Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Okay, so what *do* I think is going to happen?

Or, to put it another way--to what, exactly, do I think I will be adapting? Excellent question, glad you asked.

In broad strokes, I think we will be adapting to a world with vastly lower energy availability, and a world with vastly lower economic resources available. Probably, because I just don't see the world running towards the 350ppm goal for emissions, we will also see some serious climate destabilization. This will precipitate huge refugee populations, and also throw monster wrenches into any form of agriculture, including the more localized versions to which I cleave. So, in short, we will have less money and similar resources to use, less energy to do things with, and a significantly harsher food climate than now. Hm. Not good.

Let me fill this out a bit. For starters, I believe that we are heading for a financial catastrophe that will at least be on a par with the Great Depression, and may well dwarf it. We are currently operating under many of the same genesis conditions of the last depression, but this time we are doing it all on much higher orders of magnitude. In the 30's, there were losses in the millions. Today, we're already clocking losses into the 10's of trillions, with vast unregulated shadow markets valued (nominally) at over 500 trillion, all highly susceptible to a credit bubble which just went *poof*. I don't think anyone can truly foresee how bad this will get, and there are so many confounding variables it tends to make my head spin. But at the very least, we are going to see waves of layoffs/job losses (yes, many more than we've had); bankruptcies, both individually and business, will continue to climb. Credit will become almost inaccessible. People with no backup cushion--who had always thought of their home equity and credit cards as their backup--are going to be in deep deep dodo (and I may well be in that group myself). Deflation will batter us for the upcoming future. Prices will fall, but not as fast as wages & income do. We will still have plenty of energy resources--oil, coal, solar, wind, etc.--but we will increasingly not have enough money to actually purchase any of it. As deflation continues, debt burdens will become entirely unmanageable, precipitating more defaults & bankruptcies, and the cycle will continue. Sooner or later we'll hit inflation, and I can only pray that it doesn't turn to hyperinflation and we need a wheelbarrow of $100 bills to buy a loaf of bread, but who can say?

Then there's the energy crisis we're about to tip into. As I just said, oil & coal will still be plentiful, but we won't be able to afford it due to the economic issues. This will mask a new underlying problem that, in fact, our oil supplies will begin to dwindle. No, they will not vanish. There's little reason to think that we'll run out of oil for decades to come. But it will be more and more expensive to get out of the ground and process, and there will be less and less of it. Same goes for coal. So at just the moment when we'll have less budget for energy, prices will likely start to rise again. Market forces will hold prices in check somewhat, since there's no point in producing a commodity that literally no one can afford to buy, but sooner or later it will no longer be cost effective, and then who knows what will happen? One thing that history does teach us is that it was largely cheap-oil driven industry which pulled us out of the last depression; it is doubtful that we'll have another fairy godmother like that for the upcoming one. And no, I don't think that science will save us. I'm a big fan of renewable resources, but they're just not up to the task of taking over for our fossil fuel friends and allow us to keep toodling on our merry way. Their energy returns are too low, their distribution too clumsy, and we don't have the resources left (fossil fuel or economic) to refit our infrastructure anyway. One way or another, we're going to have far less access to energy than we've become accustomed to. Given that most Americans believe that access to oil is a Birthright, this will be a very hard pill to swallow indeed.

And climate change? Well, now that we don't have the money to do all the wonderful green tech retrofitting in the first place, thanks to the economic crisis, we'll start scaling back on those plans (this is already happening). Concern over global warming, which had just finally started to build a head, will dwindle in the face of truly harsh economic conditions. We can only cope with so many crises, and a scientific paper telling us that the global temperature will rise by 2*C just doesn't stand up to seeing your children starving in front of your eyes. Economics will win--just ask Bill Clinton. And destabilized climate will lead to a very difficult agricultural landscape. It's hard to farm when you don't know when spring starts, or if it will start, or when deluge-level floods become the norm, or.... As I recall from my college Anthropology class, one of the major contributors to the rise of civilization and agriculture at all was the eventual settling down of our climate, thanks to the Oceanic Conveyor Belt (which global warming will probably destroy, but no matter).

So there's that.

Bad, eh? Yes, I really do think that some version of everything I just said will happen. But notice that even if I'm completely wrong about one or two of them, if just one of them is more or less correct, we're still in for some major adaptation. I did tell you in my first post that I'm a doomer. I'm not trying to convince anyone that I'm right; I've given no arguments for my positions above (well, not many, anyway). I hope everyone will look into these things for themselves. I've done so, and these are my current conclusions.

Eesh, how can I even get through the day believing things like this? Sometimes I really don't know. But most of the time I do it by remembering that humans do not require, nor do we really seem to thrive, on the modern world to which we've become accustomed. The food is bad for us, the air is bad for us, the consumables are bad for us, and our communities are nonexistent. And so it is to these topics I turn my attention. It is easy to see our situation as the gravest of all possible worlds (short of when the zombies come, I guess); we are talking about the end of our way of life, after all. But I find that I no longer value our way of life, or at least, not what our business & political leaders mean by "our way of life". That way of life involves debt treadmills, and toxic foods, and disaffected youths, and fear. I don't want that life. I want to find the way of life that I think most of us still hold in our hearts, somewhere under the Macy's catalogues and new credit card offers. The life where my neighbor watches my back, and I hers. Where I know who grew my food, and trust that person. Where my spiritual satisfaction does not come from retail therapy. I'll bet you know the world I'm talking about. In fairness, it's a world that never really existed--not even in Norman Rockwell paintings. It's easy to romanticize the past, and I try to guard against it. But it is equally easy--probably even easier--to believe that we cannot live without our current way of life. And that's BS. We can, and we can probably thrive at it, and frankly I don't think we'll have much choice regardless, so I'd better start doing what I can to make the best of things now.

This is just one of the reasons that I do not want to move to a homestead (well, okay, sometimes I do). Homestead living will provide a comparatively smooth transition, and that's great. But nowadays most folks don't live on a homestead--heck, they don't even live on a rural non-homestead patch. Most of us live in cities, towns, villages, and the like. And unless homesteaders are content with angry, hungry, desperate hordes of city dwellers ravaging their fields for food to feed their children (see--zombies!), then we'd better all hope that some of us can figure out how to live with the infrastructure we have now, and who can teach others.

And so, at long last, that's where I am. That's why I'm doing this. And because I'm selfish. I love my house, and I like my community. As a matter of full disclosure, we also have a family "farm" to which we have an open invitation to bug out to any time we need. It's not terribly close by, but it is near enough that, if things were desperate, we could probably bike there with our kids and some essentials in a few days. So we have a luxury that most people really don't--a fallback homestead. But I don't want to end up there, at least not yet. I want to stay here and help my community make it through this mess.

One day I told my mom about my latest canning project and thinking about buying a grain grinder. She sighed and said, "I hope that in a few years you'll be willing to teach the rest of us all these things, because I think we'll need to know them." Well, I'm working on it, mom!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Robyn! I am also Robin and I agree with basically everything you outlined here, except for maybe the potential future threat of zombies, which given my observations of the general populace, are already upon us. I just discovered your blog and really admire what you are doing. I have much more I could add here, but I am at work and should get back to it. Let's just say, I'm glad I found you and hope to be in contact with you in the future.