by John Day
What is your energy descent plan?
To develop personal, family and community energy descent plans, we need to have an idea of the overall context. The overall context is very hard to sort out, because there is no continuous curve to extrapolate. We have to look to what has been done in history, and what that history might imply in our currently developing situation, but also what the limits to our conjecture may be. Right now, global food supply is largely sustained through oil-powered “green revolution” technology. In the US, we spend 9 calories of petrochemical energy per food calorie which we consume. In Bangladesh, about 1/2 calorie of human and animal energy goes into producing each calorie of food energy consumed. The petro-energy has meant that we get by with very little human and animal energy. In our equation, it is treated as negligible. A lot of the energy devoted to the calories we eat comes from our cars, refrigerators and cooking devices. Also, we are wasteful of this energetically expensive food. If you throw out half of what you cook, after leaving it sitting in the fridge, you doubly worsen your calorific efficiency. There is at least some low-hanging fruit.
Most people in the world, including Europeans and Japanese, eat much more locally than Americans do, and eat much less industrially processed, preserved “food”. Currently, we have options about what to eat. In “wartime” we won’t. The options we choose today will be more established and available in “wartime”, as a result. We can shape the future by what we choose now. However, that will be only a small factor in the process. It will shape us more than it will our outside-world.
Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, looks at historical examples of societies that thrived and grew by exploiting local resources, failed to adapt any other survival strategies, exhausted the essential resources, and underwent catastrophic collapse.
It appears that we humans are not able to turn away from a working strategy, as long as it is working in the short term. Therefore, we keep finding ourselves in positions of having to scramble in very bad situations. War seems to be one of our main adaptive mechanisms in these times. War can be on a small scale, or a large scale. What group is so small as to be immune from dividing and fighting? Research shows that no group over 200 humans can really resist the tendency to splinter, without outside supports/structures and lots of effort. It is easier with less than 100. It has to do with how many meaningful personal relationships one human can have. At some point, you choose between a meaningful relationship, and something happening to a relative stranger, whether “right” or “wrong.”
By the 20th century, Europe had seen something like 2000 years of organized warfare, had culturally acclimatized to it, and was also sick of it, but was still governed by ruling elites, whether in monarchy, banking, industry or elected governments. Local communities had various self-sufficiency and protective traditions, involving local food and trading. People really could “live without money” in those settings. That is now foreign to us, and has largely been replaced by the State social-welfare apparatus in Europe (sort of like making a trade with a 2-year-old, when you want to take away the pacifier). Still, it exists more in Europe than in the US, which is a completely monetized economy, and has made the next step, to the use of electronic, centrally processed instruments, such as credit cards. There is no local defense in the use of credit cards. This electronic money is ideal for banking and government elites. Cash, of any sort, is much better for small groups, and barter, or trading favors is the traditional human defense from conquering armies and despots. It is just too much bother to send armies in to take every little thing, unless you must face a choice between the army starving and the farmers starving.
If we look at Asia, and specifically China, there were also thousands of years of social adaptions to warlords and kings, and these were deeply affected by WW-2 and the sweep of “communism” across China and Cambodia. This destroyed much of the local culture wherever it went. Ancient patterns in small farming communities have been deeply changed. There were profound efforts at every level to break down the old system into something which could be centrally commanded. Youth brigades were used to break down the ancient, adaptive patterns.
Radio and telephone, and eventually the internet, allowed instant communication across vast distance. Initially, these technologies served the elite, but there is now a moment where the information flows laterally, from anyone and to anyone else, without hierarchical control. We have a new tool, and perhaps only for a short while, to devise our coping strategies for the next wartime. When the wars begin, we will likely lose our connections to each other, except the local ones.
The next wartime will come as a species-specific adaptive strategy to the sudden drastic and comprehensive change. Economic changes are the usual prelude to wars.
Our species has exceeded the sustainable carrying capacity of this planet. You may disagree. At least it is close, and estimates are that human population will peak around 2050, based on current trends. Based on the Kissinger Report, from 1974, when we first felt the bite of oil shortage, there is a lot of focus among the elites on the tractability of a social group. A social group is less tractable, when it has a rapidly growing population, with lots of young people, and not enough resources to provide good prospects for them to advance within the system. Kissinger’s report pointed out that countries like this would be hard to get necessary mineral resources (oil) out of. He proposed making contraception widely available, and socially acceptable, for reasons that would serve the interests of families and communities, and would be propounded by local rulers, with the US and other powers playing an invisible hand. This invisible hand has now been played for about 40 years, and we can all look around and see where there is population growth vs population slowing, stability or decrease.
The elites are going to like the stable areas and be untrusting of the areas where there is rapid population growth and instability of large, young, hungry populations. The elites are not all on the same page, by any means. What they see as desirable in populations under their control, and under the control of other elites, will be similar, but there are obvious clashes when choosing which tractable groups should get the limited resources. The intractable groups just get treated very badly, all around.
We can see that a lot of control mechanisms are in play in the oil places of the Middle East. There are wars and repressive dictators, plus lots of intrigues, support for rivals, support for destabilization in general. Even before the Kissinger Report there has been another policy for the “great powers” to manage the flow of natural resources out of a poor region: “Crisis Management,” as described in Asaf Siniver’s book, Nixon, Kissinger, and U.S. Foreign Policy Making.
Siniver’s book details the development of foreign policy under Nixon and Kissinger, focusing on tools of management within the context of crisis. Such crises were certainly created by the US in Chile, with backing for all the economic attacks and coup that led to the overthrow of Salvador Allende, and the bloodbath under Pinochet. The use of drug receipts from Golden Triangle opium and heroin trade, to fund the “secret wars” in Laos and Cambodia, were also products of the Nixon/Kissinger “Crisis Management” approach.
Since then, the creation of crisis has been an integral part of US Foreign Policy, always hidden, but always suspected. (With so much institutional experience, it would be surprising if this did not arise on the home front, wouldn’t it? 9/11? Weaponized anthrax? Letting New Orleans go feral after Katrina, just to see what happened?)
We see crisis and natural resources coinciding in Africa a lot. Libya is a recent example, but also Sudan/Darfur, which has oil and uranium desired by China and the US. Basically, a region is thrown into local civil war, and both sides are pressed into negotiating for outside support, just to survive. The outside-support demands access to natural resources at a low price, and the two factions compete for the support. Sometimes the two sides seek support from rivals, such as the US and China, as is the case in Sudan/Darfur. As long as there is local crisis, the terms for extraction of resources are less important to the local people, or local warlords, than their survival, and ultimate victory.
To sum up our current situation:
We have all the technological benefits of the past 250 years of steam- and oil-powered industrial society, science and vast population expansion.
We have developed an economic system, predicated on growth, which collapses without growth.
The growth has stopped, due to oil production being stagnant since 2005.
The economic system has been urged along with increasingly big promises of future profit, which are now becoming unsupportable, even in theory.
Every reset of an economic system, or social order, up until now, has involved violent conflict as an essential part of the change.
15,000,000 people died in WW1, 66,000,000 people died in WW2. Those were days of more adequate resources, smaller populations, more localized in scope, and with lesser technology for mass killing.
The ruling elite everywhere want adequate resources to drive their power bases, hard-working and obedient populations to command, and for the losses to be borne by their enemies, foreign and domestic. These goals dictate some large groups lose out, but not that any large groups must actually succeed.
The risk of all groups losing out is a huge and seriously likely threat, which must somewhat moderate the warlike behavior of elites initially. We have seen “manageable” wars in regions where there is oil, and/or strategic interest. (This is from the viewpoint of the superpowers, not the local dead people.)
Global capitalism and central banking had their own agendas, which guided and partly controlled WW1 and WW2. The confinement of these wars, and the marshaling of forces against relative non-participants and fall-guys allowed for global banking to thrive, while real economies were subsumed, forced out, or just looted.
The cooperation within global banking rose to a peak in the past decade, but is now strained by the failure of the inherent requisites of the exponentially-growing monetary system. Banking could be in stable growth, with a bright future in every other war, but not now. Banking is weak at every level, needing outside support from politicians, and changes of all the rules. It cannot be stable until it has a system which it can exploit through stagnation and collapse. Gold Standard looks like that system. Time is short. Choices are limited. Trust is evaporating. Got any other ideas?
Don’t think a gold system will be safer for ordinary people, like us. In the “Long Depression” of the late 1800s there was vast looting by bankers, much harsher than in the inflationary regime we have grown up with. Therefore, any massive wars proceeding before change of the global monetary regime will tend to take bankers as casualties. That would be a fundamental systemic change. Banking/finance as a utility, rather than as an extractive mechanism, enriching elites at the expense of the “real economy” would bring a big increase in total system efficiency. It would also displace a very large class of wealthy and powerful parasites, who got that way by being clever, and know how to fight for position. This change is being delayed. Roosevelt wanted finance as a utility, and got some moves in that direction. Those have all been undone in the past 3 decades.
So, on the one hand, we have the biggest financial collapse and the biggest resource collapse ever, and on a truly global scale. On the other hand we have massive information and historical perspective, pointing to the dangers of extinction, and death for all participants, and smart guys to point this all out. The smart guys are not all just plotting sides this time, but looking at the real risk of total GAME OVER for all participants. Where does that leave us when choosing paths, and changing paths, and seeing changes in types of dangers coming up next?
1) Financial threats are here now and will continue for the foreseeable future
Loss of income is big. Consider your career. Are there other things you can start doing on the side? We need to take steps to develop local non-monetary systems to meet needs. This is hard in an urban setting. Food must be grown. We can take initial steps to get more intimate with local food, and discover what we can and can’t do in this regard. Loss of buying power of money, loss of electronic money, theft by big and small thieves are all other issues.
Redefinition of money is both a threat and an opportunity. It has to come. Don’t advertise your position. Hedge your bets. Hedge in non-monetary assets as much as possible. They are harder to take.
Think about how to position yourself and your community in a pared-back economy, more like the 1950s. Feed stores are necessary, Nieman Marcus is not. Are you necessary? Are you contributing through an organization which can survive? what shocks can it survive? What shocks will kill it? What alternatives do you have?
2) Security threats come from loss of support, and from the desperate actions of those who have lost their own supports and through the actions of tyrants, promising to protect you from the uncontrolled desperados, or to protect the gated communities from YOU
In the first case, look to support and diversify your own production, especially into areas that require less “support from above” and more lateral supports.
In the second case, look to your location and community. How will your neighborhood fare if many lose employment and electricity and gasoline? Can you bolster it? Should you relocate? Is there a community, of which you are a more dedicated member, which you can find a way to link with in more ways? Spiritual communities may have deeper bonds than many.
In the third case, we should all shy away from any person or organization, which is oppressive to “others” as a way to “protect” us. It ain’t believable. It always hurts everybody. Back off. Don’t confront. See it coming and shy away ASAP.
3) War and the effects of wartime are things we have been sheltered from, but we still hold responsibility, to the degree that we fail to resist
Karma comes in when we benefit from the killing, robbing and enslavement of others. Our own ability to judge where the threats of war are coming from, and how we should best resist or flee, will be clouded, to the degree that we have let war proceed for our own selfish interests in the past. We all share the guilt of this dynamic to varying degrees, and we should examine it closely, in order to be as free as possible from distortions within our own minds.
It looks like BIG WAR is coming sometime after the collapse gets underway. It has always come before. It is uncertain. What year would you have gotten out of Germany, between the wars? Where would you have gone (if you could)? Even knowing all that you know, it seems almost impossible to sort out.
In closing, I need to say that we think of ourselves individually, but that is not how we survive. We survive in groups, cooperative groups. There is a cult of the individual, and many mythical “great men” in history, used as examples. They were only great based upon their particular positions within certain societies, at certain times, and could have just flopped in another place and time. Please be a good, supportive, contributing, honest and insightful member of your social groups. All your friends and relatives need your help.
John Day, MD is a middle-aged white male doctor living in Austin, Texas, who grew up on military bases during the Vietnam War, in a Marine Corps family. Dad retired and the family moved to a cattle ranch in Bandera, Texas for a couple of years, with Mom’s parents (John had to raise a very sad calf for Ag class), then to Japan, where Dad liked how people were so polite to him. High school in Japan in the 1970s was a trip. Working in a hospital kitchen, while at UT Austin for college, gradually morphed into a career in medicine, mostly public health work. This has included Navajo Reservation, rural Texas “country doc”, State psychiatric hospitals, community clinics, Family Medicine, Residency faculty, an OB/GYN Fellowship, and 3 stints working in rural Hawaii for a few months at a time.
John and Jenny got married when he was in med school, went trekking around Annapurna a few years later, and swore to take this kids around the world for a year, when they had kids. They had Holly, Steve, Jim and Amber in 4 years. When they became teenagers, the family sold the house to bike tour and backpack through Europe, Asia and Oceana in 2005-2006. The kids are all in college or med school and Steve survived the appendicitis he got in Cambodia. The surgery in Thailand went really well, all things considered. Jim is a bike mechanic, Holly has a 3rd degree black belt in Kung fu, and Amber bike-delivers sandwiches. All the kids are fine. Don’t ask questions.
John drinks Japanese green tea, Hawaiian coffee, and rides his fixed-gear bicycle to work. He sits and meditates with Buddhists from the Lubbock area on Sundays, sometimes listening to a visiting Tibetan Lama. He is a vegetarian, because animals don’t really want him to eat them, and he has other choices. He still cops out and eats eggs and cheese, but feels energetically darkened by the whole sordid process. He is confused, deeply confused, and definitely not anybody who you should take advice from. He has long hair, thinning around the crown, tied back, out of the way.