In my last post, we saw how a century-long trend of hyper-specialization has led us to where we are today, which has come with many benefits and tradeoffs. One of those tradeoffs is a false sense of security.
In this post and the next, we will look at some of the many hidden risks in the key systems of human civilization that could undermine the entire house of cards within a decade or two. In the final post of this series, we will discuss the steps you can take to insure yourself against these risks.
Before we dive into these hidden risks, it is crucial to understand the concept of Black Swans as popularized by Nassim Nicolas Taleb.
Black Swans are massive, unpredictable events that forever change the direction of history. An excellent example of a Black Swan is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. After the event has passed, “experts” claim that they predicted it. As they are unpredictable, what’s the point of talking about them? Well, it turns out that while we cannot predict what the Black Swan event will be, we can try to understand the probability that a system is subject to a Black Swan by understanding how fragile, resilient or antifragile a system is.
Fragile systems break when subject to volatility, resilient systems resist breaking, and antifragile systems require volatility. We can use these three classifications to understand how black swan prone a system is. We do this by classifying if it is fragile, resilient or antifragile. Understanding this gives us the tools to look at the technological systems that underpin the very existence of our 21st-century technological civilization through the lens of fragility/antifragility and black swans.
Fragility Embedded in Key Systems
Before we continue here are some definitions.
Fragile systems break with volatility: Think of wine glasses
Resilient systems resist volatility: Think of concrete
Antifragile systems require dose-dependent volatility to remain healthy, and suffer without it: Think of the human body. Weightlifters vs. couch potato armchair quarterbacks.
The major foundation blocks (systems) of civilization are the following;
Energy systems: The aggregate of electric grids, oil & gas extraction, refineries, coal, nuclear, hydro, biomass, solar and wind that make up the global energy system.
Food systems: The aggregate of large and small farms, food processing logistics, retailers and consumers.
Water systems: Industrial, commercial and municipal water systems that feed irrigation projects, industry and city infrastructure. These sources include glaciers, rivers, streams, lakes and groundwater.
Waste systems: The systems that manage human waste, including landfills, small and large sewage systems and recycling systems.
Shelter systems: How humans currently create buildings and shelter globally.
Transportation systems: The aggregate of infrastructure that moves everything from people, commercial products, and industrial materials on road, rail, sea and sky.
I would have to write a book to uncover all of these systems’ embedded risks. Instead in this blog and the next, I have chosen to highlight the significant risks that I can see within a selection of these systems to make the point that they are fragile and at risk of collapse should a black swan arrive.
Given that I am biased, as we all are, I guarantee I have missed important risks. However, if you understand the concept of black swans, it is less important to understand specific risks and more critical to understand the system’s state of resilience or lack thereof. If this blog resonates with you, I recommend you conduct a personal risk assessment to come to your own conclusions. If you complete this exercise, you need to:
1) understand how dependent you are on a specific system
2) then determine how resilient, fragile or antifragile the system is
3) identify the consequence of that system breaking down
4) design solutions or insurance policies to deal with a potential shock
Said another way:
If you depend on the system and it is fragile, it is worth doing something about it.
If you don’t need what the system provides and it is fragile, move on.
If the system is antifragile and you are dependent on it, move on.
If the system is antifragile and you don’t depend on it, move on.
Here is a matrix to help you conduct your assessment. I have filled it out for our context to help you think through the different scenarios.
It is fascinating to recognize that while we can delineate each of the systems, services or products in specific systems, all of them have been designed around the unlimited supply of oil and gas. This is why oil and gas represent the lynchpin of everything we depend on within 21st-century human civilization.
Peak Oil and Gas
Oil and gas represent the lynchpin of modern civilization. The first oil was discovered by Colonel Drake in Pennsylvania in 1859 and later at Spindrop in Texas in 1901. Since then, society has designed and built everything around this incredibly energy-dense fuel source. To put it in perspective a single barrel of oil contains roughly 25,000 man-hours of labour. At the cost of $100/barrel, the marginal cost of labour is approximately $0.004/hour.
This is the reason that:
- most houses are designed with lots of lipstick and little insulation, using copious amounts of energy to make up for their poor thermal envelopes
- our vehicles are more concerned about heated seats, mirrors and built-in robotic chair masseuses than fuel economy
- people can choose vegan diets that depend on coconut oil, avocados, mangos and out-of-season fruit from the global south
- businesses invest in automation and robotics that turn fossil fuel into almost free labour
- energy parasitic mega-cities can exist where no food is grown or energy is captured, requiring vast amounts of land and infrastructure just to keep it operational
In reality, our modern society depends entirely on cheap fossil fuels. Nate Hagens states in his mini-documentary “The Great Simplification” that GDP and energy are 99% correlated. Said another way, our modern way of life ceases to exist without cheap fossil fuel.
The 21st-century oil and gas grid is roughly two times larger in energy output than the electrical grid. In addition, most electricity is generated by combusting oil, gas, coal and the fission of nuclear fuels. There are exceptions; places like British Columbia and Finland, for example, generate most of their power from Hydro. By and large, though, the majority of energy globally results from the transformation of fossil resources.
Source: Our World In Data
Society in Transition
Society is in the middle of trying to change this story through ideas like the 4th Industrial Revolution, The Net Zero Agenda, De-Carbonization and The Green New Deal. These ideas are based around
- the digitization of everything
- big data
- electrification of everything
- AI and machine learning
While these trends will grow and humanity will endeavour to move into this new paradigm, there is a genuine risk that we will not be able to attain this vision due to the sheer scale of the problem and a sheer lack of resources. In a recent paper, Dr. Simon Micheaux clearly shows that replacing fossil fuels with renewables is physically impossible. The table below is an excerpt from that report. It indicates the years required to mine the material for one generation of energy technology units to replace the fossil fuel system. This first generation of technology includes wind, solar, hydro, tidal and geothermal.
Source: European Trade Union Institute
The people telling the story of how humanity will kick its fossil fuel addiction got the first line of math wrong, and a new story needs to be told, one that is based on reality.
One of the big trends in the de-carbonization space is the electrification of transportation and the heating and cooling of buildings. The theory behind this is that electricity can come from renewables, so it has the potential to be green and free of carbon. The challenge is the power grid would need to be at least two times bigger, and the volume of raw materials to build the new renewables infrastructure, as Dr. Michaux puts it, does not exist. While renewable growth is explosive right now, it is barely keeping up with the growth in energy consumption. As stated in this CNBC article, as well as this CNBC article, and less directly, this IEA article, while growth in renewables is growing at record rates, “The rise in the renewable energy that’s available is still lower than the rise in global energy demand overall.”
Four Future Scenarios
Some might argue that this line of thinking is overly simplistic and that new technologies will use different materials to improve the development outlook in the medium and long term. This may be the case; however, we must remember that replacing the volume of global energy we currently use with carbon-free sources will be immense and difficult. For this reason, I think that a more nuanced look at this transition can be seen in David Holmgren’s work on Future Scenarios.
Add Future Energy Scenarios chart here.
I like this approach as it does not rule out the techno-fantasy world presented in our current narrative. Rather, it looks at four distinct potentialities and the probability of each happening. A good risk management approach understands multiple potential outcomes and how you will manage each one of those scenarios should they come to pass. Holmgren provides four potential outcomes with data to support the probability of each on his Future Scenarios website.
1) Techno-Explosion: This is the narrative we are hearing right now. This story asks us to trust in technology as it will save us. The problem with these energy prophets is that they tend to gloss over the laws of thermodynamics and the finite nature of the planet. Usually, when challenged with these facts, they deflect the questions by saying that we will mine asteroids or the deep sea. This story allows us to continue the fundamentally broken financial paradigm of debt-based fiat money systems.
2) Techno-Stability: This narrative states that we will stop growth, re-orient our monetary systems to adapt to a steady state or degrowth economy and maintain the status quo. This would require a new financial system, a different approach to business, and a new way of allocating resources. It would likely see the precipitous fall of most global commodities.
3) Energy Descent: This story is rooted in peak resource theory and looks at thermodynamics honesty. Dr. Michaux and Dr. Haggins argue that civilization needs to move from a 19 TerraWatt Civilization (Our current energy production) to a 5 TerraWatt Civilization. Every year our total energy output would drop, and we would need to find new ways of meeting our needs with less. A great case study of this was documented in the movie “The Community Solution: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”
4) Collapse: This story is the most pessimistic and sees civilization falling off an energy cliff much the same way that the Romans did when they ran out of slaves to operate their civilization, as described by Andrew Nikaforuk in his book “The Energy of Slaves”.
The truth is, no one knows which of these outcomes will come to pass.
I have often wondered how an intelligent, forward-thinking government would manage an energy descent like we are approaching. Almost no one in present-day civilization ever thinks about the energy required to move around in cars. When an entrepreneur wants to start a business, they don’t contemplate if there will be enough power or fuel to operate their enterprise; they assume that whatever energy they need to operate will magically appear as required. We know from the pandemic that when an announcement is publicly made that there is a shortage of a product, panic buying is the result. Toilet paper was the most infamous example of 2020 that we can all remember.
What would happen if governments admitted to the inevitable decline of fossil fuels? How would society react?
This is why our governments will do anything in their power to avoid dealing with this problem directly. They will use other messaging techniques to focus our attention on other issues that achieve similar results without admitting that we are running out. One leads to chaos and panic buying; the other has the chance of unifying and creating solidarity.
In the end, it’s up to you to put probabilities to each of the outcomes David Holmgren has laid out in his Future Scenarios document and manage the risks you see accordingly. Michelle and I are betting on somewhere between techno-stability and energy descent. If we are wrong and head toward techno explosion, we will be in great shape from an energy perspective. If it is worse and we end up in full collapse, I am not sure that many of us will be able to ride out a full-scale collapse as described in the book/movie “The Road”.
When determining your approach to creating your energy-descent insurance plan, it is crucial to understand the dosage of chaos you intend to prepare for. You need to be realistic and recognize that, at some point, the cost-benefit of preparing for certain scenarios does not pay. It’s a dark thing to consider but one that you only need to consider once so that you can continue living your life, ideally without dwelling on that scenario.
Fragility Embedded in Energy Grids
Public-private partnerships were created in order to build these large and complex grids. This allowed the companies and governments to manage the construction and operational risks associated with this type of infrastructure. These systems were designed to provide low-cost energy at scale while allowing the investors to get a return on investment. The result of this construction mode is the centralized grid architecture we now rely on.
Centralization embedded fragility in its DNA, which we saw on August 14 2003 when 21 central power plants went offline, leaving 50 million power consumers out of power for days.1 Eighteen years later, a series of winter storms froze the Texas energy grid,2 creating a cascading disaster3 with millions of Texans without power, water, or food for days: up to 700 people died as a result.
This could happen again, and in fact, some are even predicting it. A quick Google search “the state of the North American power grid” returned hundreds of results warning about the stability of the grid in its current state. As vehicles and home heating transition to electric, the grid will be placed under unprecedented stress, which will only increase over time as we transition fossil infrastructure to electrical infrastructure.
These fragilities remain baked into the system and could spawn new large-scale outages, many of which have come close to happening in many regions across North America.
One of the main issues with these outages is most of our critical infrastructure is designed to use just-in-time power. Fridges, freezers and heating systems all operate on thermostats that tell our devices to turn on when specific setpoints are reached. These devices are designed with the assumption that the power is available whenever it is called upon. When grids are over-taxed, brownouts or outages occur, which wreak havoc on these devices. Many of these devices have complex microprocessors that require stable, clean power to remain operational. Surges, changes in frequency and outages are not good for their longevity. If our grids do become less stable a lot of the equipment we have built will be rendered far less useful.
Is Nuclear the Solution?
Nuclear is often touted as the solution to growing our grid and transitioning off of fossil fuels; however, at least four major issues preclude nuclear from providing civilization respite from its energy woes.
1) There is a finite amount of uranium, and dramatically scaling this would force the depletion of this finite mineral ever faster.
2) It takes close to 15-20 years to build a nuclear plant; currently, the world only builds around 1.5 plants per year. These plants have an expected life span of 30 years.
3) Nuclear power represents 10.1%4. Given the slow development curve for new nuclear plants, it is impossible to replace what we currently use, which accounts for 3% growth and provides enough capacity to electrify heating and transportation.
4) There are massive end-of-life issues associated with nuclear fission that still need to be solved. This includes long cooling periods for spent fuel requiring stable energy to run cooling pumps for many years and long-term safe storage.
For an in-depth analysis of why nuclear will not save our bacon, refer to Nate Hagens’ video covering Dr. Simon Michaux’s work on Mineral Blindness.
In my next post, I will look at the embedded risks in our food, water, waste, and shelter systems.
Further information & articles to consider: