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It's the End of the World As We Know It

And I feel fine

by Stephen James Kerr

If one had predicted the collapse of capitalism a few short years ago, one would have been marked as either a communist or else clinically insane, perhaps a bit of both.

Today, the act of reading capitalism’s last rights is a kind of ticket-of-entry into “serious debate” about the economy, even for the system’s ex-partisans.

 

Marketwatch’s Paul B. Farrell regularly sprinkles holy water on the corpse, perhaps in the hopes of raising Lazarus, while former US Assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts has been publicly bereaved for the better part of a decade. Count in Gerald Celente and the ever-entertaining Max Keiser, and perhaps the Globe and Mail.

 

They may confuse appearance with essence. The system isn’t dead. The system is death. Monopolies are becoming more monopolistic. Prices are being fixed higher, wages slashed.

Liberties are being stripped, governments hijacked. These are all necessaries to the further development of capitalism, not contraries. But it doesn’t matter. 

 

The real question is however not “Wither capitalism?” but rather “Wither industrial civilization?” As one wag famously put it, things that can’t go on forever, don’t. Our civilization is one of those things.

 

The reason, in a word, is limits. In a few more words, it’s that industrialism needs an infinite amount of stuff to process, and an infinite amount of space to absorb our waste, while stuff and space are finite. So is time.

Thus we are living in that special moment in history when a global civilization does a slow-mo car crash into those limits. Buckle up. The car we’re driving is out of gas, the brakes are shot, and the driver is insane.

 

What we face is the collapse of industrial civilization worldwide, as a number of irreconcilable contradictions attempt to reconcile themselves:

 

The exponential growth curve of the human population since pre-history will revert to the mean, as do the exponential growth curves of every other animal population facing resource constraints. That implies a human population of less than one billion. Currently we’re at six plus. Most people don’t really understand exponential functions.

 

Global fossil fuel extraction likely peaked in 2006, according to IEA data, neatly confirming Marion King Hubbert’s prediction from 1976, plus ten years, due to the frantic effort to produce oil from marginal fields. It won’t save us.

 

This just might be the world’s most consequential “Told ya so!” Everything Homo Industrialensis does is dependent upon fossil fuels. Without natural gas, coal and oil, no industrially grown food reaches our plates.

 

Without fossil fueled pumps, no municipal water will flow out of our taps, or flush our toilets, or purify our shit. No more cars, iPads, vanilla soy lattes, summers at the cottage… no weekend getaways to Bahamas, no office, no factory.

 

Even if world oil production were to increase, the quality of the oil we’re finding is declining in terms of its net energy yield, or EROI---energy return on investment. When it takes a BTU to extract a BTU, best not.

 

The quality of world metal ores has also been in decline for decades. This trend can be seen in detail in the USA, the world’s most intensely explored and documented region for natural resource availability and production.

 

No, we’re not about to suddenly “run out” of iron ore, bauxite or copper ore. However, declining ore quality increases the energy-cost to produce a given amount of metal.

 

It also increases the environmental impact of mining, as a greater volume of earth needs to be destroyed, and more poisonous chemicals used to extract a given amount of metal from a larger volume of ore. It’s a big concern to global mining companies.

 

And no Virginia, there are no solar powered aluminum smelters or 50 ton CAT dump trucks coming to the rescue.

 

The world’s stock of arable land and water resources are all in serious decline. The world looses approximately 100,000 km/sq of farmland each year.

 

Cultivation of marginal lands is highly dependent upon irrigation (pumping water with fossil fuel power), fertilizers (from natural gas) and mechanization (more oil please). As global average temperatures increase, many “developing” countries will likely suffer catastrophic declines in agricultural productivity.

 

Yet western nations have been encouraging the industrialization of Third World agriculture, and the abandonment of traditional subsistence systems over which local people had some control.

 

Food industrialization will prove a death sentence for farmers and eaters.

 

The Indian journalist P. Sainath has been documenting the process in India for years, where farmers are responding to forced industrialization by preemptively killing themselves though the ingestion of pesticide. 

 

World grain stocks remain close to historic lows, at 78 days of consumption as nations dip into their reserves to prevent local shortages, which lead straight to insurrections.

And there’s the collapse of world fish stocks. Most of the world relies on fish protein. Switching to beef is a non-starter. Cows eat grain fertilized with… you guessed it.

 

In short, the way of life we have known is ending, and the future that most of us expect: a solar-powered post-industrial hipster-heaven of super-fast information technology, ironic pop songs, dirigibles, Maglevs and Mars missions is never going to happen. Sorry.

 

The mind balks, contemplating its own demise. We imagine we have always been, always will be. Our incapacity to imagine the death of our own civilization is a morbid symptom of our own naiveté.

 

I’m afraid it’s terminal.

 

And so we go through the stages of grief. We deny. “They’re discovering more oil all the time!”, I have heard this one countless times, and it’s the easiest to refute. “Well, no actually. Oil discovery peaked in---wait for it---1965, before you were born.”

 

It follows that the peak of production must follow the peak of discovery after a time lag. Time’s up!

 

We bargain. “Solar and wind and geothermal and zero-point energy and an infinite number of propellers spinning atop an infinite number of monkey heads…”

OK, let’s take this apart. First of all, technology is not a source of energy. High tech devices use ever more energy. The answer “Technology and innovation will save us!” gets an F.

 

What about solar panels? Solar energy (photovoltaic electricity generation) currently accounts for less than 1 percent of the global energy supply. At this rate of production, we will soon come close to exhausting the world supply of rare earth elements that are necessary to their production.

 

What about Ontario’s “Feed-in Tariff” which pays solar power producers a premium for solar generated electricity fed into the grid? Well, Ontario is about to ratchet down the price paid to generators in the fall of 2011. It’s a global trend.

 

German rates are going down. Spain radically cut its program. The UK just cut their FIT rates by 42 percent. And then there’s the fact that Ontario’s electricity grid is “full.”

 

The whole electricity grid is dependent upon the constant production of “base load power” from nuclear generating stations, coal or gas fired stations, or hydro-electric generation. Base load power has to be on all the time, even if the lights are off.

Beyond a certain threshold, fluctuating inputs of energy from wind turbines and solar PV will destabilize the electricity grid, leading to blackouts.

The Ontario Power Authority has recently set a threshold for renewable electricity input---7 percent of the total. Behold your 7 percent salvation!

 

The Ontario government’s solar program has simply created a bubble, which is already bursting, as some solar energy companies are actually laying off staff, while others are going under.

 

They are burning through cash while they wait for government approvals on projects that may never happen. The author has begged several members of the Canadian Solar Industries Association to go public about the secret solar industry crisis, but was told that “decisions are made behind closed doors.”

 

Corporate solar is afraid of upsetting the touchy regulators they have worked so hard to cozy up to in the backrooms of Queen’s Park and Ottawa.

 

Conclusion: there isn’t going to be a techno-fix.

 

We cannot create ex nihilo resources which industrialism has destroyed. We can’t make more fish, which might regenerate their populations and environments in the long term, if only fishermen would go away. We can’t create more oil and gas.

 

They’re a “one shot deal” and we’ve blown our load on history’s biggest all-nighter. We can’t create more farmland. As they say in the Real Estate business, “they’re not making it anymore.” The past is the past. Our problem is that we’re living in it.

 

The final stage of the grieving process is acceptance. I’ve left out anger and depression. For more on those, click here. This is a bitter pill to swallow.

But when we “take the red pill” and when “we see just how far the rabbit hole goes” we find that it comes back to the place where the grand adventure started – down on the farm.

 

Industrialism began with the “enclosure” of common lands. Private landowners in England began to claim the common lands of the medieval peasants for themselves. They turfed the peasants, who either starved or else migrated to the cities.

 

The lords turned the enclosed lands to pasture. They invented laws of trespass, which created crimes such as “vagrancy”, lawyer-speak for hanging around, which is what free people used to do a lot of the time. Workers were herded into cities and domesticated much like the sheep that quietly munched the formerly populated dales.

 

Yes, the sheeple must rise up. But our target cannot be confined to capitalism. We need to reverse industrialism itself, and the social, political and economic relationships which industrialism enabled. We need to do it before industrialism destroys the world.

 

Accepting the inevitable end of industrial civilization can allow us to see clearly the task before us. We need to establish the basis of a new civilization; one that will look radically different from industrialism, and only somewhat like the pastoral civilization, which birthed industrialism.

 

We must struggle for independence from the old civilization. We need to create our own alternative democratic economies that are truly local and truly sustainable.

 

I almost hesitate to use these terms, as they have been adopted as marketing slogans by industries determined to paint green as “the new black.” We need to build a revolutionary economy beyond government and corporate control, and be prepared to resist.

 

Going “off grid” is not an option for the vast majority in the industrialized west. The country farm property powered by solar and wind is a middle class escape fantasy. Off grid life will come to us, whether we want it or not.

 

So we need to find alternative and radically democratic ways of organizing society that take this inevitable reality into full account. That means combining an “Arab Spring” in the streets with the development of a new economy in the streets.

 

Backyards and parking lots and residential streets need to be repurposed for local food production. The city square needs to be repurposed for self-government.

Both processes will take time, as the people are not used to governing themselves, and the pavement has smothered what could be productive land.

 

Neighborhoods will eventually need to form their own democratic councils, and take charge of the provision of local needs as centralized governments exit the field via cutbacks, and eventually become incapable of functioning because of their immense scale, which can only function when subsidized by cheap fossil fuels. Food production will be the central concern of all.

 

The masses of unemployed will need to be retrained to use a garden hoe and a shovel, and to mind chickens. The same thing happened in Cuba when Soviet oil supplies were cut off.

 

No doubt armies of ex-desk jockeys will grumble. Many will not be able to manage the mental and physical transition, and will shed their mortal and mental coils.

 

The world will find itself suddenly full of useless paperweights in the form of computers and cars for which there is no longer enough power, and in the form of people for whom there is no longer a reason or a way to live.

 

If the gentle reader has come this far, congratulations. You have my sympathies. My own journey in dealing with this information has closely followed the stages of grief.

 

I wouldn’t work in the solar energy business if I hadn’t engaged in some bargaining with the fact of our industrial dead-end. I still work in the business because, well, it’s a paycheque, and I can look myself in the mirror when I go home to cultivate my garden. But it’s not an easy row to hoe.

 

I’ve fallen out with some of the “cornucopian” fellow travelers in the movement, who imagine, in full-flight into fantasy, that materials constraints are some conspiracy dreamed up by big business.

 

I’m afraid the science says it’s just not so. Being “collapse aware” does tend to make one the odd man out at every sort of dinner party, and I think even though many people may be able to accept the information I have presented, the social pressure to conform to group expectations prevents most of us from acting rationally on this information.

 

That’s also why many of the wealthy passengers on the Titanic refused to proceed to the lifeboats. “Nonsense! This ship is unsinkable!” Fish made a meal of their certainty. (X)

 

Full disclosure: The author has been somewhat gainfully employed in the solar energy business for six years. If there were a magic techno-bullet for our civilization’s insoluble contradiction, this author would be its trumpet section.  The author would also like to thank the staff at Darkhorse, where this essay was written, powered by about four quad-espresso shots and two chocolate croissants, which shall be sorely missed when the shit hits the fan.

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