Muddling Through and Unsung Heroes

January 27, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I wake up in the morning ensconced in a duvet and sheets made with materials from many different places around the world, together with artificial fibres and dyes which are to a large part made from oil. Then I reach out to switch off my alarm clock, which has been constructed from pieces emanating from many locales, and transported to me all the way from the Far East. My feet touch the floor made from timber quite possibly harvested in Canada, but then shipped abroad for manufacturing just to be shipped back as the finished product. I reach out and turn the light on, with no consciousness of where the electricity came from; a coal-fired power station many miles away, a nuclear plant, a hydro-electric dam, a windmill?

What we take for granted every day would appear to be a series of miracles to people living less than a hundred years ago. The sheer complexity and scale of the production plants, service companies, supply chains, and distribution chains required to make “everyday normalcy” viable is truly astounding but far away from our awareness. The viability of that reality will soon come to an end and given the ubiquitousness of the reliance upon societal complexity, huge amounts of cheap energy, and the run down of nature’s bounty, nothing will remain the same.

Many commentators make the mistake of assuming that some things will change but others will remain functioning as before, just like the wonderful economist’s simplifying assumption of ceterus parabus, “all other things held constant”. They won’t stay constant though, thats just the way things will be. The catastrophists assume the worst, and vastly underestimate the human ability to work together and find a way through chaos. It may not be pretty but it may also not be a one way ticket to extinction. The British concept of “muddling through” comes to mind, we all just need a nice cup of tea instead of fighting over the last loaf of crappy white bread at Walmart (please feel free to insert the relevant purveyor of crap masquerading as food in your locale).

In crises people tend to pull together, as in New Orleans which showed the irrelevance of the Mad Max genre to reality (apart from a few rich white boys and girls who need to be taught better manners). Places like Somalia are only the way they are because the “great powers” keep messing with them and supplying arms and pickup trucks. Left to their own devices they would be much better off, as they have shown many times before only to be deemed a geo-politically critical area again and again. Given the choice of living in Iraq before the liberation/invasion and living in the current Iraq how many of that country’s citizens would pick the latter? Columbus wrote home about how wonderfully happy and seemingly naive the people of Hispaniola (what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) were, all the better to use up in the pursuit of wealth. It took only a few decades of horrendous treatment and imported germs to reduce the indigenous population to such a low level that slaves had to be imported. With the Spanish bringing no women with them the local women had the worst of it, with one of Columbus’ senior people commenting that the whip was a good convincer with women that spurned his advances.

Image RemovedEach year such psychopaths and sociopaths are celebrated as role models (anyone for the “Wolf of Wall Street”?) while the truly great events, such as the slave rebellion against overwhelming odds in what is now Haiti are relegated to the dustbin of history. In the United States Columbus Day should be replaced with Jonas Salk Day, the man who gave us the polio vaccine and when asked why he did not patent it exclaimed “could you patent the sun”. Many business leaders today would be more than happy to patent the sun if they could find a way. In my own Canada we should replace Dead Queen (Victoria) Day with Frederick Banting Day, a man who received the Nobel Prize for isolating insulin for the treatment of diabetes with the patent being given away to the University of Toronto. If we are to “muddle through” in the least worst way (there will not be a “best” way) we must forget the sociopaths in their shiny clothes and vehicles, with their simple answers requiring a “strong leader”, and instead celebrate those that selflessly work for the general good. The choice will be between a reversion to neo-feudalism and/or fascism and a much less wealthy but also possibly less unequal society. Many people will die earlier than if our current situation was viable in the long term, but its not, so get over it and move on before its too late.

Roger Boyd

I have a BSc in Information Systems from Kingstom University U.K., an MBA in Finance from Stern School of Business at New York University, USA, and a MA in Integrated Studies from Athabasca University, Canada. I have worked within the financial industry for the past 25 years, and am also a research member of the B.C. Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) looking at the linkages between issues of sustainability and models of ownership and finance. Most recently I have completed a book, to be published shortly by Springer, titled “Energy and the Financial System”.

Tags: Complex Societies, energy descent, powering down