Casaubon's Book

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster
– Elizabeth Bishop

I suddenly realized that my sense that I had time to do my end of year wrap up was rapidly becoming incorrect – New Years is tomorrow, of course, but somehow it snuck up on me. I tried to enlist my family in helping me with this project, but Eric flatly refused to have anything to do with it (his comment was “I can’t decide whether it would be more unpleasant to be wrong or right, and in that case, the only good choice is to shut up.”), and the boys’ predictions ranged from the purely personal and highly unlikely (Four year old Asher’s “I’m going to turn into a butterfly!”) to the bizarre ( Eight year old Simon’s “Humans will encounter snortlepigs.”) to the perhaps a little too mundane (Six year old Isaiah’s “I’m going to take my pants off and run around the room.”) So no help there.

So let’s get down to brass tacks, but before I do, let me post my standard, official New Years Predictions disclaimer which goes like this: “I don’t think everything that comes out of my ass is the high truth, and neither should you.” Remember what you are paying for this wisdom, and value it accordingly.

And if you were valuing my last year’s predictions about that much, well, you got your money’s worth. After an astonishing degree of correctness in 2008, I got cocky and predicted a much faster decline than we’ve actually seen. I was way wrong.

So how did I do this past year? Let’s take a look (note, I’ve edited these a bit for length, you can see the originals at the above link, as well as how I did in 2008):

1. Some measure of normalcy will hold out until late spring or early summer, mostly based on hopes for the Obama Presidency. But by late summer 2009, the aggregate loss of jobs, credit and wealth will cause an economic crisis that makes our current situation look pretty mild.

This would be my big old screw up – I figured that even the huge cash infusions of the bail out couldn’t hold out against the massive loss of assets, and I was wrong. I’m still a little bit impressed (in a horrified sort of way) the way crazy accounting tricks, the mortgaging of our future for short term gains and crazy lies have been deployed. Back in December, I really wouldn’t have guessed that the Obama administration would go as far as it has in selling us out to the corporations. I still don’t think the problem is at all fixed, but I was definitely wrong about the pace of things, because I overestimated the ethical considerations of the new administration. I shoulda known better – mea culpa.

2. Many plans for infrastructure investments currently being proposed will never be completed, and many may never be started, because the US may be unable to borrow the money to fund them. The price of globalization will be high in terms of reduced availability of funds and resources – despite all the people who think that we’ll keep building things during a collapse, we won’t. We will have some variation on a Green New Deal in the US and some nations will continue to work on renewable infrastructure, but a lot of us are going to be getting along with the fraying infrastructure, designed for a people able to afford a lot of cheap energy, that we have now.

I think I called this one. Back last winter much was being made of the potential of national health care, of our investments in Green Jobs and major programs designed to benefit the little guy. What did we actually get – the crappiest possible national health care, largely to the benefit of the insurers, a lot of roadwork to nowhere, and cash for clunkers.

3. 2009 will be the year that most of the most passionate climate activists (and I don’t exclude myself) have to admit that there is simply not a snowball’s chance in hell (and hell is getting toastier quickly) that we are going to prevent a 2C+ warming of the planet. We are simply too little, too late.

I got this one too, sadly. Oxford held its 4 degree conference and Copenhagen put the nail in the coffin of real climate activism. Multiple studies released revealed that even with the most ambitious plans (and no country is enacting the most ambitious plans) we’d fail to keep below 2 degrees. We now know that we’re going to pass the critical point. And it doesn’t suck any less than I thought it would.

4. 2008 will probably be the world’s global oil peak, but we won’t know this for a while. When we do realize it, it will be anticlimactic, because we’ll be mired in the consequences of our economic, energy and climate crisis. Lack of investment in the coming years will mean that in the end, more oil stays in the ground, which is good for the climate, but tough for our ambitions for a renewable energy economy. Over the long term, however, peak oil is very much going to come back and bite us all in the collective ass.

This one we can’t answer yet. There are still people I trust making the case for 2010 and still people calling out 2005. The difference between them, however, is pretty small. Certainly, though, the IEA confirms that a. we will be seeing peak oil again and b. lack of investment is a biggie. We’ll call this one undetermined as of yet.

5. Decreased access to goods, services and food will be a reality this year. Some of this will be due to stores going out of business – we may all have to travel further to meet needs. Some will be due to suppliers going under, following the wave of merchant bankruptcies. Some may be due to disruptions in shipping and transport of supplies. Some will be due to increased demand for some items that have, up until now, been niche items, produced in small numbers for the small number of sustainability freaks, but that now seem to have widespread application. And some may be due to deflation

I jumped the gun again. We’ve seen some of this, but not enough to be significant. I was wrong.

6. Most Americans will see radical cut backs in local services and safety nets. Funding will simply dry up for many state and local programs.

Yes, but not as acutely as I expected. The enormous federal bailout put money into state coffers that allowed them to defer their problems – so far, California while effectively bankrupt, for example, hasn’t actually defaulted, and New York is still holding on. My prediction that state unemployment coffers would be overwhelmed was right, but the federal government did step in, as I also predicted. Some service disruptions have occurred, particularly among the poor and disabled, but they haven’t been as widespread as expected.

7. Nations will overwhelmingly fail to pony up promised commitments to the world’s poor, and worldwide, the people who did the least harm to the environment will die increasingly rapidly of starvation. This will not be inevitable, but people in the rich world will claim it is.

Called it. This is precisely what happened.

8. We will finally attempt to deal with foreclosures, but the falling value of housing will make it a losing proposition. Every time we bring the housing values down to meet the reality, the reality will shift under our feet. Many of those who are helped will end up foreclosed upon anyway

Yup. The much-vaunted foreclosure program failed to work for a whole host of reasons and most people who were helped ended up in foreclosure. Got this one.

9. By the end of the year, whether or not we will collapse or have collapsed will continue to be hotly debated by everyone who can still afford their internet service. No one will agree on what the definition of collapse actually is, plenty of people will simply be living their old lives, only with a bit less, while others will be having truly apocalyptic and deeply tragic losses. Some will see the victims as lazy, stupid, alien and worthless, no matter how many there are. Others will look around them and ask “how did I not see that this was inevitable?”

Yes and no. I think most people would agree we haven’t collapsed, although a minority looking at our situation would argue that we have, we just haven’t noticed yet. But I do think that the mainstreaming of a language of collapse is occurring – I see more and more ordinary people asking “how bad can it get?” That said, however, I think that the bailouts have done a great deal to (falsely) convince people that things are better than they are and that we can continue on as we are. And yes, there’s a lot of hostility towards the poor – and a lot of sudden realizations that we’re one of them.

10. Despite how awful this is, the reality is that not everything will fall apart. In the US, we will find life hard and stressful, but we will also go forward. People will suck a lot up and retrench. It will turn out that ordinary people were always better than commentators at figuring out what to do – that’s why they stopped shopping even while people were begging them to keep buying. So they’ll move in with their siblings and grow gardens and walk away from their overpriced houses, or fight to keep them. Some of them will suffer badly for it, but a surprising number of people will simply be ok in situations that until now, they would have imagined were impossible to survive. We will endure, sometimes even find ways of loving our new lives. There will be acts of remarkable courage and heroism, and acts of the most profound evil and selfishness. There will be enormous losses – but we will also discover that most of us are more than we think we are – can tolerate more and have more courage and compassion than we believe of ourselves.

I think I got this one right, maybe more right than most of the others. In the good news we saw 8 million new gardeners last year. We saw more people cutting back and saving more. We saw a new shame about conspicuous consumption. Trusting people to mostly be people turns out to be the best bet of all.

Not an official numbered prediction, but I claimed that 2009 would be the year that we officially “collapsed” – not into Mad Max or cannibalism, but in which things we expect to work, we assume will always remain the same stopped working. I was wrong about that. I think we came very close to having that happen, but deferred the collapse. How long did we defer it? That’s the big question. I don’t think it is possible to put it off inevitably – at some point the bills come due. I made the mistake of thinking that most people in power might prefer to pay the price sooner, and have the price be smaller. In retrospect, I have no idea why I thought that. We’ve decided, as usual, to put off until later what is unpleasant to deal with today.

In 2008, I got about 8 1/2 out of 10 right. This past year I’d say 5 1/2 out of 9, with one (the year of the oil peak) still up for grabs. We will reconvene come next December to figure out how I did this year. But here’s my list for the coming year:

I’ve decided to call this year “The Year of Losing Faster” – because I think the theme of this year and the coming decade will be loss – loss of economic stability, loss of dreams and expectations, loss of the ability to predict how much food and energy will cost you, loss of normalcy in every respect. We put off our troubles – but they are coming back, and are not lighter for being put off.

1. 2010 will mark a (probably dramatic) resumption of the economic crisis, which will not be short or pleasant. I keep pointing out that the two most recent deep economic downturns (1971-1982, 1929-1941) both lasted more than a decade, and I think this is most likely a fair translation of the current hype of “jobless recovery” and “low growth rates.” The reality is that we’re not going to experience a major economic recovery anytime soon, and I’d be somewhat surprised if we didn’t see a substantial further downturn.

2. We will face deflation, probably simultaneously with fluctuating and sometimes extremely high (at least in relationship to people’s ability to pay) prices for food and energy, which will confuse people who think that “inflation” means “higher prices.” This will not change the fact that we are having deflation.

3. The trend towards growing your own, small home livestock, and home food preservation will continue to grow and expand – people who never thought they would know the word “compost” or touch a chicken will do so – and love it. Local food producers, on the other hand, may find that people are starting to cut back on organic, more sustainable food due to budgetary cconstraints as the “jobless recovery” turns out to be “long term joblessness.”

4. A basic conflict between generations will begin to emerge and simmer as younger people realize that the concentration of wealth in the baby boomer generation isn’t going anytime soon, and youth joblessness rises, and people realize that their expectations are less than their parents’. I doubt that this conflict will emerge in any dramatic way in 2010, but I think its groundwork is being sown right now and this will shape the politics of the next decade.

5. There will be a fragmentation of mostly fairly unified fronts among climate change activists and scientists as we are forced to deal with the revelations of last year – that we’re not going to stay below 2 degrees. It will become increasingly uncertain how to respond and what to advocate for, and people will begin dividing up into camps much more dramatically than in the past.

6. Either the economic crisis or some other crisis (swine flu mutates, new climate change related disaster, military conflict with somewhere that most Americans can’t find on a map whatever) will give the US an excuse to take climate change mostly off the table as a subject. We’re too busy! This is too important! Monies promised to poor nations will not be delivered.

7. Surging in Afghanistan won’t help. (Ok, I needed one gimmee ;-)).

8. As I’ve been predicting for years, most of our energy and ecological crisis will show up as further economic blows. That is, it won’t be a question of whether the grid fails or we run out of gas, but whether you can buy gas. The most likely reason you will lose power is because your utility company disconnects you. The need to respond to and clean up the next natural disaster will push everyone’s resources just that much further. Peak oil and climate change will hit us hard in the next year and the coming year, but they will look like money worries and tight budgets and cut services and growing poverty, not like being underwater – at least mostly.

9. At least one very dramatic, totally unexpected game changer will come up, and change the terms of the discussion entirely. (Hey, I needed one risky one that makes me look good if it comes true ;-))

10. Most people won’t look at 2010 as the year it all went to hell. But looking back from 2015 to 2005, they will know that somewhere in there, it all went to hell, and well, this was right there in the middle.

Happy New Year, everyone – I wish for all of you that all my bad predictions are wrong!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Jen
    December 30, 2009

    All I have to say is, Love Elizabeth Bishop, one of my all time faves. Thanks!

  2. #2 Ann
    December 30, 2009

    I think Asher may be the closest to the truth…Evolve or die.

  3. #3 PBrazelton
    December 30, 2009

    I believe Simon’s prediction could be slotted into #9 without controversy. Nothing changes a game like a snortlepig.

  4. #4 mary
    December 30, 2009

    We’ve received twenty Xmas letters. Twelve reference furlough days, and my brother has been furloughed one week per month since May.

  5. #5 Kelly R.
    December 30, 2009

    There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there. There are a few who think differently: Jeff Rubin, author of “Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller”, Bart Anderson ,former editor of the Energy Bulletin (put out by the Post Carbon Institute). Neither deny massive change is coming, but they seem to think that it won’t be as bad as many people think. Love to see some discussion on this.

  6. #6 Brad K.
    December 30, 2009

    The #9 game changer – I wonder if that will be Igor Panarin’s prediction for June – that the US will fragment into civil disunion.

    Please let us know, if Isaiah’s prediction comes to . . pass. Will the weather be cold, or hot, will the sun be shining – will there be guests to witness the denouement? Such suspense over the New Year!

    Blessed be!

  7. #7 Jerry Grabarek
    December 31, 2009

    I love reading everyone’s predictions and I have one myself, 2010 will be the year the economic train comes off the track. There will be no more pretending about a recovery with interest rates going through the roof.

  8. #8 Claire
    December 31, 2009

    It struck me during 2004 that it was likely to be the last so-called *normal* year I was likely to experience in my lifetime, if *normal* were defined as the unquestioned expectation of continued economic growth and the continuance of the socio-cultural matrix that depends on it. Maybe because that’s when I read The Party’s Over and a few other books, maybe it was just my increased awareness in general. You may remember that 2004 was the year Florida was struck by four major hurricanes, something that Katrina’s hit in 2005 tended to overshadow. Anyway, I’ll suggest that 2004-2014, or even 2003-2013, might be more like it as far as looking back on when the big change occurred. Otherwise, your predictions seem reasonable to me – much as I hate to say it, being a baby boomer myself. Hopefully some of us can ally with younger folks to do what we can, together, to make the best life possible.

    I will also point out, however, that baby boomers may not actually have the wealth their parents do/did. Looking around, I think most of us feel that we aren’t doing as well as our parents did economically at the same age. My friends are dealing with layoffs and job loss; they aren’t finding full-time work, or in some cases any work, because of the bias against hiring people over 50. College costs are hitting my friends much harder than they hit my parents’ generation. On the other hand, my friends’ children are much closer to them than we were to our parents when we were in our teens and twenties (closer in the sense of better friends, at least).

    It seems to me that it was the baby boomers’ parents, and those between the boomers’ parents and the boomers, who determined much of the course we are on, from the 1950s through the 1980s, when the boomers were still young enough to not be voting or were still outnumbered and out-powered among the working and voting population by those older than us. Reagan was voted in by the generations older than the boomers, and kept in office by them. I don’t excuse the boomers from the 1990s and this decade, when we did have the power of numbers and were old enough to be in powerful positions, but we inherited a structure that has proven to be very difficult to turn in a better direction. Our work was made more difficult by being the first generation that was televised to from birth, making it easier to be programmed into the consumption paradigm and more difficult to deprogram ourselves. Unfortunately, we repeated the TV error with our children. But we have tried pretty hard to change things, and we did some good. Obama wouldn’t be president now if it hadn’t been for the boomers, and our older allies, changing the cultural climate enough to make his election possible. It’s easier for me to see how much attitudes have changed from the 1960s, simply because I was alive then, than for someone in their thirties as you are. The attitude change was the boomers’ work. The work now is different, and unfortunately harder, because we weren’t able to, or didn’t see, how to change the more intractable power structures of our society – and, sadly, in many cases benefited from those structures ourselves.

  9. #9 Guy McPherson
    December 31, 2009

    Sharon, the reason for disparate dates regarding the world oil peak is driven by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). Beginning in January 2008, the EIA decided that the prior category of crude + condensate would include tar sands. This is very misleading, and I suspect intentionally so. C+C peaked in 2005, but the new and improved C+C (i.e., C+C+tar sands) peaked in 2008. Will the EIA extend and pretend further in 2010? Stay tuned.

  10. #10 auntiegrav
    January 1, 2010

    Great stuff, Sharon.
    First, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over jumping the gun on economics. As most people do the same thing: they think that the state of the economy is about money. It is about perception. The mindset of the country is what sets the rate of decline (until resources fail), and by simply telling everyone over and over that we are in ‘recovery’, they don’t pull their savings and they keep driving and overproducing for the salesmen to keep overselling. When the bankers and oil men decide to stop buying advertising, the rest will follow.
    Second: great predictions for 2010, especially the generational gap.
    Afghanistan can improve with more people, but we won’t know until all of the soldiers are accounted for and how they decide to behave. Personally, I think we should just airdrop farm tools and seeds and get the hell out and the same thing would be accomplished, but the oil men want to feel their pipelines are ‘protected American Interests’.

  11. #11 Keri Jo Rinke
    January 2, 2010

    Had such a hard time processing everything after picturing “Everything that comes out of my ass…” I started thinking of humanure and became distracted. I have ADD.

  12. #12 Daniel Draffen
    January 2, 2010

    Carrying the fire.

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