THE END OF AFFLUENCE
Generally I am loathe to link to the New York Times and newspapers of their ilk, but I had some thoughts when someone sent me this.
Not having anything in queue to write about this week, I decided to follow this line of inquiry as far as I could take it.
The main argument the article makes is: The rich are getting richer, and the poor stay the same.
“What a scandal!”, you might think.
And yet it is an old adage we're all familiar with. This article analyzes why this is happening, why income inequality is soaring, why people are more useful when they live in poverty, and so on.
It is a good article, but there is a word the author does not use that might help make his point clearer: imperialism. The American geopolitical system is a form of neo-imperialism, and the extent to which America capitalizes on low-paid wage slaves proves it.
The high EROEI phase of American crude oil (basically from discovery of US oil deposits until the Carter presidency of the 70s) allowed America to accelerate the growth of its empire. Economic and hegemonic growth in previous centuries was powered by muscle power – the manpower of slaves, basically. The Americans instead made use of energy slaves (machines) which were fossil fuel based. This neat little trick allowed them to sincerely mouth platitudes about the dignity of humankind (and the wicked, wicked, wickedness of slavery) while pursuing an agenda of becoming a new Rome.
It worked for a time, but would only be a feasible strategy for as long as crude oil had a high EROEI. As the EROEI of oil entered a long period of decline, the US imperial machine responded by:
weaponizing the Dollar (by moving to fiat currency from the gold standard, setting up the petrodollar arrangement),;
weaponizing the financial system (neoliberalism);
… and is now in a full-blown endocolonization phase (aka Foucault's Boomerang).
As complexity concentrates in the hands of political and cultural elites (what John Michael Greer refers to as the Professional-Managerial Class, or PMCs), the lower-income/lower-sociocultural groups find themselves becoming the energy slaves of the PMC class (e.g. they pay the poor less so as to make up the difference from when cheap(er) energy could do it).
Rationalizations in the form of disassociated neoliberal propaganda allow the owners of capital to evade moral culpability for this system exactly as the author of this article describes1.
What about decarbonisation? What about the Great Reset? Can’t we transition to renewable energy sources to maintain our present standard of living?
Well. Building energy systems powered by clean energy technologies requires not only fabulous amounts of minerals but also huge fossil fuel inputs to extract those minerals, process them and make them ready to use with a corresponding CO2 footprint.
There is also the somewhat inconvenient fact that renewable energy such as wind power actually causes a great deal of ecological devastation. The takeaway is that any attempts at transitioning to a renewables-only energy infrastructure will most likely require maintaining fossil fuel infrastructure indefinitely.
You don’t need to be an engineer to know that this is not exactly how decarbonisation is envisioned. Oh come now, people. Life is hard, truths are uncomfortable and free lunches have never been free. This newsletter will stay free but you should
What is the true nature of the problem? Affluence, or rather, the ridiculously affluent way of living we have grown accustomed to in the industrialized world.
Affluence is an unmanageable predicament, you see. Every succeeding generation since 1750 has seen luxuries become necessities, with even the very impoverished being able to afford conveniences and enjoyments beyond the reach of Medieval aristocrats. This is all well and good on a planet of 1 billion. Perhaps 2 billion. With a population of 7.8 billion vying for an affluent lifestyle on one finite planet, there will not be enough to go around.
Naturally, the über elite are talking a Great Reset to protect their wealth. Why are you surprised? You didn’t really think Klaus Schwab and his little friends at Davos are talking about you when they talk about greater prosperity for everyone, did you? Even a blind man can see how much they hate you.
Governments want to have their cake and eat it with growth and decarbonisation of the economy. Green New Deals are basically wealth distribution of affluence. The notion that these will reduce carbon usage or emissions significantly is a lie. In fact, these are the same old growth-based policies with green paint slapped on.
Renewable technology still has to be renewed following life cycles. Recycling this tech is a dubious scientific exercise that is more than likely a downcycle. Affluence both green and brown is a self-organizing systematic force in civilization. Civilization is a growth engine. People cooperate in competitiveness to achieve affluence. Affluence is a fundamental assumption encompassing all human activities – so pervasive and invisible that no one really remembers it is there. We live in a system that has enshrined as its fundamental premise the endless increase of human value.
The main obstacle to overcoming our dilemma of affluence now is arrogance. The philosophy of humanism has hit the point of diminishing returns and has turned into an existential risk to the continuation of our species, as well as the continued habitability of Earth’s biosphere.
Intelligence is seen as the highest power but this intelligence is human intelligence. Viewed a certain way, we have elevated our collective intellect to a god. We worship this god through science, technology, and receiving the resulting affluence as proof of its godhood. Unless we can acknowledge and confront the role intelligence and affluence plays, we will not be able to work our way out of the carbon trap. In reality, the carbon trap is a human trap because human intelligence is trapped.
Of course, there are consequences to enthusiastically extracting and using up Earth’s resources faster than they can recover. One side effect of this process is decline – this is one of the reasons food and commodities have become so expensive, and continue to do so.
The decline of living standards is the natural result of a systematic overshoot where ecological thresholds are being ignored and pressured. Human systems are built on natural systems, so as one goes, so goes the other. We have, for the first time in human history, encountered the outer limits of the planet’s ability to provide. And instead of considering that maybe our insane consumption habits and growth are the problem, we have chosen to blame… the planet.
Presently many companies and organizations are trotting out their preferred set of solutions to this problem. Looking across the field, technology is the primary focus and basis of their proposed solutions. And yet… was it not technology and the culture of ever-increasing efficiency that has tipped us over into this problem? Is it not the case that technology and Silicon Valley culture has placed tremendous pressure on the weaker links in the ecosystem and social fabric?
This really is not news: You can’t solve a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it in the first place.
You can however
It is my opinion this is a force of destructive change that is nonnegotiable. The mad rush into renewables is just another symptom of denial of the underlying human predicament of intelligence and its limits.
Now, I happen to think renewables are vital. They will play a crucial role in helping humanity navigate its descent from our affluent present into the postindustrial future. What I don’t believe is the illusion of what they really are in the bigger picture. I think it’s a delusional idea that renewables will the planet while letting us live in 21st-century first-world comfort. This is a cake-and-eat-it mentality of a people stuck in a Catch-22 carbon trap.
There is no way out of this without admitting that we have to commit to transitioning to Less, instead of More.
But, Civilization is a growth engine that does not operate on Less, only More.
Now that this civilization has grown to dominate the entire world of human systems there is especially no room for talk of Less. Any discussion of the “fake” greenwashing of this process is delusional, because it’s all fake, and it’s all greenwashing. Increasingly sophisticated (thus expensive) technology and the money you throw at these gizmos only serves to dig the hole deeper.
It is highly unlikely society (especially those accustomed to affluence, who also wield a disproportionate amount of power over decisions) will ever accept the idea of Degrowth or transitioning to Less. So, what seems very plausible on the road ahead is the forces of destructive change dominating.
Prepare to see abandonment of infrastructure, entire areas and settlements, as it becomes too costly to maintain them. There will be dysfunction and much irrational behaviour from the ruling class. There will be an acceleration of wealth inequality as the lower echelons of the upper class scramble to keep themselves from falling into the precarious middle and lower classes. Society will continue to find novel ways to solve problems but with a steady decline from attrition. Birth rates will continue to plummet in the developed nations, despite the best efforts to reverse this.
With each passing decade, Industrial Civilization will increasingly find less ability and less resources to solve its problems, in a classic entropic decay of human agency and infrastructure.
We really don't know what humanity will look like 100 or 1000 years from now. There’s simply no way of knowing, and anyone who claims to know with certainty is trying to sell you a bill of goods.
I prefer a slow, gradual change in the economic system over a rapid failure. If nothing changes, we are going to experience a rapid and dramatic failure. I’m not going to make any predictions. Let’s wait and see. It’s important that people understand the complexity of the global economy; how economies work, how resources are extracted, and what standard of living can reasonably be sustained within the biosphere’s capacity.
There are many things we will not be able to change, but that shouldn't mean we don't try to do something. The elites may “own” much of the world's land and resources but if institutions fail they will not have the courts enforcing their ownership. If a billionaire like Bezos “owns” a million acres but can't oversee the land it will become abandoned. Much of the wealth today is invested in the stock market. If the stock market evaporates what is left of their wealth?
This leaves an important pathway to the few of us out there whose eyes are open to the true state of things. Individuals, groups, and maybe regions can adapt to this process by proactively reducing their dependence on the industrial system and deliberately lowering their standard of living to, say, Switzerland in the 1960s.
In line with my post a few weeks ago, we have to build skills and assets in order to weather the decline. Wealth has always existed outside of the financial system. True wealth resides in our ability to grow food, to provide shelter for our family, to repair the tools and machines we depend upon. It also depends on our connections with family, friends, and community.
The question is not whether our present civilization will end. All civilizations end.
The question is whether as our civilization declines, we will be in a position to survive, thrive, and maybe even create a new one.
I will take a break from posting next week to focus on work. Weekly posting will resume the week after. If you are new to the newsletter, this might be a good time to check out past posts.
I want to add that this trend is also the result of greater profit margins. There is more profit being extracted from the system every year, and that is what is hurting regular people so much. Years of fine-tuning this system has allowed corporations a greater measure exploitation and higher profit margins. It took decades to outsource all those jobs to China, and it took decades to bring in loads of immigrants all competing for the same housing and jobs. This is, of course, not to say that mass immigration and outsourcing are inherently bad… but looking at the present situation it is difficult to argue that the average American has massively benefited from these policies.