Collapsing systems

Credit: Devfactory, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Another great systems theory based book on why nations fail is out. This time its academic, journalist and writer Nafeez Ahmed, who long wrote for the Guardian but now has his own crowdsourced news site (Insurge-intelligence), who has delivered the goods. 

In his book, "Failing states, Collapsing systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence", Nafeez presents the essential data on resource depletion, net energy decline, economic stagnation (debt bubble) and ties it nicely together with the acceleration of civil unrest around the globe. It's a big picture analysis of how the triple crises of energy, climate and food production impact societies around the world. A current example, according to Ahmed, of how these multiple stressors interact and can lead to systemic failure is war torn Syria. 

Syrian oil production peaked in 1996 while population, and thus consumption, kept increasing. By 2008 the government, who relied on petrol money for maintaining the state budget, had to slash fuel subsidies which tripled the price of petrol and food almost overnight. A huge deal to anyone already spending almost half of their income on food. At the same time as an ongoing drought in the eastern part of Syria devastated harvests and drove people from the countryside into the cities. Yemen experienced a similar fate of depleting resources, peak oil, and the resulting high vulnerability to shocks. Based on these two cases it takes about 15 years for a country that experiences its peak in oil production before additional pressures, such as climate change, contribute to systemic failure. 

It's not only the Middle East. Many other countries, for example Mexico,  are well on their way of having little to no extra oil to export for keeping their budget in balance or pay for subsidies that people depend on. And the counties who are still able to import some oil or have some mix of energy sources to depend on will be a target of immigrants looking to flee bankrupt and failing nations. Which in turn will fuel the nationalist sentiments and a grab for what's left, military interventions. Something we are already witnessing in Europe and the US.

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Minimize regret through acceptance, not denial

Source: Free great pictures, CC0 Public Domain

It’s too late when someone is already gone. That is the lesson one learns when a close relative dies. I have witnessed up close how truly crushing futile optimism can be. The fact that our human brain refuses to accept sad news and tries to cope by counteracting it with hope right up until the end can be a very cruel thing. Not being mentally prepared for the misery to come causes a shock so severe it puts one in a state of almost complete apathy. I am both lucky and cursed that I have experienced plenty of misery, both in my work as a nurse and in my own life, to know how bad things can get and therefore be somewhat mentally prepared for it. Some may call me a pessimist but I prefer the term realist. It´s not that I don’t have hopes, dreams and wishes just like anybody else. I obviously do. It’s simply that I am aware of the human brain's tendency for denial in face of difficult truths, like one’s own mortality. Denial is not only a coping mechanism but also an inherent trait of the human species. Because we are aware of our own and others suffering we realize our own mortality, which is a terrifying thing, that could lead to fear and depression that hinders reproduction and survival. Thus we need to deny death risks and mortality to keep on going, in evolutionary terms. That’s why we are overly optimistic, despite difficult circumstances, because we are wired for it.

Sure, unwarranted optimism (or reality denial) can be a good thing in certain situations, giving people extra strength to carry on despite high odds of failure. But it can also be very detrimental. For example in the case of climate change or species extinction where there is no going back. In these cases blind optimism in high tech solutions or unknown future discoveries etc. is actually dangerous. We have already perturbed the climate system to such a degree that it may change abruptly and shift into another stability domain, a much hotter and hostile one than we humans have never experienced. This is a fact. It’s not a very pleasant one but denying it doesn’t change anything. It only makes things worse, both in terms of not mitigating the worst impacts and being prepared for them. Without, at least, mental preparation people will be shocked, confused and in a panic when devastation hits. They will likely blame other people around them instead of understanding the underlying reasons for why such events happened. Like two rats in a cage getting electrocuted they won't know what to do but fight to the death.

Accepting one’s own mortality and living in a meaningful way to minimize regrets is a better way to deal with unpleasant facts. Accepting, for example, death, climate change and biodiversity loss doesn’t imply we like it. It simply means that we understand it and that we can take constructive action to build a life that is more meaningful and resilient to future shocks and disturbances. We can all find a life of meaning that is also beneficial for society and nature. A farmer knows this. We simply have to have the courage to strive for it. One day it’s truly too late...

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