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In order for our current level of debt-fueled prosperity to continue, the rest of the world must continue to use our dollars to trade with one another and must continue to buy our debt at ridiculously low interest rates. Of course the number one foreign nation that we depend on to participate in our system is China. China accounts for more global trade than anyone else on the planet(including the United States), and most of that trade is conducted in U.S. dollars. This keeps demand for our dollars very high, and it ensures that we can import massive quantities of goods from overseas at very low cost. As a major exporting nation, China ends up with gigantic piles of our dollars. They lend many of those dollars back to us at ridiculously low interest rates. At this point, China owns more of our national debt than any other country does. But if China was to decide to quit playing our game and started moving away from U.S. dollars and U.S. debt, our economic prosperity could disappear very rapidly. Demand for the U.S. dollar would fall and prices would go up. And interest rates on our debt and everything else in our financial system would go up to crippling levels. So it is absolutely critical to our financial future that China continues to play our game.
Unfortunately, there are signs that China has now decided to start looking for a smooth exit from the game. In November, I wrote about how the central bank of China has announced that it is “no longer in China’s favor to accumulate foreign-exchange reserves”. That means that the pile of U.S. dollars that China is sitting on is not going to get any higher.
In addition, China has signed a whole host of international currency agreements with other nations during the past couple of years which are going to result in less U.S. dollars being used in international trade. You can read about many of these agreements in this article.
This week, we learned that China started to dump U.S. debt during the month of December. Many have imagined that China would try to dump a flood of our debt on to the market all of a sudden once they decided to exit, but that simply does not make sense. Instead, it makes sense for China to dump a bit of debt at a time so that the market will not panic and so that they can get close to full value for the paper that they are holding.
As Bloomberg reported the other day, China dumped nearly 50 billion dollars of U.S. debt during the month of December…
China, the largest foreign U.S. creditor, reduced holdings of U.S. Treasury debt in December by the most in two years as the Federal Reserve announced plans to slow asset purchases.
The nation pared its position in U.S. government bonds by $47.8 billion, or 3.6 percent, to $1.27 trillion, the largest decline since December 2011, according to U.S. Treasury Department data released yesterday.
This is how I would do it if I was China. I would try to dump 30, 40 or 50 billion dollars a month. I would try to make a smooth exit and try to get as much for my U.S. debt paper as I could.
So if China is not going to stockpile U.S. dollars or U.S. debt any longer, what is it going to stockpile?
It is going to stockpile gold of course. In fact, China has been voraciously stockpiling gold for quite some time, and their hunger for gold appears to be growing.
According to Bloomberg, more than 80 percent of the gold that was exported from Switzerland last month went to Asia…
Switzerland sent more than 80 percent of its gold and silver bullion and coin exports to Asia last month, the Swiss Federal Customs Administration said today in an e-mailed report. It imported most from the U.K.
Hong Kong was the top destination at 44 percent on a value basis, with India at 14 percent, the Bern-based customs agency said in its first breakdown of the gold trade data since 1980. Singapore accounted for 8.6 percent of exports, the United Arab Emirates 7.9 percent and China 6.3 percent.
When China imports gold, most of it goes through Hong Kong. We know that imports of gold from Hong Kong into China are at an all-time record high, but we don’t know exactly how much gold China has accumulated at this point because they quit reporting that to the rest of the world a number of years ago.
When it comes to global finance, China is playing chess and the United States is playing checkers. China knows that gold is a universal currency that will hold value over the long-term. As the paper currencies of the world race toward collapse, China could end up holding most of the real money and that would be a huge game changer when they finally reveal that fact…
The announcement of China’s new gold hoard will send shockwaves through the financial markets, and make China and the Chinese yuan (their national currency) even bigger players at the international table.
International banking expert James Rickards compared it to a game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker:
“You want a big pile of chips. The U.S. has a big pile of chips, Europe has a big pile of chips. The U.S. has 8,000 tonnes [metric tons] of gold, 17 members of the euro system have 10,000 tonnes. China at 1,000 tonnes is not a player, but at 5,000 tonnes, they are a player.”
There are some really good points made in the quote above, but I do take exception with a couple of things. First of all, I believe that China now has far more than 5,000 tons of gold. Secondly, I seriously doubt that the U.S. still actually has 8,000 tons of gold or that Europe still actually has 10,000 tons of gold.
As China (and eventually the rest of the world) moves away from a U.S.-based financial system, the consequences are going to be dramatic.
For instance, right now the average rate of interest that the U.S. government pays on debt is just 2.477 percent. That is ridiculously low and it is way below the real rate of inflation. It is simply not rational for anyone to lend the U.S. government money so cheaply, and at some point we are going to see a dramatic shift.
When that day arrives, interest rates are going to rise dramatically. And if the average rate of interest on U.S. government debt rises to just 6 percent (and it has been much higher than that in the past), we will be paying out more than a trillion dollars a year just in interest on the national debt.
Even more frightening is what a rapidly changing interest rate environment would mean for our banking system. There are four large U.S. banks that each have exposure to derivatives in excess of 40trillion dollars. You can find the identity of those banks right here. Interest rate derivatives make up the biggest chunk of those derivatives contracts. As John Embry told King World News just the other day, when that bubble bursts the carnage is going to be unprecedented…
“Stockman brought up a brilliant point, the fact that we have hundreds of trillions of dollars of interest rate swaps, which are polluting the world’s banking system. If we see growing volatility in interest rates, and I think that’s inevitable with what’s going on, that would cause spasms in the financial system. And if something goes wrong in the derivatives market, Heaven help us because the leverage that is imparted to the banking system through these derivatives is unholy.”
Unfortunately, very few of the “experts” will ever see this crash coming.
Very few of them saw it coming in 2000.
Very few of them saw it coming in 2008.
And very few of them will see it coming this time.
I really like what Paul B. Farrell had to say about this…
Early warnings of a crash are dismissed over and over (“just a temporary correction”). They gradually numb us about the inevitable. Time after time we forget history’s lessons. Until finally a big surprise catches us totally off-guard. Financial historian Niall Ferguson put it this way: Before the crash, our world seems almost stationary, deceptively so, balanced, at a set point. So that when the crash finally hits — as inevitably it will — everyone seems surprised. And our brains keep telling us it’s not time for a crash.
Till then, life just goes along quietly, hypnotizing us, making us vulnerable, till a shocker like Lehman Brothers upsets the balance. Then, says Ferguson, the crash is “accelerating suddenly, like a sports car … like a thief in the night.” It hits. Shocks us wide awake.
Don’t let the upcoming crash take you by surprise.
The warning signs are very clear.
Get ready while you still can.
Did you know that the drought in Brazil is so bad that some neighborhoods are only being allowed to get water once every three days? At this point, 142 Brazilian cities are rationing water and there does not appear to be much hope that this crippling drought is going to end any time soon. Unfortunately, most Americans seem to be absolutely clueless about all of this. In response to my recent article about how the unprecedented drought that is plaguing California right now could affect our food supply, one individual left a comment stating “if Califirnia can’t supply South America will. We got NAFTA.” Apart from the fact that this person could not even spell “California” correctly, we also see a complete ignorance of what is going on in the rest of the planet. The truth is that the largest country in South America (Brazil) is also experiencing an absolutely devastating drought at the moment. They are going to have a very hard time just taking care of their own people for the foreseeable future.
And this horrendous drought in Brazil could potentially have a huge impact on the total global food supply. As a recent RT article detailed, Brazil is the leading exporter in the world in a number of very important food categories…
Over 140 Brazilian cities have been pushed to ration water during the worst drought on record, according to a survey conducted by the country’s leading newspaper. Some neighborhoods only receive water once every three days.
Water is being rationed to nearly 6 million people living in a total of 142 cities across 11 states in Brazil, the world’s leading exporter of soybeans, coffee, orange juice, sugar and beef. Water supply companies told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that the country’s reservoirs, rivers and streams are the driest they have been in 20 years. A record heat wave could raise energy prices and damage crops.
Some neighborhoods in the city of Itu in Sao Paulo state (which accounts for one-quarter of Brazil’s population and one-third of its GDP), only receive water once every three days, for a total of 13 hours.
Are you starting to see what I mean?
This is serious.
B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks that California needs to brace itself for a megadrought—one that could last for 200 years or more.
As a paleoclimatologist, Ingram takes the long view, examining tree rings and microorganisms in ocean sediment to identify temperatures and dry periods of the past millennium. Her work suggests that droughts are nothing new to California.
A drought of even 10 years would absolutely cripple this nation. Already, the size of the total U.S. cattle herd is the smallest that it has been in 63 years and California farmers are going to let half a million acres sit idle this year because of the extremely dry conditions. If this drought persists for several more years we will have an unprecedented crisis on our hands.
Unfortunately, there are signs that this current drought in California may be part of a larger trend. I had never heard of “the Pacific Decadal Oscillation” before this week, but apparently it is a phenomenon that can cause droughts that last “for decades“…
Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades—as its name implies—whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months. Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California. Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago.
And of course it isn’t just the western half of the country that is struggling with water supply problems. In the Southeast, water has been a major political issue for quite some time…
The drought-parched states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida are back at it — fighting for a slice of water rights in a decades-long water war that’s left all three thirsty for more.
The 24-year dispute is emblematic of an increasingly common economic problem facing cities and states across the country – the demand for water quickly outpacing the supply as spikes in population soak up resources.
Most of us that live in the United States are accustomed to having seemingly inexhaustible supplies of fresh water. We use more fresh water per capita than anyone else on the planet, and most of us never even think twice about it.
Unfortunately, things are changing. We are on the precipice of a great water crisis, and many Americans are going to be in for a very rude awakening.
And the frightening thing is that the U.S. is actually in much better shape than most of the rest of the world is when it comes to supplies of fresh water. In some areas of the globe, a “water crisis” is already a daily reality.
We have heard that someday water is going to become the “new oil”, and we are starting to get to that point. Life is simply not possible without water, and as global supplies of clean, fresh water dwindle it is inevitable that it is going to cause global tensions to rise.
So what do you think the solutions to these problems are?
Is time running out for powerdown?
Many climate policy professionals and climate activists are now reassessing whether there is anything more they can do to help prevent the global catastrophe that climate change appears to be. The passing of the symbolic 400ppm CO2 level certainly has seen some prominent activists getting close to a change of strategy. As the Transition Town movement founder and permaculture activist Rob Hopkins says, the shift in the mainstream policy circles from mitigation to adaptation and defence is underway (i.e. giving up).
While political deadlock remains the most obvious obstacle, I believe at least some of that deadlock stems from widespread doubt about whether greenhouse gas emissions can be radically reduced without economic contraction and/or substantial wealth redistribution. Substantial redistribution of wealth is not generally taken seriously perhaps because it could only come about through some sort of global revolution that would itself lead to global economic collapse. On the other hand, massive economic contraction seems like it might happen all by itself, without necessarily leading to greater equity.
The predominant focus in the “climate professional and activist community” on policies, plans and projects for transition to renewable energy and efficiency has yet to show evidence of absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that do not depend on rising greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the global economy. For example, the contribution of renewable technology installation to reduced GGE in some European countries appears to be balanced by increased GGE in China and India (where much of the renewable technologies are manufactured).
The Jevons’ paradox suggests than any gains in efficiency or tapping of new sources of energy will simply expand total consumption rather than reduce consumption of resources (and therefore GGE).
Richard Eckersley in his article ‘Deficit Deeper Than Economy’ identifies the improbability of ever decoupling economic growth from resource depletion and green house gas emissions. He states “Australia’s material footprint, the total amount of primary resources required to service domestic consumption (excludes exports and includes imports) was 35 tonnes per person in 2008, the highest among the 186 countries studied. Every 10 per cent increase in gross domestic product increases the average national material footprint by 6 per cent. By 2050, a global population of 9 billion people would require an estimated 270 billion tonnes of natural resources to fuel the level of consumption of OECD countries, compared with the 70 billion tonnes consumed in 2010.”
Time seems to be running out for any serious planned reductions in GGE adequate to prevent dangerous climate change without considering a powerdown of the growth economy. The ideas of degrowth are starting to get an airing, mostly in Europe, but the chances of these ideas being adopted and successfully implemented would require a long slow political evolution if not revolution. We don’t have time for the first, and the second almost certainly crashes the financial system, which in turn crashes the global economy.
Is time running out for bottom up alternatives?
Like many others, I have argued that the bottom up creation of household and community economies, already proliferating in the shadow of the global economy, can create and sustain different ways of well-being that can compensate, at least partly, for the inevitable contraction in centralised fossil fuelled economies (now well and truly failing to sustain the social contract in countries such as Greece and Egypt). When the official Soviet Union economy collapsed in the early ‘90s it was the informal economy that cushioned the social impact. Permaculture strategies focus on the provision of basic needs at the household and community level to increase resilience, reduce ecological footprint and allow much of the discretionary economy to shrink. In principle, a major contraction in energy consumption is possible because a large proportion of that consumption is for non-essential uses by more than a billion middle class people. That contraction has the potential to switch off greenhouse gas emissions but this has not been seriously discussed or debated by those currently working very hard to get global action for rapid transition by planned and co-ordinated processes. Of course it is more complicated because the provision of fundamental needs, such as water, food etc., are part of the same highly integrated system that meets discretionary wants.
However, the time available to create, refine and rapidly spread successful models of these bottom-up solutions is running out, in the same way that the time for government policy and corporate capitalism to work their magic in converting the energy base of growth from fossil to renewable sources. If the climate clock is really so close to midnight what else could be done?
Economic crash as hell or salvation
For many decades I have felt that a collapse of the global economic systems might save humanity and many of our fellow species great suffering by happening sooner rather than later because the stakes keep rising and scale of the impacts are always worse by being postponed. An important influence in my thinking on the chances of such a collapse was the public speech given by President Ronald Reagan following the 1987 stock market crash. He said “there won’t be an economic collapse, so long as people don’t believe there will be an economic collapse” or words to that effect. I remember at the time thinking; fancy the most powerful person on the planet admitting that faith (of the populace) is the only thing that holds the financial system together.
Two decades on I remember thinking that a second great depression might be the best outcome we could hope for. The pain and suffering that has happened since 2007 (from the more limited “great recession”) is more a result of the ability of the existing power structures to maintain control and enforce harsh circumstances by handing the empty bag to the public, than any fundamental lack of resources to provide all with basic needs. Is the commitment to perpetual growth in wealth for the richest the only way that everyone else can hope to get their needs met? The economy is simply not structured to provide all with their basic needs. That growth economy is certainly coming to an end; but will it slowly grind to a halt or collapse more rapidly?
The fact that the market price for carbon emissions has fallen so low in Europe is a direct result of stagnating growth. Past economic recessions and more serious economic collapses, such as faced by the Soviet Union after its oil production peaked in the late 1980’s, show how greenhouse gas emissions can and have been reduced, then stabilizing at lower levels once the economy stabilized without any planned intention to do so. The large number of oil exporters that have more recently peaked has provided many case studies to show the correlation with political upheaval, economic contraction and reductions in GGE. Similarly many of the countries that have suffered the greatest economic contraction are also those with the greatest dependence on imported energy, such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal. The so-called Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, followed high food and energy prices driven by collapsed oil revenues and inability to maintain subsidies. The radical changes of government in Egypt have not been able to arrest the further contraction of the economy.
The effects of peak oil and climate change have combined with geopolitical struggles over pipeline routes to all but destroy the Syrian economy and society.
Slow Contraction or Fast Collapse
The fragility of the global economy has many unprecedented aspects that make some sort of rapid collapse of the global economy more likely. The capacity of central banks to repeat the massive stimulus mechanism in response to the 2008 global financial crisis, has been greatly reduced, while the faith that underpins the global financial system has weakened, to say the least. Systems thinkers such as David Korowicz have argued that the inter-connected nature of the global economy, instantaneous communications and financial flows, “just in time” logistics, and extreme degrees of economic and technological specialisation, have increased the chances of a large scale systemic failure, at the same time that they have mitigated (or at least reduced) the impact of more limited localised crises.
Whether novel factors such as information technology, global peak oil and climate change have increased the likelihood of more extreme economic collapse, Foss and Keen have convinced me that the most powerful and fast-acting factor that could radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the scale of financial debt and the long-sustained growth of bubble economics stretching back at least to the beginnings of the “Thatcherite/Reaganite revolution” in the early 1980s. From an energetics perspective, the peak of US oil production in 1970, and the resulting global oil crises of 73 and 79, laid the foundations for the gigantic growth in debt that super accelerated the level of consumption, and therefore GGE.
Whatever the causes, all economic bubbles follow a trajectory that includes a rapid contraction, as credit evaporates, followed by a long-sustained contraction, where asset values decline to lower levels than those at the beginning of the bubble. After almost 25 years of asset price deflation in Japan, a house and land parcel of 1.5ha in a not too isolated rural location can be bought for $25,000. A contraction in the systems that supply wants are likely to see simultaneous problems in the provision of basic needs. As Foss explains, in a deflationary contraction, prices of luxuries generally collapse but essentials of food and fuel do not fall much. Most importantly, essentials become unaffordable for many, once credit freezes and job security declines. It goes without saying that deflation rather inflation is the economic devil that governments and central banks most fear and are prepared to do almost anything to avoid.
Giving credence to the evidence for fast global economic collapse may suggest I am moving away from my belief in the more gradual Energy Descent future that I helped articulate. John Michael Greer has been very critical of apocalyptic views of the future in which a collapse sweeps away the current world leaving the chosen few who survive to build the new world. In large measure I agree with his critique but recognise that some might interpret my work as suggesting a permaculture paradise growing from the ashes of this civilisation. To some extent this is a reasonable interpretation, but I see that collapse, as a long drawn-out process rather than resulting from a single event.
I still believe that energy descent will go on for many decades or even centuries. In Future Scenarios I suggested energy descent driven by climate change and peak oil could occur through a series of crises separating relatively stable states that could persist for decades if not centuries. The collapse of the global financial system might simply be the first of those crises that reorganise the world. The pathways that energy descent could take are enormously varied, but still little discussed, so it is not surprising that discussions about descent scenarios tend to default into ones of total collapse. As the language around energy descent and collapse has become more nuanced, we start to see the distinction between financial, economic, social and civilisational collapse as potential stages in an energy descent process where the first is fast changing and relatively superficial and the last is slow moving and more fundamental.
In Future Scenarios I suggested the more extreme scenarios of Earth Steward and Lifeboat could follow Green Tech and Brown Tech along the stepwise energy descent pathway. If we are heading into the Brown Tech world of more severe climate change, then as the energy sources that sustain the Brown Tech scenario deplete, and climate chaos increases, future crises and collapse could lead to the Lifeboat Scenario. In this scenario, no matter how fast or extreme the reductions in GGE due to economic collapse, we still end up in the climate cooker, but with only the capacity for very local, household and communitarian organisation.
If the climate crisis is already happening, and as suggested in Future Scenarios, the primary responses to the crisis increase rather than reduce GGE, then it is probably too late for any concerted effort to shift course to the more benign Green Tech energy descent future. Given that most of the world is yet to accept the inevitability of Energy Descent and are still pinning their faith in “Techno Stability” if not “Techno Explosion”, the globally cooperative powerdown processes needed to shift the world to Green Tech look unlikely. More fundamental than any political action, the resurgent rural and regional economies, based on a boom for agricultural and forestry commodities, that structurally underpins the Green Tech scenario, will not eventuate if climate change is fast and severe. Climate change will stimulate large investments in agriculture but they are more likely to be energy and resource intensive, controlled climate agriculture (greenhouses), centralised at transport hubs. This type of development simply reinforces the Brown Tech model including the acceleration of GGE.
While it may be too late for the Green Tech Scenario, it still may be possible to avoid more extreme climate change of a long drawn out Brown Tech Scenario before natural forcing factors lock humanity into the climate cooker of 4-6 degrees and resource depletion leads to a collapse of the centralised Brown Tech governance and a rise of local war lords (Lifeboat Scenario).
The novel structural vulnerabilities highlighted by David Korowicz, and the unprecedented extremity of the bubble economics highlighted by Nicole Foss suggest the strong tendencies towards a Brown Tech world could be short lived. Instead, severe global economic and societal collapse could switch off GGE enough to begin reversing climate change; in essence the Earth Steward scenario of recreated bioregional economies based on frugal agrarian resources and abundant salvage from the collapsed global economy and defunct national governance structures.
 During the early stages of the industrial revolution English economist William Stanley Jevons noticed that a doubling in the efficiency of steam engine technology led to an increase rather than a halving of coal consumption as businesses found more uses for the available power. See the Coal Question (1865).
 See Deficit Deeper Than Economy http://www.canberratimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/deficit-deeper-than-economy-20130929-2umd3.html#ixzz2js46nGBp
 See Wikipedia article for overview of movementhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth
 Of course true believers in global capitalism’s capacity to reduce GGE in time, still abound. See for example Christian Parenti’s piece from Dissent, reposted at Resilience.org, which is amusingly titled A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisiswhich is actually a plea for activists to forget trying to reform, let alone build systems based on sustainability principles, in favour of getting behind the power of corporations and governments to make big changes quickly (to get GGE falling fast enough).
 See for example, Peak oil and the fall of the Soviet Union by Douglas B. Reynolds on The Oil Drum.
 See Trade-Off, Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta, 2012
Martin Armstrong Warns Europeans Of The Coming Expropriation Of 10% Of Everyone’s Accounts | Zero Hedge
As we have discussed in depth previously (2 years ago here as “muddle through has failed” and most recently here as the IMF discussed a “one-off” wealth tax), a confiscation (akin to Cyprus overnight debacle) is coming and Martin Armstrong believes sooner than most think.
Submitted by Martin Armstrong via Armstrong Economics,
Anyone who thinks it is a fantasy that government will simply just confiscate 10% of everyone’s accounts in Europe better have another look at the fool they see in the mirror staring back at them. This IMF solution is traditionally French and is really coming because the people in charge are effectively Marxists and this idea came from the IMF under the control of French ideology. They willexpropriate these funds to save a banking system that they screwed up and will never reform anything because they are incapable of admitting any mistake.
These European government officials really are playing a dangerous game that is inviting total chaos, civil unrest, and may set themselves up for invasion. Instead of Napoleon invading Russia (1812.479), it may be the other way around when they smell weakness.
Let me make this very clear. I have many French friends and they know the people in charge are just Marxists. Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations because he visited France to investigate Physiocracy that argued agriculture was the only real wealth. Karl Marx did not come up with Communism himself. He was more of a socialist. He did not advocate confiscating all property. It was the French movement of a commune at the time that convinced him their way was better. It was Engels who steered Marx into Communism. These ideas have emerged from France and this is why we have some of the most insane ideas still emerging from this country. There is a core philosophy among some that this socialism is correct.
The IMF proposal to expropriate everyone’s accounts in Europe will happen. The consequences could be absolutely the collapse in confidence that will be off the charts. Why should people trust government ever again or any bank for that matter?
My advise to Europe – move as much as you can… – Hollande will come up with that one you can bet. He will weaken Europe and destroy the future of generations yet to come.
When they took the funds in Cyprus, the EU did not distinguish between European, American, or Russian accounts.
Debt is serfdom, capital in all its forms is freedom. The only leverage available to all is extreme frugality in service of accumulating productive capital.
There are only three ways to better oneself financially: marry someone with money, inherit money or accumulate capital/savings and invest it in productive assets. (We’ll leave out lobbying the Federal government for a fat contract, faking disability, selling derivatives designed to default and other criminal activities.)
The only way to accumulate capital to invest is to spend considerably less than you earn. For a variety of reasons, humans seem predisposed to spend more as their income rises. Thus the person making $30,000 a year imagines that if only they could earn $100,000 a year, they could save half of their net income. Yet when that happy day arrives, they generally find their expenses have risen in tandem with their income, and the anticipated ease of saving large chunks of money never materializes.
What qualifies as extreme frugality? Saving a third of one’s net income is a good start, though putting aside half of one’s net income is even better.
The lower one’s income, the more creative one has to be to save a significant percentage of one’s net income. On the plus side, the income tax burden for lower-income workers is low, so relatively little of gross income is lost to taxes.
The second half of the job is investing the accumulated capital in productive assets and/or enterprises. The root of capitalism is capital, and that includes not just financial capital (cash) but social capital (the value of one’s networks and associations) and human capital (one’s skills and experience and ability to master new knowledge and skills).
Cash invested in tools and new skills and collaborative networks can leverage a relatively modest sum of cash capital into a significant income stream, something that cannot be said of financial investments in a zero-interest rate world.
We hear a lot about the rising cost of college and the impossibility of getting a degree without loans or tens of thousands of dollars contributed by parents. I think my own experience is instructive, as there is another path: extreme frugality.
At 19, my two sets of parents were unable to provide me with more than a rust-bucket old car. My father sent me an airline ticket to visit him, but nobody ponied up any cash for tuition, books, or living expenses.
Step One was eliminating housing costs until I earned enough to pay rent. By good fortune, I was able to secure a work-trade housing situation: I was given a room filled with boxes of accounting records, and a path through the boxes to a bathroom and tiny kitchenette in trade for yard work.
Step Two: cut all other expenses to the bone. Since I was working for a remodeling contractor, I needed the car to get to the various jobsites, but I bicycled whenever possible to save on gasoline. I prepared all my own meals and avoided buying snacks, drinks, etc. until my income rose enough to swing such luxuries. I can count the number of drinks or meals I bought on campus in four years on one hand.
Music purchased: none. (We played our own music or listened to the radio on the jobsite.) Clothes purchased new: none. (That’s what church jumble sales/bazaars are for: $1 shirts, etc.) And so on.
Step Three: find a job with upside earnings and skills. I’d worked in snack bars and mowed lawns, but construction opened up opportunities to advance my skills and gain sufficient proficiency to deserve a raise in pay.
Since I wasn’t guaranteed any opportunity for advancement, I volunteered to work Saturdays for my bosses or anyone else on the crew who had sidework on the weekends. I volunteered my construction services to community groups to gain experience (there’s nothing like being responsible for the project, as opposed to just following orders) and open access to new networks of productive, accomplished people.
For example, I rebuilt the rotted redwood rear steps to the historic Agee House in the back of Manoa Valley for free. (Sadly, this wonderful building burned down a few years later.)
In business, the word “hustle” has the negative connotation of high pressure sales or a scam. In sports, it has a positive connotation of devoting more energy and effort as a means of compensating for lower skills or physical size. Step Three requires hustle: when you don’t have any advantages of capital, connections or skills, you have to acquire those by hustle and initiative.
Step Four: apply for obscure, small-sum scholarships. $500 may not sound like a lot, but it means competition will be lower and if you get it, that’s $500 you don’t have to earn. As you build your networks in the community, put the word out you’re looking for small scholarships for next semester’s tuition. In general, people tend to respond more positively to helping you with a specific goal rather than an open-ended or undefined goal such as “I need money for college.”
Step Five: work productively and ambitiously, i.e. work a lot but work smart. It never occurred to me that working 25+ hours a week and taking a full load of classes (4-5 classes and 15+ credits a semester) was something to bemoan–I was having a great time, and earned a 3.5 grade point average and my B.A. in four years.
60-hour work weeks should be considered the minimum effort necessary–but only if those hours are 100% productive work, not hours interrupted with games, phone calls, goofing off, etc. Those 60 hours are flat-out, power-out-the-work hours, not hours diluted by half-effort, distractions, etc.
Step Six: learn to do things yourself that cost money, such as maintaining your car. It’s not that hard to change the oil and other basics of maintenance.
If you push yourself and maintain a disciplined life, huge amounts of work can be ground through in a few hours. This is as true of digging a ditch as it is of plowing through texts and writing papers.
Tuition at the state university I attended (the University of Hawaii at Manoa) has risen enormously in the decades since I worked my way through college (roughly $9,000 a year now), but it’s still possible to work one’s way through if the student pursues all six steps assiduously and with perseverance and hustle and secures full-time work in summers.
One reason I did not bemoan working long hours and practicing extreme frugality was that this was still the default setting in a few dwindling enclaves of our culture and economy. The idea that you could borrow money for everything you wanted had not yet conquered the culture and economy: thrift in service of big goals was still a cultural norm.
In other words, what I did wasn’t heroic or unusual; it was the norm.
I should mention that my university years overlapped with the deepest recession (at that time) since the Great Depression: 1973-74. Work was hard to come by, gasoline skyrocketed in price, and inflation started to outpace wages, especially in the low-wage jobs typically available to college students.
It was not a cakewalk by any means.
The upside of relentlessly pursuing Steps One – Six is tremendous: personal integrity, financial independence, and the other powerful freedoms that accrue to these foundations. Measured by income and things I owned, I was “poor.” But measured by independence and by skills and networks gained, I was wealthy in many important ways.
Extreme frugality enabled me to not just finish college in four years but to buy a (cheap) parcel of land while still a student with cash and have a substantial savings account by graduation day.
I don’t look back on those years of voluntary deprivation in service of independence, freedom, knowledge, and social and human capital as “poor me:” I see them as the extremely positive, productive template that I have followed in the decades since. I never did marry or inherit money, and so whatever I have now is the direct result of extreme frugality in service of integrity, independence and the accrual of capital that can be productively invested.
The only leverage available to all is extreme frugality in service of accumulating savings that can be productively invested in building human, social and financial capital.
Debt is serfdom, capital in all its forms is freedom.
Debt = Serfdom (April 2, 2013)
How Frugal Are You? (August 7, 2010)
Crash on Demand: David Holmgren updates his Future Scenarios: Review
David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept, published Future Scenarios in 2007, originally as a website, and then published by Chelsea Green in 2008 as a small book (126 pages). He explores four possible human futures as the two great crises of Peak Oil and Climate Change converge into what he has coined ourenergy descent future. In my view, this is essential reading. Adam Grubb, founder of Energy Bulletin, characterized it like this:
These aren’t two-dimensional nightmarish scenarios designed to scare people into environmental action. They are compellingly fleshed-out visions of quite plausible alternative futures, which delve into energy, politics, agriculture, social, and even spiritual trends. What they do help make clear are the best strategies for preparing for and adapting to these possible futures.
Three years later, in 2010, Holmgren contributed an additional important essay,Money Vs. Fossil Energy: The Battle for Control of the World. Holmgren describes this essay as “a framework for understanding the ideological roots of the current global crisis that I believe is more useful than the now tired Left Right political spectrum.” Like all of his work, it is based on a profound energetic literacy, and is quite startling and original, and “challenges much of the strategic logic behind current mainstream climate change activism.”
A year ago, in a December 2012 interview, Holmgren was asked:
What do you see as the biggest challenges in our struggle to control our resources today?
After a lifetime of focusing on the biological basis for existence, and then the energetic basis, I’ve now become more and more interested in money, ironically, after ignoring it for most of my life. On the downside of the energy peak, it’s actually the bubble economies that can unravel so fast, that become almost the most important thing in shaping the immediate future. That bubble economy is, of course, actually falling apart right now. So a lot of the mainstream sustainability strategies assume we have a growing and steady economy. Permaculture works from the basis that we can adapt and do these adaptions in an ad-hoc way from the bottom up, and we’ve been doing that essentially for 30 years without the support of government and corporations. I’m not saying that we’ve got all the answers, but there’s a lot of people out there who are modeling and have been modeling how creative responses are going to happen.
The 2013 Update
And now a year later, as 2013 draws to a close, David Holmgren has published a new essay (a 24 page pdf download), which is an update of Future Scenarios, builds on Money Vs. Fossil Fuels, and expands his new focus on money and economy. The essay is titled Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future.
Six years on, of the four scenarios outlined in Future Scenarios, Holmgren is seeing the Brown Tech scenario as the one currently in play, where the decline of fossil fuels unfolds slowly, “but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions.” The political system is Corporatist, and emphasis is placed on replacing declining conventional fossil fuels with lower grade fossil fuels, which are both more expensive and also release more GGE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), which exacerbates Climate Change even further. The introduction to this essay states:
David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff. It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.
In the extensive discussions about money and economy, the influence of systems analyst Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh -The Automatic Earth) and economist Steve Keen (Debt Deflation) are strong and freely acknowledged. Holmgren believes that deflationary economics is the most powerful factor shaping our immediate future.
The basic recommendation (as noted in the quote above) is not much different from what David Holmgren has been recommending for 30 years: to engage in a shift away from being a dependent c0nsumer, and toward being a responsible self-reliant producer for your household and community, and to shift a significant portion of assets out of the mainstream economy and move them into building household and community resilience. These actions not only put us in a more secure position, they also, if engaged by perhaps 10% of the population of affluent countries, might be just enough to shift our economies out of the perpetual growth paradigm we’ve been inhabiting since at least the industrial revolution, and is now only hanging on via a rising debt bubble. The collapse of the current bubble economy will be painful. However, given that current growth is only being made possible by rising debt, we are not doing ourselves any favors by perpetuating it. As he had previously pointed out in Future Scenarios:
…without radical behavioral and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.
Holmgren makes the case that while it may be too late for the Green Tech scenario to materialize, it may still be possible to avoid the worst effects of the Brown Tech scenario (a 4 to 6 degree “Climate Cooker” Lifeboats scenario). A severe global economic collapse could switch off enough GGE to begin reversing climate change, so that the Earth Steward scenario of bioregional economies based on frugal rural agrarian living, assisted by resources salvaged from the collapsed global economy and the defunct national governments, might emerge in the long term future.
It’s not a picture of a bright and shiny future, granted. The last 10 pages or so, however, I found to be quite stimulating, and opened up more possibilities for positive engagement. Topics discussed are Nested Scenarios (different scenarios co-existing at different scales); Investment and Divestment; Formal and Informal Economies; Alternative and Non-monetary Economies; Labor and Skill Vs Fossil Fuel and Technology; Brown Tech Possibilities; Actors at the Fringe; and Not Financial Terrorists (but Terra-ists with hands in the soil). There are also many great footnotes/links worth following up on.
This is a highly recommended essay – essential reading for those trying to make sense of our long term future and how we can best make a positive difference.
(Un)Paving Our Way To Nirvana
The citizens who do recognize their own discomfort in this geography of nowhere generally articulate it as a response to “ugliness.” This is only part of the story. The effects actually run much deeper. The aggressive and immersive ugliness of the built landscape is entropy made visible. It is composed of elements that move us in the direction of death, and the apprehension of this dynamic is what really makes people uncomfortable. It spreads a vacuum of lost meaning and purpose wherever it reaches. It is worse than nothing, worse than if it had never existed. As such, it qualifies under St. Augustine’s conception of “evil” in the sense that it represents antagonism to the forces of life.
We find ourselves now in a strange slough of history. Circumstances gathering in the home economics of mankind ought to inform us that we can’t keep living this way and need to make plans for living differently. But our sunk costs in this infrastructure for daily life with no future prevent us from making better choices. At least for the moment. In large part this is because the “development” of all this ghastly crap — the vinyl-and-strandboard housing subdivisions, the highway strips, malls, and “lifestyle centers,” the “Darth Vader” office parks, the infinity of asphalt pavements — became, for a while, our replacement for an economy of ecological sanity. The housing bubble was all about building more stuff with no future, and that is why the attempt to re-start it is evil.
Sooner rather than later we’ll have to make better choices. We’ll have to redesign the human habitat in America because our current environs will become uninhabitable. The means and modes for doing this are already understood. They do not require heroic “innovation” or great leaps of “new technology.” Mostly they require a decent respect for easily referenced history and a readjustment of our values in the general direction of promoting life over death. This means for accomplishing this will be the subject of Part II of this essay, but it is necessary to review a pathology report of the damage done.
I have a new theory of history: things happen in human affairs because they seem like a good idea at the time. This helps explain events that otherwise defy understanding, for example the causes of the First World War. England, France, Russia, Germany, and Italy joined that war because it seemed like a good idea at the time, namely August of 1914. There hadn’t been a real good dust-up on the continent since Waterloo in 1814. Old grievances were stewing. Empires were both rising and falling, contracting and reaching out. The “players” seemed to go into the war thinking it would be a short, redemptive, and rather glorious adventure, complete with cavalry charges and evenings in ballrooms. The “deciders” failed to take into account the effects of newly mechanized warfare. The result was the staggering industrial slaughter of the trenches. Poison gas attacks did not inspire picturesque heroism. And what started the whole thing? Ostensibly the assassination of an unpopular Hapsburg prince in Serbia. Was Franz Ferdinand an important figure? Not really. Was Austria a threat to France and England? It was in steep decline, a sclerotic empire held together with whipped cream and waltz music. Did Russia really care about little Serbia? Was Germany insane to attack on two fronts? Starting the fight seemed like a good idea at the time — and then, of course, the unintended consequences bit back like a mad dog from hell.
Likewise America’s war against its own landscape, which got underway in earnest just as the First World War ended (1918). The preceding years had seen Henry Ford perfect, first, the Model T (1908), and then the assembly line method of production (1915), and when WW I was out of the way, America embarked on its romance with democratic motoring. First, the cities were retrofitted for cars. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but the streets were soon overwhelmed by them. By the mid-1920s the temptation to motorize the countryside beyond the cities was irresistible, as were the potential profits to be reaped. What’s more, automobilizing the cities made them more unpleasant places to live, and reinforced the established American animus against city life in general, while supporting and enabling the fantasy that everyone ought to live in some approximation to a country squire, preferably in some kind of frontier.
The urban hinterlands presented just such a simulacrum of a frontier. It wasn’t a true frontier anymore in the sense of civilization meeting wilderness, but it was a real estate frontier and that was good enough for the moment. Developing it with houses seemed like a good idea. Indeed, it proved to be an excellent way to make money. The first iteration of 1920s car suburbs bloomed in the rural ring around every city in the land. An expanding middle class could “move to the country” but still have easy access to the city, with all its business and cultural amenities. What a wonderful thing! And so suburban real estate development became embedded in the national economic psychology as a pillar of “progress” and “growth.”
This activity contributed hugely to the fabled boom of the 1920s. Alas, the financial shenanigans arising out of all this new wealth, along with other disorders of capital, such as the saturation of markets, blew up the banking system and the Great Depression was on. The construction industry was hardest it. Very little private real estate development happened in the 1930s. And as that decade segued right into the Second World War, the dearth continued.
When the soldiers came home, the economic climate had shifted. America was the only industrial economy left standing, with all the advantages implied by that, plus military control over the loser lands. We already possessed the world’s biggest oil industry. But after two decades of depression, war, and neglect, American cities were less appealing than ever. The dominant image of city life in 1952 was Ralph Kramden’s apartment inThe Honeymooners TV show. Yccchhh. America was a large nation, with a lot of agricultural land just beyond the city limits. Hence, the mushrooming middle class, including now well-paid factory workers, could easily be sold on “country living.” The suburban project, languishing since 1930, resumed with a vengeance. The interstate highway program accelerated it.
The Broken Promises of Suburbia
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Country life for everybody in the world’s savior democracy! Fresh air! Light! Play space for the little ones! Nothing in world history had been easier to sell. Interestingly, in a nation newly-addicted to television viewing, the suburban expansion of the 1950s took on a cartoon flavor. It was soon apparent that the emergent “product” was not “country living” but rather a cartoon of a country house in a cartoon of the country. Yet it still sold. Americans were quite satisfied to live in a cartoon environment. It was uncomplicated. It could be purchased on installment loans. We had plenty of cheap energy to run it.
It took decades of accreting suburbia for its more insidious deficiencies to become apparent. Most noticeable was the disappearance of the rural edge as the subdivisions quickly fanned outward, dissolving the adjacent pastures, cornfields, and forests that served as reminder of the original promise of “country living.” Next was the parallel problem of accreting car traffic. Soon, that negated the promise of spacious country living in other ways. The hated urban “congestion” of living among too many people became an even more obnoxious congestion of cars. That problem was aggravated by the idiocies of single-use zoning, which mandated the strictest possible separation of activities and forced every denizen of the suburbs into driving for every little task. Under those codes (no mixed use!), the corner store was outlawed, as well as the café, the bistro, indeed any sort of gathering place within a short walk that is normal in one form or another in virtually every other culture.
This lack of public amenity drove the movement to make every household a self-contained, hermetically-sealed social unit. Instead of mixing with other people outside the family on a regular basis, Americans had TV and developed more meaningful relations with the characters on it than with the real people around them. Television was also the perfect medium for selling redundant “consumer” products: every house had to have its own lawnmower, washing machine, and pretty soon a separate TV for each family member. The result of all that was the corrosion of civic life (a.k.a “community”) until just about every civic association except for school oversight (the fabled PTA) dwindled and faded. And the net effect of all that was the stupendous loneliness, monotony, atomization, superficiality, and boredom of suburbia’s social vacuum. It was especially hard on the supposed greatest beneficiaries, children, who, having outgrown the play space of the yard by age eight, could not easily navigate the matrix of freeways and highways outside the subdivision without the aid of the “family chauffeur,” (i.e. Mom).
Cutting Our Losses & Moving On
A couple of points about the current situation in suburbia ought to be self-evident. One is that our predicament vis-à-vis oil, along with cratering middle class incomes, suggests that we won’t be able to run this arrangement of things on the landscape a whole lot longer. The circulatory system of suburbia depends on cars which run on liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Despite the current propaganda (“drill, baby drill”), we have poor prospects of continuing an affordable supply of those things, and poorer prospects of running the US motor vehicle fleet by other means, despite the share price of Tesla, Inc. The second point is how poorly all suburbia’s components are aging — the vinyl-clad houses, the tilt-up strip malls, the countless chicken shacks, burger stands, and muffler shops, all the generic accessories and furnishings that litter the terrain from sea to shining sea. There are a lot of reasons these things now look bad (and lose value) but the chief one is that most of them are things nobody really cares about.
In Part II: A Better Human Habitat for the Next Economy, we explore the necessary behaviors we’ll need to adopt if we hope to have any prosperity in the years ahead. What seemed like a good idea at the time — through the 20th century and a little beyond — is looking more like an experiment that failed. Our sunk costs in it promote a tendency to agonize over it. I propose that we just give up the hand-wringing and prepare to cut our losses and move on. The reality of the situation is that the response to all this will arise emergently as circumstances compel us to change our behavior and make different (and we should hope) better choices. That is to say, don’t expect programmatic political action to change this, especially from remote authorities like federal or state governments. We will reorganize life on the ground because we will have to.
I have made use of our local community newspaper (Stouffville Sun-Tribune) to voice my opinion on a number of issues. From a guest editorial to letters to the editor (see this and this as examples). And, when one of the columns writers threw out a challenge to readers to share visions of all the positive changes that the Town should envision as we continue to grow at one of the highest rates in all of Canada (see this), I had to respond. The following is the text of that response:
So, a question I’d like to pose to readers in this discussion is this: given the other side of the coin, do we really want the growth targets imposed by the ‘state?’ Or do we tell our leaders to stop now, while there is some ‘country’ left in the Town.
- History of Economic Analysis (joseywales1965.wordpress.com)
- Projections on Economic Collapse (Reblog) (repressedexpressions.wordpress.com)
- Theory, History, & Ideas (orrinwoodwardblog.com)
- (Another) Bad Day for Economists (boomerbeat.wordpress.com)
- Economics, cognitive science and social cognition (manwithoutqualities.com)
- Women Bear Brunt of Population Growth (voanews.com)
- Population Growth Alone Will Force a Wealth of Species Towards Extinction (motherboard.vice.com)
- David Attenborough interview: endless growth is ‘lunacy’ (smh.com.au)
- Human Population Growth Presents Increasing Threat To Animal Species (personalliberty.com)
- Downloads Wildlife Population Growth Rates (innecox.wordpress.com)