Apocalypse or how I came to embrace the end of the World

After spending a decade or so studying Apocalyptic belief as part of my larger book Serpent in the Labyrinth I became more dismissive and critical of religious voices of doom. The original basis of the book was to explore ancient mysteries like Atlantis and the Trojan Wars from a sane perceptive: that is without lost super civilisations and space aliens, except much of explanation I concluded was the loss of great human civilisation and space aliens and the revelation of who Jesus really was. I should mention the space alien was neither green nor little but a very large close proximity comet that visited ancient skies on a regular occurrence and whose debris [as gravitational forces slowly pulled it apart] was to occasionally load the high atmosphere with space dust causing decade long winters.

An astoundingly obvious conclusion was that saviour gods who would arrive during a world gripped in an apocalypse, normally floating in the sky, were representations of the comet whose dustloading occurred every thousand years or so. I say saviour gods because Jesus was only one of many and if humanised gods were not a cultures thing then they usually went for fire-breathing dragons. These ‘cosmic winters’ as they are described by astronomers only appeared to have a 1000 year cycle as tree-ring data [summer growth rings that can be traced back to an exact summer even five and half thousand years ago] reveals events dating back at least 5,000 years that were pretty random except humans seem to have forecast ‘the End time’ to happen around 2,000 years ago give or take a century. There were global events notably 200 b.c.e, but not an apocalypse and in an unrelated event a few hundred years later, just as Christianity was getting going, the Roman world was devastated by plagues which many saw as the beginning of the End. The collapse of the Roman Empire was a long drawn out affair but most of it was in ruins by the time the next ‘cosmic winter’ of significance occurred in 540 c.e. [although it could be argued that half of the Empire was to last till the 15 century as the Byzantine Empire].

In the Atlantis myth the civilisation is sunk beneath the waves because the Gods were angry with the arrogance of Atlantian man and, as some would have it, that arrogance of power over nature included death rays, flying machines and ‘dark’ crystals: a myth which emerged recently with Edgar Cayce, the American mystic  deluded nutter or con-man. As much as it could be a warning  from history for us the boring old real history of Rome is possibly a better example.

The Roman Empire was remarkably successful and long lived emerging around 700 b.c.e and hanging on until the 6th Century c.e. and it took a very different approach to empire than those before and since. The Greeks, Hitties and Egyptians before Rome, and Arab Islam and Mongol  after did a lot of fighting and invasion and kept slaves and expanded empires but the Romans were different in that they industrialised their empire. Rome invaded and expanded its empire to sustain growth, with much of its technology being borrowed from the defeated, far from being Romulians of the Star Trek Universe they were much more Borg. Roman war culture and growth were entirely linked.

To be a real Roman your family really had to come from Rome or at least your ancestors would have to and life for real Romans was that of the elite even if you were poor, in much the same way the Western world of today is an elite minority when compared to the whole of humanity. As elites they enjoyed the privilege of Romans at the expense of everyone else. Small farmers sold up their lands to ever  growing estates and headed to the big smoke as did most people who considered themselves Roman and so as to keep the economy going and feed an ever growing urban [Roman word!] population the estates needed workers. Slavery served the purpose to work the fields and pander to the needs of the growing middle-classes but new sources of slaves required the acquisition of new lands  which required the world’s most modern and well equipped army. As the empire grew so did the population so ever more land, slaves and military spending were needed to meet demand.

Most Romans were neither middle-class or particularly useful members of society but in big cities they were to be feared as the mob who could terminate an emperor’s reign or at least give a pretence for the next emperor to murder his way into office. To quell the mob emperors provided welfare of free bread and to keep them amused, the circus. The circus was manipulation of the mob, it was a symbol in reverse: in the real world the Empire was surrounded by savages that threatened every Romans way of life but the circus turned it inside out and savages in the arena became surrounded by civilised Romans. Fear of savages destroying Rome gave emperors control over the rabble, I think most of the parallels between our world and Rome are obvious and I don’t want to dwell but I rather think the circus has been replaced by the Murdoch media machine.

Eventually the decline and fall of Rome was slow and bumpy, in the first instance the rigid structure of society, that is, people were restricted in employment: you did what your father did, which did not allow for adaptability. Rome also reached it limits of growth as the easy fertile and populous lands were quickly exploited in the first few centuries; in the later part of the Empire these rich pickings with good returns had run out leaving only marginal lands like Scotland, Wales, the forests beyond the Rhine and Eastern Central Europe. Getting a return on these invasions was difficult as they were further away, yielded less rewards but cost more in men and resources to invade. Emperors would big up these invasions describing the battles as conclusive and victorious and another land where the riches would flow and of course, yet another potential market for Roman pottery and goods. The truth was different, these were no Gaul or Libya or Egypt and the Roman Army that held it all together was getting overstretched.

In the 2nd Century c.e. a new threat destroyed many of the cities- it was plague which was probably brought back by soldiers from the Eastern frontier and these devastating pandemics would continue to turn up in the following centuries causing some to delight in prophesies of doom and also causing the authorities to stamp out such beliefs which, is why Christianity was loved by the downtrodden poor who were told of god’s riches to come and despised by government who saw it as undermining civilisation. These plagues also happened for another reason: the rise or growth of Rome allowed for urbanisation and population growth which in turn meant more people in close proximity and urban poverty: plagues are just nature’s limit to growth.

Rome ran out of resources that it could afford to exploit and although the world was [and is] full of resources the empire ran out of money to pay the soldiers- to invade the lands- to harvest slave, land, minerals- to feed its ever growing populations and maintain its existence. The roads became too long to maintain, the border too long to defend and the costs out stripped returns.   With the addition of plagues, climate change, and civil unrest as standards of living declined and the Empire was doomed.

All was not lost, Rome as the centre of the universal or Catholic faith avoided pillage by paying off threats with gold [depleting reserves that could not be restored] and the richer Eastern Roman Empire held itself together and evolved into the Byzantium Empire that survived until 1450 relying on a more market based economy. Byzantium still contracted from its height when it was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and was eventually over run by a new adaptable although brutally violent civilisations from both east and west. Curiously the beginning of the end were the crusaders who it seems were triggered around 1100 to seize the Holy lands because God had sent signs in the form of comets and fireballs from heaven. The space alien of the ancients made a spectacular although final return around the time it was expected.

If you are interested the space alien is most likely comet Encke which is a dull and small rock which still has a short three year orbit. That’s entropy for you.

CO2 is a tiny componant of atmosphere

so how come something so tiny can have any effect?

and whilst I’m at it I have a few more questions for those so called scientists such as…. how come it can be freezing in the desert at night yet 50c 12 hours later, surely if CO2 acted as a greenhouse gas it wouldn’t get so cold when the sun went to bed?

CO2 is a tiny component of the air, just look at the facts and everyone will agree it nearly nothing at all. 400 parts per million is about 0.04%= almost zilch, it is not even half a % but just half of tenths of one % and human generated CO2 doesn’t even make up half of the total atmospheric CO2 so that mean our contribution is half of tiny- half of zilch. It feels nonsense that something so tiny could cause the modern world to collapse and that is the problem with being human: many strongly believe in a loving imaginary supreme being looking over their lives and noting if they have been naughty or nice- like Santa. But belief does not make it so.

Here is another – I can’t believe that- fact from the know it all scientists: most of the universe is nothing and even most of the things in the universe are mainly nothing. There is more space in the universe than it appears so if you took all of humanity, all 7 billion of us and took away all that spare space between atoms that doesn’t seem to be doing much except giving electrons room to jiggle about, then all of humanity would condense down to a lump of mass the size of a sugar cube or is it the Albert Hall? I can’t remember I heard it on BBC Radio 4. Don’t quote me on the tiny detail but things are not what they always seem. Belief is the problem with humans because it can be true and most likely false which is why science was invented.

As for CO2 with its big influence and tiny presence there are a few more examples that are less controversial, that is science that most people don’t have a problem with.

We don’t have a problem with ozone – o3- that tiny layer of gas high up in the atmosphere that acts as Earth’s sun lotion and stops the almost non existent [it has no mass and is just invisible light] ultraviolet light  that would otherwise burn our eyeballs out, fry our skin and mutate cells into monster cancer ones that would eventually battle against us until death. I can attest that no one would be mad enough to contradict the tiny but important contribution of O3. And O3- ozone- makes up only 2 to 8 parts per million in the ‘ozone layer’. Hardly a layer, in fact hardly anything at all making CO2 at nearly 400 ppm [2013 CO2 394ppm] sound a lot.

How about volcanoes?  Volcanoes are not controversial at least in a climate science sense and sometimes they change the global weather, admittedly not for a long period of time but Mount Pinatuba in 1991 erupted and ejected gas and aerosols into the high atmosphere. The amounts of gas and aerosols was around 20 million tonnes which eventually was to transform into a sulphuric acid haze that lasted a month or so and as it travelled around the world it lowered temperatures by 0.5c – if the haze had not been washed out by rain then the effect would be permanent.

One volcano ejecting 20 million tonnes reduced global temperature for a month by 0.5c – so how many ppm of sulphuric acid is that? The whole weight of the earth’s atmosphere is about 5.5 quadrillion tons (55 followed by 14 zeros) and I was rubbish at maths and refuse to embarrass myself by getting it all wrong.  But here is a guide, Croatia emits the same amount of CO2 each year into an atmosphere with 3,000 billion tonnes of CO2 in it. Tiny means very little when it comes to effect: a tiny mosquito can inject a tiny protist [not a bacteria but one up from it] that causes malaria and death, and tiny amounts of poison will kill. And that is the whole point of science in that it reveals the hidden and often tiny elements of our universe that we would otherwise not see. It required science to explain that  [once] invisible bacteria caused disease and the tiny invisible force of gravity which is so weak even a child can defy it [for a short period when jumping]  yet holds the universe together.

Next time someone points out that they just can’t believe CO2 can make much difference because its tiny you may point out the universe doesn’t give a damn but also point out that it contradicts the other denier meme that CO2 is such an important plant food without which their would be no life on Earth. Lets start being straight; these people are either idiots or lying.

The issue of deserts being an example of how rubbish CO2 is as a greenhouse gas is a little more complex but has more to do with educational fallacies – i.e. facts learnt when young which aren’t facts- than the reality.

The argument from the sceptics is that in the desert it can go from 50c to below zero within a 24 hour period therefore all the radiate heat of the day simply escapes into space at night and therefore CO2 is poor at reflecting heat back whereas water vapour is very good and water vapour is the main greenhouse gas. This is correct to a degree but just like people’s perceived ideas of why clouds float and why the sea is blue [water is actually blue in colour] the root of issue is not entirely correct.

Deserts mentioned in a generic sense are, in this case, the hot variety as opposed to just arid areas like the Antarctic. If you take a random desert: Mojave for instance, you can look up the temperature ranges. So with weather station data in the link you can see the averages high and low temperature for January is 6 C to 18 C, in spring it is around 15C to 20C and the summer temperature range is between 28C to 41C. These are averages and demonstrate that temperature has a range of around 13c but there are also extremes of maximum highs and lows but these will not have occurred on the same day or even same year. The high/low range for winter is -6C to 29C and for summer 14C to 52C so perhaps it is possible to misinterpret the extreme temperatures as being a kind of normal or average. What is clear is that in summer baking heat of 41C during the day will drop to the uncomfortable heat of 28C at night which in the UK would be a heat wave.

Perhaps sceptics are talking of another desert that proves CO2 is lousy greenhouse gas. Each desert is unique and the lack of water vapour occurs for a number of reasons,  Atacama Desert in Peru ranges from see level to 10,000 feet and perhaps has the biggest range in temperature which can be between freezing and 25c  but it is important to see in the context of a big desert with wide ranging geographical influences like mountains and  oceans and height and that range cited is a ‘can’ and not an average. 25c is a big extreme for sure but not as big the extremes of our planet where the hottest place is Death Valley up around 50C  in record years and the coldest in Antarctica is a chilling -80C.  Weather ranges can be extreme in any one place in a given 24hour period- the UK record in Scotland is around minus 25c shooting up to just above freezing during the day which is nothing compared to a 24 hour period in 1916 in Montana USA when it fell 37c from 7c because of a weather system moving in.

Weather is a complex system so stating it goes from hot to freezing in the desert doesn’t really tell us anything, a 20c range in 24 hours may sound a lot but we think nothing of 10c difference in the UK between most days and nights. Without proper study and plenty of data my investigation into temperature differences in deserts are not particularly valid, yet even this minimal study demonstrates that the well known ‘fact’ that deserts are extreme where it is freezing at night and roasting during the day is just a fallacy. The answer to finding the real facts is science.

 

The End of Growth: Where Next?

I recently discovered Gail Tverberg’s Our Finite World Blog which explores the longer term issues that face us in a post peak oil and AGW world. Her blogs expertly point out and explain why our current global recession is a direct result of the end of cheap and abundant oil and that the current plateaux of growth and oil production will ultimately turn into a decline.

There has been much debate as to what that decline will be: will it be less than 3% = not too bad, or more = bad; yet if one were to listen to politicians in any country and the economists that advise them then any kind of long term decline is not going to happen. It may seem madness to assume that oil will continue to gush out the ground in ever greater amounts for an ever growing global population in an ever growing world economy but the arguments in favour of this our loud and prominent.

The voice of un-reason goes like this- there is plenty of oil and gas, and we are better at finding it and getting it out of the ground. Even without climate change this logic is flawed. The rational conclusion is that oil [and other fossil fuels] is entirely linked to the last 200 years of population, innovation and economic growth so without the fuel of growth there won’t be any. Where next in a world without growth?

Initially I started writing this blog mentioning how China and Russia have lent the baleouts to us in the West, I commented on how this relationship between China and the West was ultimately doomed. We bought goods with Dollars, Sterling and Euros then went into debt and were lent the money back by China so we could carry on shopping. Quite clearly it is a doomed relationship. But once I got to the topic of financial markets that have invented products to keep the notion of growth going my head started to get confused.

In simple terms what we know as growth and prosperity has been driven by oil so naturally when the oil starts to decline in output so does global growth. The recession we are currently in is nearing 5 years which is a record, and the oil price is at an all time- long term high, yet the oil producers are unable to increase demand despite the continued rise of Brazil, India and China. The optimists will say there is nothing to worry about, there is plenty of oil, in fact trillions of barrels in Canada but the easy oil is gone. The stuff left over, the undiscovered fields in the Arctic and the deep water wells in the Mexican Gulf are expensive, really expensive and not only that these difficult to get reserves don’t have a tap as big as the old oil fields.

Peak oil was never about running out but the bigger picture is the end to the easy growth we have seen over the last fifty to a hundred years. Slow or no growth is a bigger issue than more expensive petrol or electricity, its biggest consequence is the inability of governments to pay back debt. Greece is the current demonstration of what happens when debt cannot be repayed. Even the current Greek crisis is far gentler than the next global crash because Germany is committed to maintaining the Euro and is a lender and as such the Greeks are still being lent money to payback interest on its debt. There is also universal optimism shared by most if not all politicians and economists that things will return to the growth experienced in the past and it is this infectious economic outlook which means that lenders continue to lend. If, however, growth grinds to a halt those debts will not be paid back which in turn means governments will be unable to borrow which means that tax incomes will have to match spending. We won’t be descending into chaos where money is a thing of the past but our currency will be devalued making imported goods and energy even more expensive. Projections of gas prices rises are a doubling over ten years but this is on the international market: if the pound is massively devalued then that gas will cost even more.

The lack of flexibility in government income means that sudden increased unemployment, caused by ever rising fuel costs for instance, will mean increased welfare spending will have to come from other government spending. With such pressures on spending it will be difficult for the UK to maintain such a big military or free libraries or arts grants or free t.v. licenses for pensioners.

Peak oil [indeed peak gas and coal] is not just about energy bills and the amount of driving any one can afford to do it will be about the end of growth. I doubt very much that the wealthiest people or countries will be happy to go down with the rest of the world but the fight for resources is in a world where China, Russia and the developing world and especially amongst the oil producing nations will be impossible. America is one of the few countries with the military might to continue to demand its huge share of global resources but just like Rome 1500 years ago it will not be able to compete with small nations surrounding it. Military conflict consumes even more resources than normal so ultimately a domineering military becomes self defeating.

How can the world’s politicians and economists be so blind to the blindingly obvious? Some countries are not so blind: Germany is investing heavily in renewables and has been in negotiation with German industry to come up with solutions. The main innovation will most probably be the storage of surplus solar and wind energy as hydrogen to either make into natural gas or to power a new technology in transport. It is expensive not only in the cost of investment but also with Germans paying the highest price for electricity in the world. Other nations seem hooked on the illusion of growth and it is ultimately a comforting illusion.

The illusion strongly held by economists is that we will find a way, that we will either find oil in places we haven’t looked and/or develop new technologies to extract it or we will invent a new energy source like fusion. Energy producing countries boast of reserves that will last decades if not centuries, apparently Saudi oil reserves remain the same after 25 of extraction and China’s coal reserves will last 70 or more years. Yet back in the 70s I remember being told UK reserves would last 300 years yet 25 years later recoverable reserves were cut by 99% without fanfare or explanation with the remaining 30 years of production declining at a faster rate.

What the 2008 crisis should warn us of is that nations and companies like to sell an optimistic future: Enron, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Lehman Brothers [a company worth over half a trillion dollars] went bankrupt with people completely unaware of their decline. Just like individuals who are unable to pay back debt there is the human condition that pretends that everything is normal and it is one that dates back to at least the 11th century B.C.E: Ramasis III is considered to be the last great Pharaoh, his monuments are huge, his memorials to his deeds daring but despite the appearance of a golden age the reality was of famine and war and the closing chapter of the Great ancient Egyptian civilisation. The civilisation did of course continue but only a former shadow of its self, no doubt historians in the future will look at Britain as the empire that went into slow decline following the the second World War.

One could argue that Britain [and indeed the USA and Europe excluding Germany] has already entered a new period of no growth and if we were to look to history as to what is in store we would see other countries and civilisations tended to react in a similar way. Disturbingly it is the extremes who end up with the most credible voices, it is those who summon up a cultural golden age where god or national purity ensured wealth and prosperity. It is often the voice of blame that condemn the godless of a distinguishable group in society for the decline. Take your pick: it can be Jews or Gipsies or single mothers or immigrants. Already UKip [or your local right wing political party] is trying to exploit the situation with some success and in Greece the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is having greater success as it proclaims Greece for Greeks.

Japan’s stagnation called the Lost Decade which in fact started in 1990 and was only slowly coming to an end prior to the 2008 Crash, is another example of what a long term state of no growth means to people. The end of growth in Japan meant that career aspiration came to an end: no growth meant no career ladder to climb as old workers stayed in employment rather than retire and without companies expanding the prospects of employees moving into more challenging roles was restricted. Whilst there are millions of people happy in their job despite the lack of change the prospects are worse for young adults leaving education; the problem is not just dead end job prospects but on a wider level business is not exposed to bright, young and latest thinking which is an element of longer term innovation.
Politicians are not going to even think about functioning in a zero growth world economy and the answer to try to avoid problems in the future will be costly and result prematurely in disruption of the economy. Currently government incentives to kick start the economy is to build confidence in long term prospects and encourage people to spend and businesses to invest. Left or Right the ultimate vision is much the same with only the means being contested but encouraging people to buy our way into growth will just bring about change quicker.

I don’t profess to fully understand what a zero growth future means, I am sure it is not going to be some Mad Max post apocalypse and I am certain some countries will do well despite the constraints on global resources. Doomsday scenarios of mass famine, war pestilence and plague may ensue but currently global food production could feed almost twice the population, it is just half of it is fed to animals to provide meat. What is more likely is a society with more division with a greater separation between the wealthy and poor: a dystopia much beloved by British sci-fi writers.

The solution is a new politics although it would have zero public support. Without mineral or energy resources the choice are either low tech and low skilled but globally competitive workforce battling it out with India and China for the last opportunities of growth or a highly educated workforce and society.The first step is make education free- the notion that students should be taking out loans in a world where loans are reliant on future growth is madness. In a post peak world we would be foolish not to grow our own energy, as every energy import needs to be paid with a growing slice of the cake that is not growing. The future is about abandoning energy greedy lives and inventing products that do everything for a lot less. Governments could start now just by ensuring house building is green and future planning is matched to work and services. Now seems a perfect time to rebuild the infrastructure whilst we still have giga tonnes of carbon credits, before nature forces a halt, whilst borrowing is still cheap and whilst we still have a small reserve of oil and gas wealth. To squander our resources on tax breaks and keeping people out of work and education is and will be regrettable.