Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The Knife Edge Universe, Complexity, and Collapse

After the Big Bang, the universe evolved on a knife edge. If it had expanded a little faster, it would have been an explosion producing the rapid dissipation of the infant universe. If it had gone just a tad slower, it would have collapsed back on itself. What we have is the perfect rate of expansion, sustaining the miracle of the known universe, including our galaxy, our sun, and us, at the midpoint of the turning world.

Civilization also exists on the knife edge. If you leave out the scattered indigenous tribes and the subsistent poor, the rest of us are hugely dependent upon an extremely complex system whose interconnecting parts must function exceedingly efficiently just for us to be fed, housed, and maintain optimum living temperatures. As most of you realize by now, this is made possible by fossil fuels, with petroleum the wonder fuel that has made it all possible. If the US trucking fleet were grounded for three days, food would rapidly disappear from the supermarket shelves, and most people wouldn't know where to get more. But the “petroleum interval” (Thomas Berry) is rapidly drawing to a close, with nothing on the horizon to replace the luxury it afforded us.

Peak Oil is now accepted even by the oil industry (though the exact time is under debate. I simply note here that production has held steady now for four years, while demand has continued to increase rapidly). Shrewd observers now speak of Peak Everything, and the necessity to constantly organize it on the knife-edge produces a high likelihood for collapse. The funny thing is, we've gotten so used to it functioning this way (those of us, now two generations, who didnt' know the Depression or WWII rationing) that we've become complacent. This is just the way it is. Though politicians have moved slowly, responding more to lobbyists than policy analysts, business is positioning itself to respond to the inevitable, in some cases even lobbying for cap and trade, which could well be the next boondoggle, certainly ripe for a derivatives market. Meanwhile the public is an uneducated cheerleader for the corporation making the slickest ads, sleepwalking through the supermarket on a knife's edge.

There is not much room to maneuver. We could make transport fuel by liquifying coal, as Germany did during WWII, but that would add to the already intolerable carbon burden of the earth system, and hasten Peak Coal. The same would be true if we went to a substantially electric vehicle system, since coal is the main source of electricity. Nuclear power plants, for which I have previously argued, might help make up the gap, but they are prohibitively expensive to be built in enough quantity or fast enough for us to stay on the knife-edge of our present lifestyle. Another huge factor slowing down nuclear expansion is the lack of trained engineers. Talk about complexity!

“But we can do it all with renewables,” progressives cry. By 2030, we are on a pathway to fulfilling 15% of our power needs with renewables (including hydropower, which is close to maxed out in the developed world). But the crucial factor here, pointed out by James Kunstler, and now Sharon Astyk (see next post), is that all that hardware has to be built from a platform powered by fossil fuels. We can only build a modest first generation of renewables with the remnant of fossil-powered energy. Going from that 15% to a “sustainable” steady state simply isn't possible. Without fossil fuels, how will my solar panels be replaced when they start to give out after 20 years?

We live on a knife-edge, and each moment is a miracle. The Shaivites insist that the universe is created and destroyed every moment. The point is standard Vedanta: the Creator/Self is all that exists, and the self, world, and supposed deities are all projections, all Maya. So there are two ways to leave the knife-edge universe. One is through the heat-death of matter-energy, with other interesting exit points like the Singularity I wrote about a few posts back. The other is simply to shut down the whole projection by re-immersing with the Self who made and continues to make the world, the epiphenomenal dance of Shiva and Maya.

The complex dance is now habitual. Just paying attention would reveal the miraculous nature of it all. Real or unreal, there is an alternative to the dizzying speed and complexty of modernist society, and it would be a solution to the twin peaks, Peak Commodities and the Towering Tsunami of Climate Change, hovering over our unprotected heads. Collapse would bring on involuntary simplicity. And if it comes soon enough, the complexity of natural systems would have a chance to reassert itself after being increasingly usurped by the complexity of human technology. If it comes too late, then the knife-edge within which we enjoy the miracle of material existence will finally implode, leaving the possibility of evolving higher life and consciousness to other places in the universe.

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