Do We Choose to Change, or Do We Fall?

Aristotle famously noted, 2,400 years ago, that the smallest error in the beginning gets multiplied a thousand-fold.

The implication of this is not that we must make sure we are “right” before we start out: most of human life requires making choices with insufficient information to even know what all the paths open to us are, much less which one is the optimal one.

Instead, what the aphorism does say is that, when we find ourselves on the “wrong” path, we should figure out how to get onto a better one rather than multiplying our initial error by trying to make it all work out so that we can be proven right.

The unwillingness to change our ways is what will cause our civilization to collapse around our ears, and more quickly and more completely than expected. It has ever been thus: you can read Joseph Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) on how the Maya literally ate themselves out of continuation, or Jared Diamond (Collapse) about how the Vikings of Greenland stubbornly held to the superiority of “European values” and died out rather than adopt Inuit practices for survival, or A. J. Toynbee’s discussion in A Study of History of the dangers of losing the initiative and allowing society to stratify into a dominant minority & internal proletariat (the termination of many societies), and see parallels all around us, from the 1%:99% debate onward.

Yet remember: it all looks right until just before we go over the cliff!

If we were Ancient Rome, we’d be far closer today to being laid waste by the Huns, the Vandals, the Franks, the Goths and the Visigoths than we would be to merely losing our stable Imperium to civil wars battling for control between old and new ways. In other words, we are far past Marcus Aurelius, and even past Diocletian in some ways (although we have not yet had the full “crisis of money” that he heralds for Rome).

To change, it is essential that we recognise that regret for how we came to be where we are must be let go of. So, too, blame: satisfying though it may be, it merely prolongs the notion that “we’re still all right, we just need to fix this”. When fundamental change is needed, patching doesn’t help.

Of course mistakes — big ones — were made! Of course there was thievery galore! Of course we are horribly hooped! Let it go.

If we do not deal with the situation we are now in, we doubly fail: we fail to establish a path to a better outcome, and we multiply our bet on a lesser, even failing, path.

So we see the situation today: having wasted a generation’s worth of resources on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we stand at the brink of starting another one in Iran. Having watched finance capitalism destroy businesses, towns and people in the quest for “more, ever more”, we watch the world’s central bankers destroy what’s left of the global economy to buy the boys on Wall Street, Lombard Street, Canada Wharf and in Frankfurt one more party.

Everyone talks about growth, but no one wants to deal with what it takes. It takes three things: appropriately priced and available new energy, production capacity or innovations in service that can be put to work, and buyers with resources enough to purchase the outputs.

What do we have? We’ve been bumping along the plateau of energy production now for half a decade, desperately adding unconventional sources wherever possible, to make up for the declining output of traditional light crudes. The new sources are not affordable, relatively speaking, and require masses of capital in high risk ventures (most shale wells do not produce their cost of capital, despite the claims, and the oil sands are also capital intensive over decades). Ethanol has a lousy (near 1:1) energy return on the energy input to create it when handled from corn, and with 50% of US corn production now committed to ethanol that country has offset a mere 5% of its imports on a net energy basis. We could be building thorium salt reactors (uranium production is mostly committed) but we’re “afraid” of a proven 1950s technology — and despite investments worldwide renewables are not shouldering enough of the burden yet, nor do they compete (generally) at today’s hydrocarbon-driven prices.

All that adds up to an energy shortfall ahead, not a growth scenario.

Offshoring of manufacturing has meant that in many places the productive capacities are shuttered, the contents sold off, the windows shattered and plants growing up through the floors. We look at pictures of today’s Detroit and fail to notice that that is much of what were places of employment around us all over the continent. Yes, there is still much manufacturing done in North America — more than is generally acknowledged — but production here is what growth here requires, unless all we are talking about is financial asset price increases. For jobs, wages, spending locally to occur, work must occur.

Services? More and more of these are also able to be taken offshore. Routine legal matters, financial servicing, etc. can be done from halfway around the planet as easily as here. Certainly the small services: barbering, shoe repair, and the like will remain, although increasingly these are chain operations and being banished from neighbourhoods to strips on the edge of town — or on the edge of three towns over, as smaller centres are closed by far-away owners who say “not enough business here; let them drive to it”.

If people lack work, or they lack work that allows them to do more than just eke out a bare existence — Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus and Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir describe hard-working Appalachian Americans and their “just barely getting by” lives with love and affection, not urban liberal tch-tch’ing over “poverty” or suburban conservative smug satisfaction at having done better than those people — there is only one way “growth” in consumption can occur: debt. Which we have, in great heaping mounds. Yet debt requires that tomorrow you make more, so as to maintain consumption while retiring the debt. That we do not have. Nor, in a world where organisations trade a 1/2¢/share improvement in earnings for the lifeblood of communities — “we’re not going to make anything here, but people are going to buy from us anyway” — are they going to have it.

Meanwhile the true state of affairs is that the low grade depression that began in 1973 (as described by John Ralston Saul in Voltaire’s Bastards) continues, the gains are all nominal, and the US dollar has lost 2/3 of its value in just ten years (from US$1 = 1/250 oz. of gold to US$1 = 1/1700 oz. of gold) – or, if you like, from US$1 = CA$1.61 to US$1 = CA$1.01, or from US$1 = €1.19 to US$1 = €0.75). Or you could put it another way: incomes “grew” by half as much as the CPI showed prices have risen — and, since food and fuel are not part of the CPI, by one-third relative to real cost inflation. Canada is in similar straits: the average British Columbian and Ontarian now lives on his credit cards, of which he/she has a good dozen, all receiving minimum payments only.

This last is the “growth” our leaders — business and political — speak of. A growth in enslavement, not the real thing at all.

The fantasies that sustain this kind of behaviour are three-fold: “technology will bail us out”, “American supremacy is forever” and “none of that foreign stuff affects me”.

Technology can do amazing things, but I question its ability to whip up quite enough in a short time to make a difference. Fundamental science has been lagging; most of what we do is highly derivative. In other words, we can see the processes that are likely to make a difference for us, and the news there is not good.

Most new energy sources, for instance, do not deliver enough added energy (over their cost of production) to be worth the investment (which may explain why in most cases they don’t get it and its governments that throw tax dollars at it): ethanol, which is (because we insist on doing it quickly from food stocks) is not producing any sort of significant energy increase, but it is driving the cost and availability of food skyward.

World food stocks — between weather related issues affecting crops, and diversion of food stocks into fuel production (never mind exhaustion of soils due to overly intensive agribusiness techniques, water quality and availability falloff, etc.) now creates a second shortage sooner.

American supremacy is also riding on a legacy. The twin deficits and undisciplined management of American economics, the hollowing-out of American manufacturing, and the accelerating debasement of the American currency are far more able to finish the destruction of the high tech war machine that is the American military than even the exhaustion of its personnel in the endless policing of war zones and the staffing of the 730+ bases in countries around the world. Only the question of how to extricate large holdings of American assets — dollars, stocks, bonds — without crashing their price too quickly stays the hand of those countries importing a nascent hyperinflation thanks to years of Greenspan and Bernacke on the one hand, and the profligacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations and the Congressional spenders on the other.

Lest we Canadians feel smug, we are equally bad. So are the EU states. So are the Australians.

The early signs of breaking with America are all around, though. When China buys agricultural fields in Africa, or makes investments in energy and minerals around the world, it sells its US Treasuries to do so. You can see this in the slowing increase in Chinese holdings of US debt, buying only to replace, and the growing pile of assets for “exclusive use”. In essence, the flow of manufactured goods — cheap! buy now! — pays for that country to buy up resources and remove them from the global market. An oil field owned by China and developed by China in a deal with the national oil body of a third country is production for China, not available at any price to others. And the Chinese are not alone in realising that they need to do exactly that.

What happens when the notion that you can just buy what you need fails because no one is bringing anything to market? “Your money is no good here, because we have none left to sell.”

One day soon banking tricks won’t work any longer, and the dollar will collapse, and with it New York falls into a globally-irrelevant money centre. The hyperinflation of quantitative easing exported to the world will suddenly come home here. Americans will have to deal with the price increases. Canadians will have to make a decision: allow the Canadian dollar to skyrocket and collapse our own economy (aside from the resource sector), or copy the hyperinflation as quickly as possible to keep Canada “in sync” with its most dominant trading partner? Neither is a good choice. (This is why Roman provinces all went down together: there were no options when the civil wars destroyed the Roman economy and money.)

The American war machine will likewise become unsustainable at that point. When a country is unwilling to “return with your shield, or on it” – and in a high-tech war machine soldiers are not asked to simply die in waves to wear down opponents — then money and a stream of advanced technology is the engine of war. Kill your money (which America not only has done but is accelerating into wastepaper) and the Pentagon returns to being a funny building: “four walls and a spare”, and little more.

As for the last one — “none of this affects me” — consider the global energy situation for a moment. There are no magic wands to suddenly increase the supply of cheap and easily-accessible oil and natural gas. This planet is explored: the last year in which new fields were found replacing current production was 1964. Those supplies are consumed, and their residue is still substantial, but annual production is now in irrevocable decline. Any new supplies found — and the pockets are far smaller and of poorer quality than in years past — are only viable at higher prices.

A lifestyle centred on constant driving for just about every purpose is already held hostage to the volatility of supply shocks and an ever-increasing basic price of the product. So, too, the power in the outlet on the wall: generation capacity is near its limits. In both cases demand increases as though there are no limits. Since the disruptions are always at the margins, volatility in the economy is the result.

But will we reinvent our commuter life — build alternative infrastructure — invest in new generation capabilities while we have the free resources to do so — figure out a new economy based on the principles needed now, not in the last century? Ah, now we get into “build nothing anywhere near anyone”, “not in my back yard!”, “not on our hereditary lands”, “close that polluting plant (and who cares about its replacement)”, etc. This has already led to two decades of reduced and eliminated investment and construction!

Only when the choice becomes stark will anything change, and even then it will be a battle royale between the “save the planet” crowd and the “burn anything, no matter how dirty, to keep things going as they are a little longer”. The middle ground of “change the way we live in ways we can live with” will probably be lost between these extremes.

Now you know why I take heart in local initiative and local communities, and little from “big fixes”.

Our belief in our omnipotence is such, in fact, that we fail to distinguish between things that can be done, and things that will be impossible to do. Eventually the time and energy required to do what can be done isn’t there, and more and more avenues become closed. Thus our outcome will be far worse than if we had been willing to change paths earlier — even today.

This belief in our ability to change the world willy-nilly to conform to our desires, without limit or concern for basic physical, biological, economic or other facts and laws, will reach its breaking point shortly. So we will exhaust centuries of our future in a blaze of intensity trying to keep everything just as it is, all because of beliefs that are never to be questioned.

Canute could not hold back the tide; we cannot hold back depletion of the various aspects of our strength. Toward the end, to command what little remains, little surveillance states, dictating the terms oligopolistically, will emerge, and the Western experiment with self-governing communities will be totally snuffed out. These will turn on each other for the dregs before this mania has run its course. Welcome back to the eighteenth century.

Why are we like this? Western civilisation accepts no limits: its core idea is that of the infinite, and persistence as a power function infinitely into the future. Our belief in progress, technology, and power gave us the globe, but is ill-suited to a world of limits, or a world where defence is cheaper than offence.

But that is where we live, now: we missed our opportunity to go where the resources are (space) while we still had enough to get there easily.

Loud bangs and the whimpering of the survivors will be the outcome, not of our arrogance in reaching out in the nineteenth century, but for our failure to give up our own stale mantras in the twentieth and twenty-first. The life of the eternal peasant, surrounded by the detritus of greatness, awaits us in the twenty-second, all because we failed to act when we had the chance.

If these last paragraphs seem dismal, then understand that change is yet possible. But the more we wish to conserve of what we have, and the more capacity to go forward we want to create, the more we must change now as opposed to when there are no choices left. This starts by giving up our belief that “growth” is our birthright, that we can have what we want because we want it.

Some get this already. It may be wise to join forces with them. Change, as they say, begins at home. And, perhaps, with where you make yours.

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