Friday, April 17, 2009

And They Lived Happily Ever After

I’m a sucker for happy endings. If a book or movie doesn’t have a happy ending, I don’t want anything to do with it. That’s part of why I spend so much time peering into my crystal ball, trying to understand where we’re headed. As I look at the near future, I see us falling inexorably into turmoil – but what comes after that? I’m trying to look far enough into the future to find the happy ending. Which brings me to John Michael Greer and where I believe he has it wrong.

I have only been reading the archdruid a short time, so I may be mischaracterizing his prognostications, but he did write recently, “one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process.” I’m not sure what he means by ‘the fall of civilizations’ as it applies to life-as-we-know-it, nor am I certain what he means by ‘slow,’ but I do have my own take on where we might be going and how fast we’re getting there.

I believe that life-as-we-know-it is about to change drastically and forever and that the process will be anything but slow. It will, however, be uneven. If you live in Monroeville, Alabama where the paper mill that was one of the town’s biggest employers has now shut down, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. If you live downriver from TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. If you lived in Plaquemines Parish, Pass Christian or Dauphin Island prior to Katrina, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. But are these isolated events – life as it has always been – or are these events part of a newly emerging pattern of disaster?

The answer to that question is a long one. It begins with money. Money is a shared fiction – dollar bills have no intrinsic worth and for the most part our money today isn’t even that tangible – it’s nothing more than numbers in a computer. As long as we all agree to share the fiction, things go along pretty smoothly, but lately the fiction is wearing thin. Chris Martenson does a very easy-to-understand crash course in global economics but the bottom line is this: our financial system is based on growth. Without growth, everything falls apart. Our whole economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme where tomorrow’s assumed growth is what pays today’s bills. To keep everything greased and in running order, we must spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need. If we stop spending – because we’ve been laid off from the mill or the business where we worked is now wiped off the planet by a tidal wave or just because we’ve decided that we don’t need all that junk – then the dominoes begin to fall, and once they start falling, they will have to play themselves out. I don’t see how it can happen any other way. We cannot sustain infinite growth in a finite world – eventually we will run up against the wall of limited resources and I believe that eventually is now. Yes, there are great new ideas out there – cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, for example -- but the scale of the necessary changeover and the pressures of limited time and funding mitigate against a smooth transition. And as with any transition, there is hardship. What happens to lumber jacks and coal miners if we no longer need their services? What happens to Chinese manufacturers if we no longer buy their plastic salad shooters?

After money, we have oil. Oil is the wonder resource – it not only provides cheap, abundant energy, but it provides it in an easy-to-refine-and-use form and leaves us with side benefits -- the chemical concoctions that make agri-business a going concern and provide us with our ubiquitous plastics. But oil is running out. Okay, we’ve only used about half of the world’s supply, but it was the easy, cheap half. And as demand eventually outpaces supply, we will see both rising prices and shortages. Rising oil prices means that the price of everything goes up. Considering the shaky foundation of the all-mighty dollar, we could even see hyper-inflation. Shortages could just mean long lines at the gas pump but they could mean much worse, especially if they occur during a long, cold winter. And if there is a sustained disruption in our oil supply, we could see something that looks like this:

Almost overnight, gas stations are running on empty. The trucking industry is unable to deliver groceries to the stores. The airline industry is unable to get its airplanes in the sky. International commerce grinds to a halt as cargo ships sit idle in ports. Farmers are unable to get gas for their equipment or fertilizers for their fields. Construction equipment sits rusting. The power industry is unable to deliver coal to power plants. The power grid is still viable but unreliable. In a desperate measure, the U.S. government starts rationing gasoline. First priority are the military, emergency responders, and public works. Second priority are truckers transporting food and/or coal. Third priority are farmers and coal miners. Private vehicles are last on the list. Many of those who still have jobs are forced to quit as they can no longer get themselves to work.

Yes, but it doesn't have to be oil. We can build electric cars, wind mills, solar arrays, and generators powered by the tides. We can use passive solar and geo-thermal to heat our homes and photo-voltaics to power our television sets. Maybe, but here again, the scale of the necessary changeover and the pressures of limited time and funding mitigate against a smooth transition. And none of the above can replace oil’s side benefits.

I’m not even going to go into the possibility of war, water shortages, or extreme weather events due to climate change because I think that we already have enough ingredients for a breakdown in civil order. People who are out of work, out of food, and out of hope but who have ready access to guns won’t sit quietly by and wait for things to get better. That takes me back to my previous post.

What???? I thought she was giving us a happy ending. Well, stay tuned . . .

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