William Ophuls. December 28, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. Excerpts: My analysis suggests that there is very little that we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable. The city is an ecological parasite.

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William Ophuls. December 28, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. Excerpts: My analysis suggests that there is very little that we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable. The city is an ecological parasite. It arrogates to itself matter and energy that do not naturally belong to it by sucking resources away from its hinterland. So the central institution of civilization exists, and can only exist, by systematically exploiting its rural and natural periphery.

It is this exploitation that supports the higher level of social and economic complexity that characterizes civilization. Thus every known civilization has caused environmental harm and ecological degradation to some degree. Nor does the city live by bread alone. It needs water, so it must build dams and aqueducts. It needs wood for fuel and timber, so it must chop down forests.

It needs metal for coins, swords, and ploughshares, so it must dig mines. It needs stone to erect palaces, courts, temples, and walls, so it must quarry away mountains. And it must build the roads and ports needed to transport all the necessities of urban life.

A city lives by both consuming and damaging a wide array of ecological resources. It is in the nature of civilizations to wax greater. In a positive feedback loop, the ready availability of virgin resources generates a larger, wealthier population that consumes more; increased demand then spurs further resource development, and so on.

Thus, little by little, renewable flow resources like forests and fisheries are overexploited, and nonrenewable stock resources like minerals are drawn down. As a process, civilization resembles a long-running economic bubble. Civilizations convert found or conquered ecological wealth into economic goods and population growth. Few take thought for the morrow or consider that they are borrowing from posterity.

Finally, however, resources are either effectively exhausted or no longer repay the effort needed to exploit them. The civilization begins to implode, in either a slow and measured decline or a more rapid and chaotic collapse. Even peaceful trade provides no escape from biophysical limits.

To get resources from others, you must normally give something valuable in return—either resources themselves, or goods and services that depend ultimately on resources. If you use renewable resources faster than they can regenerate, they will dwindle and ultimately disappear; if you produce wastes faster than they can be rendered harmless, they will poison you; and if you use nonrenewable resources to fuel current consumption, they will eventually run out.

For example, to grow cereals takes soil, seeds, fertilizer, and water as well as labor. Not only must all of these factors of production be present for there to be a crop, but they must be present in the right quality or proportion.

Thin soils or poor seeds will stunt crop growth even if all the other factors are present in abundance. Thus some resources are more critical for civilization than others. The most critical of all is water, without which life simply cannot be sustained. But as civilizations develop, they tend to overuse and misuse their water supplies, with consequences that can be serious. For example, salinization due to inappropriate irrigation plagued many ancient civilizations and continues to be a problem today.

Civilizations also damage watersheds by cutting down the forests that mode rate climate, promote rainfall, and store water. A money economy takes the disconnection, and therefore the failure, one step further. The higher the level of economic development, the more money tends to become an abstraction rather than a counter for something concrete. Thus the economy can boom as the ecology disintegrates. This is particularly true if the society resorts to currency debasement or loose credit as a way to evade encroaching physical limits and foster an artificial prosperity, for then the economy becomes completely unhinged from concrete ecological reality.

Overshoot and collapse is the inevitable result. Why is it that civilizations have tended to see the natural world as cornucopian—that is, as a banquet on which they were free to gorge without limit?

In large part this deluded view has prevailed because human beings do not readily comprehend the nature and power of exponential growth. The human mind is still fundamentally Paleolithic. That is, it was hardwired by evolution for the life of a hunter-gatherer on the African savannah, a life centered on day-to-day survival in small bands of intimates and kinsmen.

In practice, this means that human beings excel at concrete perception but are much less adept at abstraction. And they are quick to perceive the immediate and dramatic but likely to overlook long-term trends and consequences. They are therefore strongly present-oriented and tend to neglect or devalue the future.

The upshot is that the human mind is not well equipped for the cognitive demands of civilized life in general, and it is singularly ill equipped to deal with the implications of exponential growth in particular. It is now that matters—not next year, let alone twenty or a hundred years from now. Moreover, even if people sense that something is not quite right—civilization has gotten too big, too complex, too hard to manage—they may still not see that the problems are caused in large part by exponential growth and that the solution therefore lies in controlling that growth, not in programs or technologies designed to allow it to continue.

For if you remove one constraint, renewed growth quickly pushes the civilization up against the next one, and so on, until it buckles under the strain.

Agricultural production is the foundation of civilized life. But the word production is a misnomer, for what humans actually do is mine the topsoil. Virgin soil is a complex ecosystem developed over millennia that contains a myriad of chemical elements and biological beings within a very specific physical structure.

Humanity breaks into this ecological climax to profit from the rich store of energy that it contains. And the nutrients in the food are not usually returned to the land but instead excreted into latrines and sewers, whence they are dispersed into rivers, lakes, and oceans never to be recaptured except in the negative form of pollution. Thus the entropy of the system has increased. The originally rich topsoil has become poorer or has even eroded away, and the wider environment has also been impoverished.

Or take one of the great inventions of civilization: the bath. Whether it is the Roman thermae, the Arab hammam, or the traditional Japanese furo, they were all heated with wood. But in the process most of the energy in the wood was wasted. That is, it turned into smoke, ashes, and heat—some of which did the work of making hot water, but most of which escaped up the chimney.

And even the useful heat in the bath water was soon dissipated into the atmosphere, just like the cold in the glass of lemonade. In addition, it took matter and energy to build the baths in the first place and to maintain them thereafter not to mention aqueducts, roads, and other supportive infrastructure. Creating the amenity that elevates civilization over savagery therefore involves converting concentrated energy and matter into useless waste products, while extracting a modicum of useful work along the way.

A contemporary example will illustrate the point more concretely and also make clear why technology cannot forever overcome the limits imposed by thermodynamics. The rest becomes waste heat, various gases such as carbon dioxide , various chemicals such as sulfuric acid , particulates, and ash.

And even the electricity dissipates into the environment as waste heat once it has done its work. The upshot is that for every unit of good that man creates using this particular technology, he manufactures two units of bad—and even the good is ephemeral. To make a car requires not only many direct inputs—steel, copper, fuel, water, chemicals, and so forth—but also many indirect ones such as a factory and labor force as well as the matter and energy needed to sustain them.

Above all, technology depends critically on energy density. The total amount of available energy is staggering, but very little of it is available in concentrated form. That is the beauty of fossil fuels. They are the energy-dense residue of past solar energy in the form of buried organic matter that has been subjected to eons of geological heat and pressure.

With such a concentrated source of energy, technology can perform wonders. Dispersed energy can do much less work and therefore limits what technology can do.

Solar rays will make hot water for a household but do not lend themselves to running a large power plant. In addition, the law of the minimum applies. A homely metaphor will illustrate the point. A juggler, no matter how dedicated and skilled, can only handle only so many balls.

Add even one more, and he loses control. Now imagine that same juggler trying to keep his own balls in the air while simultaneously fielding and throwing balls from and to multiple others. That is roughly the situation in a complex civilization: many millions of individuals and entities are engaged in a mass, mutual juggling act.

How likely is it that there will be no dropped balls? And how will it be possible to keep adding balls and participants and not overload the system so that it begins to break down? Modern civilization offers numerous examples of diminishing returns. We have already seen that extracting energy resources has become more difficult, dangerous, and expensive and will become even more so in the future.

We picked the low-hanging fruit first and must now scrabble for smaller, poorer, or dirtier deposits in hostile locations. We like to think that we have attained our current level of complexity through sheer scientific prowess.

But this is at best a half-truth. It takes vast energy resources to implement the technological solutions that enable our complexity. It is a machine for converting ten calories of fossil-fuel energy into one calorie of food. Thus if the quantity or quality of available energy declines significantly—either because of supply problems or because more energy is required to achieve the same ends—the civilization is in trouble.

It can no longer afford its attained level of complexity and must either simplify itself until complexity and energy are once again in balance, or it must, like the Romans, squeeze more out of its resource base than can be sustained over the long term, which simply postpones the inevitable. As Meadows points out, our minds and language are linear and sequential, but systems happen all at once and overwhelm us intellectually: Systems surprise us because our minds like to think about single causes neatly producing single effects.

We like to think about one or at most a few things at a time…. But we live in a world in which many causes routinely come together to produce many effects. In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems.


Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail

Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, , pp. Publication Date: December 28, List Price: Civilizations are hard-wired for self-destruction. They travel an arc from initial success to terminal decay and ultimate collapse due to intrinsic, inescapable biophysical limits combined with an inexorable trend toward moral decay and practical failure.




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Immoderate greatness : why civilizations fail


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