Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Galloping With Blinkers On

Making sense of history as it happens is a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without any idea of the picture the puzzle will show. A blue piece with an edge, a speckled one with an odd bulge on one side, and hundreds of others sit on the table and taunt the imagination. Most solutions come together a piece at a time; still, it sometimes happens that two or more pieces from different parts of the puzzle can reveal a pattern that allows some large portion of the puzzle to be assembled in a few minutes.

A moment a little like that happened earlier this week, when two seemingly unrelated news squibs showed up in my inbox. The first was an article about a small company in New Zealand, EcoInnovation Ltd., that builds micro-hydro systems – for those of my readers who don’t speak appropriate tech fluently, this means a hydroelectric system meant to generate power from very modest amounts of running water. Less popular than wind and solar, mostly because sun and wind are more widely distributed than streams, micro-hydro has nonetheless had a presence in the alternative energy scene since the Seventies. What sets the EcoInnovation systems apart from others, though, is that the generators used in them are salvaged washing machine motors.

I’m not sure how many people realize that an electric motor and an electric generator are the same thing, a device for turning electricity and rotary motion into one another: take an electric motor and make something else spin the shaft, and it becomes a generator. This is what the people at EcoInnovation did. It’s not exactly a new idea; a book in my collection of Seventies appropriate-tech manuals, Cloudburst, provides plans for a micro-hydro plant built of salvaged parts along similar lines. Still, this sort of salvage-based manufacture of micro-hydro systems is an excellent way to minimize resource inputs for the production of clean, locally produced electricity – something that has been on many people’s minds of late, and for good reason – and so far, aside from this one small company, it’s been almost completely neglected.

The second news story was a puff piece about the latest efforts to make a reactor that will sustain nuclear fusion for more than a few milliseconds. Unlike micro-hydro, nuclear fusion will be familiar to all my readers, whether the words make them think of thermonuclear warheads, the long litany of past attempts to build a working fusion reactor, or the sole functioning fusion reactor in this solar system – the one that rises in the east every morning. The news story trotted out the usual rhetoric about limitless clean energy, and repeated the ritual assurance that given adequate funding, fusion reactors will solve the energy crisis in another few decades.

The fact that they were saying the same thing in the 1950s somehow failed to make it into the story. Nor did the reporter mention just how many billions of dollars have been spent over the last sixty-odd years chasing the fusion dream. Nearly all of it has pursued a single broad approach to fusion reactor design. The science books of my childhood had brightly colored pictures showing exactly that design: heavy hydrogen, heated to superhot temperatures, would be squeezed by powerful magnetic fields until the nuclei fused, releasing heat that would produce steam to drive turbines.

With a variety of modifications and refinements, that’s still the basic model behind most of today’s fusion-reactor projects. Yet fusion power remains a daydream; despite vast sums in research grants and government subsidies every year, the fusion power research community has never managed anything more than brief and self-terminating bursts of fusion, releasing rather less energy than they took to produce. Leading physicists in the field have admitted that it’s quite possible that commercial fusion power is unattainable using the current model, and the net energy from so energy- and resource-intensive an energy source shows every sign of being far into negative numbers; still, the money flows in.

Note the contrast in these two news items. One details a simple, efficient, and readily available energy source, using proven technology, with wide applicability – every spot that used to run a water wheel in the 19th century, if it hasn’t been flooded by a dam since then, is a micro-hydro site, and there are plenty of surplus electric motors around – to provide renewable energy for the difficult years ahead. The other story details the fantastically costly pursuit of what is arguably a failed model of fusion power generation, one that has yet to put a single watt into the power grid, and may well never do so. Care to guess which one of these approaches will receive billions of dollars of additional funding and the attention of major research teams next year, and which one will remain in the hands of a small entrepreneurial firm and its customer base?

This contrast offers a glimpse at one of the key factors in the collapse of complex human systems. It’s a commonplace of history that institutions of all kinds – governments, businesses, religious organizations, whole civilizations, and more – get locked into strategies that, at least in hindsight, can be seen as hopelessly self-defeating, and stay the course all the way down to collapse. No doubt archeologists of the future, hacking their way with machetes through a post-global-warming jungle to reach the lost city of Flint, Michigan, will wonder why CEOs shackled their companies’ survival to rapidly depleting fossil fuels, instead of pursuing electric cars and alternatives to the automobile, and then compounded their folly by setting up lending agencies that became hopelessly entangled in the delusional economics of what may still, even in that distant time, be remembered as the largest financial bubble in human history. Standing amid the overgrown ruins of some ancient assembly line, they will surely ask themselves: why did nobody see the obvious consequences?

Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work on the rise and fall of civilizations has been discussed in these essays several times, offered a useful way of thinking about this dysfunction. He argued that civilizations rise under the leadership of a creative minority, who are able to offer a vision of human destiny and possibility strong enough to overcome the inertia of tradition and launch a new phase of social integration. As long as the creative minority continues to come up with successful responses to the challenges and curve balls the world throws at every human society, the society they lead continues to expand. Sooner or later, though, the creative minority becomes so deeply committed to some particular set of solutions that it keeps on trying to apply those solutions, whether or not they actually fit the challenges. At that point the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, ruling its society by increasingly blatant coercion rather than inspiring it with the force of its ideas. Unsolved problems pile up as failed responses are repeated on an ever more lavish scale, and the death spiral of decline and fall begins.

It’s a pity that Toynbee didn’t live long enough to see the current economic debacle, as there has rarely been a better example of the phenomenon he outlined. Consider the way that nobody in American political life has anything to offer in the face of economic crisis but more attempts to reinflate a bubble like the ones that popped in 1987, 2002, and 2008. All sides are declaiming about economic growth, at a time when further economic growth in the current sense of that phrase is the last thing America needs. A sane strategy would seek economic contraction instead – a massive downsizing of the banking and finance sector until our annual production of debt has some relationship to our annual production of goods and nonfinancial services; a steady decrease in energy use across the board until US energy use per capita equals that of Europe, about a third of the present US level; the systematic rebuilding of American manufacturing and agriculture protected by trade barriers, which would require Americans to pay prices reflecting American wages for their consumer goods; and so forth.

Conventional wisdom insists that any such program would be rejected by the American people. I’m not at all sure that that’s true; many people in the working class, I suspect, would be quite willing to accept higher prices for consumer goods in exchange for a return of manufacturing jobs and a sustained drop in housing costs. Still, nothing of the kind will be proposed at any level where the necessary decisions could be made, because such a program flies in the face of the set of economic solutions that Americans from the middle class on up want to apply – even though those “solutions,” which amount to flooding imaginary wealth into a broken system, have themselves become a major cause of the crises shaking our economy to its core.

One of the telltale signs that a creative minority has become a dominant minority is that failure no longer carries any penalty. Consider what happened to executives and middle management in the last quarter century or so when their actions, as so often happened, drove their companies into the ground. The number of them who had trouble finding new jobs was vanishingly small; members of a well-networked class that generally takes care of its own, they were shielded from the consequences of their own incompetence. Even those who openly looted failing companies rarely suffered any penalty, since this has long been standard practice in American corporate life; the cult of the bonus and the plundering of business assets to line the pockets of executives reaches far beyond the handful of financial firms where it has recently become infamous.

In much the same way, three generations of physicists have been able to count on lavish grant money for research pursuing a failed model of fusion power, and the fact that none of this immense investment has brought the world noticeably closer to working fusion power plants has done nothing to slow the torrent of government largesse. Meanwhile surplus washing machine motors, and a thousand other useful resources and practicable responses, pile up unregarded.

And that, dear reader, is why I tend to roll my eyes when people insist, as they often do, that the world’s industrial societies will surely get themselves out of the peak oil trap once they devote resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses to the problem. In theory, they might still be able to do so; in practice, this won’t happen, because devoting resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses is precisely the missing piece that can’t be supplied. When failure is no longer penalized, and losing strategies are the only options admitted to discussion, changing course becomes the least likely possibility; the tighter the blinkers, the more likely that the horse will keep on galloping straight ahead, even if the road leads straight off a cliff.

This is one reason why it seems crucial to me to suggest that any real response to the crisis of industrial society has to begin with individuals, families, and local communities, where constructive change might actually be possible; and to argue against imposing any grand strategy or one-size-fits-all plan on the ventures that result. It’s worth noting that some places have good sites for micro-hydro installations and plenty of spare washing machine motors, but others do not; equally, any other solution you care to name is likely to be well suited to some contexts and very poorly suited to others. It’s in dealing with these differences – in grappling with the messy, local, everyday details of life in a contracting economy and a deindustrializing society, with blinders off and a pace slowed to the point that the surroundings become more than a blur – that effective responses are most likely to emerge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Genji and the Printing Press

The relation of technology to time is a theme that’s come up more than once in these essays, and for good reason. On the one hand, many of the challenges we face as industrial civilization lurches down the long curve of its decline and fall come from the mismatch between the short timeframe that governs so many of our collective decisions and the long reach the consequences of those decisions so often have.

On the other, a crucial aspect of our predicament just now – though it’s not often recognized as such – is the fact that most of our modern technologies are very poorly adapted to the long term. Most of the technologies used by today’s industrial societies depend directly or indirectly on nonrenewable resources that, in the broad scheme of things, simply won’t be around all that much longer. Those technologies that can’t be reworked to use entirely renewable inputs, or that stop being economical once the costs of renewables has to be factored in, will go away in the decades and centuries to come, with profound impacts on human life.

In that light, it’s comforting to realize that our species has managed to come up with a certain number of extremely durable technologies. Agriculture, despite the assertions of its modern neoprimitivist critics, is at least capable of being one of those. The rice paddies of eastern Asia, the wheat fields of Syria and the olive orchards and vineyards of Greece and Italy, to name only a few examples, have proven sustainable over many millennia, and will likely still be viable long after today’s idiotically unsustainable petrochemical agriculture has become a footnote in history books written in languages that haven’t evolved yet.

There are other examples. One in particular, though, plays an important role in my own hopes for the future, not least because I work with it every day: the technology of the book.

One volume on my bookshelf right now makes as good an example as any. It’s an English translation of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s first and greatest novels. It was written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, at the beginning of the eleventh century for a circle of friends, and wove together her wry reflections on court life with a sense of the impermanence of all earthly things. Like so many novels of an earlier age, it demands more patience than most of today’s readers like to give to fiction; its storyline unfolds at a leisurely pace, following the path of its decidedly unheroic hero, Prince Genji, through the social milieu of his time. Think of it as War and Peace without the war; the political struggles that frame Genji’s career, sending him from the capital into exile and then returning him to the upper reaches of power, all take place without a hint of violence.

This is all the more striking because the society in which Murasaki lived was well on its way to a violent decline and fall. Her lifetime marked the zenith of the age Japanese historians call the Heian period. Over the next century and a half, the Japanese economy came apart, public order disintegrated in a rising spiral of violence, and the government lost control of the provinces where the new samurai class was taking shape. The civil wars that began in 1156 shredded what was left of Heian society and plunged Japan into a dark age four and a half centuries long.

Countless cultural treasures vanished during those years, but The Tale of Genji was not among them. One of the advantage of books is that, properly made, they are extremely durable; another is that they have very little value as plunder, and so tend to get left behind when looters come through. Both these advantages worked in favor of Murasaki’s novel, and so did the patient efforts of generations of Buddhist monks and nuns who did for their culture what their equivalents in Dark Age Europe did a few centuries earlier.

It’s not the only volume on my bookshelves that came through the fall of a civilization intact. A good shelf and a half of Greek philosophy and mathematics hid out in Irish monasteries while Rome crashed to ruin and nomads fought over the rubble, and so did an assortment of literary works from Greece and Rome, including a couple – Homer comes to mind – that came out of the dark ages before Greece and Rome, and so get extra credit. The Chinese classics on another shelf went through more than that; Chinese civilization has immense staying power but its political systems tend to be fragile, and such seasoned survivors as Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching have shrugged off half a dozen cycles of decline and fall.

Still, the granddaddy of them all is next to the Greek classics. The epic of Gilgamesh was first composed well over five thousand years ago by some forgotten poet of Sumer, the oldest literate society anybody has yet been able to find. It’s not something most people read in school, which is ironic, because the epic of Gilgamesh is the kind of story we most need to read these days: a story about limits. When he first strides into the story, Gilgamesh is about as far from Prince Genji as a fictional character can get; superhumanly strong, with an ego to match, he makes Conan the Barbarian look like Caspar Milquetoast; but his ego sends him on a long journey through love, loss, and a shattering confrontation with the human condition that leaves little of his arrogance intact. It’s a story well worth reading even, or especially, today.

The astonishing thing, at least to me, is that I can take that book from its place on the shelf today and read a story that had audiences on the edge of their seats five thousand years ago. Precious little else from Sumer survives at all; five thousand years is a long time, especially in a corner of the world where more civilizations have risen and fallen than just about anywhere else. That’s what I mean about the durability of books as a technology of information storage and transfer. Even though individual books break down over time, it costs little to manufacture them and little except time to copy them, and they weather copying mistakes remarkably well; unlike today’s data storage methods, where a very small number of mistakes can render data hopelessly corrupt, a book can still pass on its meaning even when the copy is riddled with scribal errors.

All this bears directly on the predicament of industrial society. Our age will certainly leave its share of legacies to the far future, but most of those are the opposite of helpful. (I am thinking especially of the nuclear waste we are heaping up in “temporary” storage facilities, which will likely be lethally radioactive dead zones surrounded by cow skulls on sticks 25,000 years from now.) Of our positive achievements, on the other hand, the ones most likely to reach our descendants 5000 years from now are the ones written in books.

Thus I’d like to suggest that books, and the technologies that produce and preserve them, might well deserve a place well up on the list of useful things that need to be preserved through the long decline ahead of us. I wish it made sense to count on public libraries, but those venerable institutions have gotten the short end of the stick now for decades, and the dire fiscal straits faced by most state and local governments in the US now do not bode well for their survival. (The county next to the one where I live, for example, has already shuttered its entire library system, and handwaving has replaced any meaningful plan to reopen it.) Like so many other things of value, book technology may have to be saved by individuals and local voluntary groups, using their own time and limited resources.

It might come down to copying books with pen and ink onto handmade paper, but there may well be another viable option. Letterpress technology is simple enough to make and maintain – the presses that sparked a communications revolution in Europe in the fourteenth century were built entirely with hand tools – and brings with it the power to produce a thousand copies of a book in the time a good scribe would need to produce one. With printing presses, something like the book culture of colonial America – with local bookstores, libraries open to anyone willing to pay a modest subscription, and private book collections – comes within reach, at least in regions that maintain some level of stability and public order. This may not seem like much in an age of internet downloads, but it beats the stuffing out of Dark Age Europe, when most people could count on living out their lives without turning the pages of a book.

Now of course there are plenty of people who argue that the age of internet downloads is worth preserving, or that some other more advanced technology would be a better place to start. It seems to me, though, that at least two factors argue against this. The first is that all of the more complex data storage technologies presuppose an extensive technological base, supported by plenty of energy and an economy diverse enough that resources can be diverted from survival to less critical needs. The crises looming in our future make the secure maintenance of these conditions something of a gamble against long odds.

These complex technologies, furthermore, are not something that individuals and local communities can tackle on their own. That makes it a good deal less likely that anybody will get around to tackling them at all. As the collective response to the latest round of economic crises has demonstrated all too well, short-term crisis management and pedaling in place have elbowed aside any more thoughtful or proactive response to future needs. A society in which executives are shaking down their bankrupt corporations for one more round of million-dollar bonuses, while governments pour money they don’t have and credibility they’re rapidly losing down a growing list of ratholes, is not a society in which the funds and resources to retool much of anything for a sustainable future will be forthcoming from above. That likely means that whatever gets done will have to be done by individuals – and the sort of local, decentralized, individual approach to the survival of book technology I’ve suggested in this post might make a workable template for the kind of strategy that could work for many other things as well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Waiting for the Saucers

Whether or not synchronicity has the importance that Jung and his physicist friend Wolfgang Pauli attributed to it, it’s something that pops into my life often enough to be worth the occasional comment. A couple of weeks ago, a fine specimen showed up – well, not quite on my doorstep, but in the course of a half mile or so of walking that began and ended there.

My walk that day took me to the post office, to pick up a package, and to the local media exchange, to see what was new there. I’m not sure how widespread media exchanges are just now, but it’s an intriguing business model: people drop off the books, CDs, DVDs, and so on they no longer want; those that are worth $10 or more on the used book market get sold over the internet, and the rest go on shelves, for anyone to take for free. This particular media exchange gets a dizzying assortment of stuff; for that matter, so does my mailbox.

This particular day had parallel finds in both of them. The mailbox contained the first two copies of my new book on the UFO phenomenon, rather unoriginally titled The UFO Phenomenon, an attempt to get past sixty years of bickering between the people who think any light in the sky nobody can identify must be an alien spacecraft, and the people who think that any light in the sky nobody can identify never existed in the first place. The media exchange followed that up with a packet of yellowing paper putting a full stop at the end of one of the oddest and, in its own way, most moving stories I researched in the course of writing The UFO Phenomenon.

The late Dorothy Martin never became a household name, but this is mostly because she had her fifteen minutes of fame veiled by a pseudonym. She was "Marion Keech," the central figure in the UFO cult chronicled in one of the classics of American sociology, When Prophecy Fails. Martin, a suburban Chicago housewife turned contactee, announced to the world that a vast flood would sweep over North America on December 21, 1954, and only those who were flown to safety aboard flying saucers would survive.

A team of sociologists from the University of Minnesota had a couple of grad students join Martin's circle under false pretenses. The result was one of the few hour-by-hour accounts of what happens when a group of true believers has to deal with the complete failure of their belief system. The climactic scene of the story, the afternoon when a circle of middle Americans gathered in a suburban backyard in a Midwestern winter, watching the skies and frantically getting rid of every scrap of metal on their bodies so the flying saucers could land safely, begs for cinematic treatment; it's hard to imagine any series of events more perfectly balanced on the thin edge between drama and farce.

It's hard to get through a degree in any of the social sciences in America without being exposed to When Prophecy Fails, but very few people know the rest of the story. Friends in the contactee scene got Martin out of Chicago just ahead of a psych evaluation that probably would have sent her to a mental institution, and she went first to Arizona and then to Peru, where a group of contactees were attempting to launch the Abbey of the Seven Rays as an international center for the emerging New Age movement. When the Abbey folded, the promoters simply walked away, leaving Martin penniless and stranded.

It took her years to get back to the United States. When she finally made it home, she settled in the small town of Mount Shasta, California as Sister Thedra, the name she believed she had been given by the aliens. With a constancy and devotion worthy of some less delusional creed, she lived in relative poverty, supported by donations from the very modest network of people who subscribed to her newsletter and found her messages appealing, and devoted all her time and efforts to the task of preaching the extraterrestrial gospel to a mostly uninterested world. Until her death in 1992, she remained convinced that the purifying catastrophes and mass alien landings she had announced in 1954 were still imminent.

The packet of aging photocopies I found at the media exchange chronicled the last chapters of her story: several years' worth of her newsletter from the last years of her life, along with a cheaply bound book of messages she had transcribed from the aliens and a brief biography of Martin written just after her death by one of her few followers. I brought it home and read the whole packet several times. It will be going back to the media exchange, but several aspects of her story seem uncomfortably relevant to the current predicament of the industrial world.

To begin with, of course, a remarkable number of people even today remain committed to the same faith in flying saucers that led Dorothy Martin on the long strange trip of her life. I have had several conversations with one person who is convinced that since the problems besetting industrial society are insoluble by rational means, we need to transcend reason and await rescue by spiritually enlightened extraterrestrials. (It never fails to bewilder me how many people these days think that "transcend" and "give up on" mean the same thing.) I have spoken with another person who, having seen odd lights in the sky, is convinced that they must have been alien spacecraft, and on that basis argues that since it's clearly possible for intelligent species to reach a higher technological level than humanity, humanity ought to be able to get through its present predicament and keep on progressing.

All this is a bit like insisting that any hoofprint sighted in a forest anywhere on Earth proves the reality of unicorns, and arguing from there that the best solution to the current health care crisis is to rely on the legendary curative power of unicorn horns. Still, Martin's legacy has a broader lesson to teach. The contactee faith that shaped her career drew its strength from the appalling contradiction between the ideology of progress that dominated twentieth century America and a growing sense that the trajectory being traced by progress was moving toward a future no sane person would welcome. The slogan of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair – "Science Explores, Technology Executes, Mankind Conforms" – had become the ideology of an inhuman future anatomized by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society and also, in the sly language of satiric fantasy, by C.S. Lewis in his novel That Hideous Strength.

The result invites analysis in terms of Gregory Bateson's theory of the double bind. Put a child into a family setting where the realities that can be discussed flatly contradict the realities the child experiences, Bateson pointed out, and mental illness is a pretty common result. Put an entire society into the same sort of conflict between ideology and experience, and new belief systems that promise a radical resolution of the conflict spring up. The more drastic the disconnection between culturally acceptable beliefs and personal experiences becomes, the wilder and more apocalyptic the resulting belief systems tend to be.

There's an entire literature on revitalization movements, which is what sociologists call the mass movements that sometimes gather around these new belief systems in times of drastic social stress. Some dimensions of the UFO movement came close to that category, though it never quite managed to become a mass movement on the scale of the Ghost Dance of the Native American plains tribes, say, or other classic examples of the type. The social pressures that gave rise to the extraterrestrial faith found other expressions before that faith could find a large following; the widespread but mild belief that there could well be aliens out there somewhere, and there might be something to all those reports of flying saucers, replaced the total conviction that sent Dorothy Martin in pursuit of her destiny.

Just now, though, the double bind that drove the radical movements of the Fifties and Sixties – the gaping disparity between the Utopian visions of progress that flooded popular culture and the manipulative and inhumane technocracy so many people saw taking shape around them – has given way to a different one. Where the stresses of an earlier time grew from contradictions to the claim that progress is good, those of the present and foreseeable future are building around the claim that progress is inevitable. A society founded on the unquestioned belief that economic expansion and technological development will continue forever may have a very, very hard time dealing with a future in which economic contraction and the abandonment of technologies too complex to be sustainable will likely be dominant trends. It's not too far of a reach, it seems to me, to suggest that massive revitalization movements will follow.

Not all of those will be as obviously delusional as Dorothy Martin's belief in the imminent arrival of the Space Brothers, though there will doubtless be some, and the approaching "end of the Mayan calendar" in 2012 – I put the phrase in quotes, because the Mayan calendar doesn't end then, and the recently invented mythology that has gathered around the rollover of one of their calendrical cycles has no basis whatsoever in ancient Mayan tradition – may well give rise to a whopper. Still, it's the apparently saner fantasies that may cause the most damage, if only by distracting us from steps that can actually be taken to cushion the descent into the deindustrial age and make life better for our descendants for generations to come.

Thus I'd encourage my readers to be at least a little wary of any movement in the years to come, however reasonable and hopeful it may seem, that claims to have a solution to the rising spiral of crises that is building around today's industrial civilization. I have argued here and elsewhere that those crises define a predicament rather than a problem – a situation that cannot be solved, only lived with – but that definition flies in the face of some of the most deeply rooted assumptions of our culture. I suspect that unless we cultivate an unusual degree of common sense, a great many of us in the years to come may end up doing some equivalent of standing in suburban backyards, waiting for the saucers to arrive.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The End of Retirement

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the flurry of responses to last week’s Archdruid Report post on the twilight of investment. “Men will forgive the murder of their fathers sooner than the loss of their patrimony,” Machiavelli wrote a long time ago, and the principle can be applied more generally: if you really want to rile people, threaten the money and property they think is securely theirs.

Unfortunately the word “security” can be applied to any financial asset in today’s economy only in the most ironic of senses. The entire system of economic value that underlies the possibility of investment broke down completely in the speculative excesses of the last thirty years, drowned in a flood of unpayable debts – public, corporate, and private – that were mistakenly classified and then sold as financial assets. The face value of these paper debts vastly exceeds the value of all human economic activities on Earth; the huge majority of them can thus never be paid off, and so they are effectively worthless.

That awkward fact, if honestly faced, would likely bring the world’s economies to a shuddering halt. Thus we can be confident that it will not be honestly faced. Instead, governments around the world are playing a high-stakes game of make-believe, pretending that the global economy is not bankrupt in the hope that the losses can be spread out over years rather than hitting all at once. For all I know, they may succeed – but even so, the downside will not be pretty.

One aspect of that downside was on many of my readers’ minds last week, to judge by the comments and emails I fielded. People nowadays invest for many reasons, but one of the most common is retirement. Ever since the American pension system and its government equivalent, Social Security, began to shed their reputation for stability and adequate funding, a growing number of Americans – pushed that way by large and lavishly funded ad campaigns – have placed their hopes for a comfortable old age on investments. The result is a huge fraction of Americans who are emotionally as well as financially invested in the hope that a big payoff from their assets will enable them to have the retirement of their dreams.

If you are among the people who cling to that belief, I’m sorry to say I have bad news. Over the next decade or so, the huge overhang of paper wealth that now floods the world economy is going to lose nearly all its value. As it goes, it will take your retirement funds with it.

It’s anyone’s guess exactly how the process will play out. One possibility is a long deflationary spiral in which markets slump, bankruptcies soar, and the legacy of bad debt suffers the death of a thousand cuts. Another is hyperinflation, in which the dollar value of the bad debt still holds good but a cheeseburger costs US$150,000 and workmen take their salaries home in wheelbarrows. Another is a credit crisis in which efforts by governments to fund deficits via borrowing exhaust the world’s dwindling pool of credit, and nations are forced into default. Still another is a political decision on the part of a major debtor nation to default on its foreign debt, leading to panic selling of offshore assets and the collapse of international trade and investment.

What makes this devastating for those who hope to retire on their current investments is that most current asset classes are part of that overhang of unpayable debt, and the rest are priced at levels that assume that much of the unpayable debt is still boosting the global economy’s net worth. One way or another, those assets will sooner or later move toward their real value, which in the case of most financial assets is nothing, and in the case of most nonfinancial assets is a lot less than they’re worth on paper right now. This means that no matter where you put your investments, you’re likely to lose most of your money.

Interestingly, this is likely to be true even of commodities such as crude oil which are subject to declining production curves for hard geological reasons. Last year’s price spikes in oil and other energy resources were only partly a product of geological limits on production. The soaring demand growth of an overheating economy, and speculative money flooding into any asset that was gaining in price, both played major parts. Prices collapsed when the speculative money flowed back out, and slumping demand has helped keep prices low since then. As the economy unravels further, the chance of further downside action can’t be dismissed. It has, I think, too rarely been noticed in peak oil circles that there are at least two ways to price oil out of the market; the first is for the price per barrel to soar out of reach, the second is for the economy to contract so sharply that even a modest price per barrel is more than most people can pay.

For the next decade or so, then, there’s unlikely to be any asset class that will give prospective retirees the income they’ve come to expect. Nor will private pensions, most of which are dependent on investments and vulnerable to corporate bankruptcies, far much better during that time. Nor are government pensions immune; most governments are hemmorrhaging red ink right now, adding to unsupportable debt loads, and the pool of credit available for government borrowing is far from limitless.

What about after that, when the overhang of debt has been cleared one way or another and this crisis, like all economic crises, finally comes to an end? Well, once again, I have bad news.

Retirement as a social habit was entirely a product of the zenith of the age of abundance now sliding backwards in our collective rear view mirror. For a brief window of time – rather less than a century – it made financial and political sense for nations in the developed world to pay their elderly citizens to stay out of the work force, in order to keep unemployment down to politically bearable levels. All this unfolded, in turn, from an industrial economy so lavishly supplied with cheap energy that human labor was worth replacing with machines wherever the state of technology permitted, and so greedy for new markets that every part of human life was made subject to market forces.

Before that period began, something less than half of all economic activity even in the industrial world had anything to do with the market at all. Most women, and many men outside the age of regular employment, worked in a household economy governed by custom and intrafamily exchange rather than market forces. This included essentially everyone who would be eligible for retirement by the standards of the age that has just ended. Outside the market but not outside the demand for skilled human labor, elderly people typically provided household goods and services to a household somewhere in their extended family. That was their full-time job; by contributing the value of their labor and skills, they earned their keep.

The end of the age of cheap energy means that such household economies will once again be viable. It also means that they will once again be necessary. When the limited energy and resources of a contracting, deindustrial society have to be prioritized for urgent needs, takeout meals and convenience foods will sooner or later draw the short straw; in their absence, most food will once again be made at home from raw materials. When the energy cost of the global network of sweatshops that keeps Americans clothed can no longer be met, a great deal of clothing will once again be made at home from raw fiber, as it was not so long ago, and so on. All this requires human labor. Thus a society no longer supplied with nearly unlimited amounts of cheap abundant energy will have every incentive to keep elderly people in the household labor force, and neither the incentive nor the resources to keep them in comfortable idleness.

Now of course it’s true that we will not be landing in such a society overnight. It’s also true that the clout of the retiree lobby in most industrial nations is such that public and private pensions will be gutted only when every other option has been exhausted – though in the United States, at least, the vast tide of red ink currently flooding out of Washington DC is likely to bring about this eventuality sooner rather than later. Still, it’s quite possible that at least some of today’s retirees and soon-to-be-retirees will manage to cling to that status, at least for a while.

If I were asked for advice about retirement, then, it would probably go something like this. If you’re already retired, or within a few years of retirement, it’s probably worth your while to try to get any investment money you have left into a stable investment, if you can find one. Still, it’s probably unwise to assume that your investments will be worth anything in the long terms, and having a Plan B in place would be a very good idea. If you’re more than a decade or so out from retirement, having a Plan B in place is essential. If you’re thirty years out or more out, as I am, forget about Plan A for now; you can look into the options for investment later, once the wreckage of the last few decades has been hauled away and a new economic order has begun to take shape, but you probably will never retire.

What sort of Plan B might work best for you depends on so many local and personal variables that specifics would almost certainly be misleading. If you’ve got a large family with whom you’re on good terms, bone up on your home ec skills; ten years from now, when four of your grandkids, their spouses, and their children all live in one rundown McMansion, having Grandma and Grandpa there to cook the meals, tend the children, and keep the garden going will likely be worth much more than your keep. If you don’t have a family or can’t stand them, cultivate relationships with younger friends, or get ready to take up a second career that you can continue into advanced old age.

No matter what you choose, it’s not going to be as fun as sitting on a lawn chair in a Sun Belt trailer park. Still, history is under no obligation to give the options we’d prefer, and a great many pleasant options are going away for a time, or forever, as the industrial age draws to a close.