Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A Political Fantasy, Part 1

Occasionally, I ask myself what could be done about the challenges we face in the age of scarcity, if political realities didn’t prevent us from addressing these problems on the provincial (state) and national scale?

When I originally sat down to write about this I had just finished a series of three posts on Deliberate Descent. This is based on adopting a lower energy lifestyle in a deliberate and organized fashion while we still have resources available to us to facilitate the transition, rather than waiting until we are forced to do so, at which point we will have far fewer resources. This is a response on the individual, family and community scale. I tend to focus there, because I think it unlikely that anything significant can be achieved on a larger scale.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to fantasize. What if the Prime Minister called up and asked me what I think he should do. Given our current PM’s leanings, this seems pretty unlikely. But the other problem is, what the heck would I tell him?

For me, the trouble is that all the political parties are only arguing over how the benefits of growth should be divided among the rich and the poor. Or when we are in a recession, arguing over what should be done to get growth started again, as if that is the only possible response. This sort of tunnel vision is a problem because things have changed and the system that worked fine in a growing economy driven by cheap energy doesn’t fit present conditions. Growth is over and what we need is a way to do degrowth (ungrowth?) with a minimum of pain and suffering. So far, we don’t even have a name for this, much less a workable response.

In order to take any steps toward coping with today’s reality, our governments would first have to acknowledge that reality. In fact, they are currently either ignorant of it or deeply in denial of it. And so I wrote my last two posts: The Great Contraction and Technology Isn’t the Answer. If you haven’t read them, now is the time—it will help make sense of what I have to say here.

Basically, for the past 200 years, cheap fossil fuels drove economic growth—almost inescapably, though no one was trying very hard to escape it. Government was a matter of keeping up with this. In the latter half of the twentieth century, western democracies settled into a pattern. In a democracy, getting elected is a major part of what politics is about. With the advent of mass media, a lot of money was needed to fund an election campaign. When trying to raise money, it is best to talk to those who have lots of it to spare, and convince them that your policies are in their best interest. Largely this means that you won’t be raising taxes or restricting the money making activities of industry. Of course, the purpose of a media campaign is to win the election, so promises must be made that appeal to a majority of voters, not just the rich. That means promising to spend money on job creation, stimulating economic growth and other programs that promise to benefit the whole population, or on the pet projects of a great many special interest groups, or both. When you finally get into power, keeping all these conflicting promises can lead to deficit financing. As long as the economy is growing, that isn’t so much of a problem. Even if you go so far as to reduce the tax rates, a somewhat smaller chunk of a much larger pie can cover growing government expenditures.

For the last forty years or so, the initial economic effects of fossil fuel depletion have led to both reductions in tax revenues and a call for more government programs to benefit those hit by the beginnings of economic contraction. Realistically this calls for tax increases or reductions in government programs, or both. But it takes a brave politician indeed to propose these things, and such a fellow is unlikely to get elected. Those that have been getting elected have piled up more and more government debt to bridge the gap between revenue and expenditures. These are the political realities I am talking about.

But there other others realities we need to face up to, as well. We really are running out of cheap fossil fuels, and there really isn’t anything to replace them.

The level of growth an economy can sustain is determined by the amount of surplus energy that is available. Surplus energy is the energy left over after you perform whatever activity it takes to access that energy—the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). In the early 1900s it only took about one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of it out of the ground, leaving a surplus energy of 99 barrels. All the energy sources now available to us, even using the best technology we can bring to bear on the problem, provide significantly less surplus energy.

Because of this, attempts to stimulate economic growth with government spending are doomed to fail. Whether we like it or not, and no matter what we do, our economy is going to shrink to a level that can be supported by the amount of surplus energy that is actually available—around one tenth of what was available at the height of cheap fossil fuel abundance. This is so little that there is serious doubt about the continued operation of our industrial society, what I often refer to as “business as usual”, at least without some major changes.

When many people become aware of this, they jump to the conclusion that those “major changes” amount to a sudden and catstrophic collapse into a new dark age. I don’t agree with that.

This “collapse” of industrial civilization is already occurring, but slowly and very unevenly. Thing seem to be going along just fine or even improving for a while, then there is a crisis or disaster of some sort and they get worse, only to settle out at some lower level and stay there or even improve again for a while. At any one time, some regions seem hardly to be affected at all, while others are clearly suffering a serious decline.

And certainly there are aspects of our high tech industrial civilization that we will not be able to sustain at a decreased level of surplus energy. But it is not necessary to fall all the way back to the level of civilization that existed when food and firewood were the only sources of energy. Even if food and firewood were our only sources of energy, we could do much better with them than we did hundreds of years ago. We know a lot more and we have the resources of our current high tech society to work with as we begin our descent to a lower level of energy use. And beyond food and firewood there are other renewables—wind, water and solar, at least, that can be used much more effectively now than they were in the dark ages, even with relatively low tech equipment.

People also tend to assume that as we fall back to lower levels of energy use, our society will have to revert back to the forms it took when last we operated at that energy level. This is just plain silly, as social practices and cultural mores have very little to do with technology and energy use.

So, I think our government should be taking action to mitigate human suffering over the decades to come as we transition through economic contraction to a sustainable, steady state economy at a some substantially lower level of energy use. And doing it in such a way as to preserve the civil liberties and social justice advances we’ve made over the last couple of centuries.

At present most governments are convinced that stimulating economic growth is the only way to improve things, when in fact reckless spending and tax reductions are actually making things worse, by increasing deficits and reducing government capability to respond to the challenges we face.

I know that many people feel that government is the problem and the only solution is less government, but I disagree. Government is the best sort of organization for pursuing certain goals, especially when those aren’t likely to be accomplished through market mechanisms and the profit motive—exactly the kind of goals I am discussing here.

It is not that difficult to think of some things that a government could do… if we are going to fantasize about not being restricted by political realities. But a revenue starved government can do little to help. So, governments who have been reducing taxes in the mistaken belief that this will stimulate the economy are going to have to switch gear and start increasing taxes, and those who are most able to pay must surely shoulder a larger share of the burden. This needs to be done soon, as the tax base will dwindle as the economy slows down and governments will have to scale back their activities to match the lower level of tax generating economic activity. But it seems to me there is still a window of opportunity, and much that can be done by a government that is willing to face up to reality and take action.

Finding (or electing) such a government is another matter. Remember, this is a fantasy and I don’t for a moment expect that it will ever come true. What is far more likely is that we will do this the hard way, continuing on with business as usual until change is forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control. At that point, our ability to respond effectively will be considerably less than it is now. If you disagree with me about the inevitability of what faces us, that’s fine. I’m pretty sure you are suffering from some degree of denial, but enjoy yourself until reality comes crashing in.

Back to my fantasy. Having acknowledged that because of the decreasing availability of cheap energy the economy will continue to contract, and that high taxes are not what is causing the contraction, governments need to increase taxes on those who are most able to pay, and focus spending where it will do the most good. They also need to stop subsidies, tax breaks and other forms of support for the people, corporations and activities which are making the situation worse by trying to keep “business as usual” going just a little longer. Then we need to sort through all the worthy projects up for consideration and fund those that will best help people adapt to the realities of economic contraction and move them toward a sustainable non-growth economy at a sustainable level of energy use.

There are three areas of change that governments could promote and support that would make a huge difference. John Michael Greer, one of my favourite authors, speaks eloquently about this, so I will first quote him directly and then make a few comments of my own. These quotes are from a blog post where Greer is talking about the “bargaining” stage of our grief for industrial civilization, where we start to come up with ideas for what we can give up and how we can change in order to retain some elements of civilization.

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.

Greer has written elsewhere about “LESS”—less energy, stuff and stimulation. We need to be aiming for “just enough” to get by on, rather than more of everything for everyone, which seems to be the ideal at the moment.

Another thing we need a lot less of is waste. Waste is currently seen as an entitlement, or at the very least an unfortunate necessity, when in fact it is at the heart of many of our problems. Our industrial society is in many ways little more than a way of using the energy of fossil fuels to turn natural resources into pollution and garbage, while producing a few consumer good in the process. And even those goods are expected to wear out and be thrown “away” fairly quickly.

The problem is that you can’t use an open ended system inside a closed system like our planet. Not for long, anyway. So we need to switch over to circular systems that reuse the materials involved as much as possible. This includes using human wastes (humanure) for fertilizer in agriculture.

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 instead: 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.

When energy was cheap, the benefits of centralization and the complexity that comes with it outweighed the costs. Indeed we have been largely unaware of those costs, but they are now starting to catch up with us. The solution is de-globalization, relocalization, re-ruralization, de-urbanization and a general loosening of control from central authorities.

Already we are seeing a move toward this as some areas see resources spent supporting central governments as a burden that gives little in return. Central governments need to acknowledge that they aren’t playing a winning hand and step back as gracefully as possible.

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.

Along with rehumanization must come reskilling—relearning many of the skills that we’ve off loaded onto machines.

Of course, so far, all this talk has been in generalities. That’s the right place to start, of course. For the most part, the tools of government are blunt instruments and work by pushing society in a general direction. Today most governments are pushing in precisely the wrong direction. They could do a lot just by stopping that and could do even better by pushing in the right directions, as outlined above.

Even so, I really would like to be able to offer some specific suggestions, and in my next post I’ll do exactly that.

As an aid to those who are reading this whole series of "Political Fantasy" posts, here is a complete set of links.

As an aid to those who are reading this whole series of "Political Fantasy" posts, here is a complete set of links.