Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gain maximization for a few Vs risk minimization for all: Choice that society will have to make to survive the 21st century

Sagar Dhara[1]

Impending crisis

Tipping points: We face three tipping points today, each with the potential to collapse human society. The first is peak oil which has the potential of triggering a deep global recession in the near future. Alternative energy sources—nuclear and green—show bleak prospect of becoming viable replacements. The second is global warming, which is predicted to drastically impact the environment, human health and livelihoods. Humans have wonked the carbon cycle to such an extent that it won’t get fixed for a long time to come. And the last is the recent rapid deterioration of the life support systems—land, water, air and biodiversity—the environment provides, as a consequence of its overuse.

Inequity: A continuous widening inequity—income, asset holding and energy consumption—has caused greater global instability and conflict.

Impacts: The likely impacts of the three tipping points are predicted to be very wide ranging:

· Rise in mortality and morbidity due to lack of work and consequent decrease in nutritional intake, spread of vector-borne diseases due to temperature rise, extreme weather events such as storms, floods, drought, and increased lawlessness;

· The creation of environmental exiles due to sea rise, drought, glacial lake outbursts, floods that will occur at increased frequency due to glacial melt, and extreme weather events;

· Loss of food and water security and increase in hunger due to temperature rise, precipitation and soil moisture changes, desertification, acidification of oceans and water bodies, and decrease in eco-system services as a consequence of degraded environment;

· Loss of forests and biodiversity due to energy price hikes, temperature and precipitation changes, increased incidence of forest fires, conversion of forests to other uses, and decrease in eco-system services as a consequence of degraded environment;

· Loss of employment and work opportunities due to energy price hikes and consequent disruption of the global economy;

· Disruption of the global social and political order and consequently increased lawlessness due to disruption of the global economy;

· Increase in global conflict due to growing inequity.

Outlook of class societies: Class society imbues the outlook of gain maximization for a few, and in its pursuit, energy resources have depleted to a point where energy throughputs in human society will shortly become unsustainable.

Collapse of capitalism: All three tipping points are consequences of overuse of nature’s energy resources (stealing energy from nature); and inequitable distribution of energy/eMergy resources, with the energy-haves extracting and accumulating eMergy from the energy-havenots (stealing energy from humans). Capitalism faces collapse in the near future not so much because it is threatened by socialism but more because over-use of energy resources the irreparable damage to the life-support systems.

The human project todate

Development drivers: Energy and knowledge are prime drivers of development. Like all living beings, humans require energy. Other beings take only that energy as is required for survival, and perish if the environment does not provide it. Humans have historically continuously increased their knowledge of energy conversion, and have colonized high energy yielding environments, and have migrated to new environments after either depleting them or to increase their energy holding.

Energetics of nature and society: Just as the energy flows in nature can explain its working, energy flows in human society helps explain how society functions.

Surplus generation: The basis for the generation of material surpluses created by humans lies in the net surplus energy that the sun (nuclear and geothermal energies are insignificant in comparison to the sun) provides, either as direct or indirect solar energy or embedded energy in fossil fuels. That is, the net eMergy in a product or service is greater than the input energy/ eMergy into it, the difference being provided by net solar energy. Larger harvests of solar energy yield higher surpluses.

Surplus extraction and accumulation: Privatization of energy resources—energy converters (human and animals included) and fuels is the device by which energy extraction and accumulation is effected in class society. Land, animals and humans (slaves) were the first set of energy converters to be privatized as they were the easiest to get energy from. Water was the next to privatized (that process is yet to be completed) as it is more difficult extract cheap energy from it. The Kyoto Protocol is an attempt to privatize the atmosphere not so much for energy extraction as for waste dumping. Higher surplus eMergy accumulation with energy-haves leads to greater influence over the state and control of natural resources.

Complex societies: As surplus energy increases, division of labour, habitat sizes and complexity of society increase. A critical ratio of energy surplus is necessary for societies to transit from one mode of production to the next one that is invariably more complex than the previous. Many complex societies that followed the outlook of gain maximization, had collapsed in the past, eg, Roman, Mayan, Polynesian, etc, as they no longer could garner sufficient energy throughputs from nature to sustain themselves and caused much misery and conflict throughout the history of class society.. We face the same prospect today.

Boundaries and nations: Boundaries have been drawn since ancient times to publicly stake claim to the energy and natural resources available within the bounded area. For a long time, boundaries remained fuzzy, but capitalism has necessitated defining of nation state boundaries more sharply.

State: The state is potential eMergy that is converted into kinetic eMergy to facilitate the outlook that it espouses. In class society, it is the extraction and accumulation of surplus energy/ eMergy by the class of the eMergy-haves that belongs to that state. Societies that attempted to transit from capitalism to socialism, eg, East European nations and China, but retained a large and powerful state, allowed the state (and those who operate it) rather than people to control energy resources.

Human conflict: All human conflict—between nations, societies, classes, ethnicities, gender, castes, colours, etc—is driven by human perception of the difference in access, control and use of energy/ eMergy between people. Historically, most conflicts were largely around the possession of lands that yielded high energy levels or over energy resources. Resource wars have been fought from time immemorial and have intensified recently.

Politics: Much of politics has revolved around the control of energy resources. Global politics in the last 150 years has been dominated by oil.

Risks and benefits: The benefits of eMergy accumulation have largely accrued to the eMergy-haves whereas the eMergy-havenots have faced higher health risks whether due to local causes (air pollution, vector-borne diseases) or global ones (global warming, financial meltdowns).

Continuity in modes of production: When energy is used as a basic category, rather than value, to understand class societies, there is greater continuity between various modes of production in the manner in which surplus energy was generated, extracted and accumulated.

Negentropy: The Second law of thermodynamics states that entropy must increase with time. However, nature has seemingly bucked this law by creating greater order by creating increasingly complex life forms. However, humans seem to be going against nature’s project on earth by expending fossil fuels at ever faster rates, thus increasing entropy.

Immediate tasks

A civilizational collapse implies that the foundations of social fabric will be shredded—rule of law, food and water security, health, education and other social services. Attrition in terms of human health and life would be very high. The first task is to minimize the ravages of the collapse of capitalism.. The second would be to vision a new society that would not repeat the mistakes that the previous one made. And the third task would be to chart out a roadmap to get there.

Visioning a new society

Risk minimization for all: All species, barring humans, do risk minimization and not gain maximization. Their energy abstraction from nature is only for survival. The outlook of gain maximization for a few needs to be replaced with risk minimization for all, ie, all humans face the same degree of risk, whether from natural or manmade causes. Such an outlook implies that we have power down and become an equitous society.

Powering down: A drastic powering down from the current 12,000 MToE global energy use is imperative. An immediate way of doing this by moving towards a borderless world that allows people to migrate freely from low energy yield to higher yield areas. This will obviate the need for standing armies that together expend energy equal to one million Hiroshima sized bombs annually. It also means that future energy must come from harvesting the sun.

Equity: Development, commonly understood is = growth + equity + social justice, has failed. Growth will not happen after a short while as energy will not be available to drive it. Trickledown theory has failed. The road to social justice is not very straight. The most basic equity is that of access, control and use over energy resources. For this people must have control over their environments, therefore their energy sources, without which neither equity nor democracy is possible. The key issue is how to get the energy-haves give up their energy guzzling ways and how to tackle the Jevons paradox. A future society must ensure that energy resources (converters and fuels) large concentrations of eMergy used for public purpose (not for individual consumption) cannot be privately owned. In the ultimate analysis, we have to decide whether we wish to have equity between people, generations or species.


Some questions: The roadmap for a new society is hazy. There are many questions for which there are no easy answers. A few of them are:

  • If we accept that humans are a part of nature and not apart from it, what should our relationship be with it?
  • How much energy can we take from nature without disturbing it?
  • How much eMergy accumulation is good for human society?
  • How do we equitously distribute eMergy?
  • How do we power down?
  • Which renewables will work best for an equitous and decentralized society?
  • How should we define per capita sustenance energy levels?
  • How do we restore control over natural resources to people?
  • How can technology down-sizing be done?
  • How can re-localization be done along with true internationalization (sans borders)?
  • How can population control be achieved without tackling poverty and inequity?
  • Is all knowledge good? Or should we voluntarily eschew such knowledge that increases entropy and encourage knowledge that decreases it?

Social transformation: It is in the interest of energy-havenots (working people and not working class only) to discard capitalism and move towards a new society. In many small pockets around the world common people have been opposing capitalism in different ways. One that is more prevalent is opposing new developmental projects that make them lose control of their land, which is their source of energy and security. These struggles tend to remain unlinked with others of their like. Social transformation should not be defined as merely abolishing a capitalist state and replacing it with a “socialist” state, but must include moving towards people’s control over natural and energy resources, and also living in harmony with nature. No single party (which itself is an example of potential eMergy) or organization lead or complete such a revolution. Only people can.

Violence: Throughout history, incalculable violence has been used against nature (we divert the equivalent energy of 16 million Hiroshima sized bombs away from nature every year) and humans (in the last century, interstate, colonial and civil wars were responsible for 100 million deaths). The essence of equity is being non-violent towards the other, be that human or nature, for there is nothing to derive forcibly from them. If equity is our goal, we will lose all moral authority if we use violent means—whether by using (or possessing the means to use) violence, or use the state to settle scores or extract something from the other. If one of the fundamental issues we face today is extreme inequity, to get to think and act equitously, we cannot use the same level of thinking as we did to become iniquitous. All social justice issues and social change must now be done in an absolutely non-violent manner.

[1] The author belongs to the most rapacious predator tribe that ever stalked the earth-humans, and to a net destructive discipline—engineering, that has to take more than a fair share of the responsibility for bringing earth and human society to an apocalypses. You may contact the author at

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