of Homo Sap by 90% down to around 700M, you get a HUGE energy Savings from this alone! If you further take this lower population and reduce their per capita energy usage by 90%, now you are realy talking about having plenty of energy for Homo Sap to survive and prosper!
If you accept the idea of a massive population knockdown, then many things become possible in the paradigm of renewable energy. To begin with here, once you have few enough people you can start to use more land for producing liquid fuels like alcohol and biodiesel. Besides that, the lower the population, the longer the remaining FFs possible to dig up at positive EROEI last. Besides that, any solar panels you produce now for a population of 7.2B will easily produce enough electricity for 72M people, since that is only 1% of current population.
The main thing that the Nihilist/Misanthrope/Extinction crowd does not GET is that you have TWO variables at work here, Resources and Population. As Population decreases, per capita Resources increase. Fast enough population decrease, you can quickly go to undershoot and have a GLUT of resources. The only real question here is whether in the course of such a downspin Homo Sap can stay organized enough to stop the undershoot at some reasonable level before spinning down to extinction. I'll hazard the guess we can at least plateau it for a while at 70M Homo Saps still left walking the earth 50 years from now, but that is a WAG at 1% of current global population. Basically, a Penny on the Dollar return on investment. That is STILL a LOT of people to do a Reboot from at some point in the distant future, a LOT more than the 10,000 Human Souls who SURVIVED and then ballooned up to 7.2 Billion after the Genetic Bottleneck 75,000 years ago.
I seriously doubt any of us will be alive to see how this works itself out in the long term, whether it will lead to an extinction level event for Homo Sap, or will it be a knockdown-rebound event? It is unlikely to occur over a 20 year timespan, the system has too much inertia and there are too many means to survive here no matter how bad the situation gets for a half century AT LEAST. A 100% Wipeout is near impossible over such a short timespan. BIG KNOCKDOWN yes, EXTINCTION over such a short timespan no, not very likely.
In the meantime, what do YOU wish to do with your time left walking the earth? Do you wish to wallow in misery bemoaning the sad fate of the species Homo Sap, of which you are a member, like it or not? Or do you wish to spend your last days on earth in the existential FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL that is the biological imperative of all Living Things beside the Sentient & Suicidal? Those are the questions you can ask yourself. For myself, I will choose Door #2, Monty.