10 October 2019

Successor States

History is continuous;  you can point to things, but it's long tangled skeins, rather than discrete blocks.

For practical purposes, here early in the 21st, we can look back at three great braided cables; the decision in the English marcher-state to base their economy on the products of loot (that is, you do some processing for value-add before shipping the loot); the decision by Winston Churchill to move the Royal Navy's dreadnought battleships to oil-fired boilers; and the decision to address the looming food shortage of the 1950s through opening the agricultural nutrients loop and adopting the mass use of pesticides.

This can descend into a lot of historical neepery; yes, a triangle trade where one leg is the rum slave labour produces from sugar slave labour produces from Caribbean sugar plantations is loot, anything you get from slavery is loot.  Power rests on maritime control because a machine economy hasn't got the possibility of autarchy and once you depend on trade strait control is power.  Navies give you strait control; oil-fired boilers really are superior to coal (three shifts of stokers are good for about 18 hours, tops, and then it's days before you can go full speed again; oil, even horrid sticky bunker oil, is pumped, and you can run at full speed until you run out of fuel) but the British Empire didn't have much oil, so it had to go get it.  The result is the 20th century's wars for control of colonial possessions becoming wars to control oil and the rise and hegemony of the United States, the one and only Oil Empire we're ever going to see.  Open-loop agriculture runs out of nutrients to add (see, for example, phosphate); it makes a horrid mess anywhere downstream; it destroys soil.  The pesticides drive mass extinction on the scale of a geologic epoch.  (no bugs is no birds, no bats, no pollinators; no pollinators is back to the Aptian in the Early Cretaceous, more than a hundred million years ago.  Nothing now living is adapted to such a world.)  It certainly wasn't the only way or the best way but it fit in well with an economy based on loot.  (That is, an economy built around guaranteeing you can keep the loot.)

Fossil carbon extraction is going to stop.

It may stop because we have a collective rush of sense to the head, or it may stop because agriculture breaks, taking industrial civilization with it.  But is is going to stop; sure as death, sure as fate.  No human thing can keep it from stopping.

No human thing can keep the temperature from going up two and a half degrees against baseline by 2100; that's the "everyone does everything immediately" climate change mitigation scenario from the IPCC, the very most we can now hope to do.  Somewhere in there, agriculture breaks.  ("rain in due season" is what agriculture depends on, that and six inches of dirt; climate change can be understood as water chaos; wrong time, wrong amount, too much, too little...)  When agriculture breaks, the last ten thousand years of civilization breaks with it.

The mass extinction -- the loss of pollinators, the loss of sufficient soil diversity, the whole "enough blocks out of the trophic web and it does the jenga thing and collapses" -- and the open-loop nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon cycles in the soil both each suffice to break agriculture all on their own.

So; we aren't keeping the civilizations of the Holocene.

Present politics, politics in our time, politics in as much time as there shall be to come; that's going to be about defining the successor states of human social organization.  That's going to start with "how are we going to eat?" and that does not presently have an answer.

It would be useful to insert "we need an answer about food" into politics, but that doesn't suffice the problem, because the social organization you get is what can keep the other social organizations from taking it over.  You have to win all those fights to copy yourself into the future.  So it becomes "how are we going to eat while creating ourselves into the future in the face of all opposition?"

We shall get an answer; all the current answers approximate to "you won't."

That could really do with going into politics.

1 comment:

Andre said...

Thanks for these. I spend a lot of time wondering why no one else is worried and doing something. Here at least I get comforted that I am right to worry... but that I should worry a lot more than I am able to.