Originally published on Cortes Radio.ca. This program was funded by a grant from the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative.
This year has seen a couple of fairly major shocks to the global industrial economic system that so many of us rely upon. One could say that we had a near-collapse experience.
I thought it might be wise to take a moment, step back, and have a look at the bigger picture. To see where western civilization is at, what’s driving us and what kinds of a future we might want to plan for. How does the pandemic fit with other threats to stability.
To help me with this, I sought out the ideas of a Cortes Island thinker and researcher who deals with a lot of the sh*t on this island that most people would rather flush away without looking at – he’s a plumber, but so much more.
Who Is Chris Walker?
Chris Walker was a builder in Ontario when he became enamoured with solar electricity. He became an installer of solar systems, hoping that they would replace the more destructive forms of energy production.
When he found that they were ‘in addition to’ and not ‘instead of’ fossil fuels, he decided to try social change through democracy – he ran for the Green Party provincially and federally in several elections.
When he found that people didn’t want to vote for people representing policies that acknowledged limits to growth and pushed for conservation of resources and nature, he went off to Sweden and did a masters in Sustainable Business Design. His thesis was on sustainable power generation.
He then taught at a college in Ontario for a year before moving to BC in search of an intentional community to build resilience and weather the storm. He found Cortes.
Walker believes that the forces of collapse are all around us. We haven’t felt the full impact of the pandemic yet, the effect has been cushioned by government bailouts.
It’s like we’re on the titanic, and we hit our first iceberg. We seem to have plugged the hole, but we tore up the deck to do it.
Our Debt To GDP Ratio
We had economic problems before, the pandemic just precipitated and exacerbated them. Walker talks about our troublesome debt-to-GDP-ratio.
Let’s not pretend that I know how a debt-to-gdp ratio threatens our economic sustainability… but let’s not let that stop me from referring to wikipedia.
GDP is our gross domestic product, or the amount of money we make as a country every year. In the 07/08 fiscal year, Canada had a debt of $457b, which was 31% of our GDP. By 2017/18, our debt had risen to $768bn and 33% of GDP. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_public_debt#Risks_that_can_impact_national_debt)
Canada’s finance minister expects a $343bn deficit this year and 40% drop in GDP – and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 49%. It means we’ll have to grow the economy – extract more stuff from the land and sea to pay it back.
Limits To Growth
Don’t worry, we’re told, we’ll fix the deck once we get back up to full speed.
Walker points out that growth is always the answer – Canada’s finance minister agrees– and that’s suicidal. It’s the logic of the yeast cells in the petri dish: they eat everything, growing exponentially and then they die.
The hole in the hull is leaking… solving our problems with growth is like the titanic not only having to get back up to full speed, it has to keep accelerating all the time.
Walker believes that we are on a collision course with the limits to growth on a finite planet. We cannot keep growing indefinitely. The consequences of running into limits, when your society can’t slow down is collapse.
Walker points us to a report by the Club of Rome called Limits to Growth. The Club of Rome was formed when a small international group of people from the fields of academia, civil society, diplomacy, and industry met in a villa in Rome in 1968. In 1972, the group published its first report, Limits to Growth (LtG).
The study used the World3 computer model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the earth and human systems.
After reviewing their computer simulations, the research team came to the following conclusions:
- Given business as usual, i.e., no changes to historical growth trends, the limits to growth on earth would become evident by 2072, leading to “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”. This includes the following:
- Global Industrial output per capita reaches a peak around 2008, followed by a rapid decline
- Global Food per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline
- Global Services per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline
- Global population reaches a peak in 2030, followed by a rapid decline
- Growth trends existing in 1972 could be altered so that sustainable ecological and economic stability could be achieved.
- The sooner the world’s people start striving for the second outcome above, the better the chance of achieving it.
People have argued over whether the report has been right or wrong over the years. The figures used in the LtG were never meant to be specific timelines on particular resource depletion and collapse – they were used to illustrate a principle: the earth is finite, exponential growth is impossible an could end in collapse if we’re not careful.
Walker points out that everyone wants to know when the collapse will come. No one knows.
And they won’t know until it has happened – just as we can’t see that it’s happening now.
When we look around and see an abundant environment, it’s hard to imagine a collapse.
Lets take a look at why that might be.
Walker says we have a thinking problem. One of the biggest impediments to considering the state of decline or the risk of collapse is the myth of progress. We have so many miraculous technologies, we think that we must be able to come up with a techno-fix to any problem that comes our way.
The pandemic is an interesting example – despite a major disruption to our way of life and financial hazards everywhere – our powers of normalization were hardly shaken. Discomfort with uncertainty, the sunk-costs fallacy, groupthink, and escalation of commitment are all cognitive biases that come to mind, and there are many more.
These ‘thinking problems’ make it really hard to see the predicament we are in and make rational decisions slow the ship down, assess the damage and make a permanent fix.
Walker says it’s just the way we’re wired. These are evolutionary traits that come from growing up a monkey in a tribe. And maybe they’ll serve us well again in the future, when we return to more localized and tribal existence.
But hasn’t the pandemic offered a demonstration of how we can see a threat coming (at least a week or two in advance) and make altruistic collective decisions to keep everyone safe and taken care of?
Walker doesn’t think the pandemic can be compared to the collapse that comes from hitting the limits to growth. With the pandemic, there was a temporary clear and present danger to oneself and one’s family and so people followed orders and stayed home.
The other threats to stability are harder to see, amorphous, and permanent – much harder to mobilize collective response against.
So, okay, just what does collapse look like?
Walker points to Syria as a prime example of what happens when over-population meets environmental degradation and climate change.
The Soviet Union is another example. It appeared to be a major super-power right up until it collapsed and fractured into pieces in 1991. They managed to keep a lot of people fed and the heat on and pulled themselves together into the various states that are no longer in union.
But our collapse may be a little different. We have run the Titanic up to another level of speed and we’ve hit a few more icebergs since 1991. We’re at a whole other level of global interconnection also – as we learned,
What are the icebergs that we’re looking out for?
We mentioned the need for growth to pay off debt, and our sky-rocketing debt levels — that’s an iceberg.
And Walker tells us about peak oil – we’re at the peak now and have started getting in to the more expensive, harder to get oil. He explains that the energy-return-on-energy-invested (the ratio of energy needed to produce energy) is getting very low, making extraction unprofitable and impractical.
Walker continues: Trump is a force of chaos. He may not accept the results of the election this fall, leading to a simmering civil war. He could get into a war. He has torn up a critical nuclear arms treaty. And then there’s climate change. And we could get another black swan.
A black swan is an interesting metaphor, I had to look it up.
It began in the 2nd century Europe, referring to something that does not exist or is not possible – black swans were thought to be non-existent. And relying on a ‘black swan’ as a piece of knowledge undermines the other assumptions and conclusions of that knowledge.
But in 1697, the first European laid his eyes on an actual black swan and the metaphor was flipped – coming to mean that you may think something is impossible, but one cannot prove a negative, or an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
And since then, through the writing of Nassim Taleb, it has evolved to mean a thing that is rare, has a huge impact on history, is extremely hard to predict, and in hindsight seems unavoidable.
Black swans fill history books, apparently.
Interestingly, Taleb considers Covid-19 to be a white swan; such an event has a major effect, but is compatible with statistical properties – as in, we should have seen it coming. Though he also says the blackness of the swan is in the eye of the beholder: what may be a black swan surprise for a turkey is not a black swan surprise to its butcher; hence the objective should be to “avoid being the turkey” by identifying areas of vulnerability in order to “turn the Black Swans white”.
So, now that we have some white swans swimming around the Titanic… what should we do about it?
Walker suggests getting as healthy as we can, paying down debt, avoiding unneccesary expenditures, getting our teeth done, and getting some skills that will be relevant to a frugal local economy. All those things are good to do anyway.
Chris recommends checking out peakprosperity.com for more information on financial collapse. And http://doomfordummies.blogspot.com/ is a great curated list of resources of collapse.
Thanks so much to Chris Walker for putting himself out there and declaring his nuttery – surely it’s not all that strange in this community, but it still takes courage. Best of luck to you all out there during these trying times.
Top photo credit: Sunset during drizzle by Alexey Novitsky via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)