Sunday, May 13, 2012

Are you scared yet?

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

Fleetwood Mac

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.


  1. As long as we are on untouchable subjects, while I think the apocalyptia around the winter solstice of 2012 is mostly nonsense, if the Mayans did fix that date as the end/beginning of their long count calendar, ya suppose they might be on to something?

    While many people can be counted on to fight to survive, in the event of global economic meltdown, I suspect many can be counted on not to.

    There's a great deal of grief on the backside of peak everything. Best to get on with that now, and let that bottled up reservoir flow, so we can be in a place of wonder and joy (fierce love of life), when the house falls down.

    1. Oh, I'm not too concerned about the Mayans being onto anything later this year. The only danger, as I see it, is if enough people take it seriously enough that self-reinforcing prophecies begin to happen. I know a lot in the US take it seriously but on a worldwide scale only a few are even aware of it. There are far more dull things to worry about.

    2. What the Mayans were on to was the crossing of the galactic equator: the plane perpendicular to the axis of rotation where half the stars of the Milky Way are on one side, and half are on the other.

      Could it have an effect? Possibly. But yeah, we have plenty else to worry about.

  2. hmmm, seems like the clutch that connects belief to action always has some slip to it. There is the belief in collapse on the one hand and the question of what to do about it on the other. Have I changed my behavior to match my beliefs? To some extent, yes. I have stopped amassing useless consumer items. I had a chance to take a job building sail boats out of modern composites. I have experience working in wood and the composite experience would have been useful in finding other gigs, but then I asked myself whether I really believed in the end of oil and if so, whether building skill in working with petroleum based products was really a good thing or not. So I declined. On the other hand, I continue to use my car when I feel lazy rather than getting on my bicycle. My bicycle trailer project that would let me tow my kayak behind my bicycle rather than hauling it on top of my car is languishing as is the yurt building project - the walls are done, but I need to move on to the roof. And so it goes. My post collapse projects all tend to lack the urgency that they would have if actual full blown collapse were here. And then I have to ask myself, what would full financial collapse look like in any case. Could I squat in the place where I now pay rent or would the legal system still work? Would the sheriff still be getting paid to show up at my door to evict me? Would I then be able to find some public or waste space where I could pitch my yurt? And what would I do for food? etc. etc. Much easier to wait and see. Much easier to have some communal consensus that collapse is here and work on it together with a sense of common purpose than be some freak collapsnik building an ark in anticipation of an impending flood.
    I am not arguing against preparing for the future. I am trying to figure out why we are so resistant to preparing when some preparation might be helpful.

    1. Yes, it's true that when people ask 'How long have I got in which I can do something' actually mean 'How long have I got in which I can continue to do nothing.' In truth I don't think there's any point in being too hasty - collapse, when it comes, will be long, slow and potentially quite boring.

      That's not an argument not to prepare for it. Most of the battle is psychological at this stage, and having a yurt project sounds like a pretty sane plan to me.

      Whether the sheriff feels inclined to turn up on your doorstep remains to be seen. When I hear about moneyed people in the UK piling into 'buy to let' mortgages with the idea that being a landlord is somehow a safe bet, I guess they haven't considered the idea that the large majority who cannot afford their own homes might some day dislike the idea of a rentier class and refuse to pay up. Dealing with armed squatters who are backed by public support is not my idea of a safe business venture.

  3. I somehow think this song is suitable for the crazy peak oil movement proponents:

    Nazareth-Crazy (A Suitable Case for Treatment)

    1. Nice - there are plenty of suitable cases for treatment walking around these days!

  4. On the earlier part of the post, Ran Prieur had a good line about Republicans and Democrats when he said that the Democrats are saying, "the house is on fire, but its only a small fire, and the sprinkler system will put it out", while the Republicans are running around shouting "the house is on fire! We must pour gasoline on it!" That somewhat applies to the left and right responses to the crisis generally.

    In response to the comment by Wolfgang Brinck, I've come to the conclusion that there is nothing specific any one person can do to "prepare" for the effects of peak oil and overshoot, and we may have gotten to the point where there is nothing that institutions can do either. First, I can cut my consumption, in fact I have to since I have less money, but my consumption is pretty low and I'm not the one engaging in fracking or overfishing (I rarely eat fish) or whatever. And one of the effects of overpopulation is that the individual is much more powerless, literally one of seven billion, and institutions are becoming more centralized and less open to influence by outsiders.

    However, if you think (realize) that the future is pretty much going to suck, at least for the next few generations, you do get subtly influenced to stop investing in the future. So someone aware of the crisis will avoid having children (zero, one, or two and two only if your own family situation is much better than the norm). They will also avoid taking on debt, because the future enhanced income that would repay it isn't going to happen, and avoid saving, because the savings can't amass interest or be invested profitably so its deferred consumption at best, assuming the value of money holds out. Assets in general will probably be all bubbled up and can't generate the returns they used to have in a economy that had been growing, and are vulnerable to theft. Investing in "education" of course is out, and if you are a country that has turned an increasingly expensive degree into something like a mandatory employment license, well that just becomes another thing to work around. So peak oil awareness shouldn't mean any dramatic lifestyle changes, but should be in the background influencing whatever decisions someone has to make.

    1. Reduced expectations is certainly quite a useful way to think, IMO. People in Russia practically gave up having children after the Soviet Union collapsed - what was the point? I don't know about where you live but here in Denmark it has become something of a trend to have quite a few kids, say four or five, as a kind of status symbol. The message is: I succeeded, look at how much I can reproduce without worrying about my financial situation.

      I personally have two of them, although I hadn't actually encountered William Catton's 'Overshoot' when they were on the drawing board so to speak - so they probably owe their existence to that fact.

      That said, no matter how unappealing the future might be, the present isn't that hot either. There are plenty of things that it will be nice to see the back of. I for one am anticipating the day when I'm sat around a campfire with my grand kids trying (and failing) to explain what Facebook was. Or why we thought it was normal to expect to grow wealthy without doing much work at all.

    2. If you're looking for ideas of how to prepare, my to-do list has a couple billion man-hours worth of work on it. Heck, my blog idea list has a couple hundred entries waiting for me to write, but publishing once a week is about all I have time for.

      One place to start is the Factor-E Farm, -- having a complete Global Village Construction Set would go a long way to easing the way off Hubbert's Mesa.

  5. We have a population of 7 billion and over the next 100 years or so I'm sure the readers of this blog will agree we will go through a bottleneck, who knows how many will survive but probably at least 10 to 20%. Although many will die of starvation and disease it seems likely that in the west at least, a good proportion of this natural wasteage will come from those who give up on having children so the birth rate declines and even worse they lay down and die because they can't face the downspiral of change.

    Thats a sad indictment of what our culture has become. Where is the will to survive? My personal view is that having children and raising them successfully and hopefully seeing them bring up their own children is THE ONLY thing that matters in life. In fact it is true to say that is what life is about. Try and equip yourself and your children with the skills to give them the best chance of getting through the bottleneck. If you don't have kids help someone elses in any way you can. I arrive at this view from the knowledge that 5,000 generations or so have led me to being where I am today, they didn't give up in the face of all kinds of shit, why would I?

    Jason I look forward to reading your views on what we can do. The only thing I would say is that there are many ways to skin a cat (though I have to confess I haven't tried any of them)and there are endless possibilities for living through the decline of industrial civilisation. Burying your head in the sand and doing nothing might work for some but most would be better off taking any kind of positive action.

  6. Great post. It led me to follow the link to the Hutton article, which was properly picked apart by readers. That guy is out to lunch if he thinks Japan is going to do anything other than slip quietly into stagnant irrelevancy. You also referenced Krugman, who apparently believes that economies operate in some sort of vacuum, completely unrelated to the natural environments in which they exist. Or, to put it more precisely, he thinks they operate in environments that have absolutely no resource limits. I've long ago given up on Krugman, despite the fact that he does occasionally say something clever. My main reason is this: he's constitutionally incapable of uttering the obvious about the States: that we might be able to, say, fund better healthcare, or even universal healthcare, if we didn't spend about 60% of our tax dollars on "defense." Now, of course, in the post-peak age, fewer and fewer countries are going to be able to afford high-quality universal healthcare, and the States aren't about to start trying.

    More importantly, I think you covered the main point well. Namely: Why is it that no one is freaking out about this? (Okay, no one aside from the one corner of the blogosphere that we both seem to frequent.) Frankly, I think the same psychology is at work among those who refuse to entertain alternate explanations for what happened on 911: that is, the truth is so terrifying that it's far more comfortable to keep one's head in the sand. And, at least in the States, peak oil is simply not discussed in the mainstream media.

    Here's the thing: the mainstream media, at least until we hit some kind of dreadful crisis, will never honestly report on the issue. I mean, we both know that the economic depression that's happening now is not just because oil production has passed its peak, but because a lot of big money guys have realized this and are quietly "making other plans" and pulling out of traditional investments. They're starting to "price" peak oil into their thinking (which means, simply, that they are all becoming super bears - with predictable effects on the world economy).

    I mean, just imagine what would happen if the NY Times ran a headline to the effect of: "World Economic Outlook Bleak; Good Times Never Coming Back Due to Lack of Resources." What's left of the economy would basically shut down the next day, as people panicked, tried to cash in every investment, and rushed en masse to the nearest place they could find to stock up on canned foods and gasoline. So, we can expect more economic cheerleading for the foreseeable future, especially from the Anglo-American press. Only when the elites in these countries find that it somehow serves their interest to let everyone in on the news that the party's over, will we start to hear peak oil being seriously discussed in the MSM.

    A very selfish peak-oil-aware man might say this is all for the best: I mean, it's like being one of the people on the Titanic who had inside knowledge that the ship was really going down, so they could edge themselves or their wives closer to the lifeboats. But, ultimately, this is, as I have said, pure selfishness. It would be better for our governments to tell us the truth, no matter how grim it is, and let the nation prepare together. We burn so much fossil fuel so needlessly, if we all realized that the party is almost over, at least we could start to seriously conserve and use our remaining fossil fuels to build a more sustainable (albeit, less complex and less abundant) society. Alas, at least in the States, no major politician could get elected on a platform of this kind of sane honesty.

    1. I realize its an analogy, but "inside information" wouldn't have necessarily helped on the Titanic, unless you could somehow get on the handful of early lifeboats that left half-filled. Otherwise, you still had insufficient lifeboats -the real reason for the high loss of life- and a protocol for who got into them. Members of the crew did have "inside information" and went down with the ship, for obvious reasons!

      And the analogy is not great, because there are really no lifeboats for an environmental crisis that affects the entire world. Plus, its not going to be that the world just has to get through this and more fossil fuels will magically appear. The industrial revolution looks like a one time event. I don't think this has sunk into even this corner of the blogosphere.

    2. anonymous: "if we all realized that the party is almost over, at least we could start to seriously conserve and use our remaining fossil fuels to build a more sustainable (albeit, less complex and less abundant) society."
      I think we are dealing with the lifeboat dilemma. If we are in 7 to 1 overshoot, the lifeboat will support 1 billion. We either have to cut consumption to 1/7th of current levels for everyone to survive or pick some higher level and live with the fact that not everyone can get on the lifeboat. Supposedly we are not overconsuming terribly on a worldwide level so that reducing consumption for much of the world population will put them below survival levels. So voluntary reduction of consumption is not a practical solution for overshoot. But it might be good practice for those times when reducing consumption is no longer a voluntary choice.

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  8. Well in the United States our education is so slack we can't even bring our jellyfish up to sentiance level! LOL

    I am new here, but if I understand the musical theme, Simon and Garfunkles "The Boxer" comes to mind. With a refrain that goes Lie de Lie, and the words "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" it seems to have similar elements to your selected song.

    1. Well Russel - you correctly guessed one of my Top Ten bands!

      BTW I'm sure American jellyfish are just as sentient as all the rest, that is, not very.


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