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The Archdruid Report: American Delusionalism, or Why History Matters

The Archdruid Report: American Delusionalism, or Why History Matters.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19, 2014

American Delusionalism, or Why History Matters

One of the things that reliably irritates a certain fraction of this blog’s readers, as I’ve had occasion to comment before, is my habit of using history as a touchstone that can be used to test claims about the future. No matter what the context, no matter how wearily familiar the process under discussion might be, it’s a safe bet that the moment I start talking about historical parallels, somebody or other is going to pop up and insist that it really is different this time.
In a trivial sense, of course, that claim is correct. The tech stock bubble that popped in 2000, the real estate bubble that popped in 2008, and the fracking bubble that’s showing every sign of popping in the uncomfortably near future are all different from each other, and from every other bubble and bust in the history of speculative markets, all the way back to the Dutch tulip mania of 1637. It’s quite true that tech stocks aren’t tulips, and bundled loans backed up by dubious no-doc mortgages aren’t the same as bundled loans backed up by dubious shale leases—well, not exactly the same—but in practice, the many differences of detail are irrelevant compared to the one crucial identity.  Tulips, tech stocks, and bundled loans, along with South Sea Company shares in 1730, investment trusts in 1929, and all the other speculative vehicles in all the other speculative bubbles of the last five centuries, different as they are, all follow the identical trajectory:  up with the rocket, down with the stick.
That is to say, those who insist that it’s different this time are right where it doesn’t matter and wrong where it counts. I’ve come to think of the words “it’s different this time,” in fact, as the nearest thing history has to the warning siren and flashing red light that tells you that something is about to go very, very wrong. When people start saying it, especially when plenty of people with plenty of access to the media start saying it, it’s time to dive for the floor, cover your head with your arms, and wait for the blast to hit.
With that in mind, I’d like to talk a bit about the recent media flurry around the phrase “American exceptionalism,” which has become something of a shibboleth among pseudoconservative talking heads in recent months. Pseudoconservatives? Well, yes; actual conservatives, motivated by the long and by no means undistinguished tradition of conservative thinking launched by Edmund Burke in the late 18th century, are interested in, ahem, conserving things, and conservatives who actually conserve are about as rare these days as liberals who actually liberate. Certainly you won’t find many of either among the strident voices insisting just now that the last scraps of America’s democracy at home and reputation abroad ought to be sacrificed in the service of their squeaky-voiced machismo.
As far as I know, the phrase “American exceptionalism” was originally coined by none other than Josef Stalin—evidence, if any more were needed, that American pseudoconservatives these days, having no ideas of their own, have simply borrowed those of their erstwhile Communist bogeyman and stood them on their heads with a Miltonic “Evil, be thou my good.”  Stalin meant by it the opinion of many Communists in his time that the United States, unlike the industrial nations of Europe, wasn’t yet ripe for the triumphant proletarian revolution predicted (inaccurately) by Marx’s secular theology. Devout Marxist that he was, Stalin rejected this claim with some heat, denouncing it in so many words as “this heresy of American exceptionalism,” and insisting (also inaccurately) that America would get its proletarian revolution on schedule.
While Stalin may have invented the phrase, the perception that he thus labeled had considerably older roots. In a previous time, though, that perception took a rather different tone than it does today. A great many of the early leaders and thinkers of the United States in its early years, and no small number of the foreign observers who watched the American experiment in those days, thought and hoped that the newly founded republic might be able to avoid making the familiar mistakes that had brought so much misery onto the empires of the Old World. Later on, during and immediately after the great debates over American empire at the end of the 19th century, a great many Americans and foreign observers still thought and hoped that the republic might come to its senses in time and back away from the same mistakes that doomed those Old World empires to the misery just mentioned. These days, by contrast, the phrase “American exceptionalism” seems to stand for the conviction that America can and should make every one of those same mistakes, right down to the fine details, and will still somehow be spared the logically inevitable consequences.
The current blind faith in American exceptionalism, in other words, is simply another way of saying “it’s different this time.”  Those who insist that God is on America’s side when America isn’t exactly returning the favor, like those who have less blatantly theological reasons for their belief that this nation’s excrement emits no noticeable odor, are for all practical purposes demanding that America must not, under any circumstances, draw any benefit from the painfully learnt lessons of history.  I suggest that a better name for the belief in question might be “American delusionalism;” it’s hard to see how this bizarre act of faith can do anything other than help drive the American experiment toward a miserable end, but then that’s just one more irony in the fire.
The same conviction that the past has nothing to teach the present is just as common elsewhere in contemporary culture. I’m thinking here, among other things, of the ongoing drumbeat of claims that our species will inevitably be extinct by 2030. As I noted in a previous post here, this is yet another expression of the same dubious logic that generated the 2012 delusion, but much of the rhetoric that surrounds it starts from the insistence that nothing like the current round of greenhouse gas-driven climate change has ever happened before.
That insistence bespeaks an embarrassing lack of knowledge about paleoclimatology. Vast quantities of greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere over a century or two? Check; the usual culprit is vulcanism, specifically the kind of flood-basalt eruption that opens a crack in the earth many miles in length and turns an area the size of a European nation into a lake of lava. The most recent of those, a smallish one, happened about 6 million years ago in the Columbia River basin of eastern Washington and Oregon states.  Further back, in the Aptian, Toarcian, and Turonian-Cenomanian epochs of the late Mesozoic, that same process on a much larger scale boosted atmospheric CO2 levels to three times the present figure and triggered what paleoclimatologists call “super-greenhouse events.” Did those cause the extinction of all life on earth? Not hardly; as far as the paleontological evidence shows, it didn’t even slow the brontosaurs down.
Oceanic acidification leading to the collapse of calcium-shelled plankton populations? Check; those three super-greenhouse events, along with a great many less drastic climate spikes, did that. The ocean also contains very large numbers of single-celled organisms that don’t have calcium shells, such as blue-green algae, which aren’t particularly sensitive to shifts in the pH level of seawater; when such shifts happen, these other organisms expand to fill the empty niches, and everybody further up the food chain gets used to a change in diet. When the acidification goes away, whatever species of calcium-shelled plankton have managed to survive elbow their way back into their former niches and undergo a burst of evolutionary radiation; this makes life easy for geologists today, who can figure out the age of any rock laid down in an ancient ocean by checking the remains of foraminifers and other calcium-loving plankton against a chart of what existed when.
Sudden climate change recently enough to be experienced by human beings? Check; most people have heard of the end of the last ice age, though you have to read the technical literature or one of a very few popular treatments to get some idea of just how drastically the climate changed, or how fast.  The old saw about a slow, gradual warming over millennia got chucked into the dumpster decades ago, when ice cores from Greenland upset that particular theory. The ratio between different isotopes of oxygen in the ice laid down in different years provides a sensitive measure of the average global temperature at sea level during those same years. According to that measure, at the end of the Younger Dryas period about 11,800 years ago, global temperatures shot up by 20° F. in less than a decade.
Now of course that didn’t mean that temperatures shot up that far evenly, all over the world.  What seems to have happened is that the tropics barely warmed at all, the southern end of the planet warmed mildly, and the northern end experienced a drastic heat wave that tipped the great continental ice sheets of the era into rapid collapse and sent sea levels soaring upwards. Those of my readers who have been paying attention to recent scientific publications about Greenland and the Arctic Ocean now have very good reason to worry, because the current round of climate change has most strongly affected the northern end of the planet, too, and scientists have begun to notice historically unprecedented changes in the Greenland ice cap. In an upcoming post I plan on discussing at some length what those particular historical parallels promise for our future, and it’s not pretty.
Oh, and the aftermath of the post-Younger Dryas temperature spike was a period several thousand years long when global temperatures were considerably higher than they are today. The Holocene Hypsithermal, as it’s called, saw global temperatures peak around 7°F. higher than they are today—about the level, that is, that’s already baked into the cake as a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.  It was not a particularly pleasant time. Most of western North America was desert, baked to a crackly crunch by drought conditions that make today’s dry years look soggy; much of what’s now, at least in theory, the eastern woodland biome was dryland prairie, while both coasts got rapidly rising seas with a side order of frequent big tsunamis—again, we’ll talk about those in the upcoming post just mentioned. Still, you’ll notice that our species survived the experience.
As those droughts and tsunamis might suggest, the lessons taught by history don’t necessarily amount to “everything will be just fine.” The weird inability of the contemporary imagination to find any middle ground between business as usual and sudden total annihilation has its usual effect here, hiding the actual risks of anthropogenic climate change behind a facade of apocalyptic fantasies. Here again, the question “what happened the last time this occurred?” is the most accessible way to avoid that trap, and the insistence that it’s different this time and the evidence of the past can’t be applied to the present and future puts that safeguard out of reach.
For a third example, consider the latest round of claims that a sudden financial collapse driven by current debt loads will crash the global economy once and for all. That sudden collapse has been being predicted year after weary year for decades now—do any of my readers, I wonder, remember Dr. Ravi Batra’s The Great Depression of 1990?—and its repeated failure to show up and perform as predicted seems only to strengthen the conviction on the part of believers that this year, like some financial equivalent of the Great Pumpkin, the long-delayed crash will finally put in its long-delayed appearance and bring the global economy crashing down.
I’m far from sure that they’re right about the imminence of a crash; the economy of high finance these days is so heavily manipulated, and so thoroughly detached from the real economy where real goods and services have to be produced using real energy and resources, that it’s occurred to me more than once that the stock market and the other organs of the financial sphere might keep chugging away in a state of blissful disconnection to the rest of existence for a very long time to come. Stil, let’s grant for the moment that the absurd buildup of unpayable debt in the United States and other industrial nations will in fact become the driving force behind a credit collapse, in which drastic deleveraging will erase trillions of dollars in notional wealth. Would such a crash succeed, as a great many people are claiming just now, in bringing the global economy to a sudden and permanent stop?
Here again, the lessons of history provide a clear and straightforward answer to that question, and it’s not one that supports the partisans of the fast-crash theory. Massive credit collapses that erase very large sums of notional wealth and impact the global economy are hardly a new phenomenon, after all. One example—the credit collapse of 1930-1932—is still just within living memory; the financial crises of 1873 and 1893 are well documented, and there are dozens of other examples of nations and whole continents hammered by credit collapses and other forms of drastic economic crisis. Those crises have had plenty of consequences, but one thing that has never happened as a result of any of them is the sort of self-feeding, irrevocable plunge into the abyss that current fast-crash theories require.
The reason for this is that credit is merely one way by which a society manages the distribution of goods and services. That’s all it is. Energy, raw materials, and labor are the factors that have to be present in order to produce goods and services.  Credit simply regulates who gets how much of each of these things, and there have been plenty of societies that have handled that same task without making use of a credit system at all. A credit collapse, in turn, doesn’t make the energy, raw materials, and labor vanish into some fiscal equivalent of a black hole; they’re all still there, in whatever quantities they were before the credit collapse, and all that’s needed is some new way to allocate them to the production of goods and services.
This, in turn, governments promptly provide. In 1933, for example, faced with the most severe credit collapse in American history, Franklin Roosevelt temporarily nationalized the entire US banking system, seized nearly all the privately held gold in the country, unilaterally changed the national debt from “payable in gold” to “payable in Federal Reserve notes” (which amounted to a technical default), and launched a flurry of other emergency measures.  The credit collapse came to a screeching halt, famously, in less than a hundred days. Other nations facing the same crisis took equally drastic measures, with similar results. While that history has apparently been forgotten across large sections of the peak oil blogosphere, it’s a safe bet that none of it has been forgotten in the corridors of power in Washington DC and elsewhere in the world.
More generally, governments have an extremely broad range of powers that can be used, and have been used, in extreme financial emergencies to stop a credit or currency collapse from terminating the real economy. Faced with a severe crisis, governments can slap on wage and price controls, freeze currency exchanges, impose rationing, raise trade barriers, default on their debts, nationalize whole industries, issue new currencies, allocate goods and services by fiat, and impose martial law to make sure the new economic rules are followed to the letter, if necessary, at gunpoint. Again, these aren’t theoretical possibilities; every one of them has actually been used by more than one government faced by a major economic crisis in the last century and a half. Given that track record, it requires a breathtaking leap of faith to assume that if the next round of deleveraging spirals out of control, politicians around the world will simply sit on their hands, saying “Whatever shall we do?” in plaintive voices, while civilization crashes to ruin around them.
What makes that leap of faith all the more curious is in the runup to the economic crisis of 2008-9, the same claims of imminent, unstoppable financial apocalypse we’re hearing today were being made—in some cases, by the same people who are making them today.  (I treasure a comment I fielded from a popular peak oil blogger at the height of the 2009 crisis, who insisted that the fast crash was upon us and that my predictions about the future were therefore all wrong.) Their logic was flawed then, and it’s just as flawed now, because it dismisses the lessons of history as irrelevant and therefore fails to take into account how the events under discussion play out in the real world.
That’s the problem with the insistence that this time it really is different: it disables the most effective protection we’ve got against the habit of thought that cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias,” the tendency to look for evidence that supports one’s pet theory rather than seeking the evidence that might call it into question. The scientific method itself, in the final analysis, is simply a collection of useful gimmicks that help you sidestep confirmation bias.  That’s why competent scientists, when they come up with a hypothesis to explain something in nature, promptly sit down and try to think up as many ways as possible to disprove the hypothesis.  Those potentials for disproof are the raw materials from which experiments are designed, and only if the hypothesis survives all experimental attempts to disprove it does it take its first step toward scientific respectability.
It’s not exactly easy to run controlled double-blind experiments on entire societies, but historical comparison offers the same sort of counterweight to confirmation bias. Any present or future set of events, however unique it may be in terms of the fine details, has points of similarity with events in the past, and those points of similarity allow the past events to be taken as a guide to the present and future. This works best if you’ve got a series of past events, as different from each other as any one of them is from the present or future situation you’re trying to predict; if you can find common patterns in the whole range of past parallels, it’s usually a safe bet that the same pattern will recur again.
Any time you approach a present or future event, then, you have two choices: you can look for the features that event has in common with other events, despite the differences of detail, or you can focus on the differences and ignore the common features.  The first of those choices, it’s worth noting, allows you to consider both the similarities and the differences.  Once you’ve got the common pattern, it then becomes possible to modify it as needed to take into account the special characteristics of the situation you’re trying to understand or predict: to notice, for example, that the dark age that will follow our civilization will have to contend with nuclear and chemical pollution on top of the more ordinary consequences of decline and fall.

If you start from the assumption that the event you’re trying to predict is unlike anything that’s ever happened before, though, you’ve thrown out your chance of perceiving the common pattern. What happens instead, with motononous regularity, is that pop-culture narratives such as the sudden overnight collapse beloved of Hollywood screenplay writers smuggle themselves into the picture, and cement themselves in place with the help of confirmation bias. The result is the endless recycling of repeatedly failed predictions that plays so central a role in the collective imagination of our time, and has helped so many people blind themselves to the unwelcome future closing in on us.

A Gift From The Collapseniks  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards

A Gift From The Collapseniks  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards.

Of what possible use is it to imagine the end of civilization or even of the species? Is it simply a pessimistic indulgence or can it contribute to progressive and other positive results?

When I was a child, my family’s pastor used to elbow into almost every sermon an admiring reference to “St. John languishing in exile on the rock-bound, sea-girt island of Patmos.” He was referring to the author of  the grisly Book of Revelation , the dominant Western source of apocalyptic imagery.

We chuckle at cartoons of robed men on city sidewalks carrying placards that claim, “the end is nigh,” and at bumper stickers that declare, “in case of Rapture, this car will be driverless” (which sounds more dangerous than driving under the influence). Since St. John’s fiery prose, there have been many predictions of the end, including the modern cult studied by social psychologist Leon Festinger in When Prophecy Fails (1956).

Those who see danger tend to accuse others of “denial,” of “refusing to listen.” Perhaps a tincture of denial has given humans an evolutionary advantage. Speaking positively, psychologists refer to “optimism bias.” Most of us tend to imagine that things will turn out better than they do, a common mental pattern studied by such authors as Tali Sharot. While this trait arguably encourages enterprises, some of which succeed, it may also, on occasion, blind us to the possibility of avoidable loss, even terminal loss.

In A Year to Live (1997), Stephen Levine asks readers to pretend they have the awful privilege of knowing when they will die (in 52 weeks) and challenges them to review their histories honestly and to live abundantly in the remaining time. As my wife and I know, from working through Levine’s book with another couple, the result can be an enhancement of life.

During the Cold War, Joanna Macy gave us Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (1983). Before writing on ecology, on general systems theory, and on hope, Macy taught that a fuller life, including activism, could be approached through uninhibited expression of the deep feelings that led us to be concerned. More recent examples are the grief work of Carolyn Baker, author of Sacred Demise (2009) and Collapsing Consciously (2013) and of Francis Weller, author of Entering the Healing Ground (2012).

Still, it’s going against the grain to ask people to imagine extreme loss. Unlike some so-called primitive groups, our society is not set up for it, apart from isolated workshops. According to both Baker and Weller, working through grief requires the support of a community and the additional safety of a ritual container. For all its virtues, U.S. culture is based more on individuality, the frontier, and risky enterprise, than on mutual support and safe space.

Nonetheless, a growing number of observers of climate change and other trends foresee disaster. We can describe them as collapseniks, a term with a suffix derived from Russian in honor of Dmitri Orlo*, who grew up in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and emigrated to the U.S. An engineer, sailor, and writer, Orlov believes that his adopted country will descend into collapse, and that the U.S. is less well prepared than the country where he was raised. If we define collapsenik as an observer who is conscious of the possibility of economic, political, and social collapse and who believes collapse is worth taking seriously, then Orlov has a parade of company, of which I will give chronological highlights at the end of this piece.

There are big differences among collapsenik authors and even in a single author at different times. A spectrum exists, from those who feel we could avoid the worst of climate change by changing our ways substantially (“we’re sleepwalking toward disaster but could conceivably wake up”) to those who believe our species is doomed (“it’s already too late”). For example, scientist Guy McPherson has come to believe that, as a species, we are headed toward “near-term extinction” (niftily abbreviated as NTE).

While pessimists predict NTE, optimists envision the triumph of a progressive politics that would render climate change survivable, perhaps shifting us toward a steady-state economy, slowing the sixth extinction of species, and fostering a network of local and democratic institutions. An optimistic scenario would resonate with what Macy, expressing hope, now calls “The Great Turning.”

In contrast, McPherson argues that it’s already too late for ad equate reform: humans have inadvertently created feedback loops that will keep making the situation worse. For example, the release of methane, caused (in part) by warming of the shallow Arctic ocean and the Siberian and Canadian tundra, will cause more warming because methane is a greenhouse gas even more dangerous than CO2. And so on.

Humans don’t have a very good record of predicting the future, in spite of various divinatory schemes. Whether developments are technological, political, or economic, we have proceeded without reliable forecasts. Given the surprises inherent in complex systems and in technical development, nobody can show that we face certain demise, though we can discuss probabilities.

Could we learn to regard collapse not as a firm prediction but as a scenario worth exploring? After all, the Pentagon has contingency plans for events that are arguably less likely and less devastating.

To return to our original question, what could be the use of taking seriously a scenario of collapse, especially the views that argue that it’s already too late or that changes could help, but probably won’t be made? If we feel grief at what seems to be happening, instead of simply seeming smug in a prediction of certain doom, if we invent ways to lessen the turbulence and create the best that is possible in the new circumstances, if we live intensely instead of habitually, then the scenario of demise might seem no worse than knowing that, as individuals, we each will die. Meanwhile, what are we capable of?

According to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (2010), disasters can bring out the best in people. If the scenario of the collapseniks plays out, we will have opportunities to discover what kind of gardens we can create in the ruins of our present society. So what is the gift? That by responding fully to the scenario, we can meanwhile live more intensely and develop the elements of a society that, under new conditions as they develop, would work.

Now here are the promised examples of recent writers who are aware of the possibility of collapse and who, in various cases, are sketching alternatives. In this century, we’ve been given Tim Flahherty’s The Weather Makers (2001), Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over (2003), Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005), James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2005), Clive Hamilton’s A Short History of Progress (2005), Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), George Monbiot’s Heat (2006), another assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007), James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2007), John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent (2008).

And in the past five years: Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton’s A Nation of Farmers (2009), Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species (2010), Chris Martenson’sThe Crash Course (2011), Guy McPherson’s Walking Away from Empire (2011), Dmitri Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse (2011), Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption (2012), an even more dire IPCC assessment report (2014), Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014), and the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes (also this year). (With a few exceptions, I have listed only the first book in which each author shows a pervasive awareness of collapse.)

In addition, apart from the writers already listed, many of whom write blogs, you can find many provocative personal and organizational websites, some of which publish several writers, such as Arctic News (Sam Carara), Climate Progress (Joe Romm), Collapse of Industrial Civilization (xraymike 79),   Collapsing into Consciousness (Gary Stamper), Culture Change (Jan Lundberg), Dark Mountain Project (Paul Kingsnorth), Grist, How to Save the World (Dave Pollard), Our Finite World (Gail Tverberg), Radio Ecoshock (hosted by Alex Smith), Speaking Truth to Power (articles gathered daily by Carolyn Baker), and Yale Environment 360 (edited by Roger Cohn Sr.).

We should of course judge not by the number of collapseniks, but by the quality of evidence these writers bring. It’s a conversation worth having.

Op-Ed News

A Gift From The Collapseniks  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards

A Gift From The Collapseniks  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards.

Of what possible use is it to imagine the end of civilization or even of the species? Is it simply a pessimistic indulgence or can it contribute to progressive and other positive results?

When I was a child, my family’s pastor used to elbow into almost every sermon an admiring reference to “St. John languishing in exile on the rock-bound, sea-girt island of Patmos.” He was referring to the author of  the grisly Book of Revelation , the dominant Western source of apocalyptic imagery.

We chuckle at cartoons of robed men on city sidewalks carrying placards that claim, “the end is nigh,” and at bumper stickers that declare, “in case of Rapture, this car will be driverless” (which sounds more dangerous than driving under the influence). Since St. John’s fiery prose, there have been many predictions of the end, including the modern cult studied by social psychologist Leon Festinger in When Prophecy Fails (1956).

Those who see danger tend to accuse others of “denial,” of “refusing to listen.” Perhaps a tincture of denial has given humans an evolutionary advantage. Speaking positively, psychologists refer to “optimism bias.” Most of us tend to imagine that things will turn out better than they do, a common mental pattern studied by such authors as Tali Sharot. While this trait arguably encourages enterprises, some of which succeed, it may also, on occasion, blind us to the possibility of avoidable loss, even terminal loss.

In A Year to Live (1997), Stephen Levine asks readers to pretend they have the awful privilege of knowing when they will die (in 52 weeks) and challenges them to review their histories honestly and to live abundantly in the remaining time. As my wife and I know, from working through Levine’s book with another couple, the result can be an enhancement of life.

During the Cold War, Joanna Macy gave us Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (1983). Before writing on ecology, on general systems theory, and on hope, Macy taught that a fuller life, including activism, could be approached through uninhibited expression of the deep feelings that led us to be concerned. More recent examples are the grief work of Carolyn Baker, author of Sacred Demise (2009) and Collapsing Consciously (2013) and of Francis Weller, author of Entering the Healing Ground (2012).

Still, it’s going against the grain to ask people to imagine extreme loss. Unlike some so-called primitive groups, our society is not set up for it, apart from isolated workshops. According to both Baker and Weller, working through grief requires the support of a community and the additional safety of a ritual container. For all its virtues, U.S. culture is based more on individuality, the frontier, and risky enterprise, than on mutual support and safe space.

Nonetheless, a growing number of observers of climate change and other trends foresee disaster. We can describe them as collapseniks, a term with a suffix derived from Russian in honor of Dmitri Orlo*, who grew up in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and emigrated to the U.S. An engineer, sailor, and writer, Orlov believes that his adopted country will descend into collapse, and that the U.S. is less well prepared than the country where he was raised. If we define collapsenik as an observer who is conscious of the possibility of economic, political, and social collapse and who believes collapse is worth taking seriously, then Orlov has a parade of company, of which I will give chronological highlights at the end of this piece.

There are big differences among collapsenik authors and even in a single author at different times. A spectrum exists, from those who feel we could avoid the worst of climate change by changing our ways substantially (“we’re sleepwalking toward disaster but could conceivably wake up”) to those who believe our species is doomed (“it’s already too late”). For example, scientist Guy McPherson has come to believe that, as a species, we are headed toward “near-term extinction” (niftily abbreviated as NTE).

While pessimists predict NTE, optimists envision the triumph of a progressive politics that would render climate change survivable, perhaps shifting us toward a steady-state economy, slowing the sixth extinction of species, and fostering a network of local and democratic institutions. An optimistic scenario would resonate with what Macy, expressing hope, now calls “The Great Turning.”

In contrast, McPherson argues that it’s already too late for ad equate reform: humans have inadvertently created feedback loops that will keep making the situation worse. For example, the release of methane, caused (in part) by warming of the shallow Arctic ocean and the Siberian and Canadian tundra, will cause more warming because methane is a greenhouse gas even more dangerous than CO2. And so on.

Humans don’t have a very good record of predicting the future, in spite of various divinatory schemes. Whether developments are technological, political, or economic, we have proceeded without reliable forecasts. Given the surprises inherent in complex systems and in technical development, nobody can show that we face certain demise, though we can discuss probabilities.

Could we learn to regard collapse not as a firm prediction but as a scenario worth exploring? After all, the Pentagon has contingency plans for events that are arguably less likely and less devastating.

To return to our original question, what could be the use of taking seriously a scenario of collapse, especially the views that argue that it’s already too late or that changes could help, but probably won’t be made? If we feel grief at what seems to be happening, instead of simply seeming smug in a prediction of certain doom, if we invent ways to lessen the turbulence and create the best that is possible in the new circumstances, if we live intensely instead of habitually, then the scenario of demise might seem no worse than knowing that, as individuals, we each will die. Meanwhile, what are we capable of?

According to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (2010), disasters can bring out the best in people. If the scenario of the collapseniks plays out, we will have opportunities to discover what kind of gardens we can create in the ruins of our present society. So what is the gift? That by responding fully to the scenario, we can meanwhile live more intensely and develop the elements of a society that, under new conditions as they develop, would work.

Now here are the promised examples of recent writers who are aware of the possibility of collapse and who, in various cases, are sketching alternatives. In this century, we’ve been given Tim Flahherty’s The Weather Makers (2001), Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over (2003), Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005), James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2005), Clive Hamilton’s A Short History of Progress (2005), Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), George Monbiot’s Heat (2006), another assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007), James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2007), John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent (2008).

And in the past five years: Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton’s A Nation of Farmers (2009), Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species (2010), Chris Martenson’sThe Crash Course (2011), Guy McPherson’s Walking Away from Empire (2011), Dmitri Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse (2011), Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption (2012), an even more dire IPCC assessment report (2014), Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014), and the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes (also this year). (With a few exceptions, I have listed only the first book in which each author shows a pervasive awareness of collapse.)

In addition, apart from the writers already listed, many of whom write blogs, you can find many provocative personal and organizational websites, some of which publish several writers, such as Arctic News (Sam Carara), Climate Progress (Joe Romm), Collapse of Industrial Civilization (xraymike 79),   Collapsing into Consciousness (Gary Stamper), Culture Change (Jan Lundberg), Dark Mountain Project (Paul Kingsnorth), Grist, How to Save the World (Dave Pollard), Our Finite World (Gail Tverberg), Radio Ecoshock (hosted by Alex Smith), Speaking Truth to Power (articles gathered daily by Carolyn Baker), and Yale Environment 360 (edited by Roger Cohn Sr.).

We should of course judge not by the number of collapseniks, but by the quality of evidence these writers bring. It’s a conversation worth having.

Op-Ed News

The Archdruid Report: The Steampunk Future

The Archdruid Report: The Steampunk Future.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 05, 2014

The Steampunk Future

For those of us who’ve been watching the course of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, the last few weeks have been a bit of a wild ride.  To begin with, as noted in last week’s post, the specter of peak oil has once again risen from the tomb to which the mass media keeps trying to consign it, and stalks the shadows of contemporary life, scaring the bejesus out of everyone who wants to believe that infinite economic growth on a finite planet isn’t a self-defeating absurdity.
Then, of course, it started seeping out into the media that the big petroleum companies have lost a very large amount of money in recent quarters, and a significant part of those losses were due to their heavy investments in the fracking boom in the United States—you know, the fracking boom that was certain to bring us renewed prosperity and limitless cheap fuel into the foreseeable future?  That turned out to a speculative bubble, as readers of this blog were warned a year ago. The overseas investors whose misspent funds kept the whole circus going are now bailing out, and the bubble has nowhere to go but down. How far down? That’s a very good question that very few people want to answer.
The fracking bubble is not, however, the only thing that’s falling. What the financial press likes to call “emerging markets”—I suspect that “submerging markets” might be a better label at the moment—have had a very bad time of late, with stock markets all over the Third World racking up impressive losses, and some nasty downside action spilled over onto Wall Street, Tokyo and the big European exchanges as well. Meanwhile, the financial world has been roiled by the apparent suicides of four important bankers. If any of them left notes behind, nobody’s saying what those notes might contain; speculation, in several senses of that word, abounds.
Thus it’s probably worth being aware of the possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, we’ll see another crash like the one that hit in 2008-2009: another milestone passed on the road down from the summits of industrial civilization to the deindustrial dark ages of the future. No doubt, if we get such a crash, it’ll be accompanied by a flurry of predictions that the whole global economy will come to a sudden stop. There were plenty of predictions along those lines during the 2008-2009 crash; they were wrong then, and they’ll be wrong this time, too, but it’ll be few months before that becomes apparent.
In the meantime, while we wait to see whether the market crashes and another round of fast-crash predictions follows suit, I’d like to talk about something many of my readers may find whimsical, even irrelevant. It’s neither, but that, too, may not become apparent for a while.
Toward the middle of last month, as regular readers will recall, I posted an essay here suggesting seven sustainable technologies that could be taken up, practiced, and passed down to the societies that will emerge out of the wreckage of ours. One of those was computer-free mathematics, using slide rules and the other tools people used to crunch numbers before they handed over that chunk of their mental capacity to machines. In the discussion that followed, one of my readers—a college professor in the green-technology end of things—commented with some amusement on the horrified response he’d likely get if he suggested to his students that they use a slide rule for their number-crunching activities.
Not at all, I replied; all he needed to do was stand in front of them, brandish the slide rule in front of their beady eyes, and say, “This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator.”
It occurs to me that those of my readers who don’t track the contemporary avant-garde may have no idea what that next to last word means;  like so many labels these days, it contains too much history to have a transparent meaning. Doubtless, though, all my readers have at least heard of punk rock.  During the 1980s, a mostly forgettable literary movement in science fiction got labeled “cyberpunk;” the first half of the moniker referenced the way it fetishized the behavioral tics of 1980s hacker culture, and the second was given it because it made a great show, as punk rockers did, of being brash and belligerent.  The phrase caught on, and during the next decade or so, every subset of science fiction that hadn’t been around since Heinleins roamed the earth got labeled fill-in-the-blankpunk by somebody or other.
Steampunk got its moniker during those years, and that’s where the “-punk” came from. The “steam” is another matter. There was an alternative-history novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, set in a world in which Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage launched the cybernetic revolution a century in advance with steam-powered mechanical computers.  There was also a roleplaying game called Space 1889—take a second look at those numbers if you think that has anything to do with the 1970s TV show about Moonbase Alpha—that had Thomas Edison devising a means of spaceflight, and putting the Victorian earth in contact with alternate versions of Mars, Venus and the Moon straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs-era space fantasy.
Those and a few other sources of inspiration like them got artists, craftspeople, writers, and the like  thinking about what an advanced technology might look like if the revolutions triggered by petroleum and electronics had never happened, and Victorian steam-powered technology had evolved along its own course.  The result is steampunk:  part esthetic pose, part artistic and literary movement, part subculture, part excuse for roleplaying and assorted dress-up games, and part—though I’m far from sure how widespread this latter dimension is, or how conscious—a collection of sweeping questions about some of the most basic presuppositions undergirding modern technology and the modern world.
It’s very nearly an article of faith in contemporary industrial society that any advanced technology—at least until it gets so advanced that it zooms off into pure fantasy—must by definition look much like ours. I’m thinking here of such otherwise impressive works of alternate history as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Novels of this kind portray the scientific and industrial revolution happening somewhere other than western Europe, but inevitably it’s the same scientific and industrial revolution, producing much the same technologies and many of the same social and cultural changes. This reflects the same myopia of the imagination that insists on seeing societies that don’t use industrial technologies as “stuck in the Middle Ages” or “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you:  the insistence that all human history is a straight line of progress that leads unstoppably to us.
Steampunk challenges that on at least two fronts. First, by asking what technology would look like if the petroleum and electronics revolutions had never happened, it undercuts the common triumphalist notion that of course an advanced technology must look like ours, function like ours, and—ahem—support the same poorly concealed economic, political, and cultural agendas hardwired into the technology we currently happen to have. Despite such thoughtful works as John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun, the role of such agendas in defining what counts for progress remains a taboo subject, and the idea that shifts in historical happenstance might have given rise to wholly different “advanced technologies” rarely finds its way even into the wilder ends of speculative fiction.
If I may be permitted a personal reflection here, this is something I watched during the four years when my novel Star’s Reach was appearing as a monthly blog post. 25th-century Meriga—yes, that’s “America” after four centuries—doesn’t fit anywhere on that imaginary line of progress running from the caves to the stars; it’s got its own cultural forms, its own bricolage of old and new technologies, and its own way of understanding history in which, with some deliberate irony, I assigned today’s industrial civilization most of the same straw-man roles that we assign to the societies of the preindustrial past.
As I wrote the monthly episodes of Star’s Reach, though, I fielded any number of suggestions about what I should do with the story and the setting, and a good any of those amounted to requests that I decrease the distance separating 25th-century Meriga from the modern world, or from some corner of the known past.  Some insisted that some bit of modern technology had to find a place in Merigan society, some urged me to find room somewhere in the 25th-century world for enclaves where a modern industrial society had survived, some objected to a plot twist that required the disproof of a core element of today’s scientific worldview—well, the list is long, and I think my readers will already have gotten the point.
C.S. Lewis was once asked by a reporter whether he thought he’d influenced the writings of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. If I recall correctly, he said, “Influence Tolkien? You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” While I wouldn’t dream of claiming to be Tolkien’s equal as a writer, I share with him—and with bandersnatches, for that matter—a certain resistance to external pressures, and so Meriga succeeded to some extent in keeping its distance from more familiar futures. The manuscript’s now at the publisher, and I hope to have a release date to announce before too long; what kind of reception the book will get when it’s published is another question and, at least to me, an interesting one.
Outside of the realms of imaginative fiction, though, it’s rare to see any mention of the possibility that the technology we ended up with might not be the inevitable outcome of a scientific revolution. The boldest step in that direction I’ve seen so far comes from a school of historians who pointed out that the scientific revolution depended, in a very real sense, on the weather in the English Channel during a few weeks in 1688.  It so happened that the winds in those weeks kept the English fleet stuck in port while William of Orange carried out the last successful invasion (so far) of England by a foreign army.
As a direct result, the reign of James II gave way to that of William III, and Britain dodged the absolute monarchy, religious intolerance, and technological stasis that Louis XIV was imposing in France just then, a model which most of the rest of Europe promptly copied. Because Britain took a different path—a path defined by limited monarchy, broad religious and intellectual tolerance, and the emergence of a new class of proto-industrial magnates whose wealth was not promptly siphoned off into the existing order, but accumulated the masses of capital needed to build the world’s first industrial economy—the scientific revolution of the late 17th and early 18th century was not simply a flash in the pan. Had James II remained on the throne, it’s argued, none of those things would have happened.
It shows just how thoroughly the mythology of progress has its claws buried in our imaginations that many people respond to that suggestion in an utterly predictable way—by insisting that the scientific and industrial revolutions would surely have taken place somewhere else, and given rise to some close equivalent of today’s technology anyway. (As previously noted, that’s the underlying assumption of the Kim Stanley Robinson novel cited above, and many other works along the same lines.)  At most, those who get past this notion of industrial society’s Manifest Destiny imagine a world in which the industrial revolution never happened:  where, say, European technology peaked around 1700 with waterwheels, windmills, square-rigged ships, and muskets, and Europe went from there to follow the same sort of historical trajectory as the Roman Empire or T’ang-dynasty China.
Further extrapolations along those lines can be left to the writers of alternative history. The point being made by the writers, craftspeople, and fans of steampunk, though, cuts in a different direction. What the partly imaginary neo-Victorian tech of steampunk suggests is that another kind of advanced technology is possible: one that depends on steam and mechanics instead of petroleum and electronics, that accomplishes some of the same things our technology does by different means, and that also does different things—things that our technologies don’t do, and in some cases quite possibly can’t do.
It’s here that steampunk levels its second and arguably more serious challenge against the ideology that sees modern industrial society as the zenith, so far, of the march of progress. While it drew its original inspiration from science fiction and roleplaying games, what shaped steampunk as an esthetic and cultural movement was a sense of the difference between the elegant craftsmanship of the Victorian era and the shoddy plastic junk that fills today’s supposedly more advanced culture. It’s a sense that was already clear to social critics such as Theodore Roszak many decades ago. Here’s Roszak’s cold vision of the future awaiting industrial society, from his must-read book Where the Wasteland Ends:
“Glowing advertisements of undiminished progress will continue to rain down upon us from official quarters; there will always be well-researched predictions of light at the end of every tunnel. There will be dazzling forecasts of limitless affluence; there will even be muchreal affluence. But nothing will ever quite work the way the salesmen promised; the abundance will be mired in organizational confusion and bureaucratic malaise, constant environmental emergency, off-schedule policy, a chaos of crossed circuits, clogged pipelines, breakdowns in communication, overburdened social services. The data banks will become a jungle of misinformation, the computers will suffer from chronic electropsychosis. The scene will be indefinably sad and shoddy despite the veneer of orthodox optimism. It will be rather like a world’s fair in its final days, when things start to sag and disintegrate behind the futuristic façades, when the rubble begins to accumulate in the corners, the chromium to grow tarnished, the neon lights to burn out, all the switches and buttons to stop working. Everything will take on that vile tackiness which only plastic can assume, the look of things decaying that were never supposed to grow old, or stop gleaming, never to cease being gay and sleek and perfect.”
As prophecies go, you must admit, this one was square on the mark. Roszak’s nightmare vision has duly become the advanced, progressive, cutting-edge modern society in which we live today.  That’s what the steampunk movement is rejecting in its own way, by pointing out the difference between the handcrafted gorgeousness of an older generation of technology and the “vile tackiness which only plastic can assume” that dominates contemporary products and, indeed, contemporary life. It’s an increasingly widespread recognition, and helps explain why so many people these days are into some form of reenactment.
Whether it’s the new Middle Ages of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the frontier culture of buckskinners and the rendezvous scene, the military-reenactment groups recreating the technologies and ambience of any number of of long-ago wars, the primitive-technology enthusiasts getting together to make flint arrowheads and compete at throwing spears with atlatls, or what have you:  has any other society seen so many people turn their backs on the latest modern conveniences to take pleasure in the technologies and habits of earlier times? Behind this interest in bygone technologies, I suggest, lies a concept that’s even more unmentionable in polite company than the one I discussed above: the recognition that most of the time, these days, progress no longer means improvement.
By and large, the latest new, advanced, cutting-edge products of modern industrial society are shoddier, flimsier, and more thickly frosted with bugs, problems, and unwanted side effects than whatever they replaced. It’s becoming painfully clear that we’re no longer progressing toward some shiny Jetsons future, if we ever were, nor are we progressing over a cliff into a bigger and brighter apocalypse than anyone ever had before. Instead, we’re progressing steadily along the downward curve of Roszak’s dystopia of slow failure, into a crumbling and dilapidated world of spiraling dysfunctions hurriedly patched over, of systems that don’t really work any more but are never quite allowed to fail, in which more and more people every year find themselves shut out of a narrowing circle of paper prosperity but in which no public figure ever has the courage to mention that fact.
Set beside that bleak prospect, it’s not surprising that the gritty but honest hands-on technologies and lifeways of earlier times have a significant appeal.  There’s also a distinct sense of security that comes from the discovery that one can actually get by, and even manage some degree of comfort, without having a gargantuan fossil-fueled technostructure on hand to meet one’s every need. What intrigues me about the steampunk movement, though, is that it’s gone beyond that kind of retro-tech to think about a different way in which technology could have developed—and in the process, it’s thrown open the door to a reevaluation of the technologies we’ve got, and thus to the political, economic, and cultural agendas which the technologies we’ve got embody, and thus inevitably further.
Well, that’s part of my interest, at any rate. Another part is based on the recognition that Victorian technology functioned quite effectively on a very small fraction of the energy that today’s industrial societies consume. Estimates vary, but even the most industrialized countries in the world in 1860 got by on something like ten per cent of the energy per capita that’s thrown around in industrial nations today.  The possibility therefore exists that something like a Victorian technology, or even something like the neo-Victorian extrapolations of the steampunk scene, might be viable in a future on the far side of peak oil, when the much more diffuse, intermittent, and limited energy available from renewable sources will be what we have left to work with for the rest of our species’ time on this planet.
For the time being, I want to let that suggestion percolate through the crawlspaces of my readers’ imaginations.  Those who want to pick up a steampunk calculator and start learning how to crunch numbers with it—hint:  it’s easy to learn, useful in practice, and slide rules come cheap these days—may just have a head start on the future, but that’s a theme for a later series of posts. Well before we get to that, it’s important to consider a far less pleasant kind of blast from the past, one that bids fair to play a significant role in the future immediately ahead.

That is to say, it’s time to talk about the role of fascism in the deindustrial future. We’ll begin that discussion next week.

The Archdruid Report: A Bargain with the Archdruid

The Archdruid Report: A Bargain with the Archdruid.

My anomalous position as a writer and speaker on the future of industrial society who holds down a day job as an archdruid has its share of drawbacks, no question, but it also has significant advantages.  One of the most important of those is that I don’t have to worry about maintaining a reputation as a serious public figure. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.
Most of the other leading figures in the peak oil scene have at least some claim to respectability, and that pins them down in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. Like it or not, they have to know that being right about peak oil means that they might just pick up the phone one of these days and field an invitation to testify before a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon. The possibility of being yanked out of their current role as social critics and being called on to tell a failing industrial society how it can save itself has got to hover in front of them in the night now and then. Such reflections tend to inspire a craving for consensus, or at least for neatly labeled positions within the accepted parameters of the peak oil scene.
I can only assume that’s what lies behind the tempest in an oil barrel that’s rocked the peak oil end of the blogosphere in recent weeks, following the publication of an essay by Permaculture guru David Holmgren titled Crash on Demand. Holmgren’s piece was quite a sensible one, suggesting that we’re past the point that a smooth transition to green tech is possible and that some kind of Plan B is therefore needed. It included some passages, though, suggesting that the best way to deal with the future immediately ahead might be to trigger a global financial crash.  If just ten per cent of the world’s population stopped using fossil fuels, he noted, that might be enough to bring the whole system down all at once.
That proposal got a flurry of responses, but only a few—Dmitry Orlov’s, predictably, was one of those few—noted the chasm that yawns between Holmgren’s modest proposal and the world we actually inhabit.  It’s all very well to talk about ten per cent of the population withdrawing from the global economy, but the fact of the matter is that it’ll be a cold day in Beelzebub’s back yard before even ten per cent of self-proclaimed green activists actively embrace such a project ,to the extent of making more than the most modest changes in their own livestyles—and let’s not even talk about how likely it is that anybody at all outside the culturally isolated fringe scene that contains today’s green subcultures will even hear of Holmgren’s call to arms.
Mind you, David Holmgren is a very smart man, and I’m quite sure he’s well aware of all this. An essay by David MacLeod pointed out that the steps Holmgren’s proposed to bring down industrial society are what he’s been encouraging people to do all along.  It occurs to me that he may simply have decided to try another way to get people to do what we all know we need to do anyway: give up the hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles currently provided us by the contemporary industrial system, downsize our desires as well as our carbon footprints, and somehow learn to get by on the kind of energy and resource basis that most other human beings throughout history have considered normal.
Still, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse; as far as I can tell, Holmgren’s essay hasn’t inspired any sudden rush on the part of permaculturists and peak oil activists to ditch their Priuses in the hopes of sticking it to the Man. Instead, it veered off into debates about whether and how “we” (meaning, apparently, the writers and readers of peak oil blogs) could in fact crash the global economy. There was a flurry of talk about how violence shouldn’t be considered, and that in turn triggered a surge of people babbling earnestly about how we need not to rule out the use of violence against the system.
It’s probably necessary to say a few words about that here. Effective violence of any kind is a skill, a difficult and demanding one, and effective political violence against an established government is among the most difficult and demanding kinds. I’m sorry if this offends anybody’s sense of entitlement, but it’s not simply a matter of throwing a tantrum so loud that Daddy has to listen to you, you know. To force a government to do your bidding by means of violence, you have to be more competent at violence than the government is, and the notion that the middle-class intellectuals who do most of the talking in the peak oil scene can outdo the US government in the use of violence would be hilarious if the likely consequences of that delusion weren’t so ghastly. This is not a game for dabblers; people get thrown into prison for decades, dumped into unmarked graves, or vaporized by missiles launched from drones for trying to do what the people in these discussions were chattering about so blandly.
For that matter, I have to wonder how many of the people who were so free with their online talk about violence against the system stopped to remember that every word of those conversations is now in an NSA data file, along with the names and identifying details of everybody involved. The radicals I knew in my younger days had a catchphrase that’s apposite here: “The only people that go around publicly advocating political violence are idiots and agents provocateurs. Which one are you?”
Meanwhile, in that distant realm we call the real world, the hastily patched walls of peak oil denial are once again cracking under the strain of hard reality. The Royal Society—yes, that Royal Society—has just published a volume of its Philosophical Transactions devoted to peak oil; they take it seriously.  Word has also slipped into the media that in December, a select group of American and British military, business, and political figures held a conference on peak oil; they also take it seriously.
Meanwhile, air is leaking out of the fracking bubble as firms lose money, the foreign investors whose wallets have been the main target of the operation are backing away, and the cheerleading of the media is sounding more and more like the attempts to boost housing prices around the beginning of 2008. The latest data point? Longtime peak oil researcher Jean Laherrere, who (let us not forget) successfully predicted the 2005 peak in conventional oil production well in advance, used the same modeling techniques to predict future production from the Bakken Shale. His call? A production peak in the fall of this year, with steep declines after that. He’s the latest to join the chorus of warnings that the fracking bubble is merely one more overblown financial scam moving inexorably toward a massive bust.
Of course we’ve been here before. Every few years, the mass media starts to talk about peak oil, proponents of business as usual look nervous, and those in the peak oil scene who are inexperienced enough not to remember the last few cycles of the same process start talking about the prospects of imminent victory. (Yes, I made that mistake a while back; I think we all have.) Then the walls of denial get patched up again, the mass media scurries back to some comforting fairy tale about ethanol, wind power, biodiesel, fracking or what have you; the proponents of business as usual go back to their normal blustering, and peak oil activists who got overenthusiastic about predictions of imminent triumph end up with egg on their faces. That’s standard for any social movement trying to bring about an unwelcome but necessary change in society. Each time around the cycle, more people get the message, and a movement smart enough to capitalize on the waves of media interest can grow until it starts having a significant influence on society as a whole.
That final step can arrive on various time scales; a successful movement for change can see its viewpoint filter gradually into the collective conversation, or there can be a sudden break, after which the movement can still be denounced but can no longer be ignored. Glance back through the last few centuries and it’s easy to find examples of either kind, not to mention every point between those two ends of the spectrum. I’m far from sure if there’s a way to tell how peak oil activism will play out, but my hunch is that it may be closer to the sudden-break end of the spectrum than otherwise. What lies behind that hunch isn’t anything so sturdy as a headline or a new study; rather, it’s something subtle—a shift in tone in the denunciations that The Archdruid Report fields each week.
I don’t know if other bloggers share this experience, but I’ve found that internet trolls are a remarkably subtle gauge of the mass imagination. There are some trolls who only show up when a post of mine is about to go viral, and others whose tirades reliably forecast the new themes of peak oil denial three or four months in advance. When some bit of high-tech vaporware is about to be ballyhooed as the miracle that’s going to save us all, or some apocalyptic fantasy is about to become the new reason why it’s okay to keep your middle class lifestyle since we’re all going to die soon anyway, I usually hear about it first from trolls who can’t wait to let me know just how wrong I am. It’s an interesting fringe benefit of a blogger’s job, and it’s alerted me more than once to trends worth watching.
It so happens that in recent weeks, some of the criticisms I’ve fielded have struck a distinctly new note. I still get the classic cornucopians who insist I’m babbling pessimistic nonsense and of course we’ll all be just fine, just as I still get the apocalypse fanboys who insist that I’m ignoring the fact that the doom du jour is sure to annihilate us all, but I’m now seeing a third position—that of course it’s a crisis and we can’t just go on the way we’ve been living, a lot of things will have to change, but if we do X and Y and Z, we can keep some of the benefits of industrial society going, and I’m being too pessimistic when I suggest that no, we can’t. Maybe everyone else in the peak oil scene has been getting these all along, but they’re new to my comments page, and they have a tone that sets them apart from the others.
To be precise, it sounds like bargaining.
I don’t imagine that anyone in the peak oil scene has missed the discussions of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of coming to terms with impending death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and their application to the not dissimilar experience of facing up to the death of the industrial age. Many of us can look back on our own transits through the five stages, and I’ve long since lost track of the times I’ve heard people at a peak oil event roll their eyes and mutter the name of one of the stages to whomever is sitting next to them. For the most part, though, it’s been a matter of individuals going through their own confrontations with the death of progress at their own pace.
Maybe this is still what’s happening, but I wonder. For a very long time, even among peak oil activists, the prevailing mood was still one of denial—we can solve this, whether the solution consists of solar panels, thorium reactors, revitalized communities, permacultured forest gardens, supposedly imminent great turnings of one sort or another, or what have you. After the 2008-2009 crash, that shifted to a mood of anger, and furious denunciations of “the 1%” and an assortment of more familiar supervillains became much more common on peak oil forums than they had been. The rise of apocalypse fandom has arguably been driven by this same stage of anger—suicidal fantasies very often get their force from unresolved rage turned inwards, after all, and it’s likely that the habit of projecting daydreams of mass extermination onto the future is rooted in the same murky emotional soil.
If that’s indeed what’s been happening, then bargaining is the next stage.  If so, this is good news, because unlike the two stages before it or the one that follows, the stage of bargaining can have practical benefits. If a dying person hits that stage and decides to give up habits that make her condition worse, for example, the result may be an improved quality of life during her final months; if the bargain includes making big donations to charity, the patient may not benefit much from it but the charity and the people it helps certainly will. People under the stress of impending death try to strike bargains that range all the way from the inspiring to the absurd, though, and whether something constructive comes out of it depends on whether the bargain involves choices that will actually do some good.
If this stage is like the ones the peak oil scene seems to have transited so far, we can expect to see a flurry of earnest blog posts and comments over the next few years seeking reassurance in a manner peculiar to the internet—that is, by proclaiming something as absolute fact, then looking around nervously to see if anyone else agrees. This time, instead of proclaiming that this or that or the other is sure to save us, or out to get us, or certain to kill us all, they’ll be insisting that this or that or the other will be an acceptable sacrifice to the gods of petroleum depletion and climate change, sufficient to persuade those otherwise implacable powers to leave us untouched. The writers will be looking for applause and approval, and if that I think their offering might do some good, I’m willing to meet them halfway. In fact, I’ll even suggest things that I’m sure to applaud, so they don’t even have to guess.
First is conservation. That’s the missing piece in most proposals for dealing with peak oil. The chasm into which so many well-intentioned projects have tumbled over the last decade is that nothing available to us can support the raw extravagance of energy and resource consumption we’re used to, once cheap abundant fossil fuels aren’t there any more, so—ahem—we have to use less.  Too much talk about using less in recent years, though, has been limited to urging energy and resource abstinence as a badge of moral purity, and—well, let’s just say that abstinence education did about as much good there as it does in any other context.
The things that played the largest role in hammering down US energy consumption in the 1970s energy crisis were unromantic but effective techniques such as insulation, weatherstripping, and the like, all of which allow a smaller amount of energy to do the work previously done by more.  Similar initiatives were tried out in business and industry, with good results; expanding public transit and passenger rail did the same thing in a different context, and so on.  All of these are essential parts of any serious response to the end of cheap energy.  If your proposed bargain makes conservation the core of your response to fossil fuel and resource depletion, in other words, you’ll face no criticism from me.
Second is decentralization.  One of the things that makes potential failures in today’s large-scale industrial infrastructures so threatening is that so many people are dependent on single systems. Too many recent green-energy projects have tried to head further down the same dangerous slope, making whole continents dependent on a handful of pipelines, power grids, or what have you. In an age of declining energy and resource availability, coupled with a rising tide of crises, the way to ensure resilience and stability is to decentralize intead: to make each locality able to meet as many of its own needs as possible, so that troubles in one area don’t automatically propagate to others, and an area that suffers a systems failure can receive help from nearby places where everything still works.
Here again, this involves proven techniques, and extends across a very broad range of human needs. Policies that encourage local victory gardens, truck farms, and other food production became standard practice in the great wars of the 20th century precisely because they took some of the strain off  overburdened economies and food-distribution systems. Home production of goods and services for home use has long played a similar role. For that matter, transferring electrical power and other utilities and the less urgent functions of government to regional and local bodies instead of doing them on the national level will have parallel benefits in an age of retrenchment and crisis. Put decentralization into your bargain, and I’ll applaud enthusiastically.
Third is rehumanization. That’s an unfamiliar word for a concept that will soon be central to meaningful economic policy throughout the developed world. Industrial societies are currently beset with two massive problems:  high energy costs, on the one hand, and high unemployment on the other. Both problems can be solved at a single stroke by replacing energy-hungry machines with human workers. Rehumanizing the economy—hiring people to do jobs rather than installing machines to do them—requires removing and reversing a galaxy of perverse incentives favoring automation at the expense of employment, and this will need to be done while maintaining wages and benefits at levels that won’t push additional costs onto government or the community.
The benefits here aren’t limited to mere energy cost savings. Every economic activity that can be done by human beings rather than machinery is freed from the constant risk of being whipsawed by energy prices, held hostage by resource nationalism, and battered in dozens of other ways by the consequences of energy and resource depletion. That applies to paid employment, but it also applies to the production of goods and services in the household economy, which has also been curtailed by perverse incentives, and needs to be revived and supported by sensible new policies. A rehumanized economy is a resilient economy for another reason, too:  the most effective way to maximize economic stability is to provide ample employment at adequate wages for the workforce, whose paychecks fund the purchases that keep the economy going. Make rehumanization an important part of your plan to save the world and I won’t be the only one cheering.
Those are my proposals, then: conservation, decentralization, rehumanization.  Those readers who are looking for applause for their efforts at collective bargaining with the forces driving industrial society toward its destiny now know how to get it here. I’d like to ask you to step out of the room for the next paragraph, though, as I have a few things to say to those who aren’t at the bargaining stage just now.
(Are they gone?  Good.  Now listen closely while I whisper:  none of the things I’ve just suggested will save industrial civilization. You know that, of course, and so do I.  That said, any steps in the direction of conservation, decentralization, and rehumanization that get taken will make the descent less disruptive and increase the chances that communities, localities, and whole regions may be able to escape the worst impacts of the industrial system’s unraveling. That’s worth doing, and if it takes their panicked efforts to bargain with an implacable fate to get those things under way, I’m good with that.  Got it? Okay, we can call them back into the room.)

Ahem. So there you have it; if you want to bargain with the archdruid, those are the terms I’ll accept. For whatever it’s worth, those are also the policies I’d propose to a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon if I were asked to testify to some such body,. Of course that’s not going to happen; archdruids can draw up proposals on the basis of what might actually work, instead of worrying about the current consensus in or out of the peak oil scene, because nobody considers archdruids to be serious public figures. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.

What do I believe about the world complex? Or, why I think a collapse is inevitable.

Last evening (January 12, 2014) I sat down to create a compilation of beliefs I hold about the world complex. The first twenty that popped into my head were pretty easy with the last few (I only went as far as once through the alphabet) requiring a little thinking. In no particular order I offer this quickly composed list with some links to articles/websites to support them:

ECONOMY/FINANCES

a)     Economic markets are rigged.

  1. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-12-11/are-markets-rigged
  2. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-06-12/summarizing-known-rigged-markets
  3. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-06-11/wmreuters-busted-latest-market-rigging-and-collusion-scandal-foreign-exchange

b)    Gold has been moving from the West to the East.

  1. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/guest-post-world’s-gold-moving-west-east
  2. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-12-19/chinese-dont-want-dollars-anymore-they-want-gold-londons-gold-vaults-are-empty-why
  3. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-05-08/chinese-gold-imports-soar-monthly-record-insatiable-demand

c)     The world’s primary reserve currency never lasts forever.

  1. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-01-10/todays-reserve-currency-tomorrows-wallpaper
  2. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-07-06/bundesbank-warns-chinas-currency-its-way-becoming-global-reserve-currency
  3. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-10-13/guest-post-how-much-longer-will-dollar-be-reserve-currency

d)    Central banks have been coordinating their monetary policies from interest rates to ‘money printing’ to ‘forward guidance’ that is resulting in currency devaluations

  1. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/here-comes-mother-all-rumors-g-20-sources-say-central-banks-preparing-coordinated-action
  2. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/goldman-todays-coordinated-central-bank-bailout-it-isn’t-enough-save-anyone-or-solve-averything
  3. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-10-03/guest-post-rise-and-fall-monetary-policy-coordination

e)     Central banks have been monetizing sovereign debt through increased holdings of government bonds.

  1. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-01-07/japan-may-or-may-not-mint-quadrillion-yen-coins-it-will-monetize-european-debt
  2. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/ecb-monetizes-another-€10-billion-piigs-debt-trichet-says-prudent-ecb-not-fed
  3. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2012-10-20/presenting-all-us-debt-thats-fit-monetize

f)     Sovereign nations are in extreme debt.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_debt
  2. http://www.economist.com/content/global_debt_clock
  3. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/country-list/government-debt-to-gdp

g)    Private households are in extreme debt.

  1. http://www.oecd.org/std/fin-stats/
  2. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-06-04/debt-nations
  3. http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/06/focus-1

h)    All fiat currency experiments eventually end.

  1. http://dailyreckoning.com/fiat-currency/
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oql8CTy6AcA
  3. http://georgewashington2.blogspot.ca/2011/08/average-life-expectancy-for-fiat.html

i)      Robotic technology is replacing increasing number of jobs.

  1. http://www.news.com.au/technology/science/robots-to-replace-almost-50-per-cent-of-the-work-force/story-fn5fsgyc-1226729696075
  2. http://robotswillstealyourjob.tumblr.com/post/48210312400/robots-are-taking-our-jobs-and-we-will-take-their
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Jobocalypse-Human-Jobs-Robots-Replace/dp/1482701960

j)      There exist trillions of dollars of IOUs supporting the financial system.

  1. http://demonocracy.info/infographics/usa/derivatives/bank_exposure.html
  2. http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/the-coming-derivatives-panic-that-will-destroy-global-financial-markets
  3.  http://moneymorning.com/2011/10/12/derivatives-the-600-trillion-time-bomb-thats-set-to-explode/

k)    Unemployment has skyrocketed across western nations, especially for the young (under 25).

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/14/youth-unemployment-wreck-europe-economic-recovery
  2. http://business.time.com/2012/11/05/why-the-u-s-has-a-worse-youth-employment-problem-than-europe/
  3. http://www.workopolis.com/content/advice/article/study-why-youth-unemployment-in-canada-is-here-to-stay/

ENERGY

l)      Production of conventional oil has begun to decline.

  1. http://www.oildecline.com/
  2. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/dec/23/british-petroleum-geologist-peak-oil-break-economy-recession
  3. http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2013/0412/The-decline-of-the-world-s-major-oil-fields

m)   New technologies and dirtier sources are being increasingly required to sustain fuel production.

  1. http://www.peakoil.net/future-oil-production-in-canada
  2. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d005f176-4ad8-11e3-8c4c-00144feabdc0.html
  3. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/10017

n)    Fuel production barely sustains demand.

  1. http://omrpublic.iea.org/balances.asp
  2. http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/06/oil-production-and-consumption
  3. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=12891

o)   The Shale Oil Revolution is not.

  1. http://shalebubble.org/drill-baby-drill/
  2. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-10-21/major-study-projects-no-long-term-climate-benefit-from-shale-gas-revolution
  3. http://mondediplo.com/2013/03/09gaz

p)    Models of future fuel production rely on significant ‘yet-to-be-discovered’ sources.

  1. http://www.abo.net/en_IT/publications/reportage/togo/togo_1.shtml
  2. http://seekingalpha.com/article/236162-iea-forecast-economy-depends-on-yet-to-be-found-oil
  3. http://www.jeffrubinssmallerworld.com/2010/11/24/even-the-international-energy-agency-forecasts-peak-oil/

q)    Fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and use have polluted the planet with numerous toxins.

  1. http://www.ec.gc.ca/energie-energy/default.asp?lang=En&n=1F4E5D8A-1
  2. http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-fossil-fuels
  3. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/the-hidden-cost-of-fossil.html

ENVIRONMENT

r)     Climate extremes are increasing in frequency, duration, and magnitude.

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/18/2013-extreme-weather-events
  2. http://www.climatecommunication.org/new/articles/extreme-weather/overview/
  3. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/special-reports/srex/SREX_FD_SPM_final.pdf

s)     Polar ice caps are melting.

  1. http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/qthinice.asp
  2. http://www.dw.de/polar-ice-sheets-melting-faster-than-ever/a-16432199
  3. http://uk.news.yahoo.com/what-if-the-world-s-icecaps-melted-overnight–120351663.html#PK3eE9D

t)      We are experiencing peak water.

  1. http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/16-05/ff_peakwater?currentPage=all
  2. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-06/peak-water-the-rise-and-fall-of-cheap-clean-h2o.html
  3. http://www.princegeorgecitizen.com/article/20130606/PRINCEGEORGE0304/306069987/-1/princegeorge/peak-water-limiting-energy-production

u)    Deserts are expanding.

  1. http://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0909/full/climate.2009.84.html
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/desertification-expansion-of-the-sahara-desert/1498.html
  3. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/science/131211/waterless-world-inner-mongolia-desert-wasteland

v)     Sea levels are rising.

  1. http://pri.org/stories/2014-01-10/sea-levels-rising-uk-starting-let-go-some-its-coastline
  2. http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical-issues-sea-level-rise/
  3. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/cas/adaptation/sea_level.html

w)   Honeybees have been decimated by human chemical use.

  1. https://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/24/9177
  2. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-world-without-honeybees-2013-6
  3. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/honeybee-population-decline-and-its-devastating-effects-are-topic-of-vanishing-of-the-bees-82364717.html

LIBERTY

x)    Governments are spying on their citizens.

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/02/revealed-australian-spy-agency-offered-to-share-data-about-ordinary-citizens
  2. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/02/revealed-australian-spy-agency-offered-to-share-data-about-ordinary-citizens
  3. http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/story.html?id=dae581de-2490-45f8-90c7-919d01fbd4f4

y)    Governments are spying on each other and themselves.

  1. http://www.globalresearch.ca/nsa-spying-on-congress-to-manipulate-intimidate-blackmail-top-government-and-military-officials/5364273
  2. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/new-snowden-docs-show-u-s-spied-during-g20-in-toronto-1.2442448
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/world/nsa-dragnet-included-allies-aid-groups-and-business-elite.html?_r=0

z)     Governments are manipulating the data they provide to the public.

  1. http://www.businessinsider.com/government-data-manipulation-pricestats-argentina-inflation-2012-10
  2. http://www.wealthdaily.com/articles/unemployment-data-manipulation/4767
  3. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-11-19/government-investigate-government-over-jobs-manipulation-report

I know many people would prefer to hear a message of hope but when these ‘realities’ exist I can’t help but be fairly pessimistic about our chances of a ‘sustainable’ future or a ‘soft landing’ for our economic woes. Unless some unforeseen miracle can save us from ourselves, I can only conclude that the day of reckoning is quickly approaching; it’s a matter of when, not if. Some event, minor or major, will be that snowflake that begins a cascading collapse of our interrelated, complex world. And by collapse, I mean a sudden, devastating drop in the standard of living (similar to Dimitry Orlov’s Five Stages of Collapse) OR an elongated, slow contraction (similar to James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency or John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent); to me, these are not too dissimilar and require simply a change in time perspective to interpret the change as either ‘sudden’ or ‘lengthy’.

To quote William Catton Jr., from his book Overshoot: “…the pressure of our numbers and technology upon manifestly limited resources has already put out of reach the previously acceptable solutions to many of our problems. There remains steadfast resistance to admitting this, but facts are not repealed by refusal to face them. On the other hand, even the ‘alarmists’ who have been warning of grave perils besetting mankind have not fathomed our present predicament…” (p. 5).

Update 1. January 17, 2014

1.  Far more ‘paper’ precious metals exists than actual ‘physical’ metal in existence (a type of ‘fractional reserve’ banking):

2. Large Western financial institutions (i.e. U.S. Federal Reserve; Bank of England) have sold/leased their gold holdings and misled their clients about this:

3. The United States government and/or people within it have carried out domestic assassinations of numerous leaders:

4. The Fukushima Daichii Nuclear Plant disaster is far worse than the corporate media is letting on:

5. ‘Democratic’ countries are becoming more secretive and totalitarian through ‘legislation’:

Interesting thoughts: Murray Rothbard, Anatomy of the State (ISBN 978-80-87888-43-8):
“…the government is not ‘us.’ The government does not in any accurate sense ‘represent’ the majority of the people…Briefly, the State is the only organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue …by use of complusion; that is, by the use and the threat of the jailhouse and the bayonnet. Having used force and violence to obtain its revenue, the State generally goes on to regulate and dictate the other actions of its individual subjects…The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively ‘peaceful’ the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society….The State has never been created by a ‘Social Contract’; it has always been born of conquest and exploitation…”

Feel free to offer some further ‘beliefs’, and three ‘credible’ links, in the comments. I will update the list periodically.

Cheers,

Steve

Forecast 2014 — Burning Down the House | KUNSTLER

Forecast 2014 — Burning Down the House | KUNSTLER.

      Many of us in the Long Emergency crowd and like-minded brother-and-sisterhoods remain perplexed by the amazing stasis in our national life, despite the gathering tsunami of forces arrayed to rock our economy, our culture, and our politics. Nothing has yielded to these forces already in motion, so far. Nothing changes, nothing gives, yet. It’s like being buried alive in Jell-O. It’s embarrassing to appear so out-of-tune with the consensus, but we persevere like good soldiers in a just war.

Paper and digital markets levitate, central banks pull out all the stops of their magical reality-tweaking machine to manipulate everything, accounting fraud pervades public and private enterprise, everything is mis-priced, all official statistics are lies of one kind or another, the regulating authorities sit on their hands, lost in raptures of online pornography (or dreams of future employment at Goldman Sachs), the news media sprinkles wishful-thinking propaganda about a mythical “recovery” and the “shale gas miracle” on a credulous public desperate to believe, the routine swindles of medicine get more cruel and blatant each month, a tiny cohort of financial vampire squids suck in all the nominal wealth of society, and everybody else is left whirling down the drain of posterity in a vortex of diminishing returns and scuttled expectations.

Life in the USA is like living in a broken-down, cob-jobbed, vermin-infested house that needs to be gutted, disinfected, and rebuilt — with the hope that it might come out of the restoration process retaining the better qualities of our heritage. Some of us are anxious to get on with the job, to expel all the rats, bats, bedbugs, roaches, and lice, tear out the stinking shag carpet and the moldy sheet-rock, rip off the crappy plastic siding, and start rebuilding along lines that are consistent with the demands of the future — namely, the reality of capital and material resource scarcity. But it has been apparent for a while that the current owners of the house would prefer to let it fall down, or burn down rather than renovate.

Some of us now take that outcome for granted and are left to speculate on how it will play out. These issues were the subjects of my recent non-fiction books, The Long Emergency and Too Much Magic (as well as excellent similar books by Richard Heinberg, John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, and others). They describe the conditions at the end of the cheap energy techno-industrial phase of history and they laid out a conjectural sequence of outcomes that might be stated in shorthand as collapse and re-set. I think the delay in the onset of epochal change can be explained pretty simply. As the peak oil story gained traction around 2005, and was followed (as predicted) by a financial crisis, the established order fought back for its survival, utilizing its remaining dwindling capital and the tremendous inertia of its own gigantic scale, to give the appearance of vitality at all costs.

At the heart of the matter was (and continues to be) the relationship between energy and economic growth. Without increasing supplies of cheap energy, economic growth — as we have known it for a couple of centuries — does not happen anymore. At the center of the economic growth question is credit. Without continued growth, credit can’t be repaid, and new credit cannot be issued honestly — that is, with reasonable assurance of repayment — making it worthless. So, old debt goes bad and the new debt is generated knowing that it is worthless. To complicate matters, the new worthless debt is issued to pay the interest on the old debt, to maintain the pretense that it is not going bad. And then all kinds of dishonest side rackets are run around this central credit racket — shadow banking, “innovative” securities (i.e. new kinds of frauds and swindles, CDOs CDSs, etc.), flash trading, insider flimflams, pump-and-dumps, naked shorts, etc. These games give the impression of an economy that seems to work. But the reported “growth” is phony, a concoction of overcooked statistics and wishful thinking. And the net effect moves the society as a whole in the direction of more destructive ultimate failure.

Now, a number of stories have been employed lately to keep all these rackets going — or, at least, keep up the morale of the swindled masses. They issue from the corporations, government agencies, and a lazy, wishful media. Their purpose is to prop up the lie that the dying economy of yesteryear is alive and well, and can continue “normal” operation indefinitely. Here are the favorites of the past year:

  • Shale oil and gas amount to an “energy renaissance” that will keep supplies of affordable fossil fuels flowing indefinitely, will make us “energy independent,” and will make us “a bigger producer than Saudi Arabia.” This is all mendacious bullshit with a wishful thinking cherry on top. Here’s how shale oil is different from conventional oil:

PP Oil 2

  • A “manufacturing renaissance” is underway in the US, especially in the “central corridor” running from Texas north to Minnesota. That hoopla is all about a few chemical plants and fertilizer factories that have reopened to take advantage of cheaper natural gas. Note, the shale gas story is much like the shale oil story in terms of drilling and production. The depletion rates are quick and epic. In a very few years, shale gas won’t be cheap anymore. Otherwise, current talk of new manufacturing for hard goods is all about robots. How many Americans will be employed in these factories? And what about the existing manufacturing over-capacity everywhere else in the world? Are we making enough sneakers and Justin Beiber dolls? File under complete fucking nonsense.
  • The USA is “the cleanest shirt in the laundry basket,” “the best house in a bad neighborhood,” the safest harbor for international “liquidity,” making it a sure bet that both the equity and bond markets will continue to ratchet up as money seeking lower risk floods in to the Dow and S & P from other countries with dodgier economies and sicker banks. In a currency war, with all nations competitively depreciating their currencies, gaming interest rates, manipulating markets, falsely reporting numbers, hiding liabilities, backstopping bad banks, and failing to regulate banking crime, there are no safe harbors. The USA can pretend to be for a while and then that illusion will pop, along with the “asset” bubbles that inspire it.
  • The USA is enjoying huge gains from fantastic new “efficiencies of technological innovation.” The truth is not so dazzling. Computer technology, produces diminishing returns and unanticipated consequences. The server farms are huge energy sinks. Online shopping corrodes the resilience of commercial networks when only a few giant companies remain standing; and so on. Problems like these recall the central collapse theory of Joseph Tainterwhich states that heaping additional complexity on dysfunctional hyper-complex societies tends to induce their collapse. Hence, my insistence that downscaling, simplifying, re-localizing and re-setting the systems we depend on are imperative to keep the project of civilization going. That is, if you prefer civilization to its known alternatives.

Notice that all of these stories want to put over the general impression that the status quo is alive and well. They’re based on the dumb idea that the stock markets are a proxy for the economy, so if the Standard & Poor’s 500 keeps on going up, it’s all good. The master wish running through the American zeitgeist these days is that we might be able to keep driving to Wal-Mart forever.

The truth is that we still have a huge, deadly energy problem. Shale oil is not cheap oil, and it will stop seeming abundant soon. If the price of oil goes much above $100 a barrel, which you’d think would be great for the oil companies, it will crash demand for oil. If it crashes demand, the price will go down, hurting the profitability of the shale oil companies. It’s quite a predicament. Right now, in the $90-100-a-barrel range, it’s just slowly bleeding the economy while barely allowing the shale oil producers to keep up all the drilling. Two-thirds of all the dollars invested (more than $120 billion a year) goes just to keep production levels flat. Blogger Mark Anthonysummarized it nicely:

…the shale oil and gas developers tend to use unreliable production models to project unrealistically high EURs (Estimated Ultimate Recovery) of their shale wells. They then use the over-estimated EURs to under-calculate the amortization costs of the capital spending, in order to report “profits”, despite of the fact that they have to keep borrowing more money to keep drilling new wells, and that capital spending routinely out paces revenue stream by several times… shale oil and gas producers tend to over-exaggerate productivity of their wells, under-estimate the well declines…in order to pitch their investment case to banks and investors, so they can keep borrowing more money to keep drilling shale wells.

As stated in the intro, these perversities reverberate in the investment sector. Non-cheap oil upsets the mechanisms of capital formation — financial growth is stymied — in a way that ultimately affects the financing of oil production itself. Old credit cannot be repaid, scaring off new credit (because it is even more unlikely to be repaid). At ZIRP interest, nobody saves. The capital pools dry up. So the Federal Reserve has to issue ersatz credit dollars on its computers. That credit will remain stillborn and mummified in depository institutions afraid of lending it to the likes of sharpies and hypesters in the shale gas industry.

But real, functioning capital (credit that can be paid back) is vanishing, and the coming scarcity of real capital makes it much more difficult to keep the stupendous number of rigs busy drilling and fracking new shale oil wells, which you have to do incessantly to keep production up, and as the investment in new drilling declines, and the “sweet spots” yield to the less-sweet spots or the not-sweet-at-all spots… then the Ponzis of shale oil and shale gas, too will be unmasked as the jive endeavors they are. And when people stop believing these cockamamie stories, the truth will dawn on them that we are in a predicament where further growth and wealth cannot be generated and the economy is actually in the early stages of a permanent contraction, and that will trigger an unholy host of nasty consequences proceeding from the loss of faith in these fairy tales, going so far as the meltdown of the banking system, social turmoil, and political upheaval.

The bottom line is that the “shale revolution” will be short-lived. 2014 may be the peak production year in the Bakken play of North Dakota. Eagle Ford in Texas is a little younger and may lag Bakken by a couple of years. If Federal Reserve policies create more disorder in the banking system this year, investment for shale will dry up, new drilling will nosedive, and shale oil production will go down substantially. Meanwhile. conventional oil production in the USA continues to decline remorselessly.

The End of Fed Cred

It must be scary to be a Federal Reserve governor. You have to pretend that you know what you’re doing when, in fact, Fed policy appears completely divorced from any sense of consequence, or cause-and-effect, or reality — and if it turns out you’re not so smart, and your policies and interventions undermine true economic resilience, then the scuttling of the most powerful civilization in the history of the world might be your fault — even if you went to Andover and wear tortoise-shell glasses that make you appear to be smart.

The Fed painted itself into a corner the last few years by making Quantitative Easing a permanent feature of the financial landscape. QE backstops everything now. Tragically, additional backdoor backstopping extends beyond the QE official figures (as of December 2013) of $85 billion a month. American money (or credit) is being shoveled into anything and everything, including foreign banks and probably foreign treasuries. It’s just another facet of the prevailing pervasive dishonesty infecting the system that we have no idea, really, how much money is being shoveled and sprinkled around. Anything goes and nothing matters. However, since there is an official consensus that you can’t keep QE money-pumping up forever, the Fed officially made a big show of seeking to begin ending it. So in the Spring of 2013 they announced their intention to “taper” their purchases of US Treasury paper and mortgage paper, possibly in the fall.

Well, it turned out they didn’t or couldn’t taper. As the fall equinox approached, with everyone keenly anticipating the first dose of taper, the equity markets wobbled and the interest rate on the 10-year treasury — the index for mortgage loans and car loans — climbed to 3.00 percent from its May low of 1.63 — well over 100 basis points — and the Fed chickened out. No September taper. Fake out. So, the markets relaxed, the interest rate on the 10-year went back down, and the equity markets resumed their grand ramp into the Christmas climax. However, the Fed’s credibility took a hit, especially after all their confabulating bullshit “forward guidance” in the spring and summer when they couldn’t get their taper story straight. And in the meantime, the Larry-Summers-for-Fed-Chair float unfloated, and Janet Yellen was officially picked to succeed Ben Bernanke, with her reputation as an extreme easy money softie (more QE, more ZIRP), and a bunch of hearings were staged to make the Bernanke-Yellen transition look more reassuring.

And then on December 18, outgoing chair Bernanke announced, with much fanfare, that the taper would happen after all, early in the first quarter of 2014 ­— after he is safely out of his office in the Eccles building and back in his bomb shelter on the Princeton campus. The Fed meant it this time, the public was given to understand.

The only catch here, as I write, after the latest taper announcement, is that interest on the 10-year treasury note has crept stealthily back up over 3 percent. Wuh-oh. Not a good sign, since it means more expensive mortgages and car loans, which happen to represent the two things that the current economy relies on to appear “normal.” (House sales and car sales = normal in a suburban sprawl economy.)

I think the truth is the Fed just did too darn much QE and ZIRP and they waited way too long to cut it out, and now they can’t end it without scuttling both the stock and bond markets. But they can’t really go forward with the taper, either. A rock and a hard place. So, my guess is that they’ll pretend to taper in March, and then they’ll just as quickly un-taper. Note the curious report out of the American Enterprise Institute ten days ago by John H. Makin saying that the Fed’s actual purchase of debt paper amounted to an average $94 billion a month through the year 2013, not $85 billion. Which would pretty much negate the proposed taper of $5 billion + $5 billion (Treasury paper + Mortgage paper).

And in so faking and so doing they may succeed in completely destroying the credibility of the Federal Reserve. When that happens, capital will be disappearing so efficiently that the USA will find itself in a compressive deflationary spiral — because that’s what happens when faith in the authority behind credit is destroyed, and new loans to cover the interest on old loans are no longer offered in the non-government banking system, and old loans can’t be serviced. At which point the Federal Reserve freaks out and announces new extra-special QE way above the former 2013 level of $85 billion a month, and the government chips in with currency controls. And that sets in motion the awful prospect of the dreaded “crack-up boom” into extraordinary inflation, when dollars turn into hot potatoes and people can’t get rid of them fast enough. Well, is that going to happen this year? It depends on how spooked the Fed gets. In any case, there is a difference between high inflation and hyper-inflation. High inflation is bad enough to provoke socio-political convulsion. I don’t really see how the Fed gets around this March taper bid without falling into the trap I’ve just outlined. It wouldn’t be a pretty situation for poor Ms. Janet Yellen, but nobody forced her to take the job, and she’s had the look all along of a chump, the perfect sucker to be left holding a big honking bag of flop.

We’re long overdue for a return to realistic pricing in all markets. The Government and its handmaiden, the Fed, have tweaked the machinery so strenuously for so long that these efforts have entered the wilderness of diminishing returns. Instead of propping up the markets, all they can accomplish now is further erosion of the credibility of the equity markets and the Fed itself — and that bodes darkly for a money system that is essentially run on faith. I think the indexes have topped. The “margin” (money borrowed to buy stock) in the system is at dangerous, historically unprecedented highs. There may be one final reach upward in the first quarter. Then the equities crater, if not sooner. I still think the Dow and S &P could oversell by 90 percent of their value if the falsehoods of the post-2008  interventions stopped working their hoodoo on the collective wishful consciousness.

The worldwide rise in interest rates holds every possibility for igniting a shitstorm in interest rate swaps and upsetting the whole apple-cart of shadow banking and derivatives. That would be a bullet in the head to the TBTF banks, and would therefore lead to a worldwide crisis. In that event, the eventual winners would be the largest holders of gold, who could claim to offer the world a trustworthy gold-backed currency, especially for transactions in vital resources like oil. That would, of course, be China. The process would be awfully disorderly and fraught with political animus. Given the fact that China’s own balance sheet is hopelessly non-transparent and part-and-parcel of a dishonest crony banking system, China would have to use some powerful smoke-and-mirrors to assume that kind of dominant authority. But in the end, it comes down to who has the real goods, and who screwed up (the USA, Europe, Japan) and China, for all its faults and perversities, has the gold.

The wholesale transfer of gold tonnage from the West to the East was one of the salient events of 2013. There were lots of conspiracy theories as to what drove the price of gold down by 28 percent. I do think the painful move was partly a cyclical correction following the decade-long run up to $1900 an ounce. Within that cyclical correction, there was a lot of room for the so-called “bullion banks” to pound the gold and silver prices down with their shorting orgy. Numerous times the past year, somebody had laid a fat finger on the “sell” key, like, at four o’clock in the morning New York time when no traders were in their offices, and the record of those weird transactions is plain to see in the daily charts. My own theory is that an effort was made — in effect, a policy — to suppress the gold price via collusion between the Fed, the US Treasury, the bullion banks, and China, as a way to allow China to accumulate gold to offset the anticipated loss of value in the US Treasury paper held by them, throwing China a big golden bone, so to speak — in other words, to keep China from getting hugely pissed off. The gold crash had the happy effect for the US Treasury of making the dollar appear strong at a time when many other nations were getting sick of US dollar domination, especially in the oil markets, and were threatening to instigate a new currency regime by hook or by crook. Throwing China the golden bone is also consistent with the USA’s official position that gold is a meaningless barbaric relic where national currencies are concerned, and therefore nobody but the barbaric yellow hordes of Asia would care about it.

Other nations don’t feel that way. Russia and Switzerland have been accumulating gold like crazy at bargain prices this year. Lat year, Germany requested its sovereign gold cache (300 tons) to be returned from the vaults in America, where it was stored through all the decades of the cold war, safe from the reach of the Soviets. But American officials told the Germans it would take seven years to accomplish the return. Seven years ! ! ! WTF? Is there a shortage of banana boats? The sentiment in goldville is that the USA long ago “leased” or sold off or rehypothecated or lost that gold. Anyway, Germany’s 300 tons was a small fraction of the 6,700 tons supposedly held in the Fed’s vaults. Who knows? No auditors have been allowed into the Fed vaults to actually see what’s up with the collateral. This in and of itself ought to make the prudent nervous.

I think we’re near the end of these reindeer games with gold, largely because so many vaults in the West have been emptied. That places constraints on further shenanigans in the paper gold (and silver) markets. In an environment where both the destructive forces of deflation and inflation can be unleashed in sequence, uncertainty is the greatest motivator, trumping the usual greed and fear seen in markets that can be fairly measured against stable currencies. In 2014, the public has become aware of the bank “bail-in” phenomenon which, along with rehypothication schemes, just amounts to the seizure of customer and client accounts — a really new wrinkle in contemporary banking relations. Nobody knows if it’s safe to park cash money anywhere except inside the mattress. The precedent set in Cyprus, and the MF Global affair, and other confiscation events, would tend to support an interest in precious metals held outside the institutional framework. Uncertainty rules.

Miscellany

I get a lot of email on the subject of Bitcoin. Here’s how I feel about it.
It’s an even more abstract form of “money” than fiat currencies or securities based on fiat currencies. Do we need more abstraction in our economic lives? I don’t think so. I believe the trend will be toward what is real. For the moment, Bitcoin seems to be enjoying some success as it beats back successive crashes. I’m not very comfortable with the idea of investing in an algorithm. I don’t see how it is impervious to government hacking. In fact, I’d bet that somewhere in the DOD or the NSA or the CIA right now some nerd is working on that. Bitcoin is provoking imitators, other new computer “currencies.” Why would Bitcoin necessarily enjoy dominance? And how many competing algorithmic currencies can the world stand? Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose of an alternative “go to” currency? All I can say is that I’m not buying Bitcoins.

Will ObamaCare crash and burn. It’s not doing very well so far. In fact, it’s a poster-child for Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong). I suppose the primary question is whether they can enroll enough healthy young people to correct the actuarial nightmare that health insurance has become. That’s not looking so good either now. But really, how can anyone trust a law that was written by the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry? And how can it be repealed when so many individuals, groups, companies, have already lost their pre-ObamaCare policies? What is there to go back to? Therefore, I’d have to predict turmoil in the health care system for 2014. The failure to resolve the inadequacies of ObamaCare also may be a prime symptom of the increasing impotence of the federal government to accomplish anything. That failure would prompt an even faster downscaling of governance as states, counties, communities, and individuals realize that they are on their own.

Sorry to skip around, but a few stray words about the state of American culture. Outside the capitals of the “one percent” — Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, etc. — American material culture is in spectacular disrepair. Car culture and chain store tyranny have destroyed the physical fabric of our communities and wrecked social relations. These days, a successful Main Street is one that has a wig shop and a check-cashing office. It is sickening to see what we have become. Our popular entertainments are just what you would design to produce a programmed population of criminals and sex offenders. The spectacle of the way our people look —overfed, tattooed, pierced, clothed in the raiment of clowns — suggests an end-of-empire zeitgeist more disturbing than a Fellini movie. The fact is, it simply mirrors the way we act, our gross, barbaric collective demeanor. A walk down any airport concourse makes the Barnum & Bailey freak shows of yore look quaint. In short, the rot throughout our national life is so conspicuous that a fair assessment would be that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.

Elsewhere in the World

Globalism, in the Tom Friedman euphoric sense, is unwinding. Currency wars are wearing down the players, conflicts and tensions are breaking out where before there were only Wal-Mart share price triumphs and Foxconn profits. Both American and European middle-classes are too exhausted financially to continue the consumer orgy of the early millennium. The trade imbalances are horrific. Unpayable debt saturates everything. Sick economies will weigh down commodity prices except for food-related things. The planet Earth has probably reached peak food production, including peak fertilizer. Supplies of grain will be inadequate in 2014 to feed the still-expanding masses of the poor places in the world.

The nervous calm in finance and economies since 2008 has its mirror in the relative calm of the political scene. Uprisings and skirmishes have broken out, but nothing that so far threatens the peace between great powers. There have been the now-historic revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other Middle East and North African (MENA) states. Iraq is once again disintegrating after a decade of American “nation-building.” Greece is falling apart. Spain and Italy should be falling apart but haven’t yet. France is sinking into bankruptcy. The UK is in on the grift with the USA and insulated from the Euro, but the British Isles are way over-populated with a volatile multi-ethnic mix and not much of an economy outside the financial district of London. There were riots in — of all places — Sweden this year. Turkey entered crisis just a few weeks ago along with Ukraine.

I predict more colorful political strife in Europe this year, boots in the street, barricades, gunfire, and bombs. The populations of these countries will want relief measures from their national governments, but the sad news is that these governments are broke, so austerity seems to be the order of the day no matter what. I think this will prod incipient revolts in a rightward nationalist direction. If it was up to Marine LePen’s rising National Front party, they would solve the employment problem by expelling all the recent immigrants — though the mere attempt would probably provoke widespread race war in France.

The quarrel between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands is a diversion from the real action in the South China Sea, said to hold large underwater petroleum reserves. China is the world’s second greatest oil importer. Their economy and the credibility of its non-elected government depends on keeping the oil supply up. They are a long way from other places in the world where oil comes from, hence their eagerness to secure and dominate the South China Sea. The idea is that China would make a fuss over the Senkaku group, get Japan and the US to the negotiating table, and cede the dispute over them to Japan in exchange for Japan and the US supporting China’s claims in the South China Sea against the other neighbors there: Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The catch is that Japan may be going politically insane just now between the rigors of (Shinzo) Abenomics and the mystical horrors of Fukushima. Japan’s distress appears to be provoking a new mood of nationalist militarism of a kind not seen there since the 1940s. They’re talking about arming up, rewriting the pacifist articles in their constitution. Scary, if you have a memory of the mid-20th century. China should know something about national psychotic breaks, having not so long ago endured the insanity of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-71). So they might want to handle Japan with care. On the other hand, China surely nurtures a deep, deadly grudge over the crimes perpetrated by Japan in the Second World War, and now has a disciplined, world-class military, and so maybe they would like to kick Japan’s ass. It’s a hard one to call. I suspect that in 2014, the ball is in Japan’s court. What will they do? If the US doesn’t stay out of the way of that action, then we are insane, too.

That said, I stick by my story from last year’s forecast: Japan’s ultimate destination is to “go medieval.” They’re never going to recover from Fukushima, their economy is unraveling, they have no fossil fuels of their own and have to import everything, and their balance of payments is completely out of whack. The best course for them will be to just throw in the towel on modernity. Everybody else is headed that way, too, eventually, so Japan might as well get there first and set a good example.

By “go medieval” I mean re-set to a pre-industrial World Made By Hand level of operation. I’m sure that outcome seems laughably implausible to most readers, but I maintain that both the human race and the planet Earth need a “time out” from the ravages of “progress,” and circumstances are going to force the issue anyway, so we might as well kick back and get with the program: go local, downscale, learn useful skills, cultivate our gardens, get to know our neighbors, learn how to play a musical instrument, work, dine, and dance with our friends.

As it happens, the third in the series of my World Made By Hand novels, set in upstate New York in the post-collapse economy, will be published in September by the Atlantic Monthly Press. It’s a ripping yarn. Whether anyone will have enough money to buy a copy, I can’t predict. Happy 2014, Everybody!
New Features this week at kunstler.com:
Jim’s Garden Report, 2013
Jim’s New Paintings, 2011-2013

Published as an E-book for the first time!

The 20th Anniversary edition

With an entertaining new introduction by the author

 

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Apocalypse 2012: The one-year anniversary of Nothing Happened Day

Apocalypse 2012: The one-year anniversary of Nothing Happened Day.

by Brian Kaller, originally published by Restoring Mayberry  | DEC 23, 2013

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, millions of people felt a growing sense of — I was going to write “relief,” but it might have been “disappointment” — when the world didn’t end on Fake Mayan Prophecy Day. Social media users around the world greeted the non-event with the kind of viral mockery everyone loves these days, so long as it’s someone else’s beliefs being mocked.

Such scares, however, can be serious business; a few weeks before the predicted end of the world, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported that “panic buying of candles and essentials has been reported in China and Russia, along with an explosion in sales of survival shelters in America. In France believers were preparing to converge on a mountain where they believe aliens will rescue them.”

China might seem a strange place for the apocalypse idea to crop up, but the Telegraph said that “In China … a wave of paranoia about the apocalypse can be traced to the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster ‘2012.’ The film … was a smash hit in China, as viewers were seduced by a plot that saw the Chinese military building arks to save humanity.”

That $200 million steaming pile of callous manipulation, I suspect, did a great deal to boost the 2012 myth from New Age circles into the mainstream. As I wrote a couple of years ago, we might be able to forgive filmmakers for creating an overpriced package of ridiculous escapism like The Core or Volcano. Unlike those films, however, and like the fundamentalistLeft Behind series, the film implied their fictional work presaged actual and imminent tragedies.

The filmmakers also dropped the “Rapture” name for extra points among the mega-church crowd, both in the script and in the cruel advertising line, “Will You Be Left Behind?” The difference is that the Left Behind authors seem to truly believe their dubious theology, whereas the filmmakers seemed to be exploiting the genuine fears of real people to make some quick cash.

Even if only one person in ten thousand takes them seriously, scares like the 2012 fakery can cost real people their lives. David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA, told the Telegraph that “at least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

Apocalyptic scares have cropped up throughout history, and no one has written a more readable overview of them than John Michael Greer. His drily funny book Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong probably saw sales fall off after Nothing Happened Day, but should still be read as immunisation against the next one.

One area Greer could have explored more, perhaps, was “Why Mayans?” Why not prophecies from Norwegians, or Saudis, or any other group? The answer seems to be twofold; first, it’s easier to project any beliefs or ideology you like on a now-extinct group that can’t protest. There are some descendants of the Mayans left, who have rightly objected to their pop-culture co-opting, but poor Third-Worlders do not generally have the media influence of California New Age gurus.

The other reason has to do with the exalted place Native Americans hold in popular culture. Of course Native Americans were the victims of the greatest human genocide in history, and even into the mid-20th century were portrayed in popular fiction as villainous savages. The response of the Sixties counterculture, though, was insulting in a different direction, projecting onto Native tribes whatever ancient wisdom they wanted to hear. This was done mainly through the use of Italians and other Europeans pretending to be Natives, making up New Age teachings and passing them off as authentic.

As John Miller wrote in the National Review, “Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birth-rates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dream-catchers from their rear-view mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.”

In some cases people just claim to be Native when they are not: author and provocateur Ward Churchill, actor “Iron Eyes” Cody, and many others. In others Europeans claim special insight into Native culture: Carlos Castaneda, for example, wrote his entire Don Juan series with supposed interviews based on a reclusive Yaqui Indian no one else ever met, while Lynn Andrews did something similar with her Medicine Woman series. The Celestine Prophecy, Mutant Message from Down Under — for a while it seemed every year brought more books from dead or remote peoples, offering life-coaching for upscale Westerners.

Some of these teachings are useful in their own right; Canadian ecologist “Grey Owl” married into Native American communities and wrote beautifully about protecting wilderness, even if he was originally an Englishman named Archie Blayney. “The Education of Little Tree” is a lovely story, even if it turned out to be fiction written by a white segregationist.

Decades of such romanticising, though, means that followers of the Sixties counterculture treat Native teachings with a special reverence – even fake ones, and they usually are. I know a number of people who sneered at Harold Camping’s numerous Rapture predictions who seemed to take the Mayan claims seriously – at least, as seriously as anyone takes anything these days, forwarding memes while filtering any convictions through layers of post-hip meta-irony.

The 2012 books I leafed through also yanked science-sounding terms into the discussion whenever possible, describing a “quantum leap” forward in human “evolutionary levels.” Basically, it’s the same technique used by the religious cult “scientology,” stealing bits of words from actual scientific research and using them to imbue their vague hokum with a bogus legitimacy.

Many people I talk to seem unconcerned with doomsday crazes, considering them throwbacks to an earlier age of superstition, which will die out eventually. It’s been a standard line of science and science fiction for a hundred years, recited in everything from H.G. Wells’ Things to Come to the Star Trek series, that technology would allow humans to outgrow primitive ideas. Instead, however, the opposite has happened — as people spent more of their hours staring at electronic media, they became more susceptible to superstition, for several reasons.

First of all, news and fake news travel instantly around the world, and are increasingly difficult to escape. A year ago today, I was listening to neighbours talk about the alleged Mayan prophecy … at our local pub in rural Ireland. Locals would have been sitting at the same pub fifty or a hundred years ago — several apocalypse scares ago — but would not have easily known about them; until a few decades ago, few places in Ireland had electricity or modern media. Today, though, people here hear the same celebrity gossip, and watch the same blockbusters and visit some of the same internet sites as people everywhere. Instead of a dubious notion having to infect a critical mass of people in a town before spreading to the next town, a con or conspiracy theory can appear everywhere in the world – to a teenager in Saskatchewan, an old lady in Turkmenistan and an Irish farmer – simultaneously.

The modern world has made us more susceptible to superstition in other ways; when we spend most of our time staring at glowing rectangles rather than living in the real world, it becomes easy to become isolated, paranoid, or trapped in a misinformed bubble of like-minded people. Also, when we spend most of our time moving pixels on a screen for a paycheque, it becomes all the easier to fantasise about fighting zombies or some other more hands-on existence.

Finally, the very nature of our online lives means that information flits in and out of our minds quickly, leading us to forget, only a year later, that there were millions of people who genuinely thought the world would end. It leaves us singularly unprepared for the next fake Apocalypse, whose rumours are already circulating somewhere.

You might think that people are right to be alarmed, even if it takes a fake Mayan thing to alarm them. Between fossil fuels and climate change, an increasingly fragile economy and a disintegrating culture, humanity faces all kinds of problems. I’ve been writing about them for years; is it hypocritical of me, you might ask, to criticise someone else’s doomsday theory?

But here’s the thing: peak oil was never the apocalypse. When the theory of peak oil was revived around the turn of the millennium, some well-intentioned and otherwise beneficial thinkers saw in it the doomsday they had been waiting for. Ten years ago, however, when I wrote my first magazine cover story on peak oil, I said that we “won’t wake up Amish one day,” and when conventional oil peaked a few years ago, we didn’t. Rather, the promising peak oil movement dissipated somewhat after that, perhaps because the countdown had ended and the world had not collapsed. Framing peak oil as the apocalypse harmed the movement’s credibility, and undermined the very useful contributions of volunteers in local communities around the world.

Climate change is also not the apocalypse, in that sense. Almost all scientists agree that humans are causing climate change at a geologically alarming pace, but on a human scale the change is slow and scattershot enough to leave many non-scientists unconvinced. Even when events do happen – this or that city being devastated, a record-breaking summer, droughts and floods like no one has ever seen – no one can prove that climate change caused it, and with our short modern memories we quickly move on. Claiming that “we have only ten years left” to stop climate change, as some activists have done for decades, only discredits climate science in the eyes of the public when, ten years later, the changes have been small or quickly forgotten.

None of these crises in our culture, our economy, or in the living world constitute the Apocalypse of John of Patmos, or any of the rest of the Antilegomena. They are not the Big One people have been waiting for, and people need to stop waiting. None of them will wipe out everyone you don’t like, and leave them sorry they doubted you. None of them will eliminate all those other humans standing in front of you in the grocery queue, leaving you with all their stuff.

I do expect a great many crises in the years to come – more weather disasters, economic crashes, wars and rumours of wars. I expect that actions that were once considered unspeakable might become commonplace, just as actions fifty or a hundred years ago are unthinkable to us, and vice versa. Preparing for such long-term events, though, means working with others, making your little corner of the world more resilient in the face of change, and adhering to a consistent set of principles even when the culture shifts tectonically under your feet. It means changing your life in a thousand small and tangible ways.

At some point, of course, the world will end – for you. That sobering realisation – in Greek,Apocalypsi, or Revelation – is what most apocalyptic scriptures are really about; the commonly cited passages about the end of the world take on a very different meaning when you posit that they are not talking about a universal end, but a personal one. That’s what most religions are about: When done rightly, they help you spend your remaining years meaningfully, to think of others before yourself, to set an example the world can see, and to bring you closer to God.

Doomsday thinking, as in the Mayan 2012 belief, does the opposite. It encourages people to retreat into a bubble of believers. It discourages people from making small improvements, when everything is about to be swept away. It makes people passive in the face of predestination. It tells people that God will come to them, and they don’t need to do anything.

 

charles hugh smith-System Reset 2014-2015

charles hugh smith-System Reset 2014-2015. (source)

Resets occur when the price of everything that has been repressed, manipulated or obscured is repriced.

The global financial system will reset in 2014-2015, regardless of official pronouncements and financial media propaganda hyping the “recovery.” Despite the wide spectrum of forecasts (from rosy to stormy), nobody knows precisely what will transpire in 2014-2015, so we must remain circumspect about any and all predictions– especially our own.

Even as we are mindful of the risks of a forecast being wrong (and the righteous humility that befits any analysis), it seems increasingly self-evident that financial systems around the world are reaching extremes that generally presage violent resets to new equilibria–typically at much lower levels of complexity and energy consumption.

John Michael Greer has described the process of descending stair-step resets (my description, not his) as catabolic collapse. The system resets at a lower level and maintains the new equilibrium for some time before the next crisis/system failure triggers another reset.

There is much systems-analysis intelligence in Greer’s concept: systems without interactive feedbacks may collapse suddenly in a heap, but more complex systems tend to stair-step down in a series of resets to lower levels of consumption and complexity–for example, the Roman Empire, which reset many times before reaching the near-collapse level of phantom legions, full-strength on official documents, defending phantom borders.

In the present, we can expect the overly costly, complex, inefficient, fraud-riddled U.S. sickcare (i.e. “healthcare”) system to reset as providers (i.e. doctors and physicians’ groups) opt out of ObamaCare, Medicare and Medicaid; like the phantom armies defending phantom borders of the crumbling Empire, the vast, centralized empire of sickcare will remain officially at full strength, but few will be able to find caregivers willing to provide care within the systems.

Just as much of the collateral supporting the stock, bond and housing bubbles is phantom, many other centralized systems will reset to phantom status. As local and state governments’ revenues are increasingly diverted to fund public union employees’ sickcare and pension benefits, the services provided by government will decline as the number of retirees swells and the number of government employees actually filling potholes, etc. drops.

Local government will offer services that are increasingly phantom, as stagnating tax revenues fund benefits for retirees rather than current services. On paper, cities will remain responsible for filling potholes, but in the real world, the potholes will go unfilled. In response, cities will ask taxpayers to approve bonds that cost triple the price of pay-as-you-go pothole filling, as a way to dodge the inevitable conflict between government retirees benefits and taxpayers burdened with decaying streets, schools, etc. and ever-higher taxes.

As for phantom collateral–the real value of the collateral will be undiscovered until people start selling assets in earnest. As long as everyone is buying, the phantom nature of the collateral is masked; it’s only when everyone tries to get their money out of asset bubbles is the actual value of the underlying collateral discovered.

When assets go bidless, i.e. there are no buyers at any price, the phantom nature of the supposedly solid collateral is revealed. Price discovery is one way of describing reset; transparent pricing of risk is another way of saying the same thing.

When risk has been mispriced via state guarantees, fraud, willful obfuscation, complexity fortresses, etc., then the repricing of risk also resets the system.

Resets occur when the price of everything that has been repressed, manipulated or obscured is repriced. The greater the manipulation and financial repression, the more violent the reset. What been manipulated, obscured or repressed? Virtually everything: risk, credit, assets, labor, currency, you name it. Everything that has been manipulated by central banks and central states will be repriced.

Trust is difficult to price. Every reset erodes trust in the capacity of the centralized status quo to manipulate/repress price to its liking. Once trust in the system is lost, it cannot be purchased at any cost.

 

When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse

When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse. (FULL ARTICLE)

My main problem with the Jared Diamond/John Michael Greer/Jim Kunstler theory of “catabolic collapse” is that it ignores one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology: ephemerality.

Thanks to technological change, over the past few decades the capital-intensiveness of emerging successor infrastructures has been collapsing faster than the existing infrastructure itself. The classic example, from Buckminster Fuller, is replacing a transoceanic cable system emdodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each.

It’s quite true that the mass-production industrial civilization that peaked in the 20th century is falling into ruin, failing to invest in upkeep at sustainable levels, and generally eating its seed corn — just as happened with Rome. The difference is, the Interstate Highway System, the civil aviation infrastructure, and the old electrical grid aren’t something to mourn. They’re something that would decay anyway, because they’re increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of production technology and economic organization the emerging successor society will be based on…..

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