Casaubon's Book

2011 Predictions: A Savage Place

This year I have a jump on my predictions – as part of my comparatively new role as Editor of the Peak Oil Review Commentary section, I had the fun of asking a whole lot of smart people what they think is going to happen, and thinking about their predictions first.

If you haven’t seen them already, you should definitely check them out! Everyone from Ilargi to Jeff Rubin, The Peak Oil Hausfrau to Richard Heinberg to Tad Patzek kicked in, and realistically, you’ll probably get a lot clearer view of the future through a lot of eyes than just one.

Which leads me to my annual official caveat, which I repeat every year: “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.”

So how did I do with my predictions last year? In 2007 and 2008 I had an extraordinarily good record of predictions, a winning streak broken last year when I jumped the gun. So how were the 2010 predictions? Let’s take a look:

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.

Called it, although it wasn’t quite as dramatic as all that – the stock markets remain fairly high and there are still some people saying it is over, but the general emerging consensus is that it isn’t over. The fact that it never was doesn’t keep people from talking about W shaped recessions, but that’s not what happened – there are blips in any downturn.

.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.

Called it. Oil prices rose to $90 barrel and remained high throughout the year, and food prices began to spike again. At the same time, the general economic trend was solidly deflationary.

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.”

I’m giving myself 50% on this one, although I may well have gotten it right, but the data simply isn’t in yet. I don’t think anyone can deny that the local food movement is still expanding fast and furiously, but there are also some indications that local markets that serve low income people may be seeing a decline. Among the jobless middle class, however, it seems that you cut a lot of things before you cut your child’s organic milk. I’m just not sure how I did on this one yet, and I probably won’t be until spring when the numbers come out. I do think pretty strongly that there’s going to be a lot of pressure on small local producers that offer high cost value-added products as the recession goes on.

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.

Again, this is a tough one to evaluate, but I think there’s increasing evidence in its favor. Two places to look at the fault lines would be on the far right and left – to the right, the age demographics of the Tea Party movement, often commented upon underscore a narrative that essentially runs “we don’t want anyone else to get the kind of benefits we had, because we are pretty sure we can’t afford them. On the left, Susan Faludi wrote an interesting article this fall in Harpers about why the generational division between younger and older feminists was so vast – and so vicious. In both cases, the explanation is held to be something other than a pie that isn’t big enough and an emerging battle between age groups, but i think that is emerging. Time will tell whether this was a critical year or not, but I’m taking this one.

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.

I think this is definitely happening – consider the degree of upset that Judith Curry’s rather weird dissent generated, and the degree to which demoralized climate activists seem uncertain about how to respond given the unlikelihood of any success emergent from Mexico.

Either the economic crisis or some other crisis (swine flu mutates, new climate change related disaster, military conflict 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.

Ummm….yeah.

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

And again.

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.

I think this is most evident at the state level – 2010 turned out to be the year that state budgets couldn’t fake it anymore. The stimulus money is over and gone, the states can’t carry deficits and the crisis is becoming daily more acute. Services for the poor and low income are where this is playing out, unsurprisingly. At the moment this is true mostly of the poor, but more of us are joining that club every day. At the same time, it wasn’t as dramatic as I predicted for most people, so I’ll call it 50%.

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 ;-))

I’d say that the Gulf Oil Spill really did change the game – and probably for years to come. The biggest impact will arise from the drilling moratorium, which will take some years to shake off and further depress production, but the economic impact on the Gulf area, following Katrina by only 5 years I think puts another nail in the coffin of one region of the US economically, and there’s a psychological consequence as well of disaster after disaster hitting the same general region.

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.

I can’t tell you if this one was right or not, yet – give me five years.

We’ll call it an 8, then – seems like I may have gotten my doomer gal mojo back, which is a mixed blessing at best, I fear. Ok, on to 2011. 2010 I called “the Year of Losing Faster” from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. This year, I’m stealing from Coleridge, whose vision of the magical (and wholly imaginary) Kubla Khan is disrupted by the emergence from a savage space, a chasm beneath the paradise, “ancestral voices prophesying war.” I’m not precisely prophesying war myself at the moment, but I do think that 2011 lays the ground for potential conflicts and battles that will be played out unless we get much wiser much faster.

1. First and foremost, I’m going to repeat my prediction in Peak Oil Review – I think 2011 is the year the food crisis comes back. We’re already seeing signs of it, and I think that the number of world hungry will spike again to over a billion. Energy and food prices will remain tightly intertwined, and whether we see major price spikes, demand destruction and a collapse of energy prices, or whatever else, food and energy will be increasingly hard to afford for a large portion of the world population, from the very poorest to the American and European middle class. Food will be an important site of the emergence of our energy and ecological crisis.

2. 2011 will also be the year in which some mainstream segment of the US public or government starts taking peak oil seriously. This seems like it could be a good thing, but that depends heavily on *what* subset of the public or branches of government take it seriously and for what political purpose. I make no promises that peak oil activists won’t go back to wishing they were being ignored.

3. Russia’s wheat export restrictions and China’s muscle flexing over rare earth minerals, along with the international landgrab going on for farmland are all part of an overall trend towards the recognition of limited world resources and the awareness that ensuring that there’s something for your kids probably involves screwing someone else. The screwings will accellerate until morale improves – that being unlikely, I predict more and more international conflict over the limited store of goodies, and that some of that will become more acute and evident in 2011.

4. The emergence of a new “khaki market” (Khaki’s the color you get when you combine green markets and black or grey markets ;-)) economy for food, used goods and other materials will accelerate. These markets will respond to the increasing legislation of small scale production by ignoring it entirely. Small food producers will decline to be legislated out of existence and simply violate existing laws. Informal economies will develop and expand, either around or sometimes in opposition to regulation designed to discourage them. Crackdowns will ensue, but overwhelmingly be unsuccessful at either containing the growth of informal markets or approval of them in the general public. The battles will get nastier as more people depend for their basic needs on these informal khaki markets.

5. The ongoing trend towards housing consolidation among family and friends, sparked by a combination of populations aging, rising unemployment especially among the young and a destigmatization of extended family life will continue and expand. More of us will be moving in with other people in 2011. This will be good for a host of personal economies, but only make the housing market worse.

6. In the interest of having one wholly self-interested prediction, chickens, the gateway drug to goats, will open the gateway and little cute milk and dairy-fiber goats will be the new backyard trend, making chickens look old fashioned and uncool. ;-)

7. The reports of the death of climate change as an issue at the national and international level will turn out to have been at least slightly exaggerated, but the terms of the debate will change to what we are going to do about how we’re going to mitigate, rather than hold off emissions. Our new awareness of resource limits will also change the terms of the debate, as the peak oil and climate change communities finally really get to know one another.

8. Someone from the peak oil community (almost certainly not me) will go mainstream in a way they have not so far. Generally speaking, movements tend to get one major public figure that catches the general imagination over everyone else – consider Michael Pollan for the food movement, for example. I’m going to take a wild risk and argue that our Michael Pollan will emerge in 2011.

9. Something will blow up big, much as the Gulf Oil rig did, revealing just how vulnerable we are in a complex society so heavily dependent on fossil fuels. The general public will be shocked and horrified to learn how contingent their lives and situations are. They won’t, however, learn anything lasting from it.

10. The emerging attention to our collective crisis will give some of the movement a jolt of new energy, time and investment in 2011. This will be the positive consequence of all the tough stuff we’re facing.

Happy New Year anyway, folks!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Andrea G.
    December 30, 2010

    2. 2011 will also be the year in which some mainstream segment of the US public or government starts taking peak oil seriously.

    If the U.S. military counts as “mainstream”, you’re late on this one. They have immense incentives to stop relying on fossil fuels, and have been working in that direction for years. (Momentum is maintained in the short-term by the fact that moving diesel out to forwards bases in Afghanistan results in about $400/gal fuel.) The civilian applications of their research are still likely to be too little, too late, but the effort can’t be denied.

    Of course, if you want to argue that military, with its own strong culture and traditions, is not part of the mainstream.. I wouldn’t have any points with which to say otherwise.

  2. #2 Sherri
    December 30, 2010

    I’m with you on prediction #4. It’s been my plan since NAIS first reared it’s ugly head, and now I’ll treat SB510 the same way.

  3. #3 Stephen B.
    December 30, 2010

    I agree with you and Sherri on #4. The level of micro management that government is shooting for regarding small the scale production of so many cottage industry types of things, not just agriculture, just isn’t going to effectively cover and control as much of the affected industries as the wanna-be regulators think. We’re going to start resembling so many third world, ultra-corrupt countries where people do what they have to do, behind the overworked regulators’ backs, to survive. That is, while there’s lots of regulation in place at many levels, there’s even more ignoring of the regulation and the regulators (and perhaps lots of pay offs directed at inspectors and regulators) via informal economy transactions.

    One thing that I really just haven’t predicted in any accurate sense, is just how arrogant and obnoxious the government, especially the US federal government, and the Federal Reserve, has been during these first several years of Peak Oil. What with the financial bailouts, then the GM bailout, and the quantitative easing, (the latter of which largely explains why the stock market hasn’t absolutely crashed anew yet), it’s somewhat hard to see exactly when the CRASH is coming, because government so far has really warped the financial world’s attempt at crash, adapt, and recovery. (Whatever “recovery” means in this context, I’m not sure myself.) Of course at some point, the government WILL fail at this propping up of the un-proppable, and then the public will see the world energy, food, and economic situation for what it really is. Then maybe, Sharon, you’ll get your #8, #9, and/or #10 coming true as well.

    I think in the next year or two we’re going to see intercity transport suffer so badly due to the airline industry crashing, that contractors are going to start pulling older passenger coaches and sleepers out of mothballs and out of the tourist railroads, and start running limited passenger runs on the major freight railroads again. I’m not sure whether the RRs run these trains themselves, or allow contractors to do it. Service won’t be so good or fast as the mainlines have been single tracked in many places. But it will be a start and it will be far cheaper than mega-billion $$ rail projects that just won’t ever make it out of Congress.

  4. #4 Java Jane
    December 31, 2010

    Stephen B.’s prediction on intercity transport is fascinating to me. However it happens, I’d love to see the passenger rails rolling again.

    One flag that I would like to raise for 2011 concerns the crumbling infrastructure of many East coast urban areas. It seems to me that most people take water and the grid for granted–except when a main breaks or there is brown out/black out. Many municipalities and states cannot afford large scale replacement projects of the status quo. Could this in itself lead to innovation and the greening of America?

  5. #5 Don
    December 31, 2010

    Regarding #4, I wonder where the government is going to get the funds to hire the necessary personnel to enforce the micro-regulations that are being proposed. After all, the federal government is functionally bankrupt (in more than the financial sense of the term, yes, but certainly in that sense as well), and the newly elected RepubliTea Party members are for the most part ideologically opposed to regulation of any kind. So I don’t see them willing or able to fund this kind of regulation any time soon.

  6. #6 Don
    December 31, 2010

    Regarding intercity transport, it’s not just the airlines that are going to suffer. (Air travel has become increasingly dysfunctional anyway, even without the draconian security measures now in place at airports. Just ask anyone who’s flown in the past dozen years or so.)

    But I wonder how long the glut of new highway construction will continue. We cannot maintain the highways that we have. People have been driving less, and higher fuel prices will only accelerate that trend. We’ve always depended on fuel taxes to fund highway maintenance, but with fuel consumption down and costs of maintenance going up, it’s going to be harder and harder to keep the highways in usable condition. The most logical answer, of course, would be to raise fuel taxes and/or to impose some kind of user fee like tolls. But does anyone expect such ideas to be proposed or taken seriously by our politicians?

    I also predict a continuing erosion of Americans’ Constitutional liberties, especially privacy. First we had the USA Patriot Act and the Department of “Homeland Security,” we have the aforementioned draconian airport security systems, and we have the government spying on its citizens. Given that, although terrorism is still a serious threat, the national security state is afraid of its own shadow and prone to overreact, and given the Weimar-like consciousness of the Tea Party (complete with Glenn Beck’s echoing of historic anti-Semitic themes in his rants against George Soros), I’m wondering how long our liberties will hold out.

  7. #7 Don
    December 31, 2010

    Stephen, I hope you’re right about the freight railroads getting back into the passenger business. Here in Ohio, we just lost a federal grant for developing passenger rail service linking Ohio’s major cities because the incoming governor is ideologically opposed to the state’s getting into the rail business. We need that kind of service now, and we’ll be needing it much more in the near future.

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    December 31, 2010

    Andrea, I think the US military has actually been aware of peak oil and written about it for many years – I think the issue is that the JOE report wasn’t something most of the military was even aware of, so I don’t see it as a mainstreaming. To me, mainstream means a substantive portion of the population knows about it. I think the JOE report was extremely important, but not enough to make it mainstream even among military populations – the references to peak oil were pretty buried, and while it got media attention, quite a lot of military higher ups don’t even know it is there.

    Sharon

  9. #9 April
    December 31, 2010

    “chickens, the gateway drug to goats, will open the gateway and little cute milk and dairy-fiber goats will be the new backyard trend, making chickens look old fashioned and uncool. ;-)”

    Ack! My kids think they’ve talked me into getting chickens in the spring if they build a chicken tractor this winter. Now you’re telling we’re uncool and we need goats? You’re worse than the kids. :-D

  10. #10 Claire
    December 31, 2010

    Governments usually manage to find some way to fund whatever they consider important to regulate or control. It wouldn’t surprise me to see goverments of various sizes become an employer of last resort. TSA has grown greatly since airline security has become so draconian. The workers aren’t paid much, but at least it’s a job. Might be we see some creative arrangements, like hiring folks to harass khaki-market practitioners by forgiving their mortgage debt, or credit card debt, or providing free housing in former school or military barracks buildings. They could provide meals too, as miserable and inadequate as they would be, courtesy of their friends the big ag folks. If I can think of it, so can they.

  11. #11 Claire
    December 31, 2010

    I mean forgiving the debts of those hired, not of those being regulated. Should have read that more carefully before posting. ;-)

  12. #12 darwinsdog
    December 31, 2010

    When times begin to get seriously tough for the plurality, do you really think that government is going to really care about the backyard egg suppliers, smokin’ dope sellers, herbalists, unregistered midwives, providers of bread, preserves, cookies.. from home kitchens? The mechanics who fix stuff in exchange for other stuff rather than cash? The ladies who offer sex in exchange for home maintenance services? The people who take fish & deer without licenses? Etc..? I realize that you specify “goverments (sic) of various sizes,” including petty functionaries on the local or county level. Still, I’d think they’d have more pressing concerns to be worrying about, such as providing for their own selves or avoiding being lynched. One thing the US has going for it, for better or worse, is that the people for the most part are armed. Is threatened confiscation of one’s poultry flock worth a gunfight with the “authorities”? Probably not, at this point, for most people. Priorities shift, however, as people get desperate. Take my egg makers and then how do I provide high quality protein for my kids? Being constrained to have to answer such a question brings things down to a very fundamental level. Witness the example of Joe Stack.

  13. #13 curiousalexa
    December 31, 2010

    I worry that the micro-managers will start confiscating property, a la the inquisition. What if they take not only your chickens, your seeds, but also your tools, any cash they can find (I’m assuming you’re not keeping it in a bank account), and siphon the fuel from your truck so they can get to the next place?

    They will, of course, leave you the address of the nearest shelter/food center Claire referred to. Those centers will also be one of the final places to have electricity, crucial to power their mind-numbing televisions.

    (Have I been reading too much doomer fiction? [wry grin])

  14. #14 dewey
    December 31, 2010

    On the climate change and natural disaster front, the St. Louis area was hit today by an F3 tornado – with the temperature in the mid-60s – on December 31. (Hope you’re okay, Claire!) And my wingnut family continue to insist that climate change can only be a librul commie plot. Denial, it’s not just a river in Egypt.

    I would predict that the trend towards increasingly open and virulent Muslim-bashing will continue to intensify as the PTB prepare to distract attention from their failures by pogroms against a scapegoat group.

  15. #15 Karen
    January 1, 2011

    ” The most likely reason you will lose power is because your utility company disconnects you.”

    One of the things that happened in 2010 was that utility companies started moving more quickly to shut people off. They’ve gotten especially quick in areas where there are winter restrictions on shutting of utilities needed for heating. I predict a lot more house fires an carbon monoxide poisonings as people start using kerosene heaters and the like to replace their shut off utilities.

  16. #16 Don
    January 1, 2011

    Dewey, yes, we’re likely to see more Muslim-bashing in the coming year. But the biggest potential scapegoat here in the USA, I think, will be immigrants, especially those who are or who are thought to be undocumented immigrants. Despite the fact that better border security and the recession have combined to slow illegal migration to a trickle, and despite the fact that the recession has prompted a significant number of undocumented immigrants to go back home, the amount of political noise heard against “illegals” has increased. It seems clear to me that this increase is for the purpose of inflaming, propagandizing, and demagoguery, not for encouraging reasonable debate. The reasons some Senators gave for their recent votes against the DREAM act (a no-brainer from my point of view) are certainly not based on logic or reason.

  17. #17 dewey
    January 1, 2011

    Don, I agree – of course, it’s always handy to have more than one scapegoat group, since if you only had one, some regions wouldn’t have any of those people handy to persecute. The extreme right has stepped up rhetoric against all of their favorite targets, though the antigay schtick thankfully seems not to be working very well. And then there is always the risk that some of the inchoate rage stirred up will be directed against traditional targets that the right wing didn’t intend to target (reportedly, anti-Jewish hate crimes are up).

  18. #18 Donal
    January 2, 2011

    In your opinion, will the housing consolidation be the spark to the conflict you predicted between generations? I have read some rather snarky pieces about boomers by younger bloggers, but have not seen much other evidence myself.

  19. #19 Annamarie Pluhar
    January 3, 2011

    The housing consolidation you predict is indeed happening. People are doubling up in families and with what I call “former strangers.” Not only will this be good for personal economies, it will be good for the heart and soul. People do need people. The isolation of individual made possible by cars and prosperity has created huge alienation and loneliness. (See “Loneliness in America: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century.”) In sharing housing individuals find companionship, help with mundane tasks, and comfort.

  20. #20 Don
    January 3, 2011

    For anyone who is interested, James Howard Kunstler just posted his set of predictions over at http://kunstler.com/blog/2011/01/forecast-2011—gird-your-loins-for-lower-living-standards.html. They’re written in his usual, inimitable style.

  21. #21 Claire
    January 3, 2011

    I’m fine, dewey, was offline for awhile but that had to do with my computer having problems. The DH and I did hide out in the basement for awhile when the storms were coming through but the nearest tornado was several miles away. You may have been closer to one of the twisters than I was. I can tell you’re OK from your note, glad for that.

    Actually, now that I’ve read The Resilient Gardener, I’d modify your prediction about chickens, Sharon. I’m predicting that 2011 will be The Year of the Home Ancona Duck Flock. I know I’m looking into having a few Ancona ducks on the homestead. Darn that Carol Deppe and her engaging writing style … ;-)

  22. #22 Brad K.
    January 3, 2011

    April,

    Chickens are an interesting proposition. They consume feed – and produce droppings that enrich the garden or compost heap. (Please, please don’t tell me that you considered scraping the droppings into the trash can!)

    The difference the first livestock makes on your lifestyle is immense. Whether puppy or chickens – or goats – in an eyeblink you never look at time away from home the same way again.

    Adding goats to chickens increases chores, raises issues like procuring feed, providing shelter, providing water, fencing to contain the escape artists, and managing the herd as the little young ones grow older. And maybe procreate.

    But adding goat food planning to chicken food planning is just an increment of planning. Adding water assurance for goats to watering chickens is an increment in managing waterers. Etc. Each addition of livestock, whether goats or sheep, pigeons or guinea pigs, ducks, geese, horses, llamas, alpaca, or guinea hens will add time and resource demands, maybe a bit of effort daily and seasonally (or maybe a lot more!). But the real impact, the more significant lifestyle change, comes from the first livestock.

    Besides, you don’t have to do goats. I understand some places have a growing market for geese. Not only that, I seem to recall that goose grease has a long history of lubricating cork and leather moving parts, from early autos and planes to modern clarinet and other instrument gasket-type moving parts. And duck eggs are finding a wider market.

    If Sharon’s concern about stability of organic and sustainable foods is accurate, there are still Kosher and other specialty markets (including Mexican demands for goat and sheep for funeral and other family gatherings).

    I predict that enough people will have to face the end of the era of cheap energy, to agree that electricity is not, and will not be for decades to come, sustainable, carbon neutral, renewable, or cheap. That is right – electricity will be banned from the Green banner.

    Talk to me about green electricity after 50% of the electricity generated in the US comes from sustainable and renewable energy sources, instead of government subsidies and oil, coal, and natural gas. At this point, building wind farms using oil energy to construct, transport, erect, and maintain the turbines makes about as much sense as spending oil to make lower-energy ethanol from food.

    I would like to see the government subsidies for recycling ended. The existence of recycling programs – turning government handout dollars into recycled stuff – just encourages the production of more throw-away stuff.

    Roads. I predict that some genius will investigate how to turn asphalt from roadways into municipal vehicle fuel. Perhaps even for home heating. Raids on neighboring county roads will begin to impact the ability to communicate, and move freely about the country. Perhaps even tarpaper and asphalt shingles will find their way into fuel production, rather than remaining as roof protection or clogging landfills.

    I am not sure why the current building practice, of throwing ‘used’ lumber and boards into landfills and holes in the ground, but in the past such buildings and walls were carefully disassembled and nearly all the materials re-used. Perhaps that could get us away from dry wall, and into something that lasts for generations and can be reused numerous times.

  23. #23 Adrian
    January 4, 2011

    Bees. Native solitary bees, bumble bees, and honeybees. Or else.

  24. #24 Sarah
    January 9, 2011

    “..chickens, the gateway drug to goats..”

    I spit out my tea and laughed out loud when I read that. I am getting chickens in the spring, but I am already dreaming about dairy goats too. Even got the magazines… maybe my problem is genetic?