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John Michael Greer

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This is the first post in a series of three, in which I will analyze the major trends that will define the next ten years and their likely impacts on global regions. To put these forecasts into context, I must first describe the narrative through which I view the history of the post-WW2 era (the Oil Age, the Age of Hubris, or as John M. Greer aptly described it, the “age of abundance industrialism” – now on the verge of meeting its Nemesis, the waning of Pax Americana and the demise of global Western hegemony), which is dominated by the concept of “limits to growth” – the 1972 Club of Rome thesis that finite resources and pollution sinks will ensure that business-as-usual economic growth can never continue indefinitely on planet Earth.

A Short History of Abundance Industrialism

Driven by an electro-mechanical revolution powered by a windfall of cheap oil, the world registered its highest GDP growth rates in the 1950-1973 period. The era was defined by self-confidence and a secular “myth of progress”, which reached its apogee with the 1969 moon landings. But the next decade saw the arrival of major discontinuities. American oil production peaked in 1970, and went into decline. Saudi Arabia settled into its role as the world swing producer, enabling it to inflict a severe “oil shock” on Western economies in 1973 to punish them for their support for Israel, to be followed by another in 1979 coinciding with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The decade also saw milestones such as the publication of Limits to Growth, the ending of hyperbolic growth of the world system, and a new emphasis on conservation and sustainability (which led to significant improvements in fuel efficiency and pollution control – back then, the fruits were all low-hanging, so impressive results were not hard to achieve). Yet the first tentative steps towards sustainability were not to be followed through, as the newly-elected Reagan took office proclaiming “Morning in America!”, with its implicit promise of a return to a past with no future. It was a false dawn.

Thus began the “age of diminished expectations”. In the US, physical production by volume and real working class wages stalled in the 1970′s, and have since been on a plateau (slightly tilted up according to official statistics, slightly tilted down according to unofficial ones). The age of Mammon saw rising inequality, both within and between nations (the sole major exception being China whose ascent to world power began in the late 1970′s). As the American industrial base entered its long atrophy, its economy shifted towards construction, services, and finance, – symbolized by metastasizing suburbia – and made possible by new drilling by the oil majors in remoter areas like Alaska, the Mexican Gulf, and the North Sea, a political-security rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the IT revolution, and the rise of multinational corporations exploiting globalizing markets and cybernetic technology in a flattening world. Sustainability went out the window; quite literally, as Carter’s solar panels were removed from the White House roof in 1986. Finally, the US harnessed its new role as the focal point of the emerging global neoliberal system to open up their economies to the world, unleashing China’s “surplus armies of labor” and the former USSR’s energy resources in the service of Pax Americana.

overshoot

[Source: Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy, PNAS.]

This new era of international neoliberalism and developed country post-industrialism coincided with the genesis of humanity’s ecological overshoot of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Though the first global pollution alarm in the form of the “ozone hole” led to an impressive response involving a global agreement on the withdrawal of CFC production, the reaction to the growing specter of runaway climate change caused by man-made CO2 emissions – which is ultimately a far more serious issue – has been muted right up until 2009′s Copenhagen fiasco and today. Instead, the party continued in full blast throughout the 1990′s, for the US was too busy basking in the glow of the ostensible end-of-history triumph of “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

These hubristic visions of imminent utopia, of global drive-in democracy, collided with hard reality in the first decade of what was supposed to be a “new American century”. The United States is in a state of severe economic disequilibrium and has been in rapid decline relative to its competitors – a condition reminiscent of the USSR in the 1980′s. The probable decline and fall of the global order of which it is the locus will constitute the defining trend of the next decade.

Shifting Winds: The End of Pax Americana

What is Pax Americana? It is the liberal, internationalist, post-Cold War order, which has extended its reach throughout the whole world barring a few socialist holdovers like Cuba and North Korea. Globalization, rule of law, human rights, liberal democracy, free markets, economic growth – these are its self-defined values, which it considers to be the apex of humanity’s socio-political evolution. Its critics, from Western leftists to Third World nationalists, decry it as an exploitative, ruinous, imperialist, hypocritical, end-of-history theology, with voluminous references to the inconsistent ways in which these values are practiced by their own sponsors, or wielded as weapons against its ideological and geopolitical competitors.

But these arguments will soon become academic. As demonstrated by Robert Ayres, there is a glaring hole at the center of modern macroeconomic theory – accounts of growth neglect the vital role of “useful work” (a function of exergy and technical efficiency), whose contribution far outweighs that of labor and capital combined. Both factors have been flattening in the US in recent years, making further growth unsustainable. Furthermore, studies in systems dynamics indicate that brittle systems, with poor “shock absorbers”, can be subject to so-called “cascade collapse“, in which failures at one node produce a self-amplifying resonance that causes many other nodes to fail. If this is an accurate description of the global System, then a setback in any one sphere – be it economic, financial, geopolitical, etc – could usher in a vicious spiral into anarchic apolarity on the international stage.

Pax Americana and its neoliberal ideological superstructure rests on three pillars: cheap oil, American dollars, and the US Navy. Like the legs of a tripod, they all survive – or fall – together. And today, they are crumbling. Let us examine the forces that will be undermining these pillars in the next decade:

Peak Oil

Contrary to the “doomer” worldview, it is almost certainly possible to sustain an industrial civilization without a drop of oil (though ceteris paribus it will be a materially poorer one, because of oil’s uniquely high EROEI). The problem is that today’s industrial system, especially in the US, is built in such a way – gas-guzzling SUV’s on asphalt roads slithering across endless vistas of soulless suburbia – that cheap oil is indispensable to making the commutes and credit flows, the jet flights and JIT production systems, function. An even bigger problem is that Hubbert’s predictions of a global oil peak are (roughly) on schedule: though delayed by the 1970′s oil shocks, it is likely that either 2008 or 2010 was the all-time peak, and oil production will now decline at an accelerating rate – even without accounting for possible discontinuities like a global credit implosion, a sudden collapse of Ghawar, the spread of revolution to Saudi Arabia, or Iranian mining of the Straits of Hormuz.

oil-production

[Source: World Oil Production Forecast - Update November 2009, Oil Drum. Click to enlarge.]

The US spent prodigious sums to fight a war to open up Iraq’s oil reserves, but today its oil production is no higher than in 2000 (and hopes of massively increasing it are probably unrealistic). Russia has reconsolidated state control over its hydrocarbon deposits, discounting Western recriminations over its “resource nationalism”, and has successfully pushed back against Washington-backed “color revolutions”. Central Asia never proved to be the black gold lode of American geostrategic fantasy, and in any case it has since been closed off again by Russia. Due to their immense capital costs, environmental impact, and low energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI), there can be no salvation in tar sands or shale. Nor have there been any efforts at mitigation of the kind recommended in the Hirsch report. Any energy transition will be a very drawn-out process, considering the sheer scale of the infrastructure that will have to be replaced – and using continuously lower-EROEI energy sources!

As such, it can be said with a high degree of certainty that the world will soon experience a severe shortfall in liquid fuels. Because of its high degree of dependence on cheap oil, this will affect the US disproportionately, which will have to make good with demand destruction. The consequences will include major knock-on effects on consumers, who constitute the mainstay of American economic power.

State Insolvency

The geological realities of peak oil (2005-2010), in combination with soaring demand from industrializing Asia, have led to the worst crisis since the Great Depression, with the free-fall only being checked by a dizzying panoply of monetary flooding, fiscal stimulus, and government bailouts. As if this weren’t enough, the US faces rising entitlements costs as the baby boomers start retiring, a bloated military-industrial complex, and increasing commitments to Afghanistan with no timetable in sight (where there are now more US troops than there were at the peak of the Soviet intervention).

us-budget-woes

[The US budget deficit is predicted to permanently remain in the red even under the rosiest assumptions. As of now, it is the more pessimistic scenarios that are being born out - Republican refusals to raise tax rates or cooperate on Medicare; Soviet-like rhetoric about "defense cuts" while real military spending continues rising; etc.]

Now the major reason why the US has been able to afford both guns (the US military) and butter (its double deficits) in the face of deindustrialization was by giving its many foreign investors an atrocious rate of return, which they accepted in return for America’s “alpha” – its reputation as the largest economy, sole superpower, and global financial center, in other words, the “safe haven” par excellence. It also draws immense strength from the US dollar’s role as the global reserve currency, for instance by allowing it to comfortably buy oil at $-denominated prices even when the currency is weak. But with its “imperial overstretch” (see Afghanistan), moribund financial system, and a budget deficit north of 10% of GDP and projected to remain in the red for the foreseeable future – by some measures, US debt and fiscal metrics are worse than those of the PIGS on aggregate – will this American “alpha” survive? Probably not for much longer.

The creeping monetization of US debt will destroy investor confidence that they will ever make a positive return on their US bond investment. The withdrawal of a single major investor, especially if it coincides with a geopolitical shock, could set off a “cascading collapse” as other investors scurry away from US Treasury bonds. This will leave the US incapable of generating the primary surpluses to service its negative net foreign investment position, leading either to a compound debt trap or a classic emerging market-style currency crisis. Ice or fire? Given America’s democratic system and the bipartisan consensus on fiscal profligacy, I would bet on the latter.

Economic Decline

The collapse of what in some respects resembles an informal tributary system, channeling global (i.e. Asian) savings to the American consumer, will sound the death knell for Pax Americana. As Paul Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, military power is ultimately subordinate to the economic base which supports it. The industrial base that won the Second World War and forged the American superpower has been in decline since the 1970′s – though on paper it boasted a high productivity growth rate, it masked a huge decline in the size and complexity of its “industrial ecosystem”. Mundane manufacturing, the automotive industry, and machine building have all experienced rapid decline; the heavily-subsidized aerospace and defense industries constitute the only major exceptions to this trend.

Now as long as globalization, free trade, and stability reigned, this did not portend international decline. Industrial hallowing out simply freed up workers into sectors that were more in demand, like restaurants, construction, services of all kinds, etc; and women gained many more economic opportunities. The US could get its manufactures from abroad, like Spain during its (literal) Golden Age. Furthermore, the transition from manufacturing to consumption and finance is historically not without precedents, being observed in the halcyon days of empires like Holland and Great Britain. After these former empires had established their initial industrial supremacy through mercantile means, they transitioned to free-trade regimes designed to reinforce their economic hegemony – and in so doing “kicked away the ladder” from countries trying to catch up. (The United States itself was one of the world’s most protectionist nations until the Second World War, at the end of which it accounted for half of global industrial output and drastically reduced tariff rates).

However, as pointed out above, the crumbling of two pillars of Pax Americana, cheap oil and the US dollar, makes the survival of today’s comfortable globalization highly unlikely. When the inflows of cheap credit from abroad cease; when oil flows decline due to geological, political, and geopolitical factors – the US will no longer be able to maintain its privileged position as the world’s “market dominant minority“, its overstretched armed forces will no longer have access to the lavish funding of the days of yore, and the neoliberal world order they upheld will come to an end.

Geopolitical Shocks

Facing the twinned specter of peak oil and fiscal insolvency and supported by an atrophied industrial base, Pax Americana could in fairness be described as a “brittle system” under a growing threat of collapse. Though it may yet fade away gradually into the night, to be slowly displaced by the state-centered, neo-Westphalian, mercantile reality of “world without the West“, it is altogether possible that geopolitical shocks will make the transition far more abrupt and chaotic than expected.

Though nothing’s certain, it is possible, likely even, that the biggest shock will emanate from a confrontation between Iran and the US in the Persian Gulf. Since 2005, the hardline IRGC paramilitary / intelligence clan, whose figurehead is Ahmadinejad), has been in the ascendant in Iran. Their power was further reinforced in 2009 when the Supreme Leader Khamenei sided with the IRGC in the aftermath of the abortive “Green Revolution” spearheaded by the waning “moderate” clerical clan (headed by Rafsanjani), in response to Mousavi’s electoral loss. These internal Iranian developments occurred in tandem with the rising tensions with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US over Iran’s pursuit of an nuclear bomb, amidst the window of opportunity left open to the Islamic Republic by the US quagmire in Iraq. Iran sees the Bomb as the best guarantor of regime security by allowing it to establish a regional hegemony in the Persian Gulf region.

This is unacceptable to everyone in the region. Israel views an Iranian bomb as an existential threat; Ahmadinejad expresses the opinion of 62% of Iranians when he says the Israel state should be wiped off the map. The Jewish state is now ruled by Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who in 2007 opined: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”. Not much room for compromise there. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, beset by Iranian-stoked ferment amongst their Shi’ite population and undermined by the Iran-backed al-Houthi insurrection on their Yemeni border, view the prospect of an Iranian bomb with similar trepidation. Though they will protest in public, they will be quite happy to see an Israeli-American strike on Iran; rumor has it that Saudi officials have given Israel permission to fly over their territory via backdoor diplomatic channels.

The US is hesitant. Striking Iran carries great risks. First, no matter how good and accurate your bombs are – the US has accelerated the development of a bunker-buster capable of penetrating 60m of reinforced concrete – they are only worth their weight if you know precisely where to strike. Iranian nuclear facilities are highly dispersed and concealed, making the extent of US intelligence on them uncertain. Second, Iran can mine the Strait of Hormuz and harass oil tankers with coastal shore batteries, diesel submarines, and merchant raiders. This will put at risk 20% of the global oil supply; even if the blockade proves ineffective, as predicted by most analysts, soaring insurance rates may result in oil prices spiraling into new highs due to unprecedentedly tight supplies. Third, the Islamic Republic has a panoply of retaliatory options at its disposal: a renewed Hezbollah missile barrage against Israel, increased support for Shi’ite insurgencies in the Arabian peninsula, and above all a resurgence of political violence and state instability in Iraq. As mentioned above, hopes have been pinned on Iraq to delay global peak oil by another decade. Yet it has always been a land of unfulfilled potential, its imminent oil production takeoff regularly stymied once per decade – in 1979 with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, in 1991 with the Gulf War, in 2003 with the US invasion. It would not be out of character for its oil production to plummet again in 2012, in the face of renewed internecine warfare, Iranian incursions, and mining of the Strait of Hormuz.

Given all these risks and uncertainties, it is not surprising that the US is pursuing a cautious approach, restraining Israel and pushing for “crippling” sanctions on Iran, targeting its gasoline imports. However, the latter will not achieve much, especially since Russia – which has not received the firm recognition of its sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space that it really wants from Washington – will be able to torpedo any sanctions by allowing Iran to import gasoline through its Central Asian surrogates. Israel may grow impatient and eventually jump the gun without US permission. But Iran will likely consider Israeli and US actions to have been coordinated, and will embark on its “Project Mayhem.” The US may be forced to rush in and respond unprepared to contain the fallout as best it could. Now it is true that alarmist predictions that the US Navy will be crippled by Iranian low-tech swarm attacks are largely unsubstantiated, and there is no question that the US will have no trouble in gaining full air superiority over the obsolete Iranian integrated air defense system. However, defeating Iran’s dispersed retaliatory assets in detail may be a difficult and prolonged undertaking, perhaps even requiring the military occupation of strategic Iranian regions such as Khuzestan and Kish Island.

The US finds itself caught in a Catch-22 situation. Let Iran be, and it develops a nuclear deterrent allowing it to make a bid for regional hegemony – if it is not preempted by an Israeli strike. Attack Iran, and needless to say, anything worse than the most optimistic scenarios (in which the Strait of Hormuz only remains blocked for a few days) will constitute a tremendous physical and psychological shock for Pax Americana, a shock in which all its three pillars come under strain in the form of oil supply disruptions, financial turbulence, and prolonged aeronaval operations.

Endgame

In conclusion, given the inherent fragility of the neoliberal world order and the mounting stresses on it in the years ahead, stresses that could be explosively released in a major geopolitical crisis – possible in Iran, though major clashes in other hotspots like the Caucasus or the East China Sea cannot be dismissed – it is unlikely that Pax Americana will survive the decade.

Yet its collapse will not herald a global collapse and a sudden descent into the Olduvai Gorge, for Pax Americana is ultimately just a subsystem of a larger system – that of global industrialism, the System that encompasses virtually the entire world, with the sole exception of hunter-gatherer remnants in the Amazonian fastnesses and a few mystical recluses. The American empire, much like the Soviet one, will retreat from globalist pretensions, while maintaining a continental hegemony. In the meantime, powered by domestic coal and a new kind of resource tributary system – one based on bilateral deals instead of open markets – China will be well on its world-historical “great reconvergence” with the West, making it the preeminent superpower of the age of scarcity industrialism.

The geopolitics of scarcity industrialism are the topic of the next monograph in this series.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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A year ago I predicted that there will be a “decoupling from the unwinding“, as “emerging markets” by and large ride out the temporary shocks of declining Western demand for their exports (China) and the interruption of Western credit intermediation (Russia) before resuming growth. This is one aspect of the trends leading to the imminent demise of Pax Americana, which will be replaced by “the age of scarcity industrialism” / “a world without the West“. We are now entering this Empire’s endgame.

After briefly stalling in early 2009, China’s economy roared back to life on the back of massive credit loosening to build (or overbuild) infrastructure and industrial capacity. Though not the most efficient use of resources, it did have the advantage of 1) maintaining growth, 2) forestalling the social unrest that would rise up if it wasn’t, and 3) at least Chinese investments went into building up their real economy (amongst other things, it became the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels in 2009), instead of the pork and oligarch welfare programs more characteristic of the US “stimulus”. And though Russia’s GDP contracted by 7.9% in 2009 – far higher than expected by most commentators, largely thanks to the dependence its big corporations acquired on continuous flows of intermediated Western credit – it began to slowly recover from mid-2009, industrial output is now rising at a fast clip, and investment banks are predicting growth of 4-6% for 2010. The other two BRIC’s, Brazil and India, didn’t have too many problems at all since they had neither a big credit nor trade dependence on the submerging Western markets.

In the long-term, I argued that the brunt of the crisis would fall on the “submerging” Anglo-Saxon markets, thanks to their “charades over “quantitative easing” (translation: printing money), transfer of toxic “assets” onto the public account”, and unsustainable fiscal stimuli. Today, the American political system is for all practical purposes broken. Republicans won’t agree to tax increases, Democrats won’t agree to cutting entitlement programs. The legislative process is reverting to that of the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when a single veto could (and did) prevent anything being agreed on in their Sejm, or parliament. (Hint: the ultimate consequences weren’t good for Poland).

The inflated hopes and expectations accompanying Obama’s accession to power were indeed, just as I suggested on his election, “greatly constrained by financial and institutional realities”. He is a weakling President, alternating between meaningless populist rhetoric and pandering to the Wall Street oligarchs; scorned by the left as Bush II with gloss, and condemned by the right as a foreign Marxist Islamofascist: his policies and outreaches failing at home and abroad, rejected in his own heartlands, these outcomes are engendered by and in large part made inevitable by his hopelessly pollyannish belief in his own messianic powers of compromise and persuasion.

If you think things look bad now, with the budget deficit at 10% of GDP for 2009 and a similar figure projected for 2010, don’t look at what awaits us in a few more years. The fiscal pressure is only going to increase as the baby boomers start retiring, and as long as the US remains a populist democracy the public will not allow it to cut entitlements (at least until China and the world’s oil exporters force it on them). For instance, the Congressional Budget Office believes that the US will never again run a balanced budget, and you can guess its consequences for American global power. Furthermore, this doesn’t take into account that 1) the vast majority of prior budget forecasts have been optimistic and 2) this assumes that none of the potential breaking-points that could doom Pax Americana (which I’ve identified as imperial overstretch, geopolitical shocks, and oil-credit perturbations caused by peak oil) come to pass.

As shown above, the US has had an almost continous budget deficit since the start of its “age of diminished expectations” in the 1970′s, funded by investors willing to buy up its Treasuries, accepting low returns in exchange for America’s perceived status as a “safe haven” (so-called “American alpha”). Yet with the American empire crumbling at the margins and their own most optimistic forecasts predicting a structural deficit into the foreseeable future, will investors continue buying up Treasuries – or will they turn to more promising emerging markets? Could it even be possible that the US is already in its imperial endgame, as argued by John Michael Greer?

A different reality pertains within the Washington DC beltway. Where states that fail to balance their budgets get their bond ratings cut and, in some cases, are having trouble finding buyers for their debt at less than usurious interest rates, the federal government seems to be able to defy the normal behavior of bond markets with impunity. Despite soaring deficits, not to mention a growing disinclination on the part of foreign governments to keep on financing the same, every new issuance of US treasury bills somehow finds buyers in such abundance that interest rates stay remarkably low. A few weeks ago, Tom Whipple of ASPO became the latest in a tolerably large number of perceptive observers who have pointed out that this makes sense only if the US government is surreptitiously buying its own debt.

The process works something like this. The Federal Reserve, which is not actually a government agency but a consortium of large banks working under a Federal charter, has the statutory right to mint money in the US. These days, that can be done by a few keystrokes on a computer, and another few keystrokes can transfer that money to any bank in the nation. Some of those banks use the money to buy up US treasury bills, probably by way of subsidiaries chartered in the Cayman Islands and the like, and these same off-book subsidiaries then stash the T-bills and keep them off the books. The money thus laundered finally arrives at the US treasury, where it gets spent.

It may be a bit more complex than that. Those huge sums of money voted by Congress to bail out the financial system may well have been diverted into this process – that would certainly explain why the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have stonewalled every attempt to trace exactly where all that money went. Friendly foreign governments may also have a hand in the process. One way or another, though, those of my readers who remember the financial engineering that got Enron its fifteen minutes of fame may find all this uncomfortably familiar – and it is. The world’s largest economy has become, in effect, the United States of Enron.

And it’s not only tree-hugging Druids that are raising the alarm. Niall Ferguson, court historian for Pax Americana, is also tolling the bell for its imminent demise on the pages of the Financial Times (A Greek crisis is coming to America).

What we in the western world are about to learn is that there is no such thing as a Keynesian free lunch. Deficits did not “save” us half so much as monetary policy – zero interest rates plus quantitative easing – did. First, the impact of government spending (the hallowed “multiplier”) has been much less than the proponents of stimulus hoped. Second, there is a good deal of “leakage” from open economies in a globalised world. Last, crucially, explosions of public debt incur bills that fall due much sooner than we expect. …

For the world’s biggest economy, the US, the day of reckoning still seems reassuringly remote. The worse things get in the eurozone, the more the US dollar rallies as nervous investors park their cash in the “safe haven” of American government debt. This effect may persist for some months, just as the dollar and Treasuries rallied in the depths of the banking panic in late 2008.

Yet even a casual look at the fiscal position of the federal government (not to mention the states) makes a nonsense of the phrase “safe haven”. US government debt is a safe haven the way Pearl Harbor was a safe haven in 1941. …

The International Monetary Fund recently published estimates of the fiscal adjustments developed economies would need to make to restore fiscal stability over the decade ahead. Worst were Japan and the UK (a fiscal tightening of 13 per cent of GDP). [AK: Yes, Britain is screwed. So is Japan]. Then came Ireland, Spain and Greece (9 per cent). [AK: The PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain are screwed too, especially Greece and Spain at this point]. And in sixth place? Step forward America, which would need to tighten fiscal policy by 8.8 per cent of GDP to satisfy the IMF.

Explosions of public debt hurt economies in the following way, as numerous empirical studies have shown. By raising fears of default and/or currency depreciation ahead of actual inflation, they push up real interest rates. Higher real rates, in turn, act as drag on growth, especially when the private sector is also heavily indebted – as is the case in most western economies, not least the US.

Although the US household savings rate has risen since the Great Recession began, it has not risen enough to absorb a trillion dollars of net Treasury issuance a year. Only two things have thus far stood between the US and higher bond yields: purchases of Treasuries (and mortgage-backed securities, which many sellers essentially swapped for Treasuries) by the Federal Reserve and reserve accumulation by the Chinese monetary authorities.

But now the Fed is phasing out such purchases and is expected to wind up quantitative easing. Meanwhile, the Chinese have sharply reduced their purchases of Treasuries from around 47 per cent of new issuance in 2006 to 20 per cent in 2008 to an estimated 5 per cent last year. Small wonder Morgan Stanley assumes that 10-year yields will rise from around 3.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent this year. On a gross federal debt fast approaching $15,000bn, that implies up to $300bn of extra interest payments – and you get up there pretty quickly with the average maturity of the debt now below 50 months. [AK: This refers to the dreaded "debt compound trap", in which the real costs of servicing debt spiral out of control and the only way out is restructuring (partial / negotiated default) or "monetization" of the debt (inflation). PS. The "debt trap" is essentially what brought down the regime of Louis XVI in 1789].

The Obama administration’s new budget blithely assumes real GDP growth of 3.6 per cent over the next five years, with inflation averaging 1.4 per cent. [AK: Ha!] But with rising real rates, growth might well be lower. Under those circumstances, interest payments could soar as a share of federal revenue – from a tenth to a fifth to a quarter.

Last week Moody’s Investors Service warned that the triple A credit rating of the US should not be taken for granted. That warning recalls Larry Summers’ killer question (posed before he returned to government): “How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?”

The US is a weakened skier and is now hurtling towards a rock-strewn double black for which it is not prepared in any way, shape, or form. But at least for now, its position looks stable – after all, it grew at an annualized 5.7% in Q4, 2009 (half due to inventories buildup). The same cannot be said of Greece and the Eurozone, which seem to be approaching a major crisis in mid-2010.

Afflicted with a dysfunctional political system and chronically unable to balance its budget (sound familiar?), yet without the manifold benefits of “American alpha”, Greece is facing a looming default propelled by a 13%-of-GDP budget deficit (even granting full benefit of the doubt to Greece’s dodgy statistics service), public debt at 113% of GDP (well above the 60% limit imposed by Maastricht), and draconian austerity plans that are politically unrealizable.

If Greece were to impose the draconian pay cuts under way in Ireland (5pc for lower state workers, rising to 20pc for bosses), it would deepen depression and cause tax revenues to collapse further. It is already too late for such crude policies. Greece is past the tipping point of a compound debt spiral. …

Remember, Athens holds the whip hand over Brussels, not the other way round. Greek exit from EMU would be dangerous. Quite apart from the instant contagion effects across Club Med and Eastern Europe, it would puncture the aura of manifest destiny that has driven EU integration for half a century. …

No doubt, EU institutions will rustle up a rescue. RBS says action by the European Central Bank may be “days away”. While the ECB may not bail out states, it may buy Greek bonds in the open market. EU states may club together to keep Greece afloat with loans for a while. That solves nothing. It increases Greece’s debt, drawing out the agony. What Greece needs – unless it leaves EMU – is a permanent subsidy from the North. Spain and Portugal will need help too.

The danger point for Greece will come when the Pfennig drops in Berlin that EMU divergence between North and South has widened to such a point that the system will break up unless: either Germany tolerates inflation of 4pc or 5pc to prevent Club Med tipping into debt deflation; or it pays welfare transfers to the South (not loans) equal to East German subsidies after reunification.

Before we blame Greece for making a hash of the euro, let us not forget how we got here. EMU lured Club Med into a trap. Interest rates were too low for Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, causing them all to be engulfed in a destructive property and wage boom. The ECB was complicit. It breached its inflation and M3 money target repeatedly in order to nurse Germany through slump. ECB rates were 2pc until December 2005. This was poison for overheating Southern states.

And according to Stratfor:

The crisis is rooted in Europe’s greatest success: the Maastricht Treaty and the monetary union the treaty spawned epitomized by the euro. Everyone participating in the euro won by merging their currencies. Germany received full, direct and currency-risk-free access to the markets of all its euro partners. In the years since, Germany’s brutal efficiency has permitted its exports to increase steadily both as a share of total European consumption and as a share of European exports to the wider world. Conversely, the eurozone’s smaller and/or poorer members gained access to Germany’s low interest rates and high credit rating. And the last bit is what spawned the current problem.

Greece now has the following choices:

1) Balance the budget. To do this Greece would have to cut its government spending by as much as half, resulting in sky-rocketing unemployment (20%+) and severe social unrest. Greeks are volatile, not like disciplined Germans or apathetic Latvians.

2) Leave the EMU. And print a New Drachma to inflate away its debt into oblivion, as was once typical for the Med nations. But then it would lose its geopolitical anchor in Europe and lose access to any further foreign investor money. According to Willem Buiter, this isn’t too likely.

Would a eurozone national government faced either with the looming threat of default or with the reality of a default be incentivised to leave the eurozone? Consider the example of a hypothetical country called Hellas. It could not redenominate its existing stock of euro-denominated obligations in its new currency, let’s call it the New Drachma. That itself would constitute a further act of default. If the New Drachma depreciated sharply against the euro, in both nominal and real terms, following the exit of Hellas from the eurozone, the real value of the government debt-to-GDP ratio would rise. In addition, any new funding through the issuance of New Drachma-denominated sovereign bonds would be subject to an exchange rate risk premium, and these bonds would have to be sold in markets that are less deep and liquid that the market for euro-denominated Hellas debt used to be. So the sovereign eurozone quitter and all who sail in her would be clobbered as regards borrowing costs both on the outstanding stock and on the new flows.

A sharp depreciation of the nominal exchange rate of the New Drachma vis-a-vis the euro would for a short period improve the competitive position of the nation because, with domestic costs and prices sticky in nominal New Drachma terms, a nominal depreciation is also a real depreciation. Nominal rigidities are, however, less important for eurozone economies than for the UK, and much less important than in the US. Real rigidities are what characterises mythical Hellas, as it does real-world Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. The real benefits from a nominal exchange rate depreciation would be eroded after a year – within two years at most – before you could say cyclical recovery. The New Drachma would be a little currency in a big global financial market system – not an instrument to be used to gain competitive advantage or to respond efficiently to asymmetric shocks, but a source of extraneous noise, excess volatility and persistent misalignments, rather like sterling.

A eurozone member state faced with the prospect of sovereign default, or just having suffered the indignity of sovereign default, would be immensely relieved to be a member of the eurozone. The last thing it would want to do is give up the financial shelter provided by membership in the eurozone to try and emulate Iceland, New Zealand or the UK.

3) Old-school default. And be shunned by the rest of Europe. Though threatening to blow up the bomb is to Greece’s advantage, since this will shift the burden to…

Europe – or precisely, Germany – having to make their choice.

1) Let them burn. Germany is getting impatient of being used as Europe’s cash cow for the past 60 years, and may simply tell Greece to deal with it herself. This will likely lead to spiraling debt service costs, fiscal-social-political breakdown, and heightened borrowing costs for the other PIIGS, maybe even a “cascading collapse” of Europe’s entire southern periphery (in the most extreme case, even Belgium and France would be threatened). This would finish off the EU as a meaningful institution, and with it will go the main vehice through which Germany and France wield power at a global level.

2) Berlin bails out Greece. Involves a different set of problems. A straight-out bailout will invite moral hazard and political dissatisfaction amongst the German electorate, who have had their wages constrained for years while the PIIGS wallowed in their bubbles. But all in all, preferable to the above scenario, or the prospect of a spreading crisis of confidence also forcing Germany to bail out Italy, Spain, or even France, all of whom have far bigger borrowing needs (and for which even Germany doesn’t have the resources). Therefore, Germany will probably lead an EU bailout of Greece (even though there is no formal mechanism for doing so) – but in exchange, it will want major political concessions.

But the days of no-strings-attached financial assistance from Germany are over. If Germany is going to do this, there will no longer be anything “implied” or “assumed” about German control of the European Central Bank and the eurozone. The control will become reality, and that control will have consequences. For all intents and purposes, Germany will run the fiscal policies of peripheral member states that have proved they are not up to the task of doing so on their own. To accept anything less intrusive would end with Germany becoming responsible for bailing out everyone.

Granted, at the moment the EU is stalling, not making any commitments; not surprising, given the cluttered and unwieldy talking shop that it is. But as Greece’s bond auctions (almost certainly) fail over the next few months to meet its soaring debt financing commitments, and as it falls into its debt compound trap, the fiscally secure nations – that is, primarily Germany – will realize the dangers of allowing the contagion to spread. And Germany in particular will see a chance to regain the sphere of influence over Mitteleuropa denied it since the Second World War.

Either way, in 2010 the EU institutions are going to be sidelined in favor of more workable, bilateral relations – especially between the Franco-German core and the weakening peripheries. The way will be opened for the return of Great Power politics to the European continent.

Looking further ahead, within a year the US will again enter a state of crisis. Based on Obama’s low popularity at the end of his first year (is he going to set a time record for failed Presidency?) and his loss of Massachusetts (!) to the Republicans, the political gridlock will only harden. As I forecast last September, “the feds will face challenges from the far-left (new Huey Long’s, anarchism, etc) and the far-right (demands for more state rights, anti-tax movements, “American reactionary patriots”, etc)” – though right now, the far-right movements appear to be the more powerful emerging faction (see the grassroots appeal of the reactionary, back-to-the-18th-century Tea Partiers, who in an electoral contest would now garner 17% of the vote – is the US finally going to see a powerful 3rd party?). PS. American corporations can now legally buy themselves political parties.

Second, in addition to the political problem, there will be a renewed economic and credit problem as the Second Wave of the Housing Crisis engulfs the nation because of rising defaults from adjustable-rate mortgages, many of which will be coming due by 2011.

And this brings us to a third problem, a renewed banking crisis. But this time, instead of withdrawing from emerging markets to the “safe haven” of the US, the banks will instead invest more into promising emerging markets (e.g. the BRIC’s) and commodity speculation (see peak oil), while divulging their US holdings and triggering capital flight. This will compount the political and economic problems, as America’s “rootless cosmopolitans” / financial and their political flunkies come under fire from both the far-left and right-wing producerist reactionaries.

Then there’s the fourth problem – peak oil. World oil production capacity may have peaked in 2010, and projections indicate that 2012 will see an accelerating downslide. This time there will be a both severe credit contraction, far exceeding the one in 2008-2009 (because this time capital will be fleeing the US) and soaring oil prices. The American consumer will live through a far more severe retrenchment than in 2007-2009, starting in 2011. The entailing fall in consumption will further reinforce the banking crisis, the wider economic crisis, and the political crisis. By this point, the “Tea Party”-Republican candidate may be well ahead of Obama, who by this point is utterly discredited.

Now what should Obama do? Note that by this time the Iran crisis will be coming to a head. Sanctions will have failed (China and Russia will see no reason to cooperate seriously). Israel will be getting extremely restless, since it treats the Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat. And Obama may well come to view a decisive resolution of the Iran issue as the only road still left open to him to claw back domestic and international legitimacy. However, Iran likely has the capability to block the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers for several weeks using mines and anti-ship missiles. 20% of the world’s oil shipments pass through those narrow Straits. Needless to say, in a world entering the downslope of Hubbert’s peak, any disruption to global oil supplies will have tremendous, chaotic repercussions – economic, financial, political, and geopolitical – that we have no way of predicting in advance.

In conclusion, Pax Americana is going to face a series of severe crises in the next three to five years (and not only its lynchpin, the US). The European crisis, linked to the Med credit bubbles, is leading to the slow unraveling of the EU’s legitimacy in favor of its core states, France and especially Germany. It will come to a head in the next few months. Japan is facing an irredeemable fiscal and debt crisis, which will explode in the next few years: eventually, it will likely bandwagon with China (leveraging its technological base to gain favorable access to China’s markets and labor force) and ditch its post-1990 turn towards neoliberalism, which was never suited for the Japanese mentality anyway, in favor of Asian socialism.

Finally, the US itself will face a panoply of challenges – fiscal profligacy (stemming from its belief that it can have both guns & butter on a shrinking industrial base), imperial overstretch (Afghanistan, Iraq), political dysfunction, a new housing, credit, and economic crisis, soaring energy prices (disastrous for suburbia), and geopolitical challenges (Iran, China, Russia). It can deal with any one of them, but I can see no way how it would be able to deal with all of them coming within a few years of each other. The consequences?

Namely, there will be a partial collapse of legitimacy in the government; the feds will face challenges from the far-left (new Huey Long’s, anarchism, etc) and the far-right (demands for more state rights, anti-tax movements, “American reactionary patriots”, etc); fertility will collapse from the current replacement-level rates to around 1.3-1.7, as welfare shrinks and the utility of having children for the very poor, currently the most fecund social group, drops; crime will increase, etc. Yet within a decade a new social order will gradually emerge, probably fiscally and socially conservative and more authoritarian than the current one, and with it a new equilibrium will slowly, painfully come into being.

However, the US will almost certainly remain a Great Power. I certainly do not see it collapsing into separate states or regions, as dreamt of by the likes of Igor Panarin or Gerald Celente. In some ways, by casting aside its global imperial shell, it will actually become stronger – it will no longer be weighed down by the burden of global empire, and can focus on other activities the more effectively, such as reconstructing its industrial base and reinforcing its neo-colonial sphere around North America, the Carribbean, and perhaps Central America / Venezuela. Whatever form America’s new political economy takes (something resembling Putinism?, or maybe Chavismo?), it will likely be far better suited for the coming age of scarcity industrialism (characterized by economic statism, Realpolitik, and mercantile trade relations), than the crumbling colossus that is today’s Pax Americana.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As a follow-up to my article on the historical necessity of Green Communism, I would like to 1) refute some common myths and misconceptions about limits to growth-induced collapse, 2) clarify the concept of Green Communism, and 3) elucidate why the only realistic way to prevent collapse now is to force through a “sustainable retreat” by an “ecotechnic dictatorship”.

Let’s take as a starting point our current situation. From the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, calculations indicate that humanity exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. Fossil fuel resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate, producing an increase in what William Catton called the “phantom carrying capacity“, which now supports many of the Earth’s surplus billions. However, should the energy base becomes too weak to sustain this phantom carrying capacity, there will be a catastrophic fall of the human population as the Earth system snaps back into equilibrium, producing a massive Malthusian dieoff. The recent peaking of world oil production and accelerated Arctic methane release are but the early portents of hard limits to growth on our finite planet.

We are in a predicament, dependent on an industrial Machine whose insatiable appetite for ever higher levels of material throughput will eventually doom us all. A Machine and its brother, Mammon, with whom we have made a Faustian bargain. We have to somehow wriggle out of this physical and spiritual dependency on our industrial Mephistopheles to avert a collapse of industrial civilization by 2050, but continued dithering and denial makes the changes required ever more drastic year by year. Had the world begun the transition to sustainability in the 1970′s, a great deal of personal freedom and private affluence could have been preserved; as of today, it looks ever likelier than only a Leviathan invested with total power over society can haul us back from the brink of the Olduvai Gorge.

The Necessity of Green Communism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

The world’s industrial infrastructure and services run on cheap fossil fuels and electricity (much of which is derived from hydrocarbons). Past global energy transitions, such as the one from biomass to coal, took 50 years to accomplish. It is not unreasonable to expect a similar timescale for the hydrocarbons to renewables transition, especially since unlike in the past we will be shifting towards energy sources with lower EROEI’s and lower energy and power densities. At the same time, we will have to deal with the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which seems to exhibit more signs of veering out of control with every passing year.

In the face of these challenges to industrial civilization, the world system may continue on one of the following three paths: 1) business as usual, 2) limits to growth, and 3) sustainable retreat. The rough shape of humanity’s ecological footprint trajectories are summarized for each scenario in the graph below, where 100 is a rough estimate for the carrying capacity of the Earth in 1960.

My vision of three possible future overshoot scenarios.


Business as Usual, or “Fantasy”

The miraculous discovery of a new energy source, embodied in the element unobtainium, enabled an uninterrupted continuation of economic progress. Energy researchers all over the world slapped their balding heads in frustration in 2012 for not discovering this energy source earlier, an energy source that was non-polluting, present throughout the world’s oceans, and very easy to extract and exploit. Just a few years later world governments embarked on a geoengineering scheme to create a cloud of self-assembling nanobots, designed to cleanse up the surplus atmospheric CO2 back to its pre-industrial levels, and hopefully not turn the world’s biosphere into “grey goo” in the process.

By the time they got ready to get going with this in 2025, to their happiness they discovered it wasn’t even necessary. Just a few days before the nanobots were due to be unleashed, the theory of anthropogenic global warming was finally exposed as a massive hoax invented by Al Gore to further his megalomaniac plans for global totalitarian socialism. In an interview, the UN climate panel’s chairman admitted, “I am deeply ashamed for having perpetuated such a massive fraud on the governments of the world”. Al Gore himself couldn’t be found for comment, the conman having been raptured into the technological singularity hours before the scandal broke.

Limits to Growth, or “Reality”

Though business-as-usual cornucopia sounds like a good plot for a literary homage to Michael Crichton, few informed people can seriously believe that technology and markets by themselves will enable us to extend our Faustian bargain with the Machine long enough to cheat Gaia when she comes to collect. The likeliest outcome of business-as-usual hubris is a flattening plateau, following by a global, cliff-like collapse in human numbers, technology, and socio-political complexity. There are four major sources of evidence for holding this theoretical viewpoint.

1) Limits to Growth. According to the findings of the widely-publicized 1972 study by the Club of Rome, exponential growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, even when markets and technological growth are accounted for. The results of the “standard run” of their World3 model contained in the 2004 updated version of the study are reproduced below. Crushed between the Scylla of resource depletion and the Charybdis of pollution overload, collapse occurs within the first half of the 21st century.

The Limits to Growth standard run leads to collapse early in the 21st century.

A recent report by Graham Turner of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, showed that world system dynamics in the post-1972 era closely tracked the forecasts of the Limits to Growth standard run. Not good.

2) Resource Depletion. In support of the theory that the world will experience severe problems with energy are depletion studies of the three major fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal. Let’s summarize each one.

Peak oil was most likely reached in 2008, and from 2011 depletion will decisively overtake new fields coming offline – most of which will be located in remote locations like deep offshore or the Arctic, and will require huge investments for exploitation to begin. Natural gas will peak by 2030, but its decline profile will be much steeper than for oil; however, there are hopes of prolonging the gas age by exploiting shale gas and coal seam gas. Finally, although on paper coal reserves should last centuries, the bulk of the deposits are very low EROEI and may even require more energy to extract than they will ever produce through combustion. It should be noted that even though US coal extraction by volume has seen continued increasing uninterrupted in recent years, when measured by total energy it peaked in 1998, and has since been on a slow downslope. Finally, tar sands, oil shale, and other unconventional sources of oil require a phenomenal amount of fresh water and natural gas to extract, they are extremely polluting, and have a very low EROEI; it is completely unfeasible that they will make good the gap.

Paul Cherfurka’s projections of future global energy usage by source.

Could renewables save us? Solar PV is improving rapidly, but it starts from an extremely low base. Wind power is already well established, but there are serious questions over its real EROEI level – can industrial civilization be run on wind, or is its real inefficiency masked over by the prior cheap oil subsidies used in the making of wind turbines? Yet the crucial problem facing wind and solar are their low energy and power densities, which makes them unsuitable for providing the base load that a stable electricity supply demands. The only real hope is to massively expand next-generation nuclear reactor construction, in conjunction with other renewables. However, this will take a intense effort spread over decades, and it is not clear that this effort will be sustained as the system comes under assault from ever fiercer energy and climate shocks – and that’s assuming uranium extraction remains profitable in net energy terms.

In conclusion, the evidence indicates that from 2030, the net energy available to industrial civilization will begin to decline; furthermore, due to diminishing marginal returns, by that time there will be little scope for more efficiency improvements. This lends support to the Limits to Growth standard run model that industrialism will decline by the first half of the 21st century due to resource shortages.

3) Tainter on diminishing returns to complexity. In his celebrated work on The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter posits that societies increase their complexity in order to solve certain problems. For instance, one of the major reasons behind the formation of the Chinese state was its provision of a bureaucratic-administrative mechanism for implementing irrigation and flood control works, which increased the carrying capacity of the land. Unfortunately, the flip side is that societies need to expend ever more organizational and physical energy to maintain a certain level of complexity, a complexity which is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Eventually, this expenditure undermines the society’s economic base and opens up a large potential gap where said society could reap the same benefits but at a lower level of complexity (and cost). At that point, there arises the risk of collapse.

Tainter’s collapse model: at C3-B1, there appears a risk of collapse back down to C1-B1, at which point “hypertrophied states” tend to use coercive tools to try to prevent this from happening.

Civilization reaches its absolute peak of power, health, well-being, etc, at C2-B2. When it begins to run up against problems, the typical reaction is to continue increasing complexity, even though marginal costs now exceed marginal benefits. At C3-B1, there appears an appreciable risk of catastrophic collapse back down to C1-B1, because at that point people would retain the same benefits but at a much lower cost. Furthermore, by this point a civilization’s natural legitimization mechanism, economic growth, will have long since failed; more artificial forms of legitimization have to be found (e.g. the idea that the Empire is sanctioned by God), as well as ever higher levels of physical coercion (e.g. the security forces, authoritarianism) – for instance, the Western Roman Empire adopted Christianity and experienced its highest levels of militarization just a century or so before its final collapse in 476 AD.

In addition to society’s tendencies to try solving its predicaments with the failing tools of the past (ever more complexity), in systems characterized by competitive peer polities, such as our own anarchic international system, there is a further reason for maintaining complexity – anyone who doesn’t can’t support an army, and those who don’t have armies get conquered for their resources. In these systems, organizational complexity is maintained absolutely regardless of costs, and the extractions necessary to sustain it are legitimized by the fact that every other state within this system is doing the same thing. Only when every unit of the system reaches economic exhaustion does the resulting power vacuum finally allow for a rapid, global collapse. A collapse more reminiscent of the relatively rapid fall of Mayan civilization, than of the Roman Empire’s slow decline over the centuries.

The Limits to Growth model has to be updated to reflect these political and geopolitical feedback loops. The likely result is that the increasingly authoritarian, “hypertrophied states” of future decades, locked in deadly competition over each for resources, will stretch out the smooth peaks shown in the Limits to Growth standard run into decades long plateaus, as shown in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”. However, when collapse does finally come, it will be far, far steeper than it would have in a world without politics. The artificial prolongation of industrial civilization will result in an explosive closing of the awning “potential gap” on the complexity graph, plunging the world into famine, anarchy, and dieoff.

4) Cliodynamics. Another valuable analytical tool is the recently-developed science of “cliodynamics“, which attempts to mathematize “big history” by modeling the systems dynamics of the rise and fall of civilizations. In particular, its insights can teach us a great deal about the nature of Malthusian stress and political-demographic collapse.

Here is the basic story. Over millennial timescales, technological growth produced a secular rise in the carrying capacity of the land, which allowed the human population to grow to its current seven billions. However, over shorter timescales the Malthusian tendency for populations to grow faster than technology or the increase in carrying capacity typically resulted in diminishing per capita surpluses and a plateauing of the population. The system became fragile, as surplus stocks accumulated during the “Golden Ages” of plenty were drawn down, and climatic, political, and geopolitical perturbations during the stagnation resulted in sharp dips into dearth. During these times of dearth, peasants began to turn to banditry, producing rising internal violence in the countryside, which forced other peasants into the cities and further decreases food production. Faced with their own shortages, elite predation also grew, further squeezing the peasantry.

Eventually, a “tipping point” was reached, in which elite predation, internal violence, and depreciation of carrying-capacity improvements (e.g. roads, canals, grain silos, redistribution mechanisms, irrigation works, etc) became self-sustaining and spiraled out of control. In the ensuing “cascading collapse”, the central state withered away into a patchwork quilt of warring fiefdoms, and the drastic reduction in the carrying capacity of the land resulted biblical-scale Malthusian dieoffs. However, as soon as the violence died down, the population was found to be far below the carrying capacity of the land, and there was a new “Golden Age” of growth until it once again bumped up against the plateau of carrying capacity. This explains the basic mechanism of pre-industrial Malthusian political-demographic cycles.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Now Korotayev et al (the cliodynamicians) believe that ever since the industrial revolution, technological growth has reached such great velocities that the increases in carrying capacity accruing from it now far surpass any Malthusian pressures. According to them, the era of cyclical collapses is now at an end. However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization. But their greatest omission is that much of the post-1900 increase in carrying capacity has come not from technological growth, but from the technologically-enabled exploitation of the high-EROEI hydrocarbon “resource windfall” – oil, coal, and natural gas. Once these resources become scarce again, the technology used to exploit them will become as chimerical as the fossil fuel-powered machines and phantom carrying capacity they once supported.

The end result will be similar to the same Malthusian-era collapses analyzed by the cliodynamicians. An era in which surplus per capita draws to the level necessary for mere subsistence, characterized by dearth and famine in the bad years, and limited recoveries in the good years; a plateau that increasingly slopes down, until a series of severe perturbations (climatic disasters, resource wars, etc) so disturbs the world system that negative feedback loops take over and the entire system collapses into a prolonged Dark Age.

In conclusion, drawing on the theoretical works of systems modelers (Limits to Growth), energy modelers, collapse theorists (Tainter), and modern cliodynamicians (Korotayev, Turchin, Nefedov, Khaltourina, etc), we can paint a general outline of the next 50 years. Ever more human effort will be mobilized or requisitioned by ever more coercive “hypertrophied states” to compensate for the effects of declining emergy availability (peak oil, exploitation of lower-EROEI energy sources, diminishing returns to energy efficiency, and the effects of credit collapse, resource nationalism, and geopolitics), falling agricultural productivity (fertilizer shortages, heatwaves, rivers and fossil aquifers running dry, rising sea levels inundating coastal farmlands, etc), and other costs accruing from exponentially rising climate chaos.

Those regions which collapse first, nowadays called “failed states”, will be taken over by neo-colonial industrial powers to contain the chaos and acquire resources to buy just a little more time for their industrial civilization. Physical output will plateau and stagnate, while real living standards begin to degrade at an accelerating rate. Eventually, a series of shocks – climate catastrophes like the conflagration of the Amazon or a “hydroxyl collapse”, poor harvests resulting in global famine and pestilence, perhaps even a final, total war of late global industrialism – will finally make the Machine give up the ghost. The collapse of fossil fuel availability will render usless most modern technology, everything from microchips to electric cars and photovoltaic panels. This will result in a political-demographic collapse of unparalleled severity that reduces the human population to below one billion souls within a few decades, ushering in a post-industrial “Rust Age” on a polluted, desertifying, and drowning planet.

The "Rust Age", or "age of salvage" (M. J. Greer).

The “Rust Age”, or “age of salvage” (M. J. Greer).


Sustainable Retreat, or “Green Communism”

As shown above, business-as-usual will be anything but usual, and will almost certainly lead to impoverishment, oppression, totalitarianism, wars, and eventual global dieoff. There is still however a path out, should we choose to take it – a global “sustainable retreat” to below the limits, which if accomplished within the next generation could still stave off collapse and allow us to continue with the development of a truly sustainable civilization, one based not on growth of physical output and consumerism, but on intellectual, cultural, and spiritual self-actualization. This ideal or utopia I shall call Green Communism, a scientific fantasy in which man reaches reconciliation with Gaia, socio-economic classes disappear, and the coercive state itself withers away into oblivion.

However, Green Communism cannot be attained while human psychology remains myopic, short-sighted, competitive, and individualistic; nor is any such transition possible while the world is in overshoot and increasingly hemmed in by limits to growth. As such, a transitory period is required – an “ecotechnic dictatorship” that would concentrate onto itself the political legitimacy and coercive tools to force the world back onto a sustainable path. But first, to forestall the inevitable criticisms and condemnations, I must point out why alternative roads to the sustainable transition are no longer viable, even if they ever were in the first place.

1) The Anarchist Delusion. Disillusioned with the “System” – states, corporations, etc – many “peakists”, “doomers”, survivalists, etc, advocate community-based retreat on a spectrum ranging from weed-smoking “hippies” teaching themselves organic permaculture to “frugal patriots” holing up in their Idaho “doomsteads” with prodigious quantities of canned food and firearms. However, very few of them have truly broken off the ties that bind to industrial civilization; learning to survive on sustenance agriculture in true pre-industrial fashion is very, very hard work, and almost no-one has the will and perseverance to follow through.

Furthermore, they will receive a rude awakening in the coming era of limits to growth-induced authoritarianism and collapse. Governments don’t like anarchists, especially nasty ones. Period. One of my critics tried to prove an anarchic lifestyle works by posting a Wikipedia link to a “list of anarchist communities“. But on closer examination, practically all their modern manifestations collapsed within just a few years, either from internal causes or due to state suppression.

Perhaps the anarchists will “band together” to protect themselves, he went on to suggest? Will there be enough of them to keep the warlords away? That would certainly be a good idea as the government’s writ collapses and rural violence soars. However, one very important thing is that “bandits” are so-called violence-specialists; it is what they do, their profession. For a settled anarchist community, it will be difficult in the extreme to muster the economic, administrative, and military capabilities to successfully accomplish all three of the following necessary tasks for surviving in an anarchic environment: 1) producing enough food and goods for community subsistence, 2) managing internal conflicts, and 3) defending themselves from the bandits, psychos, and warlords. Drawing resources from one task will undermine the likelihood of fulfilling another. In practice, what will almost certainly happen is that either the anarchist communities begin paying tribute / protection money to the warlords (thus creating a dependency through which they can later be brought to heel), or they find it more profitable to become warlords themselves. After all, the first kings and nobles were all essentially just the most successful racketeers!

Yet the most essential feature of the anarchist delusion isn’t even their belief that they can make it on their own, but that the state is dispensable, unnecessary, and even harmful to the human enterprise. From the same poster: “What problems has the state solved that weren’t caused by the existence of states?”

The fundamental predicament (not problem) of most biological life-forms is their tendency to overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. One of the most powerful theories for the rise of the state was its capacity to raise the carrying capacity of the land, which postponed overshoot and collapse, and in general made state-centered societies far more powerful than the hunter-gatherer tribes that they displaced.

Now let’s turn to today’s reality. If all states were to magically vanish right now, so would the administrative and coercive tools to sustain global industrialism. Soon afterwards, the underlying carrying capacity-enhancing infrastructure such as the global oil industry, fertilizer production, cybernetics, etc, would depreciate into irrelevance from lack of maintenance. Anarchy will reign and the global population will plummet back down to the few millions of people that primitive technology and band-like social organization could support. You may dismiss or despise the hand of the state that feeds you, but you will likely sing a different tune when it withers away into your anarchic paradise.

2) Why Individual and Community Retreats are no Real Solution. Another strand of the anarchist delusion is that since collapse is unavoidable, it is best to retreat from the System while you can, pay off your debts, cut the ties that bind, etc. But quite apart from the implicit resignation to the inevitability of the untimely deaths of billions of people, it cannot be stressed enough that any collapse today will be global (see Tainter above), and the chaotic fluxes it produces will be so violent than any community, no matter how prepared or resilient, could be casually swept away by the tidal waves it would generate.

I do not deny that it pays to get personally and psychologically prepared for collapse, but this must be part and parcel of a multi-pronged political effort to avert collapse if possible, and dampen its severity should avoidance prove impossible. The idea that you can hole up in a doomstead and survive against the imminent zombie hordes is particularly inane (read the War Nerd‘s entertaining essay Apocalypse Never to find out why). Finally, defeatist notions of the inevitability of collapse – such as those advanced by Dmitry Orlov, who is strongly opposed to all forms of political activism – are in many ways as counter-productive as the mindless business-as-usual mentality of modern society.

The traditional American focus on individualism and self-reliance only worked in the age of abundance which characterized their entire history (the US GDP has been higher at the end of every decade than at the beginning since its founding). This era is at end and will never return. This will be a major shock for Americans, more so than for most people whose memories of cyclical and Malthusian dynamics are more recent, but they will all have to get used to it.

3) The Gramscian Road to Green Communism will take too long. Say what you will about them, but at least the Green Party has a political plan for a sustainable future. This plan involves changing society’s core values to embrace concepts such as “ecological wisdom” and “community-based economics”, through means of grassroots political action and infiltration of key political and economic institutions. Hopefully this will displace the pro-growth bipartisan consensus and enable the democratic enactment of policies that will steer the world back towards sustainability.

As I argued in Roads to Green Communism, however, this “soft” approach to the sustainability transition is doomed to failure. Guilt-ridden liberals may be moved to make $10 donations to Greenpeace or boycott electricity consumption for a grand total of one hour per year (on the so-called “Earth Hour”), but this will not be enough to persuade them to make real sacrifices. It gives me no joy to say this, but the hard truth is that left to themselves, free from coercion either by their peers or by the Leviathan of the state, even enlightened individuals will not take anything more than symbolic steps to reduce their ecological footprint.

Why? All humans are prone to a psychological blindsight called “creeping normalcy”, or what Jared Diamond in his book Collapse calls “landscape amnesia”. This describes a process in which slow, detrimental changes to the environment go unnoticed by the general population because of their slowness and gradualism, but whose eventual accumulated impact becomes devastating. One tragic example would be the Easter Islanders who chopped down all their trees, accelerating the tempo in the last decades of their pre-collapse civilization in order to construct ever bigger moai (statues) to honor the gods that legitimized the tribal chieftains who ruled over them. Human psychology reacts well to immediate threats, but when they are far-off and abstract – such as the declining EROEI of energy sources of climate change – mobilization is much more difficult. As the biggest McMansions and tallest skyscrapers have been erected in the present era of peak oil, there is nothing to suggest that modern civilization is any wiser than the Easter Islanders.

As of now, changing this psychology quickly will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the Soviet Union, it took around two generations to transform the bulk of society from having a traditionalist-peasant worldview, to an urban-secular one – and this despite uninterrupted state propaganda and coercion. Today, even most educated people see the green movement as a bit weird and extremist, if not as evil socialists planning to enslave the world. And we certainly don’t have even a single generation to wait, let alone two. Gradualism is not a solution, it is suicide.

4) Our current System is blinded by Institutional Myopia. Could the current System bail us all out, like it did the politically connected Wall Street oligarchs? Almost certainly not.

Modern society is run by experts and technocrats, if indirectly (their recommendations have to be balanced against corporate interests and the popular will, which is what politicians are there for). However, those same experts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are meaningless buzzwords and Orwellian oxymorons like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, and “clean coal”; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking inconvenient questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm.

Incidentally, this very omnipresence of this System will doom the Gramscian and anarchist approaches. For when systems come under strain, they tend to rigidify, to revert to authoritarian conservatism, and free thinkers – the only people who have any chance of averting socio-political collapse by “scanning” an innovative solution to the problem – are scapegoated as a divisive enemy by the angry, confused masses, and repressed by the coercive “hypertrophied state”, which for all its authoritarianism is a fragile, populist creature that appeases society on the easiest matters (such as repressing the powerless). From Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

Even the intensified legitimization of the “hypertrophied state” vanishes, as do the coercive tools that kept it together well past the point when it should have naturally collapsed. Science and rationalism retreat, and its former agents – intellectuals, priests, tax collectors, etc – are liquidated, as the Sun dawns over a new Dark Age.

5) Technological Singularity as a Road to Green Communism? As Good wrote in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Hence, as soon as humanity and its technologies become obsolete, the biosphere’s limits to growth will become equally irrelevant to the future of intelligent life on Earth. If we manage to hold on long enough to unleash this technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, and the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön. Fully freed from material constraints, humanity will be able to build the purest forms of Green Communism… should it wish to.

There is one problem, however – industrial civilization may not survive long enough to catapult itself out of overshoot. For the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and the Limits to Growth proponents tend to place their respective events – Singularity and civilizational collapse – in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

This may be the last answer industrial civilization will find out.

The Necessity of Ecotechnic Dictatorship to Force a Retreat from Collapse

In his excellent book “Our Ecotechnic Future“, Michael John Greer outlined his thoughts on the future of our civilization, which he saw as going through the following four stages: 1) “abundance industrialism” (1950-2010), 2) “scarcity industrialism” (2010-2050?), or the plateau on my “World Overshoot Scenarios” graph characterized by rising coercion, impoverishment, and resource wars, 3) the “age of salvage” (2050?-2250?), in which civilization scavenges the detritus of late industrialism to sustain a very low-level, primitive industrial system, and 4) the “ecotechnic future”, in which post-industrial technologies in spheres like renewable energy or biotechnology, scarcely-conceivable today, may reset the world on a path of truly sustainable development in harmony with Gaia. Such an ecotechnic age will be close to the Green Communist ideal.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na'vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to "network" itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na’vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to “network” itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

However, is it really necessary to endure a catastrophic human dieoff and a centuries-long wait for the sustainable transition to Green Communism that may not even come about? Or perhaps there is still a chance, however slight, of effecting such a transition through a sustainable retreat starting from today, as shown under “Green Communism” in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”?

I think that given the will, there’s a way – an ecotechnic dictatorship leading the people towards Green Communism.

This system will be based on three pillars – reinforcing resilience, educating the people, and preparing for collapse. These pillars will be supported by the full power of the modern state and technology.

A) Reinforcing Resilience. Technocratic central planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking to minimize waste while maximizing real living standards. The legitimacy of the state is not based on creating prosperity or opportunity, so it will be ideologically resilient in the face of the economic decline that is necessary to reduce physical throughput to levels consistent with a retreat to global sustainability. Resources will be funneled into 1) intensive, targeted research in computer science, cybernetics, sustainable energy generation and food production, geoengineering, systems dynamics, and cliodynamics, 2) the provision of social goods such as education, preventative healthcare services, high culture, and social support to the indigent, and 3) internal security and military forces necessary to defend the fledgling ecotechnic republic from hostile forces within and without.

The ecotechnic dictatorship is a democratic society. The state will make strategic decisions by balancing their decisions between opinion polls and expert panels – much like modern China’s experiment with “deliberative dictatorship“. Since corruption and economic sabotage will be immensely harmful in a world suffering from resource shortages, it will have to be stamped out without mercy. One workable method is to institute a system of universal 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riders; since this mechanism is “horizontal”, in contrast to the “vertical” nature of traditional surveillance, it will reinforce ecotechnic democracy. The people will be able to observe trials and electronically vote on criminals’ punishments.

How to maintain enthusiasm and prevent the ideological ossification of the regime’s elites? Through a dedication to meritocracy and the power of modern electronic technology to enforce transparency. Promotions will be based on technical competence and devotion to the cause as judged by one’s peers; greater power will gain one greater material perks and privileges.

One might object, how is this different from the current System that needs to be overthrown? Realistically, some level of hierarchy is necessary and inevitable. Once society acquires a certain level of size and technological development (like our own), it needs a corresponding level of socio-political complexity to sustain itself, and that in turn requires a hierarchy. You need people at the top to set certain the limits and restrictions by which the world is to be dragged back from overshoot. Unless we return to primitivism (impossible with the size of today’s populations) or manage to achieve a technological singularity (then we’ll talk about it), all hierarchy cannot be abolished without a large fall in carrying capacity. That said, under the ecotechnic dictatorship, there will be nothing on the scale of the awning inequality chasms of today. Furthermore, thanks to the power of modern networking technologies, power can be distributed horizontally to an unprecedented degree. The ecotechnic elites will be subject to greater scrutiny than those below them.

Though this all sounds restrictive of individual freedom, even dystopian, it is nonetheless a valid and probably morally superior alternative to anarchy, collapse, and dieoff. (Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that a reversion to authoritarianism – furthermore, a socially unjust authoritarianism – is in any case virtually guaranteed in the last throes of the business-as-usual scenario). For we can only achieve a rapid enough sustainable retreat back to within the limits if the transition is backed by a powerful, global, and universal coercive force, or in other words, Leviathan.

B) Informing the People. The second pillar of the ecotechnic dictatorship is its focus on reforming human psychology from its accumulative-materialist basis to progressive, transcendental values of ecotechnic sustainability. This is the fundamental and necessary legitimization behind the ecotechnic dictatorship and its march towards Green Communism. The end goal is to coax a real “gift economy” into being (as opposed to a centrally planned one), perhaps with the help of social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy.

As soon as these ecotechnic values percolate throughout society, the necessity for the powerful state will vanish, and the ecotechnic dictatorship can be allowed to wither away as a new spirit of universal kindness and spiritual oneness, a state of complete sobornost, bathes humanity in the ether of Green Communism.

C) Preparing for Collapse. Though it would be great if the ecotechnic dictatorship managed “sustainable retreat” successfully, as a regime orientated towards the future it must always keep in mind the possibility of its own failure and demise, a demise that would inevitably lead to global collapse.

Hence, it will devote a black budget into making secret preparations to “buffer” human civilization against the possibility of collapse by creating Arctic “lifeboats” or repositories containing seed stocks, banks of knowledge, etc, whose locations will be entrusted to a society of dedicated Guardians. The goal of these Gaian priests and priestesses would be to function as the “bookleggers” and “memorizers” of Miller’s post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz, preserving knowledge and culture into the post-collapse Dark Ages.

What is to be Done?

1) Is collapse under the business-as-usual scenario truly inevitable? Or am I underestimating the capability of markets and technology to overcome the restrictions posed by finite resources and the laws of thermodynamics?

2) What are the chances of effecting a “sustainable retreat” before it is too late and energy shortages and climate chaos destroy industrial civilization? Can such a transition really be carried out from the grassroots level and gradual culture change, or is the capitalist-industrial System too entrenched for that to work?

3) If an “ecotechnic dictatorship” as described above or something similar is necessary to prevent collapse, how should we go about implementing it? Through Gramscian infiltration and subversion of the current System, or a decisive revolutionary break that, in Zizek’s words, “does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”?

4) How should the “ecotechnic dictatorship” legitimize itself, and how should it defend itself from its numerous enemies within and without – preferably without degenerating into all-out tyranny? Indeed, how much liberalism can we afford?

5) And how can we “globalize” the Revolution so as to prevent our ecotechnic enclave from being smothered in its cradle by outside capitalist-industrial Powers?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Although I have several articles on the threats posed to industrial civilization by runaway global warming and ecological degradation on Sublime Oblivion (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I have yet to cover the Charybdis of resource depletion in as much detail (1, 2, 3, 4). As such, I have assembled many links to relevant articles on blogs such as the Oil Drum and Energy Watch Group to provide a foundation for the layman interested in exploring these very important concepts. With time I will write short descriptions next to some of the more important links summarizing what they are about.

EDIT Dec 2010: The Best of TheOilDrum.com 2005-2010 is ultra-recommended.

Basic Summaries

Core Books on Resource Depletion

  • Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (Meadows et al)
  • The Last Oil Shock (David Strahan)
  • Beyond Oil (Kenneth Deffeyes)
  • The Party’s Over (Richard Heinberg)
  • Twilight in the Desert (Matthew Simmons)
  • The Long Emergency (James Kunstler)
  • Global Catastrophes and Trends (Vaclav Smil)
  • The Long Descent (Michael Greer)
  • Our Ecotechnic Future (Michael Greer)
  • When the Rivers Run Dry (Fred Pearce)
  • The Collapse of Complex Societies (Joseph Tainter)
  • Collapse (Jared Diamond)
  • World Made by Hand (James Kunstler)

Peak Oil Projections

Energy Accounting & Geopolitics

Energy & the Economy

Limits to Growth

Coal, Natural Gas & Uranium

Renewables

Metals & Mineral Depletion

Energy & Societal Collapse

Regional Analyses

Politics & Psychology of Resource Depletion

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.