Thursday, April 20, 2006


In my start-of-2006 prediction, I called 2006 the “year of the balance beam.” We’re in a pretty precarious position, and a good jolt could send us right off the edge, but without that shock we will probably keep on walking in a straight line. Well, as we near summer we are also nearing a bifurcation point—the point at which the universe of possible future realities sharply divide into separate sets. One way to think of it is that the width of civilization’s balance beam is shrinking. We walk along in the same straight path that we’ve walked on for decades, but as the balance beam shrinks from 2’ wide to 2” wide, the probability of falling off increases exponentially. But to a casual observer from the side, everything is proceeding as normal…

Graphic: Bifurcation Diagram

We’ve had many close calls. The end of the Cold War was probably our last great wobble. We swung our arms about and did a little dance, but we weren’t really in any great danger of falling off. 9/11 was a slight trip—and it took us a moment to regain our balance. But balance regained, we’ve regained confidence, and perhaps we’re moving forward a bit faster than is prudent (in our shiny yellow H2 short bus). Now we’ve realized that we’re unstable again—our arms are just now quivering, wondering how to react to the next blow, and our legs are a bit shaky. There’s uncertainty—will we catch our balance quickly, will we pirouette and nearly fall off but regain control, or is it one with the abyss for humanity? You can see this clearly in oil prices, which hit record highs this week without a hurricane. The combination of supply-demand issues and wondering about Iran has left us in limbo. Will we catch ourselves this time? What about the next? It’s really only a matter of time now. Most likely we’ll catch our balance this time—and you’ll see this reflected in oil dropping below $68/barrel. And most likely we’ll catch our balance next time, too. But the balance beam is getting narrower. Will a major Gulf hurricane knock us off for good? What about Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz? What about a collapse of oil production from Ghawar? What about China continuing to grow oil demand by double digits annually? India? What the future looks like will depend in part on what catalyst knocks us off. But one thing is certain—after the bifurcation point we aren’t walking down the same straight line any longer.


Anonymous said...

Another fantastic post, Jeff, and thanks. I suppose that some of your thinking on bifurcation theory comes from your readings of Delanda's work on Deleuze? If so (or if not), I personally would benefit a great deal by hearing more (perhaps even, more 'personally') how these two thinkers have influenced your take on the world.

In an unrelated thought, HOW are you doing these fantastic graphs?


fizure said...

Excellent post. it is becoming increasingly clear that things do not bode well for our species in the short term (next couple hundred years, at least--depending how bad TSHTF). In the long run life on earth should be fine, but the potential damage capable of occuring during the Cold War (a fear wielded awesomely by those politicians who considered it currency) is still evident today. Even if Iran's whole horse and pony show has any fucking merit whatsoever, it is still entirely capable (and I hate to sound like Christopher Hitchens here, but hey, out of all the bad things you can say about him--at least he despises religious doctrine) that crazy fundementalists--on any of the sides, and they're on almost all of them, can still trigger catacylsmic events--perhaps global thermonuclear war if jerusalem is nuked, or seriously nuclearly inflicted (so to speak), by tirggering a death sentence to most if not all life on earth in a trigger of retaliatory and counter attacks cumilnating in perhaps a more disasterous scenerio than was observed during World War One. Of course this is all very unlikely. What is more likely is that energy in the future will be more scarce until fusion comes online (within the next 30 years would be unbelievably wonderfully great... However until then--as we putter down science avenue with our Genius George Dubya, our economies are utterly dependent on liqued fuels-notably, crude oil and other synfuels. Blah blah oil is everything (although true, it makes seem even duller) and we're depleting!!

When? When will global extraction peak? Who knows? No one!

No one has any fucking idea! Too much disparate and unreliable data and variables exist for precise scientific calculations to estimate peak dates.

And, perhaps an analogy would be in order... I would equate geologists attempting to establish reserve data to physicists trying to figure out how to make controlled fusion work. Both know a ton about the theories and math in their respective fields, but neither can pull off reliable and correct (or useful) results... It's simple tinkering--in geology's case, bad data and physics case misunderstood and never acheived applications of theoretical physics.

One more thing on this rant... I have a friend who believes whenever peak oil does strike, that development in "developing economies" will go forward nonetheless and that the third world will fare better than the g8 and their minions... I fail to see how this analysis is correct. The way I see it is that US along with other Imperial interests (perhaps the Chinese and some other powers) will simply siphon energy off developing economies... I'd guess that most developing economies are these days fairly dependent on a lot of imported food (some most definetely from the "bread basket of america"). Monsanto, ADM & Co. have made strides. They have greatly expanded market capitalization over the past decade and prior by using the IMF and WTO to pass pleasant free market treaties for they're genetically modified patents.

Woe is the entire world in the not to distant future. Cheers chicken little, and off with your head!

Jeff Vail said...

The graphs are a the result of boredom and Powerpoint. You can do amazing things when you combine the "group objects" and "duplicate" functions...

Regarding de Landa, I was definitely influenced by both "1000 years of non-linear history," and "War in the age of intelligent machines." Actually, I liked them more than Deleuze's works. Remembering that human interaction, that civilization as a whole, is still just the natural interaction that follows the processes revealed by science is important. The most fascinating concept, for me anyways, is emergence--in part because it explains how patterns and processes still govern despite the incomprehensible influence of things like individual human psychology. These patterns repeat again and again if we just look at things the right way--and their discovery helps to understand function. Bifurcation is just one example--something that is normally used in the analysis of chaotic systems with multiple attractors, something like weather, but that I think applies quite well to "history" (which is, in itself, an interesting ontological conception). I've also found the writings of Robert Anton Wilson to be absolutely fascinating. He is a techno-salvationist, but I guess I can forgive him for that!

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