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Can you spare a dime? Why we could....but won't


They used to tell me
I was building a dream.
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow
Or guns to bear.
I was always there.
Right on the job.

They used to tell me
I was building a dream.
With peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad
I made it run
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad
Now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

- Gorney and Harburg "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
[YouTube]


One of the most interesting aspects of editing my own older writings on peak oil for my book is how often I find myself change "may" or "could be" or "has been predicted" to "is." That is, it is striking even to me how rapidly we have moved from the realm of prediction to observed phenomena. The habit of thinking in terms of anticipation rather than reality is a hard one to break - after a seeming endless divining of signs and portents and wondering if you are crazy or not, it is strange to suddenly realize, "Oh, we're here in the beginnings of the new world." It shakes me sometimes, and I sometimes wonder if I'm the only one.

That was one of the most striking revelations I had when reading Naomi Klein's wise essay in this month's Harpers, "Disaster Capitalism." (The original article, at Harpers, is behind a paywall, and this is somewhat different than the 2005 article of a similar title written in The Nation and available for free - it is really worth reading the article in full, and probably better to read the book from which it is adapted The Shock Doctrine). [The Guardian has four long excerpts.]

Klein, without a full analysis of the energy implications, has grasped the basic economic reality - that our next "bubble" will be/is the scavenging of wealth from the ordinary poor people (most of us) by the comparatively fortunate (mostly corporations), as we privatize the cleaning up of the messes we've made and pass their costs out upon the rest of us. In fact, one could describe the massive growth in much of the housing industry as an early version of disaster capitalism, offering a fantasy of security to the poor who were bound to lose their security and homes. Bottom feeding is the new black, I guess. As those who can afford it (or who in desperation can secure credit when they can't afford it) pay privately to fix the consequences of the terrible things we've put in motion, the rest of us will be stuck.

Klein quotes, among other figures, the observation that it would cost 1.5 *trillion* dollars in five just to get America's basic engineering infrastructure up to speed - just to keep the bridges from falling down, the sewers from backing up. Since that's a bit less than we intend to spend in Iraq, according to Joseph Steigletz, do any of us really believe that our heavily leveraged economy is going to allow us to spend trillions to fix up the existing infrastructure, much less to engage in the vastly more expensive project of adapting that infrastructure to a low energy, renewable dependent future?

That's why the gentlemen over at The Oil Drum who reply to every thread with "But all we have to do is...." and then offer some lengthy proposal about electrified rail, 500 new nuclear plants, wind farms everywhere or covering up Arizona with solar panels, so amuse me. And it isn't that I don't think that we'll ever do any of those things. Yes, we will almost certainly build new nuclear plants, wind farms and lay some new rail track. But what we won't be having is a (successful) Manhattan project for renewable energy, or any universal system that allows all of us to spend the next 35 years comfortably adapting our lives to better houses, a renewably powered grid and electrically powered cars.

Demonstration projects will be built, some states and communities will adapt more than others, we'll do some piece work in infrastructure, but ultimately, the money isn't there. Bottom feeding is never going to be as profitable as our previous economic mobilizers, simply because it depends on eternally extracting tinier and tinier sums from more and more desperate people. As there are fewer wealthy, the folks who now offer hurricane evacuation on luxury cruises will find fewer customers. So not only will we have a security apartheid, but also a shrinking class of those who can afford it.

Now my own particular take on peak oil is very simple. Energy and money are powerfully linked. Less available energy and higher costs for it mean less money. A few people will get rich on this. A vastly larger number will get poor - and indeed, have been getting poor, as real wealth has fallen steadily since shortly after American oil peaked in the 1970s. This trend is likely to accellerate, and its consequences is this - Iraq may well be the last giant public boondoggle of America, unless ethanol outlives it. That is, by the time we extract ourselves from Iraq, and see the full consequences of it, by the time we realize that we just blew the last chance we had to rebuild New Orleans or provide universal health care, we'll realize that there simply isn't enough money left for all the big stuff we need to do.

In order for us to have a life anything like the one we're living right now in 20 years, we would have to do the following:

  1. Rebuild the grid, and replace existing plants with new one, a project estimated at several trillion dollars.

  2. Devote 2% of our GDP annually to the remediation of climate change - minimum. This does not include the costs of responding to disasters because we've let things go too far.
  3. Reinsulate and retrofit 90 million dwellings for minimal heating and cooling needs, at an estimated cost of 20-50K per home.
  4. Reorder and build a local agriculture infrastructure and build transport and delivery mechanisms for food.
  5. Engage in public transport building and the adaptation of our whole economy to more local societies. Bring millions of families that can no longer afford to fly to one another together.

Shall I go on? Because this is merely the beginning. The projects are so enormous, and the combined effects of so many of our foolishnesses coming home to roost so vast that while we *could* do any one or two of these things, we probably won't even do that. What, instead, we will do is manage in bits and pieces, and then not manage when we can't. We've seen in New Orleans and with our crumbling infrastructure that we can no longer actually keep up with fixing and maintaining, recreating and rebuilding what we have let go. All of the things, as Christians say in prayer, what we have done and what we have left undone are starting to tumble apart, and we cannot afford to mend them.

The reality is that when we covertly acknowledged we could no longer maintain the basic infrastructure of industrial society, when we implicitly acknowledged that we would tolerate the war to keep the fossil fuels going, when we explicitly said "the American way of life is non-negotiable" we accepted our reality - we're not going to fix the problem, even if we could have. We're racing towards a wall, and not only are we not slowing down, we're gunning the motor by doing things like expanding ethanol production and sending the next generation's hope against malnutrition down the river, and letting the terms of the political discussion be shaped by whether or not to tighten fuel efficiency, rather than how fast we can get the cars off the road. As George Monbiot has observed, we have chosen the path of appearing to do things while not doing them, and we have thus sealed part of our future.

Any major infrastructure projects will come out of the tax dollars of increasingly poor and desperate people - or out of the corporate coffers of the people who prey on them, who will be absolutely certain to ensure that anyone who *doesn't* have the cash to pay doesn't benefit. The simple fact that we can't afford to rebuild a major American city, or keep the bridges up should point out to us that the notion of preserving a public good of any sort has passed entirely out of the culture. If you retain hope that you or your kids will still be living the same basic kind of life, only with more renewable energy and maybe a nicer bike that you ride more often, I would abandon it now. It is true that you may be one of the fortunate whose corporate pensions were invested in growth industries like private militias and bringing bottled water to the drought stricken, but do you want to bet on it?

I know my own personal bet has always been this - that I will be like most people - poor. And most of us, like the young man in "Brother can you spare a dime" will be shocked that we, the middle class who were once the subject of a great deal of attention to our plight, will cease to be recognized.

They called me Al.
It was Al all the time.
Why don't you remember?
I'm your pal.
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?

We have already explicitly ceased to recognize people from the class who serve in the military, work on farms, and otherwise do the basic labor we depend on, and increasingly, they will cease to recognize us.

Now I imagine that for some people, perhaps many, this post seems remarkably bleak. I think a majority of even those who are convinced about peak oil and climate change think that we've still got time. And in a sense, we do - the slow grind is on, but it won't hit everyone at once. The problem is in betting that you will be one of the fortunate who gets hit later, rather than sooner. But the notion that the crisis is happening now, that we really are at the end of things, and the beginning of them, is a frightening one.

But there's an upside. At the end of his analysis of the problem of complexity in The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter includes a very brief explanation of why "undevelopment" that is, voluntary regression of society to lower levels of consumption and complexity is bound to failure. He argues,

Here is the reasons why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.
(Tainter, 214).

Now Tainter's central argument is that complexity, and the diminishing returns of maintaining it, is what drives societies towards a crisis point, and we can certainly see diminishing returns in our own society. The very fact that bottom feeding and cleaning up after ultimately economically destructive events like war and disaster is being seen as growth industry points out that we truly have no place left to go economically. Having built a tower to the moon that has fallen short, we are now picking up the bottom items, pulling them out one by one, and using them to lengthen the tower, giving us the illusion we get where we are going without actually falling over. But as anyone old enough to have seen a Wiley Coyote cartoon knows, at some point, you look down and see the absence of any solid base.

Why should this be even remotely refreshing? Because Tainter is right - we probably won't ever stop the growth machine voluntarily - we *can't* - but once things fall apart, we have no choice but to start again. And as difficult as that will be, and as little as I relish it, I believe my children's future is more secure in a world where can't afford to burn as much fossil fuel as we like, and where we have to leave some resources in the ground for future generations. That may seem a small hope, but it is actually a vast one. I do not propose that peak oil will make us better people - hardly. But since we appear entirely unable to put the brakes on ourselves, I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that better now than later.

And the reality is this - we actually need very few fossil fuels. There is little question that human beings pee out enough nitrogen to keep us fed, along with judicious use of land. Our basic needs - and I mean very basic ones - are for food, shelter, water. We can get along with considerably less of everything than we presently use by changing our diets, making do with our existing housing, learning to live comfortably where we are, using water much more carefully. The vast majority of what we use fossil fuels for are comfort and convenience, and we may find that without them, we do surprisingly well.

There is no doubt that we can manage this better or worse, that our life with minimal resource use could be bleak and horrible, or comparatively graceful, and it is this distinction that concerns me - not "how do we keep the trains running on time and the job market for lit professors healthy" - because while I might prefer a life of trains running and Shakespeareans, we all have a solid bit of historical evidence for that fact that neither is essential to human life; but "how do we keep lifespans long, infant mortality low, literacy high and community ties strong?" And the best possible answer I can come up with right now is that the first step to making those things happen is to acknowledge all the other things that we are never going to do.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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