Energy Bulletin ran this excellent piece from the New York Times on a crisis facing Mongolian Goat Herders who are attempting to deal with unstable world markets, climate change and overgrazing. I was fascinated by the clear way that the author of the piece lays out the vicious circle that they’ve entered into, and I was struck by how useful an example it is of the kind of ecological vicious circle that we face all the time:

To compensate for low prices, herders have been increasing supply by breeding more goats — a classic vicious circle. Mongolia’s goat population is now approaching 20 million, the highest ever recorded.

Environmentalists and social scientists say this is destroying biodiversity and pastureland, and undermining herding livelihoods. But goats are hardier than other livestock, breed faster and can survive on sparser resources: so, the more the land is degraded, the more herders are driven to switch from cows, camels or other less destructive herds — another vicious circle.

Mixed into the problem is climate change. According to Erdene-Ochir Badarch, environment officer of the World Bank, rainfall on the Mongolian steppe has become increasingly erratic, resulting in the disappearance of 600 Mongolian rivers and 700 lakes. This too may be a chicken-and-egg problem. Increasing aridity and loss of plant species may itself be contributing to the dwindling rains.

In a study funded by the World Bank, Dennis Sheehy, a rancher from Oregon with a doctorate in range management, last year measured two of Mongolia’s four major ecological zones — desert and forest steppe — to determine changes in the composition of species compared with an earlier study made in 1997.

Mr. Sheehy found a 34 percent loss in plant species in the Gobi Desert and about a 30 percent loss in Mongolia’s forest steppe.

“Two conditions have created the loss in species: the proportion of goats in the herd in the last 10 to 12 years, and the areas are becoming increasingly arid,” Mr. Sheehy said. “The plant species that had disappeared were most palatable to all livestock, but especially to goats,” he added. “There are too many of them.”

Besides climate change and overgrazing, in part pushed by dependence on world markets and by a shift away from government supports of traditional livelihoods. This being the New York Times Business section, their assumption is that the solution to the problem is better marketing, and more dependence on the world market, but ignoring that part of the discussion ;-), I find this very ordinary vicious circle to be a lovely metaphor for the very ordinary vicious circles we’re entering into.

Consider a simple one – the question of what to do about heat in cold places like the one I live in. Right now the majority of US households are heated by natural gas or coal fired electricity, with a minority (including mine, if we use our central heating which we rarely do) heated by oil. Almost all of the oil heated areas are in the Northeast – for some reason gas pipelines simply weren’t built out to rural areas of New England and other northeastern states. So while nationally the percentage of people using heating oil is only about 8%, it is nearly half in some New England states. 3 out of 4 people using fuel oil for heat live where I do.

In 2008, when oil prices skyrocketed to 148 dollars a barrel, how to stay warm was the single biggest discussion point all over my region. Not only are we more dependent on fuel oil than anyone else in the US, but our housing stock is older, and often poorly insulated, and, of course, it gets cold. It was not unusual for me to get four or five emails a day from people afraid of freezing to death in their homes during a bitter winter. Governors in New England states declared states of emergency. The “heat or eat” crisis that emerges in cold climates where already struggling families skip meals because an ever larger percentage of their income goes to heating made people worry about real hunger emerging in the US. Fortunately for all immediate concerns (unfortunately in some ways for long term issues), the price of oil crashed in the fall of 2008, before the heating season, and most people were able to keep warm.

But what’s most interesting about this brush with crisis is that the two most logical solutions for rural dwellers outside the gas lines emerged – and both of them are vicious circle solutions. The first is the classic woodstove, a common sight in rural parts of the Northeast. Almost everyone out here has one, at least for backup or supplemental heat – and it makes a lot of sense to have one. Not only is a fire a cozy and wonderful thing, but power outages are common in cold places that get heavy ice and snow accumulation. Localized heating – where you warm one or two rooms, rather than the whole house can be really useful as well.

But the key to all these woodstoves is that they operate as secondary heat sources. It is the replacement of wood heat with oil and natural gas that has permitted the great Eastern Forests to be one of the single largest unified biomes in the world – to create corridors that allow Moose to come from Maine to Boston or coyotes from the Adirondacks to New York City. All that forestation is a product primarily of fossil fuel usage. More people, particularly people trained to expect a uniformly warm house, using wood will be an ecological disaster for the northeast – from colonization on, a vastly smaller population totally deforested the Northeast due to farming and wood consumption, and until 100 years ago, most of the great Eastern forest didn’t exist. Wood heat is great – but its greatness depends on a small number of people, many of them deeply ecologically aware, or using it as a supplement – being wood heaters.

The other alternative that emerged was coal. Now I grew up in a less enlightened age with one of the last coal stoves in existence – my parents purchased an old house with little insulation and with no heat at all in most of the house. The most inexpensive, reliable option in our outer suburb of Boston was a coal stove, and thus, my parents warmed our house that way for many years. I hadn’t even seen one in a decade or more, but last year, when the fear of cold began to pervade households, my local Agway hung out a banner that read “we sell coal!” and local dealers began advertising the merits of coal stoves.

They were many virtues – coal stoves are cheaper than wood stoves, and for people without woodlots, coal is often cheaper than wood. It gives out more heat, and can be stored more easily than wood. For a dweller in a poor city in Maine or New York, the coal stove offered more than even the woodstove – a reliable and cheap source of heat to replace oil.

Why not simply reinsulate, and do with less heat? But for most of us, reinsulation is a more expensive project than replacing one winter’s heating fuel with a cheaper one. The people most worried about this are the ones who always struggle to pay the heating bills anyway – and they will have to pay those bills one way or another. Investing money in reinsulation projects *and* in heating fuel isn’t possible. Some may have qualified for subsidized insulation programs through state subsidies or LIHEAP, but the demand for those exceeded the supply wildly.

The logical outcome of an oil price crisis in the Northeast *ought* to have been the use of less fuel. And in some ways, it almost certainly would have been. Middle class households would have cut their heat back part of the way, reducing overall consumption. Businesses struggling with the bottom line but able to afford heat would have done the same. Some people who had used oil rather than natural gas from habit, or having an oil-fired furnace, rather than lack of gas lines, converted to cleaner burning natural gas. Some people with the money who had been saying their really should insulate did.

But reduced consumption in one area doesn’t equal reduced consumption or emissions overall, and that’s the problem. Some people of my aquaintance who might have insulated didn’t – because they had to use that money to buy a wood or coal stove and install it. Other people converted to electric space heaters – that mostly use coal fired electricity. Other folk had already committed to their old method of heating at high locked in rates and couldn’t afford to go back and change their mind and insulate or switch to other methods because the money was already gone for oil. The most affected states tried to help, but they and their municipalities were also struggling with high oil prices.

The reality is that oil prices fell fast enough that in the end, it is hard to tell what the longer term effects would be – but I saw enough of them to believe that in a world of consistently high oil prices – and the economic costs of those prices, we’d see a higher rate of emissions from winter heating, not lower, along with deforestation. Millions of personal coal stoves are a potential disaster for all of us – and yet they are logical outcome of individual choices and enormous pressures that make adaptation in situ, mid-crisis, very, very difficult.

The same is true of the crisis of the Mongolian herders – there is probably a better solution than more goats and more reliance on fickle world markets for a luxury fiber, but it is almost impossible to begin offering them. How does a herder struggling with low fiber prices get the money to change his stock and practices? Given climate change and overgrazing and desertification, what animals will even do well for him?

You can imagine how this vicious circle will be mirrored in millions of ways by the collective crisis we face – the concatenation of climate change, resource depletion and their economic costs. Hotter temperatures mean more air conditioners, which, because of their direct and indirect polluting effects, means more bad air, which means more asthma and other lung ailments, which means more dependence on air conditioners which means more pressure on the electric grid and more emissions and an endless and disastrous set of outcomes.

Volatile food and energy prices mean less money for “luxury” foods like local and organic. Less money for those things means fewer small farmers sending out CSA baskets. Fewer small farmers means more reliance on industrial agriculture or on industrial organic, which means more emissions and more soil depletion and desertification and dead zones and warming climates means more dependence on irrigation, which means more fossil water depletion, all of which makes the ultimate denoument all that much worse, as irrigated areas lose their water and viability to climate change induced drought, while small farmers that might have supplied regions have already been driven out of business by economic crises.

I’ve often heard people wonder, with Jared Diamond, what the last person, cutting down the last tree on Easter Island thought while he was doing it. My guess is this – “I have no choice.” The reality of vicious circles is this – once you are in one, it is very hard to get out. The infrastructure to get you out may not exist – or if it does, you can no more get ahold of it than you can fly.

John Michael Greer, with whom I have some disagreements on climate change, but far fewer about the overall picture of things, has been writing a series on the inevitability of failure His latest argues that in many of our most pressing problems, all roads lead to failure, and I think this is pretty much correct. The question is what kind of failure, and on what scale. There is no real “success” here, measured in the way most of us want to measure success, as a problem conquered or avoided. He writes about another viscious circle:

In a society that relies on rapidly expanding production of resources, on the other hand, this can be evaded for a time. The first two-thirds of the 20th century thus saw an explosion of factions that spanned the entire upper half of the American class structure, from the ultrarich to unionized labor. The result was a vast number of people who all expected to get financial benefits from the government. Yet the end of America’s real economic expansion in the 1970s meant that these demands had to be paid out of a dwindling supply of real wealth.

One result has been a drastic narrowing of the options available to politicians. A great many simple and necessary reforms that could be enacted without harm to anyone – for example, putting a means test on social security pensions – are completely off the table, because nobody can put together a governing coalition without the support of groups that oppose such measures. Equally, a great many ghastly policies – for example, deliberately inflating financial bubbles – have become political necessities, because they allow governments to get away with the pretense of paying off their supporters. Meanwhile any sector of society not organized enough to defend its interests can basically count on being thrown to the wolves.

The rising spiral of crises that threaten the survival of industrial society might be expected to trump such matters. The problem here, of course, is that prophecies of imminent doomsday have been standard political theater in American public life for more than a century, and most people in politics have long since stopped listening to them. There are plenty of people in politics who still remember, for example, the widespread insistence that the energy crisis of the 1970s was supposed to be permanent; the fact that there were plenty of less shrill predictions that have proven to be much more accurate in retrospect is nothing like as memorable.

Behind all of this lies the central political fact of the limits to growth: the reduction of First World nations to a Third World lifestyle that will be the inevitable result of any transition to a postpetroleum world, whether that transition is deliberate or unplanned. Metaphors about elephants in living rooms don’t begin to touch the political explosiveness of this fact, or the degree to which people at every point on the political spectrum have tried to pretend that it just isn’t so. Still, set aside delusions about miraculous new energy sources that show up basically because we want them to, and it’s impossible to evade.

Let’s walk through the logic. The most reasonable estimates suggest that, given a crash program and the best foreseeable technologies, renewable sources can probably provide the United States with around 15% of the energy it currently gets from fossil fuels. Since every good and service in the economy is the product of energy, it’s a very rough but functional approximation to say that in a green economy, every American will have to get by on the equivalent of 15% of his or her current income. Take a moment to work through the consequences in your own life; if you made $50,000 in 2009, for example, imagine having to live on $7,500 in 2010. That’s quite a respectable income by Third World standards, but it won’t support the kind of lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, believe is theirs by right.

The numbers may not be precise, but it doesn’t really matter – we’re talking about a lot less. And with that reduction in wealth comes a reduction in one’s ability to adapt – a person dealing with a radical reduction in wealth can’t imagine large infrastructure investments, and their town or state or nation can only perform them if they can borrow money to make up for a rapidly declining tax revenue. On a lesser scale (although not as much less as most people think) this is is precisely what is happening to all of us – our ambitions are being scaled back and we are being shoehorned into a vicious circle. As I have written for many years, the most likely consequence of our ecological predicament is not Mad Max or apocalyptic scenarios, but a decilne into what I call, riffing on Freud, Ordinary Human Poverty – the reality of lowered ambitions and greater struggles, of hard choices between things that all seem necessary.

Succeeding, then, is measured not in “how well we avoid inconvenience or difficulty” but in “finding solutions that are adequate and that don’t make things worse.” This is difficult, because essentially it requires that we ask people to choose between two short term solutions – the first offers less inconvenience, less immediate struggle, and seems more like what’s gone before, as well as having a low initial investment. This is the coal stove solution, or the wood stove to heat your whole house, or “breed more goats.” The second seems harder, and may seem to have a higher initial investment. It is more radically different, and thus seems speculative. Its only advantage is that it offers long term solutions – that is, you get less upfront, but more in the long term, and you do less harm.

The long term solutions that work are the ones that are low enough in cost to be viable for most people, offer enough longevity for a people of declining wealth to pass down something to their children and grandchildren, and don’t make things worse. They are mostly powered by human beings, by solar energy (either in the form of small solar panels, or more often, powered by food or biomass on a very small scale), and most of them require collective self-regulation and a degree of willingness to defer wants and change parameters.

There are ways, in some measure, out of the vicious circle. They involve hardship for people already facing unaccustomed hardship, and they involve radical changes in narrative – because the first myth of hardship is that the end is always just around the corner. Convincing people it may go on a while is difficult, perhaps the hardest part. Convincing the herders that they are better off paying the price now, while doing what is possible to mitigate that price with food supports and agricultural assistance would be difficult – but might be possible if people can see that the consequences for their children will be greater than for themselves.

Convincing modern Americans that they will have to endure austerity measures, that they may have to go back to older ways – to one or two warm rooms, rather than a whole heated house, to the bicycle rather than the car or to shared, rather than private ownership won’t be easy. Other battles may not even be possible – that is, it may not be possible to discuss what standard of medical care will realistically be available to everyone, or what standard of support for elders, until there is no choice, until we’re fairly far down into the spiral of the vicious circle. This has huge disadvantages – most notably everyone’s desperation to simply invest in some kind of ground to stand on, rather than make long-term choices. But it may be true.

Interim choices – breeding more goats to eat what vegetation there is, or choosing the coal stove or the large wood stove that heats the whole house – have consequences. Sometime they make it easier for us to transition – sometimes they make it possible for us to smooth over our shift. The Prius may make it easier to get to work until we can find a house nearer jobs. But they have costs too – they often make things worse. They delay the inevitable, and make the crash harder. Paying for the transitional solution and its consequences can leave us vulnerable when even the transitional options fail.

Moving sooner to the longer term and more complex solutions – a new more locally appropriate and adaptable pastoralism that isn’t dependent on a single product, a smaller, more efficient radiant heat source with high mass, better insulation, a different relationship to heating and a greater degree of communalism is tougher. It requires that you let go of the dream of normalcy. It requires that you fight off the overwhelming gravity of the vicious circle. It requires new ways of thinking and probably help from other people. But it is as close as you can get to success in a predicament that has no win scenario.