Decline and Fall, BBC Version

Good grief, the BBC doesn’t half peddle some shite. This is from an article entitled How Western civilisation could collapse:

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter.

So individual liberties suffer when the economy performs badly, eh? How do we explain the Blair years, then? And we’re always being told how Obama rescued the economy, yet social tolerance deteriorated markedly. If we’re sticking to the bicycle analogy, this article has gotten off to a wobbly start.

Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group.

Is this what happens in a recession? Some examples would be nice. But I suppose there’s no need: if it’s on the BBC, it must be true.

Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

I’m glad the lefties at the BBC have finally figured out that a functioning economy is essential to stop us descending into a chaotic, authoritarian, basket-case. If only they’d extend this awareness to Cuba and Venezuela we’d be getting somewhere.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end.

They have? Civilisations have collapsed due to the economy not growing? I suppose the Soviet Union might count but they had, erm, a rather particular approach to their economy which might not apply to us.

Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse.

Imagine how good this article would be with examples to support such bold assertions of fact.

What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?

Oh, they’re talking about mass immigration! Now it all makes sense! Actually, no, they’re not. This is the BBC.

Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, uses computer models to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that can lead to local or global sustainability or collapse. According to findings that Motesharrei and his colleagues published in 2014, there are two factors that matter: ecological strain and economic stratification.

Presumably his computer model rejected political stupidity as being too obvious a cause. And when he tried to enter ethnic hatreds as a factor his Twitter account reported him to the police.

The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom, especially in terms of depletion of natural resources such as groundwater, soil, fisheries and forests – all of which could be worsened by climate change.

With the possible exception of Easter Island, where has this ever led to the breakdown of society? It seems that this is “widely understood and recognised” only by those who for some perverse reason yearn for it to happen.

That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the other hand, came as more of a surprise to Motesharrei and his colleagues. Under this scenario, elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour.

Boilerplate Marxism came as a surprise to a researcher looking at human societies?

Eventually, the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour.

Well, yes. Marx was forever telling us this was imminent over a century ago. Did it ever happen?

The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities. For example, the top 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined.

Sorry, what? What have greenhouse gases got to do with dissatisfaction over wealth allocation? Is that really at the forefront of the minds of those eking out a living on a rubbish dump in Lagos?

Similarly, about half the world’s population lives on less than $3 per day.

Things have improved, then: the metric used to be $1 per day. Must have been the roaring success of international socialism that brought about the change.

For both scenarios, the models define a carrying capacity – a total population level that a given environment’s resources can sustain over the long term.

Are they still talking about economic growth here? Or have they abandoned that entirely? I’m not sure. If the former, they’re making the fallacy that Tim Worstall makes part of a living pointing out, that of believing economic growth must involve the consumption of more resources. Which is bollocks. If not…well, they’re peddling Malthusian nonsense and Ehrlich’s utterly discredited Population Bomb. Apparently this passes for noteworthy research at the BBC.

If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable.

This seems to rely on a model of society which is analogous to an engine draining a fuel tank.

That fate is avoidable, however. “If we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution – all perfectly doable things – then we can avoid collapse and stabilise onto a sustainable trajectory,” Motesharrei said. “But we cannot wait forever to make those decisions.”

So the answer is increased political control over society with fewer choices and rationing. And we must act now. I bet you didn’t see that coming.

Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities.

The oiks won’t do what us experts think they should.

“The world will not rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual,” says Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School.

Those pesky citizens don’t want to respond to our doom-mongering by impoverishing themselves.

“The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.”

In other words, the Paris “Agreement” wasn’t.

While we are all in this together, the world’s poorest will feel the effects of collapse first. Indeed, some nations are already serving as canaries in the coal mine for the issues that may eventually pull apart more affluent ones.

Venezuela? Zimbabwe? France?!

Syria, for example, enjoyed exceptionally high fertility rates for a time, which fueled rapid population growth. A severe drought in the late 2000s, likely made worse by human-induced climate change, combined with groundwater shortages to cripple agricultural production. That crisis left large numbers of people – especially young men – unemployed, discontent and desperate.

“Likely” made worse by human-induced climate change. Uh-huh. Anyway, poor governance, poor infrastructure, and a population with nothing to do but breed caused problems. Note that Israel – right next door – didn’t suffer the same fate.

Many flooded into urban centres, overwhelming limited resources and services there.

A rural society, then. Naturally, this is relevant to the West.

Pre-existing ethnic tensions increased, creating fertile grounds for violence and conflict.

Eh? What ethnic tensions? This may come as a surprise to the BBC, but the war in Syria is largely between the government of Bashar al-Assad and those who oppose him. It’s not Muslims v Christians v Kurds, is it?

On top of that, poor governance – including neoliberal policies that eliminated water subsidies in the middle of the drought – tipped the country into civil war in 2011 and sent it careening toward collapse.

Oh right. So insofar as there was appalling governance it was actually that which constituted sensible economics which caused the problems. And of course it was the drought which brought Syrians onto the streets in armed rebellion against the government, not decades of living under a corrupt dictatorship and the torturing of a bunch of teenagers by the regime’s secret police.

In Syria’s case – as with so many other societal collapses throughout history – it was not one but a plethora of factors that contributed, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada

Nobody thinks civil wars happen because of one thing. But if we’re going to list factors which led to the Syrian civil war, perhaps we ought to focus a little more on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and not so much on “neoliberal polices” regarding water subsidies?

Homer-Dixon calls these combined forces tectonic stresses for the way in which they quietly build up and then abruptly erupt, overloading any stabilising mechanisms that otherwise keep a society in check.

Which in the case of Syria was a ruthless and highly authoritarian government. Sort of like the one half these lunatic environmentalists want to foist on us. With them in charge, of course.

The Syrian case aside, another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone, Homer-Dixon says, is the increasing occurrence of what experts call nonlinearities, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order, such as the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s election.

You knew it was coming, didn’t you? Never mind civil war and depletion of resources, the real danger to society lies with citizens voting in ways not approved by the enlightened elites who peddle this crap. And the election of Donald Trump in a free and fair US presidential election is exactly like a murderous medieval Islamic cult seizing lands across the Middle East and slaughtering anyone in their path. In fact, the two are so similar I don’t know why we even bother to differentiate any more. We should just call them TRISIS.

The past can also provide hints for how the future might play out.

Well, yes. More so than Motesharrei’s bloody computer models at any rate. Hence my call for examples.

Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

I won’t quote the whole lot, and I have no idea if the BBC has got any of this right, but the lesson seems to be that large empires are hard to maintain. How this is relevant to any Western country in 2017 is beyond me.

The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses.

Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in.

One would think the lesson here is for governments to limit their size and spending and not debase their currencies. But the BBC doesn’t want its readers to reach this rather obvious conclusion and goes back to climate change doom-mongering. But before they do we get this rather bizarre history of the oil industry:

So far, modern Western societies have largely been able to postpone similar precipitators of collapse through fossil fuels and industrial technologies – think hydraulic fracturing coming along in 2008, just in time to offset soaring oil prices.

Eh? Here is a chart showing the oil price between 2008 and 2017:

The collapse in the oil price in 2008 game as a result of the global financial crisis stymieing demand, not hydraulic fracturing making oil production cheaper. Fracking only really started to play a role after the second collapse in 2015 – again caused by weak demand – when America became (theoretically) self-sufficient in oil production due to the new technology. But according to the BBC, fossil fuel production and hydraulic fracturing is what has kept Western civilisation going the way of the Roman Empire.

Which makes me somewhat of a hero, doesn’t it? Finally, a use for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Tainter suspects this will not always be the case, however. “Imagine the costs if we have to build a seawall around Manhattan, just to protect against storms and rising tides,” he says.

A minute ago we were being told about historical precedents and the Roman Empire. Now we’re being asked to imagine ludicrous future scenarios.

Eventually, investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse.

I have no idea what that means, sorry. Was this article even edited? Perhaps with their £3bn per year guaranteed income, times are tough at the BBC.

That is, he says “unless we find a way to pay for the complexity, as our ancestors did when they increasingly ran societies on fossil fuels.”

This is what happens when you use a 2008 version of Google Translate when writing articles.

Also paralleling Rome, Homer-Dixon predicts that Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands.

You mean immigration will reverse? When?

As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states.

This doesn’t sound much like people retreating to their core homelands. It sounds pretty much like present day Europe.

Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing.

Expert academic solemnly predicts the future by stating what is already happening.

“It’s almost an immunological attempt by countries to sustain a periphery and push pressure back,” Homer-Dixon says.

So less of a “retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands” than staying put with the fruits of their labour and keeping invading hordes at bay.

Meanwhile, a widening gap between rich and poor within those already vulnerable Western nations will push society toward further instability from the inside. “By 2050, the US and UK will have evolved into two-class societies where a small elite lives a good life and there is declining well-being for the majority,” Randers says. “What will collapse is equity.”

Well, yes. It was partly recognition that a wealthy elite are running the show for themselves at the expense of the majority that delivered victories for Trump and the Brexit campaigners.

Whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, the more dissatisfied and afraid people become, Homer-Dixon says, the more of a tendency they have to cling to their in-group identity – whether religious, racial or national.

Presumably this explains the rise of Black Lives Matter and the left-driven identity politics.

Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based fact. If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building up resentment. “You’re setting up the psychological and social prerequisites for mass violence,” Homer-Dixon says. When localised violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid.

A better description of the left’s reaction to Trump becoming president is hard to find.

Europe, with its close proximity to Africa, its land bridge to the Middle East and its neighbourly status with more politically volatile nations to the East, will feel these pressures first.

They’ve been feeling them for quite some time now. Only so-called leaders are in – what was that word you mentioned earlier? – denial.

The US will likely hold out longer, surrounded as it is by ocean buffers.

And with Trump at the helm, building his wall.

On the other hand, Western societies may not meet with a violent, dramatic end. In some cases, civilisations simply fade out of existence – becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper.

Indeed. Unless we start hanging our current crop of politicians from lamp-posts (the French may use guillotines if they so desire), this is quite likely.

The British Empire has been on this path since 1918, Randers says, and other Western nations might go this route as well. As time passes, they will become increasingly inconsequential and, in response to the problems driving their slow fade-out, will also starkly depart from the values they hold dear today.

“Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” Randers argues.

He is right about the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western societies disappearing, but it has nothing to do with inequality. What will cause it is something the BBC and its supporters refuse to even discuss.

“Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.”

Then shouldn’t we be pleased that Trump is Hitler?

Some of these forecasts and early warning signs should sound familiar, precisely because they are already underway.

I want this guy’s job.

Western civilisation is not a lost cause, however. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development, Homer-Dixon says.

Alternatively, we could just shoot those who are calling for a carefully-managed Utopia grounded in “science” and “extraordinary leadership” and let people get on with their lives. It seems to have worked pretty well so far.

Even as we weather the coming stresses of climate change, population growth and dropping energy returns, we can maintain our societies and better them.

Particularly if we ignore rubbish like this.

But that requires resisting the very natural urge, when confronted with such overwhelming pressures, to become less cooperative, less generous and less open to reason.

If we abandon our natural urges, we can live better lives. How very Soviet.

“The question is, how can we manage to preserve some kind of humane world as we make our way through these changes?” Homer-Dixon says.

Here’s my suggestion: allow British citizens to keep their money in their pockets instead of forcing them to shell out £3bn per year for the BBC to publish garbage like this. A more humane gesture I cannot imagine at this juncture.


20 thoughts on “Decline and Fall, BBC Version

  1. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development

    Somewhere, over the rainbow…

    the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s election

    Have you noticed how Brexit and Trump (usually used in combination) have become the left’s new “Fatcher!” ?

  2. Great fishing.

    Of course, every article of this type is countered by pointing out that Malthus has been consistently wrong for 219 years and his ideas can be directly linked to at least 200m murders in the intervening years but, yes, perhaps this year he’s on the money.

  3. A lengthy fisk indeed, and always, well fisked.

    “history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse.”

    A plethora of invading anti-your-culture-to skim-the-benefits aliens is the biggest reason, but as all progressives know, best not mention that. Once you have lots of people who don’t give a flying poo about the country that hosts them (and among their ranks, actively seeks to bring it down) all other problems follow. The economy tanks because there are more people taking out than putting in, society fracture into low-trust pockets and politics becomes about corruption and grabbing short-term power and taking the money while one can. The roots of society lie in the observance of just law but when those laws are blatantly flouted (as in, so, you are an illegal immigrant and you have started out by breaking the first law you could but hey, we forgive you) the end follows.

    Once there is no reason to trust and work and follow custom and law, the supports crumble away.

  4. When my grandchildren say to me, “whatever became of the good old-fashioned fisking?”, I will say to them, “alas! the snows of yesteryear. But Tim maintains the good old tradition.”
    As for the BBC, I like to imagine Stringer Bell from ‘The Wire’ becoming Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport and saying: ‘privatize that f*cker’.

  5. The U.S. Is $20 trillion in the hole trying to “fix” these problems. How much more do you need? In fairness to the BBC, you can find this horseshit in the editorials of most major newspapers and media outlets across the world. Some committee somewhere distributes the rubber stamps that contain this text. They just rearrange the cliches around a bit each time. I feel empty after reading this crap because it says almost nothing real.

  6. @Tim

    “Well, yes. Marx was forever telling us this was imminent over a century ago. Did it ever happen?”

    It sort of did happen. In one large country that adopted Marx’s recipes on how to prevent it from happening.

  7. @Tim
    “So the answer is increased political control over society with fewer choices and rationing. And we must act now.”

    On a second thought, aren’t we long past the point of no return according to the AGW doomsday projections? So, since it’s too late anyway, we might as well relax and tell’em to fuck off.

  8. A BBC article warning how Western civ could collapse? It’s like Attila the Hun warning that the Roman Empire is in danger.

  9. Pingback: To err is human, to fisk divine « Samizdata

  10. Interestingly enough, a new book argues that things like plagues and massive wars have typically been the only things that dramatically reduce income inequality. Perhaps leftists should stop worrying and learn to love the catastrophes!

  11. I like the neoliberal compliant.

    Cut water subsidies during a drought? Lets see water subsidies increase water use, there a water shortage will decreasing subsidies help or hinder?

    Cutting subsidies will lead to a decline i water use reducing the effect of the drought.

    The author seems to assume alot, there intelligence being above room temperature for a start.

  12. It sort of did happen. In one large country that adopted Marx’s recipes on how to prevent it from happening.

    The Russian Revolution? That was less of an uprising of the proletariat than a coup d’etat by radical, privileged middle classes against an elected government that was well on the way to putting those much-needed reforms in place.

  13. Cut water subsidies during a drought? Lets see water subsidies increase water use, there a water shortage will decreasing subsidies help or hinder?

    Cutting subsidies will lead to a decline i water use reducing the effect of the drought.

    Heh! Good point!

  14. I got House on the bullshit bingo after a few paragraphs. Was wondering when Trump & Brexit would be blamed for teh collapse of civilisation. Got there in the end.

    Anything missing? Of course, the Pope’s patriarchal refusal to ordain female / trans cardinals must be responsible for drought in Yemen.

  15. I have sent over the years, when the local councils get on their high horse about climate change and rising sea levels, concerned emails asking if it would be wise and in the interests of Plymouth and surrounding area residents,businesses and the Royal Dockyard with its nuclear infrastructure to start planning a Dam and lock system across Plymouth sound with additional power generation capability to give it green credibility i have helpfully pointed out that it won’t be a major engineering feat as they are halfway across anyway with the breakwater which was built by foriegn labour of course namely French prisoners of war in the 1800s.I have calculated the cost to be around £6 billion. I must have been out or otherwise engaged when their enthusiastic and positive replies came tumbling into my inbox,

  16. I must have been out or otherwise engaged when their enthusiastic and positive replies came tumbling into my inbox.


  17. Fracking only really started to play a role after the second collapse in 2015 – again caused by weak demand – when America became (theoretically) self-sufficient in oil production due to the new technology.

    I have two problems with this. First: “Fracking only really started to play a role after the second collapse in 2015…”

    The author (Rachel Nuwer, an American freelancer) must be confusing the first fracking boom, which made the US gas-sufficient, with the second, focused on liquids. You’re right – 2008 is off – but so is 2015. US light tight oil (LTO) production broke through 1 mmbpd in March 2011 and kept increasing for the next 45 months, reaching 4.5 mmbpd in December 2014. From there, it only had about 3% to grow until peaking in March 2015. The average LTO output growth, y-o-y, was 0.8, 0.9, 1.0, and 0.6 mmbpd in 2012, 13, 14, and 15.

    Second: “…the second collapse in 2015 – again caused by weak demand…”

    Possibly, but only among other causes, which include LTO production growth in 2011-15.

    To clear things up without going into too much detail, “demand” is often used to mean “consumption” – a single numerical value rather than the whole demand curve. According to the IEA, OPEC, and the EIA (US Dept. of Energy), consumption of (“demand for” in shorthand) crude rose noticeably faster in 2015 than in 2014.

    That’s a predictable demand response to a falling price. However, at least some analysts said it was less than they had expected from past observations. Weaker demand is a plausible explanation for that.

    The picture on the supply side is clearer and more telling. Brent collapsed from $107/bbl in July 2014 to $48/bbl in January 2015 but global oil production kept growing regardless. Judging by the EIA’s data, production grew by 3.1 mmbpd y-o-y in 2h14 and continued to grow by 3.4 mmbpd y-o-y in 1h15, outpacing consumption growth in both periods by about 2 mmbpd. There was no single culprit, but US LTO was a major contributor. Note that in terms of monthly averages, it kept growing until March 2015 and declined rather slowly for most of the rest of the year.

  18. Alex,

    Fair points. I was more referring to the realisation *somewhere around 2013-15* that the US, via fracking, was not going to be as dependent on overseas oil if push came to shove as was previously thought. And my point was mainly to dispel the ludicrous idea put forward in the article, I’m happy to accept I got some details wrong.

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