Friday, May 14, 2010

How inevitable is decline?

Have we passed the point of no return?
Our contemporary industrial society is sick. But how bad is our diagnosis? Do we have a mild illness requiring a brief lie down and an aspirin, a major problem requiring emergency surgery, or a terminal illness beyond curative treatment, leaving only better or worse palliative care?

Dark Mountain
There has been an interesting debate on this question upfolding recently on the Guardian website between what may be viewed as different branches of environmentalism. To understand the debate, you first need to get a bit of a handle on a new movement in the UK called The Dark Mountain Project (DMP). Launched just over a year ago by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, DMP is a literary and cultural project exploring new stories for an age of collapse and transition. Their manifesto can be found here, though this quote might give you a taste of their perspective:

"This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop."
So while being deeply pessimistic about the chances of continuing life as we know it, they are searching for new (or renewed) cultural narratives to guide us through what they expect will be a period of widespread ecological, social, economic and political change. In particular, those at the DMP are quite critical of an optimistic environmentalism that sees us developing and implementing technological solutions to ecological crises based around a low-carbon economy that will enable the continued economic development of a social and cultural trajectory not too dissimilar to the one we're already on, that the future will be merely "an upgraded version of the present". Nicholas Stern's newish book is one example of this kind of thinking. In other words, DMP are questioning whether sustainable development is really sustainable if it assumes the necessity and desirability of ongoing industrial development in even the developed world. I have previously quoted John Michael Greer, who spoke about contemporary industrial society facing a predicament, not merely a series of problems. That is the basic idea: that we need to work out how to best cushion a now inevitable descent from our current level of social complexity, and Dark Mountain wants to explore cultural narratives other than the myth of progress.

Dark Mountain is gaining a bit of a following, and are holding their first festival in Wales in a few weeks' time. One of the keynote speakers at the festival is well-known Guardian journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot.

The Guardian debate
Monbiot started the Guardian conversation on Tuesday with an article titled "I share their despair, but I'm not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain. He accused the DMP of "giving up" on industrial civilisation, being content to wait for its downfall, which will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we ignore the real opportunities to reform the current system.

Kingsnorth and Hine, founders of Dark Mountain, came back yesterday with "The environmental movement needs to stop pretending". They rejected Monbiot's portrayal of their ideas and charged mainstream environmentalism (including Monbiot) with having been co-opted by capitalist dreams of endless growth, just with wind farms replacing coal.

And then today, Simon Lewis, Royal Society research fellow at the Earth & Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds tried to find a mediating position in "Yes, we can change society before global crises overwhelm us". Lewis argues that Monbiot is too optimistic about the life expectancy of industrial civilisation while Kingsnorth and Hine are premature in issuing a terminal diagnosis. Instead, there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity.

A growing conversation
All three articles are contributions to an ethical and cultural debate that I think will only continue to grow in coming years. It is not a new debate, but it is likely to become increasingly mainstream as more people come to see the depth and breadth of ecological crises our industrial society has spawned. I think this exchange includes its fair share of misunderstandings and misrepresentations (for instance, it is clear that Kingsnorth and Hine are not advocating any kind of quietist despair, nor does Monbiot hope for endless growth. Nonetheless, these authors differ in their estimation of how deeply ecological crises cut into the arteries of our present way of life and how radically and rapidly things need to change as a result. Anyone who takes seriously our present crises will need to face these questions, and on our answers, new alliances and battlegrounds will be drawn.
Speaking of interesting Guardian articles, this one is also worth a read, pointing out that most of the current climate debate is way too simplistic and that scientific, economic, political and ethical questions are not be carefully enough distinguished.
Monbiot and Kingsnorth had an earlier run-in over these questions a little while back.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Byron - forgot to say that I'd have loved to go to the Dark Mountain festival but can't get away from home, for various reasons. I liked your list of all the problems - it's only on (some aspects of) agw that I think we disagree. I also trust that the influx of sceptics on to that comment thread hasn't put you off from pursuing the conversation further - but probably not on that post! :)

byron smith said...

Ah what a shame about DM. I'm still working out whether I'll be able to go or not.

And I'm not at all put off from the conversation, though I have a few things I need to write for the real world (including a sermon for tomorrow), so might not rejoin that thread just now.

Milan said...

I really like the spiral staircase photo.

byron smith said...

Thanks - it's a lovely spot in a very famous building. I'm sure some readers will recognise it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam and Byron,
to your knowledge is Dark Mountain the new organised front of collapse thinking? Do they have many of the big collapse writers, from Heinberg to Diamond? Or is it more of a UK centric project?

(PS: Hey, Sam, what the? You can't be. You're not! Say it isn't so... an AGW sceptic? What do you mean by 'some aspects of'?)

This is a great piece Byron, and I'll have to read all the links and sit and have a coffee and a good day or 2 to think it through. There are too many ideas buzzing through my head right now to reply coherently... I don't want to sound manically enthusiastic about our future, but as you know I'm not an DM guy either.

Basically, I wouldn't be surprised if the future looked like either "The Road" or "Total Recall" right now. We could nuke ourselves back to the Stone Age or start settling Mars in 20 years, depending on the choices we make now.

But what does living with these potentialities mean? There's the itch that I just can't scratch, but there's something bubbling away in the back of my brain.

Catch ya in a few days.

byron smith said...

Hi Sam and Byron,
to your knowledge is Dark Mountain
the new organised front of collapse thinking?
Do they have many of the big collapse writers, from Heinberg to Diamond?
Or is it more of a UK centric project?

It is relatively small yet growing fast (I think). A real test will be this weekend (which unfortunately, I was not able to get to), since they are holding their first festival outside a small town in Wales. It will be interesting to see what numbers they get and where they go from here. They are primarily interested in the cultural aspects of the predicament, rather than political, technological or scientific ones. That is, their stated aim is to find artistic/poetic/narrative alternatives to the myth of progress which has helped to sustain and drive industrial civilisation since the dawn of modernity.

Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron,
I hope that if you got to the DMP you didn't get all doomer on me. ;-)

4 things... I'll try and be quick.

1. The study Simon Lewis was referring to was the Stockholm Resilience Centre study

It is covered by the Scientific American podcast. A little summary here: SCIAM: Is Earth past the tipping point?.

A team of 30 scientists across the globe have determined that the nine environmental processes named above must remain within specific limits, otherwise the "safe operating space" within which humankind can exist on Earth will be threatened. Amid some controversy, the group has set numeric limits for seven of the nine so far (chemical pollution and aerosol loading are still being pinned down). And the researchers have determined that the world has already crossed the boundary in three cases: biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle and climate change.
The ones we've 'crossed' at this stage mean the world is degrading, but not totally over the cliff yet, and by no means spells out TEOTWAWKI. We're on the road towards the cliff, but there's still time to make a right turn.

2. Speaking of interesting Guardian articles, this one is also worth a read, pointing out that most of the current climate debate is way too simplistic and that scientific, economic, political and ethical questions are not be carefully enough distinguished.

Now this is a very interesting point! I wonder what the implications are for democracy and climate? Panel after panel of scientists have begged the governments of the world to deal with climate change, but nothing is *really* happening yet. Where is the war-time effort? Where's the emergency deployment of clean energy? I expect we'll see emergency action when peak oil hits.

I also think govts are still waiting for the 'right' technology, when we've had it all along — but Bill Clinton closed down the program about to commercialise it.

The Integral Fast Reactor. Cheap, deployable, modular baseload nukes. Yet even if we built current nukes, did you know they can eat nuclear bombs? Have you heard of "Megatons to Megawatts"?

It just amazes me that I've been a fairly passionate greenie for 6 years now, and only heard about this recently. I still can't get my head around this being a historical fact, not some wild activist dream!

From 1995 through late 2009, 375 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium from Russian nuclear warheads have been recycled into low-enriched-uranium fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants. This program has eliminated the equivalent of 15,000 nuclear warheads. The Megatons to Megawatts government-to-government program goal of elimination 500 metric tons of warhead material is scheduled to be completed in 2013. Currently, ten percent of U.S. electricity is produced using this fuel

3. RE: sulphur guns that we discussed elsewhere. The beauty of it is that if we do find adverse, unintended side-effects, we just stop, and it will soon clear itself. Also, it's not used to prolong burning carbon but in tandemn with an emergency deployment of clean energy systems.

4. PS: I'm not sure if I've got the energy to write the blog post that I initially wanted to in responding to this post and the thought provoking links.

When you get time, please post a review of the DMP weekend if you ended up going.

byron smith said...

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to the festival. I wanted to go for a number of reasons. First, to try to get a handle on whether Monbiot's criticisms (that DM are giving up) hit the mark with the rank and file (as I said, I don't think they do with the founders). Second, to see what kind of spiritual and cultural resources they would draw upon to find alternatives to the myth of progress. Third and more generally, to work out just what kind of a movement DM actually is!

byron smith said...

I'd seen that SCIAM study. Although "only" three of nine levels have been breached, I note that they put biodiversity as the "worse", at least in the sense "furthest past the dangerous limit".

Re sulphur guns: if we had to stop them due to unintended side-effects, then we'd still have the minor AGW issue... And yes, it may have a place alongside aggressive action, but why do I get the feeling that some are going to (and already are) promote it as an alternative to action?

Re Sam's position on AGW - he can speak for himself, but you can start to get a feel here (and a number of other places on his blog where we're having an ongoing conversation about a number of things).

Sam Charles Norton said...

Best single post for me on AGW is this one:

byron smith said...

Looks like they got about 400 to the first festival. Not a bad turnout at all. I wish I could have gone.

Anonymous said...

Plasma Arc Waste Disposal....

It would be ideal for the petroleum industry to take up collecting garbage, as they could then 'gasify' most wastes and hazardous materials, except maybe radioactive stuff.

Had a New Orleans scale flood? Bring in lots of mobile plasma arc generators, and tractors, and just sweep up the mud, trees, debris, plastics, sewerage... dump it in the plasma reactor, and get syngas and building materials out.

It does not *burn* the stuff, but gasifies it... rips stuff like asbestos back to it's constituent atoms. So in goes municipal waste, asbestos, soiled nappies, etc, and out comes syngas => electricity, petrochemical feedstocks (toothbrushes, paints and varnishes), and a smoother cleaner motor lubricant than mother nature can produce.

And the slag can separate out recycled metals, or a kind of sand gravel for concrete or making roads, or even "rock-wool" for insulation or use in construction as fibreglass.

It works as there are numerous smaller plants. They've just got to build the big ones and demonstrate it works at higher tons per day operation.

The technology is just scaling up, and assuming 1 million tons a day of municipal waste in the USA, could produce about the same power as 25 nuclear reactors!

Now this is the clincher for me... the technology does not assume changes in human behaviour. In Japan it takes about half an hour to an hour each week to sort through all the recycling. Bit and pieces of waste are PACKAGED in PLASTIC BAGS and sent off to the various centres based on the labels!

That's madness. Can you imagine Sydneysiders getting that obsessive over their rubbish? Nah. Bring back big bins, chuck it all in there, and give us some jet-fuel, petroleum products, and construction materials.

If we want we can keep green-bins for making biochar, which is also a great waste recycler. And if society values recycled paper (if it turns out we can't actually grow hemp-paper fast enough!) then MAYBE we'll keep the yellow bins as well.

But 3 bins is all... any more and we're heading down the Japanese route to recycling headaches once a week, and overuse of plastic bags!

byron smith said...

I didn't realise: eve biochar has its critics too. :-)

byron smith said...


Anonymous said...

Yeah, George Monbiot had a rant against biochar along the same lines. He retracted it with qualifiers a week later, realising that the biochar proponents were not using biochar as an excuse for continuing our fossil fuel addiction, or to chop down every last rainforest, or any other silly destructive trend.

And Biochar on its isn't even a silver bullet for the soil. It reduces the need for fertiliser by roughly a third only. But it does seem to bring the soil back to life, so that the water and fertiliser that does soak in doesn't get washed down into nearby waterways, where excess nitrogen and phosphorus can create those dead zones in the oceans.

So the main game is getting off the fossil fuels, especially by:-
* replacing coal with nukes,
* replacing cars with New Urbanism, bikes, public transport, and electric cars,
* replacing airlines with fast-rail as appropriate
* traditional recycling
* recycling all our other council waste through plasma burners
* energy efficient building codes
* etc.

We can do this.

byron smith said...

Another DM critique from Solitaire Townsend, though I fear again it's largely a caricature. Here's a response.

Anonymous said...

I finally responded to that rather dishonest Dark Mountain piece that attempts to Bulverise and psychoanalyse everyone that disagrees with their doomerism.

Dark Mountain Bulverises

byron smith said...

Paul Kingsnorth in the Ecologist: Confessions of a recovering environmentalist. A moving account of his formative experiences and where he has ended up today. I have much I'd like to say in response, but no time to write it at the moment.

byron smith said...

Grist: An exchange with Paul Kingsnorth.

byron smith said...

Grist: Interview with Paul Kingsnorth.

Anonymous said...

Paul Kingsworth and I have gone a few rounds in the past. The thing is, even though they are completely looking forward to the end of this civilisation, I still find them romantic dreamers. They give themselves away.

"But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse — which is already beginning — could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop."

IF we are careful in our choices. A new start. A fresh beginning. Hello, I think we've just discovered the 'Cosy Castastrophe'. He's read Day of the Triffid's one too many times, and he LIKES it! The world will be so much better when 'careful' people like him make 'choices' like the ones he wants us to make. Problem is, who put him in charge? I didn't. He wouldn't agree with my choices, like actually trying to SAVE this civilisation out of compassion for my fellow man. He wouldn't like my emphasis on abundant clean energy through nuclear power, abundant building materials from household and industrial garbage (via a plasma burner), abundant living in high tech modern New Urban and ecocity living. And all that jazz. No, it's the ecovillage or nothing for these guys. Anything "big" will just self-implode. According to their doctrine. We'll get it right next time. According to their doctrine.

Umm, do we have to watch our civilisation tear-itself apart and lose many good and valuable things because some hippie decides it's all too late? Can't we try to save our societies from total calamity?

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."