I’m going to ramp up the Speculator™ 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.