Bring in the Clowns
When things started falling apart in the Roman Empire, around the beginning of the end, they put a lot of investment into providing entertainment to the masses to divert their attention from what was barreling down the road at them. It kind of worked because the citizens never really figured out that they should be doing anything different in their lives to get ready for the end of their civilization.
The current situation reminds me of that kind of approach.
The Circus in Washington DC
Can you believe what is going on in Washington, DC?
If ever there was substantial evidence for my thesis that we human beings are not sufficiently sapient to conduct our affairs on this planet I have to claim this is it.
What we are witnessing in Washington DC is the epitome of human foolishness, the exact antithesis of wisdom. Members of Congress from both parties and the President of the United States are playing a political game with the future of the United States as the stakes. The President was right about one thing. These people are children, in the worst sense of that word — immature.
Neither the left nor the right gets a pass in my book. Both ideologies are simply devoid of understanding what is happening to human societies. I read Robert Reich's blog this morning and hung my head. I consider Reich as one of the cleverest economists out there when it comes to labor economics, but his sad devotion to the progressivist ideology that says a growing consumer-based economy is the solution to our woes makes be cringe. He seems totally oblivious to the fact of peak resources that will curtail any kind of economic growth, period. He and Paul Krugman are in the same Keynesian fog about governments being the consumer of last resort. To these two having the US government pile on more debt (meaning the US will need to raise the debt ceiling again and again) in order to ‘pay’ for creating jobs is the solution to the problem of our ‘stalled’ economy. A growing GDP is a healthy GDP — end of story.
Therein lies the seed of “truth” underlying the conservatives' arguments about spending cuts. They are rightly concerned that spending more than you get in income is a bad idea — always. Of course what they are ideologically incapable of seeing is that part of the revenue problem is their insistence that taxes cannot be raised in any way shape or form. And especially protected are the rich, those they have labeled “the job creators”. You have to hand it to the conservatives. They know how to perform rhetorical wizardry! Never mind that there is actually no evidence that giving the rich tax breaks actually creates jobs. Never mind that there is no evidence that jobs can be created in any sense when your net energy is declining rapidly; energy being the main ingredient in the work of producing real physical wealth. Their policies are at the root of the disparity in incomes between rich and poor. But both ends of the political ideology spectrum have completely failed to understand that growth itself is finished.
Of course, readers will know that I never held out any hope that our “leaders” would be able to fix anything. The problems we face, not only as a nation but as a world, are far beyond anything that they can even conceptualize, let alone find policies that could work. Right now the world needs leaders with realistic visions, not necessarily telling a constituency what they want to hear, but telling them the truth about what to expect in the future from our rapidly impending decline. We need leaders able to see what needs to be done to mitigate the threats and minimize the pain. We need leaders who will show the rest a pathway forward. Not one of the people currently serving in government in the US (and I would suggest anywhere else in the world) has that capability. Our pathetic reliance on “open democracy”, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that money, not votes, actually does the talking, has gotten us here. Our inability to think critically and act on our reading of reality is to blame for our not having competent leadership. So, I suppose I would have to say we deserve what we are about to get.
I simply want to call attention to the machinations involved in the ‘budget’ negotiations, the cluelessness about why the economy is tanking and why jobs are not coming back, as these examples reinforce my contention that Homo sapiens, even the most clever of us, are not fit to survive any longer. If the President, congressmen and women, and seated judiciary in Washington represent our brightest, then woe be unto us Americans. But if they are not our brightest, what does that say about the electorate who sent them there? Either way, woe be unto us.
In a way, I suppose I should be grateful to the lot in Washington (and other capitals) for the entertainment value of watching the clown acts they are performing. That is why I am talking about the “circus” in Washington. John Stuart nailed it this morning! In my memory I cannot think of a time when there was so much posturing and in-fighting going on when the stakes seemed so incredibly high. Maybe a better analogy would be The Three Stooges. Obama is Moe, Reid is Larry, and Boehner is Curly. Keep the hilarity coming boys.
The Circus in Europe
Before you Europeans start to suffer too much schadenfreude, recall that there are serious problems in the EU. More members are facing debt crises than the core EU economies, primarily Germany, will be able to cover. Europe's energy situation is in chaos and there is no clear way out. MENA migrants seem on the verge of overrunning several European countries and the native citizens are getting restless. Tempers are flaring.
Various personalities, like France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and presumptive challenger to French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, are in disrepute right at a time when stability of leadership is absolutely essential to the European Union. Bring in the clowns.
The Circus in Asia
Japan — facing the continuing crisis of Fukushima. China — facing environmental and social crises. Workers are demanding more as they want to emulate the consumptive behaviors of the west. All Asian nations facing fossil fuel crises. Leadership? Bring in the clowns.
The Circus in Africa
No one is going to think this is entertaining. Africa is a mess and getting worse by the day. Somalia? OK, this is more like the lion tamer act, really dangerous. The clowns are the foreigners who really don't know what to do, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank. Try solving Somalia's drought with capitalism boys.
The Circus in the Mid East
Israel, Palestine, Water? Maybe this is more like Buffalo Bill's wild west show. Cowboys and Indians at war. Just because the calvary is wearing white hats doesn't make them the good guys. Once again the comic relief comes from the foreign communities, their diplomatic jawboning. Reminds me of Jerry Lewis, except, of course, he was kind of funny.
The Circus in the 'Stans
Pakistan, Afghanistan. Need I say more? You get the point.
How Ends Begin
Seriously. Need I Go On?
So tell me. Where in the world are things going right? Where in the world are we humans solving the problems and getting on with good living? Where in the world is the circus NOT playing?
Ends start when you can't answer those questions.
Now lets talk about real beginnings of real ends. If you are familiar with the logistic function, you know that it applies to every natural growth phenomenon we have ever seen. If you graph the function, size of the growing system as a function of time, it produces an ‘S’-shaped curve. This mathematical representation seems to apply universally to growth and development of real systems. The bottom part of the S is accelerating growth. The top part is decelerating growth. At the very top, the peak, growth stops completely, afterwards what happens depends on whether the system is in steady-state with its environment or not (e.g. if there are enough resource inputs to sustain the system). The mid point represents a flip from accelerating growth to decelerating growth. And that is the beginning of the end. It is a crucial point to note, to be aware of, because it means that things that were true before the point (called an inflection point) will be less and less true after the point. It also means that things that were less true before that point become more true after. For example, positive feedback loops predominate before the inflection point which is what leads to exponential growth. After the inflection point negative feedback loops tend to predominate, leading to deceleration.
The history of human extraction of fossil fuels has followed just such a curve. Extraction rates have been accelerating for a long time but, at least in the case of oil, went through the inflection point about twenty years ago (globally speaking). The rate of extraction has been decelerating since then as the logistic function predicts. But deceleration is not the same thing as declining. The growth of extraction rates were still growing, but at a decelerating rate. This is a little confusing to those who have not studied calculus. But it is like what happens when you take your foot off of the accelerator pedal after you have been pushing it to get your car to go faster. Your car doesn't stop just because you stopped giving it gas. Rather its velocity (speed) starts to decline. You're still going forward but at an increasingly slower rate until eventually you would stop. That is deceleration. The inflection point of fossil fuel extraction is like this. We continued to pull oil out of the ground at increasing volumes, but at each time increment (say each year) we pulled it out slightly less quickly. We entered the deceleration phase but didn't pay much heed because the extraction was still growing.
It wasn't until the deceleration was bringing us to no growth in extraction rates that we started really feeling the impact. This is what is meant by peak oil. The rate of extraction is now flat and will soon start to actually decline. It will be as if we came to a standstill in our car, put it in reverse and then started giving it the gas. We are about to go backward. And there is no changing this fact. Oil and the other fossil fuels are finite in amount. The S-shaped curve is the result of this fact.
The Beginning of the End of the Economy
We didn't really notice the inflection point in the extraction rate of oil. But there was an even more insidious inflection point that we not only didn't notice, we didn't even think to look because we didn't actually understood what it might mean.
If the extraction rate of oil is now at its peak, it turns out that the total net energy available to the economy to use to do work peaked many years before, perhaps twenty to thirty. That's right. About the time the extraction inflection point hit the world, the actual net energy, the energy that we get from oil products after we expend energy to get that energy, was rapidly approaching its peak. It had gone through its middle inflection point perhaps fifty years ago. The reason we didn't notice is because we have no way to directly measure net energy. We can easily count the barrels of oil we pump (gross energy), we can also count the gallons of various liquid fuels like gasoline. But because there are losses along the way in the actual energy content being finally delivered, we haven't until recently realized that the net energy returned on energy invested (EROI) has been steadily, and perhaps exponentially, declining. In other words, we are getting less return for the same effort. It is the energy return that we are interested in because this is what we use to run our economy. At least, for liquid fuels, our transportation economy (over 90% of it).
While the energy returned from oil only represents about 35-40% of our total economic consumption of energy, one might think this is not a great deal to overcome if our oil supply is declining and our lowered EROIs amplify that decline. We should be able to compensate with alternative energies. We should be able to electrify our transportation system, or create biofuels to take the place of oil products. Indeed many of the clowns from the circuses believe this to be the case. But the numbers and the laws of thermodynamics don't support the belief. That won't happen, especially if we insist on keeping things going the way they are now (or better), which is exactly what the clowns are promising.
The problem is in how key transportation has become in our overall, globalized economies. All regions do not have the broad array of resources that go to make up the modern world base of economic wealth. Regions have to trade in order to spread the wealth around. Each area has some kind of competitive advantage (well almost every region). They can trade their value added for imports that they want or need. Without transportation, every region would soon become poor in everything except whatever resource they have locally. The net energy available for transportation is what makes the world work. Take that away, or seriously curtail it, and the world ceases to work. No real wealth production, no paying off debts, no jobs, nothing but decline in paper and physical wealth alike.
And So, Let the Circus Acts Begin
Most people know why Rome had a circus in the late stages of the empire's decline. Of course we have our gladiators (football and NASCAR), we have our clowns (politicians and most economists), we have our ring masters (the media). And we are certainly willing to pay the ticket price for the show (capitalism, advertising, and paychecks). Enjoy it while it lasts. Every show comes to an end eventually.
Our institutions are failing right and left. Our leaders (politicians, corporate CEOs, media moguls — don't get me started on Murdoch!) are actually incompetent at anything like leading the masses to higher ground as the flooding starts. They seem to be only able to grab more of the paper-based wealth for themselves. Perhaps they plan to eat the database records of their supposed net worth after the computers fail while sitting on their rooftops watching everyone else drown in the flood waters swirling around them. But no one is immune from the decline of net energy. They may, in the short-run, accumulate paper assets that they plan on using after the crash. But they will find that those assets are worthless in a world where there is no energy for wealth creation or even transportation of food stuffs from regions that can grow them to regions that need them.
What evidence can you give that there is reason to think that the systems we have created, and the species we have become, are worthy of continuance into the future? Indeed, what evidence can you provide that suggests we are capable of extending our mind sets into the future of the planet?
Believe it or not, I don't pose these questions to depress you. I ask these questions to spur your thinking, to spur you to action. Only a small fraction of people who read these pages will understand what I am trying to do. But that is enough, if I am successful in getting you to focus on your own future.
Focus on sapience. If you are going to have faith in anything it should be faith in the wisdom of the sapients. Having faith in our leaders is proving to be life threatening. The hard part is recognizing wisdom in others. It won't look like charisma, or rhetoric, and certainly not like ideology. It takes a certain amount of humility to keep yourself from assuming that you are wise enough so that you don't need the wisdom of another. Only then might you hope to see those who really are wise and bind your fate to theirs. No guarantees that will work out for you. But I do guarantee that if you stick with the clowns you might be laughing all the way to the point when the circus tent collapses. Then not so much.