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The Masked Tulip

As Stock Markets Plunge Anew, Sovereign Debt Threatens Secondary Banking Crisis

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Not the article but the comments below?

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jeremywarner/100005873/sovereign-debt-crisis-threatens-secondary-banking-crisis/

As one who has been convinced since the $147 oil spike and the subsequent (near) banking collapse that we were entering a new era – in essence the end of the fossil-fuelled industrial age and everything that came with it (not least rampant, debt-fuelled consumerism) – I remain equally convinced that the worst is very much yet to come.

It appears that people like me remain in the minority for now. I own and manage a small business with strong links into the eurozone. I’m finding it excruciatingly difficult these days to forecast, plan, manage and control the business. Opportunities keep receding into the distance; demand fluctuates (if it exists at all); the bank is all over my business like a rash.

There seems (to me anyway) to be a lot of misplaced optimism out there, despite all the leading indicators suggesting that things could get, well, pretty horrendous, pretty soon.

These days, both in terms of my business and my family circumstances, I am trying my damnedest to contingency plan for what could well turn out to be a sudden, grand mal seizure of normal economic and financial operations.

Remember how quickly the banking crisis blew up from (apparently) nowhere? My concern is that if we get the same situation occuring at the level of nation states, who’s going to be stepping in as the bailer-out of last resort? Surely, if nations start collapsing under the weight of their own debts, whilst the banks are themselves crippled and supposedly being propped up by the self-same bankrupt states, we would appear to have a problem that is bigger than nations themselves. Not to mention a weird sort of debt perpetual motion machine … and we all know how well perpetual motion machines function.

Hmmmm. This really does not feel good from where I’m sitting (and perspiring).

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For a summary of the above article, read my sig.

Steve, I think your sig is wrong. The resource crisis is a symptom of unsound debt based money. The majority of problems in our society are attributed to over consumption/production.

BTW, did you buy that land?

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Guest Steve Cook

Steve, I think your sig is wrong. The resource crisis is a symptom of unsound debt based money. The majority of problems in our society are attributed to over consumption/production.

BTW, did you buy that land?

I would argue that an already unsound monetary system has been made permenantly broken by by resource constraints. This is not to say that such a monetary system is not capable of breaking all by itself from time to time.

It's just that this time the future is no longerr able to paper over the cracks.

and no, it fell through... still looking

Edited by Steve Cook

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What resource shortages are specifically causing this crisis? What makes you think that this shortage can't be an incentive for human ingenuity like every other shortage in history?

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Guest Steve Cook

What resource shortages are specifically causing this crisis? What makes you think that this shortage can't be an incentive for human ingenuity like every other shortage in history?

The resource shortage that is fuelling this crisis is hydrocarbons in the first instance, in particular light sweet crude. However, since massive energy consumption is implicated in the mining and farming of all other primary resources, in the end, all of those other resoruces are under supply/demand pressure aswell.

The reason this shortage can't be an incentive for human ingenuity is the same reason such shortages never were a spur to human ingenuity. If you look over the course of the history of human civilisation, access to resources precede "ingenuity". To the extent that ingenuity is implicated at all is in terms of the unlocking some new resource that can then be utilized in new ways. However, the hisotry of human civilisation is littered with endless examples of where civilisations have basically farmed out all of the resources in a given area and then collapsed in short order. New civilisations have eventally emerged in undeveloped areas and the process starts again, including the eventual collapse. This process of growth and collapse has been more of less consistent for the last 5 thousand years

However, this time around is different because this civilisation is global in scope and so the collapse will be global. Most crucually, aswell, this time there is no new territory to develop, no new energy source to exploit.

Basically, the development of civilisation itself was a very bad move on the part of humans. It is, by it's very nature, unsustainable. Our fate has been sealed since we first invented farming and so created the first surpluses on which all civilisations are built.

Edited by Steve Cook

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However, this time around is different because this civilisation is global in scope and so the collapse will be global. Most crucually, aswell, this time there is no new territory to develop, no new energy source to exploit.

Very interesting observation. I take it you are thinking of Jared Diamond's 'Collapse'. There are alternative energy systems that we could have developed with enough effort and investment. However this current civilisation seems to have preferred spending its money on capuccino's and ipods.

The manhattan project cost approx $27 Bn in todays money, yet the world is investing far less than this into fusion energy which is one of the few potential energy sources that could replace fossil fuels. ITER (intended to be the first viable fusion reactor) as a project is costing approx $10Bn.

Bailing out the UK banks cost more than either of these.

Mankind gets what it asks for.

Edited by TheBigNothing

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Guest Steve Cook

Very interesting observation. I take it you are thinking of Jared Diamond's 'Collapse'. There are alternative energy systems that we could have developed with enough effort and investment. However this current civilisation seems to have preferred spending its money on capuccino's and ipods.

I've not read Diamond, but I have heard of him and his thesis sounds like something I would be inclined to agree with. As for whether things did not need to be this way, I used to think not. However, I have since come to the reluctant conclusion that the very nature if this thing we call "civilisation" inevitably leads to the point of total collpase we are now facing.

The only issue was when it would happen, not if.

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I've not read Diamond, but I have heard of him and his thesis sounds like something I would be inclined to agree with. As for whether things did not need to be this way, I used to think not. However, I have since come to the reluctant conclusion that the very nature if this thing we call "civilisation" inevitably leads to the point of total collpase we are now facing.

The only issue was when it would happen, not if.

Steve,

"This is not a credit crisis. This is not even an economic crisis, primarily. Both of the above are symptoms of what is, fundamentally, a resource crisis. "

Umm, err, I thought economics was the study of how scarce resources were allocated. So to say that it is a resource crisis, not an economics one, doesnt make a lot of sense.

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Guest Steve Cook

Steve,

"This is not a credit crisis. This is not even an economic crisis, primarily. Both of the above are symptoms of what is, fundamentally, a resource crisis. "

Umm, err, I thought economics was the study of how scarce resources were allocated. So to say that it is a resource crisis, not an economics one, doesnt make a lot of sense.

I worded the above observation in the way I have for the sake of brevity.

In simple terms, resources are needed to do work.

work is needed to produce tradable goods and/or services.

Tradable goods and/or services provide the foundational requirement for a monetary system.

To cite this problem as being monetary in origin (as many do) or, to move one step further down the rabbit hole, cite ineficiencies of work done (opposing versions of capitalism) as the problem is to miss the foundational problem lying underneath both of the above.

Access to resources leads to work being done leads to the requirement for money.

The causal arrow runs in one direction only , in the end, no matter how much we would like to delude ourselves otherwise.

Edited by Steve Cook

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The resource shortage that is fuelling this crisis is hydrocarbons in the first instance, in particular light sweet crude. However, since massive energy consumption is implicated in the mining and farming of all other primary resources, in the end, all of those other resoruces are under supply/demand pressure aswell.

The reason this shortage can't be an incentive for human ingenuity is the same reason such shortages never were a spur to human ingenuity. If you look over the course of the history of human civilisation, access to resources precede "ingenuity". To the extent that ingenuity is implicated at all is in terms of the unlocking some new resource that can then be utilized in new ways. However, the hisotry of human civilisation is littered with endless examples of where civilisations have basically farmed out all of the resources in a given area and then collapsed in short order. New civilisations have eventally emerged in undeveloped areas and the process starts again, including the eventual collapse. This process of growth and collapse has been more of less consistent for the last 5 thousand years

However, this time around is different because this civilisation is global in scope and so the collapse will be global. Most crucually, aswell, this time there is no new territory to develop, no new energy source to exploit.

Basically, the development of civilisation itself was a very bad move on the part of humans. It is, by it's very nature, unsustainable. Our fate has been sealed since we first invented farming and so created the first surpluses on which all civilisations are built.

For god sake change the record Steve. Civilisation is no more, inherently, unstable than any other state of being. Try testing your personal doom theory against the facts rather than making the facts fit your theory.

Of the major civilisations in recorded history I can think of none, not one that collapsed due to resource issues.

Hittite - conquered

Persian - conquered

Greece – assimilated into the Roman Empire

Egyptian – assimilated into the Roman Empire

Roman Empire – split and fell due to decadence and over extension

Mongol Empire (?) - Over extended/went native.

South American – conquered by European empires /disease

Spanish Empire – Fell due to British naval superiority

French Empire – Fell due to British naval superiority

African Kingdoms – conquered by European empires

Southeast Asian Kingdoms - conquered by European empires

Russian Empire – Taken over by the plebs

British Empire – IMO fell due to a change in political sensibilities, replaced by the corporate empire that exists today. More a case of rebranding than a change of management.

It's more likely that some nation somewhere will take the technical initiative, wait for the rest to fall before cleaning up. (Hitech - Low carbon ecconomy anyone? :ph34r: )

edit to tidy up a bit

Edited by GBdamo

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As Stock Markets Plunge Anew

Careful, I think the DOW can hear you.. it's trying desperately to wipe out all of today's gains at the moment

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The reason this shortage can't be an incentive for human ingenuity is the same reason such shortages never were a spur to human ingenuity. If you look over the course of the history of human civilisation, access to resources precede "ingenuity". To the extent that ingenuity is implicated at all is in terms of the unlocking some new resource that can then be utilized in new ways. However, the hisotry of human civilisation is littered with endless examples of where civilisations have basically farmed out all of the resources in a given area and then collapsed in short order. New civilisations have eventally emerged in undeveloped areas and the process starts again, including the eventual collapse. This process of growth and collapse has been more of less consistent for the last 5 thousand years

I am pessimistic like you in the short term but unlike you I'm optimistic in the long term.

Initial access to resources precedes ingenuity...yes, but then there's always a shortage. No one bothered with techniques to extract oil by drilling deeply when it was available at the surface. As Julian Simon pointed out, people would have been worse off if the shortage had never happened in the first place. Human ingenuity has been quite mind-blowingly successful in the last 200 years.

There is more than enough energy on planet earth POTENTIALLY available (e.g. the sun). There are alternatives to oil but oil is the cheapest form of travel right now so alternatives are of limited benefit. That's what gives me hope in the long term. Substitutes are a huge subject and there are in theory not just substitutes for oil but substitutes for what oil is used for like travel. Internet anyone? It's already happening. Even with the huge rise in road fuels, costs of sending sub-30kg items around Europe are rock-bottom right now for businesses due to things like basic technology enforcing responsibility onto drivers for cost saving etc. etc. etc.

We could collapse as a civilisation but see a lot of reasons to be optimistic...in the longer term.

Edited by cica

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Guest Steve Cook

For god sake change the record Steve. Civilisation is no more, inherently, unstable than any other state of being. Try testing your personal doom theory against the facts rather than making the facts fit your theory.

Of the major civilisations in recorded history I can think of none, not one that collapsed due to resource issues.

Hittite - conquered

Persian - conquered

Greece – assimilated into the Roman Empire

Egyptian – assimilated into the Roman Empire

Roman Empire – split and fell due to decadence and over extension

Mongol Empire (?) - Over extended/went native.

South American – conquered by European empires /disease

Spanish Empire – Fell due to British naval superiority

French Empire – Fell due to British naval superiority

African Kingdoms – conquered by European empires

Southeast Asian Kingdoms - conquered by European empires

Russian Empire – Taken over by the plebs

British Empire – IMO fell due to a change in political sensibilities, replaced by the corporate empire that exists today. More a case of rebranding than a change of management.

It's more likely that some nation somewhere will take the technical initiative, wait for the rest to fall before cleaning up. (Hitech - Low carbon ecconomy anyone? :ph34r: )

edit to tidy up a bit

The oldest known civilization was that of Sumer. Sumer was in what was known as Mesopotamia, now known as the Middle East. The Sumerians were the first large group of people to see the earth as a resource for their material exploitation.

The Middle East was not always the desert it is today. It was originally a heavily forested area. The Sumerians cut down much of the forest for fuel and materials, which had a drastic effect on the water cycle. The destruction of the forests caused the rainfall in the area to decrease by a significant margin (trees pump water out of the ground, releasing it as water vapor, to fall again as rain.) They also act as a filter, keeping salty water deep below the soil and allowing fresh water to rise to the top. The combination of low rainfall and salinated water meant vegetation wouldn't grow, turning the once fertile area into the barren desert it is today.

The Sumerians left behind a written record of the environmental destruction they inflicted, in the oldest written story in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story is centred around Gilgamesh, one of the first kings of the Uruks, an early Sumerian civilization. In Sumerian mythology the forest was guarded by the god Humbaba, who was entrusted with the task by Enlil, the chief deity. Gilgamesh wanted to build a great civilization. Naturally he needed resources. So he rebelled against Humbaba, the forest God and went to work cutting down the forests. At the end of the story Gilgamesh decapitates the forest god Humbaba. Enlil, the chief deity is so enraged and decides to avenge Humbaba's death. He makes the water undrinkable and the fields barren. This environmental change, which was brought upon themselves, causes the death of Gilgamesh and his people.

This is a story that demonstrates the effects of deforestation - the water becomes salinated and the land becomes desert. Ultimately this leads to the collapse of civilization. When the Sumerians ran out of resources in their own lands they ventured outward to obtain wood and fertile land to grow crops. But they repeated the pattern in the new territory. Deforestation led to reduced rainfall, salinated water and fertile fields turned into barren wastelands. As long as there was room to grow things looked good. But when they ran out of neighbours to overrun things collapsed quickly. The result was widespread famine and the death of their civilization. The records they left behind show they only realized their mistake at the very end.

Later on came the rise of Ancient Greece as a civilization. The Greeks cleared vast areas of forest to convert into fuel, farmland and to make way for living space. They are famous for their bronze furnaces, all powered by forest wood. Like the Sumerians the decline of Greece came as a result of resource scarcity. They had cut down all the forests and none remained. Once the energy source had disappeared the end was swift. By the end most of Greece was a wasteland. With the forests gone the soil eroded at a drastic rate. The croplands were unable to handle the high salt levels in the water and low nutrient levels in the soil. "What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left" Plato, wrote that.

The collapse of civilization was beginning to show a pattern.

Next came Rome to repeat the pattern. Again the main fuel source was wood. The forests of Italy were massacred to meet the needs of this massive empire. Wood was used for building materials, to burn for heat and to smelt metals for coins and weapons. As the forests were destroyed the crops became less productive due to the decreased rainfall and the erosion of nutrient rich soil. The failing crops led to food shortages in the empire. So the leaders looked outward for expansion, reaching out for resources in a desperate attempt to keep the empire alive. It was the sign of a civilization that was dying. The resource grab merely delayed the inevitable; the land had been treated as a resource for man's consumption and once consumed it caused the collapse of civilization.

Far away from Europe and the Near East a group of people settled the remote Easter Island in the Pacific. Within 500 years they had destroyed the island's environment. The original broadleaf forest was cut down, causing a massive drop in rainfall and intensive soil erosion. The island that was once covered in forest became barren grassland. Up to half of the native plants became extinct. This ecological collapse led to the demise of the statue building civilization. Crops struggled to grow in the altered climate. Without wood there was no means to build fishing vessels, and the seabirds that once inhabited the island lost their nesting places.

What is especially noteworthy about Easter Island is the speed of the destruction. Other civilizations managed to prolong their existence by conquering new lands. For them the destruction only happened when they ran out of land to conquer. With Easter Island there was nowhere to go, nowhere to expand and thus nowhere for this massive flaw of civilization to hide. Once the islanders had the perception that everything was a consumable resource they set about consuming everything. It only took a short time before it was all over; a short time before the collapse of civilization.

Modern civilisation

When the U.S.A began its march to world power her main fuel source, like the ancient civilizations, was wood. The discovery and wide use of oil changed this. In the past civilizations were relatively local because wood as a fuel has limited their expansion. Oil has been the fuel that has enabled the world to become the single intertwined global civilization that it is today. Our rise in the last few hundred years has been meteoric. With an abundant supply of energy and room on the planet to expand into we have created the most advanced civilization man has ever known.

But right now things look grim. Like the fallen civilizations that have gone before us our main fuel source is about to run out. When the ancients ran out of wood it was all over. They could delay the inevitable by expansion but ultimately they were doomed. We are running out of oil and there is no longer anywhere for us to expand into, take over and acquire more resources. The collapse of civilization is looming.

Many people are unperturbed by the stories of ancient civilizations. Ours will work they say. Ours is different; ours is better. Sumer, Rome, Egypt and Greece were merely failed experiments paving the way for us. We will survive and we will flourish. This attitude is incredibly arrogant, but was one that was shared almost universally among the peoples of the dead civilizations right up to the point where they actually collapsed. What makes us any different? People assume that we will figure out an energy source to replace oil, one that will be green and sustainable. Maybe we will but that won't solve our problems. The fuel itself is not the issue; it is the mindset behind the fuel. Civilization is built on the assumption that the world is a resource that belongs to man. Hence civilization destroys the land-base for man's material and economic advantage. We could carry on enacting this premise with abundant supplies of vegetable oil, solar energy and wind power and we would still be destructive.

Thousands of cultures have existed on this planet by living in forests and using them for resources. Yet they never caused the total destruction of the forest; that mistake is reserved only for civilizations. What we need to understand is the mentality behind those who destroy and the mentality behind those that don't. Understanding this is far more important than finding a new energy source to continue on our destructive ways.

Perhaps the collapse of civilization is inescapable. Maybe there is no way to make civilization sustainable, no way for us other than to follow the Sumerians, Greeks, Romans and Easter Islanders. But perhaps there is a way to lead a settled and materially comfortable lifestyle without destroying the land base. To save ourselves from a major crisis this is what we need to find out. Carrying on as we are albeit with green energy won't save us. We will need to come up with something completely new, something better than civilization as we know. Civilization is not the pinnacle of human existence; it can be bettered. If it is possible to exist in a materially comfortable, settled society without destroying our land-base, then we must find a way. But if it is impossible then brace for the worst because we will be heading down the same road as those who have gone before us. But this time the collapse of civilization will be a whole lot worse. This time the collapse of civilization will be a global catastrophe like nothing ever seen before.

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Guest Steve Cook

I am pessimistic like you in the short term but unlike you I'm optimistic in the long term.

Initial access to resources precedes ingenuity...yes, but then there's always a shortage. No one bothered with techniques to extract oil by drilling deeply when it was available at the surface. As Julian Simon pointed out, people would have been worse off if the shortage had never happened in the first place. Human ingenuity has been quite mind-blowingly successful in the last 200 years.

There is more than enough energy on planet earth POTENTIALLY available (e.g. the sun). There are alternatives to oil but oil is the cheapest form of travel right now so alternatives are of limited benefit. That's what gives me hope in the long term. Substitutes are a huge subject and there are in theory not just substitutes for oil but substitutes for what oil is used for like travel. Internet anyone? It's already happening. Even with the huge rise in road fuels, costs of sending sub-30kg items around Europe are rock-bottom right now for businesses due to things like basic technology enforcing responsibility onto drivers for cost saving etc. etc. etc.

We could collapse as a civilisation but see a lot of reasons to be optimistic...in the longer term.

'The Oil We Eat' Following the Food Chain back to Iraq

By Richard Manning

The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime, forgotten because it was done neatly.

--Balzac

The journalist's rule says: follow the money. This rule, however, is not really axiomatic but derivative, in that money, as even our vice president will tell you, is really a way of tracking energy. We'll follow the energy.

We learn as children that there is no free lunch, that you don't get something from nothing, that what goes up must come down, and so on. The scientific version of these verities is only slightly more complex. As James Prescott Joule discovered in the nineteenth century, there is only so much energy. You can change it from motion to heat, from heat to light, but there will never be more of it and there will never be less of it. The conservation of energy is not an option, it is a fact. This is the first law of thermodynamics.

Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the rules. All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's "primary productivity." There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.

Energy cannot be created or cancelled, but it can be concentrated. This is the larger and profoundly explanatory context of a national-security memo George Kennan wrote in 1948 as the head of a State Department planning committee, ostensibly about Asian policy but really about how the United States was to deal with its newfound role as the dominant force on Earth. "We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population," Kennan wrote. "In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction."

"The day is not far off," Kennan concluded, "when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts."

If you follow the energy, eventually you will end up in a field somewhere. Humans engage in a dizzying array of artifice and industry. Nonetheless, more than two thirds of humanity's cut of primary productivity results from agriculture, two thirds of which in turn consists of three plants: rice, wheat, and corn. In the 10,000 years since humans domesticated these grains, their status has remained undiminished, most likely because they are able to store solar energy in uniquely dense, transportable bundles of carbohydrates. They are to the plant world what a barrel of refined oil is to the hydrocarbon world. Indeed, aside from hydrocarbons they are the most concentrated form of true wealth--sun energy--to be found on the planet.

As Kennan recognized, however, the maintenance of such a concentration of wealth often requires violent action. Agriculture is a recent human experiment. For most of human history, we lived by gathering or killing a broad variety of nature's offerings. Why humans might have traded this approach for the complexities of agriculture is an interesting and long-debated question, especially because the skeletal evidence clearly indicates that early farmers were more poorly nourished, more disease-ridden and deformed, than their hunter-gatherer contemporaries. Farming did not improve most lives. The evidence that best points to the answer, I think, lies in the difference between early agricultural villages and their pre-agricultural counterparts--the presence not just of grain but of granaries and, more tellingly, of just a few houses significantly larger and more ornate than all the others attached to those granaries. Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have been in charge ever since.

Domestication was also a radical change in the distribution of wealth within the plant world. Plants can spend their solar income in several ways. The dominant and prudent strategy is to allocate most of it to building roots, stem, bark--a conservative portfolio of investments that allows the plant to better gather energy and survive the downturn years. Further, by living in diverse stands (a given chunk of native prairie contains maybe 200 species of plants), these perennials provide services for one another, such as retaining water, protecting one another from wind, and fixing free nitrogen from the air to use as fertilizer. Diversity allows a system to "sponsor its own fertility," to use visionary agronomist Wes Jackson's phrase. This is the plant world's norm.

There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow in patches of a single species and store almost all of their income as seed, a tight bundle of carbohydrates easily exploited by seed eaters such as ourselves. Under normal circumstances, this eggs-in-one-basket strategy is a dumb idea for a plant. But not during catastrophes such as floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions. Such catastrophes strip established plant communities and create opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers. It is no accident that no matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe, it always happened near rivers. You might assume, as many have, that this is because the plants needed the water or nutrients. Mostly this is not true. They needed the power of flooding, which scoured landscapes and stripped out competitors. Nor is it an accident, I think, that agriculture arose independently and simultaneously around the globe just as the last ice age ended, a time of enormous upheaval when glacial melt let loose sea-size lakes to create tidal waves of erosion. It was a time of catastrophe.

Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close. Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa's fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can find what Iowans call a "postage stamp" remnant of some, it most likely will abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you. Settlers' accounts of the prairie conquest mention a sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots, the sound of stout grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow. A robbery was in progress.

When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in energy as an oil well. A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat. Much of the energy moves from the earth to the rings of fat around our necks and waists. And much of the energy is simply wasted, a trail of dollars billowing from the burglar's satchel.

I've already mentioned that we humans take 40 percent of the globe's primary productivity every year. You might have assumed we and our livestock eat our way through that volume, but this is not the case. Part of that total--almost a third of it--is the potential plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it's mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move on.

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land--in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.

Six thousand years before sodbusters broke up Iowa, their Caucasian blood ancestors broke up the Hungarian plain, an area just northwest of the Caucasus Mountains. Archaeologists call this tribe the LBK, short for linearbandkeramik, the German word that describes the distinctive pottery remnants that mark their occupation of Europe. Anthropologists call them the wheat-beef people, a name that better connects those ancients along the Danube to my fellow Montanans on the Upper Missouri River. These proto-Europeans had a full set of domesticated plants and animals, but wheat and beef dominated. All the domesticates came from an area along what is now the Iraq-Syria-Turkey border at the edges of the Zagros Mountains. This is the center of domestication for the Western world's main crops and live stock, ground zero of catastrophic agriculture.

Two other types of catastrophic agriculture evolved at roughly the same time, one centered on rice in what is now China and India and one centered on corn and potatoes in Central and South America. Rice, though, is tropical and its expansion depends on water, so it developed only in floodplains, estuaries, and swamps. Corn agriculture was every bit as voracious as wheat; the Aztecs could be as brutal and imperialistic as Romans or Brits, but the corn cultures collapsed with the onslaught of Spanish conquest. Corn itself simply joined the wheat-beef people's coalition. Wheat was the empire builder; its bare botanical facts dictated the motion and violence that we know as imperialism.

The wheat-beef people swept across the western European plains in less than 300 years, a conquest some archaeologists refer to as a "blitzkrieg." A different race of humans, the Cro-Magnons--hunter-gatherers, not farmers--lived on those plains at the time. Their cave art at places such as Lascaux testifies to their sophistication and profound connection to wildlife. They probably did most of their hunting and gathering in uplands and river bottoms, places the wheat farmers didn't need, suggesting the possibility of coexistence. That's not what happened, however. Both genetic and linguistic evidence say that the farmers killed the hunters. The Basque people are probably the lone remnant descendants of Cro-Magnons, the only trace.

Hunter-gatherer archaeological sites of the period contain spear points that originally belonged to the farmers, and we can guess they weren't trade goods. One group of anthropologists concludes, "The evidence from the western extension of the LBK leaves little room for any other conclusion but that LBK-Mesolithic interactions were at best chilly and at worst hostile." The world's surviving Blackfeet, Assiniboine Sioux, Inca, and Maori probably have the best idea of the nature of these interactions.

Wheat is temperate and prefers plowed-up grasslands. The globe has a limited stock of temperate grasslands, just as it has a limited stock of all other biomes. On average, about 10 percent of all other biomes remain in something like their native state today. Only 1 percent of temperate grasslands remains undestroyed. Wheat takes what it needs.

The supply of temperate grasslands lies in what are today the United States, Canada, the South American pampas, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Europe, and the Asiatic extension of the European plain into the sub-Siberian steppes. This area largely describes the First World, the developed world. Temperate grasslands make up not only the habitat of wheat and beef but also the globe's islands of Caucasians, of European surnames and languages. In 2000 the countries of the temperate grasslands, the neo-Europes, accounted for about 80 percent of all wheat exports in the world, and about 86 percent of all com. That is to say, the neo-Europes drive the world's agriculture. The dominance does not stop with grain. These countries, plus the mothership--Europe accounted for three fourths of all agricultural exports of all crops in the world in 1999.

Plato wrote of his country's farmlands:

"What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man. ...Formerly, many of the mountains were arable, The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true."

Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major "corrective" famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period. The incidence, however, dropped sharply when colonization brought an influx of new food to Europe.

The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists themselves. Thomas Jefferson, after enduring a lecture on the rustic nature by his hosts at a dinner party in Paris, pointed out that all of the Americans present were a good head taller than all of the French. Indeed, colonists in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed greater stature and longevity, as well as a lower infant-mortality rate--all indicators of the better nutrition afforded by the onetime spend down of the accumulated capital of virgin soil.

The precolonial famines of Europe raised the question: What would happen when the planet's supply of arable land ran out? We have a clear answer. In about 1960 expansion hit its limits and the supply of unfarmed, arable lands came to an end. There was nothing left to plow. What happened was grain yields tripled.

The accepted term for this strange turn of events is the green revolution, though it would be more properly labeled the amber revolution, because it applied exclusively to grain--wheat, rice, and corn. Plant breeders tinkered with the architecture of these three grains so that they could be hypercharged with irrigation water and chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen. This innovation meshed nicely with the increased "efficiency" of the industrialized factory-farm system. With the possible exception of the domestication of wheat, the green revolution is the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet.

For openers, it disrupted long-standing patterns of rural life worldwide, moving a lot of no-longer-needed people off the land and into the world's most severe poverty. The experience in population control in the developing world is by now clear: It is not that people make more people so much as it is that they make more poor people. In the forty-year period beginning about 1960, the world's population doubled, adding virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world's poorest classes, the most fecund classes. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position.

Discussion of these, the most poor, however, is largely irrelevant to the American situation. We say we have poor people here, but almost no one in this country lives on less than one dollar a day, the global benchmark for poverty. It marks off a class of about 1.3 billion people, the hard core of the larger group of 2 billion chronically malnourished people--that is, one third of humanity. We may forget about them, as most Americans do.

More relevant here are the methods of the green revolution, which added orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the iron for tractors, drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not farmable. At the same time, it extended its boundaries across time, tapping fossil energy, stripping past assets.

The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food. There's a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

Fertilizer makes a pretty fine bomb right off the shelf, a chemistry lesson Timothy McVeigh taught at Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995--not a small matter, in that the green revolution has made nitrogen fertilizers ubiquitous in some of the more violent and desperate corners of the world. Still, there is more to contemplate in nitrogen's less sensational chemistry.

The chemophobia of modem times excludes fear of the simple elements of chemistry's periodic table. We circulate petitions, hold hearings, launch websites, and buy and sell legislators in regard to polysyllabic organic compounds--polychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyls, DDT, 2-4d, that sort of thing--not simple carbon or nitrogen. Not that agriculture's use of the more ornate chemistry is benign--an infant born in a rural, wheat-producing county in the United States has about twice the chance of suffering birth defects as one born in a rural place that doesn't produce wheat, an effect researchers blame on chlorophenoxy herbicides. Focusing on pesticide pollution, though, misses the worst of the pollutants. Forget the polysyllabic organics. It is nitrogen-the wellspring of fertility relied upon by every Eden-obsessed backyard gardener and suburban groundskeeper--that we should fear most.

Those who model our planet as an organism do so on the basis that the earth appears to breathe--it thrives by converting a short list of basic elements from one compound into the next, just as our own bodies cycle oxygen into carbon dioxide and plants cycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. In fact, two of the planet's most fundamental humors are oxygen and carbon dioxide. Another is nitrogen.

Nitrogen can be released from its "fixed" state as a solid in the soil by natural processes that allow it to circulate freely in the atmosphere. This also can be done artificially. Indeed, humans now contribute more nitrogen to the nitrogen cycle than the planet itself does. That is, humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen in play.

This has led to an imbalance. It is easier to create nitrogen fertilizer than it is to apply it evenly to fields. When farmers dump nitrogen on a crop, much is wasted. It runs into the water and soil, where it either reacts chemically with its surroundings to form new compounds or flows off to fertilize something else, somewhere else.

That chemical reaction, called acidification, is noxious and contributes significantly to acid rain. One of the compounds produced by acidification is nitrous oxide, which aggravates the greenhouse effect. Green growing things normally offset global warming by sucking up carbon dioxide, but nitrogen on farm fields plus methane from decomposing vegetation make every farmed acre, like every acre of Los Angeles freeway, a net contributor to global warming. Fertilization is equally worrisome. Rainfall and irrigation water inevitably washes the nitrogen from fields to creeks and streams, which flows into rivers, which floods into the ocean. This explains why the Mississippi River, which drains the nation's Corn Belt, is an environmental catastrophe. The nitrogen fertilizes artificially large blooms of algae that in growing suck all the oxygen from the water, a condition biologists call anoxia, which means "oxygen-depleted." Here there's no need to calculate long-term effects, because life in such places has no long term: everything dies immediately. The Mississippi River's heavily fertilized effluvia has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.

America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it's about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food.

About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled "processed," meaning it is milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial uses. More than 45 percent of that becomes sugar, especially high-fructose corn sweeteners, the keystone ingredient in three quarters of all processed foods, especially soft drinks, the food of America's poor and working classes. It is not a coincidence that the American pandemic of obesity tracks rather nicely with the fivefold increase in corn-syrup production since Archer Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose version of the stuff in the early seventies. Nor is it a coincidence that the plague selects the poor, who eat the most processed food.

It began with the industrialization of Victorian England. The empire was then flush with sugar from plantations in the colonies. Meantime the cities were flush with factory workers. There was no good way to feed them. And thus was born the afternoon tea break, the tea consisting primarily of warm water and sugar. If the workers were well off, they could also afford bread with heavily sugared jam--sugar-powered industrialization. There was a 500 percent increase in per capita sugar consumption in Britain between 1860 and 1890, around the time when the life expectancy of a male factory worker was seventeen years. By the end of the century the average Brit was getting about one sixth of his total nutrition from sugar, exactly the same percentage Americans get today--double what nutritionists recommend.

There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

That number does not include the fuel used in transporting the food from the factory to a store near you, or the fuel used by millions of people driving to thousands of super discount stores on the edge of town, where the land is cheap. It appears, however, that the corn cycle is about to come full circle. If a bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers has their way--and it appears they will--we will soon buy gasoline containing twice as much fuel alcohol as it does now. Fuel alcohol already ranks second as a use for processed corn in the United States, just behind corn sweeteners. According to one set of calculations, we spend more calories of fossil-fuel energy making ethanol than we gain from it. The Department of Agriculture says the ratio is closer to a gallon and a quart of ethanol for every gallon of fossil fuel we invest. The USDA calls this a bargain, because gasohol is a "clean fuel." This claim to cleanness is in dispute at the tailpipe level, and it certainly ignores the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, pesticide pollution, and the haze of global gases gathering over every farm field. Nor does this claim cover clean conscience; some still might be unsettled knowing that our SUVs' demands for fuel compete with the poor's demand for grain.

Green eaters, especially vegetarians, advocate eating low on the food chain, a simple matter of energy flow. Eating a carrot gives the diner all that carrot's energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary predator, meaning it not only doesn't eat plants but eats other fish that themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up, easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than eating a plant.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the vegetarian's case can break down on some details. On the moral issues, vegetarians claim their habits are kinder to animals, though it is difficult to see how wiping out 99 percent of wildlife's habitat, as farming has done in Iowa, is a kindness. In rural Michigan, for example, the potato farmers have a peculiar tactic for dealing with the predations of whitetail deer. They gut-shoot them with small-bore rifles, in hopes the deer will limp off to the woods and die where they won't stink up the potato fields.

Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy argument by eating processed food, with its ten calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced. The question, then, is: Does eating processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel the energy benefits of vegetarianism, which is to say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace? Maybe. If I've done my due diligence, I will have found out that the particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two factors that of course greatly reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches here in Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely controlled circumstances--no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen. Assets have not been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This can go on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each person's individual charge is to find such niches.

Chances are, though, any meat eater will come out on the short end of this argument, especially in the United States. Take the case of beef. Cattle are grazers, so in theory could live like the grass-fed lamb. Some cattle cultures--those of South America and Mexico, for example--have perfected wonderful cuisines based on grass-fed beef. This is not our habit in the United States, and it is simply a matter of habit. Eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to livestock. Seventy-eight percent of all of our beef comes from feed lots, where the cattle eat grain, mostly corn and wheat. So do most of our hogs and chickens. The cattle spend their adult lives packed shoulder to shoulder in a space not much bigger than their bodies, up to their knees in shit, being stuffed with grain and a constant stream of antibiotics to prevent the disease this sort of confinement invariably engenders. The manure is rich in nitrogen and once provided a farm's fertilizer. The feedlots, however, are now far removed from farm fields, so it is simply not "efficient" to haul it to cornfields. It is waste. It exhales methane, a global-warming gas. It pollutes streams. It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.

Still, these livestock do something we can't. They convert grain's carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All well and good, except that per capita protein production in the United States is about double what an average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be stored as protein in the human body but is simply converted to fat. This is the end result of a factory-farm system that appears as a living, continental-scale monument to Rube Goldberg, a black-mass remake of the loaves-and-fishes miracle. Prairie's productivity is lost for grain, grain's productivity is lost in livestock, livestock's protein is lost to human fat--all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat.

This explains why the energy expert David Pimentel is so worried that the rest of the world will adopt America's methods. He should be, because the rest of the world is. Mexico now feeds 45 percent of its grain to livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt went from 3 percent to 31 percent in the same period, and China, with a sixth of the world's population, has gone from 8 percent to 26 percent. All of these places have poor people who could use the grain, but they can't afford it.

I live among elk and have learned to respect them. One moonlit night during the dead of last winter, I looked out my bedroom window to see about twenty of them grazing a plot of grass the size of a living room. Just that small patch among acres of other species of native prairie grass. Why that species and only that species of grass that night in the worst of winter when the threat to their survival was the greatest? What magic nutrient did this species alone contain? What does a wild animal know that we don't? I think we need this knowledge.

Food is politics. That being the case, I voted twice in 2002. The day after Election Day, in a truly dismal mood, I climbed the mountain behind my house and found a small herd of elk grazing native grasses in the morning sunlight. My respect for these creatures over the years has become great enough that on that morning I did not hesitate but went straight to my job, which was to rack a shell and drop one cow elk, my household's annual protein supply. I voted with my weapon of choice--an act not all that uncommon in this world, largely, I think, as a result of the way we grow food. I can see why it is catching on. Such a vote has a certain satisfying heft and finality about it. My particular bit of violence, though, is more satisfying, I think, than the rest of the globe's ordinary political mayhem. I used a rifle to opt out of an insane system. I killed, but then so did you when you bought that package of burger, even when you bought that package of tofu burger. I killed, then the rest of those elk went on, as did the grasses, the birds, the trees, the coyotes, mountain lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of an intact natural system, all of it went on.

~~~~~~~~

By Richard Manning

Richard Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization

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The oldest known civilization was that of Sumer. ....snip

OK I'll give you that one, even off the back of some fairy tale.
Later on came the rise of Ancient Greece as a civilization.......snip

Sorry, but your clutching at straws with Greece. Greece overextended on the back of one genius general and spent the next 180 years (the Hellenistic era) fighting splintered boarder disputes which sapped their strength until their eventual assimilation into the Roman Empire around 150 BC. As I said more a case of biting off more than they could chew. The Romans found plenty of resources there to project their power for another 600 years.

The collapse of civilization was beginning to show a pattern.

Yes but not the one you want.

Next came Rome to repeat the pattern.

Yes more over extension with a bit of cancerous debauchery thrown in.

Far away from Europe and the Near East a group of people settled the remote Easter Island in the Pacific. Within 500 years they had destroyed the island's environment....snip

This is a much better example but on such a small scale.

Modern civilisation.......snip

Since the early 1800s and the birth of the British Empire we have gorged ourselves on every fuel source these islands have, wood, coal, oil, gas and nuclear yet at no point has fuel had anything whatsoever to do with slowing our progress. We use up one source and find another, needs must when the devil drives. We are technologically more advanced now than we have ever been. It's just cheaper to use non-renewable fuels than to invest in other technologies. There will come a point where both are equally commercially viable and the changeover will begin.

Thousands of cultures have existed on this planet by living in forests and using them for resources. Yet they never caused the total destruction of the forest; that mistake is reserved only for civilizations. What we need to understand is the mentality behind those who destroy and the mentality behind those that don't. Understanding this is far more important than finding a new energy source to continue on our destructive ways.

This is great; you have made your definition of a civilisation what you want it to be. Why can a balanced forest living society not be a civilisation? Is it at the point they start to destroy the forest they become civilised?

civilization, civilisation [ˌsɪvɪlaɪˈzeɪʃən]n1. (Sociology) a human society that has highly developed material and spiritual resources and a complex cultural, political, and legal organization; an advanced state in social development2. the peoples or nations collectively who have achieved such a state3. the total culture and way of life of a particular people, nation, region, or period classical civilization4. the process of bringing or achieving civilization5. intellectual, cultural, and moral refinement6. cities or populated areas, as contrasted with sparsely inhabited areas, deserts, etc.
Perhaps the collapse of civilization is inescapable. Maybe there is no way to make civilization sustainable, no way for us other than to follow the Sumerians, Greeks, Romans and Easter Islanders. But perhaps there is a way to lead a settled and materially comfortable lifestyle without destroying the land base. To save ourselves from a major crisis this is what we need to find out. Carrying on as we are albeit with green energy won't save us. We will need to come up with something completely new, something better than civilization as we know. Civilization is not the pinnacle of human existence; it can be bettered. If it is possible to exist in a materially comfortable, settled society without destroying our land-base, then we must find a way. But if it is impossible then brace for the worst because we will be heading down the same road as those who have gone before us. But this time the collapse of civilization will be a whole lot worse. This time the collapse of civilization will be a global catastrophe like nothing ever seen before.

What you're trying to say is that civilisation leads to greed and laziness; there is very little evidence to refute this.

In our case though we are forced to consume at a far greater level than we need or, I'd argue, we want. The current level of consumption is required to maintain the debt base monetary systems we have in place not only that but it will have to expand exponentially just to service the debt.

It is not resource shortage that will be our downfall but the unsustainability of the monetary system and the fact that, with our political system, there is no will to tackle the problem.

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  • 140 Brexit, House prices and Summer 2020

    1. 1. Including the effects Brexit, where do you think average UK house prices will be relative to now in June 2020?


      • down 5% +
      • down 2.5%
      • Even
      • up 2.5%
      • up 5%



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