Ed note: This piece is part of a 3-part series. Part 1 is also cross-posted on Truthout.
Donald Trump’s 13-month tenure (so far) as president of the United States has been an exhausting sprint for onlookers concerned about the state of the global ecosystem and the fate of industrial civilization. Nearly every day begins with a new outrage — whether Trump’s gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency, his announcement of the US exit from the Paris climate accord, his selling off of national parks, his opening of coastal waters for offshore drilling, his easing of regulations on fracking, or his seeking subsidies for coal mining and coal power plants. Among my environmentalist friends and colleagues, “Trump fatigue” is a real and common ailment.
But much the same could be said for millions of citizens who are only peripherally interested in environmental issues. They awake each morning to read about the Stormy Daniels scandal, the Rob Porter scandal, the Anthony Scaramucci hiring/firing scandal, the Mike Flynn scandal, the James Comey firing scandal, the Tom Price scandal, the White House nepotism and security clearance scandal. The list could go on and on; who can possibly keep up?
The Tweeter-in-chief is monopolizing attention at a moment in history when there are plenty of other things we really should be attending to, including climate change, resource depletion, plastic pollution in the oceans, mass species extinction, the fate of US labor unions, racial and social injustice, and worsening economic inequality. These are the sorts of unaddressed problems that could cause even history’s “greatest” civilization to crack up. But the conversation never seems to get past Trump, who obdurately obstructs action on these issues while commanding everyone’s constant adoring or horrified attention through divisive words and actions.
Naturally, many people are speculating about how the Trump nightmare might end. Two possibilities include Democrats obtaining majorities in Congress in the 2018 elections and initiating impeachment proceedings, or a presidential resignation following indictments of staff and family.
But Trump may not be dislodged so easily: A war or terrorist incident could give him the pretext to at least partly shut down the apparatus of democracy (including the Mueller investigation). An Italian friend reminds me that Trump shares many characteristics with Silvio Berlusconi — who, despite frequent scandals, has managed to dominate national politics in Italy for nearly 20 years.
While I’m not prepared to make a prediction about Trump’s fate (there are just too many variables and unknowns), I have come to an unpleasant conclusion: While Trump will certainly be gone at some point — whether next month or years from now — we’re never going to return to the pre-Trump status quo. The system is irremediably broken. Trump is both a symptom and an agent of that brokenness. What we can do is begin to reconnoiter and assess our new, unstable, still-emerging reality.
To even begin to understand this new reality, it is first essential to recognize its context. The United States, and industrial societies generally, are approaching the end of a decades-long fiesta of rapid economic and population growth founded upon cheap fossil energy. I’ve discussed this grand trajectory in several books, notably The Party’s Over and The End of Growth, so it’s unnecessary to go into much detail here, except to note that absolute production figures for oil, coal and natural gas (which have been rising in recent years) are less crucial than the accelerating decline in the amount of energy that society receives in return for each unit of energy it invests in procuring more energy. This erosion of energy return on energy investment is unavoidable, given the method by which fossil fuels are harvested, with low-hanging fruit always being picked first. Energy is the prime mover of civilization; therefore, as net energy declines, so does society’s capacity to build complex infrastructure, and increase production and consumption.
Everyone feels this diminishing systemic dynamism, but — since surprisingly few people pay attention to slow but decisive shifts in our energy economy — almost nobody understands it, including the most exalted economists. So, feeling symptoms of malaise but unable to diagnose the cause, most people are driven simply to find someone to blame — whether Wall Street bankers, immigrants, international competitors (for the US, that would include China), “lazy” poor people, entrenched Washington lobbyists and bureaucrats, or “socialists” in the mainstream media.
The waning of the world’s energy return on investment isn’t a sudden development. Our energy regime grew, matured and weakened in stages. Back in the years when it was “great,” the US was the engine of the global fossil fuel power train. Prior to World War II, it was the world’s top producer and exporter of petroleum; it was also the foremost producer of coal and natural gas. But that gradually changed. In the 1970s, US oil and gas production began to decline (this was decades before the fracking boom — a subject to which we’ll return shortly); the nation was already importing more and more of its energy supplies. In the 1980s, globalization began, and the amount of debt in the US economy started growing much faster than the economy itself. Real (inflation-adjusted) incomes of most US workers stagnated or declined. Debt was effectively being used to purchase the services that energy provides, with the understanding that payment would be made later with interest. The use of debt to mask flagging economic momentum is an old trick, and — as economists and historians have discovered — it works for only a relatively short time before precipitating financial collapse.
Parenthetically, some readers may be wondering whether renewable energy might shift the curve of falling energy profitability. Unfortunately, the energy return on energy invested for solar and wind energy systems, once energy storage to make up for intermittency is included, is probably no higher than that of shale gas or tight oil: The energy return from commercial photovoltaic panels is estimated at 10:1 in most US locations (without factoring the energy cost of batteries), whereas during much of the 20th century, oil provided a 50:1 energy payback or better. Further, according to one recent study, installation rates for renewable energy would need to be roughly 10-times current rates in order to accomplish the transition to solar and wind before fossil fuel depletion and climate change undermine the current global industrial system.
By the first decade of the new millennium, it was clear to quickly growing ideological groups on the further ends of the political spectrum that the US was headed off the rails. An insulated and arrogant foreign policy establishment in Washington was initiating costly, disastrous, illegal and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (with later detours to Libya and Syria). Government and private debt was accumulating to truly frightening levels, with entitlements like Social Security and Medicare on track to boost government deficits exponentially in decades ahead. Rates of annual GDP growth were slowly but surely dwindling. Levels of economic inequality were approaching those of the fabled Gilded Age, when Marxists and anarchists riled the disgruntled masses. The nation’s manufacturing base continued to erode due to globalization. Massive industrial and transport infrastructure, built mostly during the high-energy decades of the mid-to-late 20th century, was aging and rusting. Following the Vietnam War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became harder to feel pride in being an American. Instead of bringing democracy to the world, we were more concerned with protecting our access to global oil supplies, distracting ourselves with comic book hero movies and exporting a culture of celebrity worship. An empire, built on the extraction of nonrenewable energy resources and on domination of world trade, was losing its grip.
Understandably, blame for unmet expectations fell largely upon elites — whether in government, the media, academia, the financial sector, science or the arts. But resentment toward immigrants and other easily scapegoated minority groups was also increasing in some quarters.
Enter Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality-television star. According to later reporting by Michael Wolff and others, Trump — who lacked experience in electoral politics — had no realistic expectation of winning the presidential race of 2016; he mainly hoped to increase his visibility and the value of his brand. This meant he was free to say anything, however politically incorrect or factually erroneous, to rouse his audiences. Trump, with help from self-styled political theorist Steve Bannon, promised to destroy the “administrative state” — the human bureaucracy and mass of regulations that propped up the failing status quo. He would “shake things up” by shredding global trade agreements and renegotiating bilateral trade treaties to the US’s advantage. He would radically reduce taxes. He would rebuild the nation’s fraying infrastructure. He would reduce both undocumented and documented immigration. He would prevent the US from getting involved in more needless, costly wars. He would “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC. And by doing these things, he would “Make America Great Again.”
When, to nearly everyone’s surprise (reportedly including his own), Trump won the presidency, he found himself in a tough spot: His team did not include enough competent people to fill newly emptied positions in the various agencies of the executive branch of government. The few available personnel consisted mostly of ideologues, hangers-on and fellow grifters — often evincing as little relevant job experience as Trump himself — as well as people avowedly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies to which they would be appointed. Over time, the new president and his team generated more and more dysfunction, resulting in a string of firings and resignations. As government, it was a trainwreck; but as reality TV, it was as riveting.
Meanwhile, the status of the nation’s all-important energy economy was more hidden from view than ever due to the temporary spectacle of soaring US oil and gas production from fracking. Rates of domestic shale gas and tight oil production were soaring, leading the new president to speak of US “energy dominance.” But companies specializing in producing these fuels were — and are — doing so at an overall financial loss, propped up by cheap debt and investor hype. Their inability to turn a profit is a clear symptom of eroding energy return on investment, but is rarely understood as such. Inevitably, as interest rates rise and investors start demanding returns, the fracking bubble will pop even more quickly than it inflated.
What Trump has done politically is somewhat analogous to the country’s fracking frenzy. He spoke a politically forbidden truth — that the United States is headed toward the graveyard of empires; he then promised a return to “greatness.” But just as fracking has failed to reverse the nation’s slide toward energy bankruptcy, Trump’s means of reviving its greatness (a budget-busting tax cut and divisive rhetoric) have only accelerated the US’s nosedive into economic, moral, social and political ruin.
Teaser photo credit: flickr/Thomas Hawk