Stepping down gracefully beats crashing down hard

Long time readers of this blog should, by now, have figured out that I don’t hold out much hope for magical technical fixes for the problems that are piling up rapidly about us.

The information technology space (which has been the core of how I’ve earned my living for lo these nearly forty years) does interesting things — but none of them are going to make up for the destruction of capital, the loss of cheap and easy resources, the ever-tightening energy bind, or the destruction coming from our having done everything to excess without considering the consequences over the past five or six generations.

Many of the ideas I put about here are put out with an eye toward stepping back gracefully from the point where a tipping point is reached. Adjusting where you live to be in a community where you don’t need a car to do everything — where you can walk for most purposes — makes you independent of sudden sticker shock for the price of gasoline, not to mention sudden supply shortfalls (and, as the people of the American South discovered in 2005, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the gulf coast, the pipeline that delivers gasoline to their cities has to operate at 90% or more of capacity or nothing gets delivered).

That didn’t even require that an armed Islamic state with several axes to grind decides to take out the oil exporting capacities of its neighbouring Islamic states, undeterred by the world’s mightiest military machine threatening to intervene. Just a regular natural occurrence, and it was back to rationing and gas lines.

Right now our biggest problem is the destruction of capital. Years of underinvestment in maintenance has brought far too much infrastructure to the breaking point. Years of operating by the tenets of efficiency — got to get that extra 1/4¢ per share! — has removed resilience, robustness and alternative sources of supply through all sorts of systems. Years of ultra-low interest rates, in turn, have destroyed capital formation while at the same time drawing demand forward by making debt easier. The GDP we stole from the 2010s, 2020s, 2030s and beyond was used to pump up the 1990s and 2000s.

But the biggest source of capital destruction is in our shoddy, near-criminal banking system. There’s a reason no one is investigating and prosecuting, a reason no one is upholding laws that were already on the books. There’s a reason “mark asset values to fantasy” became an accounting standard, a reason robosigning documents and making unsubstantiated claims gets upheld rather that thrown out of court, a reason the alienation of segregated customer assets by financial firms is now perfectly all right (and no redress to the poor customer who loses thereby).

It’s a house of cards — a global house of cards. Interlocking derivatives means that when a destructive event happens — mass losses gambling on risky plays one last time, a country exiting the Eurozone in a rush, some player of mid-size range finally saying “you know, why don’t we just default” — the whole thing will come tumbling down.

All that financial “wealth” suddenly becomes … nothing.

Then there will be no money to fix that bridge, or to repair that refinery, or to keep that pipeline in repair, or to pursue the pipe dreams of corn into ethanol, or wind farms as far as the eye can see, or deserts filled with solar panels, or even drilling more wells. Fracking will be out of reach. So will digging up the oil sands.

Suddenly the whole jobs economy shudders to a halt, crashing into one barrier after another. Metaphorical tumbleweeds will blow through the drive through at McDonald’s and through the WalMart store just as they do through the old Ford plant or the offices of Google. It won’t be good jobs vs McJobs, it’ll be any work vs no work.

Community supported agriculture takes you out of global food supply chains. Living walkable means fuel is less of a concern. Co-operative ventures rather than traditional stock-based corporations and member or crowd funding insulates things from the banking system and its failures (and you know that in the spasms the productive loans will be called to buy a few more hours, just as they were in the Great Depression).

Local currencies have value when the faith in government-issued money is shaken, and keep local communities “in circulation” (as Margaret Atwood noted in Payback, money is supposed to be a current — a river of motion — not something to be accumulated or exported to far-away headquarters).

Back in 2005, James Howard Kunstler called this time “The Long Emergency”. Since then, John Michael Greer called it “The Long Descent”. Both are accurate.

When the path leads down, you can take deliberate steps to reach the ground below, or you can hang out on the cliff’s edge dreaming of bridges taking you further. That belief in magic inevitably leads to the cliff’s edge crumbling and the descent is swift.

Personally, a planned return to the 19th century of small communities beats the hell out of a fast trip back to the 16th century, a time of famine, war, pestilence and the like.

The rallying cry is as always sauve qui peut: save yourself if you can. But survivalists who save only themselves are as much believers in magic as those who deny anything untoward is going on.

You save yourself by doing so in community.

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