Thursday, 30 November 2017

What I've Been Reading, November 2017

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

  • World Without End, by Ken Follet
  • The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
    I think I read at least parts of this one in serialized form in a science fiction magazine in the early seventies, but such memories as I have of it are very vague.
  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
    Just an action adventure really, nothing very profound.

Non-Fiction

  • Mendel in the Kitchen, by Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown
    A scientists view of genetically modified foods.
  • 1491, by Charles C. Mann,
    New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 8

Lake Huron Waves Breaking Along South Pier, Kincardine

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 1

The term “bumpy road down” refers to the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity and make for a slow step by step collapse, rather than a single hard and fast crash. Indeed, that is where the "step-by-step" in the title of this series of posts comes from. And yes, many of the individual steps down will happen quite quickly and seem quite harsh. But it will likely take many steps and many decades before we can say collapse is essentially complete, and between those steps down there will (in many areas) be long periods when things are stable or even actually improving somewhat.

The fast collapse is a favourite trope of collapse fiction and makes for some exciting stories, in which stalwart heroes defend their group from hungry hordes and evil strong men. And if the story happens in the U.S. the characters get to do their best to stop a whole lot of ammunition from going stale. But it seems to me that in most parts of the world things will progress quite differently when disaster strikes. Indeed there is a branch of sociology which studies how people and societies respond to disaster, and it has identified a set of incorrect beliefs, known as "the disaster mythology" that much of the general public holds on the subject. In particular, the expectation of looting, mass panic and violence is not borne out in really. Here are some further links on the subject: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Dysfunctional as today's world may seem to many of us, it is working fairly well for those who are in power. They have a great deal invested in maintaining the "status quo", and in making sure that whatever changes do happen don't have any great effect on them. They also have a lot of resources to bring to bear on pursuing those ends, and a lot of avenues to go down before they run out of alternatives.

The other 80% of us, who are just along for the ride so to speak, still rely on industrial society for the necessities of life. We are hardly self sufficient at all, dependent on "the system" to a degree that is unprecedented in mankind's history and prehistory. As unhappy as we may be with the way things are at present, it's hard to imagine collapse without a certain amount of trepidation. Denial is a very common response to this situation.

Some of us, though, aren't very good at denial. Even if we only follow the news on North American TV, which largely ignores the rest of the world, we've seen lots of disturbing events in the last year or two and it is hard not to wonder if they are leading up to something serious. Many people in the "collapse sphere" are predicting a major disturbance in the next few years, and some think that this will be the one that us takes down—all the way.

I definitely agree that something is about to happen, but I don't think it is going be the last straw. Just one more step along the way.

As always, I am directing this mainly to those who are not highly "collapse aware", so a closer look at what's going on and what this next big bump might look like would seem to be a good idea. And of course I am making generalizations in what follows. As always, things will vary a good bit between different areas and at different times, and all of this will affect people of the various social classes differently. Also beware that I am not an economist, just a layman who has been watching the field with keen interest for some time. What follows is a summary of what I have learned, in a field where there is lots of disagreement and where the experts themselves have been wrong again and again.

Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for around 87% of our energy needs, and those needs are largely ones that cannot be met by anything other than fossil duels, especially oil. While it is true that fossil fuels are far from running out, the amount of surplus energy they deliver (the EROEI—"energy returned on energy invested") has declined to the point where it no longer supports robust economic growth. Indeed, since the 1990s, real economic growth has largely stopped. What limited growth we are seeing is based on debt, rather than an abundance of surplus energy. And various adjustments to the way GDP is calculated have made the situation seem less serious that it really is.

Because of the growth situation, investors looking for good returns on their money have been hard pressed to find any and so have turned to riskier investments, which has resulted in speculative bubbles and subsequent crashes. The thing about bubbles is they are based on trust. Trust in some sort of investment that in saner times would be recognized for the risky proposition it really is. But always there comes a day when the risk becomes obvious, people rush to get out, and the bubble crashes.

The dot com bubble was the first to burst in this century, and the real estate bubble in the US was the next, leading to the crash of 2008.

After 2008 many governments borrowed money to bailout financial institutions (banks) which were in danger of failing, since that failure would have had a very negative effect on the rest of the economy. To control the cost of that borrowing and stimulate the economy, they lowered interest rates. These low interest rates have made it possible to use debt as a temporary replacement for surplus energy as the driver of the economy. Unfortunately this is pretty inefficient—it takes several dollars of debt to create a dollar's worth of growth, and the result has been debt increasing to totally unprecedented levels.

Meanwhile, much of the ill advised risk taking in the financial industry that led to the crash in 2008 has continued on unabated. You may wonder why responsible governments didn't enact regulations to stop that sort of thing. And indeed they did, to a limited extent. I suspect, though, that really effective regulations would have stopped growth cold, and no one was willing to accept the negative results of that. Better to let things to go on as they are, leaving future governments to worry about the consequences.

So, in 2017 we are deep into what might be called a "debt bubble." It relies on trust that interest rates will remain low and that any day now there will be a return to robust growth so that we can all make some money and pay off our debts. Those are risky propositions, to say the least.

On top of that, low interest rates have made it much more of a challenge for pension funds to raise enough money to meet their obligations, a vital concern for retired baby boomers like myself.

Those same low interest rates have made it possible for many non-viable or barely viable businesses to continuing operating on borrowed money, where under more normal circumstances they would have been forced out of business. This makes for a weaker economy, not a stronger one.

Here in Canada we still have a real estate bubble going on, especially in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and that despite recent government efforts to cool the real estate market by making it more difficult to get a mortgage, and by applying a tax on foreign real estate investors.

And over the last year that have been a long list of natural disasters which have increased the financial stress on governments, insurance companies and even re-insurance companies (who insure the insurance companies themselves).

The more conventional economists have come to think that all this is a normal situation and that it can just keep on keeping on. But there are others who think that this will lead to a crash of even greater magnitude that 2008. And many kollapsniks think this crash will mean the end of industrial civilization.

Some commentators expect this crash to take the form of a rash of debt defaults by governments who can no longer carry the debt loads they have built up. And a similar wave of bankruptcies of those shaky businesses I was just talking about, when they finally get to the point where they can no longer hold on. Tim Morgan, one of my favourite economists (who is certainly aware of the possibility of collapse), speculates that this bubble may burst in a different way than those of the past, with the collapse of one or more currencies. He points to the British pound as a prime candidate for the first to go and thinks that the U.S. dollar may follow it.

Other experts I've asked say that while the U.S government does have huge debts, they are not so large in comparison to the size of its economy—an economy that is strong enough that trust in it is unlikely to fail. I am not so sure. Much of the strength of the U.S. dollar comes from the fact that all trading of oil is done in it. If you want to buy oil then you need U.S. dollars, so the demand for them is always high. But a number of countries who are not allies of the US have proposed abandoning this system, suggesting that they are willing to accept other currencies for their oil. If this were to happen on a large scale it would significantly weaken the US dollar.

But it takes some sort of unusual event to start a crash like this, to initiate the loss of trust. And that brings us back to the fossil fuel industry.

While the falling EROEIs of fossil fuels have hurt economic growth, it is a mistake to think that those fuels are not still the life blood of our civilization. The success of modern industry is based on the productivity boost provided by cheap energy. The price of oil, for many years, was a fraction of its worth in terms of what could be made with the energy embodied in that oil. But when the price of energy goes up, it reduces the profitability of industry, often leading to a recession.

The oil prices I quote here are for Brent crude, just to keep things simple. In fact, oil trades at a dizzying variety of different prices, depending on where it comes from and its quality, among other things. If you look back over the history of recessions since the 1950s it is interesting to note almost all of them were preceded by a spike in the price of oil. In the summer of 2008 the price of oil, which had been going up for several years, topped out just before the crash at almost $140 per barrel.

After the crash, the economy slowed down significantly, and the price of oil dropped to around $30 per barrel due to falling demand. Starting in mid-2009 the economy began to recover and the price of oil increased to over $100. This appeared to be a straight forward case of supply and demand—an indication that the supply of oil was barely keeping up and suppliers were being forced to turn to more expensive sources of oil to meet the demand.

Then in mid 2014 something surprising happened— the price of oil and many other bulk commodities began to go down. By early 2016 the price of oil was under $40/barrel, and it stayed in the range between $40 and $60 until quite recently when it edged up over $60.

All kinds of ideas have been put forth as to why this drop in the price of oil happened, many of them contradictory. It is my thought that two things have been happening. First, demand destruction—a slowing down of the world economy caused by high energy prices. Second, a temporary increase in the supply of oil, mainly from fracking in the continental US and tapping of unconventional oil—tar sands in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela, and deep offshore oil in various place around the world, that were suddenly profitable when the price was around $100 per barrel.

Whatever is the cause, it is clear that we have had a surplus of oil for the last few years, and this has kept the price down. OPEC discussed limiting supply to force the price back up, but very little came of it, even though the lower price was severely hurting the economies of the OPEC nations.

In the short run, lower oil prices have had a beneficial effect on economic growth. But unfortunately, the big oil companies were making so little profit that they couldn't afford to invest much in oil discovery.

Regardless of what you may think of the idea of "peak oil" on a global basis, it is a simple fact that the output of any individual oil field declines as it ages. Exploration for new oil aims to match that natural decline with new discoveries. For conventional oil, that has not happened since 1963 and by the start of this century this was becoming a problem. A problem that likely had something to do with the run up of oil prices prior to 2008.

Following 2008, higher prices and improved technology (like fracking and the syncrude process for getting oil out of the tar sands) made more oil accessible. But with the current lower prices, that is no longer the case. Furthermore the wells opened up by fracking are proving to have very high decline rates.

So it seems that sometime in the next year or two, the decline rate of the world's oil fields will have eaten up the surplus of oil. Discovery of new oil fields doesn't happen overnight, so there will be a crunch in oil supply. Not that there will be no oil available, but oil suppliers will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand and the price will spike upward. There may even be shortages of some petroleum products until those higher prices pull demand back to match the available supply.

It seems very likely that such a spike in the price of oil will touch off a loss of trust leading to a recession of such severity as to make 2008 look minor.

In my next post in this series I'll look at how that recession—might as well call it a crash—might proceed and what will likely be done to mitigate its effects.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

What I've Been Reading, October 2017

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

  • The Guards, by Ken Bruen,
    A Jack Taylor mystery.
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson
    A story about time travel (sort of) and collapse, by the master of cyberpunk.
  • Visitor, by C. J. Cherryh
    Seventeenth in the Foreigner series, still worth reading, with a surprise near the end.
  • Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn
    A post collapse novel which avoids some of the worst stereotypes of that genre.
  • pH, A Novel, by Nancy Lord
    University politics in Alaska in a time of falling ocean pH (ocean acidification).

Non-Fiction

  • Enough is Enough, by Rob Dietz (Author), Dan O'Neill (Author), Herman Daly (Foreword)
    Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources
  • And here are a couple of gems from my bookshelf:

  • The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond
    The evolution and future of the human animal.
  • The Long Descent, by John Michael Greer
    A Users Guide to the end of the industrial age.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 7: More on Political Realities, Continued

Lake Huron Surf, A Sunny Day in October

This post is just a continuation of Part 6 of this series. If you haven't read Part 6 it would make a lot of sense to do so now.

In Part 6, I addressed some of the comments a reader (BK) had made on Parts 4 and 5, explaining my thoughts on a slow and uneven collapse. And how while modern politics is trapped in a growth at all costs paradigm and cannot acknowledge the limits of growth, there are still varieties of politics that will do a better or worse job of navigating collapse in the age of scarcity.

(BK and I have quite a conversation going in the comments. Now that the initial misunderstandings have been cleared up, I think some real communication has happened.)

If you are new here, following the discussion below would be facilitated by going back and having a look at the last few posts in my Collapse Step by Step series.

In Collapse Step by Step, Part 3, I introduced the idea of laying out a spectrum of opinions about a particular aspect of politics, with the two ends representing opposing extremes, and most peoples' positions falling somewhere in between.

An example of something like this is the Political Compass, a website that takes two such spectrums (economic and authouritarian) and defines a plane on which there will be a point that defines your political position. For me that point is somewhere in the lower left, making me a "anarcho-communist" of some sort.

In order to gain an more nuanced understanding of politics, I have suggested using not just two, but six different spectrums to give a sufficiently nuanced view of that field.

In Collapse Step by Step, Part 4 I considered each of those six spectrums and identified what I believe to be the position on each of them best suited to coping with the challenges that face us over the next few decades.

In Collapse Step by Step, Part 5, after looking at today's political realities (growth must continue), I took a close look at how two different types of politics may fare during collapse. One of these might be called Right Wing Capitalism— an extreme version of the United States under a Republican government. The other I called Social Democracy—an idealized version of the northern European democracies when a left wing government is in power. And as you may be able to guess, I think the Social Democracies have a much better chance in the age of scarcity.

After reading that post, BK responded with, "you are stuck on the viewpoint that socialism will solve our ills. But what is the point of a viewpoint if adopting it requires jettisoning reason and deliberation at the first sign or trouble?" So, thinking positively about socialism requires jettisoning reason and deliberation? I really think not. But, in any case, a closer look at what I was saying shows I wasn't actually talking about socialism. The point I was making about Social Democracy versus Right Wing Capitalism wasn't to any great extent based on their positions on the Communist<—>Capitalist economic spectrum.

Communism (or socialism, same thing really), at the left end of this spectrum, has never actually been tried in the modern world, and probably wouldn't work on the large scale of most modern countries, or at least we currently have no idea of how to make it work. The so called communist regimes of the twentieth century ended up being just dictatorships practicing state capitalism. The people who started them (Lenin, Mao, etc.) were incredibly inept. Perhaps better men could have achieved more, or perhaps the challenge was just too great.

Social democracies occupy the space somewhat to the left of center on this spectrum, practicing a well regulated form of capitalism, with much of their vital infrastructure state owned for the sake of efficiency.

Countries which practiced ideal free market capitalism would be over at the very right end of the spectrum, but of course there really aren't any of them either. Some regulation is necessary to make a country work at all. Beyond that, capitalists don't like real competition and large capitalist concerns have power enough to avoid it. Even small businesses often voluntarily avoid getting into the kind of price wars that a free market can lead to. So Right Wing Capitalism occupies the space somewhat to the right of center on this spectrum.

What I am really doing here is comparing two political positions that both practice capitalism, just somewhat different types of it. The policies that really distinguish them are on a couple of other political spectrums altogether: Inclusive<—>Exclusive, and Fiscal Liberal<—>Fiscal Conservative. The Communist<—>Capitalist spectrum is a factor but the least important of the three.

OK, so how do these three aspects of politics work together to determine how a country manages during the age of scarcity? First let's consider the early stages of this period when there is still enough economic activity to support the operation of national and state (provincial) governments.

BK comments, "Northern European democracies lucked out in the historical roulette, with a combination of low population, resources and cheap energy/labour subsidising their particular version of overconsumption." The same could be said of many areas in the "new world" including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US. And I would agree that this was true in the age of abundance, when all these countries prospered through relentless growth fueled by cheap fossil fuels, regardless of whether their politics was a little to the left or right of center. But that's not the time period we're considering here.

The age of scarcity began for the US in the 1970s, when oil production in the continental states peaked and the economy began a long, bumpy slow down. And really, from then until the present day has been a troubled time for economic growth throughout much of the developed world. Recessions, bubbles, crashes, and growing debt have become commonplace.

OK, how does extreme right wing capitalism cope with these conditions? Its political position is "exclusivist", so its strategies are intended to benefit the rich and powerful—maintaining growth and funneling wealth to them, with little concern for the rest of the population. In the age of abundance this worked reasonably well for everyone, since workers were needed in large numbers and it wasn't too hard to get a job. This is no longer the case. When growth can't be maintained, the fall back is to ensure the rich receive a larger share of whatever surplus there is, with the rest of us left to get by on the ever shrinking leavings.

This political position is also fiscally conservative, so its main strategy has been to lower taxes on the rich and large corporations and to cut social programs and infrastructure spending. This has been justified by claiming that lowering taxes create jobs for the working man, who will then need less help. It's not true, of course. The only thing that makes a business hire more workers is increasing demand for their product, and to increase demand you have to get money into the hands of consumers. Leaving money in the hands of the rich essentially takes it out of circulation, since most of it will be invested in financial instruments that are not part of the "main street" economy where jobs are created.

Because of those tax reductions, funding for government is reduced, rendering it less effective at the work it needs to do. As is always the case for fiscal conservatives, tax reduction is much easier than cost cutting, so budget deficits increase and interest costs for carrying the accumulated deficit increase along with them, using up more of what little revue the government has.

All this results in many dissatisfied people, looking for someone to blame, and creates an opportunity for populist politicians. They claim to be on the side of the common man in order to get votes, while pursing many policies that actually hurt working class people. Dissatisfaction with the state of the country is blamed on immigrants, and religious and racial minorities, focusing attention away from the rich and powerful.

The right wing version of capitalism not as well regulated as those further left, and regulations are frequently relaxed even further with the excuse that it will stimulate growth.

The result of all this over the last several decades in the US has been increases in poverty, inequality, homelessness, self destructive drug use by demoralized people, distrust of the elite and social unrest. Educational, health care and infrastructure systems have been allowed to deteriorate due to lack of funds. In many ways, the US is now little better than a third world country. Unfortunately there is more to come, as economic contraction and climate change continue to pound away.

As the economy contracts still further and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes, which is best characterized by the term "exterminism" (root word: exterminate). People who are not actively needed are simply cast aside, with no concern as to what their fate might be, as long as they stay out of the way. In the US, this works so well because many Americans, who are not in fact rich, feel they that are just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and are distrustful of the other poor people around them, rather than feeling any solidarity with them.

BK says, "You accused me of believing that poverty is the fault of the poor, yet that isn't true. You also claim that this idea is leading America in a bad direction, yet the majority of Americans - including the elites, both liberal and conservative - don't seem to share it. All of them say they want to help the poor; they just differ on the method/s." Well yes, they do say that. But actions speak louder than words, and reducing taxes on the rich while cutting social programs leads me to believe the underlying intention is definitely not to help the poor. And just to be clear, that is aimed not at BK (who isn't an American), but at the Republican Party and the current President of the US.

Eventually, the government will have no choice but to abandon the worst affected areas. Parts of New Orleans have still not been built after hurricane Katrina, and a reasonable argument can be made that it would be a bad idea to do so, given the likelihood of further increases in sea level. It will be interesting to see how things go in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria this fall. Of course, that "abandonment" will not be official, but simply a matter of quiet neglect, due to a lack of resources to support and rebuild or even enforce the rule of law. This will start with just a few isolated areas that have suffered natural disaster or extreme infrastructure decay, and grow until the remaining governed areas become isolated enclaves in the abandoned expanses.

As the economy contracts, unemployment will grow. With cutbacks on social programs, unemployment will lead quickly to homelessness for a great many people. In the capitalist system there is no commons—no way for the poor to be self sufficient, no way for them to get away from a system that wants them to go away. The homeless will seek refuge in the abandoned areas, but with very limited resources and skills, they will have a hard time of it. Their general distrustfulness of each other will make things even worse.

My prediction is that, because of the waste inherent in funneling wealth to the rich (along with many other self destructive policies), rich wing capitalist societies will decline more quickly than Social Democracies. When they reach the point where nothing is left but small local communities, people will be left with very limited resources and will be unprepared for working together to the extent that will be required. Many won't even believe it is a good idea, much less a necessity.

So, how do Social Democracies measure up against the Right Wing Capitalists in the age of scarcity? To my way of thinking, quite well.

Social Democracies are inclusive, so their policies look out for the welfare of all their citizens. They are fiscally liberal, so they don't hesitate to tax progressively to finance their social programs, and are able to resource government at a level that allows it to do its job effectively.

There is less poverty, inequality, homelessness, drug abuse, distrust of the elite and social unrest. Those who are well off are happy to pay their taxes because of this.

Social Democracies are somewhat left of center on the communist<—>capitalist economic spectrum, so under these governments capitalism is better regulated, preventing its more unpleasant excesses. Much of the infrastructure is government run, eliminating duplication of effort, and waste in the form of unnecessary competition and profits.

Because economic surpluses are redistributed to where they are needed the most and will do the most good, economic contraction will proceed more slowly than in the Right Wing Capitalist countries, and its effects will be mitigated by the social safety net. It appears to me that surplus energy will be used more effectively and these societies can probably continue to function at a lower average EROEI than the Right Wing Capitalists.

Make no mistake, energy decline and economic contraction will still continue to happen in the Social Democracies and eventually reach the point where centralized government is no longer able to function and nothing is left but small local communities. But the fabric of society at that level will be in better shape and more resources and skills will be available. People, not having been taught that the poor are the enemy, will find it be much easier to work together effectively when they find themselves reduced to poverty.

I think there is also a good chance that as this point gets nearer, social democracies will admit what is going on and set up programs to help people prepare and adapt, where Right Wing Capitalists will struggle to support growth with their dying breath.

We can look at Social Democracy<—>Right Wing Capitalism as another political spectrum with the extreme versions I've just described out at the every ends. Of course, real countries are located somewhere along the spectrum, not at the extreme ends, and their positions will vary over time as left or right wing governments come into power. There is a tendency, as times grow harder, for politics to move "right", toward the Right Wing Capitalist end of this spectrum. From my viewpoint, this is sad, because it runs counter to the best interests of the very people who are casting their votes in that direction.

Indeed, one might say that that has been the purpose of this post—to make it clear why I think that in the immediate future we should not give up on the political process. Rather, we should be striving to oppose the movement to the right and elect governments who are closer to being Social Democracies. And, if in the process, we could get them interested in emergency preparation and collapse mitigation, it would be even better.

There are some hopeful signs. In Britain the Labour party has swung away from Tony Blair's neo-liberalism to a more traditional Labour stance and they did much better in the last election. Not a win, unfortunately. Here in Canada, in the last federal election, we voted out Harper's extremely conservative Conservatives and put the Liberal Party back in power. Their politics, on the Communist<—>Capitalist spectrum, are only slightly left of the Conservatives, but they are much more inclusive and fiscally liberal. They are also more liberal socially and they are not climate change deniers....

But enough for now about party politics. The subject of my next post will be some of the specific events that will likely drive collapse forward in discrete steps and how we'll cope with them, as centralized governments wither away and local communities become the focus of survival.

And once again, BK, be patient with me, more of the points you've raised will be addressed in that post, and probably the one after it....

Monday, 9 October 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 6: More on Political Realities

Paddle Boarding/Surfing off Kincardine's Station Beach

When I wrote the last couple of episodes in this series of posts, I was well aware that I was expressing opinions that are quite controversial, in some circles at any rate. So I expected to get some push back from people whose political leanings are different from mine.

As it turns out, only one reader (who I'll refer to as BK for the sake of brevity) responded with such a comment, and he was reasonably polite and clear in what he had to say. Now, as it happens, I do believe there is such a thing as objective reality, and if you can show me that an opinion I hold runs counter to that reality, I'll willingly change it. I actually have done this at various point in the past, but in this instance that wasn't what happened. Just the opposite, in fact—what BK has done is give me a clearer understanding of my own politics and in the process strengthened my convictions. Overall, that's probably a good thing.

On both sides of our discussion, though, I think there may be a good bit of misunderstanding. It is very tempting now to go ahead with a rant about people replying seemingly without having read what I've actually been saying, and who address themselves to strawmen instead my actual points. But I suspect that the guy on the other side of the discussion may feel that I am doing the same thing to him. One of the most important skills to have in the hard times to come will be the ability to talk to and work with people who have different viewpoints, and that is a skill I am trying to cultivate.

One of the down sides of social media is that the connection we have out here in cyberspace is very tenuous. When talking face to face with friends there is real incentive to work at making communication happen. On the internet it's so easy to just give in to temptation and turn the discussion into an argument or maybe a flame war. But that's not why I am here, and I am certainly trying not to give in to the temptation.

When you get into politics, there is a great deal of ideology involved and people have a tendency to accept the party line and not bother checking it against reality. BK claims that in the last couple of posts I haven't even made any attempt to prove what I am saying. Pretty odd, since that was exactly what I had set out to do and quite a number of people have said that they think I did a pretty good job of it. But let's have a closer look at the details, and in the process perhaps I can do a better job of expressing my thoughts.

First of all, why would it be appropriate to talk about politics in a series of posts about the details of collapse?

As BK says, "In order for politics to determine how badly or dangerously collapse happens (if/when it does), there must be a dichotomy in political views regarding the causes of the type of collapse which provides the context of these articles. However, there is no such dichotomy. The dichotomy exists in precisely the opposite context, i.e., what would be a fair way to distribute the benefits of perpetual growth."

Modern politics, for the last couple of centuries anyway, has indeed been mainly about how to distribute the benefits of growth. That is certainly not the discussion we need to be having. Forty five years ago, while we were still not quite in overshoot, (right after the publication of The Limits to Growth) we needed to have a discussion about whether growth could go on forever or whether we should begin adapting to the limits of our finite planet. Serious consideration would have led to acceptance of those limits, and political discussion since then would have focused on the details of living within those limits.

However, it didn't happen that way—those who support BAU (business as usual) made sure that The Limits to Growth was never given serious consideration. We continued on, as usual, and are now in overshoot by about 150%—a very serious situation.

To be fair, it is hard to see how it could have happened otherwise. Because of the way our financial and business systems are set up, they rely on continuous growth. We really have no idea of how to stop economic growth without causing a catastrophic collapse. Politicians know this, so they are stuck trying to fix the system by treating the symptoms while still maintaining growth—the root cause of the problem. So instead, nature will take its course. There will be a dieoff and when things finally settle out, there will be a lot fewer people and they will be a lot poorer.

But even though I agree that politics is asking the wrong questions, and applying the wrong fixes, I still think that it is going to be an important influence on the course of collapse for a few decades yet. To make sense of this, I should explain where I think collapse is taking us.

Among collapse "enthusiasts" there are many who expect that someday soon there will be a fast collapse. This will take place essentially overnight, in a matter of days or perhaps weeks, but certainly not years or decades. The great majority of people would not be prepared for such an event. The ability to work together, solving problems for our mutual benefit that has been the key to much of mankind's success, would be very difficult to bring to bear on our problems during such a collapse. It seems likely that only a tiny and improbably lucky fraction of our species would survive. And I will grant that politics is not likely to have much influence over the outcome of this sort of collapse.

But I am another variety of "kollapsnik" altogether. I've taken to calling myself a "kollapsnik" lately to differentiate myself from "doomers", who think that mankind is facing imminent doom. They range from those who talk about near term extinction (by 2030) to those to expect a fast and hard collapse in the near future, with only a very few survivors left, who will fall back into a new stone age.

Instead, I talk about a slow collapse, which has already been going on for decades in many areas and will continue for much of the twenty-first century. I take this one step further and assert that collapse does not take place uniformly. It's progress is geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal. I do expect that this collapse will be a population bottleneck, but not an extinction event—I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few hundred million people make it through.

To borrow a the term from John Michael Greer, I call the first stage of this long period of collapse the "age of scarcity". During the last couple of centuries some parts of the world experienced an "age of abundance" due to the windfall of cheap energy from fossil fuels, and became industrially and economically developed. In the process, supplies of industrially important natural resources (particularly fossil fuels) were depleted and sinks for industrial by products (pollution) have started to fill up, with unpleasant results such as economic contraction, climate change, ocean acidification and so forth.

Many parts of the developed world have been in the age of scarcity for some decades now and their governments have struggled to keep up appearances (and growth) under less than ideal conditions. A few have been so successful that you still meet people who think these are the best of times and that we should expect things to get even better. But such an opinion can only be held by those who are very careful about where not to look.

During the rest of the age of scarcity our industrial society will gradually weaken until eventually it will be "down for the count". We will then transition into the age of salvage, making use of the materials left behind, which we will no longer have the wherewithal to make from scratch for ourselves. Of course, this transition will occur at different times in various places around the world. And while it will certainly be a big step down from current conditions in the developed nations, it will be a long way from the stone age. There will be a lot of salvage left to work with and we now know a great deal that we did not know even a few centuries ago.

Because I am expecting a slow collapse, I believe there is a lengthy period ahead of us when governments will still be in charge and have some resources available to pursue their policy objectives. What those objectives are will have a large influence on how collapse progresses, and to what extent it can be mitigated. If we are not going to just stoically accept what comes, we will need to choose between the various sorts of actually, realistically achievable politics, searching for the ones that can do the least worst job for us.

Yes, there will eventually come a day when federal, state (provincial) and, in the case of large cities, even local governments are so resource starved that they are no longer effective (or exist at all, perhaps) and local communities are left to their own devices. But it seems to me that even then the sort of politics that has been popular in a society will have a lingering effect on the workings of those communities.

Since it is now clear that it going to take two, if not three, posts to cover everything I want to talk about on this subject, I think I'll bring this post to an end. Next time we'll look in detail at how two of those political positions will differ in their approach to life in the age of scarcity.

And BK, please be patient. In your comments you made several other points that deserve a thoughtful response, which I hope to be making in my next post, or maybe the one after that....

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

What I've been Reading, September 2017

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

There are a couple of other books by Daniel Dennett on my shelf:

And here are a few more of my old favourites, a trio of excellent "woo fighting" books:

  • Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine , by R. Barker Bausell
    "Hailed in the New York Times as "entertaining and immensely educational," Snake Oil Science is not only a brilliant critique of alternative medicine, but also a first-rate introduction to interpreting scientific research of any sort."
  • PaleoFantasy, by Marlene Zuk
    What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet And How We Live
    "Popular theories about how our ancestors lived—and why we should emulate them―are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence... Armed with a razor-sharp wit and brilliant, eye-opening research, Zuk takes us to the cutting edge of biology to show that evolution can work much faster than was previously realized, meaning that we are not biologically the same as our caveman ancestors."
  • The Balance of Nature: Ecology's Enduring Myth, by John Kricher

Sunday, 3 September 2017

What I've Been Reading, August 2017

Kincardine's Rock Garden

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

  • The Last Good Man, by Linda Nagata
  • The Goliath Stone, by Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington
    Terrible book which I wouldn't recommend to anyone. NIven should be ashamed to put his name on such drivel.

Non-Fiction

This was a busy month with travel, family events and gardening, so I didn't get much non-fiction read. But here are a selection of books by Richard Heinberg that I've read in the past, and can certainly recommend.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 5: Political Realities

Breakwater off shore from Kincardine

I've been promising to write about political realities for a while now. My last couple of posts were about ways of defining political positions (political compasses) and how well various positions are adapted to life in the age of scarcity (energy decline and economic contraction). Now the time has finally come to talk about those political realities and consider why modern politics is so maladapted to the challenges we face, now and in the coming decades.

There are many aspects to being a successful politician or political party, but surely the first is getting elected. If you don't have a reasonable chance of getting elected, then it's all just cheap talk (enjoyed by many of us, I will admit). In order to get elected you need two things: votes and money to run your campaign.

If you talk to voters you'll find that most of them aren't very happy with the way things are going and they'd like you to fix things. So you need a "platform", a story about why you are the candidate best suited to do that, to convince people to vote for you. To get the word out, you'll need publicity, and that costs money. Modern elections are such media circuses that it takes big money to win one and that means those who have big money have an inordinately large influence on who gets elected.

Unfortunately, the interests of voters and those who fund political campaigns don't always line up, and when they do, they line up in the wrong direction. A closer look at this will take us to the heart of what I want to discuss in this post. But first, let's take look at the real problems that governments should be addressing and aren't.

Since early in the history of this blog, I've been talking about three problems: resource depletion (Peak Oil), pollution (Climate Change) and economic contraction. But if you look closely you'll see that this all boils down into one thing—growth.

Our resource depletion problems arise from the exponential increase in our use of natural resources as both human population and standard of living have increased exponentially over the last few centuries. Climate change, and other sorts of pollution problems, arise from the way we are filling up the available sinks with our ever growing quantity of wastes.

Economic contraction arises from the declining surplus energy of our primary energy resources, fossil fuels—part of our resource depletion problem, again caused by growth. The more fuel we burn, the greater our gross domestic product. The faster we burn it, the higher our percentage growth. In the short run, this is conventionally accepted as a good thing. Copious quantities of high quality and easy to access fossil fuels have driven exponential growth, but those days are coming to an end. Our financial and political systems are addicted to growth and woefully unprepared for its end.

Yet it is ending. Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is the main concern here—a good measure of the quality of an energy source. The remaining fossil fuels (and there are lots of them) have an EROEI too low to support growth and none of the possible alternative sources of energy is any better. Somewhere around 15 seems to be the significant level of EROEI for operating a modern growth-based industrial society—and that's an average of all the energy sources used. As your average EROEI declines toward 15, growth slows and it becomes difficult to raise capital for new projects. Below 15 it becomes difficult to maintain existing infrastructure and things start to fall apart.

Many of those who acknowledge climate change today hold great hope for renewable energy sources that don't generate CO2. But those renewables, particularly when you include the storage technology needed to compensate for their intermittent nature, have such a low EROEIs that they won't support an industrial civilization, but require one to support them. In other words, if it is not already too late, we might be able use the remaining supplies of high EROEI fossil fuels to switch over to renewables, but if we rely on the energy supplied by them, we wouldn't be able to maintain them or replace them as they wear out.

Or, we can look at it another way. For most of our prehistory and history the burden we placed upon this planet grew very slowly and we were, at any rate, far below its carrying capacity. But in the last few decades our pursuit of growth has carried us into overshoot, currently by about 150% and increasing. This is possible because we are using up the planet's non-renewable reserves, but in the process we are actually reducing its carrying capacity. At some point soon our continued growth and that shrinking capacity will meet with catastrophic results.

As I've said before, our planet is a big place, so this will happen "unevenly, unsteadily and unequally". Indeed, it is already starting to do so. And in the long run, on a geological time scale, it's really no big deal. I think it is quite likely that a reduced number of human beings, with a more modest lifestyle will even manage to pull through.

But in the short run, the systems we rely on to supply us with the necessities of life are going to quit working. Yes, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. But the ability and willingness of the developed nations to mount relief operations (even to help their own people) will dwindle. If you are at ground zero in an area where things are taking a big step downward, it will, at least for a while, seem like the end of the world. If you are rich and not too unlucky, you may manage to avoid the worst of what's going on around you, otherwise... not so much.

So, I'd like our governments to do the best job they can of arranging a graceful decline to a workable level of population and consumption. But my experience suggests that this isn't a reasonable expectation. In fact, they will probably do quite a bit to make things worse.

This is because our political systems are incapable of acknowledging that limits exist, that we are nearing them and that because of this, growth is no longer a good thing. Why this difficulty with acknowledging reality? It's pretty simple, really—we've built a system that only works when it is growing.

Modern businesses operate on credit and rely on the global financial system to supply that credit. Even money, which many of us think of as hard, cold cash, is actually just credit, loaned into existence out of thin air by the banks. And of course it must eventually be paid back to the banks, with interest.

As long as the economy is growing, that's no problem. The banks have confidence that, on average, businesses will grow, and be able to pay back their loans with interest, so they are willing to make loans. Businesses have the same confidence and are willing to go along with this because it allows them to operate, expand and improve. But in order for them to pay back their loans, with interest, the supply of money must increase. This is done by loaning out more money, creating more debt and continuing the cycle onwards and upwards.

This system was adopted because the previous system, based on precious metals, would not allow the money supply to grow quickly enough. And because growth, fueled by high EROEI fossil fuels, was so highly beneficial to both banks and businesses, a way had to be found to accommodate it.

It is ironic that the U.S. ended the "gold standard" in the early 1970s, with the result that the whole world converted to "fiat money", just as oil production was peaking in the continental U.S. and other areas, and just before the first oil shock, when OPEC proclaimed an embargo and forced the price of oil up from $3 to $12 per barrel. Our efforts to financially accommodate endless growth where instituted just as that growth first began to falter. Since then, our economic history has been a case of governments trying to maintain economic growth in the face of declining surplus energy, the very thing that actually supports that growth.

To my way of thinking, this is an example of an insoluble problem.

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits To Growth, talks about easy and hard problems. With easy problems, things start getting better as soon as you start applying some effort to solving the problem and the public can see that it is worth the effort. With hard problems, things initially get worse, but eventually, if you keep working at it, they do get better. Our political system is very poor at solving hard problems. A government that tries to solve such a problem, and can't show that things are improving before the next election, won't get re-elected. Even if, with just a little more time, things would have turned around.

But our current situation is in another class of problem altogether. In order to solve our resource depletion, pollution and carrying capacity problems, growth has to stop and indeed we need to go through a significant amount of degrowth, both in population and consumption. But this will be an economic disaster, leaving us all considerably poorer, with no prospect of things getting better. If we try to maintain economic growth, we will make the other problems, and our final situation, even worse. At best, we can aim to make things somewhat "less worse" than they would otherwise get. This is why I say there is no solution, only the prospect of various degrees of success at adapting.

The political reality is that in order to finance their campaigns, politicians rely on donations, some from private individuals, but most from banks and businesses. Banks and businesses want many things, but it all boils down to continued growth, if not in the long run, at least in the short run. If they want campaigns funds, politicians must do what they can in an attempt to guarantee this. Voters, too, want growth because they can see that the end of growth would be pretty hard on them, as well. If you want to get elected, better be strong on growth.

As I said at the start, voters can tell that things aren't going well and want politicians to do something about it. But the real problem is growth itself and we are pretty much all in denial about that, so politicians are in a difficult spot and have to come up with various creative ways out.

Those who I would characterize as "bad" politicians, for lack of a better turn of phrase, are eager to maintain the position and privilege of their supporters, the rich and powerful. They care little or nothing for the bottom 80% of the population. They deny limits, especially climate change and peak oil, reassuring everyone that business as usual can continue for the foreseeable future. For the purposes of this discussion I'll call them "exclusionist, capitalist, fiscal conservatives", using the some of the terminology from my posts on political compasses and positions.

You might think that this approach would make it hard to get many votes, but with enough money to spend it is amazing what you can convince people of.

And of course many voters are eager to hear that business as usual is a viable proposition, that with the right policies we can return to the "good old days". Add in some "trickle down" economics, promise to reduce taxes and government waste, fight an endless succession of foreign wars, blame poverty on the poor, and unemployment and crime on immigrants and visible minorities and you can come up with a winning platform.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this approach.

It's easy to reduce taxes, but harder to reduce spending, so you end up going further into debt and your government itself is crippled due to reduced revenue. It's hard to hide your lack of concern for the bottom 80%—your programs keep the top 20% in pretty good shape, but as the economy contracts, the bottom 80% suffer more and more. The ranks of the unemployed swell and with social programs cut to the bone, people aren't unemployed long before they end up homeless.

In the U.S., encampments of homeless people have sprung up in and around many cities. Sadly, when the number of homeless people increases to the point where they become quite visible, the typical response is one of distrust and even hate. The rest of the community want the homeless to simply go away, going so far in many cases as to make homelessness (and efforts to charitably help the homeless) essentially illegal. The tent cities are bulldozed and their inhabitants rounded up and sent on their way.

In capitalism societies where all the means of production (and even subsistence) are privately owned and even government owned parks do not welcome those who might seek refuge in them, there is nowhere for the homeless to turn. Eventually this will lead to large scale confrontations and riots that will be suppressed ruthlessly, temporarily diverting those who survive to privately owned prisons that are little more than a form of legalized slavery. But this will not make the problem go away in the long run—as the economy continues to contract, even the private prison system will prove unprofitable.

As collapse continues, along with economic problems like unemployment and homelessness and the social unrest arising from them, there will be continuing deterioration of infrastructure and a variety of natural disasters. The government will have no choice but to abandon the worse affected areas. Not officially of course, but simply by neglecting them due to a lack of resources to support or rebuild them, or even enforce the rule of law. This will start with just a few isolated areas and grow until the remaining governed areas become isolated enclaves in the abandoned expanses.

Strangely, I see some hope in this, as there will be no way to prevent anyone from leaving the governed areas and setting up their own communities in the abandoned areas. And the changes needed to successfully address the challenges we face can best be made by those who have nothing invested in our current system.

So, this "exclusionist, capitalist, fiscal conservatives" approach is good only for the short term interests of the rich and powerful, and bad for the short term interests of the bottom 80%. In the long run, it's bad for everybody involved, and only after it has largely dwindled away is it possible to see much hope.

On the other side things we have those who I would characterize as the "less bad" politicians. For the purposes of this discussion I'll call them "inclusionist, socialist, fiscal liberals", though this kind of socialism involves a lot of capitalist activity. They generally accept the reality of climate change, but claim that they can address it without damage to the economy or jobs, and that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels with no significant changes in the way we live. They use the term "sustainable development", an oxymoron if ever there was one, and claim that we can decouple economic growth from resource depletion and pollution. Many people are fooled by this nonsense, but the political reality is that these politicians also have rich and powerful supporters, so business as usual must be allowed to carry on.

What makes these politicians less bad is not their lip service to addressing climate change but the fact that they do care about the welfare of everyone in their societies, not just the rich and powerful. They are willing to tax progressively to keep government running efficiently and provide support to those who have been failed by the economy. This results in a society with significantly less crime and social unrest, and a higher level of social justice. Which is why the rich are willing to be taxed heavily.

In order to reassure voters that they are doing something about the problems of the day, these politicians tend to address symptoms of the real problems, which they don't want to admit exist. While this doesn't result in any lasting fixes, it does often temporarily improve things.

The "inclusionist, socialist, fiscally liberal" approach prevents the waste that occurs when the rich are allowed to become continually richer, and allows those resources to be used for the benefit of the society as a whole. It results in less war, social unrest and human suffering and can probably continue to function at lower levels of average EROEI than the alternative.

Unfortunately, because this brand of politicians doesn't acknowledge declining surplus energy as the cause of economic contraction, they frequently try to jump start the economy with large injections of borrowed cash. These efforts become ever less successful as the surplus energy problem grows, and leads to government debt. But here the money is spent on maintaining and improving infrastructure, helping the populace with training and education and other things that do some good at least in the short run.

There is enough slack in modern lifestyles to allow a considerable belt tightening before anyone really gets hurt, especially if the rich and powerful are willing to tighten their belts somewhat as well, and there are social programs to help the poor. So it may be possible to manage a more graceful energy decline even without acknowledging what is actually happening.

So, this "inclusionist, socialist, fiscally liberal" approach is not as good for the short term interests of the rich and powerful (still adequate, though), and much better for the short term interest of the bottom 80%. In the long run, it is still less than ideal. Economic contraction will still eventually make centralization of government unfeasible and countries will break up into smaller units supplying fewer services. But there is some possibly that these sorts of society may muddle through in a way that is less destructive than the "exclusionist capitalist fiscal conservative" alternative.

To sum it all up, we face an insoluble problem in the requirement to reduce our population and consumption to take us out of the current overshoot situation. Insoluble because of the political realities—politicians need the financial support of the rich and powerful to get elected and votes from the rest of society, and neither group is willing to accept the reality that growth must come to an end. This is dealt with in various maladaptive way by politicians, ranging from utterly awful to just moderately bad. And there is very little prospect of turning things around, at least at the level of global, national or state (provincial here in Canada) politics.

Given all this, it is tempting for those of us in the bottom 80% to be pretty apathetic about politics. I think this is a bad idea. It is important to remember that real politicians, political parties and countries exist somewhere on a spectrum between the two endpoints I've been talking about in this post. Have an eye to where your government lies on that spectrum, be aware of the political realities involved, and take what opportunities are within your grasp to push for improvements. Politicians love to be at the head of somebody else's parade, and even the worst ones are influenced by public opinion if it is strongly enough expressed. We need to get that parade heading in a better direction. Or be willing to accept a significantly worse outcome.

At the same time, individuals, families and communities should prepare for continued economic contraction, social unrest, war, infrastructure failure and various natural disasters. With a clear realization that help from higher levels of government will not always be forthcoming.