Wednesday, October 03, 2012

How It Could Happen, Part One: Hubris

Over the course of this year, my posts here on The Archdruid Report have tried to outline the trajectory of America’s global empire and explore the reasons why that trajectory will likely come to a sudden stop in the near future. To bring the issue down out of the realm of abstraction and put them in the context of history as lived, I’ve returned to the toolkit of narrative fiction, and this and the next four posts will sketch out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. The narrative takes place at some unspecified point in the next two decades; it’s probably necessary to say outright that is not how I think the end of America’s empire will happen, simply one way that it could happen—and thus a model that may help expose some of the vulnerabilities of the self-proclaimed hyperpower currently tottering toward history’s compost bin.

The news of the latest Tanzanian deepwater oil discovery broke on an otherwise sleepy Saturday in March. Thirty years before, a find of the same size might have gotten two column inches somewhere in the back pages of a few newspapers of record, but this was not thirty years ago.  In a world starved for oil, what might once have been considered a modest find earned banner headlines.

It certainly loomed large in the East Wing of the White House, where the president and his advisers held a hastily called meeting that evening.  “The Chinese already have it wrapped up,” said the Secretary of Energy. “Tanzania’s in their pocket, and there are CNOOC people—”  CNOOC was the Chinese National Overseas Oil Corporation, the state-owned firm that spearheaded China’s quest for foreign oil.  “—all over the place on site and in Dar es Salaam.”

“Is it close enough to Kenyan waters—”

“Not a chance, Mr. President. It’s 200 nautical miles away from the disputed zone, and that last clash with the Tanzanians isn’t something Nairobi wants to repeat.”

“Dammit, we need that oil.”  The president turned and walked over to the window.

He was right, of course, and “we” didn’t just refer to the United States. Jameson Weed won the White House the previous November with a campaign focused with laser intensity on getting the US out of its long and worsening economic slump.  Winning the country a bigger share of imported oil was the key to making good on that promise, but that was easier said than done; behind what was left of the polite fiction of a free market in petroleum, most oil that crossed national borders did so according to political deals between producer countries and those consuming countries strong and wealthy enough to compete.  These days, more often than not, the US lost out—and the impact of that reality on Weed’s upcoming reelection campaign was very much on the minds of everyone in the room.

“There’s one option,” said the president’s national security adviser.  “Regime change.”

President Weed turned back from the window to face the others. The Secretary of Defense cleared his throat. “Sooner or later,” he said, “the Chinese are going to stand and fight.”

The national security adviser gave him a contemptuous look. “They don’t dare,” she said. “They know who’s boss, and it’s too far from their borders for their force projection capacity, anyway.  They’ll back down the way they did in Gabon.”

The president glanced from one to the other.  “It’s an option,” he said. “I want a detailed plan on my desk in two weeks.”

*  *  *
Regime change wasn’t as simple as it used to be.  That was the sum of scores of conversations in meeting rooms in the Pentagon and the CIA headquarters in Langley as the plan came together. Gone were the easy days of the “color revolutions,” when a few billion dollars funneled through Company-owned NGOs could buy a mass uprising and panic an unprepared government into collapse.  The second generation strategies that worked so well in Libya and half a dozen other places—backing the manufactured uprising with mercenaries, special forces, and a no-fly zone—stopped working in turn once target governments figured out how to fight it effectively.  Now it usually took ground troops backed up by air power to finish the job of replacing an unfriendly government with a compliant one.

Still, it was a familiar job by this point, and the officials in charge got the plan put together in well under the two weeks the president had given them. A few days later, when it came back signed and approved, the wheels started turning. Money flowed to CIA front organizations all over East Africa; Company assets in Tanzania began recruiting the ambitious, the dissatisfied, and the idealistic to staff the cadres that would organize and lead the uprising; elsewhere, mercenaries were hired and the usual propaganda mills went into action.  The government of Kenya, the nearest American client state, was browbeaten into accepting American troops on its border with Tanzania, and a third carrier strike group was mobilized and sent on its way to join the two already within range.

It took only a few weeks for the government of Tanzania to figure out that its recent good luck had put it in the crosshairs of American power.  One afternoon in early May, after a detailed briefing from his intelligence chief, the president of Tanzania summoned the Chinese ambassador to a secret meeting, and told him bluntly, “If you abandon us now we are lost.” The ambassador promised only to relay the message to Beijing, but he did so within minutes of returning to the Chinese embassy, and included a detailed and urgent commentary of his own.

Three days later, a dozen men sat down around a table in a conference room in Beijing. A staff member poured tea and disappeared.  After an hour’s discussion, one of the men at the meeting said, “What is it that the Americans say? ‘Draw a line in the sand?’  I propose that this is the time and place to do that.”

A quiet murmur of agreement went around the table. In the days that followed, a different set of officials drew up a very different set of plans.

*  *  *
The port at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital and biggest city, was a busy place, thronged with oil tankers carrying black gold to China and its allies, and container ships bringing goods of every description, mostly from China, for the booming Tanzanian economy.  In the bustle, no one paid much attention to the arrival of a series of plain shipping containers from Chinese ports, which were offloaded from an assortment of ordinary container ships and trucked to half a dozen inconspicuous warehouse districts along the coast between Dar es Salaam and the northern port city of Tanga.  CIA agents watching for signs of a Chinese response missed them completely.

More generally, the number of container shipments to Tanzania and half a dozen other Chinese client states in Africa ticked up slightly—not enough to rouse suspicions, but then nobody in the US learned how many African companies found themselves facing unexpected delays in getting the Chinese merchandise they had ordered, so that other cargoes took the space that would have been theirs.  Nor did anyone in the US worry much about the increased number of young Chinese men who flew to Africa during the four months before the war began.  US intelligence did notice them, and their arrival sparked a brief debate at Langley—military observers, one faction among US intelligence advisors insisted, there to snoop on American military technology; military advisors, another faction claimed, there to assist the Tanzanian army against the American forces that were already gathering in Kenya.

Both factions were wrong.  Most of the tight-lipped young men went to ground near those same warehouse districts between Dar es Salaam and Tanga, where the contents of those shipping containers were assembled, tested, and readied.  Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) shifted six fighter wings, equipped with some of China’s most advanced aircraft, to Central Asian bases.  The Chinese government had announced that it would be holding joint military exercises that August with Russia, and so the satellite photos of Chengdu J-20 fighters parked in the deserts of Turkestan got an incurious glance or two in Langley, and went into filing cabinets.

*  *  *
After years of budget battles on Capitol Hill, the US military was not quite so powerful or so swift to deploy as it had been in the last years of the twentieth century.  Only two of the remaining eight carrier strike groups—CSGs, in naval jargon—were on station at any time, one in the western Pacific and one shuttling back and forth between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; transport was a growing challenge by sea or air, and borrowing airliners from the civilian air fleet, a mainstay of late twentieth century Pentagon planning, was less simple to arrange now that air travel was only for the rich again.  Still, the units assigned to the first phase of the Tanzanian operation—the 101st Airborne, the 6th Air Cavalry, and the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions—were used to rounding up transport in a hurry and heading off on no notice to the far corners of the globe. 

The first units of the 101st Airborne landed at Nairobi in the middle of May, when the heavy rains were over and the first riots were breaking out in Dar es Salaam. By the time President Weed gave his famous speech in Kansas City on June 20, denouncing atrocities he claimed had been committed by the Tanzanian government and proclaiming in ringing terms America’s unstinting readiness to support the quest for freedom around the world, all four divisions were settling into newly constructed bases in the upland country south of Kajiado, not far from the Tanzanian border. Alongside them, logistics staff and civilian contractors swarmed, getting ready for the two armored divisions, on their way from Germany by ship, who would fill out the land assault force, and the bulk of the supplies for the assault, which were on their way by sea from Diego Garcia.

Meanwhile three CSGs, headed by the nuclear carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS John F. Kennedy, and USS George Washington, headed at cruising speed toward a rendezvous point in the western Indian Ocean, where they would meet the ships carrying the armored divisions from Germany and a dozen big supply ships from the Maritime Prepositioning Squadron based on Diego Garcia. Two Air Force fighter wings had already been assigned to the operation, and would arrive just before the carriers reached operational range; they and carrier-based planes would then take out the Tanzanian air force and flatten military targets across the country during the two weeks the armored divisions would need to land, join the rest of the force, and begin the ground assault. It was a standard plan for the quick elimination of the modest military forces of a midsized Third World country; its only weakness was that the US force was no longer facing a midsized Third World country.

*  *  *
In times of peace, August and September are the peak tourist season in East Africa; inland from the always humid coast, the climate is cool and dry, and the wide plains of the interior are easy to travel.  Since plains in cool dry weather are among the best places on earth for an assault by tanks and attack helicopters, these were also the months the Pentagon’s planners assigned for Operation Blazing Torch, the liberation of Tanzania.  Briefing papers handed to President Weed in late July sketched out the final details, and he nodded and signed off on the final orders for the invasion. The Secretary of Defense looked on from the other side of the room with a silent frown. He had tried several times to bring up the small but real chance that the Chinese might retaliate, and had his advice dismissed by Weed and mocked to his face by the president’s national security adviser and Vice President Gurney. As soon as this thing was over, he told himself for the fifteenth time, he would hand in his resignation.

Outside the White House windows, barely visible in the distance, a small band of protesters kept up a desultory vigil in the free-speech zone set aside for them. Pedestrians hurried past, ignoring the chanted slogans and the protest signs. It was another brutally hot summer day in Washington DC, part of the “new normal” that the media talked about when they couldn’t avoid mentioning the shifting climate altogether.  Out beyond the Beltway, half the country was gripped by yet another savage drought; the states of Iowa and Georgia had just suspended payment on their debts, roiling the financial markets; eyes across the southeast turned nervously toward a tropical storm, poised off the Windwards, that showed every sign of turning into the season’s first big hurricane.

What many perceptive observers recalled afterward was the sullen mood that gripped the country that summer. Only the media and the most shameless of national politicians tried to pretend that the approaching war with Tanzania was about anything but oil; the president’s approval rating drifted well below 25%, which was still three times that of Congress and well above that of any credible candidate the other party had to offer; the usual clichés spewed from the usual pundits, but the only people who were listening were the pundits themselves.  Across the nation and across the political spectrum, the patience of the American people was visibly running short.

Those who were dissatisfied had plenty of reasons.  The intractable economic slump that had gripped the country since 2008 showed no sign of lifting, despite repeated bailouts of the financial industry that were each proclaimed as the key to returning prosperity, and repeated elections in which each candidate claimed to have fresh new ideas and then pursued the same failed policies once in office.  The fracking boom of the early twenty-teens was practically ancient history; energy prices were high, and straggling higher; gasoline bumped against $7 a gallon that summer before slumping most of the way back to $6.50.  None of these things were new, but they seemed to infect the national mood more powerfully than before.  Shortly they would help spark an explosion—but there would be other explosions first.

At the end of July, the invasion task force assembled in the Indian Ocean almost two thousand miles east of the Kenyan coast. Fleet Admiral Julius T. Deckmann, commanding the task force, made sure everything was in order before giving the orders to sail west.  A career officer with half a dozen combat assignments behind him, Deckmann had learned to trust his intuition, and his intuition told him that something was not right.  From the bridge of the USS George Washington, his flagship, he considered the assembled fleet, shook his head, and ordered reconnaissance drones sent up. Real-time images from US spy satellites showed nothing out of the ordinary; data from the AWACS plane circling high overhead confirmed that, and so did the drones, once data started coming in from them. Deckmann’s unease remained as days passed uneventfully and the task force neared East Africa.

The fleet reached its assigned position off the Kenyan coast on schedule. Final news came via secure satellite link from Washington: the Air Force fighter wings had arrived and were ready for action; the Tanzanian Freedom Council, the puppet government-in-exile manufactured by the State Department, had called “the nations of the world” to liberate their country, a plea that everyone knew was directed at one nation alone; the CIA-led mercenaries who spearheaded the second, violent phase of the uprising had withdrawn from Dar es Salaam, leaving the local cadres to their fate, and were moving toward the Kenyan border to open the way for the invasion. Deckmann made sure every ship in his fleet was ready as the sun set in red haze over the distant African coast.

Very few of those involved in the war got much sleep, that last night before the shooting began. On the three carriers, and at two newly constructed airfields in southern Kenya, aircrews worked through the dark hours to get their planes ready for battle, unaware that other aircrews were doing the same thing thousands of miles away in Central Asia.  Soldiers of the two armored divisions that had been brought down from Germany prepared for a landing in Mombasa most of them would not live to see.  In Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, presidents met with their cabinets and then headed for heavily guarded bunkers; elsewhere in  the world, heads of state read intelligence briefings and braced themselves for crisis.

Two hours before the East African dawn, the waiting ended. Two people ended it. One was Admiral Deckmann, barking out the orders that sent the first fighter-bombers roaring off the deck of the George Washington and the first Tomahawk cruise missiles blazing skywards. The other was an officer in a Chinese command center deep in central Asia, who watched the planes take off and the missiles launch, courtesy of a high-altitude observation drone—one of three that had been following the George Washington since it went through the Suez Canal, and were now stationed high above the fleet.  As infrared images showed planes and missiles hurtling toward Tanzania, the officer typed rapidly on a keyboard and then hit enter twice.  With the second click of the enter key, the Chinese response began.

End of the World of the Week #42

In the world of apocalyptic fantasy, an engineer’s degree is very often a passport to success. An engineer’s training focuses on figuring what can happen, not what did happen or will happen, and so engineers reign supreme in many fields of rejected knowledge; from creation science through the quest for ancient astronauts to past and present claims of imminent apocalypse, books by retired engineers are usually the most imaginative and least inhibited works on their eccentric subjects.

Retired electrical engineer Hugh Auchincloss Brown was a classic of the type, and had an even more vivid imagination than most of his peers. In his book Cataclysms of the Earth (1967), he argued that the amount of ice at the south pole was steadily increasing, and the excess weight would eventually cause the planet to unbalance and flip over in space, devastating the entire surface of the globe and leaving few survivors. Moreover, he insisted, this had happened before:  the present Antarctic ice cap was “the successor to a long lineage of glistening assassins of former civilizations on this planet.”

Brown died in 1976, convinced to the end that the cataclysm was already overdue and might occur at any moment.  His theory found eager listeners among late 20th century fans of apocalypse, but lost market share as better measurements made it clear that the ice cap on Antarctica is contracting, not expanding.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Sandra Cass said...

Great to see you back. You have my interest. Can't wait to see the follow-up.

Steve said...

Welcome back, JMG! Glad to see the fictional scenario making a comeback for such an interesting topic.

I've got some guesses where the scenario is going based on your recent series of posts, but I'm just impressed by two things: first, your cliffhangers are getting more exciting. Second, it's impressive how in this scenario there's been nothing but more of the same taking place in the US (a warmongering president named after a nondescript plant type, a VP whose name ends in "ney," persistent high unemployment, bumpy-plateau energy prices and availability, widespread political disaffection, etc.). That brings to mind that this type of scenario doesn't require any substantial change in politics, the economy, military technology, or much of anything else in order to happen. I know that that's one of the main points in this series, but so far this scene is uncomfortably familiar. Well done.

Bill Pulliam said...

A president named after a hallucinogenic plant... is that his job?

John Michael Greer said...

Sandra, thank you!

Steve, very good. That's exactly the point, of course -- the sort of thing the narrative will describe could happen without any significant changes to the way the world works. I've always thought that the sort of future scenario that assumes that all kinds of improbable events will happen first is saying, "Look, you don't have to worry about something like this really happening; it's just a story."

Bill, excellent! I wondered how soon somebody would catch onto that. If you know anything about the kind of trip you get from that particular plant, the point of the name may be clearer. (No, I haven't used it, but I've talked to folks from one end of the Sixties scene who did.)

JacGolf said...

Welcome Back AD! Missed you while you were gone.

Unfortunately, reading this one, I was not sure if it was 'in the future' or happening while the 'president' and his dufus successor argued over how much pandering they could bring. But for the first time in my country's history, I am no longer looking at George W. Obama, but can see forward to the Barak H. Romey my friends in Nepal say...'same same'! Let's hope we break into many smaller nation states before this chinese adventure begins. No need for millions of chinese and americans die for their 'country'.

Thanks for keeping my mind open to all sides.

John Michael Greer said...

JacGolf, your friends in Nepal aren't the only ones saying that. I didn't watch the debates -- good heavens, if I'd wanted to see sock puppets mouthing empty verbiage, I'd own a television!

Leo said...

Good to read to your essays again.

Fits with what i know about the situation and a colonial war fits with the subject, no possibilities of nukes flying and limits it quite a lot.

Dragging the American military into an unwinnable war (like Afghanistan) would certainly be a tactic currently being planned by the Chinese.

It will be interesting to see how the other superpowers respond (like Russia), as well as South America.

Paul Konasewich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Simon said...

Dear John;

Glad to see you are back.

The situation in the
Gulf of Hormez, which includes mass suicide attacks with "fast boats" and missiles seems to me too possible for comfort.
I hope that you and I are wrong.

Odin's Raven said...

Welcome back Archdruid.

Maybe the Chinese don't need to use much violence to bring down America, being martial artists and students of Sun Tsu.

Cherokee Organics said...


Glad to have you back. Hadn't realised how much time it took to read your blog + comments and respond until it was no longer there. Tick, lesson learned.

It has however been a fruitful time as I've pumped out 4 articles in quick succession.

The latest was on water harvesting:
Water: friend and foe

haha! I snuck in a shameless plug.

I hope readers can take the time to have a look and I hope they all enjoy it.

Speaking of which, communicating via a story is a valuable and time honoured way of getting a message across. Your story was a gripping story too, can't wait to see where it ends up.

I thought that "Weed" was very cheeky and enjoyed the humour! FYI, weed is not for me.

I trust that you and all of the readers here have learned recently that QE1 and QE2 (not the monarch or the ship!) have since become QE Infinity (Quantitative Easing ie. Printing money). This is not going to end well at all.

Firstly, observation shows that there are diminishing returns with such a program (and the US program will be US$50bn/month). Japan is a very good example of this, however, they differ from the US in that most debt is held within Japan and this is significant.

Secondly, the UK, the ECB and Japan are all following suit. Well done you!

Thirdly, down under, we aren't pursuing this policy and it is wreaking havoc on the exchange rate. This in turn makes imports cheaper and is gutting our manufacturing industries and making our exports more expensive (lucky for us we still have food products to export). Interesting times.

Historically, printing money has always resulted in hyper-inflation. Yet at a glance this doesn't seem to be happening.

I've been thinking about this for a long while and reckon that it may be because manufactured goods are being imported rather than produced locally. The lower labour and environmental cost component of these imported goods are cushioning the impacts of inflation though in your country.

However, the papers here are reporting that whilst official US unemployment statistics are about 8.1 to 8.2%, unofficially they are saying that unemployment is around 18%.

So, I keep wondering when inflation will pick up in the US? Then I read an article stating that the median house price in the US has risen 17% this year alone, which is strange in the circumstances. Then the light bulb went on and I thought to myself, there is the inflation.

I bet, anecdotally, imported energy prices (ie. oil) have risen too, even though demand for oil has dropped in the US due to the recession.

Has food prices risen too?

All of those statistics were being presented in the articles as a positive, when I think they may actually be an alarm. Could be wrong, but only time will tell for sure.

Thanks for taking the time to write the blog. As a rock star might say, "we're back, baby!"

PS: As I'm writing this, there's a Southern Boobook Owl hooting away outside the window. Apparently the name has some link to a Terry Pratchett story (Sir Terry, by the way too), but the owl was named first.



Odin's Raven said...

I hope that your literary diversion over the last month was an enjoyable success.

May I suggest another endeavor? After the collection of post peak oil fiction which you promoted , wearing your hat of post petroleum prophet and philosopher; what about wearing your Archidruidical hat,(or is it a Pharaonic nemyss?)to encourage a collection of fiction about magic and spirituality in societies of the future when current attitudes have changed?

Might I suggest my little story 'Midsummer at Avebury',at
as a possible contender for a place?

Eric said...

Great Stuff JMG!

It reminds me of all the Clancy I read in my teens, but this time seems more real somehow... (Yes, I was into Clancy at one point...) Anyway, can't wait for the next edition!


Renaissance Man said...

I like your fiction. It's taught and gripping and plausible.
(The thing I learned years ago about fiction is it must be believable, whereas reality can take pretty much whatever bizarre turns it pleases.)
This feels familiar, probably because it's almost what's happened before.
I love the names, President Weed (nice triple-entendre there, yet another plant, a 'special' plant, yet another aggressive war), Vice President Gurney (what you put patients -- or corpses -- on), Admiral Deckman (very appropriate name for a sailor).
You've already made it quite clear where this is going... to a point, and that's the exciting part. I can imagine several scenarios, reading back to your 'yuletide' posts from years back, and I shall have fun imagining several exciting possiblilties for this tale.
I can hardly wait to see where your storytelling takes us.

ando said...

Welcome back, Archdruid. You were missed. I enjoy your fiction.


JC said...

Thanks JMG - as much as I like your essays, your fictional pieces really help to put me emotionally in a different future to that which I'd always expected. Keep up he good work!

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, all in good time! There are a few twists still to come...

Paul, if the price of gas goes up too far too fast, it clobbers the economy, decreasing the number of people who can buy gasoline at all and bringing the price back down. Since this scenario is set at some point in the next two decades -- which, please note, could mean as soon as next March -- $7 a gallon doesn't seem out of range to me.

Ben, there's a reason why all that saber-rattling at Iran has remained at the level of saber-rattling. For a declining empire, the art of evading confrontations you're sure to lose is an important survival skill -- but sooner or later somebody always makes a misjudgment.

Raven, the competent martial artist knows when it's time to end the artful weavings with a sudden kick to the face.

Cherokee, the Fed and the US Treasury are pretty clearly hoping that the inflationary effect of all the money they're printing will be balanced by the deflationary effect of massive deleveraging in the US economy and elsewhere. In the short term, they may be right; in the long term, the US dollar is toast, but the scramble for short-term survival in Washington DC is desperate enough that nobody's worrying about the long term.

Raven, that's not a project that interests me just now, so I'll leave it to someone else.

Eric, thank you!

Renaissance, thank you too! One of the things I did over the September break is a bunch of research into how the US makes war, so I could make the scenario as realistic as possible.

Ando and JC, thank you!

Flagg707 said...

Great to have you back and blogging.

Old Hugh would have loved this chart:

Richard said...

I remember hearing about a spat between China and Japan that has the ability to escalate into something more serious as time goes by. It seems that they are arguing about who gets the mineral rights on the uninhabited islands near them in the Pacific. With Japan being an American client state, I can see support going out to them from the American base at Okinawa if things start to heat up. So a possible conflict with China over resources may not be far away...

Robert said...

Agreed the Western Empire is heading for a fall. Of course if and when it is defeated chances are the new Chinese Empire will be every bit as ruthless and predatory as Uncle Sam although at least we are likely to be spared all the propaganda about democracy and human rights. Harmonious co-prosperity sphere perhaps?

Nano said...

Technically, what's to stop the Chinese from activating the same types of revolutions here, that we have caused elsewhere, as in this story?

Hope you had a fruitful sabbatical!

RPC said...

Talk about "back with a vengeance" - good work! I'm going to pick a couple of nits, though, hoping they make the story even more convincing as it unfolds. First, why wouldn't the AWACS pick up the Chinese drones? Or did the U.S. forces just (mis)judge them to be strictly observers? Second and more important, I find the "bustling Tanzanian economy" unconvincing. Given the example of e.g. Nigeria, I would think it more likely that the only people in the country getting rich would be the inner circle of government, and they'd be shuttling their wealth to "safe havens" as fast as it could go.

John Michael Greer said...

Flagg, true, but you'll notice that the chart doesn't show the total mass of ice in the Antarctic, only the total extent of sea covered by ice. Hint: when a continental glacier is beginning to break up, one of the first things that happens is that a lot of glacial ice ends up flowing out onto the nearest ocean...

Richard, the dispute between China and Japan is a serious potential flashpoint, enough so that I considered it as a setting for this narrative. There are half a dozen others, too. It's very much as though, from the perspective of 1935, one were to try to guess what would trigger the inevitable next war between Britain and Germany.

javogh said...

hope your break (from blogging, at least!) was fine - we appreciate you all the more after having done-without.

Justin said...


Apologies if I offended you in the last comment thread. Hope your month off was productive and your harvest season bountiful.

Nothing to add on this story except a more general thought as to our predicament to cut against the doom and gloomery. Put yourselves in the shoes of a turn of the 19th century American. The bloodbath of the civil war was in memory, we'd just finished a pogrom against the native population, black people had been promoted from slaves to serfs, the European political economy was steaming toward two rounds of European civil war, the U.S. political machine was gearing up for empire, and the previous few decades had seen economic dislocation and depression.

Hmm... I was gonna say we turned out fine from all that, but its probably more honest to say that we turned out. VP Gurney, whats the SecDef's name, Cadaver?

oneotaBill said...

You've got me hooked! I can't wait for next week. I am guessing that this does not turn out like a Tom Clancy novel.

Some people in the Pentagon know how vulnerable we are (aircraft carriers, for example, as discussed recently), but I am not sure the political class knows. In fact, I doubt that they do.

SLClaire said...

I welcome you back, too. Reading the scenario and comments chilled me enough to need to make myself a cup of tea in an attempt to warm up. Pretty soon I'll go out and garden in the warmth before the approaching cold front. Maybe that's a metaphor for how to approach the future: during the relative ease now, make preparations for the more difficult period to come. I'll read the scenario with this in mind.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, no argument there. It's only in the imaginations of true believers in progress that the new boss is guaranteed to be any better than the old boss.

Nano, we'll talk about that down the road a bit.

RPC, the answer to your first question is stealth technology; the answer to your second is that it's quite possible for other African countries to learn from Nigeria's mistakes -- especially if they're not dominated by the US- and European-based oil companies that have helped turn Nigeria into such a basket case.

Javogh, thank you!

Justin, not at all.

Bill, half the fun of this was to take a typical Tom Clancy situation and then make it turn out the way it's actually likely to turn out.

Claire, an excellent metaphor for the future. Enjoy that cup of tea!

Glenn said...

"Jimson Weed" AKA "Locoweed" AKA "Datura". Very funny. I can assume the president ingested, but claimed never to have metabolized?
The VP named for a cart that the sick, dying or dead are carried on in hospitals?
And is your admiral any relation to der Fliegende Hollander (Capt. Van Der Decker) AKA the Flying Dutchman?
Your humour grows apace, albeit I'm probably missing a bunch of other references.

Marrowstone Island

Phil Knight said...

On the subject of bustling African economies, it's worth noting that Luanda in Angola is now the most expensive city in the world:

Edward said...

Welcome Back, John Michael.

I got through about 5 minutes of the debate and had to turn it off. Those guys are interchangeable, and either one could be the guy in your story.

I think I'll try to dig out another bed for my garden yet this fall.

jim said...

Meanwhile in an undisclosed location in China, General Tsoa was worried. Not about the coming battle (he is confident that the Chinese battle plan would catch the Americans off guard) but of its aftermath. How will the Americans respond in the aftermath of their defeat?
Close their markets to Chinese goods?
Not honor the US government bonds that we have in our banks?
Sink all ships going into or out of China?
Cyber attacks?
Military attacks on our military instillations both inside and outside of China?
Nuclear or bioweapon attack?

One thing is certain the American new world order ends today.

Thomas Daulton said...

Nice to see you again, JMG!

re: Inflation, as Cherokee Organics (Chris) and probably others may discuss --

Another blog I like, , has been pointing out "Stealth Inflation" for many years, since at least 2007 I think.

We had price inflation decades ago, but history never repeats exactly the same way twice. These days, everybody knows that when you take the same product X and simply jack up its price tag, that is a public admission that your business model is failing. Price inflation is the _last_ resort of a desperate company, not the first.

Instead, in the last couple of decades, we've had "Stealth Inflation". Your favorite candy bar keeps the same price tag, but without any announcement, it is gradually shaved down from 2.5 ounces to 2.1 ounces. Same for your cereal box. Your toilet paper keeps the same price tag, but instead of 500 sheets that are 4 inches wide, it becomes 450 sheets that are 3.75 inches wide. Your favorite restaurant starts using frozen fish from Costco in its most expensive specials, rather than local fish hand-caught.

This has been going on for many years if not decades. Industries that cannot adopt those tactics -- such as, say, housing and gasoline -- simply raise their price, and hence that's why those particular industries are specifically excluded from government inflation indexes.

It will only be later, after years of teetering on the edge of economic chaos, that we are going to see price-tag inflation like most people expect.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Glad you're back!

On gas: We're paying over $4 a gallon for regular, up here in the Pacific NW. A few days ago, I saw an article about gas prices in California. It promptly disappeared, but I did a little Gogleing around ...

In Bakersfield and LA, today, some stations are charging $5 per gallon. Reason? "Combination of low inventories and multiple refinery problems."

In many places dealers are shutting down their pumps due to "not being able to obtain gasoline from their regular distributor or cannot afford the break-even price of almost $5 per gallon."

@Cherokee Organics - Yes, food prices have risen. I've noticed it particularly in canned goods. I've always been one to stock up on good grades of soup, good chili and solid white tuna.

Two years ago, I could usually find some sales where I'd stock up on the above at less than $1 a can. On sale, I can't find soup for less than $1.39. And, that's for the all vegetable varieties. Anything with meat in it either never goes on sale or, the sale price is around $2. I notice prices up on a lot of other things, but the canned goods are the thing I can most easily make a comparison.

So, my first year out here in the country, I'm planting and harvesting more. I made my first forays into canning. Hundreds of pounds of fruit are going to waste in my area, and next year I'll be better prepared to take advantage of that bounty.

Jordy said...

Cant help but venture a guess as to what was in those crates: DF-21 Anti Ship Ballistic Missiles. They know China's got them but would be unprepared for it when taking on a small third world country. Goodbye carrier group!

Hal said...

I'm thinking (in the story) the Chinese must have figured out a way to neutralize intercontinental nuclear missiles for this scenario to play out. Either that, or there is some way the US has checkmated itself via economic or political realities, and can't retaliate. Surely no president would be able to allow such an overt move on the Chinese part, with the inevitable loss of US lives, without pushing The Button.

I see it more likely for the move to come from a "rogue nation" like Iran, or possibly a relatively small military defeat from some group like Al Qaeda and the Chinese step into the breach when the US loses the ability to project power.

The Chinese, in the scenario you've pointed out, could be very plausibly expected to sponsor a long-term insurgency as in Iraq/Afghanistan. Possibly a destroyer sunk by a Chinese-supplied missile, a monthly American body count, and a ballooning deficit to pay for it, and the results would be the same.

Anyway, maybe I'm just rationalizing to get rid of the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. My son could deploy in the next year. I'm sure the XIII Legion had family, too.

russell1200 said...

If it is to the point that the world is breaking up into various economic blocks - as happened prior to WW2 - than your already crashing, and the Chinese have at least as many problems as we do. Twenty years from now, we will be coming out of our baby boom retirement bulge, and they will be solidly in their one-child only one.

The military scenario is a little out there. The U.S. Carriers have rarely been an important component in the recent small wars. The usual modus operandi has been to camp out in the neighboring country and blast them with AF assets. The navy and tomahawks are often involved because their brass wants to get into the act. With the potential for an intervening foreign power (obvious) they would stay off shore and keep moving.

Don't forget that the big decks are not our only carriers. Our amphibious assault ships are the equivelant of a jump jet carrier. That's why we have marine hawker jump jets (blown up) in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Navy has had its failings, but of our various military services, by far has the most distinguished record of accomplishments. Past history between evenly matched (on paper) navies, has the country with the stronger maritime history winning. Russo-Japanese war comes to mind. The only exception I can think of is the old Austrian (as in Austrio-Hungarian) Navy that seemed to hit well above its weight class.

Thomas Daulton said...

As for gasoline prices at $7 per gallon 20 years from now... again history is not obligated to repeat exactly, and there are powerful forces in the US which will continue to try and cushion US consumers from the real costs of their gasoline (shunting the costs to the taxpayer in general as opposed to paying them at the pump).

Nevertheless, this article had some interesting insights:

Why the Oil Industry Doesn't Want You To Remember the Last 14 Years

Bottom line, in 14 years, the gasoline price has quadrupled and the oil price more than that. If JMG's scenario is set at least 20 years in the future, Cherokee may have a point that $7 is an under-estimate.

> What were the prices of oil and gasoline in 1998? Do you remember? Without looking them up...
Most guesses have clustered around $2.50 to $3 a gallon for gasoline (in the US). Only one person could come up with a crude oil price which she guessed was around $55 a barrel. The answers show a vague recollection that oil and gasoline were cheaper than they are today. But just how much cheaper has been lost down the memory hole.

Okay, I know the suspense is killing you. Here's how gasoline and oil fared in 1998. The nationwide average price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States in December of that year was 95 cents. The closing price for a barrel of crude oil sold on the New York Mercantile Exchange on December 31 was $12.05. Just three weeks earlier the price of oil had hit its nadir for the year at $10.72. ...

Why does the oil industry want you to forget this? Because after a 10-fold increase in the price of crude oil and a fourfold increase in the price of gasoline, the industry is once again trying to sell the same story of continued abundance that they were selling back in the late 1990s. But the manyfold increase in oil prices ought to make everyone doubt an industry which has repeatedly told us that huge supplies are just around the corner, and prices are headed for a crash.

artinnature said...

I was out in the garden this morning, harvesting and winnowing coriander seeds, weeding my new planting of winter Broccoli and munching on yellow alpine strawberries when I remembered...hey JMG is back today! And with a bang I might add.

I hope you made the time during your break from blogging to enjoy your fall garden is that solar greenhouse coming along? I would love to see your design.

September and October back here in the PNW have been almost painfully gorgeous, but also epically dry, that's how it goes.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, excellent. Yes, there are various puns worked into the story; I probably should have resisted the temptation, but hey, it worked for Shakespeare.

Phil, I didn't know that! I was simply assuming that sooner or later, some of the African petrostates were going to figure out the same thing that Persian Gulf petrostates figured out half a century ago -- that you don't need to let Western oil companies take your oil on their terms.

Edward, you get today's gold star for practical responses to political blather.

Jim, true -- there are certainly some tense conversations going on in Beijing as the waiting comes to an end and the shooting starts.

Thomas, thank you, and I'm glad to hear that there's a blog tracking that! Yes, I've been noting stealth inflation for a while now -- ever compare the size of a Hershey bar circa 1972 to one today?

Lewis, keep a close eye on those gas prices. We may be in for another price spike.

Jordy, close. Stay tuned...

Hal, after this sequence is over we'll be talking about the calculus of nuclear deterrence; it's far less simple than you've suggested -- which is not to say that nuclear war won't be an issue in the upcoming narrative.

Russell, the carriers are going to stay offshore and keep moving. It won't help them a lot when their position is being precisely tracked by high-altitude drones. More on this as we proceed.

Thomas, it's not "at least 20 years in the future" -- as I've mentioned more than once, this is sometime in the next two decades, that is, in the period of time that ends 20 years from now, and Thus the gasoline price estimate.

Art, the solar greenhouse is still on hold at the moment, though I've got hopes for next year. The cold frame's doing very well, though, and we're bringing in carrots, onions, and the season's last lima beans right now.

Ceworthe said...

Welcome back, JMG. It was very nice meeting you and your wife recently, and talking gluten-free cooking and drop spindle spinning with her. If anyone has the opportunity to meet JMG in person, be sure to do so as he is even more engaging and entertaining in person with his wide-ranging knowledge and humor.
Cherokee, I recently got a couple of bags of sugar for canning and jam making, after not buying any for over a year. I said to someone, "Didn't sugar used to be in 5lb bags?" Sure enough, they were the same price and only 4lbs a bag.
BTW, Jimsom weed is nothing to fool with, as one can easily end up stone crazy or dead. Not known from personal experience, but from knowing a couple of Haudenosaunee(Iroquois)herbalists whose people used it for spiritual journeying who emphasized one needs to really know what they are doing to avoid undesirable side effects.

Richard Larson said...

The price of gasoline could well begin to decline from here, but if a person does not have any money, even a buck fifty a gallon is too much. Or, there just won't be enough, doesn't matter how much one is willing to pay. The catalyst could be this Chinese thing...

So many possibilities.

The story has tapped my imagination! Oh, I have finished my second hugelkultur bed - as promised. I'll post a video this weekend at

wall0159 said...

Thanks for the great beginning, a gripping read.

I note that the price of gas you quote is still substantially below what customers in many places are paying right now. I think that shows both how much the price of gas is subsidised in the US, and how inefficiently the US uses it relative to the rest of the world (even other "first-world" countries).

Also, I'd really appreciate it if you could outline the ways that events in this story could affect US allies (eg. the EU, Canada, Australia, etc)

John Michael Greer said...

Ceworthe, your Hodenosaunee friends say the same thing as the Sixties types I know. Datura's a very rough ally.

Richard, good to hear!

Wall, the price of gas is a good sign that the US empire is crumbling but not yet fallen at the beginning of the story. When it gets up to the global average, it'll all be over but the shouting. As for America's current allies -- hmm. I only have five posts worth of space to cover a lot of future history, so may not be able to fit that in; we can discuss it as we go, though.

Brien said...

Splendid to see you back, JMG! I hope the month was productive!

I've spent the hiatus obtaining and reading Alf Hornburg's Power of the Machine. It's an amazing book, especially regarding the inverse relationship of price and energy. While I'd been moving in Distributist and other similar circles for some time, I hadn't yet found anyone who could explain concretely the ways that exploitation happens. Hornburg performs admirably there; thank you for recommending him.


An interesting start to the scenario. Considering the realities of the post-peak world, the military planner's job gains some interesting wrinkles. One can imagine it as a game; perhaps it could be named "Jennel's Dilemma." The rules are simple:

1) The army operating at a Higher "Level" of Energy Use wins.

2) The army better trained within its Energy Level wins.

3) The army that doesn't have enough cheap energy to actually perform at its chosen Energy Level loses.

4) The winner of one conflict obtains control of a larger percentage of the energy left, to use in the next conflict.

5) Switching Energy Levels is a non-trivial task, and makes you temporarily vulnerable to rule 2.

6) The total supply is decreasing - don't let rule 3 catch you!

These rules lead to some interesting strategies. Do you "use it while you got it"? Or do you deliberately low-ball your Energy Use and then hit your enemy hard when he overreaches? Can you play the diplomatic game well enough to stall for time? There are a number of possible strategies and no one "correct" answer, it seems.

Todd S. said...

Great story. Reminds me a bit of old Tom Clancy and "Red Storm Rising" in its setup, back when he still had narrative talent. Completely different focus of course (a more realistic and less jingoistic one), but the feel is the same.

John Michael Greer said...

Brien, excellent! Your "Jennel's dilemma" is a good summary, and of course you're quite right that there is no one right answer -- that's the nature of every strategic question in a sufficiently complex setting.

Todd, thank you! I tried to give the narrative at this stage something of the political-military thriller flavor; as we proceed, that will change a bit.

morenewyorknews said...

The only thing i can say is marvelous and exciting..

Johan said...

So far, so good! I wanted context, and here it is.

Overall, I like this scenario. It sounds plausible, with lots of good details. I like that the Secretary of Defense protests, although weakly, and that the Fleet Admiral is uneasy. The military is often portrayed as incompetent bumbleheads, but what sort of military to have and how to deploy it isn't a purely military decision, it's a political one.

When I read the previous posts and the comments, I often got the impression that the US military was just waiting for a defeat by any minor opponent with a bit of creativity, but in this scenario, the adversary is more or less at par, technologically. That sounds far more plausible.

I also like that the Chinese response arrives by civilian container ships, illustrating the rather different ideas of the state's role in China and in the US.

The only thing that doesn't ring true to me is the Chinese high-altitude drone. I saw your answer to RPC, but stealth is somewhat of a Tom Clancy technology - it's high-tech, cool, mysterious, very simple in a book but rather tricky in reality. I won't belive that part of the scenario till I see it! On the other hand, I suspect the real utility of the drone isn't pretty pictures, but real-time targeting data, and I can imagine several other ways to obtain that, ways that are both stealthier and less easy to counter. My issues with the drone thus don't affect the scenario overall.

Good work! The action next week should be spectacular.

(A note on timing: since the Chinese J-20's are operational, the scenario isn't next March but several years into the future)

phil harris said...

Yes, somebody, likely China, is one day going to say enough is enough, and carefully calibrate some war-aims. Not my forte, but I have wondered what would happen to China's military communication satellites in your scenario?

Glad to hear from Brien that he is into Alf Hornburg. I found Hornburg's esteemed colleague the late Stephen G Bunker also very useful in recording the mechanisms of competitive exploitation; for example "Globalization and the Race for Resources", 2005. Bunker is a touch wordy but well worth the effort.

best wishes to all for well-stocked pantries


Thijs Goverde said...

Eehh! So many remarks on the VP's name, and not one Halleck reference? Even the attitude of grumbling loyalty fits to a T!

On a slightly less frivolous note - aren't you giving the CIA more credit than due? I mean Libya specifically. IIRC, Libyan oil was already flowing to the global West (Italy, mainly) and Muammar Q. had been on his best behaviour for quite a while. The need to bring Libya in line by manufacturing unrest would have been slight. If manufactured is what it was, then it was fiendishly subtle: getting a guy to torch himself in a public square in Tunisia, spark food riots all over the Middle East, oust the USA-friendly Mubarak, all so you can get a shot at oil you already have acces to...
I love that kind of deep strategy, but I'm enough of an Occamist to mumble 'Naaah, it was probably just the food riots, and everyone scrambling for the loot after that'.

Odin's Raven said...

It looks as if the American navy in your story is about to get a bad case of Sunburn.

Here's a suggestion that there's a lot of oil and gas under Greek waters, so the greedy ones might not have to go as far as Tanzania.

Coincidentally, here's an article about '3D printing' which suggests that the power of big states may be undermined by widespread access to cheap but sophisticated drones and weapons.
' "the powers that be" today, will be "the powers that were" in a world where an East African was just as capable of building a cruise missile as Raytheon'
'As Sun Tzu stated in "The Art of War," "supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." What better way of achieving this than preventing the enemy from ever finding the true battle lines to begin with? '

I look forward to reading further installments.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Forgot to mention how much I empathised with the operational characters in the story. The characters oozed a certain stoic despair about orders from higher up the chain.

"You want us to do what? Do you really think this is a good idea? Have you thought we should take into account... OK. I'll shut up and get on with it. No, I'll just follow orders. Yep, no need to go down that path." hehe!

An unpleasant scenario. Too many people higher in the political chain these days have little to no operational experience at the pointy end of things. It makes for dysfunctional decision making and an overall lack of caution. Gets back to your observation about the aristocracy.

Oh well.

Yeah, quantitative easing maybe will result in deleveraging, but it may also destroy much else in the process. The Chinese are not happy about it for sure as they hold such large reserves - much of which is being converted into real assets all over the world.

I think the ace up the US's sleeve is the continued (albeit peaked) local extraction of oil and the maintenance of the US$ as the standard currency of exchange. Dunno really.

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for the link. Hadn't heard of that term before "stealth inflation". I've observed it in the shops here which is why I cook so much food at home now - recently started making my own muesli using local honey because of this very issue. The box even had the cheek to add a line saying that people had asked for less content in a larger box with prettier printing.

Hi Lewis,

Sorry to hear about the food prices, canning is an awesome skill though, plus you get summer fruit in the depths of winter. Glad to hear about your goats and blackberries too, what an elegant solution. Gleaning fruit is a great use for all of those roadside apples and berries that otherwise start to ferment and become unpalatable. Much respect.

Hi Thomas,

Yeah, I often wondered about the magic behind the US$4/gallon fuel limit in the US imagination. There must be something in that? We pay AU$1.50/litre which converts to US$5.70/gallon. Prices are only going up here.

Hi Ceworthe,

Sorry to hear about the stealth inflation in sugar over there. Raw sugar retails here for AU$1/kg which is about 2 pounds. Isn't it amazing how much sugar you go through in jam making and preserving.

You know, if things ever became unpleasant, I'd nab all of the sugar and salt I could lay my hands on as it makes preserving that much easier.


John Michael Greer said...

News, thank you!

Johan, exactly -- one claim made by carrier fans is that it's hard to locate a carrier precisely enough to punch a missile through it; the Chinese drones obviate that problem. I'd understood that a small unmanned craft could be made effectively invisible to radar via stealth technology, thus my response to RPC. If you've got a more plausible suggestion for targeting data acquisition, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Phil, wait and see...

Thijs, the CIA didn't cause the Arab Spring, but they certainly took advantage of it to take out (in the case of Libya) or try to take out (in the case of Syria) a couple of Arab leaders who have been long-term thorns in the side of the US and its allies. I trust you're aware of the role that money, arms, and military help from an assortment of US allies played in both uprisings?

Raven, I considered Greece as a setting for the scenario. As for 3D printing, did you notice that the article somehow fails to grasp the fact that 3D printers don't conjure raw materials out of thin air? The sheer blinkered silliness of these "post-scarcity" delusions leaves me speechless sometimes.

Cherokee, I know a fair number of vets, and have heard a fair number of stories. BTW, honey can be used for canning -- another good reason to help your local bees survive.

Jim R said...

With apologies, we presume, to Stanley Kubrick.

I always wondered who was the President before Muffley Merkin.

Ricardo Rolo said...

I agree with Cherokee about the mythic prices Americans put on gas. In where I live we are already in 7$/gallon for atleast 5 years ago and now we are in 8-8,5 territory. I guess that the american governement indirectly props down the gas price by not taxing it as hard as a lot of countries ( just se the price of gas in UK, that by my math should be around 9$ a gallon, all because of taxes, in spite of technically the UK being a gas producer ) ... or it is a still lingering residue from the time the US was actualy a gas producer and that they could play Arab on oil prices to the final consumer ?

Back on the topic, Pres. Weed and Admiral Deckmann ... by that logic the Sec of Defense that no one listened to is called Cassandra ? ;)

On a more serious tone in certain aspect there was already someone that draw a line in the sand to the US: Russia in 2008 about Georgia and the shenigans in Ukraine after that ( where the "western" darling, Timoshenko, was arrested most likely with the hand of Moscow pulling some strings behind ). OFC that the US governement did not took the lessons it should had, but rarely any imperial governement does :p and decided to let the Russian "front" to cool down and press China and Iran via proxies ...

Anyway, I do think that something on this lines will happen ( not necessarily in Tanzania, though ) but I have some questions:

a) I assume that we are going to see some action with the Chinese carrier buster balistic missiles, no?

b) Looking at the intel known on the J-20, they should get from the Central Asia ( even if from the Uzbek base the Russians rented some time ago ) to Tanzania in fumes or pretty close. That means IMHO that either they will refill somewhere in the way ( and there goes stealth ) or their real target is closer than Tanzania ( say, Qatar ;) ? ). BTW I assume that we're going to have a props up in the Middle East situation in your story soon :p

Renaissance Man said...

Hm. Here's how the main allied nations will act (in your novel):
- Canada will come along as a dutiful client state, doing very little (which is about as much as we can, anyway) to appease our Washington bosses, just as we have since Eisenhower forced Dief the Chief (the Anti-American) to accept nuclear missiles on our territory and cancel the Arrow.
- Britain will, too, as much as possible, because they still look back to 'their finest hour' and the joint Allied victory with swelling hearts and misty-eyed pride.
- The French wll not join in, neither will the Germans, because it's a dumb war and they can refuse with impunity. NATO rules only apply if one is attacked, not if one is attacked while invading somewhere.

regarding "stealth inflation"
I have kept (by accident) a record of prices for fixed quantities of particular goods, for example, 900g bags of spaghetti, loaves of bread, 5 litre bags of milk, &c. My own estimate puts the *real* inflation rate at about 12% for at least the last 7 years.
I know exactly what the price of gas was in 2002, because I've kept every receipt since then, for analysis, and the price has gone up over 300%, from 40 cents (Can)/litre to more than $1.20 (Can)/litre (i.e, from $1.02 (US)/gal (US) to $4.72 (US)/gal (US) -- taking into account currency conversion rates, but not adjusted for "inflation".)

Our esteemed host published a commentary on this idea back: in November of 2009, when he was discussing markets and observed that unregulated free-market capitalism results in a long, slow decline in quality.
I observed this, too, back in 1977: my Aunt's refrigerator broke, the day after the original 30-year warranty expired. At that point, it was already more expensive to replace than repair, but the new fridge only came with a 10-year parts-and-labour warranty. Today, new fridges expect to last just 1 year.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, I already know who the next two presidents are after Jameson Weed, and Muffley Merkin isn't one of them. More soon!

Ricardo, clearly the Chinese are going to need to do what any other air force will do -- station tankers for air-to-air refueling somewhere along the route, and have additional supplies of jet fuel -- perhaps shipped in ordinary shipping containers for secrecy -- at a forward airbase. As for the carrier-busting missiles, wait and see...

Alphonse Houner said...

Nice job and a good cliff-hanger. After the past week it seems all the more certain we are headed for an economic cliff come this next spring based on either a lack of action or draconian cuts in the budget. The question becomes how will a wrung-out electorate handle a what will likely be a wrenching downward lurch in the economy.

My bet, the general populace will whimper and turn on the nearest t.v. for diversion. Fast forward two years and get a repeat at yet a lower level.

You got the malaise correctly but the timing may be a bit short. Keep up the good work.

Mark Angelini said...

Welcome back and thank you for a nice change of pace. I'm enjoying what I've read so far. Jameson Weed sounds about right... These millionaire boys club guys have to be tripping out!

I heeded your advice and have been busy building a root cellar, planting my greenhouse, and preserving lots of food :)

For the sake of some wacky humor on the subject of presidents and what one may have "missed" by not watching the recent presidential "debates"... Here's one for you:

Joseph Nemeth said...

Fun story. Looking forward to installments. And it was great meeting you again in PA!

A question and a comment.

The question is, to what extent is the QE simply vanishing into debt holes? Let's say I (the government) were to print up a billion trillion dollars. But instead of putting it into circulation, I give it all to Vice President Gurney, who puts it into a bank that was holding a billion trillion dollars in bad debt, that they had in turn loaned out to American consumers who had used the money to buy bubble-gum cards from Gurney's company, Holoburden, at MASSIVELY inflated prices -- a million trillion dollars a card. The bubble-gum card market then crashed to real market values (about ten cents a card), the consumers shrugged and defaulted on their vast loans, and the banks suffered huge paper losses that have now been paid back by fake money. VP Gurney is now some kind of gazillionaire -- on paper -- but he still has only a few dozen homes, one yacht, etc. That is, his actual circulation of his gazillions is still limited by his mortal frame.

I would think there would be very little resulting inflation. If Gurney ever tried to spend his gazillions, there'd be Hell to pay, but instead, he "invests" in the stock market, causing it to inflate again even as the rest of the economy stagnates...

In other words, if a money tree explodes in a virtual forest, does it cause inflation?

The comment is this. If the US is going into imperial catabolism, and if the end is more-or-less inevitable, is it more just (or merciful) to drag it out, or to bring it down hard?

I may be offering the Republicans more credit for intelligence than they are due, but their extremism is so ... well, extreme that I can't help wondering if they've actually given up on a future, and are a) cynically grabbing for themselves everything that isn't nailed down, and b) telling themselves they are performing a mercy-killing.

Ron Broberg said...

Some mostly undecipherable animated air war fun from China.

Thijs Goverde said...

I trust you're aware of the role that money, arms, and military help from an assortment of US allies played in both uprisings?

Oh yes, well aware indeed - I was only remarking that in the story you seem to imply that Libya was *started* by the CIA, and I was wondering what you viewpoint was on that score.
Mind you, I very much expect that one reason the Syrian uprising is allowed to run a much longer and more terrible course is pretty much that they have about one tenth of the oil Libya has.

John Michael Greer said...

Alphonse, that's plausible. One interesting question is when the whimper will turn to howling for blood -- that happens fairly often in history, you know.

Mark, if they were tripping out on datura, they'd be huddled in corners shrieking. Come to think of it, that may happen down the road a bit...

Joseph, the question to your question is whether the Fed will be able to stop spinning the printing presses when the debt holes are all full. Usually that's when the problems begin, because when you've been quietly monetizing the national debt for years, it's very hard to convince investors to step in and buy it, and even harder to convince politicians or the people to give up the benefits of all that deficit spending. The comment to your comment is that I don't think the GOP is that clever; they're no brighter than the Democrats, you know.

Ron, not at all -- there's a nice table at the end explaining who's who. Funny to see air war done Thomas the Tank Engine style!

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, my working guess is that the CIA (and equivalent agencies in a few key US allies) saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity, and pounced on the chance to get rid of a couple of rulers the US has had grudges against for a long time. Oil isn't the only reason for regime change, after all. As for Syria, my guess is that it's partly that, and partly because Russia has a naval base there and has probably threatened to counter a "no-fly zone" (that is to say, US aerial bombardment of government military units) with effective antiaircraft technology.

Ric said...

Renaissance Man: Our esteemed host published a commentary on this idea back: in November of 2009, when he was discussing markets and observed that unregulated free-market capitalism results in a long, slow decline in quality.

Just got off the phone with my parents; their three-year-old furnace is busted beyond repair. This is the third furnace in 20 years. The first lasted a bit over a decade, the second about half that, and now the third is DOA in its third winter. By comparison, the house I was raised in was still running the original furnace installed in 1957 when I sold it in 1998.

I'm also seeing a lowering of quality in food purchases (meat with more bone and fat, fruits and vegetables that look like they fell off the truck on the way to the store, etc.) as well as the usual shrinkage in packaging.

Gotta get the planting beds going. May take a shot at starting a Simon and Garfunkel herb garden.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I forgot to mention that infrastructure can be catabolised too for cost of society savings. This is part of the whole stealth inflation thing too, because rising costs of society are kept down by a lack of maintenance of the existing infrastructure which was built up over a long period of time and therefore slowly decays.

This is the case with our electricity distribution system here and there is a lot of whining going on here about the cost of electricity which has risen this year between 10% to 18%. Much blame has been heaped on the carbon tax, but it should actually be directed at the lack of investment in distribution infrastructure over the past two decades (plus increased household consumption).

Something is also nagging me at the back of my mind about Libya and it may or may not be relevant. My understanding was that many years back, the Colonel sent his son to the UK so that Libya could come in from the cold. I remember at the time reading that in later meetings with Blair that Gaddafi welcomed Blair in a most truly disrespectful manner and it was a glossed over matter. Given the pointlessness of regime change there, I've since wondered whether such events were significant or not and perhaps may have even been part of a bigger picture (or dialogue) which we were not entitled to see. Dunno?

Thanks for the hint about honey, I wouldn't have thought about that option for preserving. My neighbour has a couple of hives and time got away from me this season (plus other projects). The fruit trees sure do need them though. The English used to grow sugar beets too for sugar before access to distant markets and sugar cane (rum was the unofficial currency here at one stage in our history). Salt is a difficult one this far inland too.

Didn't know about Datura as "weed" is a colloquialism for pot here. Wouldn't touch Datura either. Messing with your mind is not good, I know some long term pot users and anyone considering taking up the habit should be forced to spend some time with these people first. Up north I've heard of a close relative of this plant which sounds even more dangerous:

Angel's Trumpet

Yeah, the stoic despair isn't just the military, but is one reason I turned my back on big business in favour of small business. Small business owners are so close to the pointy end that they rarely swallow their own garbage.


Jason Heppenstall said...

Welcome back!

A truly gripping read, well done. I too got the Halleck ref, having literally put down my copy of Dune to read your post.

If that weren't synchronous enough, I recently found out that I'm being sent to the Kenya-Tanzania border next month for work. I sincerely hope your story doesn't come true in the meantime ...

Some of your readers might like to know that I've recently been hob nobbing with some influential internet types and they are talking in terms of 'augmenting' the human race by harvesting our digital souls.

Sounds like pure techno fantasist hubris to me, but there you go.

Iodhan Silverbear said...

This like the "Left Behind" series for Peak Oil believers. I like it already...

Ricardo Rolo said...

Mr Greer, my point on the J-20 was that refueling in mid air would compromise one of the strong points of the plane: radar stealth. Even if the refueling plane is also stealth, the hose would surely signal out ( not that in your scenario the Americans are looking for a Chinese floating hose in mid air ;) ) And ,unless the carriers are out before the J-20 get there ( hint hint :p ) they would have to fight the american planes ( you aren't specific on that but I assume that at best they will be F-22 or, if very lucky, F-35 but most like refitted F-16 ) even to get to any base the Chinese have in Tanzania ( that is obviously there ;) ). Not that the J-20 would probably not give a beating to any of the above planes, but doing that in fumes would be atleast reckless. Hence my question ...

marxmarv said...

JMG, welcome back and great story. If your aim was to convey insight and produce a few unsettled chuckles, you did a fine job. :)

As to Syria, Stephen Waldman (blogging at observes that recent targets of US economic and/or military belligerence also happen to be nations with introverted economies, less oriented toward global investment and private ownership and more toward the broad economic betterment of their citizens. For instance, Libya did not have the "freedoms of conscience" so promoted in the US, but had an economy that functioned for Syrians. Waldman hasn't written on this yet, but the shift in the US' attitude toward Burma, moving from the US' hit list to the shining beacon of freedom in Southeast Asia list, coincides so uncomfortably closely with their new head of state announcing pro-market reforms as to risk whiplash. Interestingly, a piece on the Guardian's website explores the connections between anti-Assad figures and neocon/neoliberal elites:

A desperation among the global investor class to grow their portfolios when they already own most everything currently on offer in friendly markets would surely inspire governments well-steeped in capitalism to manufacture new properties for that money, whether through new exclusive rights in property law (as in cap-and-trade, or novel exclusive rights in intellectual property), privatization by consent of the government (as the IMF/World Bank does) or privatization by force of wrecking up the joint (Iraq, Libya, Syria, and no doubt others). I don't claim this is the only force at work, but the hypothesis fits recent data far more closely than does the conventional "wisdom" of shallow, counterfactual appeals to personal freedom.

Looking forward to the next installment. Enjoy your week!

Stu from Rutherford said...

JMG: Good to read you again. I understood the rationale behind the $7/gallon gasoline price as I read it because I agree that demand destruction will play a part in this.

To add to LewisLucanBooks and Cherokee Organics discussion on food prices: As I commented in August, I've begun brewing beer at home. In the few months that I've been following prices of ingredients, the barley and wheat malt syrups have gone up about 50%. Some of that might be increases in fuel costs, but I'm afraid most of it is grains. Beer is, after all, just liquid bread.

Worse, a little calculus will show that if one of your cost arenas increases a lot faster than the others, it becomes an even larger portion of your total cost. And you become that much more sensitive to further price increases.

Oddly enough, this has not shown up at retail *lately*, though earlier in the year there were some price increases.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Stu,

In answer to your rhetorical question about retail prices. The big retail chains are and have been undertaking the process of cliffing their suppliers:

Price war draining life out of suppliers

This is well worth the read to get a look into what is going on behind the scenes and why retail prices are not increasing in line with the raw material prices. It is scary for the suppliers of these big supermarket chains. I am personally aware of a couple of company examples of the aftermath of this practice.

I'd be pretty certain this activity is going on in other countries too. We're followers here not leaders.


Ben Simon said...

Dear John;

Just ran across the noted article.
thought it might be of interest and value,here.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, you're right that malign neglect of infrastructure is another mode of stealth inflation. We have a lot of that in the US these days -- it's rare to see a bridge or a highway in good condition.

Jason, I think it's quite possible that some people will rush into a technology that allows them to hand over even the most basic processes of thinking to a big greedy corporation. Then they'll get to find out why it's not a good idea to hand over your mind to a big greedy corporation...

Iodhan, I'm not sure whether that comparison is a compliment or not!

Ricardo, wait and see!

Marxmarv, thank you. I suspect that one of the major points of international stress over the next few years will be the conflict between a disintegrating global financial system and nations that decide, for good reason, to pursue economic autarky at the expense of the global system.

Stu, anything that increases the price of good beer is a crisis! ;-)

Ben, thanks for the link. I found it highly unconvincing, for what it's worth, but it's interesting to see the same rhetoric used to defend so many other obsolete weapons systems being trotted out again.

Jason said...

The only prediction I'll make at this stage is that the subtitle of some future episode will be the name of a certain Greek goddess...

Stu from Rutherford said...

That reminds me of a cartoon that I saw in which a character is distressed because our era represents "Peak Beer"!

Cherokee - thanks for that link. The article was excellent, and reminds people here in the US of the way that WalMart has been treating its suppliers for a long time.

Dr. Omed said...

How much American military hardware with electronic components has Chinese made computer chips in it? And how many Chinese chips have hardwired "backdoors" or malware designed and manufactured into them? Could be part of the scenario, but we have to wait 'til next week to find out.

Karel said...

Welcome back, JMG!

It`s certainly pretty too soon to comment on your scenario, but... In my opinion Chinese Anti-Access/Area-Denial military strategy will be still primarily defensive at that time, which means the chosen battlefield should be probably much closer to the China homeland than you did assume.

Iodhan Silverbear said...

JMG, that was definately a compliment in the context that your's is a much more realistic imagining of the events that will likely hasten collapse inasmuch as it CAN be hastened. That said, I did some time many years ago on the Dogma track and fell into the trap for awhile before I realized what I was actually seeing.

What I really meant was that by employing a story-telling model you are illustrating in a way that general discourse doesn't allow for. I never feel that your posts are preachy but they can be intimidating to me because I spend more time trying to make sure I understand all the information than I do actually reading. This presents the material in a more relatable fashion. The content is a bit different than most of your other posts but the message is easier to digest.

Digesting a lot of good information should be work, it helps me actually learn something. I'm just going to enjoy the comic book version as well...Thanks!

jollyreaper said...

I'll reserve my review until I see how your scenario plays out. The American mistakes seem pretty believable. I'm curious to see how it plays out for China. The scenario I'd most buy is the US and China knocking each other's teeth out and a third party moving into the power vacuum.

What would be an interesting WWIII scenario is a low-energy future with powers still attempting to play in the Great Game. You can't afford carrier battlegroups anymore? Can't afford the sea lift for an armored division? But drones are cheap. Hmm.

I've speculated before about the potential for schizo-tech. I continue to maintain that it seems plausible we might have packet radio networks and smartphones even as the average citizen (in the States) can no longer afford a car.

It would be kind of funny to imagine a mid-21st century expeditionary force heading out with bicycles and pack animals because nobody can spare the petrol but they have solar-charging microdrones and every soldier has instant communications with militarized iphone20's.

Right now, fossil fuels are cheap enough you can put any kind of factory you want anywhere you want. When fossil fuels become ridiculously expensive, places with cheap power advantages could become major manufacturing centers, exporting to the rest of the world.

Stephen said...

The era of stealth planes was a late 20th century thing really its only good for attacking tin pot militaries now. With modern computerized xband radars and infrared sensors etc its getting awfully hard to hide a plane and these things are getting cheaper as allot of people have the requisite computing power in there cell phones now. That combined with modern anti aircraft missiles means that dominance of the air power especially the extremely expensive manned fighter jets may be coming to an end.

So instead I would replace the stealth drone with a satellite photo the Chinese have a few of them and a carrier is big enough to show up on a weather satellite. And if things escalate to space warfare you could probably triangulate the location of a carrier from all its radio chatter.

John Michael Greer said...

Neil (offlist), for off-topic questions, please include your email address -- I won't put the comment through, I'll just respond privately. Thanks!