Perhaps it's just me, but over the last couple of weeks I thought I could distinctly hear the sound of pennies dropping as an ever growing tiny minority of people began to realise just how godawful our situation has become. It could have begun last week Sir Mervyn King, the chief economist at the Bank of England, – a staid economist not given to wild statements – casually said that our economic situation outlook was likely to be worse than the Great Depression.
He was, of course, immediately rounded on for being alarmist, not least by the Guardian's chief economic fantasist Will Hutton who, yet again, insisted that financial mismanagement was the cause of all crises and if only everyone just followed his prescriptions for caring capitalism we'd be all be fine. In another post Mr Hutton claimed that the future lies with Japan because they have more caring electronic gizmos than anyone else - including heated toilet seats. Quick, somebody call a nurse!
And there's no point looking for answers with any of the Left's other supposed gurus either. Nobel Prize winning Paul Krugman doesn't get it either, and insists that some mix of Keynesian stimulation is all that's needed to get those consumers consuming again so that we can rejoin the path to a lightweight knowledge economy … or something.
What else can the Left offer (I'm not even going to bother considering what the Right consider as solutions - from their point of view there's little wrong with the system in the first place)? Oh yes, the 99% and all that. Kill the bankers and redistribute the wealth. Occupy. Revolution. I'm sorry chaps, I don't think that's going to work - no matter how evil you think the '1%' are (there's the clicking sound of me losing another dozen Twitter followers).
Keynes once famously prescribed paying a man to dig a hole and paying another man to fill it in again. I'm all for that if there are holes that need digging and filling (or more useful tasks, such as insulating homes), and much as I like Keynes the person, I think this time we should sling him into the hole too before it is filled in. Back in his day the stated macroeconomic policy goal was full employment – and when was the last time you heard that term used? A more apt question today might be 'who is going to pay those hole diggers?'
Anyway, back to the fear. Does anyone know what a permanent economic contraction feels like in a system that has no reverse gear? It means there is no point saving for a pension because whatever money you put aside now won't be worth much in the future. It means that governments can't borrow money at anything like the rate they have become used to which means they won't have much money for things like schools and hospitals. Who would lend a government money in the knowledge that it can't pay it back? The same thing goes for banks. Of course, the current madness sees the endless recycling of unpayable debts between governments and banks, and until someone devises a new kind of financial tool whereby banks can lend money and then be happy with only getting half of it back again then I'm afraid we are heading towards total paralysis.
Furthermore, the countries that have racked up massive debts are now drowning in them. Greece could well be the first to sink beneath the waves, but there are plenty of others that could follow it. They can't all, as some have suggested, just do an Iceland and refuse to pay, although eventually many might be forced to do just that. Remember: in capitalism failure is not a option. And in case anyone hasn't noticed, here in the West we are printing money like it is going out of fashion (although the euphemism employed is 'Quantitative Easing'). Printing money, as anyone with a history textbook knows, is a short cut to economic ruination. Yes - ruination.
Yet, so far, even QE has had no effect, with the Bank of England even giving up on the idea – not because we are out of the economic straits, but because it just doesn't do anything useful other than inflate the balance sheets of a few financial institutions who, in turn, refuse to recycle it into the real economy of goods and services in which actual humans live.
Of course, the financial press can't ignore all of these problems, but they are not exactly being given the prominence they demand, preferring instead to focus on (i.e. cheerlead) the latest pump and dump operations – be it Facebook, Apple or shale gas. A lot of reporting focuses on the individual actors involved, rather than the forces driving the dysfunction. Bad idea.
And that's just the economic news, which is the most fixated-upon, but all-told probably the least scary.
The very few people I know in person who actually read this blog might chuckle a bit and think that I'm being a little eccentric or alarmist in my tone. The fact is that this blog is not nearly alarmist enough. By rights it should be written in a bold 72 font with a flashing red background and a continuous air raid siren noise playing in the background. After reading it you would want to hurriedly gather a few belongings and family members, bundle them into a car with the boot filled with dry food items and head immediately for the largest gathering of like-minded people you could find in some place far from history's flashpoint areas.
Because the real problems we face are several fold and no matter how deeply we bury our heads in the sand they're not going to go away. The problems are so big they're not even problems at all, they're predicaments i.e. something that we'd better learn to adapt to asap rather than solve. The biggest one of them all is overshoot. As a species we have overshot our resource base by a factor of about seven, meaning that if you took away the oil then the Earth's life support systems would quickly turn six billion of us into compost. Oil, by the way, has plateaued and can only go down from here.
And people, by and large, can normally be relied upon to resist being turned into compost, preferring instead that some others take on that honour. There, did that sound alarmist?
So if we can't eat oil what else can we eat? Well, the oceans are being denuded of fish at an ever increasing rate, so fish is increasingly off the menu. I once harvested and barbecued a jellyfish, just to see if it was edible, and the result was a little bit like tough burned rubber. After all, there is no shortage of jellyfish and they have plenty of protein – but not many people were willing to give it a try at the time (despite some nice barbecue sauce and chilli dressing). I wrote about it in a newspaper and the only response was from a vegan who said that jellyfish were sentient beings too. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Topsoil is being turned into chemical, salty dust at a breakneck speed too, and aquifer levels in many regions are sinking fast so there isn't even enough water to keep alive the nutritionally deficient monocultures we have become so fond of. How are we going to cope with these challenges? GMOs will just make things worse. And, no, as far as we know crops cannot be grown on the seabed or, on giant floating sky islands or the Moon.
And just when that sounded like enough challenges, we have the added bonus of the fact that we are moving into an age of climate instability, which is likely to see much of the world's fertile land and coastal cities swamped by rising waters.
Of course, if you are from China or India or any of the other supposed 'booming' countries you'll a) Not be reading this in the first place despite me putting a translation widget at the top or b) Will have covered your eyes and ears by this point as you fumble for the mouse and tune into some other blog which breathlessly discusses the amazing diamond-encrusted future that awaits as you assume your position as heir to the industrial throne. Good luck with that!
But, of course, fear is not a useful response to our predicament. It can be a useful reaction when, say, a wild animal jumps out from behind a tree to attack you – the adrenaline rush allows us to move more quickly and make better snap judgements. But as far as the long, slow arc of the end of the industrial age and the twilight of the West is concerned, fear is practically useless. Instead it is far better to understand the challenges we face, and mentally and physically prepare yourself for it. That's what I aim to start talking about in next week's post.
Peak n'Oil – Band Number #9
Tell a man something he doesn't want to hear and he'll ignore you – but tell him something he does and he's all ears. Every time you hear a politician promise to get [insert country here] working again, or you see a shale gas commercial saying the stuff can provide our energy needs for decades, or someone insists that we invaded [insert oil soaked country here] to liberate them – just imagine Fleetwood Mac's Little Lies playing in the background - it's a useful meditation in an otherwise depressing situation.
And given that this week's post is about fear, there can be few better track about it than I'm So Afraid. Remember, fear is never a good option, but if you're feeling somewhat down as you scan the news on EnergyBulletin you could do worse than to play this track and turn the volume up to Number 11.