Casaubon's Book

It is tempting to despair of all action. And sometimes those who despair are right. But sometimes they aren’t. And this, I think is an important and central point for everyone who hits those moments when they simply don’t believe society will self-correct in any measure from its impending ecological disaster. I should be clear – I don’t believe it will self-correct in every measure, or even as much as I wish desperately it would. But I also do not believe that what one does to mitigate suffering, soften impacts, make life livable or plan for a better outcome is wasted.

I’d tell you why I believe this, but I think the best ever articulation of this reason, the reason why I talk about rationing and rational possible responses to depletion and limitation even when they may not happen, was made by Thomas Princen, author of the wonderful and intellectually illuminating book _The Logic of Sufficiency_. Princen writes:

I take heart not in the occasional enviornmental law passed, the tightening of one country’s automobile efficiency standards, the international agreement on ozone or timber or toxic substances, but in the hard cases, those little-noticed but nontrivial instances of restrained timber cutting or shortened lobster fishing or community rejection of full automobility. And I take heart in, of call places, sites like the Middle East or Sri Lana and the Koreas. I discovered in my earlier research on international conflict resolution that however intractable an intersocietal conflict may be, there are always people working on the solution. Pick the direst time in the Middle East conflict, for example, and you can find someone hidden away in a basement drawing up maps for the water and sewer lines, the lines that wil connect the two societies and that must be built when peace is reached, as inconceivable as that is at the time. Someone else is sketching the constitution for the new country, the one that is also inconceivable at the time. And someone else is outlining the terms of trade for the as yet unproduced goods that will traverse the two societies’ border. We do not hear about these people because it is the nature of their work, including the dangers of their activities that make it so. Surrounded by intense conflict, hatred and violence, these people appear the fool, idealists who do not know or can not accept the reality of their societies’ situation. If they really knew that situation, others would say, they would be ‘realists’; they would concentrate their efforts on hard bargaining, economic incentives and military force. But in practice, when the threshold is passed, when leaders shake hands or a jailed dissident is freed or families from the two sides join together, everyone casts about for new ways to organize.

My prognosis, foolish and idealistic as it may seem to some, is that that threshold, that day of biophysical reckoning, is near. And with it, serious questioning about humans’ patterns of material provisioning, their production, their conumption, their work and tehir play. Then the premises of modern industrial societies – capitalist, socialist, communist – will crumble. Efficiency will provide little guidance because it so readily translates to continuing material throughput. A little intensification here, some specialization there just will not make things better. A feedlot is still a feedlot, a conveyor belt still a conveyor belt. When it becomes obvious that efficiency-driven societies can no longer continue their excesses, displace their costs, postpone their investments in natural capital, when it is obvious they can no longer grow their way out of climate change and species extinction and aquifer depletion and the bioaccumulation of persistant toxic substances, people everywhere will indeed be casting about. Some will gravitate to the extremes – religious fundamentalism, survivalist homesteading, totalitarian government. Many, though, will seek paths that are familiar, if not prevalent. Notions of moderation and prudence and stewardship will stand up, as if they were just waiting to be noticed, waiting for their time, even though, in many realms, they were already there. (Princen, _The Logic of Sufficiency_ 359-360)

Thomas Princen is not, if you meet him, a wide eyed optimist in the sense that we think of it – he’s a professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy at U Michigan. His book isn’t a feel-good crunchy narrative, but a close examination of the economic and ecological impact of the ideas of efficiency in energy and economics and examples of restraint. And yet, I think his kind of optimism is available to us, and should be – it is not that it is inevitable that the leaders that have been making war will make peace – we know it isn’t. It is that it is possible.

We have closed off a great number of options – and that’s a deep and profound disappointment. In my lifetime it would have been possible to do a great deal to make the realities of depletion and climate change a great deal less severe, and we didn’t do it. Now our options are frankly less palatable, less appealing and more painful – the choices are harder, the results are going to be a lot less good. It would be easy to conclude from the fact that my parents’ generation and those who came before them who tried to address these issues failed, that failure is inevitable. And if you set up success as outside the realm of real possibility – constraint of climate change back to old ways, not having to radically change of life, failure will be, as John Michael Greer has observed, inevitable.

But we also know that in our human history are many examples of the unthinkable becoming thinkable, quite rapidly even. There are any number of examples – who would have believed that slavery in the US, the basis of a huge portion of our economy, could be done away with? Who would have believed that truth and reconciliation and change could have brought about an end to apartheid? Who would have believed, growing up as I did in an America where my mother and step-mother had to keep an empty room for my step-mother to pretend to sleep in, so that the landlord and the courts that could take my mother’s children away from her would not know that she was a lesbian, that by the time all their children were grown, my mother and step-mother would be married in both their church and in their state?

Change happens – it happens slowly, painfully, incrementally, and rapidly, agonizingly, ripping things apart as it goes. It never goes fast enough, it never comes exactly as we predict, but when it comes the strategies that enable us to go forward are desperately needed. It is quite possible that the two warring leaders will never shake hands, and will continue to lay waste to their countries. It is certain that without strategies for negotiating peace, they will continue to do so until everything is destroyed. And it is possible that given those interventions, they may yet make an inconceivable piece and a place to begin going forward from.

So call me a lunatic optimist – I’m good with it. But damn it, take time to consider before you abandon lunatic optimism, before you assume that we will never change, or only for the worst. Consider once, consider twice, consider a third time and consider anyway doing the work that would enable us not to march to our doom, or not a quickly, or not as many. If it is not one strategy, find another, one that suits you, a map you can make in your basement, if needed, a garden you can grow behind your house, as you also make the plans for the day when the maps come into the light and the gardens stretch out in front yards as far as your eyes can see.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 NM
    August 25, 2010

    Well said, Sharon. Standing, clapping.

  2. #2 Russell
    August 25, 2010

    You’re not a lunatic optimist. But so long as you talk about rationing as a solution to the allocation of scarce natural resources, you sound to anyone who is economically literate much as someone who proposes a perpetual motion machine as a solution to energy supply does to a physicist. And it doesn’t matter how scarce the resource gets or how vital it is. Just as it doesn’t matter what combination of pulleys, rotating gears, and floats that perpetual motion machine uses.

    And yeah, if you make a comparison between oil and kidneys for transplant, that’s much like the advocate of a perpetual motion machine pointing out that the universe hasn’t run down yet. Not all economics is bunk. And studying it won’t turn you into a Republican.

  3. #3 darwinsdog
    August 25, 2010

    take time to consider before you abandon lunatic optimism, before you assume that we will never change, or only for the worst.

    unless we change our ways. Human population collapse is inevitable, period. This is no reason for despair, however. It will likely happen after we, personally, are dead, and despair is a futile reaction to nature taking its course, in any case. Do the right thing not because it will make any difference in the overall picture. Do the right thing because it makes you feel better. And have fun doing it.

  4. #4 Fred Magyar
    August 25, 2010

    “Not all economics is bunk. And studying it won’t turn you into a Republican. ”

    The only economics that is *NOT* bunk is biophysical economics that takes into consideration the physical laws governing our world and understands that all economics is a subset of the natural world. Everything else has about as much value as social science based on astrological charts.
    All mathy and sciency sounding but without the advantage of falsifiability and the predictive value of a true scientific theory.

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    August 25, 2010

    The only economics that is *NOT* bunk is biophysical economics that takes into consideration the physical laws governing our world and understands that all economics is a subset of the natural world.

    If economists were sufficiently intelligent to grasp “the physical (and biological) laws governing our world” they would have studied the physical & biological sciences rather than the silly stuff they pretend is real.

    Sorry for the formatting error in post #3.

  6. #6 Ed Straker
    August 25, 2010

    Sharon, I think the very fact that you’re having to double-down, dig in your heels, and defend your optimism should be cause to question whether your hope is realistic.

    Respectfully, the sorts of essays that read the way yours do tend to occur on the part of those who are in the death throes of a losing argument, shortly before they buckle under the weight of the obvious and concede that they were wrong.

    I mean, all along you are conceding to the negative trendlines and STILL coming to a positive conclusion. This starts to veer into 2012 style thinking that one day we’ll all see the light, rather than the grinding decline and endless short-term triage and muddling-through that Greer envisions.

    The “overnight epiphany” idea is intoxicatingly appealing for us doomers. I’d love it to be true, but it’s not very likely.

    We’ve had various media events that touch on doom (Earth 2100, 11th Hour, Inconvenient Truth, Ruppert’s Collapse, “Avatar Blues”, Wall-E). I keep on waiting for the mass culture shift and it just fades away like The Wave at a stadium. We’ve had climate catastrophes such as Pakistan and Russia this year (I’m not even including Katrina). It seems like nothing short of Klaatu making the earth stand still could possibly cause the kind of rapid consciousness shift that you’re talking about. We’ve become numb to doom, or we just don’t connect the dots, or we just don’t see the point in changing our behavior or ideology to address it (fatalism).

    Have you paid attention to a shift in tone on the part of your peers such as Kunstler, Heinberg, or McKibben? You’re aware of their most recent writings, are you not?

    Richard Heinberg spoke a few months ago in Lexington and there was very little hope on tap from him, unlike the tone he originally struck when he arrived on the peaker scene.

    Activists these days have the careworn look of a thousand “dark nights of the soul”, awkward pregnant pauses, and a strained body language that betrays whatever positive veneer they layer on for public consumption.

    I was at an Eaarth book discussion a while back, full of well-to-do professionals and I’d say 80% of them including the head of the environmental group were pretty much confessing to each-other that we’re screwed.

    Lester Brown seems to be the only guy still clinging to the original techno-fix playbook, with his ever-revised Plan B series.

    I’m all for hoping for the best, and doing the right thing as a matter of principle, but I still expect the worst. That wasn’t the case 5 years ago, but the verdict is coming in. With every ecological event, every additional down-leg on the economy, every poll that indicates people burying their heads deeper and deeper in the sands.

    I am going to continue to strive in one way or another for a better future, but I don’t think it’s likely to avert an (eventual) future that anybody with two brain cells would interpret as a Charlton Heston-grade dystopia.

    If someone told me when I was a kid that the icecaps would be melting and species would be going extinct at a rapid clip I’d feel that this world, despite the iPhones and Xboxes, would be a dystopia. So like Bill’s premise with Eaarth, what we wanted to preserve has already irrevocably lost, and in a literal blink of an eye. What we have left to save is now a rapidly moving target and people just don’t give a crap as long as they have cheap Big Macs and American Idol.

    As pathetic as it sounds, for the most part, all I expect out of the future is a close circle of people who do give a crap that I can lean on for suppport. That’s pretty much my minimal definition of “success” which might actually be achievable in the midst of everything still crumbling all around me.

  7. #7 Robyn M.
    August 25, 2010

    I’m confused by why so many commenters here feel that it is obviously false that we as a society would embrace something like rationing, even going so far as to liken it to a perpetual motion machine. I mean, I don’t think we’ll all jump on the bandwagon tomorrow or anything, but clearly false? I can’t see why. The biggest reason why I don’t buy that is that *we’ve done it before*. Everyone knows that there was strict rationing in place during WWII; and everyone should know that this was coming on the heels of one of the most decadent periods in American history, during which, lo and behold, no one would have dreamed that rationing would be embraced. So could it happen again? Of course it could. Is it likely? Not particularly. But likening it to a perpetual motion machine is simply a false analogy. Perpetual motion machines are physically impossible; there is absolutely no law–physical, sociological, natural, or any other–that would preclude rationing happening again in America.

    For myself, I look to a group that no one else ever does for hope–Generation X. You see, as a generation, this group has pretty much given up on everything else–the idea of retirement, of Social Security, of having a secure job or secure lifestyle, or anything else that the generations before take for granted. What we haven’t given up on is community, and family, and taking care of our own, and working together on a small scale to make change (because we’ve mostly given up on large scale, national level change, even though we might in principle favor it). I suspect that a great deal of Gen-Xers would be content to live with rationing–especially at the community level–if it meant a little more for everyone. No one else believes it, but we don’t have much of a sense of entitlement, probably because we’ve spent our whole lives having others tell us that we’ll have a lower standard of living than our parents and that we probably deserve it. Magically, it’s exactly this downtrodden, defeatist attitude so prevalent in my generation that might carry us through. Sure, we’ll take the hit, we’ll lose the jobs, take the pay cuts, submit to rationing, so that our kids can have a more secure childhood and a better community to live in, and just maybe our country will pull through. Frankly, I don’t think many of us expected much different anyhow.

  8. #8 dewey
    August 25, 2010

    I suspect Russell will recognize that I am not an economist when I say that I would rather accept limits on what I could buy than heedlessly consume such a large share that food prices rose beyond what others in my community could bear and they were driven to desperation.

  9. #9 Laura
    August 25, 2010

    Robyn: Well said. I think also that many of us Gen-Xers have been anticipating doom in the back of our minds for most of our lives, so anything we can do to cushion the blow, we’ll do.

  10. #10 Russell
    August 25, 2010

    Darwinsdog, please feel free to explain why eliminating the rationing and price controls on oil eliminated the gas lines of the 70s, though the underlying physics of oil extraction remained the same. Robyn, I didn’t compare rationing or society’s acceptance of it to a perpetual motion machine. I compared belief that it does anything to solve the problem of fossil fuel scarcity to the belief in perpetual motion machines. I would like those who speak about resource limits from a physical perspective to sound like they are half-way educated on related topics, also. And I sincerely hope the “decadent” decade to which you referred was the 90s, and not the 30s. Dewey, I share your preference. One way of implementing that trade might be to put everyone over 21 BMI into a dog cage and feed them dandelions until they are back below that. Sound great? There are more and less painful ways to deal with limits. Rationing natural resources to individuals would be one of the more painful and costly. Fortunately, it’s no more likely than dog cages for the chubby.

  11. #11 theshortearedowl
    August 25, 2010

    You’re a lunatic optimist. But I guess someone has to do it.

  12. #12 darwinsdog
    August 25, 2010

    Darwinsdog, please feel free to explain why eliminating the rationing and price controls on oil eliminated the gas lines of the 70s, though the underlying physics of oil extraction remained the same.

    What eliminated the gas lines of the 70s was that OPEC lifted the embargo.

    Since that time, the underlying physics of oil extraction may not have changed but the accessibility of remaining oil reserves has changed dramatically. The world is now at the position the US was in circa 1972 on Hubbert’s asymmetric logistic production curve, i.e., just to the right and a little below the apex of the distribution. Since the distribution is left skewed the descent will be more abrupt and quicker than the ascent. All the easy to extract oil is already gone. Sucking the dregs will ensure that production is more expensive, dirtier, more difficult and more prone to accidents.

  13. #13 Ed Straker
    August 25, 2010

    “For myself, I look to a group that no one else ever does for hope–Generation X.”

    I’m Generation-X and I can say that while we did have an inferiority complex growing up, overshadowed by the demographic bulge of the baby boomers, the dot com boom of the 90s and the associated narrative of “the geeks shall inherit the earth” went a LONG way to wiping away the early 90s grunge slacker outlook that we used to have.

    Today, Generation-X who met with success during the tech boom are now just another generation of yuppies living in McMansions and spending all their time distracted by gadgets and watching reality TV, consumed with nostalgia which drives all these remakes and reboots.

    That’s not that different from any generation that ages into the prime earning stage.

    That’s why you have Hummer ads featuring Asteroids.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P6_jMNDL44

    Madison Avenue finally welcomed us to the machine and we embraced it with open arms.

    So if you happen to know where all the Gen-Xers are that are living in yurts and building food forests, let me know, because I don’t see them.

  14. #14 Russell
    August 25, 2010

    “What eliminated the gas lines of the 70s was that OPEC lifted the embargo.”

    True, for the oil crisis of 1973. But the lines returned in the late 70s, during the Iranian revolution. What ended those lines? And we didn’t we see a return of gas lines, even when prices a couple of years back went higher than then?

    “Since the distribution is left skewed the descent will be more abrupt and quicker than the ascent.”

    Care to place a friendly wager on that? It shouldn’t be too hard to pick some criteria to measure that. It’s just physics, right? ;-)

  15. #15 darwinsdog
    August 25, 2010

    “What eliminated the gas lines of the 70s was that OPEC lifted the embargo.”

    True, for the oil crisis of 1973. But the lines returned in the late 70s, during the Iranian revolution. What ended those lines? And we didn’t we see a return of gas lines, even when prices a couple of years back went higher than then?

    I’ve been driving since 1969 or ’70. I remember the OPEC embargo. I was in the army at the time. I don’t think I ever waited in line to buy gas, probably because I bought gas on base. I don’t remember any lines at all in the late ’70s. I was in college at the time, drove a gas-guzzling F-350 truck and had quite a commute from where I lived in rural Illinois to town. Maybe there were gas lines regionally but I don’t remember ever waiting in line to buy gas in those days.

    In 2008 when oil hit its all-time high price so far, there was no supply bottleneck and hence no shortage. On the contrary, high prices motivated a production peak that will probably never be exceeded. Those high prices reduced demand which in turn resulted in reduced prices. The so-called ‘powers-that-be’ would like for people to believe that reduced demand & prices motivated reduced production, and that production could be ramped back up should demand & price re-inflate, but the truth is that the world was pumping at its flat-out maximum rate and that rate could probably not be achieved again regardless of price.

  16. #16 dewey
    August 25, 2010

    Russell sez: “One way of implementing that trade might be to put everyone over 21 BMI into a dog cage and feed them dandelions until they are back below that. Sound great?”

    How’d you know I’m planning just that for the D(F)H? Just keep quiet until I can lure him into the basement, will ya?

    Seems to me that if there were to be a food crisis – let’s define this as one to several years during which harvests simply do not provide enough grain for BAU – there would be several approaches to avoiding starvation.

    1. The state could ration very scarce commodities to make sure the non-rich can have some, and/or ration resource-gobbling commodities like grain-fed meat as a way of coercing lower total consumption. Yes, this would be “painful and costly.”

    2. The state could outright prohibit the most wasteful uses, e.g. turning corn into SUV-juice. This would also be painful and costly, especially for the ethanol plant owners (though they wouldn’t starve), but also for anyone whose favorite form of gluttony was affected.

    3. The state could buy up a chunk of the crop using tax dollars, at market prices, and give food directly to the needy. This might be better than coupons all around. Of course, it would still have costs, and would increase the price of food, tipping some of the semi-needy over the edge into neediness.

    4. The state could prohibit the export of food so enough would remain on the domestic market to prevent local unrest. The cost is that many developing-country consumers whose own farmers were deliberately driven out of business by subsidized grain imports would starve before they could revitalize their own agricultural systems (which may require land reform and training a whole new generation of farmers). I find this utterly repulsive, and it would provide a legitimate motive for “blowback,” but it’s a likely response by many governments.

    5. Or, of course, the state could just let the all-powerful market do whatever it likes with the grain, and provide its own hungry people with cash welfare so they can go on eating. Costs include higher taxes, higher deficits, and possible inflation.

    Russell, do you think any of those would be more tolerable, or do you have any other ideas that I haven’t seen?

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    August 25, 2010

    Honestly, Russell, I know studying economics won’t turn me into a Republican – but it might make me do things like pretend that economics is a science. I think it is interesting that the parallels you use are to hard sciences – this is, of course, the great myth that economists of all stripes have tried to propagate, that economics is a science. This is, of course, also wrong.

    Economics is a social science, and its assumptions, “laws” and rules are like those of any social science – of moderate and interesting value (my own training is in the humanities and social sciences and I have a high regard for the use of those disciplines to examine the world), possibly at times revealing deep and important things – but not on the order of science, not provable, and built on assumptions that are theory – not in the scientific sense, but in the sense that historical theories are theory, or theories of political science are theory.

    Economics as a discipline is so invested in the false notion that its underlying assumptions are, in fact, science that it actually has managed to convince most of its adherents that it is one. But that doesn’t make it true. It is true that what I’m saying may look like someone coming to a physicist with a perpetual motion machine to an economist, but that’s as much the problem of the economist as mine – the economist has accepted a set of principles that are not written in stone, that are properly seen as theory in the liberal arts sense, and believes that they are theory in the scientific sense. That’s such a vast intellectual error that as deep and profound as my errors may be, I’m not sure that most economists can actually point them out.

    Sharon

  18. #18 Russell
    August 25, 2010

    1) would cause shortages and make the food crisis worse, a terrible idea all around. 2) isn’t needed, since corn production for ethanol would drop to zero once state subsidies for that are dropped. 4) wouldn’t serve the purpose you want, likely just causing a further decrease in harvest. 3) might help some, but would be terribly inefficient as people tried to sell their grain allotment for what else they need, with a lot of grain then going to waste. Of all the things you propose, 5) is by far the best choice.

    All that said, I think the probability of the food crisis you describe happening in the US in our lifetime is about nil. And no, it doesn’t follow as a direct consequence of peak oil.

  19. #19 Sharon Astyk
    August 25, 2010

    Ed, I don’t think you and I are talking about the same things – the optimism we have here is not the bullshit of The Great Turning or that other sort of crap. It is simply the recognition that things happen to make people deal with them. They can deal ill or badly, but they will deal – and probably through a mix of both. The odds are also statistically in favor of the idea that critical moments will occur that force people to deal before we’re all struck by a meteor and all life is extinguished.

    I actually think you are going to have to make a better case – you mean having to defend optimism is always proof you are failing? Really? Even when Winston Churchill did it? Even when Gandhi did? Look, I’m not Winnie or Gandhi, and don’t pretend to be, but that’s not the strongest argument – whenever there are reasons to despair, there’s always a lively debate about how despairing you should be. It isn’t proof of anything.

    As for my colleagues – pointing out that I’m less doomy than Jim Kunstler probably isn’t the best way to persuade me I’m wrong ;-) – this is the guy who said we were going all die during Y2K and the Dow was going to hit 2000 in 2005. Richard has been in despair about the human race since before I was born. And McKibben basically says what I do – we’re fucked, but it isn’t clear that we can’t pull anything out of being fucked.

    Sharon

  20. #20 Russell
    August 25, 2010

    I think it’s a deep error to think that any finding in a social science can be dismissed, just because they’re not hard sciences. Someone who claims that humans don’t show confirmation bias or that humans 10,000 years past had no tool technology is just showing ignorance, and not just a difference of opinion that can be defended by saying that psychology and history are social sciences, and hence their claims are only “of moderate and interesting value.., possibly at times revealing deep and important things – but not on the order of science, not provable.”

    I agree — I suspect most economists would agree! — that many of the mathematical models that field has produced have run quite a ways away from the data. One reason for studying a field is to get a sense for where its uncertainties lie. And I suspect that part of what makes the social sciences seem “soft” with respect to the hard sciences is that they have much larger areas where the uncertainty is uncertain. ;-) But they each, including economics, have areas that are pretty damn proven.

  21. #21 dewey
    August 25, 2010

    Russell – Thanks, that was an informative and helpful response (I concede you may be right to favor cash welfare payments), except for the possible mindreading effort at the end. I have never thought that a food crisis should be a direct consequence of peak oil. It might, however, plausibly result from an unfortunate confluence of events, such as a serious epidemic of a fungal disease of wheat, weather extremes that kill crops in some agricultural areas, the disappearance of glaciers that feed others, and a major segment of China’s or Australia’s farmers finally exhausting their water supplies. All of these things are either happening right now or plausibly likely to happen within my lifetime. If they should all happen around the same time, things could get ugly. I would certainly prefer that that did not happen (though I suspect that it will at some point, because if we avoid it now it will only mean more growth and more depletion by the time the next crisis hits).

  22. #22 inverse_agonist
    August 25, 2010

    Arguably, slavery was done away with because it became cheaper for rich people to operate the way they do, now. Slaves and their upkeep weren’t cheap, after all. Slavery never really went away, when you think about Third World working conditions.

    The same class of people has been in charge this whole time. Worsening economic conditions increase the likelihood of highly profitable wars, which only make them more powerful and capable of mercilessly crushing dissent. The government has never served anything but the interests of the ruling class.

    Persecution of gay people have fallen out of favor, but persecution of Muslims is increasing proportionately.

    Optimism, in itself, is not a good thing. Optimism that one might be rich, too, one day is a big part of what keeps people from revolting. I just don’t see the point to anything beyond self sufficiency and adaptation to poverty.

    If communities truly became self-sufficient and independent of The System on any kind of meaningful scale, it would start to be harshly punished. Consider that you have to pay taxes in US dollars on barter transactions. It is literally illegal not to participate.

    At what point does continued optimism become intellectually dishonest?

  23. #23 Ed Straker
    August 25, 2010

    “McKibben basically says what I do – we’re fucked, but it isn’t clear that we can’t pull anything out of being fucked.”

    It will be interesting to see if he comes across that way when he speaks this weekend, and if so, how people react to such an, um, inspiring message. That will at least give you a real datapoint to work with ;)

  24. #24 Russell
    August 25, 2010

    inverse_agonist:

    Arguably, slavery was done away with because it became cheaper for rich people to operate the way they do, now.

    There’s quite a bit of economic argument about the relative efficiency of slavery, and historical argument about the external cost of maintaining it by state and federal enforcement. That said, as a matter of history, there was considerable wealth invested in it, and it didn’t disappear due to competition, the way vacuum tubes lost out to solid state circuitry or Kodachrome has to digital photo arrays. Slavery was eliminated by moral crusade and war. Cultural forces rather than purely economic ones did it in. So arguing whether it might have survived as a profitable institution as the economy and technology changed is one of those counterfactuals where it’s easy to spin tales both ways.

  25. #25 Claire
    August 25, 2010

    darwinsdog (#15), I personally sat in gas lines in 1979. This was in suburban Philadelphia, where my birth family lived at the time. That summer, while I was between college and grad school, I was working for a chemical company about 20 or so miles from home, commuting back and forth in a 1974 Maverick (a terrible car, BTW, but I digress). More than once I left work for an hour or two in the middle of the day so I wouldn’t have to sit in line for longer than that, which I’d have had to do if I’d tried to buy it during rush hour. No one minded, in fact they were doing the same thing.

    Someone mentioned odd-even day rationing in the previous post. Pennsylvania was doing that that summer, exactly as described – you could buy gas on an even-numbered day if your license plate ended in an even number, on an odd-numbered day otherwise. The Maverick got poor gas mileage and had a small gas tank besides. It wouldn’t get across the entire east-west distance of the state without a fill-up. I traveled to grad school, in Illinois, late that summer. We had to pick the day so I could buy gas that day. My mom’s station wagon (she was helping to transport some of my things) had a big enough tank to get across the state, so it was my car that was the limiting factor. Once we got into Ohio, there was no rationing. Something about being on the East Coast was the difference. I don’t remember why and haven’t researched it, but gasoline supplies were short that summer on the East Coast but not in the Midwest.

  26. #26 Brad K.
    August 25, 2010

    Robyn M.,

    Yes, we did rationing before. This time, though, rationing would hurt commercial and retail interests; it didn’t during WWII because it was a scarce economy, and the major market was the war effort and unaffected by rationing.

    This time, reducing purchases would cost jobs from the affected employers. You can read about the way deflation has hurt Japan over the last decade, and how deflation is reducing the ability of our economy to again sustain the nation as well as the government’s excesses. Deflation happens because people don’t buy as much. In our consumerist economy, industry, commerce, and government are all based on the assumption of continued buying by consumers. “Cash For Clunkers” was supposed support and grow industry – it was always a terrible thing to do to honest citizens. It grew debt – one of the important aspects of combating deflation. Today’s news about companies “hoarding” cash (not spending it on wages or expansion), and especially on banks trying to increase the number of loans they are making, are significant and troubling signs of deflation at the national level. There is no accepted, proven government policy that will defuse deflation and turn it around, because deflation depends on whether people want to buy, which depends on expectations and fears and hopes about the future.

    Anyway. Deflation aside, anything that reduces consumer buying may help reduce consumer debt, and may increase options for preparation or savings. But slowing buying at any level will hurt the economy, slow tax revenue, increase national debt, hurt employers, and threaten those in need depending on government support. Rationing or systemic slowing of buying will help buyers – but increases strain on the economy the rest of the nation depends upon.

    This kind of either-or economy didn’t exist during WWII.

  27. #27 Glenn
    August 26, 2010

    Went crabbing under oar power today. Limited, actually brought home more calories than I burned. I still drove the 3 miles to my anchorage though. Next step is converting the Burlely tykes bicycle trailer to a cargo trailer to haul gear to the boat and crab back. Then the “Low Carbon Crab Company” will live. No paying customers, just feed us and share with the neighbors.
    The point is, that’s my optimistic activity; using human muscle to do useful work feeding family and community, when all others use 10 to 200 H.P. motors to do the same.

    Glenn,

    Marrowstone Island

  28. #28 Sara in Alabama
    August 26, 2010

    OK Sharon. Will you bring back The Theory of Anyway NOW?

  29. #29 Steve
    August 26, 2010

    Difficult to call and situation varies around the world.

    Unfortunately I think people’s inertia + the momentum of the working masses, schooled in a growth mental model – means that BAU must be seen to crash, and very badly at that, before anything will change significantly.

    When I say badly I mean a collapse to the point that TV is off air, there has been death through starvation in your neighbourhood and you personally are genuinely worried about making it through next winter.

    I fear that that’s the level of distress needed to make people think “Me going to work is part of the problem”.

    Because that IS the problem. We are trained to keep the system going, and us all going to work just perpetuates the system. Yes, I go to work. I don’t see a way out of this.

    Unless people en-masse drop the entire lifestyle (= decades of training) BAU will claim us in perpetuity.

    So what can I do?? Try for some land (hah! I’m in England, living in a down-at-heel area. Problem: there is just so little land; I need to raise somewhere north of $300,000 for 1/4 acre with house. Hence stupid time-consuming “work”); read Greer, CB, EB, try to raise people’s awareness. But they just don’t care.

    OK. One step at a time….

  30. #30 Robyn M.
    August 26, 2010

    “Today, Generation-X who met with success during the tech boom are now just another generation of yuppies living in McMansions and spending all their time distracted by gadgets and watching reality TV, consumed with nostalgia which drives all these remakes and reboots.”

    Ed, I agree that this has happened to some Gen-Xers. Do you know any of them yourself, by chance? The ones who’ve met with success and now drive HumVees? I’ve heard a lot about them, mostly from others, but have never had the chance to actually meet one myself. Of course, I also don’t know many Gen-Xers who’re building food forests, either, but I do know at least a couple of them. By and large, the Gen-Xers I know are struggling to make ends meet on crappy pay, often living with parents, or sometimes with parents living with them. Usually we have kids and are trying to make good homelives. A few of us, I’ve heard, even own flat-screen tvs.

    The effect you’re describing of us downtrodden folks making good during the tech boom didn’t really have much of an effect on me, because, well, it didn’t have much of an effect on me or anyone I knew. I don’t know anyone who “made good” the way you describe (I suppose there might be someone from my high school graduating class who did this, but I’m unaware of it.) On the other hand, this story had a significant effect on my parents and their generation, who were all waiting patiently for me to make my first “second comma” so that they could safely rely on me for their retirement (which I believe they blew on starting a restaurant in the mid-90′s). Everyone one generation up from me seemed to believe that we were all either driving around in HumVees, or finishing our comp sci degrees and would soon be making said purchase. Of course, now we know that comp sci degrees are a dime a dozen, with double Cisco certifications in my town you can reasonably expect to pull down $28k/year, and the folks driving the HumVees live in very different neighborhoods from me.

  31. #31 Claire
    August 26, 2010

    Robyn M., one of the Gen X-ers living in a McMansion (his third, BTW, and he lost money on both the first two to boot) is my youngest brother, born in 1970. But even so, I think you are more in line with most Gen X-ers’ experience; my brother is the fortunate exception, at least at this point. I’m a late boomer, born in 1957, and there are just so many of us that we’ve kind of hogged up most of the employment. Your generation already had demographics against it; now you’ve got depletion to compound the problem.

    Actually, when people talk about the boomers, most of what they describe is true only for the earlier boomers, born before the mid 50s. Younger boomers like myself came of age in the 1970s, a quite different time from the 1960s. Our teenage years included Watergate and the 1970s gas crises. Many if not most of us expected to die in a nuclear war before we turned 30. I still consider it a miracle that I’m alive at 53 to write this.

    The 1979 gas rationing system in PA worked because at the time, there was no such thing as self-service gas pumps. This was put forth as a safety consideration: attendants could ensure that car engines were turned off and other safety precautions were followed. For those of you too young to remember attendants at gas pumps, you drove up to a pump, an attendant came to your window, you told him (I don’t remember ever seeing a female attendant) how much gas you wanted, he put the gas in, you paid him and drove off. Thus the attendants could control who got gas when by observing your license plate number – a simple enough system to work pretty well, and fair enough that people only grumbled a little. Mostly they adapted to it. I’m not sure how long it lasted because I moved to Illinois before it ended, but I think it was over by the time I came home for the winter holidays.

  32. #32 Name? Mind your own.
    August 26, 2010

    In the absence of an overwhelmingly convincing reason to commit to either emotion – and unless you’ve got a God’s eye view of the universe, it’s probably safe to say that you don’t have an overwhelmingly convincing reason – neither optimism nor pessimism is appropriate. Just get on with what needs to be done.

    And it’s a small – minute, really – point but I don’t think Churchill could really be characterized as an optimist; surely more a case of bloody-minded determination and a refusal to give in against overwhelming odds, which is not quite the same thing.

  33. #33 Jerah
    August 26, 2010

    Robyn – I totally agree about the Gen-X thing. I dunno about the guys who made it big in the techboom/Googleworld, not being part of that crowd, but as for me and mine…

    Our circle of friends (of the more creative/bookish/non-career-driven bent, admittedly) are at very least mentally flexible enough to imagine collapse and not despair. We’ve used (consciously or not) our cultural awareness and (endless!) ironic humor to build a world where it’s easy to imagine NOT going to the mall, NOT eating fast food. Or doing so with a little smirk and a shrug if we have to, since, really, if that’s your only option, why not?

    We haven’t attached our identities to cultural signposts like owning new cars, or wearing new clothes, or insisting that others listen to the same music as we do. I don’t think thrift shop fashion has been a conscious preparation for hard times, but you can see how it’s a useful skill. If it’s already cool, you’re a little ahead of the curve when it becomes the only option.

    It probably happens somewhat naturally, any time humans are confronted with a big dip in standards of living: a group of kids gets together somewhere in an empty garage, spikes their hair up, starts wearing kilts and listening to their friends scream and smash their guitars. Punk rock. It’ll be fun to see what adaptation we come up with this time.

  34. #34 Oikoman
    August 26, 2010

    Sharon, I admire your optimism even if I don’t share it, but its definately a usefull approach. I haven’t been reading this blog long, but I get the feeling that most commentors feel that everything will end in a dystopian crash, ignoring the possibility that what may happen is more of a gradual decline. In the former scenario, sure the best strategy is guns, ammo, and a bootleg copy of ‘red dawn’, but I would argue that is also an unlikely scenario. An optimistic approach of preparedness makes you more flexible for an evolving economic, environmental, and political reality.

    As for economics, well… as a former scientist, I’ve always thought that economics has physics envy, and wastes a lot of time trying to promulgate universal theories of economic activity without any data, when instead it should be like ecology, which is essentially the study of the carbon, nitrodgen, and phosphorus economy of this planet. There is a lot of lessons (and theory) economists could learn from ecologists, though I suspect the stock brokers won’t appreciate the ear-tags and radio collars.

  35. #35 darwinsdog
    August 26, 2010

    #25:

    I don’t remember why and haven’t researched it, but gasoline supplies were short that summer on the East Coast but not in the Midwest.

    Thanks Claire. I’ve seen gas lines in the late ’70s mentioned before but didn’t remember them in Illinois at all.

    My wife had a Ford Maverick and I believe it was a ’74 also altho I don’t rightly recall. It had a straight-six engine & three speed manual tranny. When our youngest son was a baby she left him in the baby seat in the back seat of the Maverick while this Navajo guy crawled under the car to weld the shock absorber mount to the frame, after it had broken off due to the washboarded condition of the roads on the Rez. He managed to get the floorboard red hot which set fire to the padding in the back seat. Smoke was rolling out of the car and the baby was still in there. She opened the door and pulled the little fellow out. The welder didn’t have a fire extinguisher and had to put the fire out with a garden hose. I could still drive the Maverick after that but that incident was pretty much the end of it.

    #31:

    Actually, when people talk about the boomers, most of what they describe is true only for the earlier boomers, born before the mid 50s. Younger boomers like myself came of age in the 1970s, a quite different time from the 1960s.

    I was born in 1955 and was coming of age in the late ’60s, which I remember well, especially the music scene. But you’re right, it was the early ’70s when I really gained freedom & independence, primarily by virtue of being able to drive.

    #34:

    ..ecology, which is essentially the study of the carbon, nitrodgen, and phosphorus economy of this planet.

    The discipline you describe is called biogeochemistry, which could perhaps be considered a subdiscipline of ecology, but there’s a lot more to ecology than just the cycling dynamics of three prominent nutrient elements.

    I don’t read much fiction and hence didn’t participate in Sharon’s thread about apocalyptic novels. I would recommend instead that everyone read William Schlesinger’s text “Biogeochemistry,” 2nd edition 1997. Anyone who hasn’t read this text or its equivalent really has no business positing an opinion regarding resource depletion or nutrient element cycling disruption issues. The final chapter, on how human activity is disrupting the cycling dynamics of crucial nutrient elements, and uncoupling the cycling dynamics of elements one from another, is scarier than any fiction you will ever read.

    There is a lot of lessons (and theory) economists could learn from ecologists

    Some of the differential equations economists and ecologists use to model the systems they study, are exactly the same.

  36. #36 Oikoman
    August 26, 2010

    Darwinsdog – biogeochemistry isn’t really what I am thinking of, though it is apt. In many areas of ecology, the movement of energy (carbon in this case, though referring to carbon bonds more than the element) and valuable minerals (phosphorus and nitrogen among others) is the focus of the research.

  37. #37 darwinsdog
    August 26, 2010

    Thanks for replying Oikoman.

    In many areas of ecology, the movement of energy (carbon in this case, though referring to carbon bonds more than the element) and valuable minerals (phosphorus and nitrogen among others) is the focus of the research.

    You have to be careful here. There is potential energy stored in the covalent C-C bonds of reduced organic compounds, whether these compounds be hydrocarbons or carbohydrates, as you say. When these bonds are broken this energy is released and may be captured, whether in the form of the phosphorylation of ADP or as heat to turn a turbine and generate electricity or to push a piston down. But energy is a one way street: it always goes from a more useful to a less useful form. It ends up being lost as heat to space. This is why I hate the term “renewable energy.” Atoms of nutrient elements, on the other hand, cycle thru the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere & atmosphere (some of them). Don’t confuse the energy locked up in molecules by virtue of shared pairs of electrons, which always tends towards entropy, with the atoms themselves which cycle thru nature on their own characteristic time scales.

  38. #38 Oikoman
    August 26, 2010

    Um, I do know what I’m talking about. What I’m referring to is that when ecologists look at a system, what they are typically looking at is the movement of energy from capture at the level of photosynthesis through the various pathways of the foodweb (herbivores, predators, detritavore) to eventual loss. Carbon may be a poor choice of words as it can be misunderstood in many ways, but typically the energy value of something can be measured through the amount of carbon it contains (e.g., by burning it, among other ways). The movement of hard-to-get elements such as nitrodgen and phosphorus are also measured as these are typically limiting factors in an ecological web, and can be important in affecting the interactions and choices of the variousl players. Its obviously not the only aspect of ecology, but these sort of measurements are playing a larger part, as they describe the economy of a given ecological network. These sort of studies are conducted at the level of a given environment (e.g., a pond, a section of tundra, or a river system) and help scientists understand how the networks move energy and nutrients from level to level, and how the system adjusts to changes in inputs.

    In otherwords, exactly what economists purport to be studying in human systems.

  39. #39 darwinsdog
    August 26, 2010

    ..when ecologists look at a system, what they are typically looking at is the movement of energy from capture.. to eventual loss.

    Study of energy flow through an ecosystem is an important aspect of ecology but hardly the only aspect, and not to be confused with the distinct, tho interrelated, study of nutrient cycling. And don’t forget that photoautotrophs aren’t the only primary producers. Important ecosystems have various sorts of chemoautotrophs at the base of their trophic pyramids.

  40. #40 Oikoman
    August 26, 2010

    I believe I did say it wasn’t the only aspect… and nutrient cycling within communities is an important part of understanding the ecology. As for the importance of chemoautotrophs, they are only really significant in specialized habitats such as black smokers and caves.

    I’m not really sure what your point is… mine is simply that ecology provides a better model for economics than the ‘hard’ sciences of physics which they try to emulate.

  41. #41 Ed Straker
    August 26, 2010

    “In the former scenario, sure the best strategy is guns, ammo, and a bootleg copy of ‘red dawn’, but I would argue that is also an unlikely scenario.”

    And why is it an unlikely scenario? I find it curious that people who, presumably, have watched Al Bartlett’s lecture, read Limits to Growth, Lovelock’s books, Catton’s Overshoot, and stay current with the steady IV drip of ecological doomer-porn that graces even the MSM these days still come to the conclusion that a malthusian die-off to a billion or less humans is an “unlikely scenario”.

    I’d call it extremely likely. As I recall, there was only one scenario in the World3 model that kind of had population leveling out rather than crashing, and the LTG 30 year update is already kind of out of date insofar as not really factoring in all of the bleak ecological data gathered in the last few years.