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It's that time of year again for reflections on the past year, assessment of our current situation, and projections into the new year.
The truth is I've grown weary of writing the same thing over and over again. Last year saw further declines in the natural environment, increases in extreme weather events, increases in conflict in the MENA region (and others to boot), more rapid depletion of fossil fuels, greater disparity between the top 1% and the poor, and on and on. The political and governance systems continued their disintegration. Corporations continued to make profits by replacing workers with automation. And the bankers and brokers continued to amass fortunes by swindling the rest of the world, and with the assistance of governments as well. In spite of the accumulation of evidence of decline, almost nobody is paying attention.
Today almost everybody still believes that economic growth is the great salvation of humanity. If we could just get back on track with growth everything would work out.
There are only a handful of people in this world, who like me, have thought through the consequences of this logic. I think a proportion of that handful are reading this blog! This group constitutes a vanishingly small percentage of the world population. Either we are complete fools or there is mass delusion at work. I will unashamedly declare I am no fool. Yet I see no way to combat the delusion. The promise of endlessly increasing wealth is just too seductive for people. They are either too stupid, or too ignorant of how the universe works to work out the results. They are blind to the reality of overshoot and assured collapse for the simple reason that those are scary thoughts whereas growth of the economy promises comfort and a good life.
My claim about stupidity rests on evidence, at least from the United States, in several critical situations. Consider that according to a recent Pew Research poll, one in three Americans believe in special creation of humans. Of the two thirds who acknowledge the theory of evolution, about half of them believe that evolution has been guided by a god so as to produce humans. Of the final third (according to a different survey) more than two thirds of them believe humans are special, exceptional, and not subject to the same laws of nature as animals in general. I suspect that a large measure of these “beliefs” is grounded in pure ignorance. The vast majority of people have a cartoonish version of evolution knocking around in their brains. They really don't grasp the process so much as have a vision of an old phylogenetic tree from a 1960's textbook representing the emergences of clades from a common source. They have very little grasp over the ins-and-outs of genetics (and epigenetics), development, phenotype variations, or natural selection. They may know some of the terms, but have no idea at all what they mean, or how it all fits together. They are stupid because it seems to never occur to them that science has made some progress over the last fifty years and there is quite a lot of information available to them if they would simply take a look.
As another example of the stupidity/ignorance factors bollixing up the works, consider the governance of countries and states. Since the US is such a prominent player on the world stage I will use it as an example.
Perhaps a good starting point is the increasing polarity between the two major ideologies motivating the political process. The differences between the two major parties have never been more stark or more damaging. The conservatives (and I lump in libertarians in this bundle) are bent on the extremes of austerity and will do anything to push their agenda (the “Tea Party” being the most extreme). Ironically they are playing into the hands of the real powers in the conservative pole, the wealthy who see government intrusion and taxes as robbing them of their ill-begotten fortunes. Selfishness and greed have taken over at that end and if anybody can be blamed for forcing a class war it should be them.
Progressives are no better in the sense that they are motivated by a blind belief in progress of the human condition and equate that with economic (materialist) growth. They too are greedy but have some sense that the increases in wealth should be shared equitably somehow. You might consider that they have the moral high ground, but that would be mistaken. In their efforts to force progressive policies, e.g. government expansion ala John Maynard Keynes' liberalism, they continue to clamor for more. But you see, they have no way to pay back the debt. Their steadfast belief in economic growth is based on that being the only long-term remedy for short-term debt financing. And they are totally ignorant of the biophysical reality of economics being based, ultimately, on energy flow. They are just as wrong headed and dangerous in their own way, as are the conservatives.
The political process has become frenetic, and attracts some of the most dangerous thinking people imaginable. Their extreme views attract a “base” of voters who are themselves feeling threatened by forces they cannot possibly understand but who are willing to believe it is the other side. Then there are those who are willing to believe that the American way of life is being threatened by forces both without and within. They see “their” America changing in ways they cannot comprehend. So they vote for extremists on either side.
And when those people get to Congress they do the only thing they know how to do — make stupid noises. This has been the least “productive” congress in history. Given what an aggregate of fools we've sent to congress, perhaps it is just as well that they haven't produced a raft of legislation we'd all regret.
Unfortunately Congress is not the only dysfunctional branch of the federal government. I've made no bones about my deep disappointment in Barrack Obama. His apparent beholdeness to the financial powers on Wall Street has made him a dupe of the very forces that are destroying the country through complete ignorance of what makes wealth in the first place. The Jamie Dimonds of this world have gone into complete la-la land where you can create wealth (paper) out of nothing more than speculation; and you pay yourself a hefty bonus for getting those numbers captured on the balance sheet! The pity is that Obama, a lawyer, has not got the slightest understanding of how the world actually works (and I mean in the physical sense, of course). His beliefs about what should be done come from a dangerous theory about how humans are exceptional and we can create whatever reality we want if we simply can agree on how to do it. Talk about delusions.
And then look at the Supreme Court. When judgments are based on ideology (especially when those ideologies are dangerous) what do you get? Justice? The judgment on the Citizens United case, and the subsequent increase in the corporate oligarchy, is a clear case in point. This is stupidity incarnate.
And it isn't just the federal government that is broken. Ideological polarization has infected state politics as well (see: Dan Balz's article in the Washington Post). The phenomenon is a trend toward greater polarization without any seeming counter force in the wings to bring some kind of balance back into politics and governance. The bottom line is that we the people have screwed ourselves. We were stupid enough to send stupid people into government and we are getting stupid behavior from them. Think about it. Shutting down the federal government as a ploy to get rid of Obamacare! It doesn't get any dumber than that.
As a final example of stupidity all across the board, consider the continuing debate over the reality of global warming and climate change. Why, indeed, is there a debate at all. If those who acknowledge the anthropogenic warming are serious why haven't they taken substantive action rather than concern themselves with convincing the other side or shuffling their feet at conferences where they waste time discussing the problem. Those that don't acknowledge it have shown themselves to be terribly stupid and ignorant. Rejecting the science just because it shows that their deeply held ideology is flawed rather than changing their minds about that ideology is typical of foolishness. A quick glance at comments made on the HuffingtonPost about this article shows that stupidity still abounds. Throughout the last several years the reports have been demonstrating that the situation is worse than the first models had suggested. The positive feedback loops involving methane emissions due to warming ocean and tundra promise to produce catastrophic warming. Now, it seems, we might also see lessened cloud cover that will further reduce the albedo of the planet, leading to more penetration of light and more warming. Yet, the governments can only talk about baby steps toward reducing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. They can't even speak to the real dangers that are now looking inevitable. They are powerless to act. They don't know what to do so they remain silent except for the minor lip service they pay to “green”.
Where We Came From
Once, long ago, it seemed there was an abundance of energy and physical resources for all of humanity. We were learning how to invent new ways to extract resources, to mold them to our liking, and to trade our goods and services with one another so as to enjoy many amenities of modern life. Adam Smith's invisible hand worked miracles. And it all seemed so right given that we recognized ourselves as a very special kind of creature on this planet. It was our god-given right to exploit anything and everything for our benefit.
In some ways, of course, this was true. No other beast could do what we could do. And there really was an abundance of natural resources for the taking. The water and air were pure. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is unfettered growth; of population and resource consumption through increasing technological skills. In our ignorant enthusiasm and blind faith in our own cleverness we simply didn't know when to put the brakes on so as to achieve a stable steady state interaction with our Ecos. We learned to be greedy and thought nothing of it because it never occurred to us that there might be a limit. And speaking of limits, even when earnest scientists pointed out the limits back in the 1970s (or go back further to Malthus) no one wanted to listen. It is simply too much fun to get richer and have lots more toys, bigger houses, etc.
In a way, though, it is hard to blame us in the sense of our being willfully destructive. For starters we did come from complete ignorance about how the biophysical world works. And the building up of sufficient knowledge to begin to understand the problems associated with unfettered growth took time. In a way, even though the “knowledge” exists today, it is broken up into discrete disciplinary packages and distributed over multiple disciplines, many of whom don't talk to one another. It is hard to get an integrated view when you are highly knowledgeable about one small corner of reality but ignorant of so much else. Thank our educational system and its subservience to progress and profits for that. Many more people COULD understand more about the integrated nature of the world than actually do today but for how we “train” people to think in narrow (and non-inquisitive) ways.
Evolutionarily humans passed a threshold of consciousness that gave us language, complex tool making, and general ability to manipulate abstract representations in our minds and in artifactual form. That crossing of the mental Rubicon set us on a conquest of our environment — changing it to fit our desires. Unfortunately it was just a first tentative step in the direction of higher sentience. Part of that crossing involved a larger, stronger role for intuition-based guidance of decisions being processed by somewhat more rational intelligence. Apes in general had evolved a capacity to work out complex relations in their heads. Our brand of intelligence was not much more than just an elaboration of that in both the social and technological realms. But what didn't get very far was the evolution of the basis for intuitive thinking, what I have called “sapience.” Sapience is grounded in brain circuits in the prefrontal cortex that greatly elaborate the planning and strategic control of our thinking (the activities in the rest of the brain). In its role of expanding the brain capacity for acquiring and managing tacit, veridical knowledge it is the basis of what we call wisdom. Simply put, wisdom is the capacity to not think foolishly, to proceed with caution in new territory, to grasp the moral aspects of sociality. Homo sapiens got just enough sapience to be able to recognize it, but not enough to fully appreciate its purpose. Hence we foolishly raced into technological advancements that had complex and too often harmful consequences.
Ignorance and lack of adequate sapience coupled with cleverness and unfettered greed (the pathological increase in desire to acquire resources to support biological purposes) is basically what has brought us to this situation we are in. The new year is not so much a transition from running up to falling down — I think we are already in the fall, but just haven't broadly recognized it yet. Nevertheless, we can view the coming year as prelude to the future of humanity. I expect there to be many more signposts along the way to, first, collapse of global civilization, and then to the evolutionary bottleneck event I be live, strongly, will follow.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As the old saying goes: to hell conveyed in a handbasket.
In spite of the US and other government claims that economies are on the mend, the data being cited is suspicious at best and downright problematic. The new jobless claims rate has been falling! Hooray! Its just as well to get those long-term unemployed folk off the rolls by them giving up looking for work. Corporations are reporting reasonable profits. Hooray! When you don't have to pay workers what they were demanding in order to live the American dream, your costs go down. The stock market is up. Hooray! When the Fed pours faux money into the markets and keeps interest rates at or near zero, the investor class has to do something with their gift wealth.
Meanwhile the income disparity data tell a completely different story for the majority of Americans (and the same trends are developing in other OECD countries). The reason a local-scale “sharing” economy is starting to take shape is very simple. People have much less and have much lower incomes. They are re-learning how to cooperate with neighbors to produce value that they cannot acquire simply from having an income and buying it.
Over the last years we have been pummeled by news of an energy revolution in the US. Unconventional sources of oil and natural gas (shale deposits from which oil and gas can be extracted using rock fracturing technology) have been exploited and the first production volumes made it look as if America would have bountiful oil and gas for the next century at least. There is just one hitch. It turns out that the production rates initially reported have been unsustainable. The number of exploitable sites (sweet spots) appears far fewer than original reserve estimates had given. The clothes have come off the emperor but the general public, and the government officials still believe the emperor still wears magical clothing. They want to believe. They have to believe.
The reports I have been following suggest that 2014 will be the year that a lot more people are going to see the emperor is naked. There will still be heavy production simply because of the number of wells that have been drilled. We will still get a fair amount of oil from Canadian tar sands as long as the price of oil stays about roughly $90 a barrel. But the profit margins on fracked oil and gas are coming down fast. Both industries are now relying of increasing debt financing to keep operations going and that is going to run out soon. At what point will they simply pull out of production? Econ 101 teaches us that lower production will interact with demand to drive prices up. Then at what price will people still be able to function in daily life? Several economists have already pointed out that the run up of energy prices historically have been the prime triggers causing recessions. The 2009 recession is one of the best examples. People stop buying stuff when they are squeezed in terms of basic costs of living (food, energy, clothing, housing) all of which have been on a steady rise (ignoring the government's “core inflation rate” numbers which actually ignore true CORE costs!) Consumers don't buy goods and services - Economy goes down; pretty simple actually.
This year is likely to see continuing squeezes on energy costs for everyone. As I have pointed out on several past blogs, energy costs percolate through everything in the economy. Energy requirements start at raw material extraction and run through to even the energy needed by household just to CONSUME products! Energy is the only real currency of the economy. Start lowering the energy flow and you start contracting the economy. And all of this talk about decoupling the economy from energy (lowering so-called energy intensity) is plain nonsense. Talk of an information or service economy not needing the same amount of energy is just stupid wishing. You can't eat information. You can't live in a service. Sometimes I wonder what people (economists and politicians) have to tell themselves to make them believe this kind of hogwash. Denial and self-deceit are the predominating psychology of our times.
The obvious end, collapse recognized by the masses, will not likely come in 2014, at least in the OECD countries. I think it is already in progress in the MENA region and extends into mid Africa. We will likely see more deterioration in Russia and the former Soviet countries. The PIIGS are in a temporary stasis thanks to the EU's largesse, but when they fail to pay back their debts again, that will fall apart rapidly. Brazil is a case study for the western hemisphere - Mexico and other Latin American countries to follow.
Collapse won't come everywhere at once. It will be sporadic, episodic, and chaotic. You will recognize it if you are in it and cannot figure out where to get food or how to pay your heating bills. You will not recognize it if you continue to assume that is just some temporary phenomenon happening to a non-exceptional part of the world. But it is underway globally nevertheless. Without a massive, and I do mean spectacularly massive, infusion of energy resources there is simply no other conclusion. What will make this collapse so painful is the confounding effects of climate change and continuing, worsening extreme weather events all over the world. It takes considerable energy to construct adaptations to climate change. We don't got it!
The Politics and Governance of 2014
In the United States we are already gearing up for the presidential elections of 2016! We still have the Nov. 2014 congressional elections to get through. The political turmoil at the end of 2013 is unprecedented. Money has already been flowing to influence elections. Are enough people in the electorate so disgusted with the Tea Party wing's absolutely stupid tactics (non-strategic, just reactive) so that they kick some of them out? Will the Democrats take a majority in the House, or will the Republicans capture the Senate? Everything is up for grabs. And nobody is stepping up to provide meaningful leadership. Has Obama positioned the Democrats who have supported Obamacare for defeat? The Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times," comes to mind when I contemplate the idiocy we are about to witness in American politics.
Given the current attitudes and moods of those in government (executive, legislative, and judicial branches all) for both federal and state, I think we will see a steady decline in rationality in governance in 2014. Greater polarization is just about guaranteed. And that means more gridlock in legislation. It will be interesting to see if Obama carries through with his promise to use the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions what the House Republicans will do. &ldqou;We'll show him. We'll shut down the government again!”
The state of affairs in the US have gotten really unbelievably bad over the last several decades. But they are equally bad or worse in so many other countries around the world. Where is the world are things going right? There still seems to be some stability in Northern European countries, but there is a specter over the land there as well. Unfettered immigration, especially from the MENA region, is starting to tear the seams of societies there. I look for more signs of destabilization, especially with the increasing costs of heating fuels next winter.
More Arab springs? Oh right, those are now being recognized as resource restriction-based revolutions. People don't care what their governing ideology might be as long as they have access to affordable food, water, shelter, and energy. Drive those prices up further and see how long the Egyptian military stays in power without a major and bloody revolution. But then I suspect revolutions of that sort are going become commonplace over the next several years. Regardless of the stated motivation (democracy or the adoption of Sharia law) the underlying cause will be the same; people are getting poorer and are suffering while a few oligarchs are living high on the hog. That is an ages-old formula for revolution. You would think the elites would learn something from history. And, by the way, Jamie Dimon, et al, don't be thinking it can't happen here. Your federal government is becoming so ineffectual that they will not be there to protect you for long. And you have pissed off an awful lot of people. I'm not threatening you, I'm simply reminding you of history.
At the end of a missive of horror, one is expected to exhort all to change their ways to avoid the calamity. Or one is expected to offer a ray of hope. But I will fail those expectations. There is no hope for salvation for civilization. Collapse has to happen. We absolutely need to reset the system (go back to DOS let alone Windows 3.1!) to a simpler and paradoxically a more humanistic social arrangement (for new readers my past blogs explain this at length).
So in spite of the media hype you may be hearing right now about how the economy is improving, look for 2014 to bring yet more misery to millions more. Expect turmoil to gain momentum globally. And expect strife to overtake governments in all regions of the globe. Look for signs of true increases in net energy flow. You'll be disappointed. Look instead for sudden realization that the oil boom in North Dakota (for example) is a sham and that the money to keep it going is coming from an elaborate Ponzi scheme. You'll see the truth.
Other than that, have a happy new year.