Thursday, November 02, 2006

Politics: The Eighty Percent Pay Cut

It's a well-known maxim that, in the final analysis, all politics are local. The political dimensions of peak oil are no exception to this rule; for that matter, the global politics surrounding the decline of American empire, the subject of last week's post, draw their force from everyday issues in the lives of 300 million Americans -- not to mention the six billion other human beings on this planet, most of whom must make do with less so that Americans can continue to live their unsustainably extravagant lifestyles.

It’s considered impolite to mention this last detail, of course. The mythology of progress treats it as a temporary state, and claims that someday or other, everyone in the world will be able to live like the affluent middle classes of the world's industrial nations. This faith is so widely held -- at least among those same affluent middle classes -- that few of its believers notice two awkward facts. The first is that the vast majority of the benefits of industrial civilization go to a tiny fraction of the world's population, while nearly all the costs are spread among everyone else. The second is that this state of affairs has persisted throughout the history of industrialism, and shows no signs of changing in the foreseeable future.

In his brilliant 2001 book The Power of the Machine, human ecologist Alf Hornborg argues that the disparities aren’t accidental. An industrial system concentrates resources in what Hornborg calls “centers of accumulation.” Those resources let the industrial system achieve economies of scale and concentrations of influence that distort economic exchanges in its favor. This allows it to gain control over more resources, allowing it to further expand production in a self-reinforcing cycle. The downside is that in a world of finite resources, what’s needed to build the industrial system must be taken from somewhere else, and the return to that “somewhere else” is less than what’s taken by at least the cost of building the industrial system. Thus the centers of accumulation accumulate by impoverishing other regions, classes, or economic sectors.

To see how this works, imagine two equally sized countries, Industria and Agraria, that trade only with each other and have preindustrial economies. One day, however, a rich man in Industria builds a shoe factory that produces as many shoes as the people of Industria can use. The resources demanded by that project equal those used by the local cobblers who used to make Industria's shoes, and any economic gain to Industria from the factory will likely be offset by the losses caused by putting the cobblers out of business. The chief difference is that the wealth once earned by thousands of cobblers now goes to one Industrial magnate, who pays his workers a fraction of what the cobblers once made. His accumulation is their impoverishment.

Then another rich Industrial builds a second shoe factory with equal capacity. Industria's shoe industry can now produce twice as many shoes per year as the Industrials need. This poses a major problem. If both factories produce shoes at full capacity, the law of supply and demand will cut the price of shoes in half, and each magnate will get only half the income the first one had all to himself. The same result follows if both factories work at half capacity. Either case makes it hard to maintain the concentration of resources that makes factories possible at all.

The magnates might hire an advertising firm to convince Industria's citizens that they all need dozens of pairs of new shoes every year, sell surplus shoes to the Industrial government, or make all their shoes so flimsy that every Industrial citizen needs a dozen pairs a year because each pair wears out in a month. All these expedients, though, simply shift the problem to the Industrial economy as a whole, since resources diverted into excess shoe manufacture aren't available for other needs. The solution that avoids this trap is selling excess shoes across the border in Agraria. The result is a net loss to Agraria and a net gain to Industria; Agrarian cobblers go out of business, and most of the money Agrarians spend on shoes goes to Industria instead of staying at home, turning the annual shoe budget of Agraria into a subsidy for the Industrial economy. Industria’s accumulation becomes Agraria’s impoverishment.

If Agraria then decides to build a shoe factory of its own, the project faces a welter of problems. The flow of wealth to Industria makes it harder for the Agrarian economy to gather the resources to build a factory, or maintain it once it’s built. Adding more shoe production brings an oversupply of shoes, launching price wars the Agrarian factory is more likely to lose. If Agraria erects trade barriers against Industrial shoe imports, it might be able to overcome these challenges, but Industria might not sit passively as a rival emerges on its doorstep. Its options range from bribery and manipulation, through economic warfare, to a military solution that makes Agraria a client state in an Industrial empire. The Industrial magnates might even choose to build their own factories in Agraria, especially if Industria’s economic boom makes it difficult to keep wages low there, since the profits from those factories will still come home to Industria. The result, one way or another, is Industrial prosperity built on the foundation of Agrarian impoverishment.

This is a simplified – some would doubtless say oversimplified – version of Hornborg’s carefully reasoned argument. He shows that from the standpoint of human ecology, what’s significant about industrialism is not its relation to technology, or even its dependence on fossil fuels, but its role as a means of creating inequalities of wealth and access to resources between classes, regions, and nations. “Industria” and “Agraria” have different names in the contemporary world, of course: on an international level, they are the industrial nations and the rest of the world; within the United States, they are the coastal urban regions and the impoverished hinterland; within individual communities, they are the investing (that is, middle and upper) classes on the one hand, and the working class on the other. In each case, the industrial system concentrates wealth and access to resources in one at the expense of the other.

This is not the way today’s economists and social theorists like to look at industrialism, to be sure. From their point of view, industrial production yields so much abundance that, in the words of a common cliché, the rising tide of wealth lifts all boats. This assumption requires a second look, though. Leave aside the fact that this abundance is actually the result of burning through the earth’s finite fossil fuel deposits at a reckless rate; in point of historical fact, does the tide of industrialism actually benefit everyone? As Hornborg points out, it does nothing of the kind. Leave out situations where political factors forced redistribution of wealth, such as the New Deal in 1930s America, and the rise of industrial economies produce more disparities in wealth and more impoverishment, not less.

All this is the roundabout but necessary background to understanding one of the most important and least mentioned factors governing local, regional, and national politics at the dawn of the age of peak oil. Among the core factors supporting business as usual in today’s world are unequal exchanges that funnel wealth from the rest of the world to the industrial nations, especially the United States. Those patterns are hardwired into the global economy in the form of wage, price, and interest differentials, and they enable people in the industrial world – again, especially in the United States – to use far more than their share of the world’s resources.

Petroleum, as the most important natural resource in the global economy today, makes a rough but workable surrogate for the entire pattern of unequal access. Right now the United States uses a little over 20 million barrels of oil a day, or about 25% of global production. The US accounts for a little less than 5% of the world’s population. If everyone on the globe had equal access to petroleum, the 5% who are Americans would use around 5% of the world’s oil, or around 20% of what they use today. And the other 80%? That’s a rough first approximation of how much of America’s lifestyle is paid for by impoverishing the rest of the world.

Again, this is not how today’s economists and social theorists prefer to look at the matter. They hold that Americans have simply reached the resource-intensive lifestyle ahead of everyone else, who will eventually all be using resources at an American rate. In a world of finite resources on the brink of peak oil, this is empty fantasy, but let that pass for the moment. Why is the distribution so asymmetrical now? It can hardly be said that the rest of the world has no use or desire for the oil Americans waste so profligately, and the willingness of people elsewhere to work hard and save – supposedly the foundations of prosperity in a capitalist system – far exceeds that of Americans. What keeps people elsewhere from having access to an equal share of oil? Systematic patterns of unequal exchange, hardwired into the global economy.

The dependence of the American standard of living on these patterns of unequal exchange goes far, I think, to explain the remarkable meekness of the political left in this country over the last few decades. It’s one thing to talk about bringing fairness and justice into the world economy, and quite another to face up to the consequences. Again, oil makes a rough but workable surrogate for wealth as a whole. If the United States were to abandon the patterns of unequal exchange that support its current standards of living, its citizens would face something like an 80% reduction in wealth and access to resources.

Put that in everyday terms and the political implications are hard to miss. Imagine that a candidate for public office launched her campaign with a speech announcing that if she were elected, everyone in the country would suffer a permanent 80% pay cut, while prices, interest rates, and outstanding debt would remain as they were before the cut took effect. The pay cut would bite deeper with each passing year, too, to make up for the effects of resource depletion. How many people would vote for such a platform? Would you?

This, in a nutshell, is why no useful response to the current global predicament will come from within the political systems of the world’s industrial countries. Where such a response might come from, and what forms it might take, will be the theme of next week’s post.


Eligere said...
Wonderful post, as always. I must be weird, because I'd vote for the 80% paycut. It's not I that don't appreciate my standard of living, but I'm quite certain it's coming to an end. And as someone once said, the time to weave your parachute is not on the way out of the plane.

So one thing I'd love to hear about is ideas for getting our fellow Industrials to see that it's coming to an end, no matter what. A lot of people I speak with accept it in the sense that they can't argue with the facts, but not in sense that they respond by making changes to prepare. Since there is no date certain on which it will occur (a la Y2K), they can't seem to get engaged in planning and implementation.

One thing I try consistently to do is assure my friends and correspondents that when the benefits of industrialism recede, so, eventually, will a lot of its burdens, including those we have learned to regard as inevitable: smog, alienation, loss of community, generational estrangement, epidemic obesity, and unemployment in the sense that we understand the word.

11/3/06, 8:37 AM

Ka-Bar said...
Excellent post!

I posted on my own blog recently that this will likely be one of the last 'normal' election cycles, where candidates from both major parties promise more of everything and simply differ on how it's going to be paid for. In the future, I think we'll see candidates trying to show voters which entitlements and services they will try to save, and how they will pay for it in a way that won't either wipe out the economy or debase the currency too far.

I personally am planning on having a lower material standard of living imposed on me and my family at some point in the next decade or so. My hope is that my kids will still be young enough that they won't remember too much of the 'salad days' of their early life, and that what we will see as a life of crushing poverty (i.e. the 80% cut) will just be normal to them.

11/3/06, 8:44 AM

chirotic said...
eligere... must be wonderful to be in a position that an 80% pay cut only diminishes one's standard of living, rather than putting one at risk of death.

An 80% pay cut would drop my income to about $200 per month.

I think it must only be those rich from industrial overconsumption who tout the return of community, et al., as a result of peak oil and decline. It will certainly not be nice for me to go without food, clothing and shelter.

I really wish someone would pay attention to the plight of those in industrial nations who are on the losing end of the industrial formula. Not everyone will have the option of downsizing to a one-bedroom apartment and taking public transportation... for a whole lot of us, downsizing means straight-up destitution.

11/3/06, 11:12 AM

robin said...
I absolutely think you have the best and most well thought-out site on this subject. However, on this subject you present the old leftist idea of the static pie. If I get a slightly larger piece, that means that you get a smaller piece. Nowhere is it mentioned that it is sometimes possible to make the pie bigger. If I invent a medicine or antibiotic or vaccine or cancer drug or medical procedure or medical equipment, or fax, radio, etc, it makes everyone better off, provides jobs, and makes the pie bigger. Secondly, you use the cobbler but many jobs were long and hot and dirty and dangerous. What if I invent a machine to cut sugar cane. The sugar cane gets cut but instead of the long, hot job cutting cane by hand all day the worker could go to a job in an airconditioned hospital? best wishes and blessings on you, robin

11/3/06, 1:58 PM

Eligere said...
chirotic, an 80 percent paycut across the board, as I understand it, will quite possibly occur over time with the devaluation of our currency, whether we opt to prepare for it or not. The thing is, every day we don't confront it is another day of preparation lost. If you had been alive right before the Great Depression, and were given advance notice, would you not take advantage to make your life as economical and cost efficient as possible? Not taking the matter in hand does not mean you defer the inevitable.

My grandparents were, putting the best face on it, lower middle class before the Depression, when fewer people in this country were prosperous. The value of their currency was halved. They muddled through, and yes, community had a lot to do with it, which is exactly why I believe in it now.

The consequences you quite reasonably dread are not, at root, economic inevitabilities; they are political choices. The average Cuban salary is 210 pesos a month, which is about $10.50 American. But their child mortality stats are better than ours and their lifespans are equivalent, they have universal health care and universal higher education. They are 2 percent of Latin America's population and produce 11 percent of it's doctors. I would happily give up 80% of my salary, and even some of my admittedly cherished privacy, to achieve that. But as long as Americans continue to sleepwalk, I don't see the political will arising, do you?

11/3/06, 2:55 PM

Adrynian said...
The pie grows because energy and resource consumption grows, is my first counterpoint. (I.e. notice, you mentioned inventing a machine to do the work, but that machine has to be powered somehow and built from something, and in our case that usually means oil and metals.) Furthermore, even when the pie does grow, as the people in the US *should* be intimately aware of by now, the top-income earners capture the vast majority of that growth; that is, every income bracket in the US except the top one has been stagnant or declining, indexed for inflation, for *at least* a decade or two now. And when you consider that US oil production peaked 35 years ago and that most of the best mines are now in the developing world - because most of the developed world has already extracted its best ores & resources - you start to get a sense of the nature of the game. A few people get most of the resources *now*, and the rest get dreams of getting a bit more in the future.

In Political Science, it is generally recognized that negotiations between parties are usually only balanced when the groups are also balanced in power. But industrialism concentrates power and wealth, making it very much more difficult to then negotiate with those who hold it to get them to give some back (that's what strength in numbers are for, when it's not undermined by "divide and conquer" tactics). It's a classic positive feedback loop: whoever "wins" first gains a competitive advantage over the other parties, giving them even more ability to win again. It's also called "success to the successful" and it's why someone like Bush can wind up President: he had every advantage and leg up he could ever possibly need to keep him on top, just because he comes from a rich family.

Post-WW2 to ~1970 was a special time in our history: a truce could be reached between owners and workers because on the one hand, there was lots of work to be done rebuilding Europe and everybody could get a piece of the action without taking someone else's slice; and on the other hand, there was plenty of energy and resources available for the rebuilding effort. In other words, everybody could get at least a little bit rich. My grandparents' generation was the last to see any real benefit from that, however; the rebuilding is done and so the pie isn't really growing the same anymore, so the truce is over and we've returned to 'predatory' capitalism, where the owners can only increase their slice at everyone else's expense (I recommend "Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform" by Gary Teeple for an indepth discussion of this phenomenon). My parents' generation has had it harder than my grandparents', and my generation has it harder yet, which is why so many of us can't afford to leave home: there's just no damn way to afford living on your own when you're working a shit job. (And if you want more than that, your family has to be loaded already or you have to be prepared to take a massive loan to afford post-secondary education. I took door #2 and I'll be paying for it for years, assuming there's a decent economic climate to provide me with a job for the foreseeable future.)

Essentially, the metaphor about increasing the pie is equivalent to the "rising tide..." metaphor, and it assumes that everybody can get a piece of the extra bit of pie, but what JMG was saying, and which is currently being demonstrated in the US (and elsewhere) is that there is no *necessary* connection between economic growth and everybody benefitting from that growth. Typically, the benefits of growth are captured by a small fraction of the population while the costs are externalized onto everyone (at best, or some completely different - and unlucky - part of the population at worst).

And all of this utterly ignores the point to be made about how *absolute increases* in standard of living that make someone *relatively worse off* are arguably unjust because humans compare themselves to each other for a reference point, meaning that they will probably even experience their new situation as being worse than before.

11/3/06, 3:39 PM

Adrynian said...
Oops, eligere, you slipped your post in there while I was typing... makes me sound like I'm rebutting you, at first, and not robin.


11/3/06, 3:43 PM

Eligere said...
Adrynian, no, the pie reference forestalled any confusion. :-)

11/3/06, 4:25 PM

ColoradoCelt said...
Many excellent points, and a good historical perspective. I do believe that there is still a good deal of hope for the USA and the planet *if* we start to make significant changes in energy policy. We need to start stressing renewables from a grassroots level.

Even if it is impossible for us to stop the slow colapse of the American empire, like Cú Chulainn fighting the waves of the sea, we need to try.

11/6/06, 8:21 AM

John Michael Greer said...
I thought talking about economics as a zero-sum game would raise a few hackles -- though fewer rose than I expected, I admit. Robin, what you call the "old leftist idea" of a static pie is hard ecological reality. In a world of finite resources, one person's gain is inevitably another's loss. When the playing field of economic exchange is level, people trade something they have in surplus for something they have less of than they want; the result is a net gain in satisfaction, but the total amount of wealth remains constant.

When the playing field is slanted, those with privilege can set the terms of exchange in their own favor, so that wealth concentrates in their hands. It's far from rare to see situations of this sort in which those on the losing end of these exchanges don't even get enough to keep body and soul together, because -- again -- the total amount of wealth remains constant.

Proponents of industrialism like to claim that an industrial economy isn't subject to this principle, because it creates more wealth -- essentially the claim you've made. From an ecological perspective, though, it does nothing of the kind. Industrialism takes wealth from the past (in the form of fossil fuels laid down in past ages) and from the future (in the form of the deferred costs of pollution, such as global warming) in order to concentrate wealth in the present. The social forms taken by industrialism in the modern world, in turn, ensure that the wealth gathered into the present ends up in very few hands, and assists them in controlling a growing fraction of all other wealth, by establishing unequal exchanges in the present.

The idea that everyone benefits from this concentration of wealth in the present -- an idea only really current in the privileged industrial countries of the world -- is a function of the way that industrialism serves as a means of exporting poverty to non-industrial countries. America and western Europe used their industrial systems to extract wealth from the Third World, and that -- not some "creation of wealth" out of thin air -- accounts for the vast disparities in economic status between the industrial and non-industrial worlds. Hornborg presents the data for that at length.

The interesting question is how these disparities of privilege will play out as the fossil fuels that made them possible hit their Hubbert peaks and stop being available to fuel the industrial system. My guess is that a lot of the apparent certainties of global politics and economics will come unglued over the next few decades. It may be a very rough ride.

11/6/06, 10:52 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Eligere and Chirotic, you're on two sides of a very common, and entirely reasonable, divide. Some people can take an 80% pay cut and be fine; others will starve to death. I wish I had some reassurance for the latter camp, but I don't. A hundred years ago, before the US began the final petroleum-powered phase of industrialism, people starved to death in American cities all the time, and that will inevitably happen in the future ahead of us, too.

I've suggested some things people can do to put themselves in a better position to deal with the economic convulsions that will follow the decline of oil production -- learning a useful trade, reinventing the household economy, learning to do without, etc. All of those will help; none of them are certain. If I'm right and we face a slow process of decline, there will be time for those who are paying attention to adjust their strategies to fit changing circumstances, but no matter how you cut it, it's going to be harsh.

11/6/06, 10:57 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Coloradocelt, I can't say I agree with your assertion that trying to slow the decline of the American empire is a worthwhile goal. The sooner the US abandons its imperial pretensions and sets the more modest but potentially reachable goal of survival as a national community, the more likely we are to end this process with something like a republic, and the less likely we are to end it with the scraps of a nation torn apart by civil war and quite possibly occupied, at least in part, by foreign troops. I don't see anybody paying enough attention to the total vulnerability of US power to resource constraints, and historical comparisons show that the collapse of an empire that keeps on fighting to the end can be a very, very, very messy thing.

11/6/06, 11:03 AM

norlight0 said...
Chirotic - JMG's 80% pay cut is for illustrative purposes, a way of talking about the imbalances in our global relationships. Our decline will me much more gradual--a slow winding down. It may be possible that people starve to death in our cities in our life time, but maybe not.

There are small groups of people all over the country and the globe trying to organize and address the problems we face with the energy descent. One strategy coming out of Community Solutions is curtailment, cooperation and community. We don't cooperate as much as we used to because we can afford not to do so. For all the talk about the rugged individual and a spirit of indenpendence, our country was built on community and cooperation; house raisings, corn shucking bees, and "changing works' on small farms to get the corn, oats and firewood harvested and stored.

There are no guarantees, of course, but some kind of community effort is a worthwhile goal to work on.

11/6/06, 12:10 PM

Ka-Bar said...
I think Robin is getting his pies confused. ;-)

While the economic pie may not be totally static, the commodity pie certainly is. The earth as a whole is a closed system, and there's only so much oil and other resources to go around. The idnustrial world seems hell-bent on fighting over the remaining petroluem/natgas resources that are left. This bodes ill for the world over the coming decades.

Even if we could inform most Americans about the changes coming in their lives, I doubt we could alter the course of events much. Even now that more people are starting to pay attention to oil and energy prices, the focus is on finding new ways to power our current way of life versus making the radical changes that will be needed to gracefully power down.

As long as our idea of sacrifice means buying a hybrid SUV and only flying to the carribean once every two years, we're screwed.

11/6/06, 6:31 PM

mc said...
Always enjoy your post -
Although there is a great deal said/written about the looming energy crisis, there does not seem to be as much emphasis on coming to terms with the growth of our human numbers - granted the abundant supply of cheap energy contributed to the population growth. But, now the fuel sources will dwindle and the global population will continue to grow exponentially. Not much to be done about the number of us already on the planet - but this is the time for all of us to think of different human social arrangements. We can no longer manage the results of the nuclear family and the attending population increase. It could mean the difference between many managing on less or mass starvation.

11/6/06, 8:25 PM

Pancho0067 said...
John Michael Greer said...
"If I'm right and we face a slow process of decline,..."

Today people live in energy self sufficient homes, walk, cycle or drive electric cars to work. Today alternatives to fossil fuels exist - nuclear, solar, geothermal etc. If one looks at the technological advancements over the last hundred years (for example computers, aviation and medicine) with increased investment in improving existing technologies and developing new, surely one can see a not too distant future where a mix of energy sources (solar, nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen) will in effect replace fossil fuels?

Ka-Bar said...
" The earth as a whole is a closed system..."

Doesnt solar energy come from the outside?

11/7/06, 3:51 AM

Ka-Bar said...
Solar energy doesn't generate more non-renewable resources, pancho.

Our entire way of life is based around moving goods and food over large distances, and right now, that requires oil or one of it's replacements (ethanol, biodiesel, etc).

From a human lifetime perspective, petroluem is non-renewable, and there isn't enough arable land to generate the needed raw materials for ethanol or biodiesel, especially if you're interested in trying to feed 7 billion or more people.

11/7/06, 9:54 AM

Adrynian said...
Pancho, I think one of the biggest constraints is time: time to change our culture to one of conservation and respect for nature, rather than infinite exponential growth and disregard for natural limits; time to change our economy to match. We have an entire socioeconomic system with vested interests in the status quo, and it takes time and effort to change its momentum, especially since it has all kinds of negative feedback loops to prevent such change.

Unfortunately, we have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet and set off numerous other feedback loops within the climates and ecosystems of our world, so time is one thing we really don't have. That is the essence of our problem: that we've created a whole bunch of converging crises that we don't really have *time* to 'fix.' Societies can adapt to various challenges and still prosper, and they can even change their cultures and economies in the process (to an extent), but people resist very fast changes in many facets of their lives all at once, and that's exactly what is required to face the current challenges.

"The Limits to Growth" (actually, I read "Beyond the Limits") describes how a society can divert some of its industrial production towards developing and implementing technological solutions to things like "pollution" (shorthand for the unforeseen consequences of industry, population, and technology), but the problem is that as long as exponential growth is allowed to continue, eventually the diversions into solving "pollution" overwhelm the industrial system's capacity and start parasitizing the output that would have been used to reinvest in maintaining that very capacity. (That's a long-winded way of saying that eventually industrial output declines because there's not enough surplus to reinvest in maintenance and repairs, let alone further expansion.) We have relatively recently surpassed the earth's carrying capacity (say within the last ~20 years), so for the modern, high-tech, global system this is uncharted territory; all previous civilizations that faced overshoot had to get their asses back in line or they collapsed, regardless of their technological capacity, and I doubt we're any different (except that this time, collapse will be largely global, instead of localized or regionalized).

Furthermore, the technological advances of the past hundred years were frequently made *economical* (though perhaps not always *possible*) by the increasing quantities of cheap energy in our economies and this is the very substance we're running short of, which makes addressing these challenges both much more critical and much more difficult. We face, as I have pointed out before, peak oil, water, food, population, industrial capacity, economy, trade, and so forth, while temperatures continue to climb, toxic pollution continues to spread and bioaccumulate, and habitats become less and less habitable as all of this occurs in a context of increasing frequency and severity of really nasty weather events.

Realistically, we need to reorganize almost the entire structure of our economies so that people (particularly in the West) consume vastly less energy and resources while producing vastly less pollution and garbage than they do today. Anything less is a wasteful diversion of attention and resources. Crucially, this includes redesigning and rebuilding our biggest ecological footprint, our cities, so they don't have sprawl and its consequent need for cars, and so there is local food, tool, and goods production. It also involves reducing cities' surface-area-to-volume ratios (like a ball versus a pancake), tearing up black, impermeable asphalt, and planting [edible] trees and shade-plants throughout, so that cities are simultaneously more efficient to heat and easier to keep cool. Unfortunately, reconstruction of this magnitude takes at least a generation, as well as massive quantities of materials and energy, and we probably don't have that kind of time or the necessary resources.

JMG has pointed out that he has read that no combination of renewables can sustain our current way of life; I have also heard this. The sooner we recognize this as a fundamental constraint and start reorganizing our human systems to adapt, the better off we'll all be. Unfortunately, I suspect that it won't be so easy as all that, since it so rarely is. On a positive note, however, I have also read that Tony Blair is pushing for a 60% reduction below 1990 levels of CO2 by 2050, which is about 30% short of where it needs to be - 90% by 2050 - but it demonstrates how much the political attitudes around these issues has changed in the past few years. Maybe, we can look forward to something better than an approaching dark age after all.

11/7/06, 3:54 PM

John Michael Greer said...
MC, you're certainly right that population increases are a major issue, but I don't agree that population will keep climbing once energy starts to run short -- quite the contrary. The population bubble of the last few centuries has been an effect of cheap abundant energy, reflected in things like abundant food and high-tech medical care. As those go away, expect population increases to shift into reverse in a big way. See my post on public health for a discussion of this.

Pancho, the problem with your rosy scenario is that it doesn't take two factors into account. The first is the net energy limits of renewables -- that is, how much energy you have to invest in them to get energy back. Many renewable "resources" take more energy to extract than they yield, and even the good ones -- wind comes to mind -- have net energy gains in the single digits, as compared to three digits for light sweet crude oil.

The second is the extent to which everything in our society, even renewable energy, gets a huge "energy subsidy" from oil. Those self-sufficient homes, hybrid cars, etc. are not made using renewable resources, and there's not enough renewable resources to do so -- nor will there ever be. No renewable resource can replace the 20+ million barrels of petroleum we in the US burn up every single day. That being the case, trying to maintain the current American lifestyle on renewable resources is an exercise in futility.

11/7/06, 10:55 PM

chirotic said...
Eligere writes, “If you had been alive right before the Great Depression, and were given advance notice, would you not take advantage to make your life as economical and cost efficient as possible? Not taking the matter in hand does not mean you defer the inevitable.”

Again, this is the problem I have with discussions of preparations, downsizing, etc., that no one seems willing to address. Preparing for Peak Oil and decline is a luxury affordable only by people who already have a stockpile of assets to downsize or convert to something relatively more sustainable. This is true for individuals as well as for the small groups of people around the country that norlight0 cites: they are invariably rich, white, middle-aged, and usually suburban. Community-building is a luxury affordable only by those with enough leisure time to devote to it. And neither is this a blind criticism: I spent some months on the front lines of the national peak oil debate (national in the US, I mean) and have seen all this first-hand. (I became so disillusioned with it so quickly that I have since voluntarily withdrawn from that national discussion and turned my peak oil efforts to other things, but that is another subject.)

For all the talk of how “community” is tantamount to salvation, I don’t see anyone doing anything outside their white, middle-aged, middle-class enclaves. In fact, the so-called “community-building” exercises that go on seem deliberately designed to exclude everyone not of a particular politico-cultural bent.

Making one’s life cost-efficient assumes it is not cost-efficient to begin with. Living on $1000 or less per month, I can tell you, cost-efficiency is a high priority for me and there is little more I can do to make my own life more cost-effective.

“Not taking the matter in hand does not mean you defer the inevitable” assumes people have the resources and time to do so, and that getting stung or killed in decline is their own fault. This is the very thinking that allows for the gross accumulation of wealth in a few hands at the expense of the masses — in other words, that has allowed industrial civilization to bring us to the brink of collapse.

As for Community Solution and their Cuba film: it is worth asking what got edited out and why. The Community Solution folks are no more experts on surviving the collapse of industrial civilization than anyone else; Cuba has an entirely different culture, geography, climate, identity, and history than America, and without some discussion of these facts, as well as of the problems that cropped up in its shift to a relatively more sustainable economy, the Cuba film may in the long run do more harm than good by dangling a false Utopian hope in front of a nation to which Cuba’s solutions cannot be ported.

11/9/06, 9:03 AM

Schnörkels Rule said...
Since some people (like me) re-read this blog, it might be relevant that there are several examples of people who live on 20% of what they have earned - even in America. One example is this guy

12/4/12, 5:26 AM