The Adrastia organisation works on the overcoming of humanity’s climax. Facing this unavoidable decline, Adrastia intends to provide scientific and social information and thinking, about the big economical and environmental issues, « to better anticipate the systemic degradation of our environment ».
We interviewed its president Vincent Mignerot, about the illusion of an eternal development, and the forthcoming collapse.
In french : Le Comptoir
Translation : Yves Bodson, Leïla Riguet
Le Comptoir :
On the beginning of your manifesto, you said, I quote : “the peak of availability, of all the resources necessary to our survival, has been crossed”. Could you briefly expose the arguments underlying this observation ?
Vincent Mignerot :
Until the eighteenth century, humanity evolved filling its needs by the exploitation, almost exclusively of raw materials, and energetic resources – animal, vegetable, mineral, hydraulic, and wind – available on earth. However, the growth of utilisation of coal and oil pushed us to dig deeper in the ground to fulfil our needs. We moved from a bi-dimensional interaction with environment, to a three-dimensional one.
But the act of digging, to extract the resources is subject to physical constraints that we can summarize like this : “the more we dig, the harder it will be to continue to dig”. The extraction of everything that allows a good functioning of our economy, from hydrocarbons to metals, is leading to a bottleneck : the cost of research for energy and raw materials is everyday higher, because the strains made are higher everyday. Experts call it Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) or Energy Return On Investment (EROI).
Besides, the exploitation of a deposit always goes through two periods with very different characteristics: a first one, during which the volume extracted increases every day and reaches a “peak” (the Hubbert peak), a second one, during which the volume decreases continually.
We are witnessing nowadays the junction of two limiting factors in our exploitation of the environment in 3D : on one hand the EROEI can only be decreasing, and on the other hand, the getting over of many peaks, in particular for all conventional oils – whose peak occurred in 2006 – which form the basis of the economic performance of our societies. It is on these models widely used now, and especially on measures that corroborate them, that we ground our arguments to say that the “peak” of availability of all resources necessary for our existence has been crossed.
“Physics tells us that energy, is a measurement unit of the possibility of transformation of a system.”
Are we already in the process of decline, and what major changes can we expect?
The context of recurrent crises that economists and politicians are trying to understand and to alleviate, may have a unique initial cause : the limitation of the possibilities by the progressive restriction of the quality of energy procurement in our societies. Physics tells us that energy is a measurement unit of the possibility of transformation of a system. (it is the only fixed referential : the possibility of conversion of a system is related to the quality of this energy and also of course its quantity). According to the works of heterodox economists and engineers whom we refer to – especially those of Gaël Giraud and Jean-Marc Jancovici – our societies generate their wealth, initially, from the transformation of resources. Energy does not appear ex nihilo, the aftermath of a succession of crises, is the depletion of supplies of oil, coal, and gas, followed by an ineluctable global decline. It is henceforth admitted by many analysts that the peak of conventional oils has been largely responsible for 2008’s crisis. The other types of oils (from oil shale especially) are reaching their peak as we speak.
But the original cause is henceforward aggravated by new externalities symptomatic of a pre-collapse phase of a society. The deficit of energy input is aggravated by the complexity of the organization of the society (the flow of energy that passes through a system is proportional to its need to keep its complexity : a simple object requires less maintenance and repairing than a sophisticated one), but also by the pollution that society generates.
According to the IPCC climatologists, the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) will generate a global warming by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius from now to the end of the century, which means an average of 6-8 °C over the continents (lands re-emit more infra-red than oceans). Very few farmlands will withstand such a change. We have already reached a first degree of warming, which represents more than 2 degrees over land. We must add 5 to 7 degrees to the peaks of heat nowadays to imagine what the plants … and our children, will sustain.
The warming process is being launched and is irreversible, even if we stop all emissions today. The mere inertia of the climate system (the time that the atmosphere takes to warm up after the addition of GHG) projects us beyond 1.5 °C very likely before 2050. The efforts that we can do will not prevent warming from having very important effects on the biosphere. The IPCC and the UN admit – the information was not much relayed though – that serious and irreversible consequences are inevitable at 1.5 °C, not even 2 °C.
I know that there is a risk to sound too alarmist. But I truly believe, after a deep analysis of the scientific literature, that we are on the verge of a pretty quick and unstoppable change. Pollution, climate… all the problems that we will be facing are on a geophysical scale, far beyond the scope of our willingness.
While we are still at the beginning of the manifestation of these problems, the extinction rate of living species is equal to the minimum, maybe even 10 to 100 times higher than the worst periods of extinction, where 90% of species went off. We are only one species among many.
“All renewables depend on below-ground resources (silver, copper, rare earth elements, etc.) which are present in limited quantities in the ground.”
Your analysis focuses on carbon energies. According to you, renewables and new technologies present no viable alternative to a sustainable development?
The thinking I previously proposed about the extraction of resources is also available for our ability to implement alternative methods of production of energy (renewable energy or renewables). All renewables depend on below-ground resources (silver, copper, rare earth elements, etc.) which are present in limited quantities in the ground. They have otherwise a pretty low EROEI, incompatible with the requirements of our energy-consuming societies. These technologies are not perennial and, of course, they don’t “protect” the environment, they add their share of deterioration. So far, no substitution to hydrocarbons by renewables was observed, they are added to the total global energy mix, but does not reduce CO2 emissions.
During the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), an exhibition at the Grand Palais, entitled “COP21 Solutions” suggested the following slogan: “Renewable energies are infinite primary energies”. This slogan is a scientific aberration. Adrastia denounces actively the newspeak supposed to make us believe that innovation will save the planet. There will be innovations, we need them, but we must consider that it will have an impact on the environment anyway. It is an essential methodological point, without this rigour our choices will be totally counterproductive and we’ll fall from a higher height. The ecological transition for example, as committed nowadays, put us in debt more than it satisfies our needs, while actively participating in an excessive “extractivism” and not reducing CO2 emissions at a global level.
Can the scientific objectivity to which aims your organization about the question of resources, be brought closer to Malthus’ analysis ? Are you in favour of birth control ? The demographic question is perhaps an aporia: the only way to reduce the birthrate without being coercive, while remaining ethical and avoiding the rebound effect (an increase of birthrate after a restriction), seems to be an increase of the standard of living, and education. Although increasing the standard of living also means increasing the environmental impact…
We must also understand that the ecological deadlines are pretty close, on the scale of a generation. There is no anti-birth policy that can have effective results, and decrease on time the impact of demography over environment. To be clear: the models to which we refer are considering a reduction of the population after having reached a maximum around 2040. These include the scenario “Business as Usual” suggested by the Meadows report in 1972, updated in 1993 and 2004 and incredibly close to reality, as was shown by Graham Turner in 2008. The regulation can be through environment, hunger or disease.
Isn’t the fatalism specific to scientific observation of the decline demobilising ?
After all, if everything is already lost, why holding up, why containing it ? Doesn’t it give a free rein to bad behaviours ?
It is now time to take stock of the situation : while many points of no return are reached or about to be (climate, resource depletion), in terms of environmental anticipation, nothing worked. And this is not due to a lack of information : the general properties of energy are known since 1824 thanks to Sadi Carnot, the finitude of resources does not need a long set of arguments to be understood, and the effects of CO2 emissions on the atmosphere have been theorized during the 19nth century by Fourier and Arrhenius. The 20thy century models have only prolonged and specified these theories.
The naïve optimism, “the ecological positivism” is anything but effective. There is no observation, at a global scale and despite the most motivated people of us, of reduction of the anthropic impact on planet Earth outside of economical crises, which appear against our will.
It is not certain, after all that we can be able to slow it down deliberately ! It is a postulate in which we can believe, but it has never been observed throughout the planet, the only scale that interests us, we have to hypothesise that a collective intentional decrease may never happen. Aside from of my investment in Adrastia organisation, I worked for many years on trying to understand how humanity as a whole is able to move straight to its self-destruction’s risk without getting to swerve its way. We must think about an “environmental theory of the mind”. Maybe evolution has never foreseen that we would be free beyond the illusion of our own freedom, and we are certainly, as any living species, condemned to disappear once we will have consumed all resources that we depend on.
“How humanity as a whole is able to move right to its self-destruction’s risk without getting to swerve its way.”
There are multiple regulating externalities that we omit to consider when we suggest “solutions” to “save the planet”. The first one is the rebound effect. Jevons was wondering in 1865, why the efficiency improvement of steam engine did not lower coal consumption. Simply, as it seems to, because we used this improvement to build more and more steam engines ! As technology improvements increase the efficaciousness of a resource’s use, the total consumption of that resource can indeed increase rather than decrease. The Khazzoom–Brookes postulate clarifies another side of the rebound effect. When we achieve some savings in a field, for example when our power consumption downs because we use a new generation of bulbs, we use our savings on electricity bills to consume … another thing that pollutes necessarily in its own way. Overall, the distribution of energy-saving bulbs, as any other product labelled as ecological, whether it be a clean-vehicle or solar panel, did not reduce the human impact on the planet. We just modified our consumption, and kept it maximum.
Another regulating externality, that we are familiar with, but that we do not want to face, is competition. All of us would like our countries to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. But if we admit that energy is on the basis for our societies’ good functioning and their economical performance, no country will take the risk to reduce its consumption before the others, since it will impact its GDP and put it at risk economically. Citizens would complain about it immediately. The substitution of hydrocarbons by renewables is the result of a scientific and political mystification. And the lock up of the functioning of our societies on a maximum power consumption in relation to the availability of energy, whatever it comes from, is perhaps irrevocable, leading us to disaster.
If pollution and CO2 emissions are intrinsically linked to the overall energy consumption and to the GDP of our countries (Kaya identity), which one of us would be willing to voluntarily, drastically and permanently reduce its salary for less impact on the environment, with no guarantee that everyone around him would do it?
In your manifesto, you imply that the humblest citizen as well as the greatest leader are not accountable, not one more than the other for the decline, and that they will both be victims. Why de-politicize the question?
Adrastia does not depoliticize the issue, not at all. It reminds the fact that the political is not necessarily the typical partisan opposition, what our societies have forgotten in favour of some democratic models in which no one takes responsibility for anything. It is always the other one’s fault. The risk of collapse is neither left nor right winged, it will affect everybody, with big inequalities, but inequalities will decline progressively following the energy depletion, the pollution and the global warming that will impact ultimately the comfort of all of us.
The divided political models may already belong to the past and the continuance of blaming on the other what we all are responsible for, can only lead to resentment and an unproductive conflict, since in a period of global shortage and increasing each day, there is nothing left to lose.
That is maybe the hardest part to understand on the verge of what humanity has hitherto only known occasionally and locally: a collapse. During this period when everything goes faster but down, in negativity, add to it stigmatisation, violence, not wanting to assume one’s own responsibilities and considering the other as the only scapegoat for collective mistakes, can only create risky situations (economical, military, civilian), these risks come in addition to the risks intrinsically linked to the collapse. Our societies will attempt, as we are already witnessing to implement some ancestral impulses like communitarian withdrawal or nationalist caricature. But perhaps the situation would not erupt, because when everybody is lacking energy, no one takes the risk to fight.
“It would be a consolation to our weakness and our creations if all things should perish as slowly as they happen; but it is this way, the richness is slow, and the road to ruin is rapid.” Seneca, Letters to Lucilius.
In all circumstances, and because we need to be careful, Adrastia stands far from a partisan politics and tries to educate about the context of the global decline in order to minimize a surprise effect that is indeed able to produce sudden contortions and occasional but significant violence. The war and terrorist situation in some North African and Middle Eastern countries, in view of local energy and singular climatic problems (successive oil peaks and droughts), is among the issues to be analysed with the greatest care.
In order to hedge the rise of populisms and their coming into office, we absolutely need that republican parties cease to make economical promises they cannot honour (sustainable development, energy transition) and rationally get the meaning of an economical decline due the end of resources. If they do not do this, what they refuse to see will be taken back by obscurantists that will have all the arguments to justify their politics of worse, fear, and above all, cowardliness.
Besides, wouldn’t it be useful to judge the short-term benefit politics applied by our leaders in the 20thy century?
If we really want to face our responsibilities, we have to assume that we have collectively made consumerist choices which all went towards the ecological risks that we have described.
One phrase can describe the problem: “all the pleasures, all the benefits of humanity are kept from someone or or something, in space and in time.” When a boss tries to make profit, sometimes in an outrageous way I do not deny it, he must absolutely keep a good cohesion in his company and distribute a part of the benefits that would guarantee both production performance (investment), and workers satisfaction whose wages participate in the creation of the market of the same company. I do not believe in the complete disconnection of the enrichment, even extreme, of some privileged people, from the living standard of the rest of the people. This disconnection between the benefits gained by the majority of the population and the wealth, sometimes meaningless, of the most powerful people could be the result of a non exhaustive analysis of what makes possible this enrichment.
The people from the most privileged countries made a lot of wealth these last decades. When a labour union defended the workers’ interests of a given company, let say to reduce the working time or to raise the wages, it implicitly asked that workers other than the defended ones, made the work share they did not do. To satisfy this demand – which I do not discuss the legitimacy – without affecting the company’s yield, which would have impacted the workers, the boss, whoever he is, has to set up a strategy that allows to find elsewhere the means to create the working value that he does not find in his company anymore. The relocation process towards countries where the work is cheaper is also a request of the workers, but the responsibility in this process is eventually shared and diluted between the many involved actors.
The most privileged people discover again that wealth is always taken from someone.
In our occidental societies, this common work of people and elite’s enrichment is made in a good balance in the growth period (who could deny all the benefits obtained and redistributed up to now in our wealthy societies) but in an ever larger, absurd and blind exploitation of the resources, being? human or natural.
In an extended economical crisis, as we live in nowadays, the gap between exploited people and exploiting ones is naturally increasing, since the means to create and distribute wealth are decreasing. The most privileged people, like us, discover again that wealth is always taken from someone, as it is their wealth that is taken back, sometimes bluntly. But is does not exonerate the people from the rich countries, neither middle class nor privileged ones, to have imposed the rest of the world with their own avidity.
What do you think about the idea, popularized by Derrick Jensen, stating that the individual “responsible” behaviour is useless, rather promoting a political awareness ?
I agree with Derrick Jensen on one point: marginal changes of behaviour are not efficient, they are either cosmetic or counterbalanced by a rebound effect (we make efforts on one side to get better profits on the other, confidently).
But Derrick Jensen starts from a strange assumption: people’s live (living standard, waste production, water consumption) would be, according to him, disconnected from the industrial world, and it be could possible that citizens, instead of changing their behaviour in first place, would intentionally make the industry and the capitalist world fall apart, which might save the environment. He considers that citizens are deprived of their power and are not responsible of their own environmental impact. I fear that actually there is no separation between our living standards, particularly in France which is among the richest countries, and the economical model, industry-based, within which we are living.
On the environment protection side, it would be equivalent to voluntarily reduce our living standard, since the industry system would be deprived of its customers and would naturally fall apart, or intentionally destroy this system by force, which would reduce anyone’s living standard since the society would be unable to produce and distribute so much richness. Between making capitalism fall apart by force or promoting citizens to naturally chose to reduce their wage, maybe none of these solutions will save the world, but there is one of them that do not initially bring violence.
Instead of explaining that we must collectively make efforts beyond green-washing, and that this collective effort could actually change things, Derrick Jensen first promotes the belligerent and embittered option of human adventure, under the guise of an ecological mission meant to avoid destruction, while using another form of destruction. The speech of Jensen is very close, not to say identical, to the rhetoric of our governments which legitimate wars to supposedly get peace one day. Of course, peace never occurs since the enemies that we assign defend themselves. The moment Jensen will attack the industrial world, and the share of worldwide citizens depending on it that would not see it fall apart (for their wages), we will get more conflicts, more wars and not less ecological damages.
But Jensen’s approach has one major advantage: it is useful to legitimate procrastination, if not status quo. Who would achieve to initiate an authentic collective and global de-growth trend, which would make the capitalist system fall apart due to a lack of customers ? Derrick Jensen has understood that he is not up to this project and prefers projecting its own frustration on a “system” he claims as being intrinsically malevolent, hiding if not despising the complex and bidirectional relationships that exist between people and said system. The ecological issue cannot suffer from simplistic and torn analysis. If the question was so simple, the answers would be also simple. We must understand that for many people it is unacceptable to lose the material benefits gained from the destruction of the environment… what should we do ? Prepare a war against these people ?
One last point: the idea that humanity is naturally good and protective of nature could ever exist – as Deep Green Resistance, founded by Jensen, hopes it – particularly in an adaptive stress era (end of resources, climate), is highly speculative. It seems very unwise to bet on a near coming, while it has been demonstrated, thanks to anthropology, that a humanity having no environmental impact has ever existed.
What do you think about the de-growth as expressed by Serge Latouche ?
Degrowth is currently facing an interesting paradox: it is growing a lot ! It raises many questions about its own history and models. The success of de-growth does not really come from the society model, it promotes as being eventually considered by the citizens as a necessary economical and moral perspective… but rather because we are close to a forced de-growth, and we need to cling to something to understand what is going on.
We must certainly speak to the “de-growth theorists” to get their expertise on a more frugal and sober world, but the de-growth that we are going to live will arrive too late to avoid major environmental issues and it will not correspond to what we would expect, it will not be the de-growth we have chosen.
Considering this overwhelming finding, what does Adrastia propose ?
Anyone thinking it has solutions for the future makes two assumptions: he knows the rules of the world, and he masters them. Adrastia forbids such assumptions to itself. We do not wish to proceed as too many would do : assert that such option is the good one and that all the others should be prohibited. Actually, the world is multifaceted and complex, this will not change with the collapse. As I said, none of the “solutions” proposed up until now has ever succeeded, and we are at the eve/verge? of an unseen ecological switch over the entire planet.
The first task of the organisation is informative and pedagogical, based on what is already known and verifiable. Our consumerist and naive culture about physical constraints, is so far from the risks of systemic rupture and their effects, that it makes this task already huge. We expect a threshold effect, a collective awareness (we could call it an “ecological singularity”) from which the practical accommodations to cushion the shock could be invested at a large scale: reform of agricultural models, local business, adaptation of healthcare policies, maybe currency reform, etc.
We must, “build a decline” together.
Our organisation is still young but we progressively set up the theoretical tools and practices needed to make our societies more adaptable and plastic (in the sense of “transformable”, not resilient, resilience implies a return to the initial state after the shock, which will not happen). We must, together, “build a decline”, set up the necessary facilities in order to minimize the risks of systemic runaway, when problems strengthen one with the others without being solved.
Adrastia is more a way of thinking than a mere organisation : living and being conscious of the risks, without discarding responsibility on others, while we are actually all responsible, listening to the questioning of that fellow being, who does not understand the blindness of the past, without lying to him about his future, working with him to minimize the risks, minimize violence, minimize pains. Permanently keeping in mind, that we will be facing forces that exceed our pride, and that nothing will go as expected. Facing ourselves and our limits ? There is no greater challenge.