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I just remembered I’d made some in 2012. It’s time to see how they went, plus make predictions for the coming year.

Of course I failed to predict the biggest thing of them all: The hacking that made me throw in the towel on Sublime Oblivion (remember that?), but with the silver lining that I could now split my blog between my interest in Russia and my interest in many other things. After all tying my criticism of the Western media on Russia with topics like climate change and futurism and HBD was never a very good fit. Overall I am very satisfied with the new arrangement.

Predictions For 2013

(1) Russia will see slight positive natural population growth (about 50,000) as well as significant overall population growth (about 400,000). Do bear in mind that this prediction was first made back in 2008 when a Kremlinologist who did the same would have been forced into a mental asylum.

(2) The life expectancy will reach 71.5 years, the total fertility rate will rise to 1.8. The birth rate will reach a local maximum at about 13.3-13.5 (it will then remain steady for a couple of years, and then begin to slowly decline) while the death rate will go down to about 13.0-13.2). Net immigration should remain at about 300,000.

(3) Putin will not be overthrown in a glorious democratic revolution. In fact, things will remain depressingly stable on the political front. As they should!

(4) Currently Russia is one of Europe’s most corrupt countries. While it’s certainly not at the level of Zimbabwe, as claimed in the Corruption Perceptions Index, it’s not like having the Philippines, Romania, or Greece for neighbors on an objective assessment is anything to write home about. I believe that Russia missed a great opportunity to undermine the rotten culture of official impunity that exists there by refraining from prosecuting former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov with his Montenegrin villa, billionaire wife, and his VP Mayor Resin who wore a $500,000 watch following his dismissal in 2010. Today a similar opportunity presents itself with blatant evidence of large-scale corruption on the part of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his female hangers-on (see the comments threads here, here at the Kremlin Stooge for details). There are conflicting signals as to whether charges will extend to the very top, i.e. Serdyukov himself. Having incorrectly anticipated a Luzhkov prosecution, I am now once bitten, twice shy. So I’ll take the lame way out and call it a 50/50.

(5) Needless to say, the economy remains as uncertain as ever, and contingent upon what happens in the EU and the world. In the PIGS the economic contraction is finally starting to slow down, but Greece is something of a disaster zone, and Spain is raiding its pension fund to keep afloat. If this becomes unsustainable this year then the EU member states will have to make some fundamental choices: Fiscal union? Or its division into a “Hanseatic” core and Mediterranean periphery? Which of these three things will happen I find impossible to even begin to foretell… As applied to Russia, under the first two scenarios, it will continue plodding along at a stolid but unremarkable pace of 3-4% or so GDP growth; if things come to a head (as they eventually must) and Germany decides to toss the Latins overboard, then the divorce I assume is going to be very, very messy, and we can expect Russia’s economy to fall into recession.

(6) No special insights on foreign policy. Ukraine may join the Customs Union; however, I suspect that’s more likely to happen in 2014 or 2015, as Yanukovych faces re-election and has to make a choice between continued prevarication between it and the EU, and encouraging his Russophone base. The creeping influence of the Eurasian Union will likely keep US-Russian relations cold; whatever the current disagreement that’s talked about (Magnitsky Act; Dima Yakovlev Law; Syria; Libya…) I lean to the “Stratfor”-like position that at heart the US just does not want what it sees as a “re-Sovietization” of the region – which the Eurasian Union is, in geopolitical terms, if under conditions much softer than was previously the case – and will thus be driven, almost by force of instinct, to oppose this trend.

How did I do for 2012?

Here is the link again. In short, this wasn’t the best year for my predictions.

1. “So that’s my prediction for March: Putin wins in the first round with 60%, followed by perennially second-place Zyuganov at 15%-20%, Zhirinovsky with 10%, and Sergey Mironov, Mikhail Prokhorov and Grigory Yavlinsky with a combined 10% or so.I later ended up refining this, and running a contest. My predictions for the five candidates were off by an aggregate error of 14%. The heroic winner was Andras Toth-Czifra (who has yet to get his T-Shirt – my profound apologies dude, it will be done…) Half a point.

2. “I will also go ahead and say that I do not expect the Meetings For Fair Elections to make headway.” Correct, although this was self-evident to anyone not afflicted with Putin Derangement Syndrome (which admittedly doesn’t include 90% of Western Russia journalists). Full point.

3. Here I made general points that I still think fully apply. That said, my own specific prediction turned out to be false. “But specifically for 2012, I expect Greece to drop out of the Eurozone (either voluntarily, or kicked out if it starts printing Euros independently, as the former Soviet republics did with rubles as Moscow’s central control dissipated).” Wrong! I am perhaps foolhardy to do so, but I repeat this prediction for this year. I really don’t know why the Greeks masochistically agree to keep on paying tribute to French and German banks when they know full well they have no hope of ever significantly bringing down their debt-to-GDP ratio without major concessions on the parts of their creditors. Zero points.

4. Last year I made no major predictions about the Russian economy; basically, unexciting but stable if things stay normal – a downswing if the EU goes down, albeit not on as big a scale as in 2008-2009. I was basically correct. One point.

5. “I expect 2012 will be the year in which Ukraine joins the Eurasian common economic space.” Nope. To activate their Russophone base, they decided to go with the language law. Zero points.

6. “Russia’s demography. I expect births to remain steady or fall slightly… Deaths will continue to fall quite rapidly, as excise taxes on vodka – the main contributor to Russia’s high mortality rates – are slated to rise sharply after the Presidential elections.” Too pessimistic on births, albeit understandably so because Russia’s cohort of women in their child-bearing age has now begun to decline rapidly (the echo effect). Although ironically enough however I am one of the most optimistic serious Russia demographers. In reality, as of the first 10 months of 2012, births have soared by a further 6.5% (which translates to a c.8% increase in the TFR, bringing it up from 1.61 in 2011 to about 1.74 this year – that’s about the level of Canada and the Netherlands – while deaths have fallen by 1.5%, implying a rise in life expectancy from 70.3 years in 2011 to about 71 years in 2012 (which is a record). Most remarkably the rate of natural population growth is now basically break-even, with birth rates and death rates both at about 13.3/1000; the so-called “Russian cross” has become a rhombus. Still, considering that my predictions were basically more optimistic than anyone else’s (even Mark Adomanis’), I still feel justified in calling this n my favor. One point.

So, that’s 3.5/6 for the Russia predictions. I will be very brief on the non-Russia related ones, as this is a Russia blog.

7. Wrong, Romney did not win LOL. Although later I did improve greatly, coming 12th out of 66 in a competition to predict the results of the US popular vote. I now owe a few bottles of whiskey to various people.

8. US did not attack Iran, but I gave it a 50% chance anyway. So, half point?

9. “But I will more or less confidently predict that global oil production in 2012 will be a definite decrease on this year.” Too early to tell.

10. “China will not see a hard landing.” Correct.

11. “Record low sea ice extent and volume. And perhaps 100 vessels will sail the Northern Sea Route this year.More like 46 vessels, and completely correct on extreme new sea ice lows.

12. “Tunisia is the only country of the “Arab Spring” that I expect to form a more or less moderate and secular government.” I think that’s basically correct.

13. Protests will not lead to any major changes outside the Arab world – yes.

14. “The world will, of course, end on December 21, 2012.” Correct, we’re now living in a simulation, the real world having ended as I predicted.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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As readers of this blog know, I have long regarded the return of economic crisis as an inevitability (because the core energy and no-growth predicament facing the Western world wasn’t solved in 2008-9 but merely kicked further down the road by increasing debt and printing money). It looks like 2012 will be the crunch year, as a series of inter-related crises are rapidly converging: (1) The European sovereign debt crisis; (2) The continuation of the chronic US inability to balance its books, and of instability in the Middle East; (3) The probable onset of serious declines in global oil production, as new oil megaprojects are no longer able to compensate for accelerating decline from existing fields; (4) heightened risks of a war with Iran, as the narrow window opens between the start of US delivery of the next-generation bunker buster MOP (from November 2011) and the culmination of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and its hardening against air strikes (next year or two).

The European debt crisis dominates headlines, with the Anglo-Saxon media crowing about the lazy, shiftless Meds (as opposed to the diligent and careful Germans) and blaming socialism for their problems. This of course has a number of flaws within it. Greeks work the most hours in the EU – 2000 per year, relative to 1300 in Germany. And the only major EU nations without huge debt and fiscal problems are the Scandinavians, who are about as “socialist” as one gets nowadays.

But this is all sidestepping the fact that debt and fiscal crisis afflict the entire Western world, and it is just that – due to the special political weaknesses of the Eurozone – have manifested first and foremost in Greece, Italy, and Spain. However, a look at the actual statistics reveals that even the “serious” countries are in a great deal of trouble. For instance, in 2010 both the US and Britain had bigger primary deficits (cyclically adjusted) than “basketcase” Greece, whereas Italy’s was actually positive! The Meds’ total net government debt is larger, but on the other hand, if even France is beginning to experience perturbations – a country whose fiscal balances are better in every way than Britain’s or America’s – then it surely cannot be long before the crows come home to roost in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The fiscal crisis

Below are two tables that would be very informative for discussions about the crisis, as they overturn many of the lazy myths and tropes populating the discourse.

debt-sustainability

Though the US position looks salvageable because of the positive GDP growth less cost of finance indicator (suggesting that its ability to pay back its debts are growing faster than the debts themselves), I am not convinced of the reliability of that indicator. First, it assumes fast growth – growth that has yet to materialize despite massive fiscal and monetary stimulus since 2008. Second, it assumes that interest rates on Treasuries will remain low – but that assumes a US that is becoming rapidly indebted and making signals it is going to inflate it away remains an investor safe heaven. It shows zero ability to make a credible commitment to eliminating the budget deficit, which is only going to be compounded as the baby boomers start retiring.

pollaro-budgets-debt

This chart from Michael Pollaro shows that in some respects the US position is actually worse than those of the PIGS in aggregate. For every $60 it received in revenue, it spends $100, and it would take almost 6 years for the US to repay its debt if the entire budget was devoted to it. In contrast, the average PIGS figure is $78 in revenue for every $100 in spending, and it would take them only 2 years of their combined budgets to repay their debts.

The position of Britain is very weak. It’s economy, and especially its budget, is highly reliant on the City of London. The tanking of the financial system has resulted in zero growth (GDP is still about 5% below peak 2007 levels) and chronically high budget deficits at around 10% of GDP, and the prospect of a second recession with pull the figures even further into the red. Nor has a weaker pound stimulated an export based recovery. Britain’s big trump card is that its bonds have very high average numbers of years to maturity, so refinancing will be easier even if its rates were to suddenly lurch upwards. Now its still over-extended and will probably go bankrupt within this decade, but probably later than the Meds or even the US.

Germany has a strong position, with only a modest budget deficit and reasonable levels of debt. Overall, it is net global creditor, with a net international investment position of 37% of GDP. But this presents another problem. Quite a lot of that is in the forms of loans to and assets held by its banks in the stricken Med region. A meltdown there would send the value of these assets plummeting, necessitating massive bailouts that could in turn threaten even Germany’s solvency. Hence, a possible reason for the recent poor sales of German government bonds.

Despite chronic budget deficits and an astronomic public debt of 220% of GDP, I actually think that Japan may be the country in the least danger in the medium-term future. 95% of its government debt is domestic, largely to Japanese corporations, which lend to the government for social spending in exchange for the understanding that tax rates will be held low. But those same banks and corporations are flush with cash: Japan’s net international investment position is an impressive 56% of GDP. In a way, it’s just a different method of financing a welfare state. It’s still probably unsustainable – domestic investors too may dry up, especially as the Japanese population continues to age and begins to spend rather than save – but I’d wager less so than the US or most of Europe.

Fiscally secure nations include China, Latin America, Scandinavia, and Russia. China has problems with various non-performing loans and municipal over-indebtedness, granted, but these weaknesses are largely mitigated by its phenomenal growth rate and a net international investment position of 36% of GDP. Latin America and Scandinavia tend to have responsible fiscal management and adequate growth rates.

Russia has globally low levels of government debt, its citizens likewise have low debt levels (a feature more of its underdeveloped credit system, granted), and an international net investment position of 17% of GDP. Though the budget deficit is currently balanced thanks to high oil prices, a significant drop can take them into the red very quickly and deeply; however, this is NOT a problem because it is a near certainty that on average oil prices in the next decade will remain high and rise further. What IS a problem is that Russia is a “high-beta” economy, highly affected by developments elsewhere – in 2008, its recession was deeper than in any major Western economy (though compared to them it also had the strongest recovery). The primary reason was the sharp cut-off in Western credit to Russian banks and corporations, resulting in multiple refinancing crises. Today, this problem is less acute, with the Russian banks and corporations having learnt that such dependence may be a problem – nonetheless, a huge sovereign debt crisis in the West can still give Russia a very sharp knock in the short-term.

The exergy crisis

This brings us to another side of the issue: peak oil. Oil reserves are depleting, and global production – after being on a plateau from 2005 to today – will probably begin to consistently fall from 2012 as oil megaprojects sharply fall off. Furthermore, a war with Iran, and its possible capability to blockade the Strait of Hormuz for some time, may cause an extremely disruptive spike in world oil prices, as 25% of world oil supplies transit through the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, China is right now entering the mass automobile age, with the numbers of cars sold per year overtaking the US in 2010. So we will see a rise in demand from China and other emerging markets.

But this is not all. As discussed on other posts in the blog, e.g. here, here, economic growth in general is crucially dependent on net energy availability and the efficiency with which it is converted into useful work. Both indicators have slowed to a crawl, and quite soon the former may well go into reverse. Furthermore, the reality of open global markets with limited global energy supplies means that countries will be more and more competitively bidding for the high-EROEI energy sources that remain (primarily, oil). The US in particular is highly dependent on oil to power its service-based economy, but it simply cannot afford oil to the same degree as can China (see this excellent Oil Drum post A Brief Economic Explanation of Peak Oil for an explanation). This means that the economic pie is now limited, and growth in one place (above all, China) is now to the detriment of growth in other already high-income places (the US, and the less efficient parts of Europe). For a limited time, this issue can be bypassed by the accumulation of debt in the high-income countries – much of which, it should be noted, is loaned out from China and the oil exporters. But poor countries lending to maintain rich country living standards is bizarre at face value, and it is unsustainable in the long-run.

How to survive the coming storm?

From the investment perspective: Keep assets in US dollars, but only those that can be sold off at relatively short notice.

Though dangerous in the short-term, China, Russia, and some countries in Eastern Europe are very good long-term plays. In particular, buying in at the depths of crisis can pay huge dividends in the future. A good bet right now: property in Bulgaria and Minsk.

Natural resources are another excellent long-term play (including gold – a good bet in a time of instability). However, it is probably not a good time to buy in right now, as there is the risk of a sharp (but short) fall once the economic deterioration gathers critical pace.

If you have the means to be an independent financial speculator, try out US CDS. The US will probably never formally default – controlling its own currency, at the most, it will do so via inflation – however, the perceived risk of default WILL be reflected in those instruments. Don’t bet the farm on it, as they’re high risk, but do consider setting aside 10% of your investment poll into this or similar instruments, as the returns have the potential to be mindbogglingly high.

The other two BRIC’s, India and Brazil, I am not so certain of because their low human capital precludes very fast growth.

In terms of specific sectors in the long-term, probably the best bets are IT and medicine because the entire world is aging, and when people are unemployed, they will spend their time on Facebook and playing video games.

Perhaps I’ll have another post on the other aspects of how to keep afloat in the coming era of turbulence. Keep an eye out for it.

Reread S/O posts about the return of geopolitics to Europe and my decade forecast and piece on future superpowers, and continue reading this blog as it is ahead of so many issues well before they started becoming conventional wisdom.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The response to the last global crisis only consisted of kicking the can further down the road, and the chickens are showing signs of coming home to roost. Of particular note: (1) the recent upwards spike on bond yields for Italy and Spain*; (2) The political paralysis in the US that may (conceivably, if unlikely) shut down government on August 2nd and send it into default; (3) oil prices are again inching up to the levels that coincided – and some argue significantly contributed to – the last recession; due to the realities of peak oil and rising Chinese demand, there is little to be done about this.

Question for consideration: How will Russia be affected by a possible Greece-style scenario unfolding in Italy, Spain, or even the US? (More generally, how do you think the next global financial and economic crisis is going to play out? What effects will it have on the Eurozone, US dollar’s status as reserve currency, etc?).

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions (if I did I’d be out there getting rich not writing this post). However, I can offer a provisional framework that may help you think about this issue.

Russia Positives

  • Very low sovereign debt; fiscal books are more or less balanced.
  • High oil prices… for now.
  • A moderately paced recovery has almost returned output levels to peak-2008.
  • Households far less reliant on borrowing to finance consumption than in typical developed nations.

Russia Negatives

  • Dependence of the budget on oil prices.
  • In 2008, one of the main causes of the sudden collapse in industrial output was the draining of liquidity. Russian industrial groups had relied on Western financial inter-mediation for accessing capital. From August, this suddenly dried up as the crisis exploded and global investors scurried to the “safe haven” of US Treasury bonds. So several related questions for today:
  1. To what extent has the Russian private and quasi-state sector reduced this dependence on foreign credit since 2008? (My impression: by a bit, but not fundamentally so).
  2. In the case of a global credit crunch, will Russia be spared? On the one hand, its macroeconomic fundamentals are very good (RELATIVELY speaking); on the other hand, this was the same case in 2008 and widespread sentiments that Russia was a “haven of stability” patently didn’t work out.
  3. To what extent will the fact that the next crisis will likely be one of sovereign collapses benefit Russia relative to other countries? After all in 2008 investors parked their savings in the bonds of countries perceived to be stable; above all, US bonds. This was because this was a primarily financial / banking crisis and sovereigns remained solvent. This calculus may be fundamentally different in the next crisis. Where can the safe haven investor invest? Euro bonds are out of the question. No bond vigilantes have yet appeared for US Treasuries, but surely with the chronic inability to cut the deficit this will eventually change? The yuan isn’t convertible… for now.
  4. So only commodities are left as a major investment vehicle (which benefits Russia), HOWEVER… big sovereign defaults will force the world economy back into recession, lower oil demand, and relieve pressure on commodities leading to a collapse of their prices – which is bad for Russia. Alternatively, prices may remain high if investors remain big on commodities and Asian demand quickly makes up for any shortfall in developed country demand for commodities – which is good for Russia. Which of these two forces will win out?
  • Dependence on credit for consumption. Credit based purchases were beginning to play a huge role in Russian consumption in 2007-2008; this was cut off and constitutes another main cause of the depth of its 2009 recession. This dependence on credit for consumption is already creeping back in 2011, though it has yet to reach the levels of early 2008.
  • Stampede effect. Despite aforementioned good fundamentals, many institutional investors have rules to abandon EM’s if a global financial crisis strikes (regardless of the specifics of the country in question). To avoid losses, other investors are forced to flee too.

Go, discuss.

* At the beginning of this year I speculated which of the “dominoes” among the PIGS, the US, and Japan would fall first when the global economic crisis resumed. Perhaps the PIGS will prove to be the weakest link after all.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As you may have noticed, posting has slowed down in the past few days, mostly thanks to a combination of (1) Kindle, (2) 中文 and (3) the natural periods of apathy that afflict most non-pro bloggers. I don’t really see that changing until the end of the year…

1. Sayonara, Luzhkov. Props to Jesse Heath for predicting it, Patrick Armstrong for IMO the best summary, and STRATFOR for the most bizarre interpretation (they think Luzhkov was dismissed because the Kremlin no longer needs him to control the Moscow Mob). The best way of viewing this is not as a struggle between the tandem, or even Medvedev asserting himself, but as the latest stage in the campaign to replace entrenched regional barons with civiliki that are closer to the Kremlin. This appears to be part of the overall Kremlin drive towards greater centralization and technocratic management.

2. Structural Remilitarization? Of far greater long term import than the political scuffles around the Moscow mayoralty is the gigantic, even prodigal, plans and figures are being bandied around by senior members of the Russian leadership for the 2011-2020 rearmament program (1, 2, 3). The main points of the program are to spend 22 trillion rubles (c. $700bn) over the next decade to modernize Russia’s increasingly obsolete military hardware, complementing domestic items with imports from foreign countries like Israel, France and the US*.

These are huge sums for an economy with a nominal GDP of $1230bn in 2009 (the US has $14.3tn). To put this into perspective, taking into account changes in relative prices, $700bn of dollar spending in Russia would translate into about $1200-1500bn in the USA (e.g. just compare the unit costs of equivalent fighters, the higher salaries of researchers, etc). That’s $120-150bn in procurement and R&D per year. For comparison, in 2009 the US spent $219bn, and this figure is likely to decrease in the years ahead due to fiscal constraints and withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. As Steven Rosefielde speculated back in 2004, we may see the start of a “full-spectrum, fifth-generation rearmament” next year. If so, the wisdom of this course must be questioned:

  • Thanks to peak oil and growing demand for natural resources, this is now fiscally feasible (unlike in 2000, or even 1990 for that matter). But Medvedev’s absurd claims that military modernization is going to be “a generator of innovation” to the contrary, these investments are more likely to distortive and misallocative.
  • The move towards professionalization has been a flop and it is now evident that the conscription system will be retained for the foreseeable future (with minor adjustments, such as stricter controls on waivers, to make up for the coming 40% reduction in the pool of conscript-aged men due to the fertility collapse of the 1990′s). This is unfortunate, not only because dedovschina remains as prevalent as ever (the cutdown in military service to one year has altered the pattern of hazing, from age-based hierarchy to alpha/beta-male in/out-group dynamics), but because Russia has no discernible need for a million-strong military.
  • What exactly is the use of so many soldiers with 5th-gen hardware? Countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan are already walkovers. In the South Ossetia War of 2008, the main problem wasn’t with the weaponry, but with “softer” factors such as unit coordination. There is a vast range of non-military levers that can be used against Belarus or Ukraine. War with NATO is almost entirely theoretical, and as with China, will probably have a nuclear endgame.
  • Another factor that is often overlooked is the danger of over-investing into the 5-th gen paradigm, and in doing so becoming locked into it (e.g. much like the USSR build thousands of tanks in the early 1930′s that were obsolete by the time 1941 rolled by). In reality, it is just a transitional step towards the real face of future war: drone fighters; all-electric ships with railguns and laser weapons; massively networked forces with a plethora of robotic platforms, etc.

* I suspect that the reason why Russia finally disallowed weapons sales to Iran, including of the S-300, was because of an informal deal with the US allowing it market access to some of its military technologies.

3. Heatwave Toll. The demographic stats are showing a big mortality spike in July-August 2010 due to the Great Russian Heatwave, especially in the central and Volga regions. The overall excess mortality during the period is now at around 55,000 – almost twice as much per capita as during the 2003 European heatwave in France. Detailed info on Rosstat’s demography page.

4. Russia’s GDP up 30% this year!!! That is, unless (1) the World Bank made a clerical error or (2) the IMF and CIA are more reliable. ;)

I was looking through Wikipedia’s latest GDP lists and observed that the World Bank’s estimate for Russia’s real GDP in 2009 was $2.7tn, which is $18,900 per capita. (The IMF and CIA estimates are unchanged at the usual $2.1tn.)

IF accurate, the World Bank revision would indicate Russia is the world’s sixth largest economy and within spitting distance of Germany’s $3tn economy. In per capita terms, it would put it in the same league as Poland, Estonia and Hungary or nearly 60% of the EU average.

So what gives? In your opinion, are the newer estimates more accurate? Were there any political motivations behind it, e.g. the reset?*

* The IMF and WB are not unknown to sometimes make drastic changes in
GDP estimates. For instance, two years back China’s real GDP suffered
a 40% cut. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, China was within spitting distance of overtaking the US at the time of the revision!

5. Is Russia really more corrupt than Greece, let alone Pakistan? Stay tuned for the Karlin Corruption Index, a sequel to the Karlin Freedom Index.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The standard view of the American economy is one of exponential growth: even if interrupted by a recession once a decade and a Depression once every two generations (the 1890′s, the 1930′s, the 2010′s?), the engines of industry would always come back roaring again. Output per American could always be expected to increase as it has from 1790 until the present day. There has never been a decade, even during America’s two Depressions, when US GDP was lower at the end than at the beginning.

However, another point of view on the US economy can be developed by drawing on observations of factors such as median income, energy consumption and inequality. Broadly speaking, this picture is one relative stagnation from 1890-1940, and again from 1973-today, punctuated by the truly remarkable “miracle economy” of the post-war boom. Furthermore, the US is now about to transition to a new phase: economic stagnation and anarchic stasis, to be followed by oligarchic Caesarism. This first post will be, for now, just a series of observations that I believe to be inextricably linked, but lack the theoretical foundations to put on a sound footing. Feel free to skip it, as it might be hard to follow and I’m mostly writing it to get greater understanding for myself. More polished version(s) to follow.

1. Median incomes (the ones that matter to ordinary Americans) tell a radically different story from the GDP figures. As shown below, they remained at a virtual plateau from 1914 to 1940. During the WW2 mobilization, spare capacity filled up, as factories began to produce the tanks, ships, planes, jeeps and misc. that played a crucial role in the Allied victory. After the war, what might have been a new plateau from the 1940-50 base accelerated, literally driven by the automative revolution; it is during this time that the US became a suburban, oil-based civilization.

ave-us-income-saez

However, the oil shocks of the 1970′s threw a jackhammer into that arrangement. Since then, the only discernible rise took place in the 1990′s: a period that saw the opening up of the Chinese “reserve army of labor” and the Soviet resource base to global markets. These began creating powerful deflationary effects in the US. But things went into reverse altogether during the past “lost decade“.

The median household income in 2008 was $50,303. The median household income in 1999, expressed in 2008 dollars, was $52,748.

You’ve got to figure 2009 will see another decline in income, in which case Americans will end the decade significantly less well off than when they started it. We’re not just treading water. We’re going backwards. …

Still, the 2000s have been especially barren. Median income rose only in three years—2005, 2006 and 2007, and even at the cyclical peak in 2007 it was below the levels of 1999 and 2000.

2. More on the energy developments during the period. During 1950-70, the US enjoyed very rapid growth both in absolute energy consumption and the energy efficiency of its techno-industrial base. Therefore, the quantity of “useful work” available for exploitation by American labor and capital increased very rapidly.

But this growth moderated since the 1970′s. Given the continuing reduction in the EROEI of oil, the peaking of the net energy flowing into the US economy from coal in 1998, and the turn to costly shale gas to maintain natural gas production volumes observed within the last decade, this trend must have only strengthened in the 2000′s. Graphs are taken from Economic Growth and Cheap Oil (Robert Ayres).

us-exergy-services-supply

The growth in the”technical efficiency” with which exergy is converted to “useful work” by the American economy has been flattening since the 1980′s (probably due to diminishing returns to investments into more efficiency: see Tainter, etc). Though Obama’s drive to increase energy efficiency is laudable, it will be hard to achieve big results given that most of the low-hanging fruit have already been picked.

technical-efficiency-us-exergy-services

If further improvements in technical efficiency are low, then the US will be going into a permanent hyper depression in the years ahead according to Ayres’ calculations. As of today, the observed results match the Low forecast.

ayres-us-gdp-forecasts

There’s little reason for hope. The potential for squeezing more “useful work” – the single biggest factor in GDP growth – out of the current US energy base are very limited. Coal, oil and natural gas are roads to nowhere. While nuclear and renewables are far more sustainable in the long-term (for maintaining an industrial base), they need 1) several decades to be build up and 2) given the same investments in K and L generate less useful work than today’s hydrocarbons because of their low EROEI’s.

3. Another interesting thing is that the period of stagnant US median incomes is linked with rising inequality. (This explains the continued moderate growth in consumption and GDP – its just that since 1973 a very large portion of it has been accruing to the guys at the top of the pecking order).

Now in stagnant systems – e.g. overpopulated agrarian societies – this is explained (Turchin) by the fact that land, food and credit prices have a tendency to go up, benefiting the elites (landowners, financiers, etc) relative to the rest of the population. While similar processes apply to industrial societies (see Marx), its effects can be combated by the powerful redistribution mechanisms available to the modern state (that were lacking in the agrarian states of yore). Hence, despite the fact that since the 1980′s Western Europe has been on much the same vastly lower growth trajectory, inequality in states such as France and Germany has remained low.

On the other hand, the US – having progressively deregulated the financial sector and knocked down marginal tax rates – has experienced a massive increase in inequality that may now be approaching the levels of the Gilded Age.

marginal-tax-rates

4. Fertility rates are linked to economic conditions. One of the many explanations for the post-war baby boom in the US is that soldiers were returning home, social conservatism, etc. But none of them are very convincing as comprehensive explanations.

us-fertility-rate

Instead, one may interpret the above graph as follows:

  • 1900-1940: stagnant median incomes; TFR approaches replacement level rates as the US ceases being an agrarian society.
  • 1940-1970: the baby boom as US middle class living standards expand rapidly. Populations tend to expand rapidly when their resource base expands. Interesting why TFR expansion started dropping in early 1960′s, though: perhaps looking at cohort TFR’s (which adjust for average age of childbearing) would yield a better fit with the economic stats?
  • 1970-2010: roughly replacement level TFR’s, stable median incomes.
  • 2010+: if median incomes begin to fall in the future, due to energy constraints and/or fiscal collapse, we might well see the TFR drop to something like 1.5.
  • A comparison: Russia completed its post-agrarian fertility transition by the mid-1960′s; after that, the TFR remained stable at around 1.9-2.1 until 1990 (as we know this was a time of zastoi / stagnation, esp. in the later part of this period). But in the 1990′s Russia’s TFR fell off a cliff, along with real living standards (not only did average incomes fall, soaring inequality made most people’s income fall even faster). The nadir was reached in 1999 (TFR=1.16) and has since risen up to 2009 (TFR=1.56).
  • Of course, non-material factors also play a big role: e.g., why is German TFR so much lower than France’s? etc…

5. Preliminary speculations. The reason I’m very skeptical on the Keynesian / Krugman vs. Austrian / Tea Party “debate” is that both positions, though ostensibly opposite, are based on the same presumption: that further economic growth is still possible, if only their policy prescriptions were to be followed. (In a recent Oil Drum posting Gregor MacDonald laid out my thoughts very well in Hollow Men of Economics.

So, Krugman draws many simplistic graphs showing how growth was bigger during the (Keynesian) 1950′s-1960′s than during the (monetarist) 1980′s-2000′s, ergo, the government should throw more and more money at the economy, the deficits and debts be damned. Then there his ridiculous “invisible” bond vigilantes argument: if the US can sell debt so cheaply, why should we worry about exploding budget deficits? Only a few things wrong with this theory…

  1. It’s a complete strawman! By the time the bond vigilantes take off their invisibility cloak, the costs of servicing debt – much of it now in short-term bonds which have to be frequently rolled over – will begin to spike, leading to an irreversible death spiral.
  2. Makes the questionable assumption that the US will grow at 2-3% in the future, whereas 1) the necessity of deleveraging, 2) the exergy situation and 3) the fragile geopolitical situation makes this highly unlikely.

Of course, the Austrians / WSJ are no less insane. If only the rich could get more tax breaks, if only banksters and oil corporations could be coddled even more than they are already, everything would be fine and dandy and we’ll be growing our way into a Randian paradise of abundance.

Both sides UTTERLY fail to consider the vital factor of useful work to economic growth. Useful work is a function of exergy & technical efficiency. Exergy is likely to peak and go into decline within the decade, given the trends in the energy base; technical efficiency appears to have a trend of flattening out. If investors were to suspect there are no prospects for future growth, the credit system – the economic equivalent of fertilizer in agriculture – as it exists today would collapse (why give out loans if there’s little prospects they will be repaid?), and the consequent drop off in investment will lead to depreciation overtaking and the capital stock beginning to contract. Finally, while the labor force will continue to expand, its quality will not because American IQ has been flat since around the 1980′s because of the cessation of the Flynn effect. (The *only* positive, productivity enhancing trend at work is the continued informatization of the economy, which may gain a boost with the appearance of ubiquitous, specialized and highly effective AI’s by the 2020′s.)

This is not an attractive view to take, because it basically means that whatever the government does or doesn’t do, GDP decline is inevitable. But the alternatives aren’t rosy either:

  • If Krugman “wins” the debate: the economy sputters along for a few years, never getting onto a sustainable growth trajectory. Awning budget deficits and ballooning of the public debt (which is now at 140% of GDP if you also count local/municipal debt and Freddie Mac/Freddie Mae liabilities). The result: an Argentina 2000/Latvia 2009-style collapse, probably sometime around 2012-15 (might be triggered by a “geopolitical shock”). End-result: some kind of American Caesarism.
  • If Austrians “win” the debate: the decline is grinding and gradual, rather than sudden and catastrophic.

Instead, it would perhaps be a better idea to craft policies in such a way as to minimize the harm done for (as I suggested in my abortive “Collapse Party” project) and at the same time make the foundations of the American state stronger.

  • Reintroduce the high marginal tax rates of the 1950′s-60′s to reduce inequality and shift the burden to those able to shoulder it. Might prevent the soaring inequality / corruption / resentment that leads to crony Caesarist outcomes. Problem: ACHTUNG SOCIALISM!
  • Allow the financial system to contract / collapse as needed. Today, it is a rotting dead weight on the US – both economically (there’s no need for such a huge financial sector in the first place) and morally (they are a class apart from normal Americans). Problem: institutional capture means same banksters wield immense influence over both parties of power.
  • Reduce military expenditures. There’s a lot that can be cut. First, the metastasized “war on terror” apparatus. Second, the expeditionary/naval component can be cut. There’s no long-term hope of containing China, but the Western US itself is secure. The Pacific Fleet can be reduced. Get out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, maintaining dominance in the Atlantic (core US interest) and the Middle East (oil) is useful. Third, saved money can be used to 1) continue research into next-generation military technologies, 2) reducing deficit. It’s not really a choice, actually. Military contraction is inevitable in the next decade: the only question is whether it will be uncontrolled (as during 1990′s Russia, when c.70% of Soviet military assets depreciated into junk) or controlled (with the result that core strengths will be preserved). Problem: suggesting reductions in military spending is unpatriotic & goes against the powerful defense & MIC lobby.
  • Obamacare is imperfect, but one of the administration’s best achievements. Leave as is.
  • Use savings from cutting off subsidies to the MIC & financial mafias – and the bigger tax intakes – to launch a coordinated restructuring of the US energy base. To accelerate the transition to sustainability, start planning and building lots of new nuclear power plants, and renewables. Start phasing out coal. First, makes a positive contribution to helping the world avoid catastrophic climate change. Second, this transition is in any case inevitable once the EROEI of hydrocarbons dips to lower levels – but by then, switching will harder because there’ll be many other challenges on the plate (e.g. mitigating the increasing effects of global warming; coping with the dearth of capital). So make a head start now. Problem: requires the kind of forward thinking that institutions are chronically incapable of.
  • How do solve all these problems? Obama needs to take a gamble, revolutionize his leadership, launch an all out political assault against the enemies of progress. Problem: not going to happen.

And that’s the story of it.

If I had to bet on it, I’d say US GDP per capita will be 5-25% lower in 2020 than it is now – even though we’re in recession. (Unlike with the 1930′s Depression, there’s no abundant, very high-EROEI energy subsidy on the horizon waiting to propel the US to another level). Inequality will be no lower than today, because of the power of today’s stakeholders in the system, hence – coupled with lower output and the waning of the credit system – median incomes will be a lot lower; hence, many more people in outright destitution. The center of gravity (economy, population) shifting back to the north and east (above all the Great Lakes region) from the south and west. The Presidency will have transitioned to some kind of Caesarism, served by a clique of politically-connected oligarchs. Any imperialist adventures now confined to the Western hemisphere. The citizenry too atomized, apathetic and preoccupied with quotidian concerns to do much about it.

I appreciate your thoughts and criticisms of this post, but do note that it is not meant to be final or “serious”; more like a strange mix of relatively obscure economic concepts, lazy extrapolations and personal impressions. As I said at the beginning, I hope to refine and connect these ideas into a more rigorous and logical framework in the future.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Though it’s not quite true that Russia has “no roads, only directions”, the old saying isn’t far off the mark. The World Bank’s recent report on Russia’s economy notes that the Eurasian giant’s road network is primitive and crumbling, coming in 111th in a global ranking (the railway system does much better at 33rd); more than half its highways do not meet minimum riding quality requirements. None of this should come as a big surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure* of driving beyond Moscow’s MKAD.

One of the main gripes of Russia’s limousine liberal opposition is the low priority the Kremlin places on the country’s road development – according to Boris Nemtsov, the rate of road construction during the Putin era fell by two or three times relative to the Yeltsin years (these figures don’t tally well with the official statistics but whatever). My intention here isn’t to wrestle over numbers and details in an attempt to either vindicate or condemn Putinism, instead I am going to consider a far more fundamental question: is it really worth Russia’s while to invest limited resources in a high-entropy system with no future that will furthermore accentuate socio-economic divisions in the short-term?

First, there is the imminent reality of peak oil. World oil resources are finite and there is evidence suggesting that production peaked globally in 2005 or 2008 (depending how you measure it), and that Russia will peak sometime between now and 2015. While Russia will continue extracting plenty of surplus to satisfy its own needs, is there really a need to use its energy proceeds to expand a transport system that will soak up ever more domestic oil production? Surely there are better uses for this revenue, such as improving its abysmal energy efficiency, refurbishing the creaking R&D system or even just getting more foreign currency? Eventually, of course, Russia’s oil production surplus too will dwindle and vanish: thereafter, its high-entropy road system, with its long asphalt serpents and wheeled metallic gas boxes, will decay into mud tracks and rust carcasses, and then into mere directions in the deepnesses of Eurasia. (Another thing that bears mentioning is that rising Russian domestic oil consumption will make the collapse of oil availability in the deficit countries that much more rapid due to the dynamics of the Export Land Model).

Aren’t I ignoring alternate automobile energy sources, such as hydrogen and electric? I don’t buy much into the optimistic prognoses. Due to its fundamental problems with energy wastage, storage and infrastructure deficit – suffice to say, you need about one liquid hydrogen truck per twenty vehicles compared to one gas truck per two hundred – hydrogen is unlikely to ever displace hydrocarbons on the mass scale needed to preserve automative culture in its heyday form. Electrics have relatively better prospects, but they remain several times more expensive than conventional cars: though battery technology is improving rapidly, the availability of the Rare Earth Metals used to make them is moving in the opposite direction. In short, both hydrogen and electrics are far more structurally energy-inefficient and hence expensive than today’s hydrocarbons; as soon as shortages drive oil prices into the stratosphere, widespread vehicle use by the middle classes will retreat into history. Why should Russia even embark on this road to nowhere?

Second, it should be stressed that even as of 2008, there were only about 210 automobiles for every 1000 Russians, compared to 500-700 in the developed countries. If the Russian state were to fund a world-class highways system, like the American interstates or the German Autobahnen, their benefits would only be immediately enjoyed by perhaps a third of the population (its more affluent part). While this would no doubt be welcomed by the likes of Boris Nemtsov, a pro-bourgeois shill who bemoans Russia’s maternity benefits because they increase fertility amongst the poor, and by Yulia Latynina, who decries democracy for allowing poor people to vote, I fail to see how this would improve the lot of Russia’s marginalized and pensioners. Viewed from this prism, the Russian government’s decision during the economic crisis to increase social benefits – including a 30% rise in pensions this year – is far more socially just than taking the World Bank’s suggestion to increase road infrastructure investment.

Instead of subsidizing the already prosperous bourgeoisie off the state’s lard, Russia would be far better served leaving the road infrastructure to market forces. First, they are subject to less graft and waste. State contracting for road-building is riddled with corruption, even by Russian standards: around half to two thirds of allocated funds can be expected to get “lost”. Second, where heavy demand exists, private companies build toll roads (e.g. the Moscow to St.-Petersburg route). These are already sprouting where traffic flows are heavy and are of much better quality than the state projects. Only people who use these private roads will have to pay for their upkeep, instead of the all-Russian taxpayer. Likewise, where there is little demand for roads, such as the symbolic but unprofitable trans-Siberian route, capitalists will not waste capital.

Third, Russia’s geography itself hardly befits an auto-faring civilization. The cold climate, seasonal melting and vast distances make upkeep difficult and costly, even if it weren’t weighed down by corruption. The vastnesses of northern Eurasia are far better suited to railways, whose operation is inherently cheaper and cleaner. Unlike automobiles, railway fares are affordable to ordinary pensioners and the indigent. Encouragingly, investment into Russian railways is very substantial and there are plans for a high-speed rail link between Moscow and St.-Petersburg and other high-traffic routes.

In the US, the automative age got kickstarted in the 1950′s, when oil prices were low, affluence was rising fast and the US government financed the Interstate for military purposes. In turn, this project gave an impetus to the growth of a suburbia that now forms the core of its service economy. However, as Howard Kunstler and others have pointed out, it is an economy with no future: critically dependent on concentrated energy sources to support a high-entropy, unsustainable and soulless lifestyle, and one that only continues to be subsidized under the political pressure born of the “psychology of previous investments”. This is not a road Russia should aspire to travel, regardless of the superficial attraction of the American suburban idyll. It is a spiritual cemetery, and soon to become an economic one too**.

* Not being ironic here, BTW. Driving in Russia is far more fun than in any European country (with the possible exception of Germany’s limitless speed Autobahnen). I’m a thrill-seeker that way.

** I’m also highly skeptical of the usefulness of India’s expansion of its Golden Quadrilateral, for a nation where mass car ownership is non-existent and unlikely to ever materialize and which doesn’t even have metro systems in most of its biggest cities. Likewise for China, though at least its railway plans are appropriately gargantuan and ambitious.

(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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“World Made by Hand” by James Howard Kunstler, published in 2008. Rating: 3/5.

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[easyazon_link asin="0802144012" locale="US" new_window="default" tag="httpakarcom-20" add_to_cart="default" cloaking="default" localization="default" nofollow="default" popups="default"]WORLD MADE BY HAND[/easyazon_link] is a speculative fiction book about how a sociopolitical collapse may be experienced by small-town Americans. It is of a reasonable length, engaging and generally well-written, although far from a literary masterpiece – not that that is necessarily a minus, since it serves a polemic rather than a purely artistic purpose, and it is from the latter angle that we shall approach it.

Kunstler depicts a collapsed world where by the 2020’s the engines of commerce have grounded to a shuddering halt, the arm of the state has withered into oblivion, and the electric lights (‘juice’) of modern civilization petered out, ushering in a new Dark Age, both literally and metaphorically. The largely listless and apathetic population is wracked by super-high mortality rates as that Malthusian trinity, famine, disease and war, stalks the land and reaps down the weak and stupid. Although life is dirtier and more violent, at least for some, like Robert Earle, the narrator and hero of the story, it is also more wholesome and fulfilling. With ‘machine noise’ silenced and its noxious, hallucinogenic fumes and toxins curtailed, man is free to rediscover nature, revealing a world much realer and richer than the rows of bland metallic boxes and suffocating serpents of asphalt that symbolize our consumer society.

The economy is almost entirely local, as cart and boat are the only means of transportation. Its mainstay is agriculture and salvage. Chaos and banditry have choked off the import of luxury goods like coffee, and ownership of horses is a great symbol of status. Modern antibiotics and anaesthesia are history, with natural herbs and opium taking up the slack, respectively. The President’s power does not extend beyond his capital and the voices of crazed preachers fills the airwaves whenever the electricity briefly flickers back on.

Race wars, religious persecution and forced displacement of peoples rended the former United States of America into a patchwork quilt of small city-states, tin-pot despotisms and power vacuums. The rule of man has displaced the rule of law, hostage and ransom rackets are flourishing industries and most disputes are resolved ‘personally’. A big theme of the book is Robert’s struggle to stand up against injustice, fighting extortionist kidnap racketeers impiously pretending to be taxmen and judges and a thuggish motor-head gang making its living mining the detritus of the prior age, garbage dump and suburbia, for valuables.

So far so good, and more or less what one would expect. Except for Kunstler mentioning the electricity sporadically coming back on for a few minutes. That is unrealistic – either you have people maintaining the grid, or you have a permanent blackout. Since the former is very obviously not occurring, you’re not going to have a few drops of juice now and then – you’ll have to do without, period. And with that, it’s time to shift from summary and praise to hard-headed criticism.

In the world made by hand, women are being dealt a bad one. We do not come across a single woman occupying an important political or even social position. Long skirts and shawls are back in fashion. Now it is true that in times of social and economic collapse, as during the 1990’s in the post-Soviet world, people yearn for a ‘strong hand’, which implies masculine power with all its implications for women’s political standing. It is also to be expected that a whole-scale collapse of industrial civilization and even the most basic state functions will entail an even greater shift within the power of the sexes to the detriment of the fairer.

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As such, it is not at all surprising that the mayors, constables, judges, gang capos, dockyard ‘bosses’ and religious leaders we come across are all men. However, the absence of women from the town council or professional occupations (medicine, dentistry, etc) is another kettle of fish. Today, a big percentage of the latter are women, and since Kunstler’s skills-starved world needs all the expertise it can get, one can only assume that Union Grove was an unusual town in this respect. Secondly, transformational change typically requires two generations to saturate itself into society – although the Soviet Union was an atheist state from its inception, mass irreligiousness only became reality in the 1970’s. The book was published in 2008; textual clues indicate that the summer story it recounts is no later than in the 2020’s. So I very much doubt women will lose political representation and slip into bulky dresses a mere two decades or so after collapse.

Another major point of disagreement is the sheer speed of the collapse. As noted, the book implies the collapse starts in earnest from, well, today, and that all the amenities of late industrial civilization will have disappeared by the 2020’s. This implies that the collapse will be a cliff-dive back into the so-called Olduvai Gorge, which is an extreme ‘doomer’ scenario. I am a peaknik and believe there is still huge scope for oil consumption to be scaled back without die-off (if anything, forcing Americans to do without SUV transport to the nearby Wal-Mart will improve their health – after the end of subsidized Soviet oil imports into Cuba, their rates of obesity and diabetes fell dramatically) and that there are still a few decades left of liquefiable coal and natural gas, and uranium reserves. Even discounting the promise of wind power, solar and paradigm-shifting technological breakthroughs, society will continue to have access to energy sources with a sufficiently high EROIE – which will allow us to sustain an ‘emergy’ plateau until the middle of this century with all the things it allows (railways, the electric grid, the Internet and cell phone network, etc).

Contrary to what one might think from my optimism on the timing of the collapse and women’s status after it, I am much more bearish on the degree of violence that will prevail in a failed world. It is absurd that in a world of natural law and survival of the strongest no marauders have come across and sacked and looted Union Grove, a (relatively) prosperous but undefended outpost of civilization. In practice we can expect nomadic armies, something like Mongols with machineguns, wage war against sedentary societies that retain some semblance of manufacturing capacity.

The idea that the utility of firearms will diminish due to a shortage of bullets, to the extent that some actually resort to fighting with swords, holds no water. Bullets can be manufactured with en masse with relatively simple equipment, lead will be one of the few things there will certainly be no shortage of and gunpowder is a medieval technology. The rate of depreciation on many firearms is extremely low – things like Mausers, AK’s and Colts can be kept in perfect working order for centuries. Union Grove should also be bourgeoning with ethnically diverse migrants from the collapsed formerly high-density societies of the eastern seaboard, whereas in the book the town is largely local and lilac white.

The Western-style gunfight between the heroic band of brothers (Robert, Joseph, Minor et al) and professional kidnapper Dan Curry’s minions was simply unrealistic. Bad guys can’t aim only in the movies. Also, the way Joseph and Robert just entered Dan’s office, with their weapons, is unrealistic – mob bosses are not idiots and they would have been searched and disarmed before being allowed in.

I doubt the hyper-inflated US dollar will survive as a universal currency in the absence of unified authority. It is far more likely the units of exchange will be locally issued coupons or durables like bottles of whiskey or even oil barrels (now that would be poignant!).

It is very unlikely that communication networks will unravel anywhere near as fast even in the event of total collapse. There exist solar-powered radios, and as Kunstler noted, some enterprising people like Stephen Bullock will continue generating electricity on a local scale. So practically all electronic devices will function. Granted, complicated things like computers will break down quickly and will not be replaced, since they use specialized components that could only by produced in highly complex manufacturing operations, but any committed amateur could repair or even build a new radio from scratch (a small population surrounded by junk produced by a prior much larger and much richer population will have no problems scrounging the necessary materials). This will allow local power centres, the government and other major organizations to keep in touch with each other across great distances. Rumors and word of mouth will take a very long time to reclaim their old status as the major medium of communication.

I was somewhat disappointed with how little attention the effects of climate change received, but considering that a) it’s only the 2020’s, b) widespread anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases ceased in the 2010’s and c) it is, after all, a novel specifically about the post-peak oil world, I will not complain.

Finally, I’d like to defend Kunstler from some of the criticisms levelled against him. Although Asian pirates attacking the western US seaboard is unrealistic (Americans are a well-armed people, and there are much easier pickings closer to home), race wars, particularly in the South, are a real possibility. After all, visioning unpleasant futures is not the same thing as endorsing them. Granted, it is obvious from his writings that Kunstler yearns for the end of industrial civilization and the bucolic charm of the early American settlement. But I don’t condemn him for that. This death-instinct is a universal trait of our species – just observe the runaway success of the post-apocalyptic genre in film and video games.

Looking at matters from a historical perspective, industrialism is a very short and unnatural aberration in the human condition, and it is not surprising that many should react against it. Machines will be initially missed, but man will adapt to the simple satisfactions of a world made by hand and the reappearance of intimate connections with Gaia and her elusive elemental spirits. Unlike some reviewers, I appreciate Kunstler’s inclusion of some unexplainable supernatural phenomena at the end of the book (the Mother Bee and the death of Wayne Karp). The end of age of the Machine will usher in a new age of magic and mystery.

[easyazon_link asin="0802144012" locale="US" new_window="default" tag="httpakarcom-20" add_to_cart="default" cloaking="default" localization="default" nofollow="default" popups="default"]WORLD MADE BY HAND[/easyazon_link] is well written and a page-turner, but is most certainly not a literary masterpiece – chapters are too repetitive, characters are too one-sided and dialog is too clichéd. Although successful at capturing the spirit of earlier ages, I feel that too often Kunstler simply substituted an imagined past in place of visioning the future, which is a more challenging enterprise. Although I like many of Kunstler’s theme choices, they are undermined by the difficulty of suspending disbelief in too many places. The lack of literary merit compounded by failure in the nuts and bolts of serious futurist visioning means I cannot recommend this book too highly.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In an article some months ago I suggested that “perhaps this crisis is simply an unconscious recognition of this inconvenient truth?” – namely, the peaking of oil extraction and all that it implies for the continued survival of a financial system built on assumptions of continuous economic growth. In other words, the fashionable approach of focusing on exotic financial instruments, regulatory failures, etc, if a case of mistaking the forest for the trees.

The Oil Drum had a nice graphical summary. According to the author, Gail the Actuary, the chain of causation runs thus: rising oil prices -> inflated asset values -> booming phantom wealth -> high energy costs undermine real economy -> more and more bubbles pricked -> banking crisis -> credit crisis -> cascaded economic failure -> oil demand destruction -> oil prices plummet -> so do ever costlier long-term investments in oil extraction -> economic recovery at lower level -> rising oil prices. Cycle repeats itself to oblivion.

This explains the extreme severity of the crash – record GDP growth at a time of plateaued oil extraction in the 2005-2008 period was patently unsustainable, so a very big “correction could not have been unexpected.

And it is quite a correction.

As of the September-November average, global industrial production was plummeting at an annualized rate of -13% and merchandise trade by a truly remarkable -43%. And it is obvious the collapse accelerated since then…

Already far worse than during even the worst month of 2000-2001, the last and only global slowdown for which the IMF has data.

Already far worse than during even the worst month of 2000-2001, the last and only global slowdown for which the IMF has data.

But this is not a strictly economic post, or meant to be long / detailed (I’ll post that kind of thing within the next few weeks). So on to the next point about the oil connection…

Another Oil Drum blogger, Phil Hart, wrote about the dramatic rise and fall in oil prices in terms of simple supply and demand curves. I’ve had the same thoughts tumbling about in my head but unfortunately didn’t come to writing about them in such detail…

Oil demand and supply.

Oil demand and supply.

His thesis is that because of the geological limits to oil supply, the marginal cost of providing ever more oil is generally low until it reaches some point – say, 85mn barrels a day – and then veers off into the sky (i.e. becomes very inelastic). Demand is also inelastic, since modern society basically runs on oil. Hence there comes a time when the demand curve reaches a point when its intersection with the supply curve – i.e., the market price – starts rising exponentially.

Exponential rise in oil prices; all exponents in a finite environment will eventually overshoot and collapse.

Exponential rise in oil prices; all exponents in a finite environment will eventually overshoot and collapse.

Supply can no longer be expanded to any significant extent, despite the market signals. All we managed was a precarious plateau, the big rate of natural decline of existing oilfields being compensated for by remoter and lower-EROEI sources. The strain got too big, we slipped up and are now falling to a lower plateau – at an annualized rate of at least negative 13% of global industrial production…

PS. Is it also a coincidence that possible the hardest hit major industry was the automobile sector, with production plummeting by up to 50% in most countries? Particularly when you consider that they are the sector that is most tightly linked to cheap supplies of oil products?

Calculated Risk compiled a graph of the fleet turnover (total vehicles divided by annual sales) to give a historical value for the number of years required to totally refurbish America’s car fleet – from hovering at 13-15 years, it soared to an historically unprecedented 27 years. Projecting this forward, the size of the fleet will decline AND age simultaneously since most vehicles don’t last anywhere near 27 years on the road.

Since most vehicles won’t last this long, unless situation turns around the size of the fleet will decline AND age simultaneously. (But of course it won’t, because of impending energy shortages).

This is a completely rational development from a peakist perspective, of course. Even though generally more fuel efficient on paper, a lot of energy needs to be spent manufacturing them; since these initial energy costs have already been spent in old vehicles, it makes sense to prolong their lifespans instead of trying to increase the turnover of the fleet. So unless oil magically remains cheap and plentiful in the years ahead, or hybrids / battery-powered vehicles become far more successful than they are currently, expect the cars on our roads to gradually get older, creakier and dirtier like in Third World places – albeit with much better, cheaper and more intelligent electronics (due to Moore’s Law and its siblings).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Four days and 50 reader views into our baby blog’s existence, we have been priveleged to receive a number of letters to our darussophileATyandexDOTru address. All of them deal with our Towards a New Russian Century? core article (which is, in addition, the most popular item on this blog by far – possibly because colleen was kind enough to link his winthrop88 blog to it).

The biggest critique of it, voiced by colleen and the letter writer DP, was my neglect of the topic of peak oil in my analysis of geopolitics in the next 20-30 years.

Colleen wrote in a comment:

It’s hard to predict the world in 2030. For example, if peak oil is a reality then maybe all bets are of especially if a replacement to fossil fuels is not developed.

DP expanded upon this:

Russia economic growth of 6-7% started when oil was $12 / barrel. Future growth predictions for the world are suspect. Not enough energy to power this growth. The world is not capable of producing much more than the 85m barrels that are being produced today and this will by all accounts decline. If the world would grow at a 3% rate that would mean by 2020 the world would need 120m barrels a day.

We respectfully disagree with this point about peak oil stalling world growth. Firstly, there is no shortage of other energy sources – shale oil, tar sands, etc. It might not be cheap, but extracting these is already more than feasible at today’s prices. There are still plenty of coal reserves, which can be liquified (as happened in apartheid South Africa).

The adjustment might dampen world growth, as people invest in energy conservation and renew vehicle fleets with lower gasoline consumption. Yet even in the 1970′s, when oil prices spiked and the GDP of the advanced industrialized countries was twice as energy intensive as today, growth continued nonetheless – albeit at a slightly slower space than in the previous two decades and marred by stagflation.

By the time Hubbert’s slope turns into a really large negative number, a great deal of progress will have been made into renewables and energy conservation. For instance, solar power will start booming from 2015 onwards, when its costs are projected to draw near to commercial rates for grid power (or sooner, allowing for tax breaks); meanwhile, the auto manufacturers will be churning out much less energy intensive plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles.

In the 1970′s, the oil spike came suddenly at a time when the US economy was twice as energy intensive as today and it was due to supply-side disruptions, as opposed to today’s smooth demand driven growth. Energy conservation, renewables and oil extraction technology lagged far behind today’s. Nonetheless, from 1970-79, US GDP / capita grew at an average rate of 2.3% / annum, an increase over 2.0% / annum from 1950-1970. Granted, unemployment rose (1.3% in 1960, 11.2% in 1983) and growth in labor productivity per hour worked fell from 2.3% during the years of the miracle economy to just 0.6% in 1973-79 – however, during the years of cheap oil in 1979-1996, it rose to just 0.8%, while GDP growth / capita fell even further to 1.5%. Since 2000 and the return of expensive oil, however, the US has chugged along well, doing better than the continental European countries (at least until very recently).

We can only conclude that ultimately, oil prices don’t really have that much of a big impact on the economic growth of its consumers.

Another point raised by DP was that of US debt, which was to cut short its aspirations to remain a global hegemon. Among concerns listed was the sovereign debt of 9tn $, the current account deficit and the declining value of the dollar.

We don’t think the US is in a particularly bad position in respect to its macroeconomics. 9trn $ public debt is 65% of US GDP, but that is the same as France (64%), and lower than Germany and Canada (both 68%), Italy (107%) and Japan (a whopping 178%). As for the housing bubble, this is a worldwide phenomenon – granted it is worse in the US than in most countries, but it is not exceptionally bad. Finally, the declining value of the dollar is just a sympton and a correction of the twin deficits. This will make it easier for the US to pay off its (dollar-denominated) debt and raise its exports – which has indeed begun to happen recently and thus cut its current account deficit as a % of GDP.

Another reader, CL, criticized the article for neglecting demographics, claiming that Russia and the European countries will be unable to exert power due to their decreasing populations.

Let’s try to see where this argument comes from. Traditionally, a decline in population is associated with bad things – war, famine, pestilence. This is because for much of human history, populations declined only under the aforementioned Malthusian conditions. The modern world of emancipated women, sexual revolution and the Pill has only recently given people the choice of purposefully limiting family size, and this fundamental fact should not be forgotten.

As I’ve already mentioned in my Reading Russia Right article, population decrease in Russia in 2007 was of the order of 0.15% / annum, and the trend was positive. But even linearly assuming that its population falls by 0.2% / year to 2030 (hitting 136mn) and that America’s continues growing at today’s 0.9% to 2030 (hitting 371mn), will it really matter that much? Its economy will still be much larger relative to the US than it is in 2008 (due to economic convergence). Furthermore, absolute economic size is only one of the components of what makes a superpower. Its position in hi-tech; the advantages accruing to it from global warming; its military-strategic and energy strength, will all be virtually unaffected – even in this worse-case demographic scenario.

To quote the Reading Russia Right article in extenso:

Furthermore, in economics, what matters isn’t the population or its growth rate per se, but the dynamics of the working age population as a percentage of the whole population – the dependency ratio. More people working generally translates into more wealth and a more stable pension system. According to Goldman Sachs (Dreaming with BRICs, pp.8), from 2005 to 2030 it will decline from 67% to 60% in Russia, compared with a similar decline in China and with a 62% to 54% decline in the G6. Hardly apocalyptic.

Granted, both Brazil and India will have healthier demographic profiles in that respect than China, Russia or the West. However, the real value of their young populations can be called into question due to their poor skills (as mentioned in Towards a New Russian Century?).

Furthermore, any demographic decline in Europe, Russia and Japan can be more than mitigated by increasing their labor force participation rate (especially amongst youth and 50+ year olds) up to American levels. This is a social decision with regard to which they are all wealthy enough to make a free choice.

Ultimately, all this discussion of demographics might well become moot sooner than we can imagine. 25 years, if the more ardent prophets of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) are right.

(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.