Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Doomer Prophecies: Die-Off and the Olduvai Theory
The Olduvai Theory -- note that 2012 requires no cosmic catastrophe to be an interesting year!
When I first came across the "Olduvai Theory" and "Die-Off" writings I experienced a kind of dark revelation, perhaps not unlike what others feel when reading the Bible or the Koran for the first time. For me these writings put into rational scientific language what some subconscious but perceptive part of my brain must have long suspected: that techno-industrial civilization is unstable and has no future. Richard Duncan, Jay Hanson, Perry Arnett and many others have given us a sort of gospel of doom, so horrific in its implications that we can’t expect their ideas to ever see the mainstream light of day. After reading these writings you may develop a twitch, join an apocalyptic cult, run for the hills or just read Peak Oil blogs all day; you certainly won’t remain unaffected by them if you have any kind of independent reasoning capacity.
Every self-respecting doomer is familiar with the Olduvai Theory and the Die-Off thesis, but for the uninitiated here’s a quick synopsis. The Olduvai Theory models industrial civilization as a pulse wave that follows the curve of the world’s energy production per capita. By plotting this curve using past and projected energy and population data, Richard Duncan’s model projects a rapid drop-off in standard of living that is due to start…right about now! The upshot of the theory is that our civilization will collapse back to a medieval or even Stone Age level of development within about a century, never to rise again. The Die Off scenarios of doomer guru Jay Hanson are even bleaker. His somewhat more complicated theory is derived from an understanding of hard-wired human behavior and natural energy laws, which in his view lead inevitably to environmental overshoot, conflict over resources and a massive "die-off" of as much as 99% of the human population. Hanson predicts global nuclear war within fourteen years and a century of Malthusian horror, followed by a reversion to the hunter-gatherer mean. Not exactly the “Good News” of the New Testament, now is it?
The first thing to realize about these doomer prophecies is that they are not the work of fringe religious crazies or societal failures holding cardboard signs proclaiming "the end is near." These writers are almost all middle-aged or older Western men who have been highly successful within the belly of the techno-industrial beast: businessmen, engineers, scientists, investors, futurists—in other words, exactly the same class of forward-thinking people who 50 or 60 years ago were leading the charge toward the bright technological future of nuclear rocket cars and interplanetary space colonies. In times of apparent progress and economic growth such doomers could easily be laughed off; in the current environment of economic collapse, when the shining promises of our so-called leaders are being revealed as a tissue of lies, the prophets of doom can no longer be ignored.
As one who was born and raised to be a soldier in the great upward march of progressive civilization, when I started reading the doomer prophecies I felt like a child must feel who was groomed by his tribe to be a warrior, only to be called into a council by the tribal elders upon reaching maturity and told that a cosmic catastrophe was approaching that would wipe out the tribe within twenty years. It’s a devastating feeling to realize that your whole life’s path has been predicated upon unsustainable myths and fantasies. Maybe this is what it feels like to be “born again” for some Christians, except in this case it’s more like being “dead again”. Or perhaps a better metaphor is what Dorothy and friends experienced when the curtain was pulled back on the great Wizard of Oz to reveal a frail old man.
The Oracle of Omaha, or the Wizard of Oz?
However you characterize the experience of doomer revelation, it certainly plays havoc with your personal ambitions and ability to do productive work within the techno-industrial paradigm. The urge to click your heels and escape the Land of Oz can become overwhelming, like some primordial survival instinct calling you back to a much older and more fundamental way of life. For some this urge ends in tragedy or terrorism. For others it is a wake up call that changes their lives in less drastic ways which, if repeated millions of times around the planet, may be the closest thing to a practical solution to our predicament that we have. In fact if we're very lucky, this could turn out to be the lasting value of the doomer prophecies: they may not be self-fulfilling, but self-defeating.