Capitulation draws near

Over at Endless Emendation, I’ve been debating whether the industrial economy is near its end. Even without seriously raising the issue of the horrors of the industrial economy for the world’s cultures and species, and even for our own species, I’ve met a bit of resistance.
It’s not unlike the resistance I’ve met here. Or, during the last several years, everywhere else in the empire. I’ll avoid the issue of the horrors, just for simplicity. But I’m going to foray into the last of fast collapse. Readers, brace for impact.

I strongly suspect the world’s elite know what I know, and a lot more: Economic growth kills people, cultures, and species. And if that’s what it takes, well that’s the price of empire (paid, of course, by different people than those who reap the rewards of empire).
Is this dire? Yes. Is it horribly Machiavellian? You betcha. Does it surprise me? Not one bit. Consider, for example, the use of biofuels to sustain the unsustainable concept of happy motoring, knowing full well it starves people to death. Think that’ll stop us? Has it ever? The expected response to catastrophic predictions about this year’s food supply: We’ll get ours, by any means necessary.
One of my least-favorite authors writes, in one of my favorite lines, “Living takes life. But it can be thoughtful.” That’s Barbara Kingsolver, and I think she nails it. Jimmy Carter knew the cost of our oil addiction … he called conservation the “moral equivalent of war.”
And on, and on. Until I work myself into a bona fide tizzy, desperately wanting the empire to collapse in a heap of rotten elitists. And yes, I know I’m one of them. Small price to pay, I’d say.
I never cease to be amazed by the number of people, on this blog and elsewhere, who believe the supply of oil is infinite, and the similar number who believe we’ll innovate, conserve, or organize our way out of our oil addiction. I use “believe” intentionally, because there’s no evidence of any thinking going on. If there were is evidence to support the notion we’ll get through the year without capitulation of the Dow, please bring it forward, and soon. This is important, after all. It’s not about something as silly as what happens after we die. It’s about what causes us to die, in extremely large numbers.
I think there’s some pretty compelling evidence in favor of capitulation. For one, there’s history, in the form of the one of the most common expressions on Wall Street: “Sell in May and go away.” Stock markets have declined, historically, between May and December, even as the markets have exploded during the last 80 years. If we see a sell-off as large as the one we’ve seen in the last few months, we’re at Dow Zero by year’s end.
But, you might argue, that’s just history. There’s no mechanism. True enough, though most people use history as the basis for predicting the economy will not collapse (because it never has). If you take this route, you’ll need to blissfully ignore recent history in places such as the Soviet Union, Argentina, and Mexico.
So, then, we can ignore history, if that’s what makes you happy.
It’s difficult, though, to ignore the economic impacts of a 0.5% annual decline in availability of crude oil during the last four years. And, as they say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We’re facing a 9.1% decline, according to the rose-colored-glasses crowd at IEA, who never admitted energy supplies could decline until they released their World Energy Outlook the day after Thanksgiving last year. Economists have been completely out to lunch on this issue, as have politicians and the mainstream media.
And then there’s the issue of the U.S. deficit, which currently runs at about $10.5 trillion. That’s quite a bit more than all the world’s currency and all the gold ever mined, combined, which leaves us with two choices: (1) Pay off the debt (ha ha, not in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, working 24/7) or (2) default. I’m guessing we’ll take the same path as the former Soviet Union, Argentina, and all the others.
While I’ll be the first to admit peak oilers have been predicting collapse for a while, I will not admit to being one of them. In fact, my own predictions have been quite conservative relative to the rest of the Cassandra crowd. With that in mind, I cannot help pointing out the obvious (the role of any decent social critic): (1) Cassandra need be correct only once, and (2) a life worth living turns on this particular prediction.
So, please blithely ignore the news that carbon emissions have exceeded all predictions since 2000, when the world’s governments started taking the issue seriously. Ditto for the associated meltdown of habitat for humans. Never mind altruism of any kind at the level of society. As President Obama said during his inaugural address: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”
Bombing our way to happiness is an American institution.
If you’re interested in another way, you’d better get cracking. You could do worse than checking out Dmitry Orlov’s latest address, which has the advantage of scattering humor along with sage advice. When you’re done there, and you want to get serious about preparing for your post-carbon life, check the resources here, here, here, and — for my personal favorite — here.
Good luck to us all, no matter what we believe.

Comments 25

  • In high school, I once read a book called “Evidence That Demands A Verdict.” It was about why a literal reading of the Bible was in fact true. It had a vast bibliography. The index consisted entirely of references to religious tracts, sermons, and – the Bible itself. The “evidence” it presented was entirely of a circular variety, and none of it made the Bible one iota more true.
    Guy, I’m afraid we’re looking at a similar phenomenon here. All these links are just to other places in the doomer-o-sphere (except the links to my blog, ahem). If by claiming the industrial civilized world will collapse in 2009, you are one of the more “conservative” Cassandras, then that means the other Cassandras are wrong, wrong, wrong, because they’ve been predicting the end of the world since, oh, about 2000. (Didn’t Kuntsler say Y2K would bring America to its knees?) They’ve certainly been wrong since I started reading them sometime in 2006.
    Are things dire in the world, looking more so by the day? Yes. Does that mean the end is near? Not necessarily.
    I see your statistics, I see your charts, I see the gist of your argument. I don’t see that that makes you correct. I’ll allow for the possibility (noting, for instance, that Health of Wall Street does not equal the Survival of Civilization, and even though the USSR collapsed and Argentina had some troubles there is still civilization in Russia and Argentina ), but it’s not a strong one. Not so strong that it has me worried, anyway.
    On 1 January 2010 I will post on this blog (and mine) noting that civilization is still standing. If I fail to do this, that means that you are right, and civilization has collapsed.
    On 2 January 2010, if you are amenable to the suggestion, we’ll clink glasses virtually or in reality, and agree to put this whole disagreement behind us, and continue to do what we can do to work for a future that’s worth having. Sound like a deal?

  • I personally do not “believe that the supply of oil is infinite.” I don’t know any people who do. I do, however, subscribe to the positive outlook approach that a solution is possible. The only evidence I have for this irrational outlook is that so far, historically, man has found a solution to all of his crises. Why do you not accept this as evidence (which it clearly is since we are still around using oil like crazy, bloggifying away our days) when you do accept mere projections of oil statistics as evidence? Nobody has any hard evidence as to exactly how much oil exists in the world. NOBODY. Do you at least agree with this? Tomorrow there may be a cataclismic earthquake in Siberia that opens an oilfield the size of the Gobi desert. You have chosen to condemn man and his run-away avarice and are, quite frankly, looking at the situation with a VERY narrow view. That others are looking at the same situation with a different narrow view doesn’t make either right or wrong, does it? My view is based on a single shred of evidence- man has yet to succumb to major crises. You point out Argentina as an example of collapse. In fact Argentina’s economy rose by 9% per annum for five consecutive years from 2003-2007 following its collapse in 2001. It slumped to a mere 7% growth in 2008. Not exactly doomsday.

  • court,
    I will also drink to that,
    nice post by the Guy,
    you almost scared me

  • Guy,
    Thanks for a clear-eyed view into a rational mind. The ship runs on oil. The ship of Empire is at the end of its growth-pahse. Like a tropical forest, it is an extremely complex system that has been driven by the adaptive force of unfettered capitalisn to a highly efficient, highly integrated, highly brittle point. It is ripe for collapse. Sadly, for those who would like to see the creative spirit of man emerge from the rubble, this is not a regional catastrophe, it is global, and it is multi-scaled. Embraced in the nurtuting hold of stable ecosystems and stable climates, even a global economic collapse, cause by neferious financiers, might be survivable, even creative. But we, rather, are embrace, governed, constrained, by an external ecological system that has itself already lost its foundation and is crushing us under the weight of extinction and chaotic change. The collapses of these various systems are synchronus and synergistic. That is the recipe for deep collapse. That means a global carrying capacity significantly reduced. That means death, and suffering, and a legacy of failure for the human species to navigate its self-concious journey collectively. It does not, however, reduce in any meaningful way, the potential of the individual to seek a path rich in meaning, rich in purpose, rich in moments, however few.

  • What? You guys trying to corrupt teetotaler Professor Guy?
    I wish you well.

  • I’m not sure what to say to this, so I’ll borrow another’s words instead:
    Few people have the imagination for reality. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • Thanks for weighing in, everybody. My responses, in no particular order:
    Most people in the 23 previous major civilizations didn’t believe their civilization would collapse, either. Ditto for the Soviets and the Argentinians, among many others. This time, though, the world will not have the vaunted American consumer to bail them out … nor will the world’s people have a cheap energy source. The jig is up … at this point, the empire is just walking around to save on funeral expenses.
    Of course, if we did have a cheap energy source, we’d reduce the planet to a lifeless pile of rubble within a generation. Fortunately, we’ve run out of cheap energy. As with cheap energy, global climate change is a predicament, not a problem waiting to be solved by oh-so-clever Homo consumerus var. americanus. That is, there are no political solutions to either predicament.
    Extraction follows discovery, of course. And discovery of oil on this planet peaked in 1964. We’ve searched for oil with considerable rigor and vigor. Barring a miracle, we’ll not discover a major field. If you’re looking for miracles, perhaps a blog rooted in reason is the wrong place to look.
    I haven’t posted evidence in this post … but I have, in many other places on this blog. And if internet resources don’t qualify as evidence because they’ve been posted online, we might as well cease conversation now. After all, by that silly standard, we aren’t having a conversation.
    Court, I gladly accept your bet. If you win, we’ll clink glasses at your sister’s wedding. According to my rumor mill, that will occur in the bay area in January 2010. If the planes are flying, I’ll be there.
    Again, where’s the evidence? That we’re clever? That we’ll miraculously find another supply of cheap energy, just in time to keep the cars running (and destroy the remaining life on Earth)? That it hasn’t happened (to this country) yet?

  • Charlene:
    Learning Latin,Hebrew and Greek? Just the thought of it hurts my brain,but 150 years ago one had to be fluent in at least two of those to receive a college degree.Now colleges have to deeducate the children of the Yuppie Scum and teach them the crafts necessary to furthur their “success”,i.e.vanity and greed.But as Orlov just told us there will be no more houses or cars.And Professor Guy said the end is nigh,so maybe I’ll just console myself with a drop this eve.

  • Well, Latin is a pet project I’ve taken up with my eldest. We’re not very far in to the endeavor, though. I will say, he’s quite a bit ahead in language and math. Just learning basic Latin nouns and simple conjugation has made a difference, I think. Of course, most schools barely even manage to teach the English language, anymore.
    If you aren’t familiar with the term, look up “inventive spelling” to see what I mean. Teaching proper spelling and grammar would harm the children’s ability to think creatively. (Translation: We, the teachers, don’t know how to do it, either. So, why bother? We’re just happy when the kids manage not to shoot us, or each other during a days time.)
    I consider myself an autodidact. (Translation: I lack the funds necessary for any degree higher than a baccalaureate from some fine institution capable of writing things on fancy parchment with gold leaf, official stamps, and whatnot.)
    Thought you might find this clip interesting from the ShadowStats author-
    “Go Long Scotch”
    Reality is a much more dynamic thing than any individual, human mind can fully appreciate. I think Geothe got it right, and stated it very well. Few have the imagination for reality. I know I don’t. Reality beats any fiction I can think of any day.
    I don’t know whether Guy or Court is correct. I imagine it is possible they are both correct, within certain limits (e.g. calling the date of collapse, suggesting everything will continue or improve by X date).
    Frankly, I don’t understand all of the factors in play, but as an intuitive person, I have to say there is something in the air. The only thing I know for certain is that we’re in for a change of some sort. Judging by reports from some of the best minds out there on the topic of finance, I would say we’re in for a difficult road ahead.
    Lacking vast financial resources and having more than a few reasons for limited responsiveness at the present time, I’ll just have to muddle through and try to adapt. Many of my neighbors are in the same boat. I suppose the Mormon neighbors are better off than most given their stance on storing food, etc. Even if this is only a “depression” and a bump in the road to the next big boom, they’re probably better off for storing provisions.
    I hope you two will be clinking glasses in 2010 and that this blog will still be rolling. I’m not placing any bets, though. I’m just a bystander, anyway.

  • thanks Frank and Charlene
    for your biblical insights
    and suggestions, I will check
    out the king james version.
    (Charlene, I did latin all through high school,
    I still have all my text books – stories
    about Pliny, Trajan etc)
    Anyway, just spent two days at a
    conference entitled ‘creating water
    sensitive cities’.
    It was about governance, perceptions, pollution,
    storage, procurement/capture and recycling of water etc,
    for melbourne. (for the next 30 years – no, peak oil
    was not mentioned, business as usual going forward
    ad infinitum)
    During a break I spoke to one of the speakers/convenors,
    and suggested that all this talk about desal, piping water
    from interstate and water scarcity etc going forward –
    isnt it really highlighting the ‘limits to growth’?.
    Their response was ‘yeah, yeah, although urban growth boundaries
    can create pressures in surrounding muncipalities’. – WTF!
    No, I said ‘limits to growth’ ie resource depletion, overshoot,
    carrying capacity and over population. At that point she was looking over
    my shoulder for security. I could have been from mars!
    This academic supervises Phd students WTF!
    These academics at these conferences,
    (I go to quite a few) they always talk about sustainability
    without I believe any understanding of the true meaning of it.
    Anyway, we had many ‘mind map’ sessions, coloured post it notes were used
    with abandon to highlight the opportunities, challenges, constraints etc.
    I calculated the total cost of the conference, including the fee,
    plus everybodies time – no change out of $250,000! Yes, I am cynic.
    But I digress, recently Robert Hirsch suggested that
    the current oil production/usage would remain on a
    plateau for 2-5 years, thereafter there would be a decline rate
    of 3-5% per year thereafter. Eventhough this decline rate is huge,
    we still have a couple of ‘good’ years left before this occurs.
    This has mentioned before, this decline rate will precipitate
    the expansion of bio fuels and palm oil plantations. Indonesia,
    Brazil are both currently razing rainforsets and planting
    palm oil at great speed.
    blah, blah, blah ‘ad nauseum’!
    well put Mike, you almost gave me the hibee gibees!

  • How can economic growth = doom? while economic collapse = doom? while the status quo = doom?
    Maybe I’m missing something. But are we all doomed?

  • Economic growth causes unrelenting destruction of cultures and extinction of species. For most of us industrialized humans, this is the much-desired status quo. Economic collapse spells no jobs, meaningless currency, no food on the shelves at the grocery store, and no water coming out the taps. That’s great news for everybody on the planet except industrial humans, most notably hyper-indulgent Americans.

  • Matt,
    Glad to be of assistance, and it’s always nice to run into another JMG reader. The latest post on Unnoticed Technology was another one knocked out of the park, IMO.
    I would say a collective failure of imagination is the biggest doom on the horizon. That would cover our failure to imagine new ways of living, failure to imagine the suffering of others resulting from first-world excess, etc.

  • Guy, alright then. Glass shall be clinked one way or the other, on 1 Jan 2010. Will be especially momentous if it happen at a wedding. Will you circumvent your teetotaling ways and make it some champagne or other adult beverage if I win?

  • Court — It’s a deal, champagne included. Actually, I’m not a complete teetotaler. I quit drinking when I was 18, but I drank a few shots of whiskey a mere 29 years later in an unsuccessful attempt to cure a cough. Your grandfather’s cure didn’t work for me, so I went back on the wagon … that was about 18 months ago, so I’ll likely be ready for a drink again in less than a year.

  • Professor Guy:
    Better listen to your Nattering Nephew.It’s been proven that the drop is necessary for
    a person’s physical,mental,and psychological well being.I can help in this regard.

  • Here is the answer:
    I only wish that I had thought of it!

  • Egads, soylent green is babies!
    Swift was certainly one of the kings of satire. Of course, given the sorry state of the school system, I worry that some thoughtful politician might pick it up and act on it.
    I can easily picture Obama turning this into an eloquent speech which would be applauded by the happy masses. And, since we’ve seen with war that Catholics don’t have a problem with what happens AFTER one happens to be born, there probably wouldn’t be too much of an outcry from them, either.
    At this point, I wouldn’t put it past the bastards.

  • Dmitry Orlov. Who is this guy and why does he sound EXACTLY like our Professor?
    This is an article about collapse, particularly the differences and similarities to the collapse of the USSR and the possible collapse of the USA. A very good read!

  • Google “Club Orlov”…he’s got a book and a blog.
    He once showed up on Alex Jones’ radio show (but don’t hold that against him–Alex Jones has lots of interesting guests, much like Coast to Coast, even if he is a little bit to the moonbat side of normal–and I mean that in the most neutral political sense of the term).
    If you’ve ever read Jon Ronson’s books about people staring goats to death (or at least trying their damnedest to and getting paid for their efforts by the govt), or if you’re just paying attention, you’ve probably noticed the truth is stranger than fiction anyway. That’s why I add a little Alex Jones and Coast to Coast in with my Diane Rehm and Michelle Norris listening habits.
    Here’s the Alex Jones interview with him:

  • Actually, sorry, not his radio show, on his livevideo channel. The actual interview hails from somewhere else.

  • Nature bats last. That phrase means that despite the boxing of your mind, nature is the larger you. It also means that nature is your worst editor. She, in her seductive omnipotence has her finger always poised above the reset button. I mean really, that’s why were pissed, right? All our creativity, all of our wonderful plot progression: western man; science; progress, cheetos, diet coke, is subject to her pen. Her story is always our story, too.
    Nature has been silent for a while now. She has been stable. She has let us dream our ficticious dreams in peace. The planet was habitable. The planet was prosperous. Before us, constrained only by the limits of biology and chemistry – physics was ignored – was a world of infinite technological possibility. Small was beautiful, but big was like the tail on a resplendent quetzal.
    But now, the accumulation of history; its long tail curled around its unseen tip and camoflauged into a vague blurriness, has caught up with us. Our story no longer makes logical sense. The editor is peaved. She is slashing whole paragraphs, whole chapters. She is reviewing our contract. It just won’t work she screams. You’ve got an entire civilization based on a finite resource. Where does the energy come from? This is a tradegy, and we’re in a recession?
    Tragedy? We thought it was a comedy. Johnny Carson thought it was funny. It worked for Soylent Green. Shakspeare would certainly of howled.
    We have landed ourselves firmly in the open arms of a predicament. Contradictions plague our plot-line. There’s no time for a major rewrite. It would seem that comedy is the only way to go. Quick, we think. Tell her that she’s pretty; but do it in a gentle way. Just let her know that we like her; that she has our attention. Let her know that tragedies don’t always end badly. Sure, the collective economic and political life of the species fails; but that is inevitable. All those atavistic urges, greased by oil and the selective pressures of the ice ages, were bound always toward contradiction. What is important, tell her, is the tribe, and the life of the mind. Remind her that to be alive is to die, but to be fully human is to die well. Tell her that without tragedy, there can be no compassion. With compassion, tragedy sells. Tell her that you’re sorry, that you should have checked in more often. Tell her that your planting a garden and that swallows are nesting under the eves of your house.

  • ‘Nature is going to require reduction of human dominance over
    world ecosystems. The changes this will entail are so revolutionary
    that we will be almost overwhelmingly tempted instead to prolong
    and augment our dominance at all costs. And, we shall see, the costs
    will be prodigious. We are likely to do many things that will make
    a bad situation worse.’ Billy C
    if what Argentina experienced was a ‘collapse’
    ie loss of wealth, decline in living standards
    and a reduction in personal security, sounds
    like you guys are experiencing that alreadyish.
    Perhaps ‘collapse’ needs to be redefined, I think
    it is a little confusing or misleading, I dont
    think all of us are on the same page when it comes
    to the definition. ‘Collapse’ to me means ‘crash’
    equalling ‘die off’. (Catton)
    I think what Guy is describing is something far more serious
    than the Russian or Argentinian scenarios.
    Anyways, I would like to see a fast crash preparation inventory.
    Orlov talks about food, water, shelter and security,
    but he is short on specifics.
    Guy, can you share with us your specific inventory of stuff
    or could somebody post a link here.
    car free Matt

  • For those of you wondering who Orlov is, I’ve mentioned him in 5 posts since 13 April 2008. His comprehensive assessment comes in the form of his book, “Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects.” You can order it from the publisher at … it’s well worth the read, simultaneously funny and dire (seriously funny?).