Thursday, April 26, 2012

Greek Diaspora

I ran across a very good article on Greeks who were emigrating from Greece because their economic lives had been shattered and they were unable to live reasonably any longer in their homeland. While I suppose this piece was intended to evoke some sympathy for Greeks in this position, it is also a good illustration of what life in the early stages of collapse is like.

The more I read about Collapse, and people's thoughts on it, the clearer it becomes that people are looking for a "trigger" event that lets them know they need to pack everything up into the Canyonaro and head out to the Doomsday shelter built on the site of a former missile silo. The stock market going to 500, the dollar going to zero, cities burning, no gas left in the pumps, alien saucers landing in Times Square, I don't know.

In reality, there's not going to be a giant gong or factory whistle that blows and lets us know that "it's on!" The reality is going to be going to work one day, finding that there's a mandatory meeting at 9am, where they announce that the place is closing down and people will be directed where to go to fill out unemployment paperwork. Or the reality is that you go to the store one day, find that your pension isn't buying as much food as it once did, as the price goes up. Or, you find some guys unhooking your backyard AC unit and getting ready to carry it off, calling the police, and finding out that budget cuts means that they'll be there in time to take a statement and not do much else.

In other words, Collapse is when the systems we've built over the years to sustain modern life have begun to break down, like a machine that no one can afford to maintain, even if they understood it anyway, and it's grinding, shaking, and belching lots of smoke that's the wrong color.

We all know it's coming, can see it from a mile off, but in a way, we're lost. If a tornado or flood was coming, things are so immediate, we know to grab the kids and the pets, head for the basement or higher ground. The immediacy of things makes us react. But, when we see the Euro taking on water, Greeks leaving for greener pastures, an insurmountable debt, rising oil prices, etc, we are lost.

The metaphor that seems best for our time is living in during the ice age. You can see the two-mile high glacier off in the distance, knowing that it's steadily approaching, that the ground you used to hunt in on is gone, but you can still hunt in front of it. Do you try to still eke out a living in the area, or move on to other lands? Likewise, in our modern lives, we ask the same kinds of questions. Do we still go out to dinner on Friday night, knowing that we should enjoy it while we can, or do we take that money and set it aside to buy hand tools and books on primitive medicine? Do we schedule a vacation for the summer, or decide that gas is too expensive and the money should be spent instead making conversions to the house for wood heat and starting backyard permaculture?

The irony here is that when people look back, they'll see this as a relatively fast blip on humanity's timeline. One hundred years of insane material excess, up to and including marrying off their dogs. Living like peasants that broke into the king's palace while he was away. And so on. They will wonder why we didn't see the signs just a few years earlier, and start shuttering the windows and battening the hatches when we could.

Monday, April 16, 2012


The re-release of Titanic, in 3D, along with the hundred year anniversary of the event, has been in the news lately, for better or worse, and it goes to show that we are still always up for letting a good tragedy capture the imagination, as long as we're not personally involved. I've been interested for some time in the ongoing obsession people have with disaster movies, from Armageddon to Melancholia, and how much of a role it plays in shaping the narrative of the human world. The disconnect between the disaster movie narrative on one hand, and the real risks of disasters is also interesting to explore. We like to go see a movie like Twister, but then are somehow surprised when Mother Nature drops an EF-4 on top of our house. We watch a movie like Outbreak, but then go open door handles just the same on a daily basis. Maybe at some point, we're experiencing a sort of impulse to engage in a mythological retelling of a future narrative, something that is so great, but yet becomes so remote, that we don't really comprehend it as being anything but a narrative.

In fairness, the non-event of the Swine Flu did prompt people to think a little about their precautions, but it also illustrated some points about disasters and disaster planning -- no matter how much we want to plan and prepare, there is a point where we cannot or will not alter our basic lifestyle in order to accomodate these possibilities. Is that a bad thing? Are we willing to risk dying from a virus just to enjoy a day at the ball park or shopping mall? And what would be the litmus test for most people, when they would no longer set foot out the front door?

More drastic disasters, such as the 2004 Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc, are all things which are beyond our ability to really accept in the scale of our lifetimes. Or, if we give a thought to them, we realize there's not a lot we can personally do about the situation. Worried about the ocean and want to move to higher ground? Yellowstone Park sits on top of a supervolcano that is supposed to blow every 600,000 or so years. In spite of hurricanes, more people than ever have moved to the coast, accepting the price that they pay is the risk of a twenty-five foot storm surge or a harried flight inland.

The other end of the spectrum is the planet-ending event, something as unlikely as a rogue planet dropping in to say "Hi!" Not a whole lot you can do about that sort of thing, except realize that if our industrial civilization still has the capacity to do so, we should probably ramp up our space exploration and colonization efforts before something like that would ever happen (see the essay in Foreign Affairs).

What we miss in all of this is that our sense of vulnerability has become so personal and decided on an individual basis. Risk evaluation becomes something of an arbitrary thing on a personal life, an abstract one on a national level. A person who is tasked, for example, with planning how to handle an outbreak of a deadly virus is going to clinically examine available resources for dealing with the epidemic, as well as mechanisms of social control, infrastructure, supply, and so on. Do they also factor in the notion that people do not behave like a machine, but an unpredictable swarm of locusts? An accident on the other side of a highway causes both sides to clog up. Or traffic jams may occur for no apparent reason of all. What happens to someone's planning when people tasked with controlling the perimeter of an outbreak fall prey to the same fears and doubts that we all suffer from?

Or, with another example, say that an asteroid large enough to wipe out a city, or perhaps a state, is predicted to impact the earth? There is no certain way of knowing where it's going to hit. How long do we expect people to play hymns or pop songs on the deck of the Titanic? Do we seriously expect there to be much in the way of social fabric being preserved at that point? We think of long-term events, with time to adjust, like Peak Oil or other resource depletion, but seldom think of things like plagues or devastating wars simply because the ball can bounce in lots of unpredictable ways.

In the end, there's really not a lot we can do or expect to do about some of these things, on a macro-level. On a micro-level, there's plenty. Be able to be responsible for yourself and your family, have a game plan in mind whatever you're doing, be it setting foot on a trans-Atlantic liner, or just getting in your car for the morning commute. Put enough aside, like our paleolithic ancestors did, to take care of yourself if the grocery isn't there the next day. Relearn the basic skills that people took for granted even as little as a hundred years ago, when life didn't come in a shrink-wrap package, then pass these skills on to people around you. Last, as always, remember to put aside some pieces of our collective knowledge so that we have a reason to dig out and clean up if The Big One ever indeed does hit.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Peak Wealth

The suicide of a Greek pensioner who claimed he could not afford to live with new austerity measures has sparked a new round of protests in Greece. People are essentially questioning why they are being forced to suffer for a crisis that isn't their own making. Depending on your own view of things, you might sympathize with this viewpoint, or you might point out that people have fed at the trough long enough to be part of the problem, whether or not they meant to be. However, as usual in the modern narrative, the issue is that the underlying problem is not really being explored.

Enough has been written about Peak Oil over the years to where discussing it in the absence of any new revelation on the topic is probably a waste of time, but I think there is a corollary to it which really hasn't been discussed much yet, something that would probably accurately be called "Peak Wealth." By this, I mean the tipping point where the actual economic worth and soundness of the average individual and the overall begins to decline, where our options become increasingly limited, shifting from a luxury-seeking preference to a subsistence-seeking one.

If we use an analogy of Peak Oil to examine Peak Wealth, consider it in these terms. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, it began an evolving process of using trade (and sometimes conquest) to build wealth. This wealth began to be accumulated in a banking system (initiated by the Knights Templar, perfected by the Medicis) which was used to power economic and technological expansion for centuries to come. Then, came the rise of modern consumerism. Just like sheep being turned loose on verdant Achaean hillsides, spendthrift politicians and credit-addicted consumers have sheared the accumulated wealth of civilization lean over the past couple of centuries, leaving us with little in the way of actual resources.

This is maybe a harder thing to define in real terms than it is to capture as an concept. Per capita income, which is sometimes kicked around, is a misleading figure. If wages are adjusted for inflation, we'll see incomes raise, even though the prices of commodities may rise even faster than what people can afford with their new-found "wealth."  Purchasing power calculators may offer more of an accurate glimpse, but this may require matching price to commodity. Things like consumer confidence and unemployment are even more misleading, both figures being so politically volatile that they are more "cooked" than a Fukushima hot dog.

I plan to do a little digging and follow up this blog post with something which has some meaningful number crunching, but consider a few things here. Real wages have not risen in America since 1970, yet the pressure put on commodities has increased by an expanding population. Some commodities (such as oil) have been available only because of a technological race between depletion and the science used to extract or process them. People have to work two or three jobs to cover just basic household expanses. The labor pool has increased, but the value of labor has dropped because there is no corresponding increase in actual wealth.

On a national level, it means we can't fix the roads or bridges, or figure out how to come up with a real, workable solution to resources depletion, or balance the budget, and so on. On a personal level, it means we have to do much more with much less, and can no longer really look to other parties to even minimally ensure our economic futures. Greece is the tip of the iceberg, but the rest of the world is going to eventually follow. What is also telling here is that this wealth was carefully built through the exploitation of natural resources, trade, scientific innovation, conquest, etc. These things are no longer possible now, especially since we have decided as a species to remain on earth and to choose luxury over progress. Our heroes are sports stars and singers, not scientists or inventors.

The question then comes to mind of what this actually means with regard to the possibility of collapse? The answer simply is that this is the collapse itself, when we're no longer able to realistically maintain the economic systems we've built. Just like depletion of oil resources would mean an end to the labor multiplier that every person has enjoyed for the last few generations, the depletion of wealth resources, and the inability to rebuild them, will mean an end to the independent economic existence that most people have enjoyed for the past few centuries.