David Ehrenfeld, in Beginning Again (1994), describes our civilization as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and beginning to rattle and moan as it comes apart:
There goes a chunk — the sick and aged along with the huge apparatus of doctors, social workers, hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and manufacturers of sophisticated medical equipment, which service their clients at enormous cost but don’t help them very much.
There go the college students along with the VPs, provosts, deans and professors who have not prepared them for life in a changing world after formal schooling is over. There go the high school and elementary school students, along with the parents, administrators and frustrated teachers who have turned the majority of schools into costly, stagnant and violent babysitting services.
There go the lawyers and their hapless clients in a dust cloud of the ten billion codes, rules and regulations that were produced to organize and control an increasingly intricate, unorganizable and uncontrollable society.
There go the economists with their worthless pretentious predictions and systems, along with the unemployed, the impoverished and the displaced who reaped the consequences of theories and schemes with faulty premises and indecent objectives. There go the engineers, designers and technologists, along with the people stuck with the deadly buildings, roads, power plants, dams and machinery that are the experts’ monuments.
There go the advertising hucksters with their consumer goods, and there go the consumers, consumed with their consumption. And there go the media pundits and pollsters, along with all those unfortunates who wasted precious time listening to them explain why the flywheel could never come apart, or tell how to patch it even while increasing its crazy rate of spin.
The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.
“Remember ‘conservation’? Jimmy Carter said conservation was the most important part of any sustainable energy policy. Why don’t we ever hear about conservation anymore?”
Daria was doing sun salutations on the deck of their rented house as she asked the question. The sun was unresponsive.
Rafe wandered out with a mug of tea in each hand and replied “Because the military industrial complex was so aghast at anyone in authority suggesting consuming less, that they pulled out all the stops and elected Reagan to replace him. And that fucker and his party put the environmental movement on the defensive, where they’ve been ever since.”
Daria took a mug from him as he sat to watch her exercise. “I’m not sure conservation would have made any difference anyway”, she said. “Most of the world has essentially zero choice about what and from whom they can affordably buy what they need. People don’t want to buy junk that ends up in landfills — that’s all that’s available to them that they can afford. And they’re so stressed and exhausted you can’t fault them wanting to buy a few things just for fun and convenience.”
Rafe watched the sunrise. “It’s a paradox, isn’t it. We desperately want to believe we’re in control of our lives, that we have real choices, real options. So we act as if we do, as if recycling and hybrid cars and composting and buying organic makes a difference, when it doesn’t.”
Daria looked up from her down-dog position. “So who is making the decisions that really make a difference, d’ya think? Economists? Oil company CEOs? Presidents? Military leaders? Policy wonks?”
“Not the ones I know, that’s for sure”, he replied. “Oil company CEOs and Presidents are just trying to make decisions that please their shareholders and funders, but mostly they’re as incapacitated by the systems they have to work with as everyone else. We’re all unconsciously complicit, because we’ve all come to rely on these massively complex systems, but no one really is to blame.”
“Not sure I’d be that quick to let people off the hook”, Daria replied. “Let’s do a little accounting here: Industrial agriculture has destroyed our soils so we need to use oil fertilizers and cruel, giant-scale ‘confined animal farming’ processes to feed people. Industrial fishing and unregulated water pollution has eliminated 90% of marine life. GMO crops have replaced a self-perpetuating harvest with one that has to be replanted every year. Nuclear power plants, which are going through a massive construction boom, are time bombs that will have to be carefully and exhaustively managed for millions of years to avoid more catastrophic meltdowns. More and more urbanized places, like New Orleans and Detroit and the ‘brownfield’ zones everywhere, are simply being abandoned like giant toxic dump sites because the cost of making them work after a crisis is higher than the cost of just rebuilding somewhere, anywhere else. We’ve got governments in every one of the Anglo countries that are hell-bent on ramping up resource development at any cost. This is what Ehrenfeld was talking about when he predicted ‘the last great violation of nature’. We’re turning the planet from green and blue to brown and grey at an accelerating rate, starting with the most fertile areas. And you still think there’s no one really to blame for that?”
“Nope. No one to blame. All just doing our best, what we think is best for ourselves, our loved ones, our country and the world.” Rafe rolled his back across the giant purple pilates ball on the deck, and almost rolled off the edge. “Unfortunately the unintended consequence of this collective individual effort to maximize wellness and happiness is exactly ‘the last great violation of nature’. Seven and a half billion people doing their best can create a pretty awful mess between them. That would seem to be true no matter who’s in charge of them, or if nobody is in charge, which is pretty much how it now looks.”
Daria slid over her yoga mat to where a magazine lay open. “Let me read you something from this week’s New Yorker”, she said. “‘If you listen to Carter’s Oval Office addresses on inflation, energy, and the nation’s crisis of confidence, the level of honesty is shocking, and deflating. No President has ever spoken that way since. The lesson he taught all his successors was not to tell the American people hard truths’.”
“He was a pretty remarkable guy”, said Rafe. “Confessing the whole world’s sins to the whole world. No one wants to hear bad news unless they think there’s something that they can do about it, fix it quickly and easily, or unless it has no personal impact on them, like a shooting or a hurricane, so they feel better about themselves relative to the fallen and the miserable. Hence Reagan and the Entertainment News that now passes for information dissemination in the mainstream media. Hence what prevails on Facebook and Twitter — reposts of meaningless but clever-sounding witticisms, and the latest celebrity misconduct.”
“You have be alarmed, though”, Daria said, scowling at the image of a triumphant Reagan in the magazine. “Everything’s being ramped up at exactly the moment we should be curtailing production and consumption, and at least trying to mitigate what the next generation is going to have to face because of our stupidity.”
“Three spaces before the end of the chessboard,” Rafe replied. When he got a quizzical look from Daria, he explained: “The old Persian story about the inventor of chess asking for a prize from the king, consisting of 1 grain of wheat on the first square, 2 on the second, 4 on the third etc. until the board’s 64 squares were filled. The result is 4 times the total amount of wheat that existed on Earth at that time. But even on the third last square the amount required was only 1/2 of the world’s wheat production, and while delivering on that might seem a challenge, it doesn’t seem impossible, especially if you think you have enough control that you can ramp up production. Right now, we’re doubling consumption and production of just about everything every 20 years, at the 4% growth rate that’s prevailed for the last quarter century, despite the fact population has only been growing at 1% per year. So the 3 last spaces on the chessboard represent 60 years ahead. By that time, we’ll need 16 times more of everything than we have now. Most people still believe that technology will enable us to do that without destroying the planet in the process.”
Daria, in half-moon pose, said “Interesting story, but people can’t get their heads around exponential growth, even when you break it down that way. We’re still talking about maintaining production at current levels even as resources get exponentially more expensive and the purchasing power of most people to pay for them is declining. For the last 40 years the net worth of all but the richest 1% has stayed at essentially zero; they’ve just borrowed more to buy more, and it’s only artificially low interest rates keeping them from forfeiting on that debt. So there ain’t gonna be no ‘growth’ in the next 40. The only question is how much production and consumption will fall, and what that will do to all those who already have net zero.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Rafe agreed, abandoning the pilates ball. “My head hurts just thinking about all this. Even if the exponential curves flatten to hockey sticks, or even flatten out entirely, it’s such a huge shift, and so unequally distributed in its effect, that it’s impossible to visualize what it means, what life might become like for all the different segments of the world’s people. And that’s not even taking into account climate change and how it will affect life, which is still mysterious for me to imagine despite all that’s been written about it. Billions of people migrating? I’m not sure. I’d be more inclined to think most people will just be like the potato famine victims, just staying in the places they know, hoping for a miracle. It’ll be great for the god industry.”
“Hmmm,” Daria replied. “So let’s try a little ‘flywheel slowdown’ visualization exercise here. Suppose the world’s people are smart enough, as the Long Emergency gets more serious over the next decade, to reduce birth rates to half their current levels — i.e. to the current global replacement level, so that population peaks ten years from now at around 8 1/2 billion and then slowly starts to decline. And suppose that economic growth, and economic disparity, level off even faster, say in the next 5 years, as that growth in disparity becomes politically untenable. So we reach a steady state population and steady state economy quickly. Now suppose that the economists are right and that chronic deflation sets in globally, so new oil gets too expensive to find and reserves start to fall quickly, but not fast enough to immediately offset the decline in demand as the flywheel slows down and people, of necessity, just make do with less. What happens next, and how does this affect people in various economic strata and parts of the world?”
“Not that easy to put on the brakes,” said Rafe. “But supposing we could, and this smooth deceleration were possible: Stock markets and real estate prices would crash, back to their underlying ‘zero growth’ levels. Banks would either start to foreclose on homes and call in debts, which would spark riots among what’s left of the middle class and much of the working class as well. Or governments could step in and nationalize the banks, as they’ve done before in depressions, and continually mark down all debts to market values, at least keeping most of the world at zero net worth instead of impossibly negative net worth. The mostly paper wealth of the 1% would largely disappear, which would make them, and the politicians they own, very unhappy. It would also lead to the collapse of most large corporations and hence massive unemployment, the disappearance of international trade, and empty store shelves for just about everything. That could happen very quickly, as it nearly did in 2008 before the sleight-of-hand gang moved in and papered it over with newly printed currency. That won’t work this time. Those in affluent nations would still have a lot of stuff, but they would still owe it all to the banks, and they would have no jobs to make the payments on it. Those in struggling nations, especially in the cities, would find supplies of everything drying up, and the black market prices would be huge, so things could get pretty ugly there. Farmers everywhere would find the prices consumers could afford to pay less than the cost of their production, as usually happens in depressions, so they’d have no choice but to stop producing, so in affluent nations governments would have to step in and subsidize them almost entirely. That would mean, with declining tax revenues, they’d have to stop financing wars and eliminate massive security spending, and probably cut back education and health care to an absolute minimum. Pensions would all be gone, victims of the stock market collapse. In struggling nations, farmers would starve, the ultimate irony of a free-market economy in a prolonged depression. Not a pleasant picture.”
“Sad that the poor and sick would suffer the most, but not surprising, I guess.” Daria was now sitting cross-legged facing Rafe, holding his hands as they pondered what might be coming.
“Even sadder that they will also be the hardest hit by climate change over the same few decades”, added Rafe. “No Great Migration north to cooler climes for them. They won’t be able to move far enough or fast enough to escape the droughts, the heat waves, and the desertification. A grey and brown planet, down there. Not enough water even to fight over. Their life expectancy will drop a lot. The actual Water Wars will be in the more affluent temperate areas, where there won’t be enough, but there’ll be enough to fight over. Oh, Canada!”
They were quiet for a while, and then Daria said, pensively, “I keep thinking about Guy McPherson’s prediction that by 2100 Earth’s climate will resemble Venus’, unable to support any life as we know it. Part of me wants to believe he’s crazy, and that the economic collapse will reduce human activity, and therefore the extent of climate change, enough that human life can at least continue in small numbers near the poles. But another part of me almost wishes he were right, and that we’ll be fried before the economy completely falls apart, so at least we’ll go out quickly, with a bang. Kind of like pushing a giant reset button on life on Earth, setting things up so life could try again, without humans to fuck it up.”
“Yeah, except it was a long shot that the life that first appeared here enabled the atmosphere to stabilize enough to produce the profusion of life that it did. That probably won’t happen again, at least not here. If we kill life on Earth, then this solar system, maybe even this whole galaxy, might end up dead for as long as it matters, until the stars go nova. This is a one-shot wonder.” Rafe had laid back and lifted his feet into the air, and Daria was trying to balance her body on them.
She laughed as his knees buckled, but he straightened them again. “I’m all-life-on-Earth, Rafe, and you have to balance me, keep it all from collapsing. How long can we survive this way?”
He made a face at her. “It would be better if you balanced me. Both physically and mentally you’re more grounded and more flexible than I am. My root system’s pretty fragile. It should be the women, not the men, in charge of keeping the world from flying apart.”
“Damn right,” she replied, stretching her arms and legs, shifting her weight to make it easier for him to hold her up. Finally, his legs gave out and she collapsed into his arms. “If I’m going to fry, I want to fry with you,” she said, laughing. “We can burn up together. And if that’s not our fate, if a few humans do survive and live on in a changed Earth in some minor ecological niche, I want them to know we tried, we cared, we did our best to save what we could.”
“It will probably be a long time before post-collapse human societies, if there are any, re-evolve enough to study past human civilizations,” he replied. “But my guess is they’ll judge us by their own standards, and they’ll likely be far more charitable than the negative view of humanity that’s evolved with this civilization. They’ll likely believe we stoically faced some overwhelming climate change crisis the best we could, since there won’t be much evidence left by then, after the Next Great Forgetting, to pin that collapse on human foolishness.”
“Or maybe,” Daria said with a smile, “as a mostly oral culture their story about us will be one of being cast out of the garden after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and they’ll blame collapse on the gods.”
“Such wise and foolish people they will be then,” Rafe replied. “Next time perhaps humans won’t be too smart and too fierce for their own good. And if there are no humans I hope the dragons will fare better at running the laboratory than the ego-stricken bald apes have been.”
“Well it’s been swell being part of the pre-conflagration party with you.”
He kissed her and slowly lifted her back up above him with his feet. He raised his hands and she grasped them to stabilize herself, and him. He looked up at her with a smile and asked “What do you call this pose, oh mysterious yogini?”
“It’s the flywheel pose,” replied Daria, smiling back. “To be performed only at end-of-times. The only question now is when, and with what grace we will welcome its coming apart.”
yoga image from Smart Living Network