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Considering Systemic Collapse and Our Profound Dependence on Electricity
by David Ratcliffe
25 December 2019
rat haus reality press
IMAGE: Craig Mayhew & Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC
Electric Night on Earth, 1997
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
— Rumi

In May 1844 Samuel Morse transmitted the first communication by electric telegraph with the query, “What hath God wrought?” It was a fitting question. 175 years on, our species is fast approaching the prospective end of this Electric Civilization (E.C.). It is becoming ever more difficult to understand how this way of life that depends on unlimited energy can continue. Many writers have written about the impacts of energy overshoot, electrification and Collapsologie. This compilation presents a selection of ones who have influenced my thinking.

During the past century, “first world” cultures have become utterly dependent on titanic and continuous supplies of power. For decades, increasing coal, natural gas, uranium and , wood (so-called biomass) -fueled power generation plant operations threatens the health and survival of Mother Earth’s offspring, including humanity.


In 2003 Richard Heinberg wrote about the unique energy lifestyle humans living in what is today called the United States have learned to take for granted. Our wildly extravagant moment-to-moment exploitation of energy is unparalleled across the span of human history on Earth.

Richard Heinberg: [U.S.] Americans, more than the people of any other region, have learned to take high-energy living standards for granted. In order to gain some perspective on this accustomed standard, it might be helpful to perform a little experiment. Try running up three flights of stairs in twenty seconds. If you weigh 150 pounds and the three flights go up forty feet, you will have done 6,000 foot-pounds of work in twenty seconds, or 300 foot-pounds per second. One horsepower equals 550 foot-pounds per second; therefore, you will have just generated a little over half a horsepower. But no one could sustain such a burst of muscle-energy all day long. The average sustained human power output is roughly one-twentieth of a horsepower.

This exercise is useful (even if performed only in imagination) in comparing human power with the power of the machines that maintain our modern way of life. Suppose human beings were powering a generator connected to one 150-watt light bulb. It would take five people’s continuous work to keep the light burning. A 100-horsepower automobile cruising down the highway does the work of 2,000 people. If we were to add together the power of all of the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compare that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has the equivalent of over 150 “energy slaves” working for us 24 hours each day. In energy terms, each middle-class American is living a lifestyle so lavish as to make nearly any sultan or potentate in history swoon with envy.[18]

The Party’s Over - Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, pp.30-31.


Given that at this point (December 2019), our society shows no indication of slowing much less putting brakes on our rapacious and insatiable 24/7 manufacturing imperative to continue global stock market growth, likely Oren Lyons’ assessment at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit still applies. Back then he described speaking with many CEOs of the largest corporations who, although they had families and are concerned about our ecosystem, “during the day, at their work, they’re destroying the world. And they don’t have options.”

Oren Lyons: I asked them, “Since you understand this problem why do you continue?” They say, “That’s my work. As CEO I must produce profit. I am at the demand of my stockholders. My stockholders demand profit.” I said, “Who are the stockholders?” They said, “They’re the people.” So it comes back again: the people, the consumer, the stockholder. I said, “Then perhaps there should be a tremendous education program for the stockholders.” They said, “We would be better served if there was an education program for the people.”

It’s not as if they don’t understand what the problem is. What it is is that in the competition, in what they call mega-competition of global market, there is no option for someone in that competition to back off. Because if they do, even if they slow down, even if they stop for a second, they lose the position that they’re fighting to hold.

So I said, “For instance, then, it’s like a horse race. Let’s take shoes, the competition for shoes around the world. So we have these horses in a horse race—one Reebok, one Adidas, so forth and so on—and the jockey up is the CEO. And your job is to be out front because that means you’re going to sell the most for the most profit.”

And I said, “Is there a winner of the race?” They said, “The winner is who is in front.” I said, “That changes.” They said, “Very often.” I said, “Is there an end to the race?” And they said, “It’s a long race.” And I said, “I don’t think so. I think it’s short race. I think you’ve made the far turn and you’re coming down the stretch now and instead of a finish line you’re going to run into a blank wall. As in any race, as you get closer to the finish line, the intensity of the race progresses and so they run faster.”

I said, “You see at the end of this race a blank wall and yet you’re not slowing up. You’re not making any effort to change. You’re going to carry the full force and impact right into this stone wall. The end.” And they said, “We’re hopeful that science and technology will help us.” I said, “It brought us to pretty serious degradation at this point. In the intensity of this race I don’t think that we should be depending on something like that when really the problem is not science or technology, the problem is in the minds of human beings.”

27-plus years later, could our collective thinking reach the critical mass necessary to slow down our energy-intensive manufacturing? The just-completed COP-25 meeting indicates our system of corporate control and governance has, once more, indicated that “business as usual” will continue until life as we know it collapses.


In 2015 I read Katie Singer’s book, An Electronic Silent Spring, after making a transcript of her talk on “‘An Electronic Silent Spring’: EMR: Radiation Soup” at the 2014 IFG Teach-In: Techno-Utopianism & The Fate of the Earth. She continues to research and collate the true costs of our dependence on electricity, digitalization, and mobility. The Internet has exacted a tremendous toll on our ability to apply critical reasoning and even to think clearly and coherently. One hundred years ago Rudolf Steiner became concerned about electricity’s increasing footprint. As Singer has written, “In 1924, Steiner noted that when ‘intimate matters of daily life’ are energized by invisible man-made electricity, ‘life becomes almost completely thoughtless’.” We don’t think anything of flicking a light switch or clicking a mouse/trackpad/touchscreen. But how do such things actually work? And what are the true biological, ecological, sociological, psychological, and spiritual costs of producing and operating such systems?

In terms of understanding how embedded our electric world is in our lives and how a core element of it is created let’s look at semiconductors. A type of semiconductor, pure silicon metal, is a key central component ubiquitous in today’s electronic machines (i.e., anything employing electronic circuits). Semiconductors are special materials (usually silicon) that can control the flow of electricity. From Singer’s essay, Limits to Internet Growth:

Semiconductors

To process and store data and provide memory and apps, a smartphone’s low power microprocessors, optical, GPS, accelerometers and other sensors, transmitters and receivers (for cellular, WiFi and Bluetooth signals) and noise filtering microphones require semiconductors. Semiconductors can control the flow of electricity. Transistors, the basic building blocks of a computer, are made from semiconductors.

Semiconductors start by mining pure quartz gravel, harvesting h ard, moist wood (i.e. from the Amazon rainforest[25]) and a pure carbon (i.e. petroleum coke from the Tar Sands[26]), then transporting these three substances to a large-scale arc furnace that is kept at about 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.[27] The silica-fuel mixture melts and catalyzes a chemical reaction to isolate the silicon metal and produce metallurgical-grade silicon.[28]

A furnace (also called a smelter or a submerged arc furnace) takes several weeks to heat; a well managed one may go four to eight years before shutdown is necessary. To smelt quartz into metallurgical grade silicon using carbon as a reductant, the furnace’s temperature will need 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.[29]

Smelters are typically powered by coal, nuclear and/or hydro power. Because interrupting the delivery of electricity to a smelter could blow it up, a smelter cannot be powered by “renewable” energy.

Producing metallurgical silicon generates emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide hydrogen chloride and nitrogen oxides.[30]

To get electronic-grade silicon (with only one impurity part per billion), metallurgical grade silicon is transported from the smelter to a bell jar furnace for a vapor deposition process that produces polysilicon rods.[31] Such furnaces consume about 105 megawatts, continuously. This amounts to about 48,000 metric tons of coal per year, the amount of power required by 68,000 homes.[32]

Several other energy-intensive, toxic-waste-emitting steps are required (fracturing the polysilicon rods into chunks; etching them with nitric acid and hydrofluoric acid[33] to remove surface contamination; sending these chunks to a crystal grower that generates silicon ingots; labeling these as electronic grade, solar grade or scrap; slicing the silicon ingot into wafers) before key materials and components are chemically embedded in the silicon to create microprocessors usable in a smartphone.[34]

Indeed, a silicon wafer (necessary for electronics and solar photo voltaic panels) is “one of the most highly refined artifacts ever created.”[35]

In 1997, citing World Semiconductor Trade Statistics, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition reported that producing an eight-inch wafer (each containing thousands to millions of semiconductors) required 4,267 cubic feet of bulk gasses, 27 pounds of chemicals, 29 cubic feet of hazardous gasses and 3,023 gallons of de-ionized water. In 1997, production of an eight-inch wafer generated 3,787 gallons of waste water,[36] negatively impacting the health of waterways and communities near factories.[37]

Since 2013, manufacturers have produced more transistors than farmers grow grains of wheat or rice.[38]

  1. [] Healy, N., Stephens, J.C., et al, “Embodied energy injustices: Unveiling and politicizing the transboundary harms of fossil fuel extractivism and fossil fuel supply chains,” Energy Research & Soc. Sci., 48, 219-234, 2019.
    See also: Tao, Wang, “Managing China’s Petcoke Problem,” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, 31 May 2015.
  2. [] Troszak, Thomas A., “Why do we burn coal and trees to make solar panels?” August, 2019.
  3. [] de Place, Eric, Stroming, Ahren, “Small Town Silicon Smelter Plan Tees Up Big Questions, Northeast Washington faces the tradeoffs of climate action,” Sightline Institute, 25 Jun 2018.
  4. [] Kato, Kazuhiko, et. al., “Energy Pay-back Time and Life-cycle CO2 Emission of Residential PV Power System with Silicon PV Module,” Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
  5. [] Troszak, op. cit.;
  6. [] New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation - Facility DEC ID: 9291100078, PERMIT Issued to: Global Metallurgical Inc., p. 1, Effective Date: 04/21/2016 Expiration Date: 04/20/2021.
  7. [] Schindlbeck, Ewald, WACKER POLYSILICON: High Quality Polysilicon – Basis for PV Efficiencies beyond 20%, 11 Oct 2016.
  8. [] de Place, Eric, et al., op. cit..
  9. [] Schwarzburger, Heiko, “The trouble with silicon,” PV Magazine, 15 Sep 2010.
  10. [] Troszak, op. cit..
  11. [] Derbyshire, Katherine, “Making Manufacturing Sustainable For Chips,” Semiconductor Engineering, 28 Sep 2016.
  12. [] “Communities and Workers Beware!! Did You Know: The electronics industry is the world’s largest and most rapidly expanding industry,” Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 9 May 2000.
  13. [] Smith, Ted, David Sonnenfeld and David N. Pellow, Eds., Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Temple Univ. Press, 2006.
  14. [] Hayes, Brian, “The Memristor,” American Scientist, Mar 2011, p.106.

The transistor is “one of the most highly refined artifacts ever created” It depends on global supply chains, energy-intensive smelters and refineries that generate toxic waste and endanger workers. To see the unusually sophisticated critical analysis that assesses a portion of the immensity required to produce and run our E.C. era check out “Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo As An Anatomical Map Of Human Labor, Data And Planetary Resources,” published in 2018 by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler.

Kate Crawford is a leading researcher and professor who has spent the last decade studying the social implications of data systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence. She is the co-director and co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, the world’s first university institute dedicated to researching the social implications of artificial intelligence and related technologies.

Vladan Joler is SHARE Foundation co-founder and professor at the New Media department of the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. He is leading SHARE Lab, a research and data investigation lab for exploring different technical and social aspects of algorithmic transparency, digital labour exploitation, invisible infrastructures, black boxes, and many other contemporary phenomena on the intersection between technology and society.

As the authors write in Anatomy of an AI System:

Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch.

Crawford and Joler are very clear that “[a] full accounting for these costs is almost impossible”. Such an impossible accounting is an extension 100 years on of what Steiner saw in terms of human thoughtlessness.


On the eve of entering the third decade of this new century, we find ourselves in a situation akin to what I think back to of the original set of stories by Issac Asimov published in the first half of the 1950s called The Foundation Trilogy. In the opening, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, a mathematician and psychologist, has developed psychohistory, a new field of science and psychology equating all possibilities in large societies to mathematics, allowing for the prediction of future events. Along with his understanding that the Empire is collapsing, Seldon claims he can avert a successive 30,000 year dark age by creating an encyclopedic compilation of all human knowledge that will condense the coming dark age to 1,000 years.

The world we have fashioned in this dimension—with its extremely tight coupling between a.) the amount of electricity we use-and-need to run this increasingly overloaded “growth” world and b.) the digitalization of all human knowledge—is unprecedented. The interlocking components of this system’s infinite growth paradigm, powered and driven by electricity, is highly fragile and ultimately extinguishable.

Two areas of particular concern are the massive and growing ever larger energy footprint of the Internet, the largest machine humanity has ever built, and the digitizing of the compendium of human knowledge. The prospect of the loss of our knowledge through digitalization is becoming increasingly likely. Such a digital representation of the sum of human knowledge has created a riddle of supreme proportions: while we have built a form of a world library in the electronic dimension of computer hard drives what happens if the power stops? The use of such a system is based on the expectation that continued generation of a global electric grid will always provide the current needed for the library to continue to exist.


One measure of our dilemma is how much energy is needed and used to continue building the components comprising the Internet (as well as the energy already expended to create what exists today). As Singer writes in Limits to Internet Growth: Embodied energy “is the energy used to mine, refine and transport raw materials (i.e. quartz, charcoal, coltan, cobalt, copper, graphite, lithium); manufacture semiconductors, screens and cases; assemble them for usable products; and ship each item to its end-user. The embodied energy in every device, appliance and vehicle is greater than the energy that it will use in its lifespan.”(p.3)

Another measure of the ecological costs and energy guzzling requirements of 24/7 Internet operations includes the following compilation assembled by Singer.


Further, it is incumbent upon me to acknowledge that by using this largest machine humanity has ever built to write and broadcast what I think and feel is essential to emphasize, that I too, am part of the problem of operating this system. I am requiring my share of embodied and electric energy that is using up more of Mother Earth and all our relatives. So far I do not have any “good” answer or response regarding my own culpability in being part of the problem, contributing my share towards energy overshoot and the looming specter of collapse. Part of the study within Collapsologie Immersion is to seek out and identify further threads and processes to list in the What To Do section and to research prospects for seeding future successor-cultures.


Self-described writer/essayist, engineer, linguist, and sailor Dmitri Orlov was born in 1962 in what-was-then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The USSR reverted to its first name, Russia, at the end of 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. He watched the SU collapse and relays observations and analysis of an equivalent process occurring in the US. As a writer, Orlov’s focus is collapse, technology, and politics. In an August 2019 conversation with James at Hermitix, A show of philosophy the topic was “Collapse and the Technosphere” (also broadcast on youtube). This 55 minute podcast is provocative and refreshing. Near the beginning Orlov describes a bit from his 2016 book, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a grip on the technologies that limit our autonomy, self-sufficiency and freedom (isbn.nu).

[14:02]
[T]he term technosphere was coined early in the 20th century by another great Russian thinker by the name of [Vladimir] Vernadsky a scientist who was the instigator of the Russian—not Soviet—but Russian pre-revolutionary nuclear research program....

[14:32]
[Vernadsky] came up with the term technosphere and then [Lev] Gumilëv expanded on it and came up with this triad which is: we have the biosphere of the earth with all of the living things within it. And then we have a sort of emergent entity within the biosphere which is humanity. But not the sort of humanity that sleeps on bare ground naked, and digs around for tubers with a stick but humanity that builds pyramids and creates empires and conquers the world and invents sailing ships and all of this other stuff. It turns out that there’s a process that gives rise to communities of people who are capable of more than just their survival. He called the process ethnogenesis and had a lot to say on the subject by looking at all of the examples of ethnogenesis from the last six thousand years or so.

Then the technosphere is what ethnogenesis creates. It is the universe of man-made things which is unlike the biosphere. All it ever does is degenerate. You build it and it falls apart. You build it again and it falls apart. We are in the late stages of the technosphere now where it is very highly developed and you can’t tell whether it’s being built or whether it’s falling apart. Competencies are going missing left and right while new competencies such as making smarter phones even smarter are zooming ahead, for what that’s worth. It’s very interesting to look at the world through that prism, as that triad, and examine the various facets of it.

Lev Gumilëv wrote the book, Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1990), available in its entirety online. Orlov summarizes some of Gumilëv’s theory of ethnogenesis in a May 2019 blog post. What is of interest here is the current lifespan of the technosphere that clearly is in an advanced stage of falling apart. A paradox in this stage is that hazards of this third component of Gumilëv’s triad have been generating supreme and expanding threats that can extinguish or irrevocably alter all higher complex forms of biological Life on Earth. The era of weapons and power generation that can render vast sections of Earth forever radioactive and uninhabitable was inaugurated in the 20th century. Followed by naïve tampering with the exquisite complexity of the gene pool through genetic manipulation of plants and animals, machines of scale in the nano dimension, synthetic biology and designing new life forms including genetic redesign of human beings; all these developments in the technosphere have led to the impasse where the economic Growth Train is running on fumes and approaching its next bridge that is evermore likely to collapse than the previous ones it has managed to pass over.


The conversation between Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander published in June under the expansive title, This Civilization Is Finished - Conversations on the end of Empire—and what lies beyond, contains elements to further provoke and invite reassessment of where industrial economic growth is heading and the most likely consequences that will be the result. Chapter 1, Gazing into the abyss, establishes the core framework discussed. The following speaker is Rupert Read:

One of the ideas in the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that most deeply inspires me is that the really difficult problems in philosophy have nothing to do with cleverness or intellectual dexterity. What’s really difficult, rather, is to be willing to see or understand what one doesn’t want to. After years of denial, and years of desperate hope, I finally reached a point where it was no longer possible for me to not see and understand the fatality that is almost surely upon us.

I have come to the conclusion in the last few years that this civilisation is going down. It will not last. It cannot, because it shows almost no sign of taking the extreme climate crisis—let alone the broader ecological crisis—for what it is: a long global emergency, an existential threat. This industrial-growthist civilisation will not achieve the Paris climate accord goals;[2] and that means that we will most likely see 3-4 degrees of global over-heat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it.

The stakes of course are very, very high, because the climate crisis puts the whole of what we know as civilisation at risk. By ‘this civilisation’ I mean the hegemonic civilisation of globalised capitalism—sometimes called ‘Empire’—which today governs the vast majority of human life on Earth. Only some indigenous civilisations/societies and some peasant cultures lie outside it (although every day the integration deepens and expands). Even those societies and cultures may well be dragged down by Empire, as it fails, if it fells the very global ecosystem that is mother to us all. What I am saying, then, is that this civilisation will be transformed.[3] As I see things, there are three broad possible futures that lie ahead:

(1) This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate instability, as Darfur and Syria were. Or

(2) This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses. Or

(3) This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.[4]

The third option is by far the least likely, though the most desirable, simply because either of the other options will involve vast suffering and death on an unprecedented scale. In the case of (1), we are talking the extinction or near-extinction of humanity. In the case of (2) we are talking at minimum multiple megadeaths.

The second option is very difficult to envisage clearly, but is, I now believe, very likely. One of the reasons I have wanted to have this dialogue with you, Sam, is so that we can talk about how we can prepare the way for it. I think that there has been criminally little of that, to date. Virtually everyone in the broader environmental movement has been fixated on the third option, unwilling to consider anything less. I feel strongly now that that stance is no longer viable. And, encouragingly, I am not quite alone in that belief.[5]

The first option might soon be as likely as the second. It leaves little to talk about.[6]

Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of ‘paradigm-shifts’, calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may well run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a while longer. But it will then either crash to complete chaos and catastrophe (Option 1); or seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body (Option 2); or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge (Option 3). Managing to do that miraculous thing would involve such extraordinary and utterly unprecedented change, that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.[7]


We appear to be entering further into a 21st century equivalence of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Given the type of well-reasoned critique presented in Pablo Servigne’s and Raphaël Stephen’s 2015 work, How Everything Can Collapse, a daunting and worthy challenge is: Can we seed future successor-cultures in the time remaining before this one fully collapses?

Collapse is both an end and a beginning of our future. Jem Bendell has posited: “collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable, and extinction as possible [which enables] a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.” Servigne and Stevens advocate neither pessimism nor optimism but rather to be lucid, to see there are other possible scenarios and that our challenge is to adapt our imagination to apprehend these.



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