Veils, boomerangs, and Goldilocks
There's a lot to digest in Michael Lewis' The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine but I was particularly struck by a passage at the very end of the book, which I think aptly describes one of the major obstacles to properly understanding the costs and consequences of our globalized, industrial way of life — distance.
The monster was exploding. Yet on the streets of Manhattan there was no sign anything important had just happened. The force that would affect all of their lives was hidden from their view. That was the problem with money. What people did with it had consequences but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other. The teaser rate loans you make to people who will never be able to repay them will go bad not immediately but in two years when their interest rates rise. The various bonds you make from those loans will go bad not as the loans go bad but months later, after a lot of tedious foreclosures and bankruptcies and forced sales. The various CDOs you make from the bonds will go bad not right then but after some trustee sorts out whether there will ever be enough cash to pay them off, whereupon the end owner of the CDO receives a little note: "Dear Sir, We regret to inform you that your bond no longer exists." But the biggest lag of all was right here, on the streets. How long would it take before the people walking back and forth in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral figured out what had just happened to them.
This veil of time and distance is not just true for the consequences of the subprime mortgage scam, of course. It's true for many of the outcomes of our consumer-driven, globalized, and industrial way of life (those of us in North America, in particular). The obvious ones are climate change and the food system.
The specific qualities of the greenhouse effect make it incredibly hard to feel the causal links. The climate impacts of turning on the dryer, for example, couldn't be further removed from the place and moment you turn that dial; the four pounds or so of carbon dioxide produced are invisible and likely to spew from some coal stack hundreds of miles away, where they eventually dissipate to mix in with billions of other pounds of CO2 throughout the atmosphere for a period of 50-100 years.
Now if the result of turning that dial was, instead, to immediately spread an inch of sea water across the floor of the laundry room or raise the temperature in the room a degree or two, you probably wouldn't turn it on quite so often. But that's just the nature of fossil fuel addiction... The road trips my grandmother used to take to Vegas in the 1950s are now raising sea levels in Bangladesh while the coal being burned in China today is going to make my grand kids' August weather very different than my own.
The industrial food system, of course, has been intentionally designed to leave consumers as disconnected from the source of their food as possible. It's a lot easier to chow down that fast food burger when you don't realize that it contains meat from hundreds of different cows, let alone have to butcher them all yourself! And if you saw the conditions in which those cows were raised, well, you'd literally lose your appetite.
Thankfully it's easier to lift the veil when it comes to where our food comes from. For one, a lot of powerful documentaries and books have come out in recent years that bring the reality of the industrial food system to light. (And just wait for the forthcoming CAFO book by Watershed Media. I've had the, er, honor to see some of the images included in the photo book... If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth a million livestock lives.)
That's not to say it's easy to change where our food comes from. Not everyone has access to fresh produce or can afford organic food. But the veil can be lifted. (It doesn't hurt when efficiency-oriented industrial food systems break down like here and here enough for the media to notice.)
The veil of time and distance makes it that much more challenging to change the behaviors that cause or reinforce the energy, economic, and environmental crises we face. But that's only part of the story. Another is how we react as the dues for our long, fossil fueled, industrial growth binge actually come due. Because the causal links are so complex and global, when these consequences do finally boomerang and hit us smack in the ass a lot of people won't understand how and why they happened. One result is that we're more likely to continue doing the things that got us in trouble in the first place, without ever connecting the dots. But there's also the psychological impacts that come from confusion and dissonance, which can lead to anger or a sense of victimization.
History is littered with horrific examples of when widespread fear and uncertainty are channeled into organized rage. I'll confess a deep concern about the near- and long-term results from the collision of four realities here in the US:
- The confluence of incredibly complex, interrelated economic, energy, and environmental crises whose particular impacts are impossible to predict.
- An American culture — politically divided and ethnically diverse, with a long history of xenophobia and racial tensions — that is ripe for conflict.
- A political system so corrupted by moneyed special interests and inertia that, while still ostensibly "democratic," is viewed with suspicion and cynicism by Americans of all political persuasions.
- A fourth estate that is in the process of massive contraction and is, for the most part, utterly failing to provide the populace with the reasoned, fact-based analysis people need to make sound decisions.
And so I worry about the kind of collective response we might see when the boomerangs really start hitting people.
Richard Heinberg wrote a fantastic op-ed for Reuters entitled "Goldilocks and the Three Fuels" that explored the possibility of a "just right" price range for oil, natural gas, and coal.
By mid-2009 the oil price had settled within a Goldilocks range—not too high (so as to kill the economy and, with it, fuel demand), and not too low (so as to scare away investment in future energy projects and thus reduce supply). That just-right price band appeared to be between $60 and $80 a barrel. How long prices can stay in the Goldilocks range is anybody’s guess, but production declines in the world’s old super-giant oilfields continue to accelerate and exploration costs continue to mount, which means that the lower boundary of that just-right range will inevitably continue to migrate upward. Meanwhile the world economy remains frail, so that even $80 oil could strain the recovery. When discussing the increasing perils of the current oil supply-demand-price balancing act, some commentators opine that the world supply of oil has peaked; others say it is demand that has peaked. It is a distinction without a difference.
Ever since, I've wondered if there's such a thing as a Goldilocks moment for the kind large-scale, collective action we need to avert collapse. If the metaphor is that we're on a runaway train, heading speedily towards a brick wall at the end of the tracks, then is there a "just right" moment to slam on the brakes?
Like a real train, there's an incredible weight and inertia in the system. This train will not stop on a dime. It's going to take a lot of force and enough track to stop the train before it hits the wall.
While there's a growing number of people who sense that the wall is looming — even before they can physically see it — there are not nearly enough of us to put sufficient weight on the brakes to slow the train down, let alone stop it. The closer we get to the wall, the more of us will see what's coming, but at what point will there be a critical mass to really punch the breaks, and will there be enough track at that point to avoid the collision?
I don't have an answer to this question. I'm not sure anyone does. What I can say, however, is three things:
- Whether from the wall or the brakes, a lot of us are going to get whiplash. There's no scenario I see to avoid some measure of hardship. But I'll take whiplash over broken bones. How about you?
- I know we're on a train here, but if you haven't already, you might want to think about putting on a seat belt. The seat belt in this case is personal resilience and community resilience.
- We increase our odds of stopping the train in time (and reducing casualties) if we help more and more people understand there's a wall up ahead.
One way or the other, it's going to be an interesting ride.