Understanding Collapse: A Physical Systems View

image from the good folks at Pixabay CC0 (thanks Guillaume Preat)

While my belief in the inevitability of civilization’s collapse in this century is rooted in my study of complexity science and a commensurate appreciation of how change happens in complex systems, this is almost impossible to convey convincingly to those who haven’t studied and thought about complexity.

I don’t expect readers (or friends or loved ones) to have the interest and time to study complexity, so I often end up rather sheepishly just saying: If you take the time to study complexity science, you will understand how change happens and why it won’t happen in time to prevent civilization’s collapse. Not very compelling. Perhaps even annoying.

Thanks to a recent exchange with collapse podcaster Sam Mitchell, I’ve learned about a novel approach to explaining the inevitability of collapse using the metaphor of “super-organism” postulated by atmospheric physicist Tim Garrett and economist and Oil Drum/Post Carbon Institute editor Nate Hagens.

While Tim and Nate use the super-organism metaphor to represent global human civilization, my sense is that it would be even more apt to expand it to describe the entire organism of the living earth, what James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis affectionately if romantically call Gaia. I believe we are, in fact, inseparable from all-life-on-earth and our belief that we are separate is an illusion, a trick of our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains.

So with that expansion, let me describe this metaphor and how it might, drawing on Tim’s and Nate’s arguments, explain why the predicament of runaway climate change and the sixth great extinction is so intractable. (Please note that this is my elaboration of Tim’s and Nate’s metaphor, not how they have described it.):

  1. Over several billion years, just five physical elements have co-evolved to create what we call Gaia; together they are the ‘whole system’ that has produced everything that has ever happened on this planet:
    • the earth itself, five billion years old, with its soils and raw materials, volcanic eruptions and shifting tectonics
    • the earth’s environments (atmosphere, hydrosphere etc)
    • the ever-changing myriad of living creatures (all-life-on-earth)
    • the solar radiation that reaches and warms the earth and provides most of its energy
    • the occasional extra-system visitors (meteorites and other bodies that have impacted the earth, altered the planet’s spin etc)
  2. Gaia is of course a massively complex system, but when we view it as a single super “organism” we can also see it as amazingly simple — analogous to a single creature on a rock in a Petri dish under a heat lamp.
  3. From this perspective we can see that Gaia is really inseparable. As Stephen Jay Gould (in Full House) and Richard Lewontin (in The Triple Helix) have explained, the complexity of the interdependence between all the living creatures in the organism, the earth on which they live and the atmosphere in which they live is such that any analysis that attributes separate qualities to ‘parts’ of Gaia will be hopelessly flawed and possibly dangerously simplistic. Gaia is, and acts as, One living creature.
  4. It pretty much evolves by itself. In this part of the universe (unless you believe in UFOs), it’s the only game in town. It’s recently evolved into a much more complex form thanks to its ‘learned’ ability to stabilize its atmosphere, which has really worked well over the past 10-20 millennia, and thanks to the absence of any large external bodies hitting it, the absence of major eruptions within its crust affecting its atmosphere, and the absence of major anomalies in solar radiation. It’s gone through countless expansions and contractions of complexity, but the recent stability has greatly reduced the number and severity of collapses (extinctions) of its life-mass, greatly increasing its diversity and complexity.
  5. But at some point about 10-20 millennia ago, it became dysfunctional. Somehow* a part of it became ‘disconnected’ from the rest of Gaia and began to behave in ways insensitive to and damaging to the whole organism. As every part of the organism is utterly interdependent, this ‘disconnected’ part quickly became dis-eased and unhealthy, and in its desperate attempt to survive ‘independently’ it has dug into the core of the earth and exhausted the mineral resources the entire organism depends on, and spewed the wastes from this frantic activity into the atmosphere. So now the earth is depleted, the atmosphere is poisoned, and the entire organism is in a state of exhaustion and collapse that it inadvertently brought upon itself. And there is nothing left to mine and nowhere else to put the waste poisons the now-cancer-ridden organism continues to emit.
  6. Absurdly, the dysfunctional part of the organism acts as if it believes it can ‘save’ itself and the entire organism, either by continuing to accelerate its dysfunctional behaviour slightly differently, or by somehow ‘reforming’ itself and the entire organism, or by escaping Gaia entirely. Such is the delusion of disconnection. Clearly, this cannot end well. Still, it is in the nature of the organism to continue to try to heal itself and restore equilibrium; it cannot do otherwise. It limps along, immiserated by its now-massive, bloated and useless cancerous part. Somehow it knows its self-healing is not working very effectively this time, and that this collapse, this extinction, will be much more severe than any that it can ‘remember’.

Yes, I know this metaphor is a bit strained, but I think it’s useful, and better than telling readers that if they study complex systems they’ll understand the inevitability of near-term (this century) civilizational and ecological collapse. I also like that it doesn’t place humans apart or in apposition to the rest of life on earth, the rest of the Gaia organism. No one is to blame. We are all One. We are all doing our best, what we’ve been conditioned to do for a billion years, the only thing we can do.

It may seem strange to take individual people, culture, economics, politics, technology and other factors out of the equation about what the future might hold in store, but Tim makes a compelling case that “Our personal feelings aside, we are just sacks of matter that enable electrical and fluid flows down potential gradients. It sure has been hard for neuroscientists to find any evidence for free will; so perhaps people are really no different than any other physical system.”

Tim says that our current situation is a “double-bind“: One of two things will happen (again this is my elaboration of Tim’s conclusion, not his description):

  1. Human civilization collapses soon, economically/financially, politically, socially: Resource consumption and emissions drastically fall, human population plunges, the climate convulses but does not reach the runaway collapse stage, and the sixth great extinction slows and ends. Over millennia, the equilibrium of Gaia is restored.
  2. Human civilization continues to grow at or near a “business as usual” trajectory: CO2e concentrations reach 1000 ppm, and average surface temperatures rise 6-12ºC or more, which cannot support human or much other life, so human civilization collapses anyway; runaway climate change accelerates the sixth great extinction and eliminates all but the simplest life forms, and the equilibrium of Gaia either takes many more millennia to stabilize and slowly recover, or the climate is ‘permanently’ changed to a Venus-like lifeless state.

The end-game, as far as humans and our civilization is concerned, is pretty much the same. And we humans, just a part of ailing Gaia, can do nothing to choose between these equally-awful alternatives. We can’t even plan or prepare for this, because we cannot possibly predict precisely how and when this will all play out; we can only know how it will end.

What if there’s nothing we can do? That’s the question I’m starting to think about now. Like a passenger in a vehicle skidding off the edge of a huge cliff, what do you do when nothing you can do will make any difference?

My thoughts on that, coming soon.


* Ajit Varki has called this dysfunctional disconnection the Mind Over Reality Transition, that seemingly occurred uniquely in the human species as our brains evolved the dual capacity to reinterpret and deny ‘unpleasant’ realities, and to ‘realize’ (conceive of as ‘real’) the idea of separate personhood and personal death , which he calls “intrinsically maladaptive traits”, as they condition us to ignore what’s true and to put the ‘self’ ahead of the collective interest.

It’s anyone’s guess, of course, but I’d be inclined to say this dysfunction arose because early humans, pummelled by the ice ages, cosmic radiation, and other climate disasters, had to abandon their long-time comfortable tropical homelands and venture into new ecological zones fraught with new dangers and the constant stress of scarcity. Those early humans that found this reality too much to bear might have decided not to procreate, while those that had these “intrinsically maladaptive traits”, less connected to the natural world and what was perhaps ‘good for them’ might have persevered and procreated, producing a hardened, desensitized, disconnected species that used denial as a coping mechanism and ‘laughed in the face of death’. Perhaps this evolution, while dysfunctional in the longer term, was, in the short-term, adaptive rather than maladaptive?

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6 Responses to Understanding Collapse: A Physical Systems View

  1. Wanda Harding says:

    Okay, thank you for that. I have one question, however. Why is that very smart people who know what they are talking about, ALWAYS leave out the 450+ NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS. Once, human population gets to a low enough point, there will not be anyone to take care of them. Between, conflicts, starvation, plagues, economic collapse, grids will and weather catastrophes, one by tw0 by three of them will start to melt down. The electric grids will collapse locally, regionally then globally. How, would humans and other life forms, live through that kind of radiation? Those who live next to the first ones that go down, will die horribly….and cancer will rage. Everyone who hears about this will migrate away from nuke plants, I would imagine, which will exacerbate local and regional conflicts… How many melted down nukes would it take to make our atmosphere so radiated that people everywhere would just start dropping dead….at least over a couple months?… 5? 10 ….50?… and the fires of the spent fuel rod ponds, could make fires that, I am not sure, but, could reach some kind of military installation which holds nuclear missiles?… I get very frustrated with NO ONE MENTIONING THIS ISSUE?… It takes 50 years or so to DECOMISSION ONE OF THESE DEATH TRAPS. I hate them. I am not a person who uses that term in the norm…. but, if it wasn’t for these death traps, some of us could have made it… but no, none of us will. No one can tell me with that many nuke plant melt downs, it wouldn’t effect all life on this planet…

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Wanda — you’re absolutely correct, which is why I talk about the restoration of equilibrium of the system in terms of millennia (many millennia), not just centuries. This is one of the lessons of Chernobyl. If humans leave the scene, or decline to the point they’re not able to decommission the nuke plants, the radiation will make much of the planet uninhabitable for a long time.

    Reading about the effect of the meteorite collision with earth 65 million years ago, or about the cosmic radiation that devastated much of the earth just 2.6 million years ago (to the point it may have initiated the need for ‘civilization’), gives one a sense of the very long time periods that can be involved in evolution, and in detoxification. Russell Hoban’s book Riddley Walker describes one version of what such a slow transition might entail.

  3. Karl says:

    Very neat and concise.
    I used to think that Gaia generated humans to be aggressive and develop nukes to point outward as defence against big rocks.
    On the other hand, our purpose may have been precisely to bring sequestered substances to the surface, and irradiate said surface, possibly to run Carboniferous 2.0..
    Or maybe there is no purpose.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Yep, that’s my sense, Karl — no purpose. Why should there be?

  5. Anonymous says:

    hi Dave,
    either way, we ‘save’ the planet and we ‘save’ us,
    or vice versa, we ‘save’ us and we ‘save’ the planet …

    solutions exist, and because they exist, it is up
    to us to take on them, and wrap our brains around the
    solutions, or vice versa …

    plz read 3 peer reviewed papers on eco-sustainability,
    no ads/logins: http://ise-now.com/coalition.html ..
    without appropriate and scientifically correct information about eco-sustainability
    & its social, cultural & economic implications we will not go very far,


  6. Robert Callaghan says:

    *If you are 30 years old:*
    Emissions went up 50% in your lifetime
    ….. https://lokisrevengeblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/c02-human.png?w=768
    The world failed 4 world climate treaties in your lifetime
    ….. https://lokisrevengeblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/canada-emissions-record.jpg?w=768
    It took 30 years for solar and wind to reach 4% of world energy
    ….. https://lokisrevengeblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/energy-sources.jpg
    In 2003 human emissions were 27 billion metric tons per year
    In 2018 human emissions were 37.1 billion metric tons per year
    Human emissions went up 30% in 15 years and you won’t find it on google
    ….. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions
    In 2019 renewables are 4% of world energy – WSJ 2019
    ….. https://lokisrevengeblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/renewable-2030.png?w=768
    Renewables will be 15% of world energy by 2040 – BP 2019
    ….. https://lokisrevengeblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/renewable-2030-02.png?w=768
    Global energy use will grow 1% / yr until 2040
    ….. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/12/global-energy-demand-will-keep-world-burning-fossil-fuels-agency-says.html
    Renewables may be 20% of global energy by 2040
    ….. https://fm-static.cnbc.com/awsmedia/chart/2019/11/12/image%20(2).1573591637655.png
    At this rate will take 300 years for 100% renewable energy
    ….. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610457/at-this-rate-its-going-to-take-nearly-400-years-to-transform-the-energy-system/
    Warming must stop at 1.5 °C or life on earth will collapse – Nature 2019
    ….. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03595-0
    By 2030 human emissions will be 38% higher than needed to stay below 1.5 °C
    ….. https://www.carbonbrief.org/unep-1-5c-climate-target-slipping-out-of-reach
    By 2030 fossil fuel emissions will be 150% higher than needed to stay below 1.5 °C
    ….. http://productiongap.org/2019report/
    By 2030 emissions must go down 55% to stay under 1.5 °C
    ….. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/11/new-un-climate-report-offers-bleak-emissions-forecast
    By 2030 – 2050 1.5 °C will hit

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