Thursday, October 26, 2006

Politics: Imperial Sunset

The coming of peak oil is driven by geological factors, not political ones, but the cascade of consequences that will follow the peaking and decline of world petroleum production can’t be understood outside the context of politics, on global, local, and personal scales. As a religious leader who believes devoutly in the separation of church and state, it’s been my practice to keep politics out of these commentaries, in the probably vain hope that other clergypersons will notice one of these days that the barrier between religion and politics is there as much to protect them from politicians as it is to keep them from abusing their own positions. Still, it’s impossible to make sense of peak oil outside of its political context, and so a few words on the subject can’t be avoided here. This is especially true on the global level, the subject of this week’s Archdruid Report, where the preeminent political fact of the age of peak oil is the impending decline – and, at least potentially, the catastrophic collapse – of America’s world empire.

Empires are unfashionable these days, which is why those who support the American empire generally start by claiming that it doesn’t exist, while those who oppose it seem to think that the simple fact of its existence makes it automatically worse than any alternative. I have a hard time finding any worth in either of these views. When the United States maintains military garrisons in more than a hundred nations, supporting a state of affairs that allows the 5% of humanity who are American citizens to monopolize something like a third of the world’s natural resources and industrial production, it’s difficult to discuss the international situation honestly without words like “empire” creeping in, and it requires a breathtaking suspension of disbelief to redefine American foreign policy as the disinterested pursuit of worldwide democracy for its own sake.

Still, portraying American empire as the worst of all possible worlds, a popular sport among intellectuals on the left these days, requires just as much of a leap of faith. If Nazi Germany, say, or the Soviet Union had come out on top in the scramble for global power that followed the decline of the British Empire, the results would certainly have been a good deal worse, and those who currently exercise their freedom to criticize the present empire would face gulags or gas chambers. The lack of any empire at all may very well be a desirable state of affairs, of course, but until our species evolves efficient ways to checkmate the ambitions of one nation to exploit another, that state of affairs is unlikely to obtain this side of Neverland.

The facts of the matter are that ever since transport technology evolved far enough to permit one nation to have a significant impact on another, there have been empires; since the rise of effective maritime transport in the 15th century, those empires have had global reach; and since 1945, when it finished off two of its rivals and successfully contained the third, the United States has maintained a global empire. That empire was as much the result of opportunism, accident and necessity as of any deliberate plan, but it exists, and if it did not exist, some other nation would fill a similar role. So, like it or not, America rules the dominant world empire today – and that will likely become a source of tremendous misfortune for Americans in decades to come.

Partly this comes from the nature of imperial systems, because the pursuit of empire is as self-destructive an addiction as anything you’ll find on the mean streets of today’s inner cities. The systematic economic imbalances imposed on client states by empires, while hugely profitable for the empire’s political class, wreck the economy of the imperial state by flooding its markets with cheap imported goods and its financial system with tribute. Those outside the political class become what A.J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History, calls an internal proletariat, alienated from an imperial system that yields them few benefits and many burdens, while the external proletariat – the people of the client states, whose labor supports the imperial economy but who gain little or nothing in return – respond to their exploitation with a rising spiral of violence that moves from crime through terrorism to open warfare. To counter the twin threats of internal dissidence and external insurgency, the imperial state must divert ever larger fractions of its resources to its military and security forces. Economic decline, popular disaffection, and growing pressures on the borders hollow out the imperial state into a brittle shell of soldiers, spies, and bureaucrats surrounding a society in freefall. When the shell finally cracks – as it always does, sooner or later – nothing is left inside to resist change, and the result is implosion.

It’s possible to halt this process, but only by deliberately stepping back from empire. Britain’s response to its own imperial sunset is instructive; instead of clinging to its empire and being dragged down by it, Britain allied with the rising power of the United States, allowed its colonial holdings to slip away, and managed to keep its economic and political system more or less intact. Compare that to Spain, which had the largest empire on Earth in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century it was one of the poorest countries in Europe, two centuries behind the times economically, racked by civil wars and foreign invasions, and completely incapable of influencing the European politics of the age. The main factor in this precipitous decline was the long-term impact of empire. It’s no accident that Spain’s national recovery only really began after its last overseas colonies were seized by the United States in the Spanish-American war.

In this light, the last quarter century of American policy has been suicidally counterproductive in its attempt to maintain the glory days of empire. That empire rested on three foundations – the immense resource base of the American land, especially its once-huge oil reserves; the vast industrial capacity of what was once America’s manufacturing hinterland and now, tellingly, is known as the Rust Belt; and a canny foreign policy, codified in the early 19th century under the Monroe Doctrine, that distanced itself from Old World disputes and focused on maintaining exclusive economic and military influence over Latin America. With these foundations solidly in place, America could intervene decisively in European affairs in 1917 and 1942, and launch an imperial expansion after 1945 that gave it effective dominance over most of the world.

By 1980, though, the economic impacts of empire had already gutted the American industrial economy – a process that has only accelerated since then – and the new and decisive factor of oil depletion added substantially to the pressures toward decline. A sane national policy in this context might have withdrawn from imperial commitments, shifted the burdens of empire onto a resurgent western Europe, pursued military and economic alliances with rising powers such as China and Brazil, and used the economic and social turmoil set in motion by the energy crises of the 1970s to downshift to less affluent and energy-intensive lifestyles, reinvigorate the nation’s industrial and agricultural economy, and renew the frayed social covenants that united the political class with other sectors of the population in a recognition of common goals.

The realities of American politics, however, kept such a plan out of reach. In a society where competing elite groups buy political power by handing out economic largesse to sectors of the electorate – which is what “liberal democracy” amounts to in practice – the possibility of a retreat from empire was held hostage by a classic prisoner’s dilemma: any elite group willing to put its own short-term advantage ahead of national survival could take and hold power, as Reagan’s Republicans did in 1980, by reaffirming the imperial project and restoring access to the rewards of the tribute economy. For that reason, especially since 2000, the American political class – very much including its “liberal” as well as its “conservative” factions – has backed the survival of America’s global empire by all available means.

This would be disastrous even without the factor of peak oil. No empire, even in its prime, can afford policies that estrange its allies, increase its overseas commitments, make its enemies forget their mutual quarrels and form alliances with one another, and destabilize the world political order, all at the same time. American foreign policy in recent years has accomplished every one of these things, at a time when America’s effective ability to deal with the consequences is steadily declining as its resource base dwindles and the last of its industrial economy fizzles out. To call this a recipe for disaster is to understate the case considerably.

Peak oil, though, is the wild card in the deck, and at this point in the game it’s a card that can only be played to America’s detriment. To an extent few people realize, every aspect of American empire – from the trade networks that extract wealth from America’s client states to the military arsenal that projects its power worldwide – depends on cheap abundant petroleum. As the first nation to systematically exploit its petroleum reserves on a large scale, the United States floated to victory in two world wars on a sea of oil, and learned the lesson that the way to win wars was to use more energy than the other side. That was possible in the first half of the 20th century, when America was the world’s largest oil producer and exporter. It became problematic in the 1970s, when domestic oil production peaked and began to decline, while consumption failed to decline in step and made America dependent on imports. The arrival of worldwide peak oil completes the process by making America’s energy-intensive model of empire utterly unsustainable.

How that process will play out is anyone’s guess at this point. What worries me most, though, is the possibility that it could have a very substantial military dimension. The US military’s total dependence on energy-intensive high technology could too easily become a double-edged sword if the resources needed to sustain the technology run short or become suddenly unavailable, and its investment – economic as well as intellectual – in a previously successful model of warfare could turn into a fatal distraction if new conditions make that model an anachronism.

Any student of history knows that people in each age tend to overestimate the solidity of the familiar, and are commonly taken by surprise when the foundations of an established order melt out from beneath them. The possibility that the global political scene could change out of all recognition in the aftermath of military catastrophe is hard to dismiss, and if that happens those of us who live in today’s United States could be facing a very rough road indeed.

19 comments:

Frank Black said...

I admire your desire to keep politics out of the blog for practical reasons. Alas, my experience is that many (if not most) religious organizations come with an assumed political agenda or ideology. The fact that it isn't voiced doesn't change it. My experience (also as a former clergyman) is that liberals and conservatives don't often hang out together or worship together.

I agree with your assessment of Peak Oil as the Achilles' Heel of our empire. But I would also add our arrogance. We've overrun so many in this world with so little thought that it boggles the mind. While it may be related to Peak Oil, the other weakness we will have soon is China. I am only speculating here, but I feel it is worth mentioning: China needs oil in a big way. Unless we get into bed with her, we have to ensure we don't get in her way. China gets a lot of oil from Iran. The one thing that may save our nation from a quagmire (giggidy giggidy) in Iran is our fear of Chinese retribution. They need the Iranian oil and I don't think they'll appreciate anything stopping the flow (either actually or potentially).

Lastly, I am amused that your last two entries have been on Peak Oil and Heathcare since I was musing about the two of them as it relates to my personal health issues. It comforts me to know that so many are thinking about the same things. Good article.

Eligere said...

Front page of this morning's NYT: New York Isn't the World's Undisputed Financial Capital. And I've been seeing stories in recent days about Central banks in China and Russia starting to trade in dollars for other currencies. Am I wrong to think that's the beginning of the end?

RAS said...

Good post John! One thing you left out though was the significant amount of American debt, both governmental and private. Instead of extracting wealth from our "client" states, we've been borrowing from them -and that will only compound the problems, when that note comes due.

Major Heartbeat said...

As a British person, your take on the United Kingdom's approach to empire was interesting. I've always wondered why the UK elite has such a strong affection for the States when an analysis such as yours says we should have gone European years ago.
I certainly prefer French working hours to USA norms.

'May you live in interesting times' say the Chinese. We certainly do.
Thanks for a most interesting blog.

Major Heartbeat said...

As a British person, your take on the United Kingdom's approach to empire was interesting. I've always wondered why the UK elite has such a strong affection for the States when an analysis such as yours says we should have gone European years ago.
I certainly prefer French working hours to USA norms.

'May you live in interesting times' say the Chinese. We certainly do.
Thanks for a most interesting blog.

John Michael Greer said...

Good comments as usual. Frank, you're certainly right about China; my own guess is that the Russo-Chinese alliance will dominate world politics through the middle of the 21st century. As for arrogance, though, that's an almost universal habit of empires; Britain was accused of the same thing during its imperial zenith, and for good reason.

As for church and state, that deserves a post of its own, if only because many Druids -- and indeed members of many other minority faiths -- have a perspective on that not often voiced in an age of mass political religion.

Eligere, I'm not sure current fluctuations in the dollar are as important as some think, but they're worth watching as a proxy measure of imperial power. It's the ability of the US to make trade partners accept essentially worthless dollars in exchange for real goods and services that underlies the US tribute economy.

Ras, I see US "debt" as tribute by another name. Those loans will never be repaid, and I suspect everyone who deals with them directly knows that perfectly well. If anyone did try to cash in their chips, the US could simply default on its foreign debt and erase most of the holdings of other nations' central banks -- an act at least as disruptive to other economies as a loss of foreign investment would be to the US. It's an interesting standoff, and to my mind, at least, explains at least part of the willingness of central banks (including the Fed) to permit speculative bubbles and crashes to blow off large amounts of paper debt.

Major, the problem Britain faced after the First World War, when it was clear that the Empire was on its way down, was that it had only three options. It could ally with Soviet Russia; it could (after 1933) ally with Nazi Germany; or it could ally with the US. Those were the three rising powers of the time. There were substantial parties in the British political class in favor of each; the left wing of the Labor party wanted a Soviet alliance, the right wing of the Tories (and apparently at least some members of the royal house) wanted to side with Hitler; the moderates wanted to pursue the American alliance, and they won out. That decision settled the history of Europe in the 20th century.

At this point, though, Britain has been a US proxy for so long that if they were to break with the US and try to integrate with Europe, I doubt anyone would believe it. So like the other members of America's inner circle of client states -- Canada, Australia, Japan, and Israel -- they're tied to the US, sink or swim.

Adrynian said...

Sink, then. I was thinking recently about the fate of Canada when the US economy goes into terminal decline. 85% of our exports go south of the border; Ontario, prominently, is now feeling a crunch as the US economy slows down because a lot of car and car part manufacturing takes place there (financial services are concentrated there too, which is probably the only thing currently buffering them from a total recession, although I expect that will be just another liability in the future). Oh, the wonders of trade; I'm not against it, in principle, but chaining yourself to a sinking (diesel-powered) ship (or burning refinery; pick your favourite metaphor) doesn't seem like a good way to live a long and prosperous life to me.

On the dollar note, Russia, in particular, has been giving the US a big "F*** you!" lately by selling off their dollar holdings for other currencies while they still can (Japanese Yen, I think, is the most recently proposed trade). The dollar took a dip when that information was released. Of course, this just means that other nations will be holding an even bigger bag of worthless nothings when the dollar finally does devalue. And when that happens, Russia will be laughing its a$$ off that the other nations were stupid enough to buy all those US dollars, when they *knew* what was going to happen. And their economy will probably even be doing okay (relatively speaking, of course) since, even though they're post-peak, they still have a lot of fossil-energy left.

China is pretty worried about US $ devaluation, since they're currently holding upwards of $1 trillion in reserves & set to hit $2 trillion by 2010, but I guess they at least get all those shiny new factories out of the deal... if they can afford the Russian and Iranian energy to operate them. I guess their plan is to just keep the game going a little bit longer (they do need to find jobs for everybody, after all), while selling the US all the rope it needs to hang itself with when the time comes for a redistribution of [economic, industrial, and military] power. (I just hope it doesn't go nuclear; that would be bad for everyone.)

However, I doubt such a redistribution would last long, as climate change is getting set to knock the socks off humanity's self-inflated ego - and economy - (and then take away our means of making more socks; at least ones not made of hemp or wool in respectfully small quantities). I appreciated your astute mention of the Prisoner's Dilemma, JMG, and I suppose there's some discounting of the future worked in there, too: ("I don't *know* what the future holds, but if I don't take advantage of this situation *now*, I *do* know someone else will, and that'll be even worse!"). Of course, that's been the entire history of industrialism and the adoption of new technologies in a competitive environment, in general. It's unfortunate, really. It did in the Maya - in a sense - and now it seems to be doing us in, too.

'May you live in interesting times' say the Chinese. Actually, I've recently read that this isn't a Chinese saying at all; (practically?) no Chinese have ever even heard of it. Apparently, it's a Western saying that we like to attribute to the Chinese. ;) Go figure. (Maybe it's an *ancient* Chinese saying and *modern* Chinese have just forgotten about it... but then I'd be curious to know how it got to the West, and if it's been written down anywhere.) P.S. I meant no offense by that last bit; I was just being facetious... I was suprised to find out, myself.

Really interesting post; I appreciate that you addressed "political" stuff this time. I eagerly await the next one, regardless of the topic!

Pancho0067 said...

Thought provoking articles however, I feel that much of the peak oil community fail to appreciate the pace of change in the modern world, accelerated by ever faster computer processing speeds, modern communications, population growth and commerce.
Energy prices will rise agreed, but by how much that is the crucial question? The impression that I have gained from many of the doomsayers in the peak oil community is that they are trapped in a mid 20th century mindset where technological advancement was at a much slower rate. Sure the antiquated internal combustion engine still reigns supreme but each year R&D into alternative energy sources/technologies increases. At this time my view is that energy prices will continue to climb, plateau at reasonable levels barring a major global catastrophe and to eventually fall again.
Unfortunately this does not bode well for our environment. Some hope peak oil will be the saviour of our environment and as such humanity, I don't. If we are to improve our societal behaviours and the way in which humanity interacts with the environment than I beleive the impetus must come from a different source.

budr said...

JMG

Thanks for another great post. One comment -- with respect to oil for the military, they will probably be at the front of the line (along with the wealthy) to receive first dibs on declining resources. The rest of us will get the dregs, and learn to get by with less.

Adrynian said...

What is this new 21st C. pace of change you're talking about? Seriously. The 10-15 years it takes to build a new nuclear reactor? The 10+ years it takes to bring a new oil field online? We're suffering from worldwide offshore-rig shortages and the industry is building more, presumably as fast as it can with current manufacturing levels, given the high price they fetch these days, but I'm sure it'll still take years to significantly increase their numbers (assuming we want to waste our precious resources in that way). We're also suffering from a shortage of geology experts for fossil fuels and they take *at least* 5 years to train, assuming just a bachelors degree or assuming they already have a bachelors and are upgrading to something more specialized.

Renewables like solar and wind technology are growing by double-digit percentages each year (~10-20%), which is *huge* by modern economic standards, but they make up such a small percentage of current energy usage (renewables = ~2-3% worldwide energy consumption, *including hydro*) that to replace the oil-coal-nat.gas nexus of fossil fuel energies that power ~80% of our civilization, it would still take at least a decade or two. Where is this "21st Century pace of change" you're talking about?

Sure, personal computers are becoming ubiquitous throughout the developed world and the internet is "revolutionizing" commerce and maybe also institutional organizational structures (to a degree anyway; let's not kid ourselves)... And if it weren't for the US's propensity to give patents to everyone and their dog for every new little thing, it might even help accelerate the pace of the research aspect of R&D (currently it's stifling it by making it impossible not to get slapped with a million royalties), but *development* still takes time because anything significant that will really help us to *replace* fossil fuels, is still going to be a product that has to be made in a factory that has to be built or at least retro-fitted, and the technology has to be *scalable* from lab-batch sizes to full-blown production, and figuring that sort of thing out and making it all come together takes *time*. Often, it takes *lots* of time (i.e. years->decades). Nothing about that has changed in the 21st century.

Stop believing all the propaganda and rhetoric you read about how this is a "new century" and "change is *so* much faster". The truth is, yes, information is moving around the world faster than before, but people and goods just move around *more* than ever before, not significantly faster. But faster movement of information doesn't make any difference if it's not *the right* information being used in *the right* way (read: useful, renewable energy research & technology related information, etc.). Everything else is insignificant to the question at hand. And meanwhile, all this extra movement still takes lots of *energy*, our old nemesis, so if anything, this "faster pace" of the modern world you're talking about is causing in the very crisis you hope it will solve.

I'm sorry if I sound short with you, but I find it frustrating when people can't get past all the techno-utopian idealistic propaganda that gets blared across the media 24/7 and can't see the real problem at hand: we have an energy crisis; markets respond to short-term signals and so can't respond to, or mitigate, signals much more than a year or two in advance; it will take at least a decade to "solve" this problem and so markets can't make technology come online *fast enough* because they aren't paying attention (although I tend to side with JMG in thinking that "solving" this really means "mitigating" it by reducing the "complexity" [="scope"] of our material environment, partly by relocalizing food and tool and product production, reducing overall consumption, and critically, rebuilding our cities and towns to a walkable/cycleable scale so we don't need or even want cars anymore). Thus, we have to take political and community-based and individual measures to prepare and mitigate where and as we can. You can't rely on the markets to do that for you; they aren't failsafe or perfect, and in this case they are structurally incapable to functioning as we need them to without major changes.

Anything less than the aforementioned efforts is a dead-end, meaning we (i.e. homo sapiens) probably end up dead in a few centuries and most of the other multicellular species on the planet almost certainly do as climate change has deserts spreading across the continents and oceans dying from the lack of deep-water nutrient upwellings. It's not pretty, but crises rarely are; we either deal with the root of the problem or it deals with us. No "modern pace of change" can solve this for us (unless we harness it appropriately).

I appologize for being so harsh... just, please, "Wake up!"

norlight0 said...

Another interesting post. The whole empire thing is very disconcerting with the Iraqi Constitution written to favor the oil corporations and permanent military bases being built, etc.

It seems that there are larger historical forces at work now, and that the American empire and its decline is symptom or a sideshow. It is more likely that we will go out with a whiimper--esp. if our enemies find a way to deny us adequate energy. Without it, all our military hardware and technology are not worth a whole lot.

The larger forces were outlined clearly by the historian Walter PRescott Webb in his book THE GREAT FRONTIER. His thesis was that before the Age of Discoveries the known world had reached a subsistence equilibrium between population, land and resources. The introduction of land, resources, etc from the new world.
upset this equilibrium and set the state for modernity and industrialization. Written in the 1950's, Webb was even prescient to include a few pages on Hubbert's Peak for he understood the implications of his thesis. Our democracy and capitalist ideas are not about us and our progress but responses to historical conditions that are now unwinding. The decline of oil and other resources are bringing us back into a subsistence balance on a global scale. This gives a whole new meaning to globalization.

In order to continue things as we are, we would have to find another planet and draw it into our orbit then exploit its resources. And that is not about to happen.

Webb's book is a good read. He was from another era, and he is a story teller weaving broad themes into his examples. What is happening is nothing less than the ultimate closing of the frontier, a slow but undeniable unwinding.

Pancho0067 said...

Adrinian wrote:- “What is this new 21st C. pace of change you're talking about?”

Well one example is the internet. The possibility of world wide, real time communications between ever increasing populations (read talent pool) has made the process of “stepping on shoulders of Giants” that much faster - and we have only just begun.

Another example is solar technology: it has been suggested (by Australian National University Professor Andrew Blakers-sorry not sure how to hyperlink) that the Australian “residential sector would be removed as a source of greenhouse gas emissions” by using current solar panel technology – not to mention (forgive me) the nuclear option. This will free up a lot of power capacity, offsetting a general rise in energy prices and aiding the shift to electric cars.

Solar towers are another technology, available today that will provide real, affordable energy in a relatively short space of time.

I have been in the workforce for 20 years and the changes that I have seen are remarkable. The developments in areas such as health care, alternative energy sources, battery technology, and computing power are quite astonishing. One must not discount the benefits of the humble PC; never before have had researchers such a powerful tool to “crunch” the numbers and model new concepts.

The point that I’d like to press home is that YES I believe that we are all in for some pain as is always felt with any change but the current economic model will essentially remain in place, the mix of energy sources however will have to shift.

Humanity has benefited far too much from economic development to revert back to some subsistence economy, as the last poster seems to be suggesting. I’ve fallen victim to the romanticism of old world subsistence economies as much as the next person but I feel it’s foolish to believe that the clock can be wound back - humanity has been changed forever.

Having said all this I believe the potential for a major worldwide catastrophe is very real. I cannot begin to fathom the consequences of the emerging economies of China and India; will they learn from our mistakes, I hope so?

Adrynian said...

*We* haven't even learned from our mistakes, so how can we expect them to? We drive hummers around our suburbs getting 8mpg, importing everything from halfway around the world, including lettuce and flowers, for example, using at least four times our share of the resource pie (I derive that from the statistic that if everyone lived like the West it would take four or more earths). Technology can't solve this for us because every one-time offset in the resource- or energy-intensity of a process is very quickly overwhelmed by the exponential rates of growth in consumption; we face the same problem fighting pollution. Peak oil requires continuous one-off improvements in energy efficiency *every year* after peak, just to maintain *current* consumption levels, not including the economic growth structurally required by our current economic and financial systems or the growing consumption levels of those *scary* Chinese and Indians (how dare they try to take *our* oil or try to consume as much energy as us? - PS. please don't flame me for racism; that was sarcasm).
I also notice you missed my main point: all of the energy technologies that you mentioned *take time* to build and scale up. Let's assume for a moment that solar and wind form ~1% of today's global energy production mix, which is probably an overestimate. Let's also assume that all other energy types continue to produce the same amount of energy for ease of calculation, also an overestimate, given peak-oil and peak-natgas and deforestation, then our current mix is 1/100 units of energy are currently produced by wind-solar. So if we wanted, say, 25% wind-solar and we had the capacity to double the production rate every year, how long would it take?

We want: 25/100 = y/(100+y), y = 33.333
Now, to find:
(1+i)^x = y
where i is our annual growth rate (just like interest), x is our years, and y is our final production rate after x years.
We get: 2^x = 33.333, or x = ~5.

Sound pretty good to you? In *just* five years we could bring the wind-solar contribution to our energy consumption up to 25% of the total (or offset 33% of current production) with wind-solar, *IF* we could grow the industry at double every year. So how about something more realistic? How about 30%, 20%, 10%/yr?

1.3^x = 33.333
x = log33.333/log1.3
x = 13.37 years...

1.2^x = 33.333
x = log33.333/log1.2
x = 19.23 years...

1.1^x = 33.333
x = log33.333/log1.1
x = 36.79 years...

Okay, there we go. Realistically, at current wind-solar growth rates, it would take ~13-37 years to increase their share of the energy mix to 25% if all other energy production remained the same, or to offset other energy production declines equivalent to about 33% of today's production (say if oil production declined at ~8.5%/yr for 20 years, given its current proportion of the mix = ~40% => (.915^20)*40 = ~6.7, which is what would remain of the 40, i.e. we would have lost 33.3% of global energy production but replaced it all with solar-wind). (Note, all of this completely ignores the embedded energy in such a massive investment in an alternative energy-collecting infrastructure, and it's up for grabs whether the EROEI is much better than 1 for the entire process, including manufacture.)

What was I saying in my last post? That no matter what kind of "faster pace" you think the world is operating at, it still has physical limitations to the pace it can build and replace *real* things, *even if* the pace of research is faster because of the internet (of which I'm sceptical) or computers in general (plausible, given the complex nature of the more realistic models). It all takes *time*. In my previous post I was quoting things at 10+ years for most efforts, and this is no different (@13-37yrs). *AT BEST*, given sustained 20%+ growth rates in wind & solar, we *might* be able to offset declines in oil and natural gas fields, if we created some serious impetus *now* (i.e. that would require manipulating the market by forcing it to maintain consistent signals of energy scarcity for 20+ years - maybe in the form of a carbon tax or quota, etc. - because otherwise it won't respond soon enough to mitigate the crisis), assuming we had enough places to actually put all these power generators (a big assumption, especially with wind in a world of changing climate patterns). It's important to note, however, that we're facing a liquid fuels crisis, whereas these are all electricity generators; meanwhile, our electrical grids are already basically maxed to their limits, so you're not going to be able to run many electric cars without *major* new investments in the grid (and all that copper has to be mined, and probably processed, too, using fossil fuels).

I would also just like to point out that all of those "amazing new technologies" that you're so dazzled by *take energy*. Modern health care is energy intensive, modern transportation, commerce, manufacturing, zoned-community living, *all* of it is energy-intensive, and pretty much entirely because it uses large amounts of technology. Every time you substitute technology for natural processes, you're almost guaranteed to consume more energy in the bargain; Nature has had a few billion years to learn to be frugal with energy, whereas we are entropy's stepchildren: we live 30 miles away from where we work and drive cars at 60mph getting maybe 15mpg as we commute or drive our kids to soccer practice or go to pick up groceries that have travelled 1500miles from the farm to our forks. Then we fly or drive across the continent for a vacation, buy consumer products that have been sent around the world 3 times by the time they're finished being assembled and shipped to us, and leave them all on 24/7. Everything about the way we live is energy-intensive and it's unhealthy, for us, our communities, and our planet.

We're facing peak water (you know the Ogalla aquifer has gone dry under some states in the US, don't you?... and then of course there's all the vanishing glaciers around the world), and as a result, peak grain; also, we face peak energy, and as a result, peak economy/trade/consumption and peak mineral extraction and peak fish (which we'd be facing anyway, since we're overharvesting and sending species after species into collapse). The planet will take centuries to millenia to recover from the damage we've done, and some things never will (like from extinction events).

I'm not "romanticizing old world subsistence economies" or anything else, for that matter. I'm concerned that techno-utopianism leaves us unprepared for, as you put it, the "accelerating pace of change", except I refer to the fact that physical limits come faster and are harder to address the further you push yourself along the path of exponential growth. From a systems perspective, pushing everything as fast as it can possibly go is dangerous; there are no buffers, no leeway, no time to react. Try avoiding a deer that jumps onto the road in your car on a wet road at 60mph... it's difficult, whereas it would be a lot easier at 20-30mph... why? because you have more time to react... you're not pushing your - or your car's - physical limits quite so hard, so it's more forgiving if you screw up a little. What we can't afford to do anymore is screw up because we've stripped away all the buffers in the various systems: climatic, economic, energetic, agricultural, and so on.

Anyway, I hope you can see what I'm getting at. And even if you don't agree with me, I enjoyed the chance to express my thoughts, so thanks for the opportunity... I just hope you can at least try to appreciate what I'm saying before you dismiss it.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, yes, it's "sink." Canada is separate from the US only on paper -- for heaven's sake, you even signed away the right to limit how much of your oil goes to the US! WRT the prisoners' dilemma, of course, you're right that time asymmetry is also a major factor; nobody is willing to plan for 20 years in the future when the next election or the next quarterly profit statement is breathing down their necks. When these posts get turned into a book, that passage will be expanded.

As for tomorrow's post, expect more politics -- this time with a more local focus.

Pancho, from my perspective, what you call the "accelerated pace of change" in modern times is simply the lingering results of the absurdly (and politicaly motivated) low price of energy in the 80s and 90s, which threw a few areas of the economy into hyperdrive. Most of our technology has remained stagnant for decades and some has declined. As for your suggestion that people have become used to a high-tech society and won't accept an agrarian lifestyle, you're confusing cause and effect -- most people are used to eating, too, but that doesn't prevent them from dying in famines.

The point of this blog, simply put, is that progress is a mythology -- a story we tell ourselves to justify the way we do things -- rather than an objective historical force. The events we like to point to, to justify our faith in progress, are the product of a short-term set of events centering around the discovery and reckless extraction of millions of years of stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels. That's running out and, as many people better qualified to comment on the subject than I am have pointed out, none of the replacement technologies have the capacity to fill more than a small fraction of the shortfall. That means that just as the last few centuries have seen quite a bit of expansion and technological progress, the next few centuries will see a roughly equal amount of contraction and decline. I'm not arguing that this is a good thing (or, for that matter, a bad one), BTW; I'm arguing that at this point, it's unavoidable.

Budr, of course the military will be at the front of the line, but the military itself can't get by without factories to produce armaments, farms to produce food, transport networks to get supplies to the troops, and so on. The great lesson of the Second World War was that nations, not just their armies, fight and win wars, and the ability of the US to do so just now is, I think, much more limited than most people realize.

Norlight, good heavens! I didn't think anyone else out there read Webb! I'm not at all sure I agree that democracy is dependent on economic and demographic expansion -- I can think of far too many counterexamples, from ancient Greece to medieval Switzerland -- but the form of democracy we're used to, and certainly the free market economic system, only make sense (and historically speaking, only exist) in societies that have expanded out of a subsistence economy. Generally, though, Webb is well worth reading.

Adrynian said...

Thank you JMG, you put it so much more succinctly than me.

(And I remember being a boy listening to the CBC when NAFTA was being negotiated. I even thought then that it was going to turn out badly, although I didn't have the skills to articulate it at the time. We signed away alot that we shouldn't have in that document, and for what? So our current government could capitulate to US interests in the softwood lumber dispute? Not that cutting down all our trees is very smart, either...)

"Globalization" - as in the rapid, worldwide, tariff-"free" trade and transportation of goods, etc. - is dead. Cheap energy made it possible and expensive energy is turning around and making it impossible again. Although we have yet to see the final death throes, a combined resurgence nationalism and the coming of Peak oil pretty much guarantee it. PS Anyone want to ride in my electric super-tanker? Or fly in my electric jet?

norlight0 said...

JMG - I got a laugh out of your comment about thinking you were the only one that read Webb. Someone else said almost the same thing to me back in June. Richard Heinberg was at a college here in Northern NY for the month of June and held seminars on Tuesday and Thursdays. The afternoon sessions were for seminar participants only, but the morning sessions were open to the public. During one of the a.m. discussions I mentioned Webb, and some said that he had never met anyone else who had read him.
BTW, I appreciated your comments a few posts back about the viability of the St. Lawrence Seaway in a post peak oil world. I had never thought about the primacy of water transport in such a situation. How ironic, because it its first 50 years very little direct benefit has accrued to our region. A cub reporter wrote at the time that the Seaway would bring jobs, restuarants to the area between Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain, and, for the most part it never materialized.

Adrynian - I agree globalization is dead. As prices increase and supplies decline we will increasingly be face with the "necessity of 'going local'."

jon quest said...

John,
I don't have the citations in front of me as I write this, but I recall reading that the British Empire tried to play off Germany and Russia post WW1 with disasterous results. If memory serves me, the European central banking elites hatched a plan to elevate Hitler and the Nazis from the Weimar ashes as a force to counter Sovietism in Russia; the two would act as a sponge, siphoning off their growing economies to feed a war and allowing the UK w/tacit US approval to regain her empire and rightful place in the world. The plan failed miserablely when the British realized they couldn't control Hitler and were forced to make war upon him. What saved the Anglo-American empire was FDR, though, I believe, FDR, and those that came after him, ensured that the Anglo part were to be given permanent second billing. This scheme worked brilliantly until today. Just like Imperial Spain grew upon its imports of colonial gold, America grew and grew and grew on the back of cheap oil. And just like Spain sputtered when the supply of gold dried up, America is now sputtering too because of Peak Oil. How India, Russia, and China (and Iran) align themselves like a wolf pack to bring down the American Empire (w/ Japan and the EU) will be most interesting.

norlight0 said...

Jon Quest; What did Spain in wasn't that the supply of gold ran out, but that the influx precious metals raised the general level of prices. With the cost of Spain's goods and services higher than their neighbors, they were no longer competitive, and it sapped the country'sw economic vitality.

taran said...

How interesting that NPR did an extensive piece today on "Imperial America". It's an excellent broadcast that ties in rather nicely with this post.