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Boondoggles to the rescue!

Economic collapse has a way of turning economic negatives into positives. It is not necessary for the United States to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning to match the Soviet lackluster performance in this area. We have our own methods that are working almost as well. I call them “boondoggles.” They are solutions to problems that result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve.

Just look around and you will see boondoggles sprouting up everywhere, in every field of endeavor: we have military boondoggles like Iraq, financial boondoggles like the doomed retirement system, medical boondoggles like private health insurance and legal boondoggles like the intellectual property system. At some point, creating another boondoggle becomes the preferred course of action: since the outcome can be predicted with complete accuracy, there is little risk. Proposing a solution that might work runs the risk of it not working.

So why not, as a matter of policy, only propose solutions that are guaranteed to simply create more problems, for which further solutions can then be proposed? At some point, a boondoggle event horizon is reached, like the light event horizon that exists at the surface of a black hole. Beyond that horizon, the only possible course of action is to create more boondoggles.

The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground-floor window. We just have to help this process along, or at least not interfere with it. So if somebody comes to you and says, “I want to make a boondoggle that runs on hydrogen” — by all means encourage him! It’s not as good as a boondoggle that burns money directly, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Once you understand the principles involved, boondoggling will come naturally. Let us work through a sample problem: there is no longer enough gasoline to go around. A simple but effective solution is to ban the sale of new cars, with the exception of certain fleet vehicles used by public services. First, older cars are overall more energy-efficient than new cars, because the massive amount of energy that went into manufacturing them is more highly amortized. Second, large energy savings accrue from the shutdown of an entire industry devoted to designing, building, marketing and financing new cars. Third, older cars require more maintenance, reinvigorating the local economy at the expense of mainly foreign car manufacturers, and helping reduce the trade deficit. Fourth, this will create a shortage of cars, translating automatically into fewer, shorter car trips, a higher passenger occupancy per trip and more bicycling and use of public transportation, saving even more energy. Lastly, this would allow the car to be made obsolete on about the same time line as the oil industry that made it possible.

Of course, this solution does not qualify as a boondoggle, so it will not be seriously considered. The problems it creates are too small, and they offer too little scope for creating further boondoggles. Moreover, if this solution worked, then everyone would be happily driving their slightly older cars, completely unprepared for some inevitable, cataclysmic, economy-collapsing event. It is better to introduce some boondoggles, such as corn-based ethanol and coal-to-liquids conversion. Ethanol production creates very little additional energy but it does create some fantastic problems for further boondoggling: a shortage of food and higher food prices, malnutrition among the poor and inflation. It also reinforces a large existing boondoggle: by funneling resources to petrochemical-based agribusiness, which depletes and poisons the soil and has no future in an age when petrochemicals are scarce, it helps undermine future food security. Coal-to-liquids conversion offers similarly excellent opportunities. By attempting to alleviate a shortage of gasoline, it will cause a shortage of coal, resulting in power outages and dramatically higher electricity rates. It will add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. It will probably call for some coal imports, inefficiently moving a very bulky fuel from far away, and fostering energy dependence on suppliers such as China and Russia, further enhancing the trade deficit. Along with corn-based ethanol, this excellent boondoggle reinforces the erroneous notion that Americans will be able to continue to drive cars into the indefinite future, conditioning them to clamor for more boondoggles in place of any real solutions.

With a bit of practice, you should be able to come up with some excellent boondoggles of your own in your own field of endeavor. If your boondoggle works, it will create more problems for you to solve in the next round, as long as there is time for one more round. And if there is not, then you will be where you want to be: at a ground-floor window, staring into an abyss of only a couple of feet. Although by then it may feel unnatural, at that point you must resist the temptation to create yet another boondoggle by jumping down head-first.

[Reinventing Collapse, pp 118-120]

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