How energy and information flows shape civilizations

Cycle of adaptive change

Adaptive cycle from Resilience Alliance modified based on Van der Leeuw (2012)
In systems ecology there is a useful heuristic model - The Adaptive Cycle - that attempts to map out cyclical change in social-ecological systems. The concept builds on observations of ecosystem and social change over time. In the original picture the y-axis stood for potential (or capital) and the x-axis said connectedness. But in this figure I have swapped out those for energy and information as the constraints of the system. This is not my idea but based on Sander E. van der Leeuw (2012) article "Global systems dynamics and policy: Lessons from the distant past" where he applies resilience thinking to social change over time, drawing on knowledge from the past.

As depicted above, in the first phase of the adaptive cycle, exploitation, society and its environment grow based on a particular form of organization that permits an increase in energy flow in exchange for an increasingly coherent institutional structure, that in turn increases its impact on the environment over time. In this phase, when resources are abundant, every individual has a chance to make something of her/his situation, and so the culture is one of individualism. However, during this time the system suppresses structural innovation and institutional change because the dominant paradigm is thought to be so effective that there is no reason for innovation.

Eventually, however, the growth curve levels off and the system’s effectiveness and growth ceases. Enter the conservation phase. The limits of expansion become apparent and society “defends itself” (state of denial) by becoming more fixated on rules and hierarchies as a consequence of the need to deal with increasing levels of conflict over resources. Bottom-up change is slowly replaced by “top-down” power over people. Fundamental change is not implemented because the system as a whole is still aligned on the pre-existing dynamics.

In the next phase, release, resources are suddenly freed up once the system reaches a tipping point and the existing structure collapses. The immediate result of that is a complete lack of institutional structure, true chaos in which the system can transform in many different ways, but none of the potentials are clear enough to give a sense of direction. People turn against how the system was structured but also show an inability to understand. Which in turn lead to a ‘fatalist’ attitude, like during the Dark Ages in Europe. 

The fourth phase is that of reorganization, a time of experiments with different forms of organization on a very local scale. Real innovation becomes possible and necessary, and small communities flourish and gather support based on an egalitarian perspective. Eventually smaller communities organize into larger structures and growth starts again. And so the cycle repeats, according to theory. 

A time of crisis

I believe that we are currently in the very last stages of the conservation phase, passed the tipping point, and now headed towards the release phase. In terms of resource depletion, it is clear we have reached our peak of extraction and we are now left with huge increases in costs of providing basic services, like freshwater, food and energy. We see an increase in conflict over limited resources, state failure and attempts to regulate and control ordinary people. The massive global debt bubble is unpayable but governments are unwilling to implement structural reform. Short term political considerations trump the long-term viability of society. Most people do not understand the full complexity of the processes going on around us. The fragmented worldview has been institutionalized through academia working in silos and only focusing on one narrow subject at a time. And don't get me started on neoliberal economics, which is simply unscientific. In society in general we have witnessed an explosion of trade in material goods and services that are utterly useless. The need is no longer for innovation to meet existing challenges, but simply to create ‘value’ to maintain the growth of the world economy (like a cancer). This is a time of crisis, when people lose faith in the system and it collapses. At the same time, people do not understand why things are getting worse and instead look for someone to blame. But the problem is not religion, ethnicity, or gender, its structural. The entire system is flawed, and will collapse.

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Zero self-sufficency

Slitkalar på Fitn, July 1908. Nordiska Museet

Hard to put a number of food security

Politicians, journalists and pundits have for many years used the number of 50% regarding Sweden’s self-sufficiency in agriculture. A new investigation from the agricultural magazine ATL, however, shows that this number without a doubt is incorrect. A protracted crisis with blockaded imports would result in a catastrophe.

Sweden has made itself vulnerable to shocks and disturbances in international trade by outsourcing production of basic commodities and relying on imports. The precarious global geopolitical situation have brought the question of self-sufficiency back on the political agenda. 

In 2002 the last reserves and warehouses with foodstuffs in case of a national emergency were dismantled. Ten years later we read in a report from LRF that about half of all the food Swedes consume comes from imports. People have therefore assumed that Sweden has a self-sufficiency level of 50%. 

But the relationship between imported and domestically produced food only shows a theoretical potential. Current stocks would only last for a maximum of 3 weeks if there is a true crisis. There are no warehouses with food and chemicals for water purification and our largest packaging plant was shut down last year, according to Therese Frisell at the National Food Agency. 

In other words, Sweden is not self-sufficient at all. According to Frisell our capacity is at zero. This is due to that Sweden is heavily reliant on imports for industrial agriculture, for example oil, fertilizers and protein for animal feed.

Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences together with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency claim that farmers can produce food in a time of crisis but that this would require a large scale transition. Farmers would have to rely less on machines, switch from cereals to root crop and from pigs and chickens to uncultivated pasture meat. Farmers can not do it alone, they would need extra manpower. And if the transition fails, Sweden would likely not be able to support its growing population. People would starve.

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Pestilence - Deadlier than war

"Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky" ‒ Albert Camus, The Plague, 1948

The only top predator left to infect

When humans start putting extreme pressure on local ecosystems, through for example overpopulation and deforestation, communities become more susceptible to emerging or novel zoonotic diseases as natural habitats disappear and exposure to pathogens increases. Several of today’s most pervasive diseases originally stemmed from domestication of livestock some 10,000 years ago. For example, tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox emerged following the domestication of wild cattle. Many pathogens that are currently passed from person to person, including influenza, Ebola and HIV, were formerly zoonotic but have mutated and adapted to human hosts. Today, wild animals are significantly more likely to be a source for animal-to-human spillover of viruses than domesticated species. According to one recent study, wild rodents are the most common source (58%) of spillover of zoonotic viruses, followed by primates and bats. Wildlife habitat destruction or encroachment, changes in surface waters, industrial monocultures, chemical pollution, uncontrolled urbanization, migration, international travel and trade have all increased the risk of disease spread in humans and the potential for a pandemic.

Toxic Cocktail

We know that our highly interconnected global society is very vulnerable to disruptions in food, water and energy supply. Another threat to the continuation of our civilization is global toxification. The 30 million tonnes a year global output in synthetic chemicals has left no living creature on Earth without these chemicals in its organs. The full impact of the chemical soup we are all living in whether we are a whale or a human are yet unknown. However, we know that the emergence of widespread antibiotic resistance is likely to cross paths with our exhausted immune systems compromised by chemical contamination, and the fact that with such high population density in many urban areas we are increasingly vulnerable to pandemics.

Exposure of fish and wildlife in urban regions due to continuous release of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in oceans and to the atmosphere.Source: WHO, 2012

Antibiotic Resistance

The fact that some antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections is now a major threat to public health, according to WHO. Over the last 30 years, no major new types of antibiotics have been developed.
According to a recent study published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, scientists in China have discovered significantly increased levels of bacteria resistant to the antibiotic colistin in pigs. The drug is a last line of defense against a host of bacterial infections, many of which are common in people. Researchers have linked the growing prevalence of “super-germs” to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals. The drugs, used predominantly in the Chinese livestock industry, can keep animals healthy in an industrialized food process, but their use over time can embolden the very bacteria they were designed to fight against. In 2005, the European Union banned the use of antibiotics in livestock for non-medicinal purposes, but the drugs are still widely used across the continent, and are rampant in the agricultural industry in the United States. As people in wealthier regions run out of effective antibiotics, they come to share the lot of people in poorer regions who can’t afford them to begin with. In April 2014, the WHO declared that the problem “threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — is a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

Historical Pandemics

The Plague
The bacterium Yersinia pestis carried by fleas on rodents has caused at least three human plague pandemics, the Justinian Plague (6–8th centuries), the Black Death (14–17th centuries) and third Plague (19–20th centuries). In 541 A.D., the Justinian Plague caused 5,000 deaths per day in Constantinople, killing an estimated 25 million people globally. It spread from central Asia or Africa across the Mediterranean into Europe and may have contributed to the end of the Roman empire, marking the transition from the classical to the Medieval period. The Black Death arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1347 and struck Italy, southern France with vehemence in 1348, came to England at the end of that year and spread northwards reaching Scandinavia in 1350. 

Larger cities were the worst off, as population densities and close living quarters made disease transmission easier. Cities were filthy with poor sanitation, infested with lice, fleas, and rats, and subject to diseases related to malnutrition and poor hygiene. Where the plague raged, it raged for a couple of months and then spent itself. The Black Death killed an estimated 100 million people over 7 years. Religious fanaticism in the wake of the Black Death lead to the persecution of groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, lepers and Romani, as Europeans thought that they were to blame for the crisis. Subsequent outbreaks of this disease occurred in 8–12 year cycles for two centuries after the initial epidemic, with estimated mortality of 15–40%. The emergence of these plague pandemics might be tightly linked to climatic instability as all were preceded by periods of exceptional rainfall and ended during periods of climatic stability.
Hypothetical scenario for the geographic spread of Yersinia pestis. Source: Wagner et al. (2014)

The Spanish Flu
In 1918-19, the Spanish flu (H1N1) killed roughly 100 million people and infected 500 million people while affecting working age people (15–54 year olds) most severely. WWI was raging at the time and governments tried to control the public by limiting free speech. The pandemic was known as Spanish flu because Spain was not at war, had a more free press, and could report on the illness. Most of Europe had a censored press. In the U.S. the Sedition Act 1918 was passed, extending the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a broader range of offenses, notably speech and the expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light. The 1918–1919 influenza pandemic swept across countries during a time when patriotism was more important than truth. Thus, intimidation and propaganda were part of the communication culture. People heard from authorities and newspapers that everything was going fine, but at the same time, bodies were piling up.
Emergency hospital during 1918 influenza pandemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.
Source: Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine (CC-BY 2.0)

War and disease

According to the WHO, previous to the conflict in Syria, more than 90% of Syrian children were vaccinated against disease like measles and polio. Since the fighting in Syria began almost 5 years ago, half of all health workers have left the country, medical supplies are scarce and most facilities are in decay. Some 20 million people have fled their homes in the MENA region. Countries like Jordan and Lebanon are under immense pressure as demand on services for health, water and sanitation have increased exponentially. The low immunization rates among those living in and fleeing from conflict zones, endangers the lives of people across the entire region. The recent outbreak of polio in Syria led to its resurgence in Iraq, which had been free of the disease for 14 years, and in 2013, Jordan experienced a new outbreak of measles. In Yemen there has been an upsurge in cases of measles and dengue fever due to lack of basic health care and collapsed water and sanitation facilities. WHO estimates show that 2.6 million children under 15 years of age in Yemen are at risk of measles; 2.5 million under 5 are at risk of diarrhoeal disease and another 1.3 at risk of acute respiratory infections.

Second order effects

Limiting the disruption of critical infrastructures during a pandemic is important for the survival and health of society (i.e., electricity, water, and food) as most medical and public health responses to a pandemic depend on these infrastructures. The food system’s dependence on the transportation system creates a major vulnerability. On average, food travels 2092 km (1,300 miles) from farm to fork. The global food system functions in a just-in-time economy where food inventories are intentionally kept at such low levels that food arrives just in time for consumption. Since inventories are kept very low, there is vulnerability to unanticipated variations in flow. Increasing stocks of food costs money and decreases profits, therefore, agricultural businesses are reluctant to build food security resilience via stockpiling. The Ebola epidemic that began in 2014 has caused severe food shortages in West Africa. As of November 2014, the World Food Program estimated that 460,000 additional individuals became food insecure in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea as a result of production and trade reductions. According to a recent study, a severe pandemic with <25% reduction in labor availability could create widespread food shortages in the US. This likely applies to other countries as well, especially those with insufficient resources and food production at home. 

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Brace for impact: Super El Niño

As I have mentioned in a previous post, 2015/16 El Niño period have shown signs of becoming stronger than the devastating 1997/98 El Niño. Now weekly measurements are showing that it indeed has passed the record high of 1997/98 with temperatures in the central Pacific of 3°C above normal. November is likely to be strongest month of the El Niño season that lasts until spring next year.

The ongoing El Niño has already caused a number of serious impacts globally. For example, warmer waters have lead to major coral bleaching events and according to the UN, 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water in eastern and southern Africa, while 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as El Niño exacerbates a prolonged drought.

Regional Impacts

South East Asia: Dryer conditions in Southeast Asia has helped fuel massive peatland wildfires in Indonesia. This has caused dense haze to cover many parts of Indonesia and neighbouring countries with serious health impacts for local populations and has released a huge amount of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, making Indonesia a major contributor to climate change.

South Asia: Lack of precipitation in India due to changes in the southwest monsoon has also caused dryer conditions and risk of drought with potentially serious impacts on farmers and subsistence livelihoods. Especially since India suffered a deficient monsoon, lack of precipitation, last year as well. Meanwhile in Myanmar (Burma) a Tropical Storm drenched the western region and caused a massive landslide. More than 17,000 homes were destroyed, 46 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of people were affected by the storm.

Southern Africa: A number of countries in southern Africa are reporting below average rainfall leading to drought conditions and fears of food insecurity. South Africa is in the midst of its worst drought since 1982, with 2.7 million households facing water shortages and farmers that cannot plant crops because of lack of precipitation. Some cities have implemented water restrictions, drastically reducing the amount of water residents can use. Regional prices for staple foods like maize meal, bread, eggs and chicken are up several percentage points. “When the maize crop goes down, the circumstances for social unrest go up … This is exactly how the Arab spring in the Middle East started, said Louis Meintjes, president of the Transvaal Agriculture Union.

South America: Ecuador and Peru has suffered from flooding, extensive erosion, mudslides with loss of lives and infrastructure as well as damage to food supplies. Peru has declared a state of emergency as the country prepares itself for the worst weather system in over 60 years. Eastern Brazil is experiencing a major drought, driven by population pressure and deforestation, that could be worsened by dryer El Niño conditions. Satellite data shows the southeast of Brazil losing 56 trillion liters of water in each of the past three years - more than enough to fill Lake Tahoe. Water rationing, power blackouts and empty reservoirs in parts of the country have become a reality. More than 11,000 forest fires have been observed in the Amazonas province of Brazil this year, a 47% increase over the same period last year, according to the National Institute for Space Research. The storms that usually keep the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America wet shift northward to the southern US during strong El Niño winters. According to the World Food Program, 3.5 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador need food aid due to drought and crop failures.

North America: According to NOAA, almost 95% of U.S. coral reefs will have been exposed to ocean conditions that can cause corals to bleach by the end of the year. El Niño has also contributed to a very active tropical cyclone season in the Western North Pacific and Eastern North Pacific. Hurricane Patricia, which made landfall in Mexico on 24 October, was reportedly the most intense tropical cyclone in the western hemisphere ever recorded. While category 5 Hurricane Patricia weakened rapidly after hitting the rugged terrain along Mexico’s Pacific coast, remnants of the storm combined with other weather systems over the Gulf of Mexico to produce heavy downpours and widespread flooding in Texas and Louisiana

El Niño conditions and disease risk

The development of these conditions also has important implications for global public health. Multiple epidemiological studies have linked El Niño events with increased incidence of disease outbreaks.

Climatic influence
Great Lakes region, Bangladesh, India (coastal), Sri Lanka, Peru
Warmer water temperatures promote bacteria proliferation; flooding causes contamination of water sources.
Indonesia, Thailand, Pacific Islands, Australia (Queensland), Mexico, United States (southern), Colombia, Ecuador (coastal)
Water storage promotes mosquito vector breeding; elevated temperatures reduce the incubation period.Elevated rainfall promotes mosquito breeding.
China (eastern), United States (southwest)
Elevated rainfall increases food availability for rodents which expands populations and may promote contact with humans.
Brazil (eastern), Costa Rica, Colombia
Warmer temperatures or dry conditions may favor sand fly vectors or contribute to waning human immunity (e.g., via malnutrition or temporarily suppressing disease transmission).
China (Anhui Province), India/Pakistan (Punjab), Sri Lanka, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela
Elevated rainfall promotes mosquito vector breeding and survival.
Madagascar, United States (western)
Heavy rains increase food availability for populations of susceptible rodents; cooler temperatures may increase infectious flea abundance.
Rift Valley Fever
East Africa
Flooding of dry mosquito vector habitats promotes hatching of infected eggs, vector breeding and survival.
Respiratory Illness
Southeast Asia/Indonesia
forest fires cause air pollution that may increase risk of respiratory infection

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A more humane response to the refugee crisis

Source: UNHCR (2015)
There are around 20 million refugees in the world out of 60 million displaced persons, according to UNHCR. During the period January-November 2015 some 820,318 refugees has arrived to Europe by sea and 3,485 have died or are missing. A full 65% of arrivals are men, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. Most refugees have arrived in Greece to later make their way towards Germany and Sweden, through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. 

What we see in the Mediterranean is a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions and it needs to be treated as such. Telling refugees they can have a permanent residentship while not establishing boundaries (capacity and which people to prioritize) or approving visas for safe travel through Europe is not a humane policy. Countries like Germany and Sweden have had to revise their policies (e.g. giving temporary asylum and increasing border controls) because it’s creating so much confusion and encouraging the growth in human trafficking and thus increasing the death toll on the sea. 

We have to understand that many refugees trying to reach Europe over the Mediterranean are often men with some money searching for better opportunities than they currently can find in e.g. Turkey or Lebanon. One reason for this is because the world’s rich countries have not funded the UN’s humanitarian agencies which are now on the verge of financial bankruptcy (The Guardian, 2015). This year the World Food Programme had to cut food rations to 1.6 million Syrian refugees, warning that this leaves many vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups (The Guardian, 2015). Less humanitarian help in places of conflict has in turn lead to larger migration flows. Deteriorating conditions in Lebanon and Jordan have become intolerable for many of the 4 million people who has fled Syria, driving the latest waves of immigration towards north-west Europe. 

A humane policy would not reward only young men with the money to cross the sea. Instead it would determine the right to asylum based on needs, e.g. the sick or orphans, and give them a visa to safely travel into Europe. A more humane policy with increased funding to UN’s humanitarian agencies will also safeguard that social tensions don’t spin out of control in Europe, so that the refugees that get to come feel safe and welcome while people that want to stay in the region can do so without starving, turning to crime or violence.

A more humane policy by the rich EU is to provide resources (food, water, healthcare, family planning service, ecological restoration, education etc.) to vulnerable countries in the MENA region. Europe has long been a centre that has sucked in natural resources from the world's poor in exchange for worthless fiat and unpayable debts. Now it’s time to repay some of those resources, in the interest of peace and stability in the region.

Credit: Ekathemerini
According to the Guardian article, quote: “The Syria regional refugee response plan is only funded to 35% of the $1.3bn needed to support refugees, both in the camps and by providing resilience funding for the countries hosting them” which is a disgrace, wealthy countries complaining about a refugee crisis but being unwilling to fund the response in the region.

The article goes on to state: “In August, a multi-million dollar shortfall forced the World Health Organisation to close down 184 health clinics across 10 of Iraq’s 18 districts, in an area that has seen severe fighting and massive internal displacement. The cuts have left 3 million people without access to healthcare. The World Health Organisation is trying to raise $60m to fund healthcare in Iraq but so far only $5.1m has been given by donors. Dr Michelle Gayer is director for emergency risk management at the WHO. She told the Guardian that the gap between the desperate need in countries such as Iraq and current funding levels risked permanent damage to public health across whole populations” (The Guardian, 2015)

There are plenty of young unemployed people in Europe that wants a job so why don't governments fund UN's programs that could make use of young talents at the same time as it helps vulnerable communities in the MENA region. That could actually help lower the risk of extremism spreading, as opposed to military intervention which only creates extremism. Better yet, take money from defence budgets and put it into aid if there "isn't enough funding" at the moment. Have we learned nothing from our previous failures?

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Coping with Extremes - General Resilience

Credit: John McColgan at USDA

General resilience

We need to increase society’s general resilience to shocks and disturbances. With that I mean that we need to increase communities capacity to adapt or transform in response to unfamiliar, unexpected and extreme shocks.

Extreme events have long lasting effects on society and need to be managed properly or major losses will be inevitable. Megadroughts in Syria and California, the rapid spread of wildfires in Indonesia and Canada or massive flooding in the UK and Denmark are just some examples of extreme events that we will have to get used to due to climate change and resource depletion. Other shocks may come from a fragile financial system in form of massive unemployment, from a dysfunctional political system that leads to a revolution or from mass migrations due to failed states. 

Extreme events are notoriously difficult to predict because probabilities are hard to measure and uncertainties are high. That's why it's so important to take proactive measures to strengthen a society's general resilience to such events. This requires a complex systems perspective and understanding of human-nature interactions. Strengthening general resilience includes:

1. Diversity and redundancy

The important thing with diversity is that it can offer both functional diversity and response diversity. In other words, a diverse system can offer many different functions but also a diversity of responses to disturbances so that critical functions are maintained even if some parts of the system fail. For example, in a marine ecosystem some fish may carry out similar functions (e.g. grazing on corals) so that if one species disappears there is another that can keep on carry out the critical function for the benefit of the overall ecosystem. Similarly if a bridge or air plane has many backup safety mechanisms that all perform the same function (i.e.redundancy) the risk of a collapse or crash is much lower. This is also applicable to the economy where a diversity of many small companies with similar functions contributes to stability in case some should default. That's why it’s very unhealthy to have a few but major banks that can crash the entire system. It is also a reason why societies with high income inequality do poorly, because all the wealth has been concentrated at the top which creates instability and risk of revolution. Heterogeneous landscapes with high biodiversity have higher resilience to extreme events and so monocultures is a really bad idea since it increases vulnerability to massive crop failure, loss of pollinators, and spread of pests.

2. Modularity and Decentralisation

Connectivity can both be a good and a bad thing depending on degree. In today’s society we most often have a high degree of connectivity, international interdependence, that makes us vulnerable to the rapid spread of extreme events or cascading effects. Modularity helps contain disturbances to specific regions/sectors and lowers the risk of contagion. The more self-sufficient communities can be the better. Especially for the provision of essential goods and services such as water, food, energy and health care. Decentralised systems of decision making are also more flexible and can respond more rapidly to a crisis than any central control system ever can.

3. Reserves

As was common sense only two generations ago having reserves, no matter if it’s food or skills, contribute to a faster recovery after a disturbance. Just-in-time logistics make communities vulnerable to sudden shocks or major disturbances. So does a reliance on finite resources like oil. Keeping strategic reserves while improving local supply or transitioning to renewables is increasingly important. We know that plants and animals that survive a disturbance are critical to ecological recovery from e.g. extraordinary fires or volcanic eruptions. Keeping seed banks is also increasingly important as ever more species are lost. Social memory is another important aspect that can help push for a faster recovery.

4. Manage feedbacks

To the extent it's possible society has to keep an eye on critical feedbacks and try to manage them so the system doesn’t cross thresholds that trigger harmful outcomes. For example, reducing waste and pollution and increasing recycling and use of biodegradable materials that can create circular resource flows that restore balance. Applying a systems perspective is crucial to this aspect of general resilience. Tighter feedbacks between e.g. producer and consumer makes feedbacks easier to manage. Local economies with proper incentives or sanctions on how to manage common pool resources can lead to more sustainable communities.

5. Monitoring

Transparency and up to date information about status and trends of ecosystem and social health is essential to maintain resilience over the long-term. Complex systems are not static but ever changing and so to provide adaptive management one needs to constantly be learning and collecting information to ensure stability of the system. Citizen science and decentralised monitoring is much more effective and low cost than large-scale operations by central authorities. Traditional knowledge about changes over time is invaluable. Indicators can also help provide early warnings of potential tipping points.

6. Trust and reciprocity

Trust is the basic glue that holds society together and it’s fundamental to everyday social and economic interactions. It is easier to maintain trust when groups are small and people know each other but harder in large communities and cities. When trust is high people are more willing to cooperate and transaction costs are low. This is yet another reason why decentralisation of decision-making is important. Today we live in a society where basic trust between actors has been replaced with money, but that monetary system is inherently unstable and increasingly untrustworthy. Trust takes a long time to build up but can be erased rapidly. When trust in a society is low transaction costs increase as fewer people are willing to cooperate or trade. The erosion of social trust is very damaging to a society that in the end may lead to bank runs, social unrest or even conflict.

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Lessons from the Icelandic vs Greek collapse

Greek protesters clash with policemen during riots at a May Day rally in Athens May 1, 2010.  Credit: Joanna CC-BY-SA 2.0

Debt = theft from future generations

All economic activity requires energy to perform useful work. Without an increasing flow of net energy to society the economy starts to contract. The extraction of finite fossil resources cannot sustain increased growth as depletion and diminishing returns eventually leads to bankruptcy and falling supply.
Shows how the entire Eurozone has been contracting since 2007 as is visible in lower oil consumption.

Monetization based on the assumption that the resource base is endless, which flies in the face of fundamental physics, can only lead to financial collapse. Intermediate stages that we have witnessed since 2008 is the erosion of the middle class, increased wealth inequality and increased numbers of poor people in society. Borrowing of work and resources from the future, through debt fuelled credit expansion, has become completely insane. To the extent that we are eroding the life-support systems that make up the basis for our own long-term survival. It has indebted future generations in ways they can never repay and is a grave intergenerational injustice

Thermodynamic limitations of the physical world don’t even enter the grammar of most economists or central bankers who are wilfully inept to give advice on anything but how to ruin entire nations. The lack of a systems perspective has made the public unaware of the real dangers of a out of control financial system. Economic growth based on credit fuelled debt, which has exploded since the early 1980s, in form of unlimited issuance of government bonds, credit cards without security, sub-prime mortgages or quantitative easing are all just sophisticated ways of sending the bill to the future. 

Its obvious that it's not possible to cure problems that arise from too much of something (debt) by doing more of it (piling on more debt). That's just insanity. If credit costs are larger than income minus other expenses then either the income must increase to balance losses or bankruptcy is the only way out. By now, we know that the pile of debt accumulated is unpayable and so a debt restructuring or debt jubilee is the only way forward. The young generation, especially, need to have their debts forgiven or we will have riots in the streets, political turmoil and an increase in crime rates.

Protesters in front of the Alþingishús, seat of the Icelandic parliament, on 15 November 2008. Credit: Haukurth (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Difference between purely financial and energy-induced collapse

In the fall of 2008 the financial system in Iceland collapsed leading to a closure of the three main banks and a 50% fall in the value of the Icelandic króna. When the banks collapsed they left huge obligations to lenders and customers without coverage. The Icelandic government issued a guarantee for all Icelandic accounts, releasing comparative demands from a large volume of overseas accounts (a net deficit of €3.2 billion after all assets were sold). The government had no way of covering this demand, causing the collapse of the Central Bank of Iceland and the currency. Iceland went bankrupt and loans in foreign currency became unpayable for state, businesses and private persons. The Icelandic people voted no in referendums to repay foreign debts, elected different people in office and jailed bankers for corruption. They basically had to restart the system. However, the real reason that Iceland has not suffered like Greece, for example, is because they were able to keep increasing their oil consumption (from imports) while relying heavily on domestic hydropower and geothermal for electricity production. This is not the case for the PIIGS countries which all were heavily reliant on oil imports that they could no longer afford.
Data from the National Energy Agency in Iceland
Greece cannot afford to import more oil

Many of the driving factors behind the Icelandic banking crisis and the GFC arose from a fundamental systems crisis in our present world. The economic model based on eternal financial and material growth has started to meet limits, where the human civilisation has outgrown the capacities of the planet to support it. Borrowing from the future to cover up this fundamental problem is a short sighted strategy that will come to an end, sooner rather than later. And it also means that the collapse curve will be even steeper as we have depleted more resources without making a transition to renewable energy resources.

Against such limitations, all talk or negotiations are futile, and pretending the dilemma does not exist has only lead to bigger risks with ever more debt - stealing from future generations. Countries may be able to handle a purely financial crisis, like Iceland, but they won't be able to handle a energy-induced financial crisis, like in the case of Greece. It doesn't matter what financial reforms they make as long as they can't afford the energy needed to operate society they will continue to contract. So while debt forgiveness is necessary it's not sufficient in solving Greece's problems.

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Water Stress in the Mediterranean Basin

Dust storm sweeping across Syria, the Mafraq region of Jordan, and part of Turkey's Mediterranean coast (7th of September, 2015). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory- Aqua Modis
Global pressures on finite water resources have grown rapidly over the past decades as a result of population growth, increasing per capita consumption and industrial agriculture. Overexploitation of groundwater in agricultural regions of particular concern are north-western India, the north China plain, the Great Plains of North America and the Central Valley in California (Rockström et al. 2014). Climate change is already impacting the number of people living in absolute water scarcity (Schewe et al. 2013). Water scarcity is a recurrent imbalance that arises from an overuse of water resources, caused by consumption being significantly higher than the natural renewable availability. Water scarcity can be aggravated by water pollution and drought.

River basins, with withdrawals exceeding more than 40–60% of available water resources, experience severe water scarcity. Many economically important river basins around the world are suffering from unsustainable withdrawals of water that impinge on ecological needs or have surpassed ecological limits such as the Amu and Syr Darya, the Indus, the Nile, the Colorado, the Orange, the Lerma Chapala, the Murray Darling and the Yellow River basin.

Global hydroregions - population pressures on water security

Source: Meybeck et al. 2013

The map above shows a relative pressure indicator (incorporating population density and runoff) for river basins in different hydroregions of the world. We can see that dry belts (medium density and very low runoff) around the equator and northern mid-latitude (high density and medium runoff) have the highest pressure on water security, while hydroregions with minimal pressure are due to high runoff and/or low population density (e.g. Amazon and Orinoco basin, Boreal hydroregions, Northern Australia basins) (Meybeck et al. 2013). Water security pressure range from the most to the least densely populated: Asia > Europe > North America > Africa > South America > Australia. Interesting to note is the difference between the “Old World” (Asia, MENA, Europe) and the “New World” (Americas and Australia).

Overall Water Risk around the Mediterranean

Shows level of overall water risk (physical quantity, quality and access).
Source: Aqueduct-Water Risk Atlas

In the map above we see which countries and city regions around the Mediterranean that suffer most acutely from overall water risk. London, Budapest, Bucharest, Valencia, Naples, Odessa, Donetsk, Sofia, Istanbul all show signs of high overall water risk due to population pressure. Countries in the dry belt of North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) all show signs of high overall water risk, either from depletion of water resources, pollution or lack of access to clean drinking water.

Baseline Water Stress around the Mediterranean

Shows baseline water stress (the ratio of total annual withdrawals to total available renewable supply). Source: Aqueduct-Water Risk Atlas

If we look at baseline water stress defined as the ratio of total annual water withdrawals to total available renewable supply (accounting for upstream consumptive use) we find that stress is extremely high (dark red) in parts of Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Italy, Malta, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Iran. If we compare the map above to the one below, showing population pressure in the Mediterranean region (in 2009), we find that baseline water stress occurs around many of the big cities as expected.

Population density around the Mediterranean

Source: UNEP-Grid (2009)

City regions along the Mediterranean east coast in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt have high population density in close proximity to each other. This at the same time as they suffer from extremely high baseline water stress is like begging for a conflict. Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta will suffer in the future if they don't do something about their unsustainable water situation immediately. Morocco, north Algeria and Tunisia will also have to address their water situation.

Access to Water in Europe and MENA

Shows level of water risk related to access (% of population without access to safe drinking water). Source: Aqueduct-Water Risk Atlas

People may not perceive water stress as an issue depending on access to water defined as % of population without access to improved drinking water. Here we see the situation being severe (>20%) in countries undergoing conflict such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and large parts of North Africa. In the map below we can see that Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Cyprus all have desalination plants (red ring). This requires lots of energy, most likely from fossil fuels, that many countries can’t afford to spend and it only furthers global warming. Relying on desalinated water is a very risky strategy.

Water infrastructure around the Mediterranean Basin

Source: UNEP-Grid (2009)

From all the above pictures it is not difficult to figure out that water stress, together with climate change and peaking fossil fuels will lead to migration and conflict without any foresight or planning ahead. Water is essential for all life, without sufficient water resources people have no option but to move as ecosystems dry out. Relying on groundwater pumping and fossil aquifers with little respect for ecological limits or plans for collecting rainwater is a disaster in the making, of which we are seeing the first signs. Furthermore, explosive population growth in the MENA-region following their oil boom have lead to far more people than the arid landscape can provide for. The only reason this population increase was even possible was due to fossil aquifers now empty and massive amounts of energy from oil that has been used to desalinate water from the ocean. But these are finite resources. Thus the crisis we now see in the Middle East was foreseeable, it was only ever a question of when, not if. The German Advisory Council on Global Change reported on these risk already in 2007. Most other European countries must also have been aware of these risks. A little planning could have gone a long way but all we see now instead is chaos.

Migration pattern due to ecological degradation and climate change

Areas where drought, desertification, and other forms of water scarcity are estimated are expected to worsen and could contribute to people migrating away from these areas to secure their livelihoods. Main projected trajectories are added where climate change-related migration can be expected in the future. (Source: Bogardi and Warner, 2009).

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