By Karl North | October 13, 2011
This essay takes as its premise the energy descent future described in an earlier essay, Invisible Ships and Boiling Frogs: The End of Industrial Affluence. As the endgame of this future deepens and the mass media and government remain stubbornly opposed to enlightening the general public, the internet blogosphere has become an excellent alternative knowledge stream. Here, from my perspective, are some of the most effective insights from this literature, recently. For the sake of emphasis, I will categorize them as mental, material, and social questions, although of course they are all interacting.
Mental Issues: The causes and role of denial
Charles Hugh Smith on subtle, unquantifiable, powerful forces at work.
- The reliance on propaganda, for instance, has become so pervasive that the notions of truth and honesty have been hollowed out. Nobody expects the President or Ben Bernanke to speak honestly, as the truth would shatter an increasingly fragile status quo. But this reliance on artifice, half-truths and propaganda has a cost; people are losing faith in government, in all levels of authority, and in the Mainstream Media—and for good reason.
- The marketing obsession with instant gratification and self-glorification has led to a culture of what I call permanent adolescence. Politicians who promise a pain-free continuation of the status quo are rewarded by re-election, and those who speak of sacrifice are punished. An unhealthy dependence on the State to organize and fund everything manifests in a peculiar split-personality disorder: people want their entitlement check and their corporate welfare, yet they rail against the State’s increasing power.
These influences seem to combine to shock the public into a state of willful ignorance in the face of the two huge and interlocking crises that represent a tipping point in modern civilization: a) the depletion and gradual end of cheap, nonrenewable resources, bringing the permanent end of the growth economy, and b) the collapse of the capitalist debt economy. Capitalism cannot abide and will not survive the shrinking economy that characterizes the endgame; it requires growth to pay the interest/rent on debt.
Ran Prieur on willful ignorance:
It’s like the famous Twilight Zone episode where there’s a box with a button, and if you push it, you get a million dollars and someone you don’t know dies. We have countless “boxes” that do basically the same thing. Some of them are physical, like cruise missiles or ocean-killing fertilizers, or even junk food where your mouth gets a million dollars and your heart dies. Others are social, like subsidies that make junk food affordable, or the corporation, which by definition does any harm it can get away with that will bring profit to the shareholders. I’m guessing it all started when our mental and physical tools combined to enable positive feedback in personal wealth. Anyway, as soon as you have something that does more harm than good, but that appears to the decision makers to do more good than harm, the decision makers will decide to do more and more of it, and before long you have a whole society built around obvious benefits that do hidden harm.
The kicker is, once we gain from extending our power beyond our seeing and feeling, we have an incentive to repress our seeing and feeling. If child slaves are making your clothing, and you want to keep getting clothing, you either have to not know about them, or know about them and feel good about it. You have to make yourself ignorant or evil.
The first step toward surviving the endgame is to gain an understanding of what is happening, so it is essential to find ways to explain what is happening that overcome willful ignorance or other forms of denial. Two understandings that are paramount now are how the system works and the limits of energy alternatives.
How the system works, over time. In addition to the end-of-growth crisis of capitalism, its core economies (US, Europe, Japan) are experiencing the endgame of a long process of the system’s internal contradictions playing out.
Here is a short and of necessity simplified explanation. The license this system provides to concentrate the economy’s wealth in few hands creates increasing inequality, which reduces the purchasing power of the majority, and regularly sends the economy into recession or even depression. The most powerful capitalist nations can temporarily prevent or soften these cycles through imperial extraction of wealth from other countries and trickle down to the masses through higher wages and cheaper goods. But this process eventually hits limits – for example when the market for big ticket once-in-a-lifetime items like washing machines becomes saturated, or the capitalist class refuses to share more profits with the working class – and the economy stagnates. Then capitalists find they can make more profit by exporting industrial production to the imperial periphery where labor and many raw materials are still cheap. The resulting de-industrialization of the core economies removes the income-producing employment and consumer purchasing power that keeps the core economies running. Again capitalists find a temporary solution by converting their domestic economies from real wealth production to the production and sale of credit. Cheap credit not only revives the consumer economy for a time but also becomes a source of increasing profit to the financial class, which balloons in wealth and power. But a society can absorb only so much debt. Peak credit occurs when the core economies become credit saturated and increasingly hollowed out by consumer, corporate and government debt. At this point, capitalism runs out of solutions to its contradictions, and a terminal crisis of the system occurs. This is where we are today: the endgame of that long historical process.
The limits of energy alternatives. A form of denial that infects much of the environmental movement is a refusal to accept the limited prospects for replacing fossil fuels with anything else, on a societal scale. The fact that individuals can invest in alternatives has led many to falsely assume that alternatives can simply scale up. As John Michael Greer and other students of the question have pointed out, these limited prospects are not a matter of technological debate, but rather a function of hard physical limits, some of which even well educated people have yet to consider. To give one example, the construction and maintenance of wind and solar electricity at a significant scale requires an industrial economic infrastructure of a level that soon the world will no longer have the energy production to maintain. The only reason we have been able to easily erect and run a few massive arrays of wind-electric generators today is that we did it using some of the last cheap oil and the leftover but slowly crumbling industrial base built in the age of cheap oil.
The other problem with significant replacement of fossil fuels is that the alternatives provide the energy to prolong the massive depletion of nonrenewables and use them to maintain the industrial production that is trashing the planet. The Jevons effect says that energy efficiency gains, in a typical capitalist political economy of few policy constraints, are used in ways that lead to higher energy use at the macro level. Something similar is at work if “clean” energy alternatives replace fossil fuels to a significant degree. The use of alternatives (again in our dominant form of political economy) will be used to chew up the same resources as fossil fuels do. Many of these resources are nonrenewable, many of them destructive of global carrying capacity in their production and use. As just one example, fossil fuels have permitted an industrialized form of agriculture that is an ecological slow-moving disaster but has temporarily doubled world population, which in turn is causing its own problems. A systems analyst can appreciate the positive feedbacks involved. So in general, significant production of alternative fuels would continue the disastrous process that is producing ‘peak everything’ both in terms of resource depletion and nest fouling.
A material force that is moving modern economies toward decline and collapse at a faster rate than they built up is the increasing system frictions caused by overshoot of carrying capacity. As systems analyst Ugo Bardi puts it, it’s “the idea that when things start going bad, they tend to go bad fast”. One source of increasing friction is the operating cost of various pollutions, including corruption, wastefulness and depletions on a system driven primarily by private profit that seems geared to turn resources into garbage at an increasing rate. Here is one commentator’s short list of the increasing frictions that will hasten collapse:
1. Wall Street: a vast skimming operation on the productive elements of the economy.
2. Interest: a hidden tax on productive work (as noted yesterday, on the Federal level, interest on the national debt can be seen as a criminal skimming enterprise). Historically known as usury or debt peonage, the right to charge rent on capital has permitted the growth of a vast criminal syndicate dedicated to no socially useful purpose, which the rules of capitalism allow to operate legally and even sanctify.
3. The 40% of our healthcare/sickcare costs that are paper-shuffling, fraud, etc.
4. The vast profits, lawsuits, needless medications and procedures incentivized by our sickcare system
5. The National Security State/global Empire–huge buildings go up in D.C. by the dozens, all filled with unaccountable bureaucrats and contractors
6. Fiefdoms which have captured the machinery of governance: Junk fees and taxes skimmed to support unproductive layers of bureaucracy
7. The military/industrial complex that feeds imperial expansion and control.
8. The prison industry to control the population made useless by increasing inequality
9. Exurbia: the cost of driving out to the big box stores
10. Massive overconsumption, the result of the highly successful manufacture of desire for unnecessary goods and services.
Tainter’s ‘diminishing returns to empire with increasing size and complexity’ appears to capture much the same concept. Civilization has to work harder and harder to get the same results, and like an engine wearing out with increasing friction of moving parts, eventually freezes up. Add energy and other resource depletion, and the result is that the friction dominating the endgame results in a very steep descent.
Waste. Industrial societies have used the two hundred years of fossil energy joyride to generate enormous waste, some of which functions as “frictions” like those listed above. The US is an extreme case, for example with its trillion-dollar-a-year cost of imperial adventures advertised as ‘defense’. From a purely technical standpoint, while some cheap fossil fuels remain we could turn that energy and other resources consumed in this extravagance toward a conversion of the way we produce life’s necessities (food, shelter) and even some of the better things in life (information, transportation, culture) to modes that might help us better survive the energy descent. But the political will is lacking, and it is not a simple matter of regime change, because the general public, by now victim to generations of indoctrination to false notions of how our political economy works, can no longer make useful political decisions.
Conservatives have been persuaded that the problem is government per se, not seeing that this government fails to serve them because, like all governments, it serves the interests of whoever has the most power, and because this government operates in a society where all the wealth and power has been concentrated in few hands. This is a consequence of the very sort and scope of freedom that libertarians worship and most of us have been taught to embrace. Ran Prieur on freedom as no holds barred:
Americans think freedom means no restraint. So I’m free to start a big company and rule ten thousand wage laborers, and if they don’t like it they’re free to go on strike, and I’m free to hire thugs to crack their heads, and they’re free to quit, and I’m free to buy politicians to cut off support for the unemployed, so now they’re free to either starve and die, or accept the job on my terms and use their freedom of speech to impotently complain.
Liberals on the other hand have been persuaded that the system is fundamentally OK, if only we could do some essential repairs, when in reality the very rules of the system have been set to concentrate wealth and power in an oligarchy, to which any form of government, no matter how reworked, will on the whole become subservient. So any sustainable alternative must operate by fundamentally different rules.
The state of political collective consciousness described above does not seem amenable to rapid change.
“System change, not climate change” – activist slogan at Copenhagen Climate Conference.
“Climate change is only a symptom of a profit-maximizing market system gone wild. We need to change the root cause, the system itself.” – Naomi Klein
Quality of Life. The idea that the transition to a lower energy society, the one we inevitably face, must be a sudden, unmitigated disaster is false. Much of our society lived well at the energy consumption level of a century ago, before oil became central to our present material standard of living. US society uses 4-6 times more energy than the rest of the world, without any gain in quality of life. Europeans use half the energy we do; my experience living a number of years in Europe is that their quality of life is generally better than ours. Brazilians use one eighth of the energy we use, and their quality of life, based on the Human Development Index (life expectancy, educational level, relative income) is nearly the same as ours. As Nicole Foss stresses, happiness is related to level of expectations, so we simply need to lower ours.
Given the ecological damage that the planet has sustained in the last century, even a late 19th century standard of living is not likely to prove sustainable in the long run. But in the short to medium run the proper use of presently wasted resources could provide the slack needed to adapt to lower expectations, making of the transition period a slow-moving disaster rather than a sudden one. However, such a systematic, nation-wide change in economic priorities would require the conversion to the equivalent of a war-time command economy, a major paradigm shift in a nation indoctrinated to free-market ideology.
Thomas Kuhn famously observed that paradigm shifts happen not when the investors in the old paradigm change their minds, but when they die. – Ran Prieur