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One Hundred And Thirty-Eight In The Shade

By Guy McPherson

02 January, 2012
Transition Voice

According to Mark Twain, “civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.”

We can hope western civilization is just about done with the mindless multiplication of anything, much less unnecessary nonsense. And we can, and should, work toward that goal. In light of the likely near-term extinction of Homo sapiens if western civilization maintains its current course, I’m an unapologetic fan of terminating western civilization as quickly as possible.

Consider, for example, recent headlines on the climate-change front, most of which indicate surprise on the part of the scientists conducting the research:

Scientists are shocked as Arctic sea ice releases methane

Ocean acidification has arrived, earlier than scientists expected

Global warming creates a new normal in the Arctic

The resultant new normal means the Arctic is much worse than only five years ago

Rapid range shifts of species associated with climate warming

But some species cannot keep up with ongoing climate change, so they are driven to extinction

Playing the consummate politician, Barack Obama ignores climate change

The politics of ignorance

We shouldn’t be surprised about that last headline. There’s no politically viable response to climate change because growth of the industrial economy requires liquid fossil fuels. As a result, we’re counting heavily on tar sands and shale oil. Additionaly, the great polar ice melt rush has begun, even though oil exploration under Arctic ice could cause uncontrollable “natural” disasters (think BP’s Deepwater Horizon on steroids).

These twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin strongly and trenchantly interact: We must experience a peak-oil-induced collapse if we’re to survive climate change.

When I point out the ongoing acceleration of a long-term slow decline in the industrial economy, people take issue. “It can’t happen here. This time is different. There’ll be plenty of warning. “ And so on.

In response to the insanity of the herd’s groupthink, I turn to Nietzsche for solace:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

It’s too late for a fast collapse of the industrial economy, although we could witness a rapid completion of the ongoing slow decline.

According to every significant macroeconomic index, the US hit its peak in 2000. We’ve been in the midst of an economic recession since then. We’ve been mired in an economic depression since 2008, when the industrial age came within an eyelash of reaching its overdue terminus.

Even Ben Bernanke admitted to the latter phenomenon, years after the meltdown on Wall Street.

When all the banks fail — or even a significant proportion of them — we’ll suddenly lose access to the fiat currency that allows the current set of living arrangements to persist. I strongly suspect the high price of oil had a lot to do with the near meltdown in 2008, a notion consistent with oil price spikes preceding every economic recession since 1972.

Expensive oil represents a huge hurdle to growth of the industrial economy. Indeed, events in Europe suggest the spike in the price of oil to $126 a barrel last spring might have put the final nail in the coffin of the industrial economy, albeit in delayed fashion. This should be no surprise, given the fragility of the industrial economy and its near-death back in ’08, when it was on much stronger footing than now.

Imagine the reaction of the willfully ignorant masses when the industrial economy finally reaches its overdue end. The astonishment will be great for those who believe the industrial economy is unaffected by spikes in the price of oil. Horror will be legion for those who don’t think that its long-time decline can turn into an actual collapse. And with mainstream media echoing contemporary politicians at every level, belief in anything but a fall seems to be the norm, setting folks up for shocks that will appear to come out of nowhere.

Watch out for that wall

I don’t know the terminology for a sudden stop of the industrial economy. I don’t think terms such as hyperinflation and deflation apply, and economists rarely use the phrase, “industrial economy crushed by Godzilla.” As with any leap off a skyscraper, it’s not the fall that’s fatal: It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.

The rapid collapse of AIG back in 2008 is a harbinger of an equally rapid failure of the Fed, hence our entire monetary system. The only difference is that this time there will be nobody to bail out the ultimate backstopper and, as a result, we’ll observe the sudden death of a failed experiment.

Here’s one analogy: We’re in an aerial tram, suspended a few thousand feet above the valley floor by a sturdy, steel, 2-inch-diameter cable. But the cable is comprised of thousands of tightly wrapped strands, all of which are hundreds of years old and half of which have already broken. The remaining strands are breaking at an increasingly rapid pace as the pressure builds.

The US Federal Reserve Bank has been holding this sucker together with duct tape and baling wire, but Ben Bernanke is fresh out of both items. Even famed collapse-nik Dmitry Orlov has given up on his long-held five-stage model of collapse, now claiming we have a single remaining event standing between us and western civilization’s ignominious end.

Vodka on the rocks

The seemingly rapid collapse of the former Soviet Union — the latest superpower to hit bottom, never to recover — actually took a few years to transpire, as described by Orlov in his excellent 2008 book, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. The Soviet collapse occurred more quickly than the ongoing collapse of the current system, but increasingly President Obama is coming across as a conniving version of Gorbachev.

A few informed people saw the Soviet collapse coming and sounded the klaxons, but of course government officials didn’t post warning signs on the nightly news.

Here it’s no different.

Quibbling about minor differences between socialist news delivered by and for the Politburo and fascist news delivered by and for the Corporatocracy seems irrelevant at this point.

As Oliver Stone points out, President Obama could take a lesson from Mikhail Gorbachev about how to dismantle a dysfunctional empire that has long overstayed its welcome.

Instead, Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi accuses Obama — along with his sidekick at the US Treasury, Timothy Geithner — of desperately acting like the flailing executives at Lehman Brothers as that bank collapsed in the wake of AIG’s failure . (MF Global might represent a contemporary analog).

The decline of the US industrial economy has been a slow-motion, ongoing process, albeit with several notable steps down along the way.

If we’re lucky, the next step leads right off a skyscraper, thus leading to a sudden stop at the sidewalk below. Obviously, this is the only legitimate remaining opportunity to prevent the near-term extinction of the many species we drive to extinction every day, as well as our own species.

And, of course, it will allow us to see the end of Twain’s limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.

Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He's written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at grm@ag.arizona.edu.




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