Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Apocalypse Soon: Are the Four Horsemen About to Ride?

There is a growing consensus among people who pay attention to reality (e.g. biologists, climate scientists, geologists, agriculture and energy experts, etc.) that the human species is facing an epic population bottleneck some time in this century, perhaps even in the next few decades. This bottleneck -- or "die-off", as we doomers like to call it -- may begin in some parts of the world within the next few years as global food and capital supplies tighten, but the really apocalyptic scenarios probably won't play out for some time yet. Nevertheless, for those of you who expect to be around for at least another two or three decades, it's never too early to start preparing for what is shaping up to be the mother of all peaks -- the Peak of Human Population.

Historically, die-offs have been caused by the big three of human mortality: pestilence, war and famine. If we add a fourth, “death”, to encompass natural disasters and the combined effects of the other three, we have the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” prophecied in the Book of Revelation. As we follow the increasingly dire news coming out of every corner of the globe, these Four provide useful metrics for gauging our approach to the looming Malthusian tribulations. Let’s see where they stand as of the Spring ‘09:

Has the First Horseman already left the stable?

White Horse (Pestilence):

The First Horseman may already be on the move, galloping out of Mexico City and vectoring in on mega-cities worldwide. If the current swine flu outbreak accelerates, look for borders to close and air travel to shut down, potentially taking several trillion dollars out of a global economy already on life support. Even if we dodge the bullet this time, public health experts agree that it’s just a matter of time before another super plague like the Spanish Flu visits mass death upon our dangerously globalized world.

Red Horse (War):

This sword-wielding rider heralds war, and oh boy is he getting restless in his stable. In addition to the obvious conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the apocalyptic threats of an Israel-Iran conflagration and nuclear-armed Pakistan falling to the Taliban, we have the new Great Game for resource supremacy in Central Asia, Africa and the Arctic, the always dangerous North Koreans rattling atomic sabers, while the Japanese discuss developing a nuclear arsenal and even the Australians quietly plan for a massive military buildup.

Together these developments look quite ominous, and provide one more disturbing parallel with the 1930’s. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see where these military tensions may be leading: global resource wars, apocalyptic religious conflicts and World War III. The primary difference this time, of course, is that at least nine nations have nuclear weapons, with several more seeking to join the club. Armed for Armageddon, will human civilization even survive another World War? Many leading doomers are understandably pessimistic, including Jay Hanson, who recently predicted global nuclear war within 14 years.

Is this how we will knock down the statues of our global Easter Island?

Black Horse (Famine):

The Third Horseman is now stirring from his slumber after several decades of agricultural growth and historically low levels of world hunger kept him in his stall. Signs of looming food shortages have been appearing worldwide in the past few years in the form of food riots, bans on food exports and rising prices. Global grain stocks are at all-time lows, and have been falling steadily for a decade. Barring several techno-miracles, there is little doubt that this rider will be much busier in the decades ahead as petroleum production winds down and the world’s climate destabilizes. Optimists pin their hopes on genetically modified food crops, which they hope can duplicate the miracle of the Green Revolution that allowed the population to more than double in the past fifty years by eating fossil fuels. But one has to question the sanity of such people, given the rate at which soils are eroding, fresh water is being depleted, oceans are dying and deserts are expanding. Scientists may find a way to stave off the black horse for a little while longer, but it's difficult to see how they can continue to refute Malthus past mid-century in the face of these converging environmental crises.

Pale Horse (Death):

The Fourth Horseman is an all-purpose Reaper, the harbinger of a general die-off that will accompany the three previous afflictions. If we include in his arsenal "beasts of the earth" such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and floods, all of which are expected to increase in frequency in a world thrown out of balance by climate change, we have the last piece of the apocalyptic puzzle. The combined effect is described in the Bible this way:

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." -- Revelation 6:8

So if you believe Biblical prophecy, the Four Horsemen will kill one quarter of mankind during the coming Tribulations. That may sound unpleasant, but it's a fairly rosy forecast compared to the 90%+ figures that are being thrown around by scientists like James Lovelock and Erik Pianka. Other prophetic traditions speak of earthly horrors on a similar scale, slated to begin any day now. The disturbing fact is that the spiritual and scientific outlooks for the near future appear to be converging, and both point to a time of apocalyptic change for which we have few reference points.

Of course a great many people, even within the doomer camp, dismiss these predictions of apocalypse as science fictional fantasies or religious fairy tales. John Michael Greer calls it the “Myth of Apocalypse”, the mirror image of the "Myth of Progress", and offers the alternative model of a Long Descent. But this doesn’t change the fact that apocalypses do happen, and have occurred numerous times in the historical and geological past. When the human population was reduced to perhaps fifteen thousand around 73000 B.C.E. as a result of the Lake Toba super-volcano, surely this near-extinction event would qualify as an apocalypse by any standard. The Black Plague of Medieval Europe killed a third of that continent’s population, and the coming of Europeans to the New World was certainly apocalyptic for the native peoples they encountered there. And today, with the human population nearing 7 billion and most of the complex systems that support it approaching breaking points, how can anyone dismiss the possibility of an apocalypse in our time? A quick glance at a population graph shows that humans have multiplied like yeast in a wine vat since the dawn of the industrial age, and like yeast we can expect to die off catastrophically if we aren’t able to stop consuming our planetary ecosphere at an exponential rate.

The human population explosion: are we nearing the Peak?

All is not hopeless, however. In the wealthiest, most industrialized nations, birth rates have now dropped to sub-replacement levels, perhaps a sign that on some primordial level our problems are self-correcting. This means that the ongoing population explosion is now almost entirely a problem of Third World cultures that are unwilling or unable to control their breeding. Since the First World is massively subsidizing this overpopulation in the form of food, medical and financial aid and liberal immigration policies, one obvious way to curb the problem would be to end these subsidies and let nature take its course. Unfortunately, we are stuck in a humanitarian/religious paradigm that makes such Malthusian prescriptions politically difficult, and will only exacerbate the problems until more drastic measures become necessary. Examples of such measures include genetically modified food that causes sterilization, biological warfare, genocidal conventional wars or even culling by nuclear weapons. These ideas might seem beyond the pale now, but as the Four Horsemen ride out across the land and start claiming the fat citizens of the First World, we can expect every option to be put on the table.

The stresses of Third World population overshoot are already being felt in the form of immigration crises, failed-state terrorism, surging crime and military police actions in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Mexico. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As we move closer to the Peak of Human Population in this century, and as the number of failed states and "useless eaters" multiplies, we may find ourselves siding with the Four Horsemen out of sheer self-preservation. For when the citizens of more affluent nations face millions of starving refugees flooding across their borders and an eroding quality of life at home, they may decide that controlled die-off is the best outcome they can hope for on a planet that has come to resemble a giant, yeast-infected wine vat.

There is one more hopeful thought to consider amidst all this talk of imminent death and destruction. Biologists tell us that evolutionary leaps are most likely to occur during population bottlenecks, when genetic drift among a reduced population can produce new species in just a few generations in response to environmental stresses. In the cultural sphere, innovations such as the emergence of agriculture are thought to have occured in response to the cataclysmic climate changes that followed the last Ice Age. Given the environmental stresses that humanity will soon be facing, perhaps this new Apocalypse will bring the revolutionary changes our species appears to need if it is to continue to live and prosper in a world for which our rapacious primate brains and cultures no longer seem particularly well adapted.

Will the coming bottleneck enable the next evolutionary leap?

Friday, April 17, 2009

A New World Order or Global Anarchy?

As we watch the world unravel into various warring factions, from the supra-national struggle for petro-supremacy on down to sub-state guerrilla, terrorist and criminal insurgencies, I'm starting to come around to the wisdom of the "New World Order" agenda that so many conspiracy theorists like to rant about. According to the tinfoil hatters, the world is secretly being manipulated by an Illuminati of international financiers, European royalty, globalist politicians and other diabolical puppet masters with a master plan to depopulate the planet and bring about one world government. Given the likely alternative, which Robert Kaplan so brilliantly described in his essay The Coming Anarchy, this NWO of global techno-fascism is sounding better and better every day.

Tribal anarchy in Kenya -- a preview of what awaits the entire world?

The inconvenient truth is that the global nature of the world’s problems in the 21st century will require global solutions, which can only be implemented with some kind of supra-national enforcement mechanism – i.e. global governance. Unless you are in the camp that denies the reality of global warming, peak oil, overpopulation, dying oceans, soil erosion, fresh water depletion, et al – i.e. you deny all limits to growth on a finite planet – it is difficult to see how you can avoid the conclusion that a world police force with teeth (not the impotent debating society known as the United Nations) will soon be necessary as these problems become more dire. By "police force with teeth" I mean a government that can forcibly relocate citizens, allocate resources, limit environmental footprints and control reproduction in a way that maximizes human survival and welfare. If the free market can't solve these problems effectively (and all the evidence seems to indicate that it has only made them much worse), and if the alternative is a descent into the Malthusian chaos of resource wars, famine and disease, then the choice would seem to be an easy one. On a more philosophical level, if we take a progressive view of human civilization, doesn’t the case seem rather compelling that global government is the next logical step in the social evolution of our species up from hunter-gatherer tribes?

As chilling and disturbing as the idea of global dictatorship may be, I find the prospect of a descent into Rwanda- or Congo-style slaughter much worse. In the NWO scenario at least, civilization can be maintained in some form, even if many of the freedoms that we now take for granted must be curtailed. In the “machete moshpits” world of Malthusian anarchy that already exists in many parts of the globe, there is neither freedom nor wealth nor justice for anyone – just a grim struggle for survival and a new Dark Age. This is the world that awaits us all, if you believe the likes of Robert Kaplan and Lester Brown, unless some way can be found to impose order on a planet rapidly spinning out of control.

Does one-child China point the way toward the sustainable global society of the future?

One model for what a future global government might look like is provided by the People’s Republic of China, already home to one sixth of the world’s people. In China, where the problems of overpopulation and resource limits have long been central facts of life, harsh measures have been taken to limit population which many people find morally repugnant. But the fact that the PRC, alone among the world’s nations, has been able to take this dramatic step speaks volumes about China’s leadership role in meeting the challenges of a resource limited world. For Americans to call China’s one child policy immoral in a nation of octo-moms says more about the philosophical cul-de-sac we find ourselves in than any moral high ground we may think we inhabit. In the foreign policy arena as well, China demonstrates a clear understanding that access to natural resources such as oil, minerals, water and arable land will trump moral concerns in the negative-sum world of the 21st century. China is willing to do business with virtually any regime, even a genocidal one, if the country has resources they need. Again, we may object to their willingness to violate humanitarian principles in meeting their objectives, but is any nation going to act differently when the choice is between immorality and starvation? For me China’s brutal realpolitik approach to acquiring resources is a preview of the direction every nation must go that can’t control its growth in the coming environment of global scarcity.

What about free market capitalism and Jeffersonian democracy, you ask? Well, that was all well and good for the fledgling America of 1776, when an entire continent had yet to be stripped of its resources, paved over and fully populated. But for the frontierless USA of 2009, and even more so for the overcrowded nations of much of the world, this ideology of infinite growth and libertarianism is an absurd fantasy that must be abandoned. There is simply no physical way, on a planet that has already overshot its sustainable ecological limits several times over, to bring China, India and the rest of the "developing" world to an American standard of living. The current economic collapse is probably nature’s way of telling us this loud and clear – "you must control yourselves" seems to be the overriding message, even if the leaders of the industrialized world still think this is just a temporary setback, the solution to which is "stability, growth, jobs".

As we watch the dream of globalist neo-liberalism go down in flames, we appear to have reached a fork in the road of human civilization. One road leads to global anarchy, resource wars and uncontrolled die-off. Another leads to a New World Order of global socialism, population control and authoritarian stability, modeled perhaps after the PRC. A third road may lead back to the religious feudalism of the Caliphate, Catholicism, Hindu fundamentalism and Buddho-fascism. While none of these paths may sound particularly attractive to those of us who have grown up believing in the myth of progress, if there’s another viable alternative I’d love to know what it is because I'm having a hard time seeing it. And as much as I’d like to think that I can hold my own in the war of all against all, when the proverbial SHTF I’ll probably cast my lot with the New World Order like everyone else and calmly await the arrival of the black helicopters, knowing that it’s the best of a bad set of choices in a world gone mad.

Will you resist a New World Order or welcome it as a refuge from the coming anarchy?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Death of the West, or a Return to Barbarism?

Muslims protesting British troops on the streets of London -- the Death of the West in a single picture?

When you survey the global situation with an objective eye, one thing that should jump out at you is the fact that the world is still for the most part about warring tribes, advancing or retreating through military, economic, religious and cultural struggle. This is the uncomfortable truth about our species that globalists in the West work so hard to deny: human beings organize themselves around tribes and other primary loyalty groups, and our lasting political structures are defined by what we are willing to fight for, not what we are willing to buy. Almost everyone will fight for family, tribe, religion or homeland; few will fight for abstractions like democracy, free markets, the European Union or the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately for the governments of the westernized world, this means that motivation and loyalty is always going to be problematic. Our fighters are professional soldiers, not holy warriors; our leaders are technocrats, not mullahs. Pakistan is a case in point: the Taliban have powerful primary loyalties to Islam and tribe driving them, while the regular Pakistani soldiers have military bureaucracy and an IMF-sponsored paycheck. Which side would you put your money on to prevail at this point?

The civilized world has a word for tribal warriors like those who are currently overrunning the Western-backed government of Pakistan: barbarians. The great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun viewed all of history as cycles of rising and falling of such barbarian tribes. As Wikipedia describes his theory:

Perhaps the most frequently cited observation drawn from Ibn Khaldūn's work is the notion that when a society becomes a great civilization (and, presumably, the dominant culture in its region), its high point is followed by a period of decay. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers the diminished civilization is, by comparison, a group of barbarians. Once the barbarians solidify their control over the conquered society, however, they become attracted to its more refined aspects, such as literacy and arts, and either assimilate into or appropriate such cultural practices. Then, eventually, the former barbarians will be conquered by a new set of barbarians, who will repeat the process.

According to this model then, the future always belongs to the barbarians. In the West, where we have systematically waged war against our barbarians for centuries, we have largely succeeded in creating a population of docile, refined citizens who are ill-equipped to defend themselves against today's barbarian assaults. The last remaining barbarian holdouts in the United States have largely been brought to heel, though the frontier spirit dies hard in rural America, and even in that poster child of urban decay, Detroit. The best illustration of where this civilizing trend leads is modern western Europe, where all military engagement is viewed with distaste and the preference has long been to let America, which still retains some vestiges of barbaric spirit, do the bulk of its fighting. But without a barbaric spirit of its own, Europe is a civilization in obvious decline, its population shrinking, its societies slowly being conquered from within by Islamic and immigrant populations who have not yet been domesticated by European civilization. If current trends continue, it is not difficult to see that Europe will cease to exist as a distinct and powerful civilization some time in the next century. As elsewhere, and in accordance with Khaldun’s theory, Europe will belong to the next wave of barbarians.

Is this the spirit that can save Western civilization?

We therefore come to the rather paradoxical conclusion that in order to save itself, Western civilization may need to become less civilized and more barbaric. The stifling political and legal institutions that have been erected to keep Westerners domesticated may have to come down, or their civilization may fall to barbarians for the same reason Rome's did 1600 years ago: internal decay. This time, however, the conquering barbarians won’t be Germanic tribes, but non-European muslims, who will impose a very different kind of civilization from the one Europeans are accustomed to.

The good news, if you would like to see Western civilization continue in some form, is that such an institutional collapse appears to be exactly what is happening. The existing order, with its pervasive media apparatus and financial leverage, is rapidly going bankrupt, both economically and morally. The globalists who are clinging to power in the Western world by their fingernails, with their empty promises of “stability, growth and jobs” and a “new world order,” must look increasingly delusional to a population that appears to be finally starting to wake up. No doubt a last-ditch effort will be made to prop up the globalist order with stimulus packages and heavy-handed restrictions on the restive citizens of Western nations, but without popular legitimacy and with no means to revive economic growth it seems unlikely that they can succeed where the Communists failed in decades past.

"Stability, Growth, Jobs", or "Desperation, Greed, Fear"?

If I had to make a prediction then, I would guess that a huge upsurge in nationalism and populism is just around the corner as globalism melts down and the worldwide Depression deepens. Immigrants and hostile religious groups may face persecution and expulsion as scapegoats for a globalist order that threatened to sacrifice every culture and religion on the altar of international capitalism. But when the dust settles, and the world has re-localized and re-tribalized, will its citizens be worse off or better? Ex-banker Gordon Brown would have you believe that we are at risk of a “damaging spiral of de-globalization.” But one has to ask: damaging for whom exactly, other than the small class of plutocrats like Brown who have profited so handsomely from globalization's imposition? Will the sweatshop workers, displaced farmers and fishermen-turned-pirates of the Third World mourn globalization’s passing? Will the Westerners who are losing their livelihoods to unchecked outsourcing and immigration mourn its passing? Has our quality of life really improved under globalization, and is our planetary ecosystem any less degraded? The answer to all of these questions, it seems to me, is a resounding no!

The big picture then, in the early spring of 2009, appears to be an imminent worldwide revolt against global capitalism, from Chiapas to China to Pakistan and now finally to the capitals of the Western world. Is the advancing line of control of "tribal areas" in Pakistan a metaphor for a retreating global civilization? Does a Taliban takeover of Pakistan, whose westernized elites are clinging to power by the barest of threads, herald a greater defeat for westernized elites throughout the world? Does the current orgy of plutocratic looting of Western treasuries mark the beginning of an exodus of the global elites from civil society, who will take their ill-gotten gains and run to faraway compounds like rats fleeing a sinking ship? Let's hope so, and if so good riddance to them all. Without these parasites collapse can proceed swiftly, and the people they have plundered will be free to do what they have always done to re-vitalize themselves: return to barbarism.

Is Pakistan a microcosm of the receding "line of control" of Western civilization?
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