Ramping up the Speculator

I’m going to ramp up the Speculatorâ„¢ with this post, notwithstanding the pathetic failure of my short-term prediction for the week just ended. Seems all my wishful thinking won’t push the teetering industrial economy over the cliff. I’m sure there’s a lesson here, but — in classic American style — I’ll pretend there’s not.

Obviously, there are an infinite number of possibilities regarding our future, particularly in the short- and medium-term. In the long term, the industrial economy ends. We simply will not be using $400 oil to suck water from 600 feet below ground, even if we do maintain governmental structures that could facilitate such a heinous activity. In the longer term, our species blinks out because, well, that’s what happens to yeast and other organisms. Just as individuals and empires die, so, too, must our own empire and our own species fall into the abyss.
I’ve no doubt we’ll be squarely in the midst of the post-industrial stone age within a decade or two as we fritter away the planetary endowment of fossil fuels. Similarly, I’ve no doubt we’ll be extinct within a century or two. However, both narratives are well-accepted by the community at large, in part because they are so far beyond the attention span of industrial humans. Rather than beat the pummeled equine yet again, I’ll focus this post on what happens as we proceed down the bumpy trajectory of Hubbert’s back side.
Just as there are an infinite number of potential futures, there are an infinite number of doors that are closed to us. We are not bringing back long-term growth of the industrial economy, for example. We closed that door when we burned up the cheap and easy oil and didn’t develop anything resembling a comprehensive substitute. Just as we’ve seen the last blast of long-term economic growth, we’ve also seen the end of the party for the suburban housing market and a handful of no-interest credit cards for every schlub who graduated in the top half of his junior-high class. More importantly, but of considerably less interest to most people, we’ve seen the last individuals of the many hundreds of species we drive to extinction each week.
Oil priced at $600 per barrel accounts for the entire GDP of the industrial world. The consequences of oil at only one-quarter that price nearly brought down the industrial economy, destroying pension programs, wiping out banks, jacking up unemployment, and causing the federal government to socialize the banking sector and the country’s large automobile manufacturer (to an even greater extent, that is, than they were already subsidized). Just as appearances of the first peak-oil recession give way to the “good news” of green shoots on the nightly news, let’s project what the next shock wave looks like, and the one after that, bearing in mind that, at this point, collapse could be completed by any number of factors seemingly unrelated to the spot price of oil (e.g., ARM resets, unemployment benefits drying up, food shortages, water shortages, shareholders actually paying attention to what companies are doing, corporations paying attention to state and federal laws, the Securities and Exchange Commission enforcing the law, any of a long list of natural disasters).
As an example of the type of dumbassery that could bring down the industrial economy, check out Well Fargo’s latest trick to avoid telling their shareholders the number of mortgages in default, bearing in mind that Wells Fargo is using the same stupid tricks in the commercial sector that killed Washington Mutual last year. Thus, Wells Fargo is lying to their shareholders about home loans even as their commercial portfolio is a ticking time bomb.
As I’ve indicated previously, I think our next trip to triple-digit pricing in the oil market brings dire news to a badly battered American consumer (cf. citizen), and perhaps even another ride on the oil roller coaster will not be needed to bring it all down. Regardless of the triggering event(s), the ongoing collapse likely will continue to occur at different rates in different locations, with California leading the way and places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and the epicenters of the housing boom trailing close behind. Goodbye Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. Hello states and countries with conservative banking institutions, at least in the short term.
But, enough dithering. Caveats aside, where are we headed within the next few years? I present the barest of sketches here because (1) Every prediction about the mid-term prospects of civility is certain to be wrong, and (2) We get to create our own future, and I’d rather not disrupt the creative process of the dozen or so readers who might want to help their communities prosper during the post-carbon era.
There is little question that saving the industrial economy represents item one for every government in the world. These governments are run, after all, by the most civilized of humans. So we expect them to pursue economic growth by any means possible, including continued destruction of the living planet. If they have to “socialize” (for the rich) every single large entity, they will.
Where does it end? With consummate obedience at home. With ultimate oppression abroad. With a lifeless pile of rubble formerly called Earth. And with the people, if they still warrant such a noble label, quaking in fear that they might be next to draw the attention of the government.
So, what does that mean if you’re living in a city? Or a town? Or in the boonies?
In general, cities suck. That is, they suck life from the planet. They represent all that is wrong with imperialism. They extract precious clean air, water, and food from adjacent wildlands (i.e., the landbase) while returning foul air, filthy water, and garbage. Cities are incapable of supporting human life without massive subsidies from nature. These subsidies formerly came from nearby, but the advent of cheap fossil fuels allowed nature’s abundance to come from further and further away, to the point that we now use our stunningly powerful military to extract materials from every corner of the globe (I know, I know … globes don’t have corners). The inaccessibility of fossil fuels as we slide, bump, slip, and fall down Hubbert’s curve suggests increasingly frequent disruptions in sanitation services, power, water, and food. I strongly suspect disruptions in these services in cities, where they are most badly needed, will lead to increasingly brutal disruptions in civility. At some point in the not-so-distant future, every city becomes uninhabitable for ninety percent or so of the occupants. The scavengers who stay will be surrounded by all the shiny furniture and shoes they could possible want, but also by a shocking absence of culture, food, sanitary water, and aesthetic beauty.
Rural areas, which currently are economically wounded almost beyond belief, lie at the other end of the post-carbon spectrum from cities. Rural areas are home to clean air and, in a few remaining places, clean water and food. These areas are economically disadvantaged (that’s what empire does) and they are continually contaminated by city dwellers — after all, we have to put our garbage somewhere! The ability of rural areas to shrug off the long-term impacts of serving as the nation’s garbage dumps is by no means guaranteed. But the people in these areas know each other in ways city-dwellers do not. Once you’ve seen your neighbor cut the rug at the latest dance party, it’s difficult to put a bullet in his brain just because he’s stealing food from your garden. The city folk I know don’t have gardens, but most of them would plant a few carrots if it gave him an excuse to fire a round at one of the neighbors.
Because cities and rural areas lie at the extremes of population density and therefore imperialism, the real issue is what happens between those extremes. What about towns with a few thousand people? Will Willits, California muddle through? Will it thrive? This town of five thousand people, with an additional five thousand in the zip code, has been transitioning to a post-carbon future before Transition Towns appeared in the rose-colored glasses of civilized folks. But can Willits maintain its industrial water supply when the power goes out? Can the citizens grow enough food for residents when the trucks stop coming? Assuming they can support five or ten thousand people, what about the additional five million or so likely to show up from the heavily populated surrounding area?
Willits might be fine. They’ve had leadership in the community for years, and many people in the area are aware and ready to contribute. I’m not terribly optimistic about many other places though, including the many towns and small cities filled with ignorant or ambivalent politicians. And I’m quite concerned about the post-Boomer generations who’ve never known physical labor but who will nonetheless be asked to put their shoulders to the collective wheel in the name of creating a livable community for themselves and their children. I don’t doubt they are capable of hard work, physically and intellectually. But will a sense of community suddenly overcome the sense of entitlement currently afflicting these generations?
This post was inspired by a comment from Stan Moore, and informed by his many cogent comments and the links he uses to support his views.

Comments 12

  • I don’t know.
    I doubt, looking into the future, that anything will be uniformly true.
    There will probably be places that adapt, maybe even thrive, while others crumble into dust. I’m not ready to assume the whole human race is going to vanish in two hundred years. Reduced numbers of people, maybe, but gone completely? I doubt it. I doubt that answer as much as I doubt that we’ll hop on starships and colonize other planets to cover our overshoot.
    The ones who do survive the changes in an era of decline will be the same bunch that always seem to make it: the lucky and the clever. Mostly, just the lucky, because there isn’t that much “clever” to go around. ;)

  • Prof Em Guy:
    Better not put a date on your predictions.It’s too dangerous–I’ve been embarrased often when my dates didn’t happen.Just think of how
    insufferable 5N will be on January 1,2010 if we are still here.Worst,he has the temerity to write your predictions down and record your predicted time lines.Not your fault,you can’t choose your relatives.
    Double D

  • I have to disagree with you guy about your assumption that agriculture on a large scale has led to every thing from the rise of the city state as the first and only route to wealth accumulation and warfare as well as changing the roles for men and women. I will use the history of the american indian as the example. Only tribes that lived in areas of the country that were conductive to farming with decent rainfall.weather and soil produced crops of a scale needed to support themselves. The arrival of the spanish bringing with them the horse was the most destabilizing event that had happened up till that time. Some tribes along the central river valleys of the country abandoned agriculture completely to hunt buffalo since this resource had been difficult to hunt on foot and provided far more in the way of support than growing crops. The mobility of the horse also changed tribal behavior in other ways. It allowed raiding of other tribes at great distances to steal slaves,women and of course horses and cattle. The horse became the focus of wealth accumulation with its capture. trading and breeding and the central point of indian existence. What is an indian village other than a small city that must move constantly to find new pasture to feed its huge horse herds(some tribes had several thousand) and the buffalo themselves. This method of living by its very nature produces a limit on how many tribal members can be supported just as agriculture does but the tribes solved this problem by pushing other smaller and weaker tribes out of the area of best hunting grounds. Once population exceeds a certain level however there is no way to support it in this manner and ours has long since exceeded any sane level forcing us into industrial agriculture and heavy use of fossil fuels to support it. The rise of industrial agriculture only matches the increase in population and of course provides many other avenues for accumulation of wealth as the complexity vastly exceeds the plains indians and there methods. The concept of existence with each group using what is available to it however is the same. I have said this before and I will say it again that unless someone expects some technological salvation on a grand scale then the only possible way to save the situation was to limit human population to no more than one billion and not 7 billion plus.

  • Guy —
    We have direct testimony on the record now that the world’s economic systems would have crashed in the past year or two if not for extraordinary propping up in favor of the “Looting Class”. This is a recurrent theme of recent history — “public denial alongside looting of the commons by the looting class”. My understanding is that Vladimir Lenin described this sort of phenomenon as a characteristic of “late stage capitalism”.
    This sort of propping is also unsustainable for very long. It adds more complexity to the system, as Joseph Tainter would say. It makes the final fall that much more complete.
    The world is a big place and there is lots of room for variation in how it will collapse. And there are different types of collapse, ranging from economic, financial, agricultural, military, ecological, species’, electrical, social, etc. Most of these systems are synergistic and interdependent.
    The collapse of the US economy will ultimately coincide with a collapse of the US military. This could lead to a policy of “use ’em or lose ’em” with Obama provoking a war with Iran or someone else while the US can still deploy offensive hardware and personnel in far flung regions of the world. The closer the US is to collapse the less caution an American administration could be expected to show concerning “blowback” or counterattack by foreign powers, since the US is going to lose influence, including military influence across the globe in the foreseeable future. Obama could very well adopt a policy of “if we can’t have it, we will use our vestiges of power to deny it to the other bastards”, a truly inglorioius mindset.
    The collapse of finance will ultimate affect large-scale agriculture, which depends heavily on financing and fuel, not to mention chemicals and increasingly expensive water.
    Human extinction is a very real possibility, but hopefully not probable because humans are resilient and capable of survival under a lot of adverse conditions. The most likely driver of human extinction would be human-engineered, as in biowarfare, in my opinion. If the earth becomes a human-free zone because of global warming, that means that conditions would have changed to the point that many other species would precede us in extinction, including many necessary for our very lives in various systems, making the world a pretty unpleasant place to live anyways.
    The last point I would make is that I expect many humans will die Katrina-style, because the powers that be are more than willing to allow it while they seek to save themselves. There will be no fairness and luck will be hard to come by when survival is engineered for the few at the deliberate expense of the many.
    People are going to have to make their own luck, by and large and the collapse will be engineered and not random.
    That is the bad news, but is also the good news. Those determined to live on have an opportunity to arrange for their own likely survival at small scales of locale and in small numbers. Tribal or community-level survival will be the key, I believe. Portability of lifestyle may be an advantage, but flexibility and resilience and determination will surely be major advantages.
    I think that civil unrest in the US will lead to loss of civil liberties in the predictable future, but it will be hard for the authorities to maintain control for long when taxes are not collected and government personnel are going without paychecks and facing the same hard lifestyles as the masses. I expect that it will be every man for himself at some point. A failure of the electrical grid may very well be the final chapter, and I have seen no recent comments, nor any retraction by Richard Duncan over his Olduvai Gorge theory placing the final end of the grid by 2030. That is the updated commentary I am continuously looking for, as it is based on empirical, long-term data linked to Peak Oil and world history of the industrial era. I will be very interested to see what Dr. Duncan’s next round of data crunching tells us. I suspect it is right on target and per capita energy use is continuing to decline and will ultimately result in the failure of the grid. It will be “lights out”, very literally and all those depending on computers and incandescent and flourescent lights and pumped water and sewage and gasoline and rechargeable batteries and so forth will be in for a hard ride.
    Lastly, I tried to get mention of this in the Ornithological Listserver, particularly as regards to electronic journals of ornithology and the archiving of knowledge. But, alas, the ornithological societies are so concerned right now with maintaining their own existence in a financially-collapsing world that they cannot be bothered to think forward to the time when these new electronic journals will be forever unavailable. So sad.
    Stan Moore

  • Memo to all:
    The horrible truth is we engage in wishful thinking.We so love nature and despise the awful mass of humans that are destroying it for the VEG(vanity,envy,greed)that we yearn for the demise of the Capitalistic system at the heart of all this evil.I am as guilty as every one else on this.5N seems to be the only one here with a sense of proportion and reality.We need to encourage and support 5N
    (Court) on this.
    I find myself agreeing 100% with Prof Em Guy and Our Stan.This scares me.The psychological massage this affords is comforting,but we must submit to truth and reality–as painful as it might be:
    the end cannot be predicted nor can the future event scenario.
    Please feel free to comment 5N.
    Double D

  • Frank, you’ve got to see the Archdruid Report’s last post about daydreaming of distruction. It hits the nail on the head.
    I will say, there are things I find absolutely wrong and disgusting about the current state of affairs… but I don’t think the satisfying crunch of everything caving in on itself would be all that satisfying if it ever really did come to that.
    Besides that, if you thoughts expand to a geologic perspective on time, then you see quite clearly that nothing is sustainable. There is no such thing as truly 100% sustainable life. It’s impossible. It’s like continuing to live without killing anything (plant or animal) to fascilitate it. Life feeds on life and change is the only constant. Just when you evolve to be perfectly suited to your environment you get squished on the pages of The Origins of Species.
    I’m not saying we should endeavor to waste resources and trample other living things, just that we’ll never be completely sustainable. A sustainable, harmonious planet without extinctions or inequity would be a dead planet without so much as a spec of life on it. Just getting rid of the humans wouldn’t do it, you’d have to send all of life itself to the junkheap if you want the place to be peaceful. Because life is anything but 100% peaceful and fair.
    In some historical sense, I really do think we will decline sooner or later. When it happens it won’t be as satisfying and romantic as a disaster blockbuster at the local theater. Nope, just like most death from old age it will creep in by increments slowly taking away the arrogance of youth and vitality. And then, after a time, something younger and stronger will come in as a replacement only to go out the same way some point down the road.
    To me, fast crashes and dreams of a better society if we all go back to some primitive state are too romantic. Fate really doesn’t care about our romantic ideas.
    I may not be pagan, but I’m completely on the druid’s wavelength. I’m also a fan of saving and/or improving whatever you can while the opportunity exists.
    Just my two bits.

  • P.S. The day the masses declare that Western Industrial Civilization collapsed will be a day picked, arbitrarily, as part of a post hoc analysis of the facts.
    Kind of like the fall of Rome…

  • Frank, all I would add is that plenty of people have a “sense of proportion and reality.” It’s just that not very many of them, evidently, comment on this blog. Speculation is a highly entertaining hobby, but a very unwise thing upon which to stake your credibility.

  • Interesting comments one and all. I agree with you and I wish I did not. I would like to go back to “the good ole days of ignorance”. Alas, it’s a jungle out there, everywhere, and about to get a lot more dangerous.

  • One correction, Guy, to “The city folk I know don’t have gardens…” Though Spokane may be a small city (1/4 million in town, almost 1/2 million in county), we, our next-door neighbor, and both across-the-street neighbors all have gardens. Probably none big enough to keep us alive much past Christmas, though.

  • James, now I must make the correction. You’re not city folk, but country folk who happen to live in the city. City folk, by definition, do not have gardens :)

  • Besides, you can take the boy out of the country, but…