Irvine Mills

Irv is a kollapsnik and blogger (http://theeasiestpersontofool.blogspot.ca/) who lives in Kincardine, Ontario, Canada, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron. Now retired, Irv spent 31 years as a switchyard maintenance electrician with Hydro One, the provincial transmission and distribution utility.

Responding to Collapse, Part 10: the future of the power grid

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on July 17, 2019

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In this series of posts I've been advising my readers that moving to a small town remote from large population centres, in an area that can supply the basic necessities of water, food and firewood, is a prudent way of coping with the ongoing collapse of BAU (Business as Usual). With the caveat that some advance preparation will be needed to ensure successful use of those resources.

 

 

In the next few posts in this series, we'll look at some of the details of how BAU will collapse and how you can prepare to weather that collapse. In the immediate future infrastructure breakdowns will get more frequent and longer until finally it's no longer practical to rely on BAU for the necessities of life. It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas.

And while I'll mainly be talking about infrastructure breakdowns we should remember that interruptions of service can occur for a couple of other reasons.

The first has to do with the way our economy is organized and how we choose to provide vital services such as power, water, sewers, housing, food, communications, transportation, education, health care and so forth.

Today most of the world's nations are capitalistic, with a distinct neo-liberal flavour. Under such conditions, companies are operated to make a profit and other goals, such as the public good, are strictly secondary. So when a "for profit" company finds its business becoming less profitable they must find ways to increase their charges or to supply less for the same fees or to quit supplying customers in less profitable areas altogether. And if they don't do those things they will either be bought out by companies that will, or they'll suffer bankruptcy. If there doesn't appear to be much chance that another company could make a good profit in the same business then it will never be reestablished. And if the public was relying on that company to provide vital services, then we are just out of luck.

Of course there are other ways of organizing an economy, and in particular other ways of setting up companies to provide infrastructure services. But the argument is often made that for profit companies operating in a free market are more efficient. I would question if there has ever been any such thing as a free market, and whether it would function as predicted in any case. Efficiency in this case is defined as the amount of return on share holders' investments, and has nothing to do with providing a high quality and reliable service to your customers.

But perhaps we should set all that aside in order to focus on the really critical thing, which is the difference between the way such companies work in growing economies versus contracting economies. In a growing economy it is relatively easy to make a profit and do so while supplying a service for the public good. But when the economy begins to contract that becomes more and more difficult for "for profit" companies.

Governments can set up non-profit organizations whose primary goal is to provide services for the public good and they are likely to last longer in a contracting economy. In my experience, contrary to typical capitalist propaganda, they can also be quite efficient. But as the economy contracts so will tax revenues and eventually governments will have to cut back on the services they provide. With good planning though, they can do this in a controlled manner with lots of advanced warning, and give people time to adapt to the situation.

As the economy gets even weaker, co-operatives organized by the people who need the services hold considerable promise. I'll have more to say about this over the next few posts.

The second thing is that if you rely on BAU to make a living, you will find that your own economic circumstances are declining. When you can no longer afford the services you have come to rely on, you'll have find ways to provide them for yourself, and in the process learn how to get by with less, like it or not.

I can consume along with the best of them, and there are certainly all kinds of things that it would be useful to have as we try to become more self reliant. But don't worry too much if you can't afford some of the shiny toys I'll be mentioning in future posts. As well trained consumers we may feel that buying things must be the solution to the problems that face us, but it isn't. Actually, there is no solution to the fix the world is in at the moment, and the best we can do is adapt to the changing conditions. Part of that is learning to get by while consuming less. This is hard for me and I'll bet it's hard for you too. That's why I talked first about preparing by become part of your new community (in posts 7 and 8 of this series), rather that the less important preparations that involve accumulating "stuff".

Back 2012, when I started this blog, the authorities recommended that you be prepared to weather emergencies lasting for as long as three days (72 hours). They were basically saying, "don't rely on us to be there immediately—it may take as long as 72 hours before help arrives." In the meantime, this has been changed to two weeks in some areas. Is emergency response capability declining, or are they expecting more lengthy and severe emergencies? I suspect both. Of course serious "preppers" are laughing at this—they'd recommend that you have supplies on hand for a year or two. I don't disagree, but you have to start somewhere. And as collapse deepens those longer intervals to prepare for will come to seem more reasonable.


Power Outages

Power outages will probably be the most frequent infrastructure failure you'll have to cope with. Short outages have relatively minor impacts, but because electricity is at the heart of so much that goes on in modern civilization, as outages stretch out they start to effect more and more things.

Eventually, it seems very likely that the power grid in many, if not most, areas will cease to function. I encounter two different responses to this idea. Many people cannot conceive that their 24 hour a day, essentially infinite supply of power could every come to an end. Others are fixated on the idea of a sudden and hard crash which will bring the whole of industrial civilization to an end, including the power grid.

I'm somewhere in between, holding what I think is a more detailed and nuanced opinion. Most of the rest of this post is going to be spent talking about how the slow decline of the power grid will go, leaving the responses I would recommend for the next post.

Power outages can be as simple as a utility pole getting knocked over during a traffic accident, to as complex as the grid failures that happened in northeastern North America in 1965 and 2003. And to take it even further, EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) from nuclear weapons or coronal mass ejections (solar flares) can do huge damage to electrical girds which may be very hard to recover from. But I think some of the most common and serious problems with the grid will come from three specific areas:

  • The first is equipment failure due to age and/or lack of maintenance, aggravated by overloads such as air conditioning load during summer heat waves. As the economy continues to contract power companies are going to find themselves short of capital and less able to invest in their own systems, leaving those systems more susceptible to failure. /li>
  • The second will be damage due to storms that are growing more frequent and more intense due to climate change—things like high winds, tornados and ice storms in particular. Lengthy outages will happen when there are widespread weather related problems combined with shortages of spare parts and limited manpower to install them. Those latter two problems will come mainly from cash strapped utilities trying to save money.
  • The third is sabotage. The grid is very exposed to a saboteur who knows what he is doing, and because of its geographically diffuse nature, very hard to secure. As collapse intensifies, there will be increased civil unrest—more angry people looking for easy targets that symbolize the establishment. The grid is certainly one such target.

Of course, these concerns apply to the grid as it exists today, using conventional generation. It seems there is going to be a serious attempt to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, primarily solar and wind. Those who are pushing for a "Green New Deal" are telling people that we can use wind and solar to replace fossil fuels, and that in the process more jobs will be created and we'll actually end up more prosperous. This is a very unrealistic dream and just off the top of my head I can think of four serious problems with it:

  1. What solar and wind produce is electricity. But electricity supplies only 18 to 20% of our current energy use. Most of the rest comes directly from coal, oil and natural gas, and those fuels are used in ways that will be difficult, if not outright impossible, to replace with electricity.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The main issue is that a battery is not nearly as effective a way to store energy as a tank of diesel fuel. And there are definite physical limitations on how much better batteries can get— we can probably improve them by a factor of two, but that's about it. Despite what we keep hearing in the news, it simply isn't practical to use batteries to power airplanes or long distance heavy transport by road, rail or sea. The quantity of batteries needed, and the size and weight of those batteries, is the problem.

    There are many industrial processes that use coal or natural gas for heat. Replacing those fuels with electricity may be theoretically possible but we haven't, for the most part, even started to develop ways to do so, much less begun to implement them.

  2. Phasing out fossil fuels would require using renewables to supply much larger quantities of electricity than we are currently using. But there are fundamental problems with using renewables to produce even part of the comparatively small amount of electricity we use now.

    One aspect of running a power grid that the general public is largely unaware of is that generation must be matched exactly to the load. Since load is something the grid operator cannot control to any great extent, generation that is "dispatchable"—that can be turned on and off on demand and ramped up and down as required—is very important. Conventional generation is dispatchable to varying degrees but renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are intermittent and for the most part not under the control of the grid operator—the very opposite of dispatchable. As such, renewables only exacerbate the problems of running a grid, especially given the lack of feasible large scale storage technologies. Yes, I know there are a number of storage technologies available but none of them are economical to use on the scale that would be required for use in a power grid with intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

    The concept of a "smart grid" which gives greater control of both generation and load offers hope of addressing these problems to some minor degree, but only at the price of adding complexity to the system. And adding complexity never increases reliability.

  3. The immediate reason for switching away from fossil fuels is to reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere in order to combat climate change. But no one seems to be thinking of the carbon footprint of switching away from carbon. The switchover to renewables would be a massive undertaking powered mainly by fossil fuels, and the amount of CO2 being released would greatly increase during that effort.

    Much of this construction effort would also require large quantities of steel and concrete. Making steel and concrete involves the release of CO2, regardless of where the energy comes from—it's inherent to the chemistry of the processes involved.

    So it is by no means obvious that we can get off fossil fuels and onto renewables without creating an even worse climate crisis that the one we are currently facing.

  4. Renewables have a very low EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). A high EROEI is essential to the functioning of a modern industrial economy–money is just accounting, energy is really what makes the economy go. Any country which adds a large quantity of renewables to its energy mix will lower its overall average EROEI, making it more difficult to support a growing economy and a high tech industrial society. So even if we could somehow manage to switch over entirely to renewables, we'd have trouble sustaining a high enough level of technology to maintain and repair solar and wind generation facilities. And replacing them when they wear out would be a real stretch. Switching to renewables is something we might be able to do once, but then we'd be in big trouble.

 

All this is of course based on not having to change our lifestyles, not having to accept a lower level of prosperity and consumption. Indeed one frequently hears people talking about increasing economic growth in order to bring the poor parts of the world up to our level of consumption. It is clear to me that this is not going to happen and that what we really need to do is reduce our levels of consumption down to what can be supported without fossil fuels, using local, sustainable, low tech renewables. It is also clear to me that we will not do this voluntarily, that the majority of our efforts will go into maintaining business as usual regardless of the consequences.

Give all these factors time to work and it will become difficult to continue running the power grid as a whole. Some parts of the gird will simply quit working. Others that have proved unreliable, which place the grid as a whole at risk, will eventually have to be excluded from the grid. These islands will grow until the grid as we know it falls apart.

There will be a few areas where generating equipment will continue to function for a long time and will be able to supply local load. Again, the matching generation and load will be a problem since most such generation comes in large chunks and is a long way from large amounts of load. The most hopeful situations are small hydro (water) powered generators, which can be run at less than full capacity and adjust quickly to match varying loads.

Anyway, it seems clear that we can indeed expect more frequent and longer power outages. But what are the effects of these outages, and what can we do to mitigate them?


The effects of power outages

When the power goes out, you lose the lights, heat, cooling, cooking equipment, refrigeration and so forth in your own home. Even most oil, gas and wood heating systems rely on electricity for control, ignition and circulating fans. Then there are all the services that comes to you from outside your home, that you rely on to just work, but which need electricity to do that.

In general, the most critical services run off batteries which are kept fully charged as long as the power is on. When the power goes out, these services keep right on running as if nothing had happened, at least until the batteries are discharged. The batteries for the controls in power stations are rated for eight hours. The batteries in cell phone towers are rated for two to four hours.

Everything I'm finding on the internet says that the central switching stations for land line telephone service should keep working even during long power outages, which implies both batteries and backup generators. I have some doubts about this, and I'll be keeping an eye out for more detailed information.

Many slightly less critical services have generators that start automatically with only a brief interruption when the power goes out and run as long as there is fuel (usually diesel fuel) in the tank. If arrangements have been made to refill that tank, then this can go on for quite a long time.

Even less critical services than these can have a portable generator hooked up to them if need be. This would include facilities operating on battery power, if the power is off so long that the batteries need to be recharged.

Most service stations don't have backup power so you likely won't be able to get fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane) while the power is off. During long outages the many supply chains that are powered by gasoline and/or diesel fuel will be in trouble.

Natural gas pipelines have to be pressurized to keep to gas flowing through them. Some of the pumps used to do this are powered by natural gas, some by electricity. And I suspect that at least some of the controls for the gas powered pumps are electrical. So your natural gas supply, at least in some areas, will be compromised during electrical outages.

The pumps in municipal water and sewage systems need electrical power too. Some may have backup generators, but not all. If you live on a farm or in a very small town, your toilet is likely gravity feed into a septic system and weeping bed, and will work as long as you have water to flush them. Or perhaps you have already set up a composting toilet which requires no power at all. Your water supply is probably from you own well, with a pump driven by an electric motor that uses 240V AC (if you are in North America). Even if you have a generator, you may need an electrician to help you hook it up to that motor.

Refrigeration of food in grocery stores and pharmaceuticals in pharmacies and hospitals will be jeopardized. Fortunately our local hospital does have a backup generator.

Radio and TV can be important sources of information during emergencies. But you will likely find that only a very few of your local stations are set up to keep broadcasting during power outages.

It would also be great if internet service could continue during power outages. I understand it some areas it does, but we get our internet through the local cable TV company, and even short outages to their facilities knock out our internet connection and our cable TV service, even if the power is still on at our place. Your situation may be different—I hope so.

Oddly, or so it seems to me, most traffic lights aren't backed up in any way and stop working when the power is off.

ATMs won't be working, nor the systems that allows us to pay for things by credit and debit cards. Even if you do have cash in hand, you may find many retail outlets are unable to sell you anything when their cash registers and product code scanners aren't working. Many of them may just lock their doors for the duration of the outage.

Not all of them, though—I was quite impressed during a recent outage when I saw the guy behind the counter at a nearby convenience store beavering away with a cash box, battery operated calculator and a notebook to record sales in. It can be done, but one hopes the prices are marked clearly on items rather than encoded in UPCs. This is an example of an individual (or maybe his manager) taking the situation in hand and keeping things working rather than sitting back and letting them fall apart.

No doubt I am missing many of the potential effects of long power outages, but I think this gives you the flavour of what you'll be facing. Next time I'll talk about how you can mitigate the effects of power outages, both short and long, and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 9: Getting Prepared, Part 1

 

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on June 13, 2019

 

Willow I coppiced earlier this spring.
The new shoots are already 18" long–by fall they will be between 4 and 6 feet long and ready for basket making.

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The central idea of this series of posts is that the collapse of our industrial civilization is already underway (has been since the 1970s) and seems very likely to continue until "Business as Usual" (BAU) is no longer capable of supplying us with the necessities of life. This collapse is proceeding in a fashion that is uneven (geographically), unsteady (chronologically) and unequal (socially), and we can expect it to continue in the same irregular way. Accordingly, it should be possible to pick some places and lifestyles that will suffer less severely than others.

I have recommended moving to a small town fairly remote from larger cities in an area likely to suffer less from the worst ravages of climate change and with the local resources necessary to provide at least water, food and energy (mainly firewood) for its inhabitants. Of course, some advance set up is going to be needed if you are to put those to work effectively. In my last two posts (7, 8, links) I talked about preparations in the human or social sense—becoming a part of the local community and developing the connections you'll need.

I'm going to wrap up this series with a few posts talking about the material preparations you'll need to make. First, to cope with the continued decline of BAU and the increasingly frequent and lengthy infrastructure interruptions that will accompany it. And finally to use local resources to gain a degree of local self-sufficiency that will see you through the end of BAU.

If you've followed my advice about moving to a small town, you'll initially be living in rental accommodation to allow yourself time to get to know the place before investing in property (If indeed you can afford such a thing). Renting puts some limits on what you can do to prepare and renting an apartment is even more restricting than renting a house. In the next few posts I'll discuss alternatives for both renters and homeowners.

I've been noticing that living in an RV, van or car is becoming more of a thing all the time what with ever increasing real estate prices. It occurs to me that this lifestyle may fit in nicely in many ways with moving to a small town. I can't pretend to have any experience in this area, but I hope some of what I have to say will be useful to those who's wheel are also their homes.

The first thing to be clear on is what you'll be preparing for. For quite a while yet, if you have income or savings to draw on, you'll be able to rely (more or less) on BAU for the necessities of life. But there will be lengthening and ever more frequent interruptions in infrastructure services—the power grid, communications, the financial and credit systems, water and sewage and of course the supply chains that bring us the fuels, food, pharmaceuticals, and various other supplies and equipment that we need to maintain our current life style. You need to be prepared to weather these interruptions. And of course, you always need to be prepared for emergencies like storms, floods, droughts and fires.

You might wonder why I am not advising setting up some sort of "lifeboat community" which is largely independent of BAU. I'm not against it—if you have the wherewithal, go for it. But the cost of such a setup is extreme and the skills required to make it work are many and hard to come by. For most of us a less grandiose plan is more practical. I do think the existing social and physical infrastructure of a small town and its surrounding area can be the foundation for a poor man's lifeboat. But only after a few serious infrastructure outages have convinced people that BAU is going to be unreliable.

"Bugging in" and "bugging out" are terms I've borrowed from the survivalist and prepper communities. Bugging in refers to being located where it's safe to stay when the "shit hits the fan", while bugging out assumes it won't be safe to stay where you are, and you'll need to be prepared to leave on a moment's notice. Of course, I don't think the shit is going to hit the fan all in one big lump, but rather in dribs and drabs that will make the situation unpleasant but perhaps not absolutely dire for quite a while yet.

The typical survivalist approach to bugging out—heading for "the hills" and living off the land—is actually a pretty bad idea, even if you are well prepared. Check out the article at the other end of that link to see what I mean.

I've been advising my readers to find a safe place and prepare to "bug in". I've been settled into my own choice of location for a long while now and that's what I encourage you to do once you've moved to a place where it is practical to do so.

Unfortunately, there are still circumstances where you'll need to bug out. Things like your house catching fire, being leveled by a tornado, inundated by a flood or anything else that renders it unlivable. I have to admit we are not terribly well prepared to leave our home on short notice.

And in the kind of circumstances I'm thinking of you want to be able get out quickly with your skin still intact and not waste time gathering up stuff to take with you. That certainly true in the case of a fire where seconds can make all the difference. In floods, there is usually more warning and you want to get out before the roads are submerged and impassable. In the case of tornados you want to take shelter in your basement or the closest thing you have to one until after the tornado goes by. Then, if you home has been destroyed, you'll be glad to have an emergency plan in place.

I haven't solved this challenge to my satisfaction yet, and it's mainly due to lack of effort, and complacency. But recently I have started to think more seriously about it. Here's what I've come up with so far.

You need a plan for evacuating your home when disaster strikes. This is the kind of thing you want to think out in advance and practice occasionally, so you don't have to figure it out from scratch in a short timeframe when the need arises.

Once you're out of your house, it would be good to have arranged in advance alternative places to stay, both in your own community and elsewhere in case circumstances force you (and maybe many others) to leave your community. This may involve taking shelter with neighbours, family or friends, and ideally you would make reciprocal agreements with those people. Of course, if you can afford it, or your insurance is paying, you may decide to go to a hotel. But in a widespread disaster, all the hotels may be full, or in no better shape than your home. And insurance companies may not respond in a timely fashion.

You should prearrange a communications plan for family members who aren't home when disaster strikes, and don't assume cell phones or even landlines are always going to work. This might involve a prearranged meeting place and/or someone at a prearranged location to leave messages with.

You should pack a bag for each person in your family with:

  • a change of clothes suited for the season, including outdoor shoes and outdoor clothing that you won't have had time to grab in an emergency
  • soap, shampoo, moisturizer and such, especially if you need particular types
  • a few day's supply of medicines
  • sleeping bags, air mattresses, towels and such so as to be less of a burden when you have to drop in on short notice
  • copies of idendification, important legal documents and personal information:

     

     

     

     

    • will
    • power of attorney
    • marriage license
    • lease or deed for your home
    • birth certificate
    • SIN number card
    • Health card (access to single payer health insurance here in Ontario) or the equivalent for wherever you live
    • drivers license
    • vehicle registration and insurance
    • contact info for family and friends
    • copies or scans of heirloom photos

These copies could be electronic or on paper, or better yet, both. If you take photos or scans of these documents they could be kept on a flash drive or on your phone. But best not to rely completely on electronic means of storing information.

There are no doubt other items that haven't made it onto my list yet, but that will do for a start.

These bags should be stored someplace safe, outside your home. Maybe in your car, in an out building that's up wind from your house, or at the home of a neighbour or friend. The problem I have with all this is I'd have to have two of quite a few things that are rather expensive, winter clothes in particular. I clearly have some more study to do, and no doubt I will eventually figure it out. But don't let my hesitation hold you back from starting to make these preparations.

Making a quick escape in winter can be a particular problem, as you ideally want outdoor clothing close to hand. Our bedroom is on the second floor and there is a ladder leaned up against the side of the house that can be accessed from the bedroom window. It would be good to have boots and gloves close to hand at the very least—it would make that climb down that ladder a lot more doable.

In my next post I'll get started on the details of preparing to bug in. In the meantime, have a look at a couple of posts on emergency preparation that I wrote early in the history of this blog. The articles I've linked to in them are also full of useful information and I can especially recommend the ones by Sharon Astyk, Bob Wardrop and Vinay Gupta at the end of Part 2

When I recently reread those posts I was pleased to find I had done a fairly thorough job, and that the links in them point to web pages that still exist, even though in some cases the authors are much less active on the collapse scene that they were 7 years ago.

In the second one I mentioned a few things I hadn't yet gotten around to doing at that point. I am happy to be able to say that in the meantime I have taken care of most of those issues.

We are still storing a fair bit of water for emergencies, but I also finally got around to putting together that water filter kit, the result being a filter similar to the Berkey or Doulton/Berkefeld ones, but with plastic 5 gallon buckets instead of stainless steel tanks. We live only a couple of blocks from Lake Huron, so water is readily available, but safer to drink after a trip through that filter.

I also finally got around to cutting up that sheet of plywood and putting together a composting toilet (a la Jenkins). We also switched from peat moss to wood shavings for kitty litter. Shavings are more sustainable than peat moss and there's always a bale or at least part of one on hand if we need to start using the composting toilet. I know that for most people it is unthinkable that the sewers would just stop working. Let me assure you, it is definitely possible.

I kept an eye out for sales on generators and we picked one up in the fall of 2017. Also a couple of 5 gallon jerry cans. I start the generator once a month and run it for a while, then close the fuel supply valve and let it run dry so gunk doesn't build up so much in the carburetor. Stale gas makes for harder starting, so once a month one of those jerry can gets emptied into our car and refilled with fresh gasoline. And every six months I drain the gas tank on the generator and fill it up with fresh gas. So far it has started easily, even on cold days in the winter, but before long I'll need to take it to the local small engine shop for some routine maintenance.

I wasn't sure about getting a generator, but we store a quite a bit of food, mainly expensive meat, in our freezers, and the thought of it spoiling during a long power outage finally convinced me.

Last fall(2018) we had a chimney and woodstove installed and we heated with wood for most of this winter. The stove and especially the chimney weren't cheap, but we're very happy with the results and the money to be saved over heating with electricity.

In addition to the things we've finally got around to doing, a few things have changed as well.

The flashlight on my keychain is now the type that uses a single AAA cell, much brighter and longer lasting than the single lithium cell light I was carrying. The large folding knife I used to carry has found its way to my hiking knapsack, and I'm only carrying my smaller folding knife on a daily basis.

My old Gerber multitool is also in that hiking knapsack and has been replaced in my coat pocket by the new and superior Gerber Center-Drive Multitool. This comes with a sheath and set of 12 screwdriver bits. The screwdriver shaft opens when the rest of the multitool is closed and lines up with the center line of the tool, making it much easier to use. It takes standard 1/4" hex drive bits so you can use the bits you already own, unlike the oddball little flat bits that the Leatherman multitools take. And the knife blade is large enough to be quite useful.

After spending 31 years as a tradesman, there are a lot of things I can do if I have the right tools, and it's pretty frustrating to be stymied by the lack of a tool. This multitool goes a long way towards solving that problem.

The single knapsack that I had 7 years ago has evolved into one knapsack which stays in our car, another that is ready to head out on a hike at a moment's notice, and a "book bag" which spends most of its time in the house but comes with us on car trips.

These bags are a work in progress and idiosyncratic to our circumstances and skills. Tools and materials for repairing broken things and first aid supplies for repairing broken people are prominently featured. I started out following typical advice for bug out bags and it has evolved from there.

Drinking water is important and we have two 750 ml. water bottles that usually go with us in the car and fit nicely into compartments intended for them in my hiking knapsack. For long trips we have a 2.5 gallon water jug.

Further details are a topic for another day, but if you are interested in more information let me know in the comments.

Responding to Collapse, Part 8: Pitfalls and Practicalities of That Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 26, 2019

Sunset over Lake Huron, March 26, 2019

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The "responding" to collapse that I've been talking about in this series of posts, is largely a matter of adapting to the new conditions that come with collapse. We can't stop collapse from happening, so the question is, "how to cope?" I've spent a lot of time talking about how adapting is likely to be easier in small and fairly remote towns, how to pick a town in a good location and then encouraging people to make their move to such a location while there is still time.

But making that move is only the first step. The point of moving to a small town, rather than a more isolated location, is the relationships you'll be forming with the people in your new community.

In my last post I started talking about the idea that being human is a "team sport". That is, it's in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to live and work together in groups. Such groups can act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities and to each accordito their needs.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

In that post I went on, at some length, about the benefits of group efforts and why we have abandoned the idea in 21st century society in favour of individualism and isolation. Largely because increasing affluence has made it possible and because it has been encouraged by those who are in power who find it easier to control and exploit lone individuals than groups acting in solidarity.

What I want to talk about in this post are the pitfalls and practicalities of actually becoming part of your new community and laying the ground work for the groups you will come to rely on as BAU declines. I wish I could offer a complete and detailed manual on how to do this, but I'm just not to that point myself yet, and I'm not sure anyone else is either. I've added links at the end of this post to a couple of books that I think might be helpful

I should make it clear that I don't expect you to rush out and create your own commune and kiss BAU (Business as Usual) good-bye right away. This is unlikely to be a success. I don't think collapse is going to happen all at once, nor I do think adapting to it is something that can (or should) be done all at once.

As long as BAU is detectably alive and even slightly well, propaganda for the consumer lifestyle and the virtues of individualism will be a distraction blaring away in the background. Most of us have never had the opportunity to learn the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as our economic situation inside BAU is reasonably comfortable, it will be altogether too easy stalk off in a huff when the going gets tough rather than doing the work it takes to make a group effort succeed.

I'd be the last person to tell you that any of this is going to be easy. Indeed there have been many times when I have pretty much given up on the idea. I am sure we've all been involved in some co-operative effort or other that failed because of the disruptive efforts of grandstanders, glory hounds, control freaks and the power hungry. Or even just people who couldn't get along, didn't want to pull their weight or abused common resources like tools and equipment. These sorts of problems can be overcome, but only, I suspect, when there is an overpowering need to do so, and no easier alternative.

Of course, there is one sure way to foster group cohesiveness and that is to encourage group members to focus their displeasure and dissatisfaction on easily identifiable people outside the group. People who group members are encouraged to hate. But the long run consequences are pretty ugly. You just have to look at the last century or so of our history to see what I mean. Unfortunately, this kind of thing does have a strong appeal, and I would advise constant vigilance to avoid getting sucked in. Just ask yourself, if the finger of hate is being pointed at "those people" today, how long before it is pointed at people like you.

Currently right wing, white supremacy hate groups seems to be enjoying a good deal of success and causing a lot of harm. Clearly something to be avoided and opposed.

Another way to bring people together is activism. There are certainly many problems in the world today that need to be solved. When people join groups to tackle these problems they often find a real sense of community and an external problem to focus their energies on. And groups of other people to oppose.

I'd say that before joining an activist group you need to keep in mind that our current world order, what I call BAU, is fundamentally flawed and is itself the cause of the problems we are facing. Trying to fix BAU so we can go on living as we are is not going to work—our way of life is the problem.

Of course, there are causes that even I can't see anything wrong with. Such as forming community groups to adapt to collapse or to work on any of the things that need to be done to prepare for collapse.

Anyway, these are just some of the pitfalls of trying to make a co-operative effort to adapt to collapse. But adapt we must, and we have a much better chance of doing so in a group than as lone individuals or nuclear families. So we have to try, even though we'll be learning the skills as we go along, and all the while our current society will be doing its best to distract and discourage us.

Realizing this, we need to look at the practicalities of living and working together in groups. It would be a really good idea, I think, to start with some baby steps in your new community, to do some gradual adapting before the need gets urgent. Start learning to work together ahead of time, probably first in social groups, then maybe doing some volunteer efforts together, and finally as times get harder, acting together in what I would call mutual support groups. It is one heck of a lot easier, in times of need, to get together with people who you already know and with whom you've accustomed to working.

How people behave during disasters turns out to be very different than we have been led to believe. Rather than triggering social breakdown, the removal of the usual social constraints allows people to stop playing their customary roles as individuals and competitors in the formal economy (the roles society has forced on them), and come together co-operatively and generously as a community to cope with the challenges the disaster has presented.

The fact that responding to the disaster provides a clear common goal, and that the people involved are often family, friends and neighbours, is a big help. But such communities are in fact the default human behavior, rather than the rioting, looting and general social breakdown that the disaster mythology would have us suspect. Our preparations for disaster and collapse should reflect this—that we can expect co-operation rather than conflict. Any organization that we plan in advance should be such that it encourages this behaviour and helps people to rise to the occasion. A little study into what actually happens in such situations shows that people's response can be amazingly positive.

So, your first priority after you've moved into a small town is to get to know your neighbours and make an effort to take part in the things they are doing together.

Here are just few suggestions about how to become part of the community you've moved into and develop a network of friends and acquaintances who will be of help as collapse intensifies.

  • if you're religious, join a church and get involved
  • if you're not religious, join a secular volunteer organization that interests you:

     

     

     

     

     

     

    • a club, lodge or service group
    • a choir or orchestra
    • a community garden
    • a sports team, a gym, a hiking or nature club
  • if you have children…

     

     

     

     

     

     

    • put them into activities that interest them and volunteer to help in the organizations that offer those activities
    • volunteer at their school
  • work hard to network, talk to your neighbors, ask questions
  • invite people to dinner or out for a coffee

Be modest and don't act like you think you're better than the locals, or know more than them, or that where you came from is better than where you are now. Express an interest in their families, interests, and what they do for recreation and entertainment (FIRE is the mnemonic for this aid to small talk). Be eager to listen to what they have to say and patient while they are saying it.

You want to get to know and be known (in a positive way) by as many people as possible, but also to develop a core group of friends who you're quite close to and on whom you can rely in a pinch. That core group should be people you see eye to eye with on most things. At the same time, don't be too particular about finding people who think exactly as you do—cut them some slack and they will do the same for you. Be quick to offer your help when they need it and don't hesitate to ask for their help when you need it. And of course, watch that this doesn't become too one sided (in either direction).

As a kollapnik, a committed enough of a one to leave the city and settle in a small town, you are probably at least a bit of a fanatic about the subject and would love to find some people who you can talk collapse with. This will put a certain spin on your relationships, one that you need to get control of. You don't want to be a pest and develop a reputation as a crackpot, driving people away in the process. On the other hand, you don't want to be secretive and give people the impression you've got something to hide. If they see you making preparations, storing food, gardening, whatever, be open about what you are doing and why.

Among all my friends and acquaintances, there are two (perhaps three) who I would say are fellow kollapsniks, and a small handful of others who are willing to talk about collapse as long as I don't push too hard. I consider myself lucky.

One of those kollapsnik friends is Don Hayward, and I'd like to share with you his wisdom on classifying the people you'll meet in your new community. He says there are four kinds:

  • those who will eventually turn out to be pure poison and should be avoided at all costs (which can be awkward in a small town). If you can figure out how to identify these people quickly and painlessly, let me know.
  • those few gems who you can talk to about collapse and perhaps even start right away working with on adaptations.
  • those who don't want to talk about collapse, but who will make good friends anyway. This is no doubt the largest group of people and where you will concentrate your efforts.
  • and lastly, people from the first three classifications who will change as circumstances change and may well turn out to be great adapters.

Please understand that it is possible to make connections, often close connections, with people who are not yet ready to talk about collapse. It is probably a good idea to make that connection first, before bringing up collapse. There will be times when the world seems to be falling apart, when the news is full of that sort of thing, and then people will be much more receptive.

But people are strange animals and coping with them can be challenging, especially since you are one yourself. You should maintain a realistic expectation that not everyone will react positively to everything or even anything you say or do, that some people won't even want to give you the time of day. Respond politely to such rejection and move on. Don't get discouraged.

You may also frequently find people doing things that seem to be specifically intended to get under your skin, and not in a humourous way. I personally have had much more success in difficult inter-personal situations since I learned the importance of being calm, patient, kind and understanding. And after I finally gained a "strong-ish" grasp of the fact that it's not always (or even usually) all about me. But even at age 65, this is an on-going effort.

Much good advice about this sort of thing can be found on the internet (along with some bad advice, unfortunately). Here are links to several articles that I'd say fit in the "good advice" category.

Hidden variables of Human Behaviour

In brief here is what you should remember:

  • Everyone has a reason for what they do.
  • If we knew that reason, we would be more understanding and sympathetic.
  • If we don’t know the reason, we may as well assume the best.
  • It’s unlikely their reasons have much — if anything — to do with us, so there is no need to take their actions personally.

Three Important Life Skills Nobody Ever Taught You

Again in brief, they are:

  • how to stop taking things personally
  • how to be persuaded and change your mind
  • how to act without knowing the result

It’s harder to be kind than clever

Or as my dear old dad used to say, "It's more important to be nice than to be important." As the article says:

…the central conceit of a dangerous assumption we seem to have made as a culture these days: that being right is a license to be a total, unrepentant asshole. After all, why would you need to repent if you haven’t committed the ultimate sin of being wrong? Some say there’s no reason to care about other people’s feelings if the facts are on your side.

Getting along with people in groups is a learned skill and challenging for those who didn't grow up doing it. Many people have decided it is not worth the effort, but that is something of a self fulfilling prophecy. It can be done, given motivation and sufficient practice.

So far I've been talking about getting together socially, helping out your friends, and taking part in volunteer projects. But as collapse progresses further and we come to rely on our friends and neighbours more, we'll get deeper into living and working together. To wrap up today, I'd like to discuss three aspects of this: working together, living together and organizing those efforts. I was actually surprised, after spending a few moments with Google, to find numerous resources on each of these topics and in each of the sections below I've include a few links to relevant articles.


Organizing Together

Even if we're mainly considering groups of people less than Dunbar's number, say a maximum of 150 to 200, some sort of organization will be required. There are many ways of doing this, all with their pros and cons. I'm suspicious of hierarchical and especially patriarchal organizations because much of what's wrong with BAU seems to be centered on those organizational styles. They seem to be based on a fundamental split within the group between those who are in control and enjoy a lot of benefits they haven't earned, and those who are being controlled and exploited, and whose potential is largely ignored.

So I would recommend trying consensus decision making. It's main disadvantage is that very few of us in the developed world have much experience with it. But like any other skill it can be learned, and promises some real rewards for those who make the effort.


Working Together

Working together is likely the easy part—even big business is aware of the advantages of having people work in teams, so many people have some prior experience with teamwork.

I thought this would be the easiest of these three areas to find information about, but what's out there is mostly about teams working at the bottom of a hierarchy in businesses or educational settings, so it's not exactly what I was hoping for. I haven't included much that material here. You can Google for teamwork, team building, working in groups, etc. if you want to see more of it.

  • Effective Groups—Starting them up and keeping them going, more from Seeds of Change
    This article recommends you first find the right people and then talks about using publicity to attract them. For the kind of core group I've been talking about in this post, I would say definitely you need to find the right people, but I would caution against sending out a public appeal. This would attract lots of people, but most of them wouldn't likely be suitable and rejecting them becomes awkward. Instead meet people in social situations and take your time to size them up before forming a closer relationship.
  • 6 Ways to Empower Others, by Starhawk
    Sometimes you really do need someone to step forward and lead. The important thing is to be able to step back when the need has passed.
  • Teamwork, Wikipedia


Living Together

Living together is something that's going to be forced on many of us in the years ahead, as the economy contracts and affluence decreases. And as we move to small towns and find there is limited housing stock that's suitable for living in when infrastructure starts to fail regularly. So many people will find themselves having to share apartments or houses. Most of us have grown up in small nuclear families and many have had their own room since birth. More crowded and less convenient living circumstances will be challenging to adapt to. But it's being done by the majority of people alive in the world today and has been done by almost everyone who lived in the past. So it seems likely to me that we can learn to cope just fine.

I'll just wrap this up by saying that I think it is important to let other groups try anything they want to, in the hope that someone, somewhere, will come up with one or more approaches that work. I call this "disssensus"—letting other folks go their own way and wishing them well, even offering to help when we can, rather than raising a fuss and trying to force them to do it our way.

So far, I've been talking about what you need to do when you first arrive in your new town and during the following years as collapse intensifies. The gradual and uneven failure of BAU will provide numerous opportunities for you and your new friends to work together and support each other. I'll definitely be doing a post in the near future about how I see that playing out, but first I think I need to talk about the practical, material preparations that you need to be making during that same time period.

If you've chosen your small town well then it will have the resources you need to get by when BAU lets you down. But some advance set up is needed if you are to put them to work effectively. This will be the topic of my next post.

Books


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 18, 2019

Late Winter (Early Spring?) on Lake Huron

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At the end of my first "Preparing for/Responding to Collapse" post , I said that we'd be considering the following subjects in this series:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

 

I think I've given the first one adequate treatment in the last 5 posts (2 to 6 in this series) so now I'm moving on to the second item—who you want to be with.

So, who do you want to be with? The main thing, I think, is that you want to be with people, rather than being alone—to borrow a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff, being human is a team sport. (Here's a podcast with Rushkoff and Naomi Klein that I found interesting. Of course Rushkoff isn't talking about exactly the same thing as me, but it's still good stuff.)

What I am talking about is this: it is in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to work together in groups. Such groups act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, if I can be forgiven for quoting Karl Marx.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

But over the last few centuries this sort of thing has gotten a bad name. People have gone from living in small, close knit communities made up of large, extended families to living in isolated nuclear families or as lone individuals, and relating to other people mainly via the formal, money based economy. During the time when this change was happening, the level of affluence in our society continually increased, allowing us to get by just fine more or less on our own. It seems that many people have come to believe that individualism is at least partly responsible for the progress we have experienced, and that our former way of living probably had to be abandoned in order to reap the benefits of that progress.

I would say that such ideas are a long way from reality. So much so that I think we'd better stop here for a closer look at the advantages of living and working together in groups, and follow that up by considering why we have given up on this way of life. Best to be clear on this before going on to the practicalities and pitfalls of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

It's interesting that while today's corporations are intensely capitalistic and competetive, within them people are often organized in teams or crews whose members relate to each other in a very "communistic" way. I'd say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually works best. For much of my career with Hydro One (Ontario's electric transmission and distribution utility) I worked as part of a crew of maintenance electricians. While it is true that there are some jobs that can be done by one person, most of the work we did went much better when done by a small group of people. Once such a crew gets to know each other and the work they are doing, they can organize themselves to do that work more productively and enjoyably than the same number of individuals could do working separately.

Within a crew there is usually a diversity of skills that complement each other, and allow people to focus their efforts on the parts of the job best suited to them. And of course the nature of most work (be it physical or mental) is such that it can be done quicker and more easily if the people doing it help each other.

Teams like this are an excellent learning environment, where you can pick up a great deal from people with more experience or different experience than you. Not just job related learning, but also contributing to your growth as a human being.

Beyond productivity and training, there are many benefits to the members of the crew which are not an intentional part of the situation or necessarily supported by management, but which certainly make for a better work environment— camaraderie, companionship, support (both in times of difficulty, and in growth and accomplishment), and the ability to make the boring parts of the job go quicker with humour, story telling, singing, etc.

As it happened we were also members of a labour union, which did its best to shield us from the worst predations of management. Unions are a pretty clear case of the use of group solidarity in dealing with a situation where the power dynamics would otherwise be completely one sided.

Co-operative efforts of groups of people in organizations like food co-ops and housing co-ops enjoy the benefits of enhanced bargaining power and economies of scale that are not available to nuclear families or single individuals. A group can also provide a safety net for its members in a way that conventional insurance, provided by a company whose main responsibility is to its share holders, can never do.

People working and living together also get to know each other quite well. Because of this the group can effectively discourage its members from shirking their responsibilities and provide them with a strong incentive to contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

And lastly I'll just note that compared to an isolated existence, living in groups with people that care about you and will help when you need it, has considerable psychological benefits.

So, given all these advantages, why have we largely abandoned our extended families and close knit communities?

Certainly, there is some overhead involved in living and working in close knit groups, and you can see why people who have attained a sufficient level of affluence might choose to exercise their independence and strike out on their own.

But the idea that group life is not worth the effort is somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. Living as we do these days, with a big emphasis on individualism and little opportunity to practice working in groups or learn it from experience people, we have forgotten many of the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as things are going well there is little incentive to really try to make co-operative efforts succeed. We can do just fine on our own, without the trouble of getting along with others. Those whose lives are the most precarious, for whom individualism really isn't working, have come to simply not trust other people, and would never think of working together for their mutual advantage.

But even allowing for all that, I think we also need to keep in mind that isolated people are a lot easier to control and exploit, and this is very much to the advantage of the people who are running things in our society.

Whenever I see people making choices that clearly run counter to their own best interests, I've found that I only have to look a little further to uncover a great deal of effort that is being expended to make them do so. Effort that is being made by those who do stand to benefit from those poor choices. This is certainly the case practically everywhere in the world today, with most countries ruled by oligarchies who at best give only lip service to democracy, and are not of the people, by the people or for the people.

So, I would like to suggest that what going on here is rather different from the way we are encouraged to perceive it. Maybe, for most people, the growth of individualism was anything but progress. And while it is true that this happened while a lot of progress was happening, you don't want to confuse cause and effect. If you look closely, you can see that much of that progress was basically economic growth, or very closely tied to economic growth, which was largely driven by our switch over to using fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. So I'd say economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism drove the growth of individualism, rather than the other way around.

A excerpt from David Graeber's Debt: the first 5000 years may help clarify:

By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working-class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care…), and, perhaps most important through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly increasing incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.

This was the world into which I was born and grew up. Essentially, "setting aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system" amounted to abandoning our communities and extended families, in exchange for individual affluence and economic security. Unfortunately, because of 1) a financial system based on interest bearing debt and 2) a growing population, this world required endless economic growth in order to continue fulfilling its promise. In another reality, where planets have infinite resources, this might have been possible, but not here.

After a few paragraphs about how this relates to Keynsian economics, Graeber goes on to say:

When the Keynsian settlement was finally put into effect, after World War II, it was offered to only a relatively small slice of the world's population. As time went on, more and more people wanted in on the deal. Almost all of the popular movements of the period from 1945 to 1975, even perhaps revolutionary movements, could be seen as demands for political equality that assumed equality was meaningless without some level of economic security. This was true not only of movements by minority groups in North Atlantic countries who had first been left out of the deal… but what were then called "national liberation" movements from Algeria to Chile, which represented certain class fragments in what we now call the Global South, or, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism. At some point in the '70s, things reached a breaking point. It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage laborers; certainly it was never be able to provide everyone in the world the sort of life lived by, say, a 1960s auto worker in Michigan or Turin, with his own house, garage, and children in college—and this was true even before so many of those children began demanding less stultifying lives. The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion. But the late 1970s, the existing order was clearly in a state of collapse, plagued simultaneously by financial chaos, food riots, oil shocks, wide spread doomsday prophecies of the end of growth and ecological crisis—all of which, it turned out, proved to be ways of putting the populace on notice that all deals were off.

I would say that the underlying problem causing this failure of capitalism is economic contraction caused by the reduction in the surplus energy available as we've been forced to tap into ever poorer quality and/or less easily accessible fossil fuels. And sadly this is a problem for all economic and political systems. Indeed, it is a problem without a solution, which is bringing about changes that we will just have to adapt to.

I am not certain if Graber agrees with me that the crises we've faced since the 1970s are quite real, but I do agree with him that those in power have certainly used those crises to "put the populace on notice that all deals are off." He is also quite right that this is a "crisis of inclusion"—as the economy contracts the rich and powerful are not about to be excluded, so a great many other people have had to be, in order for the rich to keep a relatively larger slice of a shrinking pie.

But how, you may ask, does this relate to the problem of diminishing community in our modern society? Well, it seems that all the fixes that are available to the excluded majority involve us being separated from our former support systems (family and community in an informal economy) and striving to perform better as competing individuals in the formal economy.

We are told that to secure a good job we need an education, at least a bachelor's degree. This means (in many countries) taking on a significant amount of debt, so that after you graduate, you'll be desperate to get a job and pay off your student loans. This leaves you very little choice in the job you take and little choice about leaving it if it doesn't suit you.

To get that job it is very likely that you'll have to move a long way from where your family currently lives and set up as a lone individual, in a place where you, at least initially, have no support network.

If you meet the love of your life and decide to live together or actually marry, you will both have to go on working to pay off those student loans and make a start on building a family together.

This is a stressful situation, especially since you don't have any sort of support network and I suspect it contributes to marriage breakup. If you do break up you'll be left as a single mother or a lone individual.

Or perhaps instead of seeking higher education, you could go for a job in the trades. As I said earlier, crews of tradesmen are among the best examples of communistic relationships found in today's world. But in most companies there is a strong push to have people working by themselves whenever possible and to have as little contact with their co-workers as possible, lest they organize a union. Unions are in a desperate situation today, with no effort being spared to break them and leave working people completely at the mercy of management.

All this is very convenient for those who are in power. It is easier to exploit people who are not organized, who see each other as competitors rather than comrades. And in the process you can monetize much work that used to be part of the informal economy and make some additional profit out of it, while keeping people conveniently isolated from each other. I'm not saying this is a conspiracy of any sort, just rich people supporting the kind of politicians who will benefit them the most in the short term, and rest of us taking the path of least resistance through our lives.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a good, secure job, it is pretty easy to look around and see than many other people find themselves with no support from family or community and working for minimum wage with no benefits in a job where their schedule can be adjusted and their hours reduced arbitrarily and they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. And if they end up jobless and homeless, there is a definite tendency to put the blame for this onto them, rather than a system which sees workers as liabilities rather than assets.

No wonder many people are starting to express doubts about the current world order. As BAU continues to collapse it will become more and more clear that there must be a better way to live. Many would tell you that things are more likely to break down into chaos and violence but a closer study human behaviour in disasters shows that when there is trouble, people feel a strong urge to work together to help each other pull through.

Well, that was a lot of words expended in support of a proposition that I originally thought was obvious. I do think it was worth it, but now this post is just about as long as it should be. So I'll wrap things up here and continue next time with a look at the pitfalls and practicalities of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

The Disaster Mythology is a subject that keeps coming up on this blog, and to save explaining it again and again in various posts, I've finally created a page about the subject: The Disaster Mythology. Check it out.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Coming Soon to a Laptop Near You on Diner YouTube

Just another day on the Farm with FarmGal

 

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 6: finding a small town, continued

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on January 26, 2018

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The end of January and finally it is looking like winter on Lake Huron

In this series we've been talking about how to adapt to collapse and I've put forward the idea that small, remote towns may be much better places to do that adapting that the cities where most people currently live. In my last post I said, "pick a town where you can live while BAU (business as usual) is still working and that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us."

In that post I proceeded to talk about how you might do the first part of that. But that is the simple part, since you can see how a town is doing currently, especially if you live there for a year or two. It's harder to predict how it will get along as BAU continues to break down. But there are a few important things that we can check on fairly easily, and I'll talk about that today.

First though, there is a detail that I should have covered last time—I did mention "Deliberate Descent", living more frugally as if the economy had already collapsed, as an important strategy for getting by if your move from the city leaves you with less income. But I didn't direct you to a series of posts about Deliberate Descent that I wrote a few years ago. I hope the information there will be of assistance.

And now on to picking a town that will be a good place to live as collapse progresses.

There is a strong tendency, even for me, to think about before and after collapse in very black and white terms. No doubt this comes from years of extensive reading in the "collapse sphere", which is saturated with the idea of apocalypse—a hard, fast collapse. But of course that's not what I'm expecting. I don't even think it is useful to identify stages or steps along the way from full BAU to full collapse. Rather, I like to think in terms of movement along a spectrum, admittedly sometimes in fits and starts, and at different rates in different areas.

Over the years to come, even towns that are now economically strong and have recently updated infrastructure, will suffer from economic contraction and the gradual wearing out of that infrastructure. Infrastructure that won't get repaired or replaced due to lack of money. Because small remote towns are more expensive to service and have fewer voters, governments will be forced to abandon them first. In some cases this is already happening, with the cost of various programs being downloaded onto municipalities to make provincial/state budgets look healthier.

You might wonder why you'd want to move to a small town if that is the case. Or if you're already in a small town under such conditions, you might be tempted to give up and move to a city. But the cities are on the same curve, just some years behind. And as I've been saying, they won't be able to do as good job of coping with the situation. Cities rely on essentially everything they need being brought in from outside. Many small towns could, with a little adaptation, get by on locally available resources.

Once you are firmly set up in a remote small town, reduced outside support may not be such a bad thing. It will allow you to work on the beginnings of a post BAU economy without having to compete so much with BAU. Currently, where BAU is doing well, it is very difficult to even discuss, much less establish, any sort of alternative.

When you move to this hypothetical town we're talking about, you'll likely start out relying almost entirely on BAU for the necessities of life and experience infrastructure breakdowns so rarely and briefly that you can largely ignore them. But as time passes, breakdowns of infrastructure and supply chains will become more frequent and more lengthy, necessitating that you be prepared for outages of the power grid, the municipal water supply, or shipments by truck from out of town. Traditionally, government recommendations were to keep enough emergency supplies to get by for 3 days without outside help. Many areas are increasing this to two weeks. As time passes the interval will no doubt get longer.

Eventually, the outage situation will become normal and availability of services and supplies the exception. At that point communities that have become largely self sufficient will be the successful ones, and many others will already have been abandoned.

A few years ago I read Short Circuit, a book by Richard Douthwaite, which is about "Strengthening Local Economics for Security in an Unstable World". The title comes from his idea of short circuiting BAU economics and setting up to provide the most urgent necessities locally. This is in a European Union setting (Ireland) and very much against globalism, which suits me just fine. Douthwaite says the first things to worry about are money, energy and food. (I have to comment at this point that most of Europe is too densely populated to have much hope of becoming locally self sufficient, but nonetheless the book is full of good ideas.)

Money in this case refers to the financial services needed to facilitate a functioning community, and I'll be discussing that at length in a future post. To energy and food I would add water.

In a future post I'll talk about the actually concrete steps you'll need to take to make you, your family and your community more self-sufficient, but certain local resources are needed to make that possible and that's what you'll be looking for initially.

Water

When I started thinking seriously about water, I soon realized there are more aspects to the subject than initially meets the eye.

Ideally you'll want to move to a town with modern, recently updated, water supply and waste treatment systems. But such systems rely on the power grid, and consumable supplies and repair parts that are not sourced locally. Fortunately, there are low tech alternatives that can be set up using local resources, providing the actual supplies of water are safe and secure. So that is the main thing you'll be looking for—a water supply that can be relied on in the long term.

Existing waste (sewage) disposal systems are also something to look at in the short run, but in the long run you'll be switching to a composting toilet to cut down on water usage and supply fertilizer and organic matter for your garden. The degree of resource waste in our current "waste" treatment/disposal systems is appalling.

On farms and in very small villages, you'll usually find each house has its own well, and a septic tank and weeping bed for waste disposal. In the short run this means you'll be responsible for more in the way of maintenance, but in the long run having your own well already set up will prove handy. Most likely the pump won't be collapse proof, but that can be remedied, providing the well is less than about 300 feet deep.

It would also be a good idea to check into the health of the local ground water—does it get depleted during long dry summers, for instance. Especially since you would need more water for your garden under such circumstances. And of course, if things are so dry that local agriculture has to rely on irrigation for field crops, you won't even be interested in the area in the first place.

Contamination of your well is a major concern, especially in an area where a lot of livestock are being raised. Make sure that well isn't downhill from nearby barnyards and feedlots, and check into what's being done in the way of "nutrient management", i.e. where the manure from livestock ends up. This is a serious concern for confined animal feeding operations which generate large amounts of manure and don't have sufficient land associated with them to absorb the waste. Small farms don't have as much of a problem this way, although in our area farmers are being encouraged to fence off river bottoms to reduce contamination of streams and the lakes they flow into. There is also a volunteer group working at planting trees in those river bottoms, which I think is a brilliant idea.

In larger villages there may be one or more wells maintained by the municipality. Convenient in the short run and provided you are within easy walking distance, maybe workable in the long run.

The town where I live draws its water from Lake Huron and has a new water treatment plant. This is nice, but I also live within easy walking distance of the lake and I have a home built water filter ready for when it becomes necessary to use lake water directly.

The municipality here has run pipelines to some of the outlying villages to supply potable water, rather than try to ensure the safety of previously existing, and occasionally contaminated, wells. The next town to the east of us is Walkerton , which had major problems with its water supply a few year ago. This has left people in this part of Ontario pretty concerned about water quality. Fortunately, government money has been made available for upgrading municipal water systems. In many areas (think Flint, Michigan) this hasn't been the case and water infrastructure has not been brought up to modern standards, or properly maintained if it was.

As well as water from wells, surface water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that don't run dry in the dry season, and are not seriously contaminated, is used by many towns and cities. Often long pipelines are needed to get that water from the source to where it will be used. It's not hard to see that as collapse progresses these systems will be faced with many serious difficulties.

In addition to biological contamination from livestock operations, you'll want to look into lead contamination from outdated water systems, heavy metal contamination (lead, arsenic, etc.) which is a natural characteristic of the ground water in some areas, and industrial contamination. This sort of information may be available on the internet or from the local municipality, but I wouldn't actually buy a property without taking a water sample and having it tested for both bacterial and heavy metal contamination.

Looking back on what I've just written, I can see that there are some things I don't really know about our local water supply and I'm going to be looking deeper into that. I'll fill you in on what I find out in a post at some point down the road.

Another use for water is transportation. A town located on a canal, navigable river or lake has some major advantages, especially when shipping by truck and rail becomes unfeasible.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as too little, especially if you are situated on a flood plain. Keep in mind that locations that seem bone dry in the summer may be flooded with snow melt in the spring. There are several small towns in this area whose main street occasionally floods in the spring. I grew up in a house that needed two sump pumps to keep the basement dry for a week or two almost every spring. I wouldn't buy real estate that I hadn't seen during flood season.

Food

The next thing to look at is food and the prospects for producing it locally. For this you'll need arable land and adequate rainfall. You'll want to drive through the area surrounding the town you are looking at and see what sort of farming is being done.

In the area where I live, quite a variety of crops are grown: corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, rye, sorghum, flax, canola and, most recently, marijuana. There are also a few orchards (mainly apples, but also cherry, peach and pear) and berry farms (mainly raspberries and strawberries). And many livestock operations: dairy, beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey. There are only a very few market gardens, but there could be more if there was a greater local demand. Currently it is hard to compete with the supermarkets.

Some areas will specialize more, but I think a wide range of agricultural products is a sign of a healthy farm economy. That variety will also be a big plus when the day comes that you have to rely primarily on local foodstuffs.

But it occurs to me that most of you, who did not grow up on a farm like I did, would have a tough time identifying most of these plants and animals standing in a field as you are driving by. So, talking to farmers in the area is going to be a necessity. Definitely stop by the local farmers market, and get to know the farmers selling there. Some of them will be able to point you to the local community garden if there is one. If you are renting for the first while, a plot at the community garden will allow you to get started on learning how to garden.

The odds are that most of the agriculture in any area will be conventional***, as opposed to organic. I am not as negative about conventional agriculture as many kollapsniks, especially when it comes to the safety of the food it produces. Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that I'm paid by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its pricey products instead of their less expensive conventional competitors. Millions of dollars are being spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are about equally safe. Sadly, neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable, mainly due to their reliance on fossil fuels, and a once through approach to many of their inputs.

But there are a few questions you should be asking:

One, can the GMO corn and soybeans being grown on local farms be eaten safely in the event of a supply chain breakdown? The scientific consensus is yes, and I agree.

Two, can those conventional farms be converted to a more sustainable form of agriculture when the time comes to do so? Again, the answer is yes. In particular, modern herbicides are much less persistent than the older ones they have replaced and do not "poison" the soil for long periods of time after application. At worst, crops that aren't "Round Up Ready" can usually be grown with no trouble in soil that was treated with Round Up (glyphosate) the previous year. Of greater concern is soil health—conventional farming methods do often lead to both organic matter depletion and erosion. But sustainable farming methods can address those issues.

And from a more reality based viewpoint:

Three, is the land being farmed at the moment, regardless of the method? You certainly don't want to have to turn currently forested land into farmland.

And, four, is it being farmed without irrigation for field crops such as grains and hay? This will indicate the local rainfall is sufficient to support agriculture.

You'll want to look at a map and see if the area of farmland surrounding the town you're looking at is large enough to support the local population. In the short run, just to provide food, think an acre per person. In the long run more like 5 acres per person would be required to allow room for crop rotation and provide fiber, lumber and firewood. Sure, this will vary somewhat from one area to another, but those are good rules of thumb to start with.

Of course, you should be thinking about the long run. For a town of 10 thousand people that would mean 50 thousand acres or 78.125 sq. mi. of farmland, a circle approximately 5 miles in radius with the town at the center. For the same town situated on a lake, it would require a semicircle approximately 7.07 miles radius. And don't forget to take into account the area taken up by lakes, river bottoms, swamps, forests, roads and settlements.

One last item to look for in the area is a butcher shop. In a lot of areas they have almost been regulated out of existence. A thriving butcher shop, or shops, is an indicator of a strong local food industry.

Thinking about all this, I see that I have some work to do myself—some further questions to ask of the farmers I do know and maybe even getting to know a few more farmers.

Energy

Climate change considerations will mean that most of the areas worth looking at have a season when heating is necessary. Eventually supplies of fuel oil, natural gas, propane and electric power used for heating will become over priced, unreliable or non-existent. Provided there is sufficient standing timber in the area, a wood stove is a viable alternative. Possibly a cost saving measure right now and later, a life saving one.

You'll be looking for the presence of wood lots on most farms and some larger forested areas as well. Also look for local businesses which sell firewood and others that sell and install woodstoves. All this would indicate that the area already has a thriving wood heat industry.

Wind, water and solar are other forms of renewable energy that I think will eventually have a role to play in a sustainable society. But all the big wind turbines and solar panels that have sprung up in this area over the last few years won't work unless they are connected to the grid, and don't, as far as I can see, have much of a future.

One thing to keep an eye out for, if the town you're looking at is on a river, is the remains of a water powered mill. The dam may still be more or less intact and perhaps even the mill itself, though it is very unlikely to still be in use. The day will come when such installations can be refurbished and put back into use, very much to the benefit of the local community.

Muscle power is also going to become a more important form of energy as BAU declines, not just human muscles, but also those of draft animals. Look for people keeping horses, especially work horses. Even if this a only a hobby now, the existence of breeding stock will be a big help in the future.

Beyond looking for these basics (water, food, energy) you'll want to select a community that is well endowed with other useful resources, is resilient enough to withstand the shocks that lie ahead and has already made a start on local self sufficiency. Exactly how to tell if that is the case is beyond me, but it's something to think about.

Well, that pretty much wraps things up for this post. Next time I'll start looking at what you'll need to work on once you're actually living in a small town.


***I don't think that 7 billion people can be fed sustainable on this planet, regardless of the agricultural techniques used. But a lot of the criticisms leveled at conventional agriculture simply aren't based in fact, and are pretty insulting to the farmers. Only 18% of the food produced in the U.S. comes from corporate farms. The rest comes from family owned farms, some of them admittedly quite large. But those folks take pride in the food they produce. For a look at the subject from their viewpoint, check out Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe. Like me, she isn't being paid by Monsanto, or any of the other big agritech companies.


 

Responding to Collapse, Part 5: finding a small town

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on December 28, 2018

 

 

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In my last post I started talking about moving from the city to a small town as a way to make adapting to collapse easier, and I listed a number of criteria for choosing a small town. Today we'll be looking at some of those criteria in greater detail.

As before, credit goes to Don Hayward, Joe Clarkson from the comment section of this blog, and, new this time, to Category 5, from the Dark Green Mountain blog and the Doomstead Diner.

Looking back on the criteria I laid out last time, I can see that I should have divided them into two sections— picking a town where you can live while BAU is still working and then picking a town that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us. For the next while we will find ourselves living in two worlds—trying to make enough of a success of life in BAU so that we can afford to disentangle ourselves from BAU and get something started to replace it.

So, to get started, just exactly how far from the city do you need to be? I am very much a "shades of gray" guy, so my answer will be in terms of a spectrum rather than a single hard number. Here in rural Canada we tend to talk about distances in terms of driving time. I would guess that an hour amounts to around 50 miles. I live about three hours from Toronto, around two hours from many other cities to the south and east of here, and about an hour and a quarter from the small city to the northeast. I am not considering a move to get farther away, so if pressed for a definite answer I would say somewhere between an hour and two hours is a sufficient minimum distance. To be cautious, err on the long end of that range, and of course I'm not saying you shouldn't be more than 2 hours from a city. On the other hand, you may find you need to be close to a city for a while yet and accordingly place yourself at the lower end of the range, while remaining aware of the greater risk that probably entails.

Many cities are quite close together and there are whole areas where there is nowhere far enough from a city to meet my distance criteria. Moving away from your current city but toward another one clearly won't help.

By the time collapse has progressed far enough for this distance to be a real concern, transportation fuels will be in short supply, either because of genuine shortages, market malfunctions or supply chain breakdowns. Initially they will be "rationed by price" to the point where they are not affordable for most of us, or they will be outright rationed by the authorities. Then there will be intermittent interruptions in the supply. And at some point beyond that these fuels will not be available at any price. So the distance from the city would have to be covered on foot or bicycle, making it, in effect, considerably longer. That two hour drive would be a multi-day walk for most people, if they could manage to do it at all.

There are several reasons for wanting to be this far away:

  • in the city there are limited opportunities for adaptation in the face of infrastructure and supply chain failures—the resources you need are just not available locally. You need to be far enough away from population centres that the local resources can support the local population
  • there will be social unrest and civil disobedience (much of it justified) in many cities—violence that you don't want to get caught up in
  • as conditions worsen in the cities, there will occasionally be waves of refugees fleeing from them. I think the aim of people in small towns like mine should to help those refugees, but if there are too many we won't be able to help them and things will go badly for both them and us. So, we want to be far enough away that the distance acts as a filter and reduces their numbers to something manageable.
  • it seems likely that there will epidemics from time to time, especially as public health systems start to fall apart. It would be good to have some distance between you and any city that is being ravaged by an epidemic. A sort of geographical quarantine.

But the main reason you're moving to a small town is for what's there, not what you are trying to get away from.

What size of small town you should be looking for?

Zero is the wrong answer. As Douglas Ruskhoff says, "being human is a team sport." You can't accomplish much, especially in the long term, as an isolated individual or family. Even a group of a few families will find themselves struggling just to survive. In my opinion, remote, isolated survivalist compounds or even lifeboat eco-villages have little future. More people means a greater range of skills and talents and more redundancy in the support systems you need to set up.

I don't think there is much hope of retreating to the wilderness and surviving by hunting and gathering, either. There is very little wilderness left and what is left is not so completely untouched as it once was. The effect of this is to make hunting and gathering more difficult and it is, in any case, a skilled and demanding lifestyle, especially if you weren't born to it. Learning those skills, when you aren't living in a group where most people already have them, would be very challenging.

What you really need is a community that is viable now, as part of "Business as Usual", and which can adapt as collapse progresses and then still be viable under post collapse conditions.

Now I will agree that for some activities a lone individual is best, and for others 2 to 5 people is ideal. But these are specific, short duration jobs within a larger context.

At this point some of you are probably thinking of "Dunbar's number"—"the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person." That number is somewhere between 100 and 250 people, and there is definitely something to the idea. But I would say that this is more like the lower limit on size for a viable community. Larger communities are made up of smaller, overlapping circles of people who know each other in the "Dunbar" sense.

The upper limit on the size of a viable community is determined by how many people the surrounding geography can support without fossil fuel powered agriculture and shipping. Typically that would be a few thousand people, possibly as many as 10 to 20 thousand in ideal circumstances. A counter example would be Edo (now Tokyo) during the days of the shoguns, which grew to over one million people without the benefit of fossil fuels or modern technology. But these days climate change is reducing the carrying capacity of almost every area, and you must remember that the size of small towns will increase first as former locals return from the city and then again as refugees arrive. Set your upper limit around ten thousand to begin with.

So, distance and size will help narrow things down somewhat, as will the climate change based criteria I mentioned previously. But still, which town to pick?

Probably the most important consideration is connections in the community. If you grew up in a small town, if you still have family there, or even close friends, then that town has to be very high on your list of places to consider. If you have limited resources, those connections may prove vital in making your move possible.

Next, I think you have to be looking for a place where you can find accommodations and earn a living in the short run while "BAU" is still in operation. As Category 5 suggests, once you have found a likely looking small town, it would be a good idea to live there in rental accommodation for a year or two in order to get to know the place better. It takes more than a few brief visits to really size a place up and figure out how to fit in. And for those with limited resources, renting on an ongoing basis may in any case be a better alternative than taking on a mortgage you can't really cope with. In today's uncertain market, it's wise let your landlord take the risk of investing in real estate.

Financial considerations also have to be very high on your list of priorities. Eddie at the Doomstead Diner has written an excellent article entitled "Some Inconvenient Truths About Collapse Economics". He challenges the idea, common among kollapsniks, that the only things worth investing in are preparations, gold, silver and farmland. At some point in the future that may be true, but you have to have a plan for surviving in the meantime, and that will likely involve taking part in an economy that you know has a limited shelf life—even putting some of you money into conventional BAU style investments in the short term.

I'll be going into more detail on this in a future post, but some degree of preparation is a very good idea and you should spend some money on it, but not every cent you have. It is also good to have some ordinary cash on hand, and even some actual physical gold and/or silver carefully hidden where you can get at it if you need it. Farm land, while it is tempting, is currently very expensive per acre and since it comes in large chunks, likely to be out of reach for most people. Remote farms may cost less, but leave you too isolated.

When I talk about "collapse progressing", it may sound like I am envisaging a uniform run downhill, but my regular readers will know this is not the case. Collapse progresses unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. This is good news if you are thinking of moving, because there is likely some place where things are better than where you are now, especially if you are flexible and willing to adapt to a new situation. There are "eddies" in the stream of collapse, places where things occasionally stand still or even improve somewhat for a while.

I think this is very true of both real estate and employment considerations.

A great many cities are experiencing real estate bubbles today. Accommodation costs a lot to buy or rent there and the situation is only getting worse. This is less about the demand for housing and more about malfunctioning markets and people with money trying to find somewhere to invest it at a good rate of return. But since there is no real demand to justify those real estate prices they will eventually decline, and decline precipitously. The trick is to get out with your assets intact before that bubble bursts.

Aside from high prices caused by investment bubbles, there is also often a clear relationship between distance from good employment opportunities and the cost of housing. Housing in small towns away from big employment centers (which are almost always in cities) is very likely to be less expensive. So if you don't mind a longer commute, if you can telecommute, or if you can make the big leap of finding work away from the city, you will likely find housing that costs less.

But I've read that in the United States towns with more affordable housing also offer jobs that pay less, so moving there may not solve your problems. It seems to me that this will be determined by what level the minimum wage is pegged at, if there is one. So states (provinces here in Canada) with a decent minimum wage would be a good place to look for work.

Handymen and skilled tradesmen are most always in demand, as are skilled professionals. Even small towns have a few relatively unskilled jobs in service industries and there will be seasonal work in agriculture and tourism. One of the few justifiable reasons for delaying this move is to find a job to support you in your new location. Just don't make this an excuse for not moving.

I live in a small town that is in an economic eddy, being a bedroom community for a nearby nuclear plant which employs several thousand people. (It's one of the largest nuclear generating developments in the world.) This is "energy sprawl", where lower EROEI energy sources require a lot more infrastructure, and just happen to create jobs building, operating and maintaining that infrastructure in the process. So such opportunities do exist.

How you approach these opportunities will largely depend on your own personal circumstances—your socioeconomic class, in particular.

The Upper Class

If you are a member of the upper class—the "one percent"—you can do as you please, at least for the moment. But in a really serious financial crash, your wealth is likely to evaporate, and you probably don't have the sort of skills that will be needed in the aftermath. For all I care, you can jump out a fortieth floor window and end it all quickly. But if you hope to survive, you'd better be prepared to fit in and keep a low profile, among people who are likely to be resentful of the rich, who they see (correctly) as responsible for the mess the world is in.

No doubt though, you will be focusing on ways of keeping BAU rolling along and maintaining your status within it. Good luck with that.

The Middle Class

Indeed, a willingness to let go of BAU should probably be seen as the distinguishing difference between the middle and upper classes. Though currently, especially in the U.S., many middle class folk mistakenly think that if they support policies that benefit the upper class they will themselves eventually be able to ascend into that class. Of course, the upper class does everything they can to encourage that attitude, with no intention at all of benefitting anyone but themselves.

There are two traps here: one is thinking that you have much chance of joining the upper class and the other is thinking that it would do you any good if you did. If you're currently in the middle class, you likely have enough resources to respond to collapse in a fairly effective fashion. Don't miss the opportunity.

If you already own a home or at least have quite a bit of equity in it, you may well be able to sell it, buy a house in a small town and still have enough cash left over to retire early and invest in preparations. You should do this soon, before the real estate bubble bursts. If you are already retired, you can probably do the same thing and end up in better financial shape than if you'd stayed in the city.

If you are middle class but younger, you are likely working at a job that is keeping you in that class, and this will make the proposition of leaving the city much harder to consider seriously. But perhaps you can commute or even telecommute from a small town. Or find a small town with a local industry that needs people with your skills. If you are renting or have only recently bought a home and don't yet have much equity built up in it, then renting in a small town may cost you substantially less than your current rent or mortgage payments. Don't make the mistake of believing that real estate prices will keep going up forever.

All middle class people should look ahead to days of further economic contraction and consider taking a "deliberate descent" approach to life. That is, learn to live with less, so that when that is all you have left, it won't be so much of a shock. As John Michael Greer has said, "collapse now and avoid the rush." And of course, living frugally will make your resources last longer.

The Lower Class

It can be difficult to see where the line should be drawn between the middle and lower classes, so I am going to simplify things and lump everyone who has a somewhat decent, secure job with benefits, and who owns a home or is renting while saving with a reasonable expectation of being able to buy a home in the foreseeable future, into the middle class. We'll leave other assets and debts as an issue for another day.

Below that is the lower class which for the purposes of this discussion includes, at the upper end, those who have a job and can afford accommodation and a vehicle to drive to work, down through those who have to choose between accommodation and a vehicle, and may end up working but living in a vehicle, through to those who are jobless and homeless. The majority of these people, if they have a job, are members of the "precariat". That is, their job is not in any way secure and does not pay enough to make the rest of their lives secure either. If you are a member of the precariat, you don't need to be told about "deliberate descent"—you're already living it, though I would guess not willingly.

No doubt it is somewhat presumptuous on my part, as a relatively "fat cat" middle class guy, to offer advice to lower class people. Though I did grow up on a small family farm in a family that was just barely middle class at best. And my kids have certainly spent their share (and more) of time in the precariat. But I don't really have a lot of experience at being poor and when I have problems, I am accustomed to using money to solve them. For people in the lower class that’s rarely an option.

Nonetheless, I have a few things to say that I hope may be of help. Lower class people are, I think, farther along the collapse road than the rest of us, and may well be less bothered as things fall further apart—it will all just be more of the same shit to them. Psychologically they are quite resilient but, materially speaking, they have very limited resources to deal with specific problems as they arise, and in that sense they will be harder hit. So, for lower class people, the need to get out of the cities is no less, but the challenge of doing so may be greater.

Many of the problems faced by people in the lower class come from the degree of isolation in which they find themselves. I think there are great possibilities for small groups of disadvantaged people to get together and share housing, food, transportation and so forth. Sadly, we have largely forgotten the skills for getting along in such circumstances, or have been convinced by those who are in power that such skills are worthless. The neo-liberal approach of using money to mediate all relationships between people leaves us at the mercy of those who control the money and that of course is exactly what they want. I think there is a lot of potential in various sorts of co-operative ventures to break out of this trap.

I've been doing a bit of reading at Sharable, a website that "aims to empower people to share for a more resilient, equitable, and joyful world". This is essentially what I am talking about here. It would certainly be a move in the direction of the adaptations we'll have to make down the road in order to succeed in small isolated communities.

Well, I think that's enough for now. Next time we'll continue with this, looking closer at criteria for choosing a small town as place to live as BAU goes further downhill and we can no longer rely on it completely for the necessities of life

Responding to Collapse, Part 4: getting out of the city

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool November 21, 2018

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Responding to Collapse, Part 4: getting out of the city

 
A cold and windy day on Lake Huron

In my last post I talked about the economic contraction that is being caused by declining surplus energy and the collapse which that contraction, combined with the effects of climate change (covered in the post before that), is likely to cause.

My conclusion was that we will have a good bit of adapting to do and it will be much easier to do in rural areas than in the cities. So I advised that, if you currently live in a city, you should be considering a move to the country. But I didn't go into much detail about this moving and adapting and now I intend to remedy that. I should give credit in advance to my friend Don Hayward for sharing with me his thoughts on the subject, and taking part in many good conversations that have allowed me to clarify my own thoughts. Similar credit is due to "Joe", from the comments section of this blog.

It will no doubt be obvious to my readers that I am figuring this out as I go along. Whether I've got it right is, of course, open to discussion. I also reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more.

In a post some months ago I expressed the opinion that the reduction in our impact on the planet following a major financial crash would be mainly a matter of drastically reduced levels of consumption, particularly in the developed world, and that there would not be a major reduction in population at that point. After considerable reflection, I have to say that especially in large cities, the combination of climate change and supply chain interruption following a global financial crash will lead to greater loss of life than I had previously thought. Of course it is hard to predict, but I think this will lead to an actual reduction in population, perhaps by a few billion people.

I still believe that planetary resources will still be sufficient to fuel some sort of recovery as we rebuild the virtual organizational systems lost in the financial crash on a smaller, more local scale. But if we don't learn to live sustainably, that recovery will see us plowing through the remaining resources and there will be another crash, an agricultural one, mainly effecting the more populous areas and reducing the population to a few hundred million. One thing I am pretty sure of is that the predictions of a world population of 9 to 10 billion later this century are not going to pan out.

I am still expecting a slow and irregular collapse. Even without the localized catastrophes that will no doubt happen, the contracting economy will lead to a slow crumbling of industrial civilization.

But now let's return to our scheduled programming, so to speak. The question for today is what sort of adapting am I talking about and why do I think it will be easier in well chosen rural areas?

For most people the hardest thing about collapse is facing up to the end of progress. Adapting to this big change in how we think about the world, and our lives in it, is challenging. But it can be done, and most of the effort takes place inside your head. So it doesn't much matter where you are for that part of the process. It does help if you have a supportive family and community around you, though of course that is true of anything you try to do.

But once you've decided that life is still worth living, you're faced with the many practical issues of staying alive in a collapsing world.

For most of us, staying alive means taking part in the economy—having a job or collecting a pension or the proceeds of investments, so as to have the money needed to procure the necessities of life. Since the economy is contracting fewer jobs are available and many people are unemployed, or "under employed" at best. Pension and investments are under some stress but not doing so badly, though a financial crash would certainly change that.

At the same time, in many locales, housing is getting more expensive and the ranks of the homeless are swelling with the unemployed and even the working poor, many of whom are living out of their vehicles.

That contracting economy also means that less money is being spent on maintaining infrastructure, which is gradually decaying as time passes. And in an effort to keep the economy growing, regulations intended to protect the environment are being repealed and efforts to cut back on the release of greenhouse gases and reduce climate change are being abandoned.

This means that what were once minor inconveniences will grow into catastrophes. Here is a brief and probably not complete list of such events:

  • The degradation of the natural environment due the load placed on it by the human race, mainly manifesting as climate change, ocean acidification and various other pollution related problems, as well as degradation of the environment due to resource use and habitat destruction.
  • Failures of the physical built human environment, mainly infrastructure— water supplies, the power grid, and transportation and communication infrastructure.
  • Failures of the virtual built human environment—economic contraction, financial crashes, failure of the credit systems which make commercial enterprises possible and have largely replaced cash for individuals, breakdown of governments as economic contraction starves them of financial resources, degradation of the fabric of our communities, social unrest, and war.
  • In some sense food is at the intersection of our natural, built and virtual environments, and as such, we can expect there to be problems in production, processing and distribution of food. These will lead to famines in many cases.
  • It also seems likely that there will be an increase in severe epidemics. I am not as well informed as I'd like to be about this, but it seems that hunger, poor sanitation and crowding in slums and refugee camps will be contributing factors.

So, we are going to find ourselves poorer and adapting to getting by with less. Less energy, less stuff and less stimulation, to borrow a phrase from John Michael Greer. This will mean a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience but given the high level of consumption in the developed world, there is quite a bit of room for this sort of adaptation. I think there is good reason to believe that many of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

When it comes right down to it, the bare necessities are energy, food and water. All three are going to be in short supply as collapse progresses over the next few decades, and those shortages will frequently lead to crises. The term "necessities" implies you can't adapt to such shortages, at least not in the long term. All you can do is try to be where they are less severe.

Cities rely on supplies shipped in from other locations. Before fossil fuels, the largest cities had populations of one million or a little more, and that only in ideal circumstances where water transportation made it possible to bring food in from a large enough surrounding area to feed that many people. Cities today rely on complex infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to supply their inhabitants. They will be in deep trouble as collapse progresses.

On the other hand there are many rural locations where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood, which can be cut by hand if necessary
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps, or surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery
  • the population is small enough that organizing such alternate arrangements will not be impossibly difficult to do when it becomes necessary.

This is the essence of why I think we will have a better time adapting to collapse in rural areas. Yes, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to accept a less affluent lifestyle, but it is all quite doable. As always, what I am recommending here as a viable response to collapse will only work if relatively few people follow my advice. But somehow, I don't think that will be a problem.

The standard trope in discussions of collapse and in collapse fiction is that the most extreme sort of catastrophe happens very quickly, widely and early in the process of collapse. Things break down pretty much completely over a period of days, and people are left thirsty, hungry and freezing in the dark. The sort of perfect storm it would require to have all this happen at once all across even one city, much less a whole country or continent is pretty unlikely in my opinion, though it does make for exciting stories.

After this fast and drastic collapse it is assumed that there will be roving hordes of hungry people leaving the cities to engage in looting and other violence in the countryside, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. But we should bear in mind that, even in the unlikely event of such a collapse, people can't walk far on empty stomachs, especially when they aren't used to walking much at all. Thirst and hunger are debilitating and in a fast collapse most people, caught unawares and unprepared, would not think to head out until they were already in pretty desperate shape. If this really were to happen, what you would end up with is piles of corpses along the sides of the roads, gradually thinning out as you get farther out of the city.

But of course, that is not the way I see it happening at all. Long before things have broken down completely, economic contraction will leave fewer and fewer people with jobs to keep them in the city. At the same time, infrastructure and supply chain failures will become more frequent and more lengthy, providing the nudge that people need to get them moving. First there will first be a trickle of people leaving the cities, mainly those who left the country to find jobs in the city in the recent past. Later on, there will be a wave of refugees leaving the cities following each new disaster.

While governments still have the wherewithall to do so, many of these people will end up in refugee camps. But as economic contraction eventually starves governments to the point where they simply don't have resources to do much of anything, those camps will stop being serviced and people will be left to their own devices, both in the cities and in the camps. And by the time things have broken down completely, there will only be a few people left in the cities.

The actual facts about how people respond to disasters paints a very different picture from what most people expect. There is a deep human need to come together in crises to take care of each other. And contrary to the horrific picture of typical reactions painted by the "disaster mythology" (especially points 2, 3 and 4 in that article), in fact communities often do come together to help themselves in the most extraordinarily positive ways. This works best in communities where people already know each other and where things haven't broken down to the point where there are hostile factions that are basically at war. And of course, it requires at least a minimum of the resources needed to keep people alive (energy, food, water). These resources are far more likely to be available outside the cities.

It has also been suggested, that when the financial sector crashes, the commercial sector must fall apart too for lack of working credit arrangements, and with catastrophic results. I don't agree—even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally.p>

From personal experience in agriculture and the power industry I would predict that the people at the workface in critical industries will simply refuse to set down their tools when the results would be disastrous, just because banks are no longer doing their part. Alternate credit arrangements will be set up, involving handshakes, records kept on paper and promises to straighten it all out after the dust settles, rather than let people freeze and starve in the dark if there is any alternative at all.

Make no mistake, I don't mean to suggest that "Business as Usual" can continue on after a major financial collapse using jerry rigged credit arrangements. But there is a vast distance between BAU in all its glory and complete collapse where everything quits working. There is a lot of inertia in the systems which we most need to keep working: the power grid, industrial agriculture, the various systems by which fuels, especially diesel fuel, are distributed, and transportation and communication. This sort of thing will mitigate to a degree situations that would otherwise be thoroughly catastrophic.

So, anyway, you're going to move to the country, to position yourself where surviving collapse is the more doable.

The first thing to decide is when you should make this move. Many people, who live in sheltered circumstances, don't realize that collapse has already been happening for quite a while and that parts of many cities are already nicely along their way in the process of collapse. And it appears that we are in for another financial crash that will make things much worse. You want to leave well before your personal resources have become so depleted that you can't make the move successfully.

So this is more urgent than you might think. Still, I'm not suggesting you leave in a panic today. But do start preparing right away, and leave as soon as you can do so in an orderly fashion with a workable destination already arranged. You don't want to end up in one of those camps. Nor do you want to end up as one of a large wave of refugees arriving in a rural community, especially if that community is unprepared for you arrival, as will likely be the case.

This is more than just a matter of getting out of the cities before things get really miserable there. It's going to take some time to get set up where you are going and to become integrated into your new community. At the moment, people are still leaving small rural towns to find work in the city, but the day will come when that flow reverses. You want to be seen as a relatively old hand in your small town when that happens.

One of the challenges of the slow and uneven collapse that I am predicting, and which has indeed been going on for several decades now, is that there is never going to be a day when you can say at bedtime, "yep, industrial civilization collapsed today." Looking back years later it will be more obvious that collapse has been happening, but still hard to pin down a specific date for when it happened, even in any one location.

If you are at ground zero for one of those catastrophes I listed, there will usually be somewhere else where things are better and you can go as a refugee. But waiting to be a refugee, or worse yet a victim of catastrophe, is exactly what I recommend you don't do. As I have said before, the only real choice you have is to be part of the influx of refugees or to be among of those who are welcoming that influx. I would say that the latter role is very much preferable. A timely move, before things get serious, can put you on the right side of things.

But where to go? In the second post in this series I identified a number of criteria for selecting a new location, based on avoiding the worst effects of climate change:

  • well above sea level
  • not at the top of a bluff overlooking the sea that is being gradually eroded away
  • not situated so as to take the full brunt of tropical storms
  • not in the floodplain of a river
  • not in a desert or semi-desert that relies on water from fossil aquifers that are being depleted faster than they are replenished or rivers fed by melt water from disappearing glaciers
  • not subject to hot season temperatures or heat waves that are not survivable if the power goes out or you can't afford air conditioning
  • receiving enough rain to allow for agriculture largely without irrigation
  • with a growing season and soil that will support agriculture

Now based on the need to get out of the city and find a location where adapting to post-industrial collapse conditions will be easier, we can add a few more criteria:

  • far enough from the city to avoid the worst of what's going to happen there and so that the waves of refugees will be largely spent and small in number when they arrive at your location, and to be isolated from epidemics as well
  • in a small town (a few hundred to a few thousand people) or on a farm near such a town
  • where the surrounding agricultural area can support the local population using low tech, sustainable agricultural methods
  • where there is still some standing timber, mainly for firewood, but also for all the many other things that can be done with wood
  • where the ground water or surface water is potable or can be made that way with simple filtration
  • where you have connections in the community, or where you can make those connections with some work hard
  • where you can initially earn a living or set up to live off your savings/investments/pension

There are a few things that such a community needs to be prepared to do and you should work toward being in a position to encourage that preparation. At some point the trucks are going to stop running. You'll need to get by on local resources.

  • Many small towns have a water treatment plant that relies on chemicals that are shipped in on a "just in time" basis. A stockpile of those chemicals and/or a plan for moving to an alternate source of potable water will be critical.
  • You will need a plan to feed the populace when the grocery store shelves are empty, using local farm products, so that people don't panic and start helping themselves to, and in the process destroying, the stock and crops on local farms.
  • It will only be a matter of time until your connection to the power grid fails. Firewood, wood burning stoves, lanterns and so forth will be in short supply and you'll want to be prepared.
  • While perhaps not quite so urgent, some thought should be given to how welcome refugees. This is on humanitarian grounds, if nothing else. A community that is willing to drive refugees away at gun point, will eventually be willing to treat its own member just as harshly. Your remote location should ensure you won't be overrun, that a manageable number of refugees show up. Your aim should be to treat these folks as well as you treat yourselves and, without abusing them, to turn them into a resource rather than a burden. You will be switching over to a lifestyle where people are needed to replace automation, so that shouldn't be too hard.

It would be excellent if the existing authorities were aware of what's coming and had plans to deal with it, but I should think that is pretty unlikely in most small towns. Better to get to know some of the locals, particularly farmers, well enough to be able to get together with them and organize what's needed when the time comes. If you set a good enough example, others will follow.

More on that, and other practical considerations, next time.

 

Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy

 

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 26, 2018

 
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In my last post I talked about responding to changes in our "natural" environment caused by climate change. Today I'll be talking about responding to changes in the human part of our environment, the part that we have created, both the "built" physical environment and the social environment.

We are social animals and also technological (tool using) animals. For the last few million years our ancestors evolved to live in groups and use technology. In one way of looking at it, our techniques for working together in groups are an organizational technology that greatly amplifies what we could do alone.

At any rate, for a long time now we have been dependent on technology—we certainly aren't much good alone, naked and empty handed. Technology needs energy to make it work and for most of our history that energy has come from food via muscles (human or animal), biomass (mainly firewood), and to a lesser extent wind, moving water and the sun. But over the last couple of centuries we've added cheap and abundant fossil fuels to that mix of energy sources. We've gradually become dependent on a global network of complex technology powered by those fuels for the very necessities of life.

This is a cause for concern—what if energy were to become more expensive and/or less abundant? As it certainly seems likely to do in the near future. Well, in short, the way we live would have to change, becoming less energy intensive, and it seems very likely that the planet would no longer be able to support so very many of us. It can barely support the number of us that are alive today, so this would mean a significant dieoff of the human population. And the climate change related problems we talked about last time will only make this worse.

Of course this is nothing new. I've discussed the ideas of carrying capacity, overshoot and dieoff many times over the years on this blog. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and if we are to discuss strategies for living through collapse, we need to look closely at those details.

The economy is a major and critically important part of the modern human environment and one that is fueled by energy, so I see depletion of fossil fuel energy resources (often referred to as Peak Oil) as the major challenge as far as the human built environment goes. To really understand that challenge, it is important to understand a bit about "biophysical" or "surplus energy" economics. Have a look at those links for more detail, but I'll try to explain in brief.

First, why is energy so critical to the functioning of the economy? Modern industrial processes are significantly more productive than the cottage industry of just a few hundred years ago, and it requires a lot of energy to make them work. The energy that drives these processes is worth far more in terms of the goods it produces than the price that industry pays for it. As such, energy is far more than just another commodity. And it must be abundant and cheap, if industry is to be profitable and the economy is to continue growing.

Second, why are fossil fuels such an important source of energy? Basically because they have been abundant, cheap and convenient to use. When I say cheap, I am not just talking about the cost in dollars, but in the amount of energy it takes to access fossil fuel energy. This is defined as the "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI). Early in the twentieth century, when oil came into prominence as an energy source, it took just one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground—the EROEI was 100. The "surplus energy" was over 99% and this was a tremendous stimulus for economic growth.

Since we have developed fossil fuel resources on a "lowest hanging fruit" basis, the easiest to access, highest quality sources have gradually been used up. Modern oil discoveries rarely have an EROEI better than 10. Unconventional sources of oil, such as fracking and tar sands, have even lower EROEIs. And sadly, the renewable energy sources that are being considered to replace fossil fuels also have very low EROEIs. Even lower if you add in the energy storage required if intermittent sources like wind and solar are to be put into practical use.

The important thing to understand here is that there is a very clear link between the average EROEI of a country's energy sources and the strength of its economy. As that average EROEI goes down, industry starts to become less and less profitable. Below 15 this gets very serious—it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new endeavours and existing businesses find it hard to stay profitable. As the average EROEI decreases further, infrastructure replacement and even routine maintenance of infrastructure becomes difficult to fund. Industrial civilization starts to crumble and the kinds of heroic efforts it would take to save it are beyond its capabilities.

Conventional economists are blind to this and assume that as one energy source runs out, demand will successfully fuel efforts to find a substitute. Without a clear understanding of EROEI, evaluating the merits of such substitutes can be very difficult. Already we are seeing "energy sprawl" as wind turbines and solar panels are springing up everywhere, but with such low EROEIs that they are actually lowering the average EROEIs of the systems they are being added to.

Some people argue that there are huge reserves of unconventional fossil fuels, enough to last for centuries, "so where's the problem?" The problem is that these unconventional hydrocarbons have such low EROEIs that they are not a solution—pursuing them just makes things worse.

The same is true of nuclear fission—lots of fuel, but such a low EROEI (around 9) that it's no help. If at some point we manage to design practical fusion reactors, it is pretty clear that they will be so complex that their EROEI will be even lower than fission reactors, making the abundance of fusion fuel a moot point.

The essence of our situation here in the early twenty first century is that the problem of declining surplus energy doesn't have a solution. Of course, in addition to that underlying and insoluble problem, there are lots of things wrong with our social/governmental/economic systems that make the situation even worse. Definitely it would help to fix these problems, but it is important to keep in mind that, even if they were all fixed, everything wouldn't suddenly be OK—the main problem would still exist. And because of declining surplus energy, it's going to get harder and harder to fix anything.

So, what to do? Well, we just have to adapt to these new realities. Here I am going to borrow some ideas from Prof. Jem Bendell's essay "Deep Adaptation", particularly his three Rs.

Bendell is mainly concerned with climate change and after doing a review of the current findings of climate science, he concludes that "collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is likely and extinction is possible". Considering declining surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction as well as climate change leads me to the same conclusions, maybe more so. Even without any catastrophic events, the slow collapse of industrial civilization, brought on by the falling EROEI of its energy sources, is surely an inevitability. And we should be planning our response to such a slow and tedious collapse, which will require a great deal of adaptation to our new circumstances.

There are many forms of denial that people fall into when faced with the certainly of collapse. Not surprisingly, most people see their continued livelihood and their feelings of self-worth as being dependent on the possibility of ongoing material progress. This is the "religion of progress" which is so central to our modern society. Collapse, of course, means the end of material of progress, and immersion in a complex predicament beyond our control. Admitting this is even possible has, at least initially, a crushing effect on most people.

But, for those who have overcome their denial, Bendell's three Rs hold the key to successful adaptation.

First comes "Resilience". This means having the personal resources—emotional toughness to keep going in the face of collapse and the willingness to adapt to conditions that we have been taught are simply unacceptable (involving a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience). I am currently reading Resilience, by Rick Hanson, which gives an abundance of advice on achieving a greater degree of personal, internal resilience.

The alternative is to continue with denial, or having accepted the reality of the situation, give up and abandon any attempt to adapt. To do so is a great pity, since the situation is potentially survivable. Not to minimize the rigors of collapse, especially of the kind of dieoff we will eventually be facing, but there is good reason to think that some of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

In order to be among those who survive, resilience also involves having accumulated some physical and social resources which will tide us through when the system that currently supports us falls apart, allowing us to hang in there long enough so that we have a chance to adapt. These are the things we will decide we do really need to keep in order to meet our basic needs—safety, satisfaction and connection. Our ancestors did this for millions of years without the help of industrial civilization, so I think there is some chance we can do so as well.

Next comes "Relinquishment". This means deciding what we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse. Clearly, many aspects of modern industrial society cannot be sustained and will have to be abandoned.

Lastly comes "Restoration". This means deciding what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies. In building our modern world there is much that we have set aside, old things that can brought back and put to good use in our low energy future.

I could spend one or more posts looking at the details of these three Rs, and it is likely that I will. I think there are many different approaches that should be tried, and of those, quite a few that will be successful to some degree. The main thing is that people actually give it a try.

So, we started out to have a closer look at the details of collapse in order to gain a better perspective on strategies for living through collapse and after it. I think an understanding of surplus energy's role in economics and the three Rs outlined above is a good start. But to delve deeper into this, I think we need to take a look at mankind's disturbing tendency to group together in ever large settlements. We tend to focus on the advantages of living in cities and to ignore what it takes to make a city work, how it can stop and what might happen when it does.

Cities rely on long supply lines and extensive infrastructure to supply their inhabitants. Our failure to maintain that infrastructure and its resulting decay is already leading to intermittent outages of services for which there is no local alternative. At some point the line between outage and catastrophe blurs and not long after that it becomes unavoidably clear that collapse is really happening.

Now I am a country boy, so perhaps I am biased, but it is my contention that cities are going to be very hard hit by collapse, even the sort of slow collapse that I am talking about. I think that escaping to a more rural area before collapse progresses much further would be a good idea.

The key question, though, is why do I think things will be any better in rural areas?

There is no doubt in my mind that the crises related to supplies of energy, water and food (the basic necessities), which will no doubt occur as industrial civilization crumbles, will effect rural areas just as much as urban ones. People in rural areas are just as much a part of "Business As Usual" as people in the city, just as dependent on long supply chains and complex systems. And when there are disasters, relief efforts are likely to be focused on large population centres, ignoring the rural areas just on the basis of what will help the most people with the least effort.

But we are already seeing the US federal government tapering back on relief efforts in response to hurricanes and passing the responsibility off to the private sector. There is little reason to believe they will do any better. And not far down the road local communities, be they urban or rural, will find themselves essentially on their own when the going gets tough.

The good news is that there are many rural areas where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood which can be cut by hand
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps and surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery

Sure, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to adapt our lifestyles, but it is all quite doable. This is not the case in the city, where local resources for self-sufficient living are simply not available.

When I speak of rural areas, let me make it clear that I am talking about small towns of a few hundred to a few thousand people, surrounded by farmland, not isolated farmsteads. It will take more than a single family or two to make this work. Indeed isolation is one of the most debilitating conditions that you can find yourself in as a human being.

During the last few decades neoliberalism, in its endless search for profit, has done its best to monetize every human relationship and to isolate individuals from each other. The declining economy is leading to increased under employment and unemployment, poverty and homelessness all of which stresses our communities and isolates their individual members. And civil unrest is growing as inequality between the upper and lower classes increases and the degree to which the lower classes are being abandoned becomes more obvious.

But many small towns are a long way behind cities on that curve and their communities are still intact enough that co-operation is possible when it becomes clear what is required. And during a slow collapse it will gradually become more clear what the situation really is. To enough people, at least, that those advance preparations will get made. Collapse aware people have an important role to play there.

For a long time now, young people have been moving from areas like the one where I live to the cities in order to get an education and find work. The day will come (as I understand it already has as conditions have worsened in Greece) when the situation in the cities will be so bad, they will start to come home to take advantage of the somewhat better situation in the country. They will be able to pitch in and help their families adapt to collapse.

So far I have been talking about adapting during a slow and steady collapse. But of course catastrophic events can by no means be ruled out. In particular, our financial systems are largely virtual and as such are subject to extremely fast collapse when they fail. They will be the first to go, and that will have a negative effect on everything else.

It appears to me that most real economic growth ended in the 1990s and since then growth has largely taken the form of financial bubbles, fueled by debt instead of energy. Those who have money are desperate to find somewhere to invest it at a good return, but profitable, growing businesses are becoming rare, so instead they invest in ever more speculative endeavours. That's fine as long as the price is going up, but every such bubble is looking for a pin to burst it. A few months ago I said that we can expect a financial crash of greater magnitude than 1929 or 2008, sometime in the next few years and nothing has happened since then to change my opinion.

Already we have had a minor spike in the price of oil, trouble for the currencies of emerging market countries, and some indication that the long running bull market may be coming to an end. We are in the middle of this and it isn't yet clear if this is the start of a recession, or if the economy will rally and put off the big crash for some months or years yet.

When that crash does happen, I think that even in cities most of the population will survive the initial days of a financial collapse, mainly because of heroic efforts on the part of individuals in shop floor and low level management positions in supply chain and infrastructure organizations. The people at the tops of those organizations will be largely paralyzed, or at worst doing exactly the wrong thing. But even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. And that's a good thing, because it means when things get really bad locally, there may well be someplace to go where things are better.

I expect there will be some reduction in our population due to supply chain failures following financial crashes. But the big dieoff that lies ahead of us will happen when industrial scale agriculture (both conventional and organic) comes hard up against resource limits—mainly fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers.

Still, it is possible that in the wake of a financial crash the stereotype of a city full of people starving in the dark with no help in sight will occur occasionally. For the vast majority of the unprepared people in that city this will not a survivable scenario. For anyone who really has no other choice but to stay in the city for now, it might be best to have a few weeks of food, water, etc. on hand and plan to stay at home during such a situation, keeping a very low profile, until things settle down and only then head for the country.

But you and I, of course, will have long since moved to a small town at a safe distance from the city. The standard trope in discussions of collapse involves our little town being overrun with roving hordes of hungry people engaged in looting and other forms of violence. I think this is unlikely. The key is to be farther away from the city than most of its population can walk on empty stomachs, which is not that great a distance. Thirst and starvation are debilitating and most people will not think to head out until they are quite desperate.

A few people will no doubt make it through though. It is my opinion that it would be better for everyone involved to welcome them with food and medical assistance, rather than fight them off with guns. It will be a bit of a trick to be set up to do that and in my next post I will look at the practicalities of moving to a small town in the country and getting ready to cope as the pace of collapse increases.

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 2: Climate Change

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool September 15, 2018

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These squash just climbed up and helped themselves to a seat.

The title for this series of posts started out as "Preparing for collapse", but in my last post I immediately went into a rant about how I see a hard, fast, world-crippling collapse as pretty improbable. What I'm observing instead is a slow collapse that has already been happening for several decades and will continue for several more, albeit with much the same end result as a fast collapse. KMO, one of my favourite podcasters and a follower of this blog, suggested a better title would be Responding to Collapse, and that's what I'll be using from now on. Thanks, KMO.

Of course, I expect that the degree of collapse will become more intense as time passes, and it is that which we should try to prepare for (or respond to). Times will become gradually harder and occasionally bad things will happen that make things quite a bit worse all at once. But things will be much worse in some areas than others and if you are clever you can arrange to be where you'll miss the worst of it. Though if you think you can arrange to miss all of it, you're kidding yourself.

Over the next few posts I'll be offering some rules of thumb for surviving collapse. But always remember not to follow any rule off a cliff. Look at your own current circumstances and adjust my ideas fit.

All of what I am suggesting here only works if the great majority of people ignore my advice or, more likely, never hear it in the first place. One of our biggest problems, now and for quite a while yet, is that there are too many people living on this planet. If a great many people where to head in the direction I am pointing, the advantage of being there would immediately go away.

This is already starting to play out in some parts of the world where things are getting bad enough politically, economically and/or climate-wise that many are leaving in desperation. I am talking about places like the Middle East, North Africa, Venezuela and to some extent even Puerto Rico, where people are leaving for the mainland U.S. in droves. As the numbers of refugees mount the welcome they receive gets less enthusiastic. But bear in mind that the only real choice you will have in this situation is to be part of the influx of refugees or to be among of those who are welcoming it. I would say that the latter role is very much preferable. A timely move, before things get serious, can put you on the right side of things.

And those of you who applaud their government for clamping down on immigrants and immigration, consider this: if your government is so ready to mistreat "those people", how long will they hesitate to treat you similarly when it becomes convenient? Better to take part in the political process (vote, as a minimum) and work towards a government with more humane and progressive policies.

Some of those bad things that might make you want to move will be caused by climate change and today I'd like to focus on the negative effects of climate change, specifically higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

I should say in advance that if you are in denial about climate change, please go somewhere else where you'll be more welcome. I simply don't have the energy or inclination to engage with you. As far as I am concerned it's happening, we're causing it by adding CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and it's going to get worse for quite a while yet. Especially since it doesn't seem like we are going to do anything about reducing green house gas emissions until collapse forces us to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels and our level of consumption in general. At the same time, I give very little credence to those who talk about near term extinction of the human race. That's way too much of an easy way out, and little more than an excuse for inaction.

Much of how we have come to live over the last few thousand years was determined by the climate, which has been fairly stable and accommodating to the way we practice agriculture. Based on this, we have been a very successful species, at least if you judge by how we have spread over the planet and how our population has grown. During the last couple of centuries energy from fossil fuels has enabled us to become even more "successful". We have overcome some challenges that had previously been insurmountable and managed to feed an ever growing population.

The Green Revolution involved some "improved" plant varieties that give startlingly better yields in response to optimized irrigation, fertilization and pest control, all of which have been facilitated by the ready availability of cheap energy. Unfortunately, this has involved the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, the water in fossil aquifers, and deposits of potash and phosphorous.

We've managed to live and even farm in areas that were previously deserts. and we've been able to ship food from all over the world to areas where the population couldn't even remotely be supported by local agriculture. But the days of cheap fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides, abundant fossil water, and low cost worldwide shipping (with refrigeration as needed) are coming to an end at the same time as the climate is going crazy. We're are going to have to adapt as best we can.

So, let's have a closer a look at the consequences of climate change.

There is no doubt that the climate is warming worldwide and will continue to do so. That warming is much more intense in the high latitudes, leading to melting of major ice shields in Greenland and Antarctica. Mountain glaciers are also melting and disappearing at an alarming rate. To make matters worse, the water and land exposed by melting ice is much less reflective that the ice was and retains more of the heat from the sun rather than reflecting it back into space, leading to even more warming.

Ice is only about 89.5% as dense as sea water. This is why about 10% of the mass of an iceberg sticks out of the water, and why when ice floating in sea water melts, it does not change the level of the water. So the ice covering the Arctic Ocean will have no effect on sea level as it melts. But ice sitting on land does increase sea level when it melts and runs into the sea. This is true of the ice in Greenland and in mountain glaciers, and of much of the ice in Antarctica.

The loss of mountain glaciers also effects the way in which precipitation is stored and flows into rivers and we'll get to that in a moment, but for now, let's concentrate on sea level rise.

Interestingly, sea level isn't the same everywhere. When we speak of altitudes "above sea level" we are talking about "Mean Sea Level", which is an average level of the surface of one or more of Earth's oceans. But what we are concerned about here is the actual sea level at any particular location, and this can differ quite a bit from one location to another, and from one time to another, as the sea is in constant motion, affected by the tides, wind, atmospheric pressure, local gravitational differences, temperature, salinity and so forth. In addition to melting ice, sea level has been increasing during at least the last century as the oceans have heated up due to climate change. Further, many human settlements are built on river deltas, where subsidence of land contributes to a substantially increased effective sea level rise. This is caused by both unsustainable extraction of groundwater (in some places also by extraction of oil and gas), and by levees and other flood management practices that prevent accumulation of sediments from compensating for the natural settling of deltaic soils.

Here is an interactive map that illustrates what areas will be flooded as sea level rises. You can select the amount of rise and scroll around and zoom in to see the effect on the parts of the world that interest you most.

When I initially looking at that map, even with the sea level rise set to the highest level, it didn't seem all that bad—there will be lots of dry land left. But, zooming in and giving it a little further thought, I realized that the missing piece of information is what currently occupies the relatively small areas that would be flooded—a whole lot of people, many of whom are living in the world's largest and most economically important cities.

It's hard to nail down how many people will get their feet wet for any particular increase in sea level, but I did find one article that discusses this in some detail.

The writer says,

"Current estimates for the absolute maximum sea level rise, if the glaciers at both poles melted, range from 225 to 365 feet, with the latter being more likely accurate. If sea levels rose that much, coastal lands would be depressed several meters and transgressive erosion would also occur. So, for instance, even though Long Island has many points that are above 300 feet or so, none of it would survive the transgressive erosion because it is all glacial till. It is hard to extrapolate from the numbers above to a 100+ meter rise, and improper to do so, but consider that if the human population is concentrated near the seas, and 10% live below the 10 meter line, then it is probably true that well more than half live below the 100 meter line, and many more within the area that would be claimed by the sea through erosion and depression."

But while all that ice may well melt eventually, most sources predict that sea level will only go up a few feet during this century. That would be less destructive, but even moderate increases in sea level combined with more severe and more frequent storms, and with tides (if the timing of those storms is bad), will result in previously unheard of damage to seaside settlements. We've already seen some of this with Katrina, Sandy and several storms (Harvey, Irma, Maria) in the fall 2017, that hit the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico and Florida. As I write this, Hurricane Florence is heading for the Carolinas. It promises to last longer and bring with it a lot of rain due to the unusually high temperatures associated with it

Clearly, you'll want to be away from the seashore. But you don't want to jump from the pan directly into the fire, so we need t look at what other climate change related problems you might face farther inland. In an attempt to increase the content value of this post, I found some more maps which illustrate the effect climate change is going to have over the coming decades.

Climate change is a global problem, but in my search it became obvious that quite a lot more information is available for the U.S. and Canada, and since many of my readers are from North America, I'm including some of that information here.

Looking at those maps and a lot of other study led me to the following conclusions:

Tropical storms can do quite a bit of damage fairly far inland—look at what Maria did to Puerto Rico—even the mountainous inland parts of the island. This is something to take into consideration if you currently live in the Caribbean, near the gulf coast of the U.S. or near the eastern board of the U.S. Tropical storms in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are not something we hear much about in the mass media in North America, but they do happen and have lots of potential for damage to human settlements. If you live where this happens you're probably well aware of it and can take it into account in your plans.

People are often proud of the way they have managed to rebuild after storms, and this is fine if you're talking about storms that only happen once a century or so. But as storms become more frequent the financial resources to rebuild every few years will dwindle away. The best time to move is when things have recovered nicely from the most recent storm, but well before the next one. Of course, if it looks like recovery isn't going to happen, then it's time to get out, regardless of the cost.

It always astonishes me the way people are willing, perhaps even eager, to build or move into accommodation on the floodplains of rivers. The story is always that the river floods only very rarely and hasn't flooded in a long time. Now that sounds to me like a promise that flooding can be expected shortly even without climate change. But as climate change brings more violent storms even outside the tropics and changes in the pattern of precipitation and spring melting of the winter snow pack, more frequent floods are a certainty. So don't be fooled when moving into a new area—stay away from floodplains and areas likely to be undercut by erosion.

Heat waves are becoming more common everywhere, but particularly in the tropics. Many areas will eventually get to the point where they will be uninhabitable for large parts of the year if you don't have air conditioning or housing designed to cope. As always, the poor will be hardest hit.

The lack of water can be just as much of a problem as too much.

Already deserts are expanding and they will continue to do so, consuming the semi desert areas surrounding the desert where people have been living and are now forced to leave. This is already happening in North Africa and the Middle East and is the root cause of a lot of political unrest.

Droughts are becoming more common and are striking areas that traditionally have not suffered droughts. The Pacific Northwest, including California and British Columbia, is one such example. Even areas such as the one where I live, which is getting slightly more precipitation overall, are suffering from changes in when the precipitation happens. In the case of southern Ontario, we're getting more precipitation in fall, winter and spring but less in the summer. This is a problem for agriculture hereabouts, which has traditionally relied on getting a sufficient rain in the summer.

There are areas in the southwest of the U.S. that have traditionally been seen as deserts, but during the twentieth century were made to bloom, using water from pump from fossil aquifers and rivers dammed and diverted. Unfortunately the aquifers are just about depleted and all the water in the rivers is being used while demand still grows. As precipitation decreases and temperatures increase even at higher altitudes, there is less accumulation of snow and glaciers melt away, meaning that rivers fed by melting snow and ice run dry earlier in the summer, if they run at all.

There is a great deal to be said about areas outside of North America, but this would require a lot more research on my part and delay the publication of this post even more. But I was reading recently that Spain and Portugal are experiencing a severe drought, and it is expected to get worse.

People have difficultly responding rationally to these sorts of problems. Slowly increasing temperatures, slowly rising sea levels and slowly spreading desertification are the kind of thing that we tend to let future generations worry about, thinking it's not going to happen here, not just yet anyway. Then one day it does happen and many are caught unprepared.

Catastrophes that happen irregularly and unpredictably, like storms, heat waves, droughts and forest fires, are the kind of thing we live through and convince ourselves won't be happening again anytime soon. But as climate change progresses, they will become ever more frequent and more difficult to recover from.

Don't be caught in denial—where ever you are, you'll be experiencing some negative effects from climate change. But in some places, those effects will be overwhelming and the only viable response is to move away. Better to be well ahead of the rush. If you own property, better to get it sold while there are still buyers who haven't caught on to what's happening.

So, you're looking for a place that is, and will continue to be:

  • well above sea level
  • not at the top of a bluff overlooking the sea that is being gradually eroded away
  • not situated so as to take the full brunt of tropical storms
  • not in the floodplain of a river
  • not in a desert or semi-desert that relies on water from fossil aquifers that are being depleted faster than they are replenished or rivers fed by glacial melt water
  • not subject to hot season temperatures or heat waves that are not survivable if the power goes out or you can't afford air conditioning
  • receiving enough rain to allow for agriculture
  • with a growing season and soil that will support agriculture

In addition to the problems caused by climate change, the other two main concerns of this blog (resource depletion and economic contraction) are going to see most of us becoming quite a bit poorer, and not relying on anything that uses much energy, including shipping things in from far away. Most of our own food will have to be grown locally and the smaller amount of "stuff" we consume will be made locally.

In a future post (coming soon) I'll be talking about coping with the challenge of finding and fitting into a community that can survive under these conditions. For now I'll just say don't assume that collapse will relieve you of the necessity of earning a living in the growth based capitalist economy. It's going to take a long time to switch over to a low energy, low consumption, non-growth economy and in the meantime, most of us will have to keep a foot in both worlds, and initially mainly in the currently existing world.

So any plan for a move will have to take into account the necessity of earning a living where ever you go. You may well find that the pressure of earning a living pushes you in the opposite direction from what collapse related planning would indicate is best.

Next time I'll look at the socio-economic side of things—the problems caused when we are surrounded by too many people and by too few, often at the same time.

 

Preparing for Collapse, A Few Rants

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool July 25, 2018

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For a while now I been promising that when I got some other things out of the way, I'd actually talk about preparing for collapse. And that is just what I'm going to be doing in this and the next few posts.

Unfortunately, my crystal ball isn't any better than anybody else's, probably worse than some. What I'll be recommending will reflect my own biases and weaknesses. But even so, I think I do have some insights that will be of value to many people.

Among these insights are a few things that I feel the need to rant about. Let's get that out of the way first.

Rant 1: A Fast and Hard Collapse, NOT

I should admit that by using the phrase "preparing for collapse" I am really being somewhat misleading. As I see it, collapse is not a single event that will occur at some point in the future, but a process that has already been going on for several decades, since the oil shocks of the 70s. Progress has been coasting slowly to a stop while collapse gains momentum. This will continue.

I certainly don't buy into the whole idea of a hard, fast, apocalyptic collapse. That is a fantasy that allows us to imagine getting rid of many of the less pleasant aspects of modern life all at once. Get it over with and start fresh, so to speak. In particular, I think many people see the complete and final collapse of the financial system as freeing them from oppressive debts and jobs they hate. A pretty drastic way to solve those problems….

And of course many of us have been influenced by apocalyptic fiction. A sudden and cataclysmic event certainly sets the stage for a dramatic story. But let's try to keep reality and fiction clearly separated in our thinking here.

At any rate, what I want to talk about is how to survive the slow and unsteady collapse that I believe we are experiencing, so that is what I'm going to do. There is much less to be said about surviving hard, fast, widespread collapse because it is much harder to do and there are fewer strategies that are likely to succeed. Still, much of what I have to say would apply to some extent, should I turn out to be wrong and things all fall apart all at once.

As I have said before this that collapse has been and will continue to be uneven geographical, unsteady chronologically, and unequal socially. Certainly there will occasionally be sudden downward bumps, but in some locations more than others and effecting various social strata differently. And then there will be a partial recovery and things will carry on for a while, somewhat worse than they were before.

This will continue on for quite a few more decades before we finally reach the bottom and the dust begins to settle. At that point, in a few lucky locations, there will still be people arguing that nothing much has really changed. For most of us, though, it will be clear that a great deal has changed and not for the better. Already the world is significantly different than it was when I was young and the strategies that served well in those days are not something I would recommend now.

Perhaps most importantly, we'll need to recognize that collapse is happening and act appropriately rather than carrying on doing the same old thing, trying to fine tune a system that is fundamentally broken and wondering why things don't improve.

Rant 2: Lifeboats and Eco-Villages, NOT

For quite a while yet it will not be feasible for most of us to completely sever our ties with BAU (Business as Usual). We'll find ourselves going in two directions at once, trying to prepare for collapse while still being dependent for many of the necessities of life on the very system that is collapsing. Of course, part of our preparation will consist of reducing key dependencies. But it is challenging to reduce those dependencies when BAU can supply our needs for less than they can be produced locally. This makes it hard to earn much of living as a local, sustainable producer—the prices you have to charge mean that only those who are well off can afford to indulge themselves with your products.

Many have suggested setting up a lifeboat community or an eco-village in a remote location and waving BAU goodbye. Some days it is tempting, but there's a long list of problems with that approach. It's hard to find a group of people who are both interested, willing to sever their ties with BAU and competent. It costs a lot of money to set up such a project. There are getting to be fewer and fewer remote areas that BAU has not claimed and/or spoiled, and where the locals would welcome you. Those that are left are less than ideal (to cold, too hot, too dry, too wet, poor soil, etc.). In any area where farming is feasible, there are likely to be property taxes and building codes. So you can't completely withdraw from the money based economy if you are going to pay your taxes, and it may be difficult to build the way you'd like to without running afoul of the building code.

Better to reconcile ourselves to having a foot in both worlds for now, and whole heartedly become a part of the communities in which we find ourselves living. We can quietly prepare for the day when BAU is more obviously faltering and local production can compete successfully. Of course some communities are more suitable for this than others.

Rant 3: Renewable Energy and Eco-Modernism, NOT

There are some people who recognize problems like peak oil and climate change but think they can be solved by switching over to high tech, low-carbon renewables (mainly wind and solar) and re-organizing things to be more efficient, allowing us to go right on with a green washed version of BAU, and keep the economy growing. These folks don't understand the economic problems with the low EROEI of renewable energy sources, or the degree to which those energy sources are dependent on fossil fuels for their manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance.

Eco-modernism is a particularly egregious example of a plan to fix our problems using technology. It relies on the idea of absolute decoupling. That is, being able to reduce our impact on the resource base and environment while still improving our standard of living and allowing the economy and our population to grow. So far, our best efforts have only achieved a small amount of relative decoupling. That is, at best, increases in population and standard of living have led to slightly less than proportional increases in impact, but nothing approaching decreases in impact.

Looking realistically at what technology can do, I find it hard to see how it could be otherwise and expect that collapse will force us to reduce both our population and level of consumption. At such lower levels of consumption, energy use and technology, renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind, moving water and passive solar will no doubt supply essentially all of the energy we use. But nowhere near enough to support the sort of high tech industrial civilization we have today.

Rant 4: Violence, NOT

Violence is another area where ideas based on apocalyptic fiction are likely to lead you astray. Conflict is necessary to make a story move along, and a long tradition of collapse porn saturated with interpersonal and inter-group violence has lead many people to see that as the only way things can unfold. Food becomes short, the "have-nots" go after the "haves" and mayhem ensures. This may make good reading, but it's not so much fun in reality, and certainly not something I'm interested in.

So, I am not a survivalist, and you won't find me talking much here about security and defense. There are lots of other sources of that sort of information, if it interests you. I'm more interested in not being where the fighting is likely to break out and setting things up in the community where I am so that co-operation is a more likely outcome than serious conflict. Like giving people better alternatives than violence, meeting them with food rather than guns. The trick is being able to do so.

Rant 5: Back to the Good Old Days, NOT

A number of well known voices in the "collapse sphere" have claimed that recent advances in social justice such as feminism and equal rights for LGBTQ people are likely to be rolled back during collapse. The argument is that these freedoms are possible only in a society with lots of surplus resources. These guys are men who are obviously uncomfortable with what they see as disadvantageous changes to the power structure of our society. They have a socially conservative fantasy of collapse putting them back in charge. But really, that is not the way it works.

First of all, while we will be returning to levels of energy use and material consumption that were common one or two or even more centuries in the past, it isn't really possible to go back to the way things were then. We are starting from a different place, we know a lot of things now that we didn't back then, and formerly oppressed people who have been given a chance at equality aren't going to give it up so easily.

Second, if you look across the world and throughout history, the patriarchy is far from universal and many societies working at very much lower levels of consumption than ours have functioned quite well as matriarchies or anarchies. A patriarchy is neither the most natural way to organize human societies nor the most efficient.

I am an old white guy too, if I can accept social changes, so can you.

Rant 6: Saving the World, NOT

Some have accused me of being out to save the world. It's pretty clear that by the world, they mean "Business As Usual" and in my opinion that world needs not to be saved, but to be shut down as quickly as possible. Sadly, this isn't going to happen voluntarily. Too many powerful people and institutions have a vested interest in keeping things going as they are. Heading straight toward collapse, in other words. A collapse that will see a drastic reduction in human population and consumption of resources per capita. This isn't going to be much fun to live through and many of us won't. The only good thing about it is that it will be the undoing of the very system that caused it. And when it is over it may be possible to continue on in a more modest, less destructive way.

Rant 7: Crunchies and Woo

I've noticed lately that posts on this blog often draw positive comments from people who go on to make it clear that they are "Crunchies" who believe in one sort or another of idea that isn't supported by the evidence, that isn't reality based—what I call "woo". After they've said such nice things to me, I always feel bad having to break it to them that I don't agree. Most of these folks are organic farmers or gardeners, who have bought into the "naturalistic fallacy" and think that everything that's natural must be good for you. In fact the products of organic farming and conventional farming about equal in terms of safety these days. That's good news for the many people who can't afford pricey organic food and don't have a garden to grow their own. The bad news is that both conventional and organic farming are also about equally unsustainable, mainly due to their reliance on energy from fossil fuels. We need to develop a "sustainable farming" that's based on science, not woo.

The tagline for this blog is "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity." When I use the terms "evidence based" or "reality based", I mean ideas that are supported by the scientific consensus. Many people today unfortunately believe that the scientific consensus supports BAU, and that's no wonder since BAU does its best to encourage that view. Fortunately, it's not true. The scientific consensus support some things on the Crunchy side and some things on the BAU side, because those things happen to be true. The scientific method is an excellent tool for filtering out biases, political or otherwise. There really isn't any good reason for ignoring its results.

But to be clear, comments from Crunchies of every sort are welcome here, just be aware of what the project of this blog really is and, that if you are pedlling woo, you'll get a gentle but firmly negative response.


But enough ranting for now. Time to talk about what we can do to prepare for the continuing process of collapse. We need to anticipate where current trends are taking us, and harder still, when things as likely to reach a tipping point and changing more drastically.

First off, I'd say that if you are new to this, give it a year or so to sink in before making any big decisions, and don't do anything rash in the meantime. Then you may want to consider some changes in the way you are living. What those changes might be will be the subject of my next few posts.

We'll be considering the following subjects, and probably a few more:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

While waiting for my next post (these things often take a while), here are a few links to articles which may be of help:

On this blog:

Sharon Astyk hasn't been very active as a writer lately, but her earlier writings are a great source of practical advice on "Adapting in Place", which is exactly the sort of preparation I'd advise you to do.

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 5: More Trends in Collapse

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool February 20, 2018

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Bitteersweet Berries
Still on the vine in February
 

In my last post I started talking about some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. (The bumpy road down being the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity). These changes will be forced on us by circumstances and are not necessarily how I'd like to see things turn out.

The trends I covered last time were:

  • our continued reliance on fossil fuels
  • the continuing decline in availability, and surplus energy content, of fossil fuels
  • the damage the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) will suffer in the next crash, and the effects this will have
  • the increase in authoritarianism, as governments attempt to optimize critical systems and relief efforts during and after the crash

 

Oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

I've once again included the stepped or "oscillating" decline diagram from previous posts here to make it easier to visualize what I'm talking about. This diagram isn't meant to be precise, certainly not when it comes to the magnitude and duration of the oscillations, which in any case will vary from one part of the world to the next.

The trends I want to talk about today are all interconnected. You can hardly discuss one without referring to the others, and so it is difficult to know where to start. But having touched briefly on a trend toward increased authoritarianism at the end of my last post, I guess I should continue trends in politics.

More Political Trends

Currently there seems to be a trend towards right wing politics in the developed world. I think anyone who extrapolates that out into the long run is making a basic mistake. Where right wing governments have been elected by those looking for change, they will soon prove to be very inept at ruling in an era of degrowth. Following that, there will likely be a swing in the other direction and left wing governments will get elected. Only to prove, in their turn, to be equally inept. Britain seems to be heading in this direction, and perhaps the U.S. as well.

Another trend is the sort of populism that uses other nations, and/or racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities at home as scapegoats for whatever problems the majority is facing. This strategy is and will continue to be used by clever politicians to gain support and deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Unfortunately, it leads nowhere since the people being blamed aren't the source of the problem.

During the next crash and following recovery governments will continue to see growth as the best solution to whatever problems they face and will continue to be blind to the limits to growth. Farther down the bumpy road some governments may finally clue in about limits. Others won't, and this will fuel continued growth followed by crashes until we learn to live within those limits.

One thing that seems clear is that eventually we'll be living in smaller groups and the sort of political systems that work best will be very different from what we have now.

Many people who have thought about this assume that we'll return to feudalism. I think that's pretty unlikely. History may seem to repeat itself, but only in loose outline, not in the important details. New situations arise from different circumstances, and so are themselves different. Modern capitalists would never accept the obligations that the feudal aristocracy had to the peasantry. Indeed freeing themselves of those obligations had a lot to do with making capitalism work. And the "99%" (today's peasantry) simply don't accept that the upper classes have any right, divine or otherwise, to rule.

In small enough groups, with sufficient isolation between groups, people seem best suited to primitive communism, with essentially no hierarchy and decision making by consensus. I think many people will end up living in just such situations.

In the end though, there will still be a few areas with sufficient energy resources to support larger and more centralized concentrations of population. It will be interesting to see what new forms of political structure evolve in those situations.

Economic Contraction

For the last couple of decades declining surplus energy has caused contraction of the real economy. Large corporations have responded in various ways to maintain their profits: moving industrial operations to developing countries where wages are lower and regulations less troublesome, automating to reduce the amount of expensive labour required, moving to the financial and information sectors of the economy where energy decline has so far had less effect.

The remaining "good" industrial jobs in developed nations are less likely to be unionized, with longer hours, lower pay, decreased benefits, poorer working conditions and lower safety standards. The large number of people who can't even get one of those jobs have had to move to precarious, part time, low paying jobs in the service industries. Unemployment has increased (despite what official statistics say) and the ranks of the homeless have swelled.

Since workers are also consumers, all this has led to further contraction of the consumer economy. We can certainly expect to see this trend continue and increase sharply during the next crash.

Our globally interconnected economy is a complex thing and that complexity is expensive to maintain. During the crash and the depression that follows it, we'll see trends toward simplification in many different areas driven by a lack of resources to maintain the existing complex systems. I'll be discussing those trends in a moment, but it is important to note that a lot of economic activity is involved in maintaining our current level of complexity and abandoning that complexity will mean even more economic contraction.

At the same time, small, simple communities will prove to have some advantages that aren't currently obvious.

Conservation

All this economic contraction means that almost all of us will be significantly poorer and we'll have to learn to get by with less. As John Michael Greer says, "LESS: less energy, less stuff, less stimulation." We'll be forced to conserve and will struggle to get by with "just enough". This will be a harshly unpleasant experience for most people.

Deglobalization

For the last few decades globalization has been a popular trend, especially among the rich and powerful, who are quick to extol its many supposed advantages. And understandably so, since it has enabled them to maintain their accustomed high standard of living while the economy as a whole contracts.

On the other hand, as I was just saying, sending high paying jobs offshore is a pretty bad idea for consumer economies. And I suspect that in the long run we'll see that it wasn't really all that good for the countries where we sent the work, either.

During the crash we'll see the breakdown of the financial and organizational mechanisms that support globalization and international trade. There will also be considerable problems with shipping, both due to disorganization and to unreliable the supplies of diesel fuel for trucks and bunker fuel for ships. I'm not predicting an absolute shortage of oil quite this soon, but rather financial and organizational problems with getting it out of the ground, refined and moved to where it is needed.

This will lead to the failure of many international supply chains and governments and industry will be forced to switch critical systems over to more local suppliers. This switchover will be part of what eventually drives a partial recovery of the economy in many localities.

In a contracting economy with collapsing globalization there would seem to be little future for multi-national corporations, and organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. While the crash may bring an end to the so called "development" of the "developing" nations, it will also bring an end to economic imperialism. At the same time, the general public in the developed world, many of whom are already questioning the wisdom of the "race to the bottom" that is globalization, will be even less likely to go along with it, especially when it comes to exporting jobs.

Still, when the upcoming crash bottoms out and the economy begins to recover, there will be renewed demand for things that can only be had from overseas and international trade will recover to some extent.

Decentralization

Impoverished organizations such a governments, multi-national corporations and international standards groups will struggle to maintain today's high degree of centralization and eventually will be forced to break up into smaller entities.

Large federations such as Europe, the US, Canada and Australia will see rising separatism and eventually secession. As will other countries where different ethnic groups have been forced together and/or there is long standing animosity between various localities. If this can be done peacefully it may actually improve conditions for the citizens of the areas involved, who would no longer have to support the federal organization. But no doubt it will just as often involve armed conflict, with all the destruction and suffering that implies.

Relocalization

The cessation of services from the FIRE industries and the resulting breakdown of international (and even national) supply and distribution chains will leave many communities with no choice but to fend for themselves.

One of the biggest challenges at first will be to get people to believe that there really is a problem. Once that is clear, experience has shown that the effectiveness of response from the victims of disasters is remarkable and I think that will be true again in this case. There are a lot of widely accepted myths about how society breaks down during disaster, but that's just what they are: myths. Working together in groups for our mutual benefit is the heart of humanity's success, after all.

Government response will take days or more likely weeks to organize, and in the meantime there is much we can do to help ourselves. Of course it helps to be prepared… (check out these posts from the early days of this blog: 1, 2) and I'll have more to say on that in upcoming posts.

The question then arises whether one would be better off in an urban center or a rural area such as a small town or a farm. Government relief efforts will be focused on the cities where the need will be greatest and the response easiest to organize. But just because of the millions of people involved, that response will be quite challenging.

Rural communities may well be largely neglected by relief efforts. But, especially in agricultural areas, they will find fending for themselves much more manageable.

I live in a rural municipality with a population of less than 12,000 people in an area of over 200 square miles (60 people per sq. mile, more than 10 acres per person). The majority of the land is agricultural, and supply chains are short, walking distance in many cases. Beef, dairy and cash crops are the main agricultural activities at present and they can easily be diverted to feed the local population. Especially if the food would go to waste anyway due to the breakdown of supply chains downstream from the farm.

So I think we're likely to do fairly well until the government gets around to getting in touch with us again, probably sometime after the recovery begins.

In subsequent crashes the population will be significantly reduced and those of us who survive will find ourselves living for the most part in very small communities which are almost entirely relocalized. The kind of economy that works in that situation is very different from what we have today and is concerned with many things other than growth and profit making.

Rehumanization

The move toward automation that we've seen in the developed world since the start of the industrial revolution has been driven by high labour costs and the savings to be had by eliminating labour from industrial processes as much as possible. That revolution started and proceeded at greatest speed in Britain where labour rates where the highest, and still hasn't happened in many developing nations where labour is very cheap.

Sadly, the further impoverishment of the working class in Europe and North American will make cheaper labour available locally, rather than having to go offshore. During the upcoming crash, and in the depression following it, impoverished people will have no choice but to work for lower rates and will out compete automated systems, especially when capital to set them up, the cutting edge technology needed to make them work, and the energy to power them are hard to come by. Again, the economic advantages of simplicity will come into play when it is the only alternative, and help drive the recovery after the first crash.

The Food Supply and Overpopulation

In the initial days of the coming crash there will be problems with the distribution systems for food, medical supplies and water treatment chemicals, all of which are being supplied by "just in time" systems with very little inventory at the consumer end of the supply chain. To simplify this discussion, I'll talk primarily about food.

It is often said that there is only a 3 day supply of food on the grocery store shelves. I am sure this is approximately correct. In collapse circles, the assumption is that, if the trucks stop coming, sometime not very far beyond that 3 day horizon we'd be facing starvation. There may be a few, incredibly unlucky, areas where that will be more or less true.

But, depending on the time of year, much more food than that (often more than a year's worth) is stored elsewhere in the food production and distribution system. The problem will be in moving this food around to where it is needed, and in making sure another year's crops get planted and harvested. I think this can be done, much of it through improvisation and co-operation by people in the agricultural and food industries. With some support from various levels of government.

There will be some areas where food is available more or less as normal, some where the supply is tight, and other areas where there is outright famine and some loss of life (though still outstripped by the fecundity of the human race). In many ways that pretty much describes the situation today but supply chain breakdown, and our various degrees of success at coping with it, will make all the existing problems worse during the crash.

But once the initial crash is over, we have a much bigger problem looming ahead, which I think will eventually lead to another, even more serious crash.

With my apologies to my "crunchy" friends, modern agriculture and the systems downstream from it supply us with the cheapest and safest food that mankind has known since we were hunters and gatherers and allows us (so far) to support an ever growing human population.

The problem is that this agriculture is not sustainable. It requires high levels of inputs–primarily energy from fossil fuels, but also pesticides, fertilizers and water for irrigation–mostly from non-renewable sources. And rather than enriching the soil on which it depends, it gradually consumes it, causing erosion from over cultivation and over grazing, salinating the soil where irrigation is used and poisoning the water courses downstream with runoff from fertilizers. We need to develop a suite of sustainable agricultural practices that takes advantage of the best agricultural science can do for us, while the infrastructure that supports that science is still functioning.

The organic industry spends extravagantly to convince us that the problem with our food is pesticide residues and genetically engineered organisms, but the scientific consensus simply does not support this. The organic standards include so called "natural" pesticides that are more toxic than modern synthetic ones, and allow plant breeding techniques (such as mutagenesis) that are far more dangerous than modern genetic engineering. Organic standards could certainly be revised into something sustainable that retains the best of both conventional and organic techniques, but this has become such a political hot potato that it is unlikely to happen.

As I said above, during the upcoming crash one of the main challenges will be to keep people fed. And I have no doubt that this challenge will, for the most part, be successfully met. Diesel fuel will be rationed and sent preferentially to farmers and trucking companies moving agricultural inputs and outputs. Supplies of mineral fertilizers are still sufficient to keep industrial agriculture going. Modern pesticides actually reduce the need for cultivation and improve yields by reducing losses due to pests. It will be possible to divert grains grown for animal feed to feed people during the first year when the crisis is most serious.

Industrial agriculture will actually save the day and continue on to feed the growing population for a while yet. We will continue to make some improvement in techniques and seeds, though with diminishing returns on our efforts.

This will come to an end around mid century with the second bump on the road ahead (starting at point "g" on the graph), when a combination of increasing population, worsening climate, and decreasing availability and increasing prices of energy, irrigation water, fertilizer, pesticides and so forth combine to drastically reduce the output of modern agriculture.

Widespread famine will result, and this, combined with epidemics in populations weakened by hunger, will reduce the planet's human population by at least a factor of two in a period of a very few years. Subsequent bumps as climate change further worsens conditions for farming will further reduce the population, resulting in a bottleneck towards the end of this century. Without powered machinery, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and with drastically reduced water for irrigation, agricultural output will fall off considerably. And our population will fall to match the availability of food. I do think it unlikely that the human race will be wiped out altogether, but our numbers will likely be reduced by a factor of ten or more.

Turning to Violence as a Solution

It is a sad fact that many people, communities and nations, when faced with the sort of challenges I've been talking about here, will respond with violence.

In the remaining years leading up to the next crash, I think it is likely that even the least stable of world leaders (or their military advisors) will remain well aware of the horrific consequences of large scale nuclear war, and will manage to avoid it. As has been the case since the end of WWII, wars will continue to be fought by proxy, involving smaller nations in the developing world, especially where the supply of strategic natural resources are at issue.

War is extremely expensive though and, even without the help of a financial crash, military spending already threatens to bankrupt the U.S. As Dmitry Orlov has suggested, after a financial crash, the U.S. may find it difficult to even get its military personnel home from overseas bases, much less maintain those bases or pursue international military objectives.

But even in the impoverished post-crash world, I expect that border wars, terrorism, riots and violent protests will continue for quite some time yet.

Migration and Refugees

Whether from the ravages of war, climate change or economic contraction many areas of the world, particularly in areas like the Middle East, North Africa and the U.S. southwest, will become less and less livable. People will leave those areas looking for greener pastures and the number of refugees will soon grow past what can be managed even by the richest of nations. This will be a problem for Europe in particular, and more and more borders will be closed to all but a trickle of migrants. Refugees will accumulate in camps and for a while the situation will find an uneasy balance.

As we continue down the bumpy road, though, many nations will lose the ability to police their borders. Refugees will pour through, only to find broken economies that offer them little hope of a livelihood. Famine, disease and conflict will eventually reduce the population to where it can be accommodated in the remaining livable areas. But the ethnic makeup of those areas will have changed significantly due to large scale migrations.

In Conclusion

I've been talking here about some of the changes that will be forced upon us by the circumstances of collapse. I've said very little about what I think we might do if we could face up to the reality of those circumstances and take positive action. That's because I don't think there is much chance that we'll take any such action on a global or even national scale.

It's time now to wrap up this series of posts about the bumpy road down. At some point in the future I intend to do a series about of coping with collapse locally, on the community, family and individual level. I think there is still much than can be done to improve the prospects of those who are willing to try.

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 4: Trends in Collapse

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool January 26, 2018

 

Bamboo in Winter

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This time I'm going to look at some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. If you followed what I was saying in my last post, you'll have realized that the bumpy road will be a matter of repeatedly getting slapped down as a result of going into overshoot—exceeding our limits, crashing, then recovering, only to get slapped again as we go into overshoot yet again.

Along the way, where people have a choice, they will choose to do a range of different things (some beneficial, others not so much), according to their circumstances and inclinations. Inertia is also an important factor—people resist change. And politicians are adept at "kicking the can down the road"—patching together the current system to keep it working for little while longer and letting the guy who gets elected next worry about the consequences.

Because the world will become a smaller place for most of us, we'll feel less influence from other areas and in turn have less influence over them. There will be a lot more "dissensus"—people doing their own thing and letting other people do theirs. I expect this will lead to quite a variety of approaches, some that fail and some that do work to some extent. In the short run, of course, "working" means recovering from whatever disaster we are currently trying to cope with. But in the long run, the real challenge is learning to live within our limits and accept "just enough" rather than always striving for more. Trying a lot of different approaches to this will make it more likely that we find some that are successful.

Anyways—changes, forces and trend…and how they will work on the bumpy road down.

I've included the stepped or oscillating decline diagram from my last post here to make it easier to visualize what I'm talking about.

Energy Decline

Because I'm a "Peak Oil guy" and because energy is at the heart of the financial problems we're facing, I'll talk about energy first. As I said in a recent post:

"Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for the great majority 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."

It is my analysis that there is zero chance of implementing any alternative to fossil fuels remotely capable of sustaining "business as usual" in the remaining few years before a major economic crash happens and changes everything. So the first trend I'll point to is a continued reliance on fossil fuels. Fuels of ever decreasing EROEI, which will increase the stress on the global economy and continue contribute to climate change and ocean acidification.

Those who are mainly concerned about the environmental effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels would have us stop using those fuels, whatever the cost. But it is clear to me that the cost of such a move would be a global economic depression different only in the details from the one I've been predicting. Lack of energy, excess of debt, environmental disaster—take your pick….

It has been interesting to watch the governments of Canada and the US take two different approaches to this over the last couple of years.

The American approach has been based on denial. Denial of climate change on the one hand, and denial of the fossil fuel depletion situation on the other. "Drill baby, drill!" is expected to solve the energy problem without causing an environmental problem. I don't believe that either expectation will be borne out over the next few years.

Our Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made quite a bit of political hay by acknowledging the reality of climate change and championing the Paris Climate Agreement in the international arena. Here at home, though, it is clear that Trudeau understands the role of oil in our economy and he has been quick to quietly reassure the oil companies that they have nothing to fear, approving two major pipeline projects to keep oil flowing from Alberta to the Pacific coast and, eventually, to Chinese markets.

Yes, Ottawa has set a starting price of $10 a tonne on carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, increasing to $50 a tonne by 2022. This is to be implemented by provincial governments who have until the end of the year to submit their own carbon pricing plans before a national price is imposed on those that don't meet the federal standard. It will be interesting to see how this goes and if the federal government sticks to its plan. Canada is one of the most highly indebted nations in the world and I wouldn't be surprised if our economy was one of the first to falter.

At any rate, sometime in the next few years the economy is going to fall apart (point "c" in the diagram). As I've said, this may well be initiated by volatility in oil prices as the current oil surplus situation comes to an end. This will lead to financial chaos that soon spreads to the rest of the economy.

On the face of it this isn't too different from the traditional Peak Oil scenario—the collapse of industrial civilization caused by oil shortages and sharply rising oil prices. But as you might guess by now, this isn't exactly what I think will happen.

In fact, I think that we'll see an economic depression where the demand for oil drops more quickly than the natural decline rate of our oil supplies and the price falls even further than it did in the last few years. We won't be using nearly so much oil as at present, so we will once again accumulate a surplus, and we'll even leave some reserves of oil in the ground, at least initially. This will help drive a recovery after the depression bottoms out (point "e" in the diagram). Please note that I am talking about the remaining relatively high EROEI conventional oil here. Unconventional sources just don't produce enough surplus energy to fuel a recovery.

But the demand for oil still be a lot less than it is today and this will have a very negative effect on oil companies. Some governments will subsidize the oil industry even more than they have traditionally, just to keep to it going in the face of low prices. Other governments will outright nationalize their oil industries to ensure oil keeps getting pumped out of the ground, even if it isn't very profitable to do so. Bankruptcy of critical industries in general is going to be a problem during and after the crash. More on that in my next post.

During the upcoming crash and depression fossil fuel use may well decline enough to significantly reduce our releases of CO2 into the atmosphere—not enough perhaps to stop climate change, but enough to slow it down. As we continue down the bumpy road, though, our use of fossil fuels and the release of CO2 from burning them will taper off to essentially nothing, allowing the ecosphere to finally begin a slow recovery from the abuses of the industrial age.

The other trend involving fossil fuels, as we go further down the bumpy road, will be their declining availability as we gradually use them up. Eventual our energy consumption will determined by local availability of renewable energy that can be accessed using a relatively low level of technology. Things like biomass (mainly firewood), falling water, wind, passive solar, maybe even tidal and wave energy. Since these sources vary in quantity from one locality to another, the level of energy use will vary as well. Where these sources are intermittent, the users will simply have adapt to that intermittency.

No doubt some of my readers will be wondering why I don't think high tech renewables like solar cells and large wind turbines will save the day. The list of reasons is a long one—difficulty raising capital in a contracting ecnomy, low EROEI, intermittency of supply and difficulty of operating, maintaining and regularly replacing such equipment once fossil fuels are gone—to mention just a few.

Large scale storage of power to deal with intermittency will in the long run prove infeasible. Certainly batteries aren't going to do it. There are a few locations where pumped storage of water can be set up at a relatively low cost, but not enough to make a big difference. And on top of all that, I very much doubt that large electrical grids are feasible in the long run (and I spent half my life maintaining on one such grid).

The FIRE Industries

The next trend I can see is in the FIRE (financial, insurance and real estate) sector of the economy. During the growth phase of our economy over that last couple of centuries the FIRE industries embodied a wide range of organizational technologies that facilitated business, trade and growth. Unfortunately, because they were set up to support growth, they were unable to cope with the end of real growth late in the twentieth century. They have supported debt based growth for the last couple of decades as the only alternative that they could deal with. This led to the unprecedented amount of debt that we see in the world today. Much of this debt is quite risky and will likely lead to a wave of bankruptcies and defaults—the very crash I've been talking about.

The FIRE industries will be at the heart of that crash and will suffer horribly. Many, perhaps the majority, of the companies in that sector won't survive. In today's world they wield a great deal of political power. During the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2007-8 that power was enough to see them through largely unscathed. This is unlikely to be the case in the upcoming crash, creating a desperate need for their services and an opportunity to fill that need which will be another factor in the recovery after the crash bottoms out. But of course there is more than one way it can be done.

In the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th posts in my " Collapse Step by Step" series, I dealt with the political realities of our modern world, which limit what can be done by democratic governments. I identified a political spectrum defined by those limits. At the left end of this spectrum we have Social Democratic societies, which still practice capitalism, but where those in power are concerned with the welfare of everyone within the society. At the right end we have Right Wing Capitalist societies where the ruling elite is concerned only with accumulating more wealth and power for itself.

Since the FIRE industries are crucial to the accumulation and distribution of wealth in our societies, the way they are rebuilt following the crash will be largely determined by the political goals of those doing the rebuilding.

At the left end of the spectrum there is much can be done to regulate the FIRE industries and stop their excesses from leading immediately to further crises.

At the right end of the political spectrum the elite is so closely tied to the FIRE industries and so little concerned with the welfare of the general populace, that those industries will likely be rebuilt on a plan very similar to their current organization. A policy of "exterminism" is likely to be followed, where prosperity for the elite and an ever shrinking middle class is seen as the only goal and the poor are a burden to be abandoned or outright exterminated.(Thanks for Peter Frase, author of Four Futures—Life After Captialism for the term "exterminism".)

In the case of either of these extremes, or anywhere along the spectrum between them, there are some common things I can see happening.

The whole FIRE sector depends on trust. In the last few decades (since the 1970s) we have switched from currencies based on precious metals to "fiat money" which is based on nothing but trust in the governments issuing it. This was done to accommodate growth fueled by abundant surplus energy and then to facilitate issuing ever more debt as the surplus energy supply declined. I don't advocate going back to precious metals—what we need is a monetary system that can accommodate degrowth, of which a great deal lies in our future. Unfortunately we don't yet know what such a system might look like.

It is clear, though, that the coming crash is going to shake our trust in the FIRE industries to its very roots. Since central banks will have been central to the monetary problems leading to the crash, they may well be set up as scapegoats for that crash and their relative lack of success in coping with it. People will be very suspicious after watching the FIRE industries fall apart during the crash and their lack of trust will force those industries to take some different approaches.

I think governments will take over the functions of central banks and stop charging themselves interest on the money they print. Yes, I know that printing money has often led to runaway inflation, but the conditions during the crash and its aftermath will be so profoundly deflationary that inflation will not likely be a problem.

The creation of debt will be viewed much less favourably and credit will be much harder to get. And of course this will make the crash and following depression that much worse. In response to this many areas will create local banks and currencies to provide the services that local businesses need to get moving again.

During the last couple of decades there has been a move to loosen regulations in the FIRE industries, to let single large entities become involved in investment banking, business and personal banking, insurance and real estate. Most such entities began as experts in one of those areas, but one has to question their expertise in the new areas they moved into. In any case they became "too big to fail" and their failure threatened the stability the whole FIRE sector. Following the GFC there was only minor tightening of regulations to discourage this sort of thing, but after the upcoming crash I suspect many governments, especially toward the left end of the political spectrum, will institute a major re-regulation of the FIRE industries and a splitting up of the few "too big to fail" companies who didn't actually fail.

It is all very well to talk about business and even governments failing when their debt load becomes too great. But there is also a lot of personal debt that is, at this point, unlikely ever to get paid back. What does it mean, in this context, for a person to fail? What I carry as debt is an asset for someone else—probably the share holders of a bank. They are understandably reluctant to watch their assets evaporate, and I have to admit that there is a moral hazard involved in just letting people walk away from their debts. That feeling was so strong in the past that those who couldn't pay their debts ended up in debtors' prisons. Such punishment was eventually seen as futile and the practice was abandoned and personal bankruptcies were allowed.

One suspects that in the depression following the coming crash it will be necessary to declare a jubilee, forgiving large classes of personal debt. What might become of all the suddenly destitute people depends on where their country lies on the political spectrum. I wouldn't rule out debtors prisons or work camps, the sort of modern slavery that is already gaining a foothold in the prison system of the United States.

If we were willing to give up growth as the sole purpose of our economic system, there are many changes that could be made to the FIRE industries that would allow them to provide the services needed by businesses and individuals without stimulating the unchecked growth that leads to collapse. I think we are unlikely to see this happen after the upcoming crash—we will be desperate for recovery and that will still mean growth at destructive levels.

I think the crash following that recovery will involve the food supply and still unchecked population growth and sadly a lot of people won't make it through (more on this in my next post). Following that, it's even possible that in some areas people may reach the conclusion that growth is the problem and quit sticking their heads up to get slapped down again. They'll have to find a more sustainable way to live, but with it will come a less bumpy road forward.

Authoritarianism

In the aftermath of the next crash, I think we'll see an increase in authoritarianism in an attempt to optimize the systems that failed during the crash—to make them work again and work more effectively. Free market laissez faire economics will be seen to have failed by many people. Others will hang tight, claiming that if they just keep doing yet again the same thing that failed before, it will finally work.

As is always the case with this sort of optimization, it will create a less resilient system, much more susceptible to subsequent crashes. And after those crashes governments will be reduced to such a small scale affair that authoritarianism won't be so much of an issue.

Fortunately, beyond authoritarianism, there are some other trends that will lead to increased resilience and sustainability. We'll take a look at those in my next post.

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 3

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool January 13, 2018

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Winter on Lake Huron

In the last post in this series I talked about the next financial crash and how it may well be serious enough to spread into the non-financial sectors of the economy and effect supply chains and critical systems in ways that we did not see in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08. Systems that most of us depend on for the necessities of life may fail and many kollapsniks see this leading immediately and inevitably to a hard, fast and permanent crash of industrial civilization.

I disagree, seeing this as just one more bump on the road down, the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity.

To understand why I hold this opinion, I said we need to do a couple of things:

1) take a systems dynamic approach to the events we are talking about. Specifically, we need to look at what happens when overshoot occurs in nature, in systems like the one we inhabit. Which is, after all, a subset of the ecosphere. Overshoot is a common enough phenomenon and usually works in fairly predictable ways.

2) look at the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage of a financial crash and its spread to other critical systems.

Today we are going to do that.

(Note: all three of the graphs below are smoothed out, idealized and imprecise representations of the processes they illustrate. The point is to allow me to make some points visually. I hope not to get into much in the way of quibbling over minor details, of which no doubt a few are missing, inaccurate or outright wrong.)

So, first, let's take a look at how overshoot works. Take moment or two with your favourite search engine and you will find a graph that looks something like this:

1) typical overshoot situation with constant carrying capacity

The green line shows the behaviour over time of the population of a species which finds itself initially at a level well below the carrying capacity of its environment (the dashed blue line). Because that environment provides lots of whatever the species need to grow, it does grow. This tendency to grow in response to favourable conditions seems to be an inhernet property of life. As is always the case, this is exponential growth—it starts out slowly but eventually reaches a point where it takes off and quickly exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment.

What happens then is interesting, especially since we currently find ourselves in just such a situation. You get some oscillation of the species population, above and below the carrying capacity, until it finally settles out somewhat below the carrying capacity.

First, let's be clear that it is possible to exceed carrying capacity in the short run, at the cost of damaging the environment and reducing its capacity—overpopulation has a negative effect on that capacity. There is also some time delay built in to the effect of population growth, as newly born individuals add relatively little to the species impact on the environment compared to what they will add once they have grown up. The negative feedback and the time delay result in the oscillation shown in the graph.

Of course, the straight line representing carrying capacity would actually have some peaks and valleys, corresponding to how the environment responds to the stress of overpopulation and how it recovers when the population falls. If we idealized both the blue and green lines into something like a sine wave, we would see that the variation in the carrying capacity leads the variation in the population by about 90 degrees.

The red line, by the way, represents a fast and permanent collapse. In order for this to happen the carrying capacity has to fall all the way down to basically nothing. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but overshoot isn't one of them, because as soon as the population falls off below the carrying capacity, the stress on the environment is relieved and it begins to recover.

There is, in fact, no such thing as a "balance of nature" and it is by no means inevitable that the oscillations damp out and the population settles down just below the carrying capacity. In many cases what we actually get is the situation in the next graph, where populations oscillate on an ongoing basis.

2) continual oscillation of predator and prey populations such as foxes and rabbits

You might think that the population of rabbits and foxes in an ecosystem would level out at steady values, but that is not in fact what is observed.

If we start at a moment when there are relatively few of each species, we see that the population of rabbits (the prey, dashed blue line) grows rapidly. It is well below the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits and there are relatively few foxes (the predators, green line). But the increasing number of rabbits make hunting easier for the foxes, and their population starts to increase too. Eventually there are enough foxes to overhunt the rabbits, resulting in a crash in the rabbit population. This is followed by a crash in the fox population, since there are no longer enough rabbits to support it. This brings us back to where we started and the cycle carries on.

The reason the cycle can carry on indefinitely is that the foxes limit the rabbit population so that it never exceeds the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits—the plants the rabbits are eating never get over grazed.

The situation for the human population of this planet is, as you might expect, more complex.

The impact (I) that the human population has on our environment is determined not just by the size of that population (P), but also by the level of affluence (A) we are living at and effectiveness of the technology (T) we are using to maintain that affluence.

This gives us the famous equation, I=PAT. Since I am going to be using the term "T" in another equation shortly, I'll change this to I=PAD, where "D" stands for decoupling. Decoupling is the use of technology to produce affluence at a lower cost to thge environment and it is a number between 0 and 1, with 0 being the goal we would aim for, eliminating our impact altogether. In fact it is proving so difficult to get decoupling anywhere near zero that it is very unlikely to be the solution to our problems.

Carrying capacity (C) also works somewhat differently for human populations.

We can increase the size (S) of our environment by expanding into new areas of the world and habitats previously occupied by other species or by "indigenous" humans.

We can tap into forms of energy (E) beyond just food. For somewhere between two and three million years we've been using fire for landscaping, for cooking our food and for heating our shelters. In each case we were using the energy in burning biomass to increase the carrying capacity of our environment, increase the value of our food, and/or expand the range of environments that we can live in. For the last few hundred years we've been using the energy of fossil fuels to radically increase the carrying capacity of our environment in many seemingly clever ways.

Since whatever method we use to acquire energy consumes energy in the process, it's actually the energy that is left over, available for use (the surplus energy) that's important. This is best expressed as "Energy Returned on Energy Invested", EROEI. This is a dimensionless number and the larger it is, the more surplus energy. When the EROEI is equal to one, the process is just breaking even and there is no point in doing it—we want a much higher EROEI.

Hunter-gather and pre-industrial agricultural societies managed average EROEI's in the high single digits at best. Industrial societies based on fossil fuels in the twentieth century had EROEI's many times that high, which made possible high levels of growth and the development and use of technologies which had previously been completely out of reach. Today the average global EROEI is around 11.

Which brings us to our use of tools and technology (T). With just Neolithic technology (fire, stone tools, weaving, tanning, pottery, boats, agriculture) we spread over the whole planet except for the Antarctic, occupying and thriving in environments very different from the ones where we evolved. Since the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution our use of technology has exploded. And not just material technology, but financial, organizational and information technologies as well. All of which has enabled both our population and affluence to grow at heretofore unprecedented rates.

So, the carrying capacity of this planet for the human race can be represented by the equation C=SET. Clearly, I (Impact) must be less than C (carrying capacity) or we are in overshoot. And since sometime in the late 1970s we have indeed been in overshoot. Currently the level of overshoot is around 60%. That is, our impact on the environment is 1.6 times what can be sustained on an ongoing basis.

3) oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

From left side of this graph to point "a" we see the long and very slow growth of the human population before the discovery of the New World. After point "a" the carrying capacity began to increase significantly as the size of our environment effectively took a large jump with the European settlement of the New World, as the use of fossil fuels greatly increased the amount of surplus energy available and as we developed numerous new technologies to use that energy. Human impact increased with the carrying capacity, as our population grew and affluence increased.

The growth of carrying capacity continued until the last quarter of the twentieth century, point "b", when depletion of fossil fuels and reduction of their EROEI, diminishing returns on technological innovation and stress on the environment from human activities started to reduce the carrying capacity.

Human impact has continued to grow since then, and is now so far above carrying capacity that one has to expect a crash in the near future, point "c". As I said in my last post, this is likely to start with a financial crash. The financial sector of the economy, since it deals largely with non-material things that don't have much inertia, can change very quickly. It is currently under a lot of strain from huge amounts of risky debt. I favour a scenario where a spike in the price of oil, brought about as the current surplus of oil bottoms out, sets off a currency crash in one of more countries, leading to a wave of bankruptcies and governments defaulting on their debts. After point "c" human impact will start to decrease rapidly, primarily due to the effect of the financial crash on affluence.

Note that I have again included a red line (and a light blue line), which represent a fast and permanent crash of both carrying capacity and population. This is possible and some would argue that climate change and ocean acidification (among other things) may be damaging the environment enough to make it the most likely outcome. I don't think so. The ecosphere is amazingly resilient, once human impact is reduced. People have gotten the wrong impression about this because we have been playing the silly game of upping our impact and then wondering why the situation keeps gets worse, as if it wasn't our fault.

To the right is a little chart that contains some shocking information. The top 20% of the human population (in terms of affluence) is responsible for 76.6% of our impact. A financial crash will be very hard on those top 20% and in the process will drastically reduce human impact. Sadly, myself and most of my readers are in that top 20%.

Referring back to diagram 3, I expect that at point "d", where "I" is finally less than "C", the carrying capacity will begin to recover, and a while later at point "e", human impact will begin to increase once again as well.

Remember also that carrying capacity is defined by C=SET, and there is much that humanity can do to change the value of "T" in that equation. I am by no means saying that we will find a "solution" to our problems based on material technology. What I mean is that a major factor in the big decrease in carrying capacity during the upcoming crash will be the failure of our financial and organizational technology to cope with the situation. And there is a lot we can do to reorganize our financial, economic and political systems to work better under the new conditions. Once we are forced to do it. So I do expect there will be a recovery after this crash.

It is very likely that during the crash the financial chaos will spread to the rest of the economy and that there will be some reduction in the growth rate of our population as the support structures provide by industrial civilization fail completely in some parts of the world. But it seems likely that human population will continue to grow until it once again outstrips carrying capacity, at point "f". And then at point "g" we will have another crash. I suspect depletion of fossil fuels, water for irrigation and phosphorous for fertilizer, and the effects of climate change will lead to a collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world. Famine and epidemics will at that point start to rapidly reduce our population and eventually reduce it back below a once more reduced carrying capacity (point "h") and another recovery will begin (point "i").

Beyond point "i" it is hard to say much about exact details or how many more crashes will take place. But the trend of continued oscillation with decreases in both carrying capacity and human impact will continue. The downward trend is because our current system relies on non-renewable resources that we are using up. That trend will continue until our impact can be sustained solely by renewable resources. Along the way we will go through some very hard times (point "i" and subsequent valleys in the green line) because of the damage done to the planet in the process. But eventually, with our impact drastically reduced, the ecosystems will recover. I expect that at this point we will have retained some of our technology and because of this the overall carrying capacity and our population/impact will settle out a bit above what it was in pre-industrial times.

One further thing I want to emphasize is how uneven this whole process will be. Yes it is likely that the impending financial crash, because it involves systems that are highly interconnected and global in scale, will be felt to some extent over the whole planet. But the degree to which the financial chaos spreads to the rest of the economy will vary greatly from place to place. And subsequent crashes, once the high degree of global interconnection has been broken, will most likely occur at different times in different places.

Wherever people are not completely dependent on global supply chains, the effects will be less severe. To the extent that they are not ravaged by climate change, some parts of the developing world where subsistence agriculture is practiced may continue on with little change. Unfortunately many areas will suffer the ravages of climate change—droughts, flooding and heat waves. Many countries (particularly in Africa and the Middle East) do not produce enough food for their own populations. With supply chains broken and agriculture struggling everywhere, these areas will find it difficult to continue importing the food they rely on. Supplies of energy and water will also prove problematical.

I am well aware that all these graphs and explanations do not constitute a proof of my assertions about the bumpy road down. But I hope I have succeeded in making what I'm trying to say much clearer. It's up to you to decide if there is anything to it or not, now that you know what "it" is.

The other area I wanted to touch on today is the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage when a financial crash spreads to other critical systems.

As the financial crash starts to gain momentum, governments will (to whatever extent they can) use the same tools as they did in 2008 to get things under control— loans and bailouts for faltering businesses, and keeping interest rates very low. It also seems likely that, as the situation worsens, "bail-ins" will be used as well, where depositors are required to accept discounts on their deposits to reduce the pressure on failing banks. And "haircuts" where bond holders have to accept discounts on the value of those bonds in order to reduce the pressure on the governments that issued them.

These efforts will have mixed results and the crash will no doubt spread to the non-financial sectors of the economy. Many governments will try switching failing critical systems over to a direct command “martial law” economy. This will be done with varying degrees of skill (or ineptitude as the case may be) and varying degrees of co-operation from their citizens. Vital materials which are in short supply due to supply chain and production breakdowns will be placed under government control and rationed (food, energy—especially diesel fuel, water treatment and medical supplies), and attempts will be made to patch supply chains and production facilities back together with whatever comes to hand.

I have no doubt that this can be made to work, at least to some extent. It does require convincing the public that it is necessary and that it is being done fairly—applied equally to the rich and powerful as it is to the poor and weak. And inevitably there will be thriving black markets.

Governments that already operate some of these systems directly will be better prepared and experience greater success. System that have been contracted out to the lowest bidder—companies that are primarily responsible to their stock holders rather than their customers—may fail in a variety of ghastly ways.

On the other hand, I think there will also be quite a bit of quiet heroism on the part of companies and individuals in critical industries whose job it is to keep things working. These folks are for the most part competent and highly motivated, and their efforts will be more successful than you might think.

Some governments will be so successful that their citizens may hardly be aware that anything is going on. In other countries, people will be reduced to relying almost entirely on what can be done locally, with locally available resources. Right wing capitalist governments whose primary obligation is to the rich and power will begin to practice wholesale abandonment of the poor and unfortunate.

There are also things that can be done by local communities, families and individuals to be more self sufficient—to be able to carry on during those periods when industrial society fails to supply the necessities. Increasing local inventories in order to be more resilient in response to supply chain failures would be a good beginning. But just being clear about what the necessities are and not wasting resources try to maintain luxuries will be one of the biggest challenges. The first step is realizing that much of what we consider necessary is, in fact, not.

So, as I've already said, I'm expecting a recovery, or rather a series of recoveries after a series of crashes. These crises are going to cause some changes in the way things work, resulting in a very different world. We'll have a look at the trends that will lead to that new world in my next post.

P.S.
If Blogger's statistics and Google Analytics are right, a lot of people are reading this blog on mobile devices. I'd be interested to hear how the graphics in this post worked on those devices.

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 2

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool January 7, 2018

Lake Huron shore looking north to Bruce B Nuclear Generating Station
Taken Dec 17/17—there is much more ice on the lake now.

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In the last post in this series I started talking about the bumpy road down—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. Because I expect this to take place differently in various parts of the world and for people of various social classes, I guess it should really be "The Bumpy Roads Down".

At any rate, this led to looking at the next expected bump in the process—a financial crash of even greater magnitude than the global financial crisis in 2007-8. We looked at what's leading up to this (a huge debt bubble), how it might start (with one or more currency crashes) and what might trigger the process (a spike in the price of oil).

From where I sit this crash seems essentially inevitable. We are living beyond our means—the available surplus energy is simply not enough to support the continued growth that our economy requires. Some degree of "degrowth" is going to happen, whether we like it or not. The only uncertainly is exactly when it will occur, how far it will take us down and by what route. I'd be surprised if it started sooner than the fall of 2018. I don't really care to guess how much longer it might take to get started—years, easily.

Of course, as we learned in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, these things tend to teach us new things about how they work as they are happening. While we learn more with each crisis, there are things about each one that we would never have guessed in advance. And I am certainly not claiming to be exempt from this.

Since I wrote that last post, I read David Korowicz's "Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse", and much of what I have to say in this post has been influenced by Korowicz's ideas.

His essay directly addresses how things may proceed once a crash gets started, and how difficult it will be to do something about it. He focuses on the degree of interconnection in our modern world and how a financial crash can spread to other parts of the economy. He also looks closely at how fragile our globalized economy is, with many supply chains based on "just in time delivery" and minimal inventories of important supplies.

Before going on with the rest of this post, I'd like to share some thoughts that came to me as I was reading Korowicz's essay. It seems to me that when talking about such subjects, one has to consider one's audience and what one is trying to achieve.

Korowicz clearly feels he is speaking to a doubtful audience and he is eager to convince them. As he says, "The consensus view, even if backed by experts is not, in and of itself, a justification for the consensus view." I sympathize with him in that—the majority of people today are functioning at a high level of complacency and denial. They will latch onto any morsel of hope and use it to convince themselves that everything is going to be fine and that no extraordinary action is required. If you give them that morsel, the rest of what you have to say may well be lost on them.

And so it is very tempting to spin (and Korowicz has spun) a rather one sided story, lacking the sorts of subtleties and nuances that are needed for a solid understanding of any subject and which I have tried to make an identifying characteristic of this blog. I am not going to change that goal, and so some of my readers will see what follows, in this and my next few posts, as unreasonably optimistic. If that is what is necessary to take a balanced approach to the subject, then so be it.

David Korowicz is an intelligent and well informed man and so even he makes some qualifying statements about the solidly gloomy picture he paints: "a collapse could have intermediate states, characterised by partial breakdown and semi-stable states." And near the end of his essay he suggests that we should classify countries as red, amber and green, according to the likelihood of their suffering severely in the crash he is talking about. And he admits that there are indeed some green countries, and interestingly (to me) includes the U.S. in that group. But the essay was written in 2012 and things have changed in the U.S. since then.

For those looking for nothing but hope and reassurance, I'm sorry, but I must make it clear that the bump I am talking about here is likely to be a big one and solidly jarring, especially to those who aren't expecting it. When I say that this shouldn't be considered a fast collapse, I mean that a significant number of people will still be able to get food, shelter, clothing—that "just enough" will still be attainable for most of us. I meet people quite regularly who clearly consider that any change in their lifestyle, however minor, amounts to "the end of the world", and who are simply unwilling to consider that such things may happen. I know they find most of what I have to say to be way too pessimistic. I think they are in for a rude awakening.

But enough of that, let's take a closer look at how the coming crash is likely to proceed. Tim Morgan predicts that it will start with a "currency crash?" What does he mean by this? Simply that at some point currency traders will lose faith in the value of some particular currency. They will all start selling out of it pretty much at once—what is known as a "run". This would cause the price of that currency to drop drastically compared to others, with negative effects on the economy of the effected country, perhaps leading it to default on its debts. But why this loss of trust? In the case of Britain, Morgan (a Brit himself) points to a lack of economic growth, high debt, Brexit and poor economic management by governments over the last couple of decades, including a laisser faire approach to regulating business and the financial industry.

It will probably only take one currency crash (or maybe not even that many, if the price of oil spikes high enough) to trigger a loss of faith in debt and start a wave of bankruptcies and government defaults. Banks and other financial institutions will be at the head of that wave. Modern banking is based on the idea of a fractional reserve—banks are allowed to create money out of thin air when they make a loan, rather than just loaning out money they already have. The loan itself then becomes an asset, a claim on the future productivity of the debtor, based on trust that the debtor will prosper and be able to pay back the money he has borrowed, with interest. Under this system banks' real assets amount to only 2 to 9% of their total assets. The rest is debt, or from the viewpoint of the bank, credit they have extended as loans. It is normal to have a very small percentage of debtors default on their loans, but according to Korowicz, defaults of around 4% are enough to leave a bank in big trouble, and it may end up going out of business, as the financial community loses faith in the debts it holds.

Since the amount of risky debt is much larger than ever before, it seems likely that many of those "too big to fail" banks will indeed be in trouble this time around. In 2008 governments took steps to prevent this, but governments whose currency has crashed and/or who have defaulted on their debts, won't be able to be of much help. Even governments which aren't in financial trouble themselves will face a bigger challenge than they did in 2008, since interest rates are already pretty much as low as they can go. And also because more banks (and other businesses) will need help, in the form of loans on very favourable terms, or outright bailouts. Still, because the effect of a crash like this touch on pretty much everyone, there will be immense pressure on governments to do whatever they can.

As I understand it, what governments have done and will no doubt do in the next crash is to print money to offset the bad debts of failing financial institutions and other businesses. This has been done indirectly, by borrowing money from the central bank of the country. Because it ends up on the government's balance sheet as debt, owed to the central bank, paying the interest is a big budgetary problem. Paying back the principle is a problem for future generations.

Conventional economic wisdom holds that printing too much money causes inflation—the price of goods goes up to match the excess money circulating in the market. This didn't happen to any significant extent in the years following 2008, perhaps because that excess money, rather than going into circulation, was poured into the black holes of the banks' balance sheets.

It seems likely to me that central banks will take a lot of blame for "letting" this next crash happen. There is actually no reason that governments have to borrow money for bailouts from independent central banks. Those banks could be eliminated and governments could take on their role themselves, creating money without incurring debt or interest charges. And as long as that money goes straight to paying off bad debts, the amount in circulation won't increase, and it shouldn't cause inflation.

If this disaster was limited to the financial industry alone it would be bad enough. It is important to realize that in our capitalist system if a business is not profitable, or if investors lose hope of it eventually becoming profitable, it's not going to be running for long, especially in the middle of an economic crash. Even if it is the sole provider of goods and services that folks like you and I consider to be necessities. One would hope that governments would step in to preferentially bail out companies that really do have a vital role to play.

The financial sector also provides many critical services to businesses and in a crash such as we're talking about, those services may not be readily available, thus hurting businesses that would otherwise still be viable.

Perhaps the most basic of those services is moving wealth from what we think of as "investments" (where the point is to earn a return) to ordinary money with which one can buy goods and services. We take this for granted in "normal" times and are largely unaware of what is going on in the background to make it happen so smoothly. During a crash and in its aftermath, this will no longer be the case and without that ready access, businesses and individuals will find it difficult to continue operating as usual.

To judge from what happened in 2008, those banks that are still in business will also get very conservative in their lending practices and much less trusting of the banks at the other end of transactions. The free flow of credit and funds that the commercial world counts on would grind to a halt, at least temporarily, and so the financial crash would spread to the commercial sector. From the viewpoint of ordinary people this is very bad news.

Mind you, in 2008 things were pretty serious. Many people lost their houses because they couldn't pay their variable rate mortgages when the payments went up—indeed that was what started that crash. In the recession that followed, many businesses downsized or went bankrupt and laid people off. Some of the unemployed fell through the cracks in the social/community/family safety nets and ended up homeless and destitute. A lot of wealth and savings disappeared into thin air. But despite all this, the supply of consumer goods continued unabated. If you could afford to shop, the shelves were far from bare.

I think this is likely not to be the case in the upcoming crash. There will be some noticeable effects in the day to day lives of ordinary people, beyond the obvious increasing unemployment, tighter credit and a decrease in the value of whatever savings you may have left.

The basic issue is that today, more than at any time in our history or prehistory, we rely on a complex, internationally networked economy to provide us with the necessities of life. Supply chains have been optimized, with minimal inventories and "just in time" delivery so that they are very efficient, but also very fragile. One little thing can go wrong, a long way down the chain, and within days (sometimes within hours), the whole supply chain begins grinding to a halt.

The global economy relies of a few critical systems, which enable supply chains to function.

The first of those systems is banking itself. The sort of day to day transactions that all of us take part in really are necessary to keep the world working. Most individuals and businesses rely on chequing accounts, over draughts, lines of credit, debit cards, credit cards and so forth, all of which will stop working if your bank fails. At the international level, banks issue letters of credit that facilitate the shipping of goods from one country to another.

Shipping is itself a critical system, and is dependent not just on banking but also, among other things, on energy, mostly in the form of petroleum products: bunker fuel for ships, diesel fuel for trucks and jet fuel for air freight. I suspect that shipping will suffer a good deal of disruption during this crash, not just at the international level, but also among the trucking companies who move goods around within countries, and on which we are very dependent.

Even if mining, forestry, fishing, agriculture, the electric grid, manufacturing and retail remain untouched in a crash (which is by no means certain), problems with just banking and shipping can make for very unreliable supplies of things that we have come to take completely for granted.

When it comes to necessities, water seems straightforward, right? It comes out of the tap. But most municipal water treatment facilities keep only a very few day's supply of treatment chemicals on hand. If deliveries of those chemicals stop, it won't be long—as very few days—before you can no longer rely on the safety of your water supply.

And there is always food on the supermarket shelves, right? But that's only because of daily deliveries that rely on many long and complex supply chains. If those deliveries stop, there is probably only about three days of food available in most communities, less than that of perishable items.

In the developed world, and even many areas in the developing world, access to medical care is taken for granted (the U.S. is an exception). But modern medicine relies on pharmaceuticals and other consumable supplies of which hospitals keep a very limited inventory, relying instead on regular deliveries.

I mention those three areas because they are necessities for everyone, and the supply chains that provide them to us are likely to be negatively affected during a financial crash. In fact, it will be hard to find any industry that isn't affected to some degree.

Now the conventional thing for a collapse writer to do at this point is to suggest that once this starts, it will be impossible to stop and everything will grind to a halt, bringing industrial civilization to an abrupt end and likely enough the human race with it. When you've been studying collapse for a while and coping with disbelief from most of those around you, it is natural, I suppose, to be eager for something to finally happen that will prove you right beyond all doubt.

But I am not that sort of kollapsnik. I'm pretty sure that collapse has been going on for decades not and that it will take a few decades more before it is complete. And along the way, what is happening will be far from obvious to the many people.

To understand why I hold this opinion, we need to do a couple of things:

1) take a systems dynamic approach to the events we are talking about. First off, the model of a fast collapse with a catastrophic impact at the "bottom" is fundamentally flawed. It may portray fairly accurately what happens when you jump (or are pushed) off a cliff, but that is not exactly the situation our civilization faces. We need to look at what happens when overshoot occurs in nature, in systems more like the one we inhabit. Which is, after all, a subset of the ecosphere. Overshoot is a common enough phenomenon and usually works in fairly predictable ways.

2) look at the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage when a financial crash spreads to other critical systems.

I set out recently to draw some graphs illustrating overshoot and pretty quickly gained some new insights into this process—insights that I think are worth sharing.

So I'll wrap this post up now and carry on with points 1 and 2 above next time.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 8 — The Bumpy Road Down, Part 1

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on November 26, 2017

 

Lake Huron Waves Breaking Along South Pier, Kincardine

 

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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.

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

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool October 13, 2017

Lake Huron Surf, A Sunny Day in October

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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….

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

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool October 9, 2017

Paddle Boarding/Surfing off Kincardine's Station Beach

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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….

Collapse Step by Step, Part 5: Political Realities

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool August 6, 2017

 

 

 

Breakwater off shore from Kincardine

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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.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 4: Political Positions

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool August 6, 2017

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Adapting to energy decline and economic contraction.

 
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In my last post I talked about some ways of expressing the nuances of political positions. I started out with the basic left-right spectrum and then moved on to the "Political Compass" , which gives us a two dimensional map of our position, using the left—right axis and the libertarian—authoritarian axis. But without too much sweat I was able to come up with four more axes that, along with those two, define what I think are the most important aspects of a political position.

There are probably more, but in this post I'd like to focus on how a government's position on each of those six axes might determine how successful it is likely to be in adapting to the challenges that face us during the next few decades. Challenges that it seems very likely will lead to the collapse of industrial civilization.

Acknowledge Limits <—> Deny Limits

We are already nicely into a crisis caused by the end of economic growth and the start of economic contraction. If you accept the idea that there are limits to growth, this is not surprising and can be attributed to a reduced amount of surplus energy due to the dwindling supply of high quality, easy to access (high EROEI) fossil fuels. The obvious solution is to prepare for and adapt to a significant decline in energy usage. Yes, we will adopt alternative sources of energy, but they are not capable of supplying us with the copious amounts of surplus energy that we became accustomed to in the twentieth century

Accepting the natural limits built into our finite planet also means accepting that we are using up the sinks that have been absorbing the pollution our civilization creates. In particular, that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the climate to change, and in the process making most of our other problems that much worse. Solving this problem will necessitate abandoning the use of fossil fuels, and with that a significant decline in energy usage.

If you are in denial about the limits to growth, then the current situation is probably quite puzzling and you will be casting about, looking for something (or someone) to blame things on and a way to get "business as usual" back on track. That's not going to work, but unfortunately it is likely to be the standard mode of operation for most governments in the immediate future.

In the long run, one would hope that intimate experience with limits will lead most of us to acknowledge them. But I suspect that, even then, there will still be a few enclaves hanging on where people can delude themselves that they are living the dream of progress, blissfully unfettered by any sort of limit.

Socially Inclusive <—> Socially Exclusive

At one end of this axis we have societies who feel a responsibility for the welfare of all their citizens, and to some extent all mankind and all of the other living things on this planet. They do what they can to provide for the poor as well as the rich, including an effort to limit inequality. It also includes a welcoming attitude to immigrants and refugees, and making an effort to be kind to the environment.

When the economy is contracting, the attempt is made to spread the pain around more or less evenly. There is no doubt in my mind that societies like this will do a much better job of coping with the declining circumstances in the years to come than those at the other end of this scale. There is much room for economic contraction in the lifestyles common in the developed nations, room for a lot of decline before we get to the point of not having enough to get by on.

At the other end of this axis we have societies where the rich and powerful make every effort to hang onto their wealth and power no matter what happens, with little or no concern for the poor or even the lower middle class, the bottom 80% economically speaking. As the economy continues to contract and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes.

Every attempt will be made to replace labour with automation. Policies of "exterminism" will be applied to the poor, jobless and homeless. This term comes from Peter Frase's book Four Futures, and refers to simply getting rid of (exterminating) the "impoverished, economical superfluous rabble". I think it is pretty reasonable to expect a violent backlash from the lower classes in response to such policies. No doubt an attempt will be made to direct the dissatisfaction of the lower classes away from the upper classes using scapegoating and xenophobia, focused on one or more specific groups who are visibly different. In most of the developed world today, Muslims are shaping up to be one of the main targets.

It seems to me that U.S. is positioned at the exclusive end of this scale, with northern European social democracies at the inclusive end, and countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand somewhere in between.

Fiscally Liberal <—> Fiscally Conservative

One hears fiscal conservatives complaining about "tax and spend liberals", implying that increasing taxes will have a negative effect on the economy. Fiscal liberals respond that the economy always performs worse under "borrow and spend conservatives". It seems that the two ends of this political spectrum have the opposite effects from what you might think. The policies usually followed by fiscal conservatives lead to deficits, while fiscal liberals manage to reduce or eliminate deficits.

The things is that when the economy was growing, deficit financing worked well. Government spending increased growth and helped pull the economy out of occasional recessions. And money borrowed one year could be repaid the next year using a smaller slice of a bigger pie. Government spending on infrastructure and social programs benefited everyone, so it was hard to argue with borrowing money to do it. This mode of operation was adopted by many western democracies after WW II, and it worked very well until 70s when economic growth began to falter. It stopped working altogether in the mid 90s when real economic growth came to a halt and was replaced by growing debt and financial bubbles.

Balancing a budget has two aspects: spending and revenue, and progressive taxation is the key to making revenue match spending. The idea that taxation has a negative effect on economic growth is self serving for businesses and the rich, but it doesn't stand up to a close examination.

There are countries at the liberal end of this spectrum where taxes are progressive and quite high. Things seem to be working quite well there—so well that even most of the rich folks who are paying those very high taxes are content with the system.

And of course there are countries like Canada who are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with moderately high taxes and government spending. Our budgets have even been balanced occasionally, though under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, taxes were lowered and deficits went back up. We hope our current government, under young Mr. Trudeau, will have better luck.

Sitting firmly at the conservative end of the spectrum we have the U.S. where taxes are low (and headed lower) and it is political suicide to discuss increasing them. Even poor working people seem to be against the very idea of taxation. I've asked Americans what's up with this and the best answer I've gotten, the one that comes closest to making sense, is that the American government is so corrupt that its citizens just aren't willing to trust it with their money. That may be so, but the American deficit keeps growing, despite numerous efforts to cut spending.

What can we expect to happen as the economy continues to contract? It seems to me that the U.S. deficit will grow until borrowing and printing money leads to a financial disaster that will greatly hasten the collapse of the country, hurting even those in the upper classes. More fiscally liberal countries will suffer less, managing a more graceful downward spiral.

At some point in this process, no matter how well managed, tax revenues will no longer support federal organizations like the UN, Europe, Canada or the US and decentralization will become a well established trend. It can be done the easy way, through negotiation and civilized agreements, or the hard way through secession and armed conflict. No doubt there will be some of both.

Communist <—> Capitalist

It is important to remember that this axis is about economics and not to get it confused with the types of government which are often associated communism or capitalism.

The totalitarian "communist" states of the twentieth century were actually practicing capitalism at the state level. And not very successfully. Most of those countries have since switched over to some more overt form of capitalism. At the same time, democracy has functioned best when restraining and regulating capitalism's excesses.

At the left end of this axis we have Communism. In the sense I am using here, it consists of the people in a group sharing resources and working together for their mutual benefit. The words "sharing", "work" and "benefit" give us the clue that we are talking about economics. Communism works well in small groups (up to 150 or 200 people) and was how we lived for all of our prehistory, more than two million years. And quite successfully, I might add.

At the right end of the axis we have Capitalism. It consists of a small minority of the people (the capitalists) in a group owning the resources and the rest of the people working for them to produce benefits that are enjoyed primarily by the capitalists.

The relationship between the capitalists and their workers may be outright slavery, serfdom or wage slavery. Outright slaves, who by no means have it easy, are at least provided with a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Serfs in feudal cultures, don't have it easy either, but their lords do have certain obligations to them. Wage slaves, on the other hand, are provided only with a wage. Capitalist have no other responsibilities to them—in particular, when business is slow, capitalists are not responsible to provide jobs for all the workers who need them in order to live. And in modern capitalist societies there really isn't any other way to make a living.

This became particularly significant when we learned to convert heat energy into mechanical work and replace the muscle power of the workers with machinery. Initially, there was concern that many workers would be replaced by machinery and end up jobless. But workers were still needed to build, operate and maintain the machinery and for the last couple of centuries the economy grew fast enough to provide jobs for a growing work force and significantly increased their standard of living.

This is often pointed to as one of the great successes of capitalism, but it should actually be attributed to the increase in productivity made possible by the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Indeed, capitalists did everything they could to improve their profits by reducing the amount of labour needed and the wages paid for that labour. It was only through unions and the support of left leaning democratic governments that labour made the gains it did.

Unfortunately, those days are over and with the slowing of economic growth, capitalists have been forced to try a number of strategies to maintain the viability of their businesses. And there has been a move to the right in many democratic governments which has helped with this.

Globalization, as long as shipping stays cheap, provides cheaper labour and a business environment with fewer safety and environmental regulations. Automation further reduces the number of workers required. And financialization offers a way of making profit by trading "virtual" commodities related to money, instead of real products. All this has been successful to some extent, but has worsened unemployment in the developed countries, and increased economic inequality between the working classes and the rich and powerful. This is a serious problem in consumer economies where the majority of consumers are also workers and need income to function adequately as consumers, in order to support the upper classes.

This and most of the other problems caused by capitalism occur when it is allowed to pursue short term profit (or shareholder value) to the exclusion of all else. As I said earlier, capitalism has worked best when governments have acted to restrain its excesses. Democracies have been particularly effective because with one vote per person the workers have more political power. But during the last few decades there has been a move to the right in most Western democracies and political parties, and power has slipped away from the workers and back to the capitalists.

It seems likely that this trend will continue, in an attempt to compensate for economic contraction. But it will not succeed in rescuing capitalism, which will collapse more quickly where it has the fewest restraints. Those of us with leftist leanings have always assumed that it would take action to end capitalism, but it's starting to appears that capitalism will collapse on its own, without there being anything ready to replace it.

Post collapse, with very much smaller and poorer states, and with capitalism already out of the way, and having acquired a bad reputation in the process, communities may be free to return to a more communistic approach.

Social Progressive <—> Social Conservative

The thing about this axis is that it changes over time as things that were progressive are gradually accepted and become the province of conservatives, while liberals move on to new horizons.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, in the developed world at least, social progressives won victories in gaining equal rights and freedoms for people of different races (particularly blacks in the U.S.) and different religions (particularly Jews, and at least in principle, Muslims), for women and for LGBT people. No doubt there are other similar battles to be won, but given the backlash we are seeing against the gains already made, it may not be time to move on just yet.

There are good reasons to think that society as a whole benefits when equal rights and freedoms are extended to those who have previously been excluded. That exclusion has resulted over the years in the failure to develop a great deal of human potential. Given the challenges we face currently and in the future, we simply cannot afford to do this. Excluding people for traits over which they have no control, which they did not choose, is surely unjust and it should not be necessary to explain why injustice is a bad thing.

Many people feel that as times get harder, socially conservative positions are more adaptive. I think just the opposite, but not surprisingly, that opinion is common among socially conservative kollapsniks, who see collapse as an opportunity to roll back social changes which they are not comfortable with, such as feminism, racial equality, religious freedom, and LGBT rights.

At the same time, I notice a trend for socially progressive people to hold a variety of anti-science positions. It is deeply shocking and abhorrent to me that they have bought into the wrong side of issues that are being pushed by people and companies for profit. The anti-vaccine movement lead by alternative medicine practitioners and the anti-genetic-engineering movement led by organic food producers and distributors are good examples of this, neither of which is supported in the least by the scientific consensus.

Libertarian <—> Authoritarian

It is important to be clear that this axis is about personal freedom, not economics. The libertarian movement and Libertarian political parties seem to be mainly about removing restrictions on the activities of business in order to get rich, with no concern for other people or the environment. I find that sort of activity abhorrent, and it is not the sense in which I mean libertarian at all. Anarchism might be a better term (anarchists being poor libertarians), but this term also has negative connotations for many people.

At any rate, we're talking about politics in Western democracies here, so what we are really looking at is variations in an area around the middle of this axis.

In order to make large countries like the one I live in work, the citizens must be willing to accept a social contract including the rule of law, taxation, regulation of business and the government's monopoly on violence. One receives all kinds of benefits in return, and in a representative democracy you even get to help choose the people who make up your government. This is fine unless the range of parties to choose from is so narrow that it really isn't a choice at all.

I suspect that our immediate future will no doubt see a move toward increasing authoritarianism in states that are nominally democracies. We are already seeing this in the U.S. Being a dictator may seem like a fine thing, until you are confronted with actually solving the sort of thorny problems that face many nations today. It's not as easy as it looks, and more resources are required to enforce this kind of rule than one where the citizens co-operate willingly.

I think the rise of the surveillance state is also something to be worried about. Fear is being used to manipulate public opinion so those in control can get more control. It's clearly a case of exchanging freedom for security, which always turns out to be a poor deal in the long run. The expense of watching over its citizens is something governments will be less able to afford as the economy continues to contract, but I suspect they will be eager to shoulder that expense and expand upon it.

In the long run, as a lack of surplus energy makes large states impractical, we may see a move in the other direction, to less authoritarianism and less surveillance.

And in conclusion…

I guess it's not too hard to tell, from what I've said so far, that I would pick a political party that acknowledges limits, and is inclusive, fiscally liberal, economically leftist, socially liberal but pro-science, and more libertarian than authoritarian. This combination of political positions would, in my opinion, give us the best chance of navigating the collapse of industrial civilization as gracefully as possible.

Unfortunately, due to the realities of modern politics there is no such party and most of the political positions I favour are unlikely to win any elections in the near future. The details of those realities and their consequences will be the subject of my next post.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 3: Political Compasses

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Published on The Doomstead Diner August 1, 2017

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A couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts titled "A Political Fantasy", in which I talked about what might be accomplished if political realities weren't what they are and it was possible for governments to simply do what is needed to get us through the coming collapse and energy decline with as little grief as possible. I didn't think back then that many of the things I was suggesting were likely to happen and I still don't.

I've been promising to take a look at the other side of this and write about political realities for a while now. In my last post I talked about the likely end points of collapse. The rest of this series will be about how we'll get from here to there. Since politics is going to play a large part in that, this seems like a good time to address the subject.

First we'll talk about politics in the western democracies that I and (I suspect)my readers are ost familiar with. If you are a citizen of a western democracy, your view of politics is largely informed by mass media coverage of party politics in your country. This is significant as much for the issues they ignore as for the ones they focus on. If a political position is not supported by any of the mainstream parties and/or the media are not interested in it, then you'll never hear about it unless you do a lot of digging. These days, our political options are typically seen to be spread along just a single axis ranging from left to right, which is way too restrictive to represent the nuances of the real world.

The Political Compass

If you go to the Political Compass website, you can take a quiz that will attempt to locate your position along two political axes, left—right and totalitarian—libertarian. This results in a two dimensional map of politics, which is indeed capable of representing more subtleties than a single one dimensional axis. But it is, well, "two dimensional" and it omits some other axes which are also important aspects of modern politics.

The left vs. right axis is actually about economics, so we also need to consider a progressive versus conservative axis for social policy.

And even economic policy is too complex to be represented on a single axis. In addition to the spectrum that runs from communism to capitalism (left to right), there is also one that runs from fiscally liberal to fiscally conservative (concerning government spending and debt).

So, even if we are just talking about "business as usual" politics, I can see at least four dimensions that are significant. No doubt there are more. And having accepted that the limits to growth are real and collapse is a possibility, we can come up with a new political compass using a couple of new axes that are more relevant to those realities. It's vital to do this since, without it such a compass, we'll just spend our time working on symptoms without addressing the real underlying problem—like so many well meaning people today.

On one axis I would map the degree of our acceptance or denial of limits. This would run from Limits to Growth folks (like me) on one end to Cornucopians at the other end—people who refuse to admit that we will ever be limited by scarcity at all.

On the other axis I would map how we respond to limits when we inevitably run up against them, even if we don't acknowledge their existence. That response might go along several dimensions, but I'd recommend one that looks at a range from social inclusive to socially exclusive. That is, from people at one end of the axis who want to work together towards a mutual solution to people at the other end who want to save themselves and throw everyone else to the wolves.

But is all this drawing of charts anything more than just a diverting pastime?

I think so, but to understand my take on this we'll need to look at why we should be concerned with politics at all and then why it is vital to consider the limits to growth as part of our politics.

Here in North America there is a great deal of apathy toward the subject of politics. I suspect this is also true to at least some extent in Europe. Part of this is because people feel they are unlikely to have any influence in the political process. One vote counts for very little, but I'd counter that by saying that if enough people feel that way, then we are not talking about one vote, but millions.

Then there is the problem of finding a political party you can feel good about voting for. This is a problem, but remember—politicians like to be at the head of somebody elses parade. If an issue gains enough public support, the politicians will be eager to take credit for the idea.

Some will say that the way our system are set up, politicians are unlikely to fix anything and very likely to make things worse. I agree with that, but we need to do everything we can to minimize the harm they do, if nothing else. Some say that "voting just encourages them". I disagree. They get all the encouragement they need from lobbyists and those who contribute to their campaigns. It's the job of us voters to counteract that, since it is usually a push n the wrong direction.

In order to see if we should be adding the limits to growth to our political discussion, we need to know how those limits are and will continue to affect the world we live in. Our current economic, financial and political systems are based on growth fueled by copious quantities of easily accessible and high quality energy resources—primarily fossil fuels.

We've been able to have fossil fuels for little more than the cost of digging or pumping them out of the ground. That cost has been very low compared to the worth of the energy they provided. The productivity of the industries fueled by them grew dramatically, compared to industries powered by human or animal muscles alone. This is what is meant by the term "surplus energy"—the excess energy that is available for use once we've done whatever it takes to acquire the energy in the first place. A related term is "energy returned on energy invested", EROEI.

In the early twentieth century, when we first started using oil, its EROEI was around 100. But we picked the low hanging "fossil fuel fruit" first and what remains now is either of low quality or more difficult to access, with a much lower EROEI. It is estimated that to maintain a modern industrial society the overall average EROEI must be 15 or greater. The global average EROEI today is around 11.8 and falling.

The first effect of a dropping EROEI is the slowing of economic growth. This is a particular problem because of the way our banking and financial systems are set up to accommodate and encourage growth. New money is created via debt—banks lend out money that didn't previously exist and was created by the act of loaning it. Governments, businesses and individuals borrow this money on the assumption that the economy will continue to grow and they will be able to pay it back in better circumstances, with interest. In order for this to happen, of course, others must borrow more money so the interest on the first lot can be paid back along with the principle. And so on, as long as growth continues. When the economy stops growing, this system quits working. Individuals, businesses and even governments go bankrupt, people lose their jobs and so forth.

Governments have been diddling growth statistics to make things look better than they are for some time now, but in fact there has been very little real economic growth since the 1990s. Since then apparent growth has been financed by ever-growing debt and the inflation and subsequent bursting of various investment bubbles.

Meanwhile we've still been burning fossil fuels and adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and climate change is getting to the point where the problems it causes make our other problems that much worse.

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth, talks about easy problems and hard ones. Easy problems are those where implementing the solution results in immediate and obvious change for the better as soon as you start to implement it. We are good at solving such problems. Hard problems are ones where implementing the solution actually makes things worse for quite a while before they start to get better. Or sometimes things don't get better at all, but the "solution" stops them from getting significantly worse. For the most part, we do a poor job of admitting that such problems even exist. Once they have been identified, we do an even worse job of addressing them.

So it seems fair to say that things aren't going well because of the limits we are encountering. We should be doing something about this. There seems to be good reason to believe that a solution which allows us to continue on as usual isn't possible, so we need to start adapting to the new conditions. And you would think governments should have a role to play in that.

This is where all these charts of political alternatives comes in—some of those alternatives would likely be much more effective in this situation than others. By knowing what they are, we are in a better position to choose the best of them than if we don't even know what alternatives exist.

In my next post I'll have a closer look at what the political alternatives are, and how well each of them is adapted to the challenges we face.

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