Friday, July 6, 2012

Doom or Denial?

If, dear reader, you had predicted the actual circumstances of the summer of 2012 back in, say, the go-go nineties you would have been dismissed as an alarmist and a crank. Perhaps you’ve seen satellite images of the Colorado wildfires taken from outer space (conveniently the same week as the techno-optimistic Aspen Environmental Forum). These wildfires were primed by previous the winter’s lack of snow.

And then there was the supreme irony of having Fourth of July celebrations curtailed or cancelled by a massive swath of freak storms sweeping across the country from Chicago to the Atlantic. The aftermath of the storm caused massive power outages across the entire region, and some places are expected to be without power, and subsequently without air conditioning in hundred-plus degree heat. I imagine some places my never get the power back on in the way they were used to. I say ironic because of the fact that these came through on the independence day of the world’s biggest user of fossil fuels, a country where accurately measuring sea level rise has been outlawed by the Party and a significant part of the public believes anthropogenic climate change is an international socialist conspiracy, but the National Ocean Service needs to issue a statement denying the existence of mermaids after a TV documentary.

Parts of the US are baking in record heat as nearly half a million people remain without power a week after severe storms. The National Weather Service forecast "dangerously hot temperatures" this weekend in a dozen states from the Midwest to mid-Atlantic. The heat index is predicted to hit 112F (44C) in some areas.

The sweltering weather has been blamed for 13 deaths so far, according to US officials. Excessive heat warnings have been issued for Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.


Drought conditions are present in 56 percent of the continental U.S., according to the weekly Drought Monitor. That's the most in the 12 years that the data have been compiled, topping the previous record of 55 percent set on Aug. 26, 2003. It's also up five percentage points from the previous week.

As The New York Times reported this week, “the sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.” The business journalists — whose audience is those who gamble on corn’s futures — have also been reporting the story.
Doesn't bode well for ethanol production does it?

Here in the Midwest, the roads are buckling due to the heat. This does not bode well for the future maintenance of America’s vast highway system, especially as roads are already being turned back into gravel by bankrupt municipalities. Where I live the roads are already pockmarked with deep potholes everywhere, and alternative transportation projects have been cancelled because our top leader can’t stop saying “we’re broke” (not too broke to cut taxes, of course). A thick patina of rust clads many of our railroad bridges, and concrete is spalling off the overpasses. Where I live we’ve had power outages, record high temps, buckling roads, and lack of rain. Yet the only response is to shrink government and cut taxes. As cuts continue, trust in government declines in a downward spiral that feeds on itself.

It’s getting pretty hard to hide the bad news. Has anyone noticed that all those so-called "post-apocalyptic" prophecies are coming true?

It’s getting more and more expensive just to maintain the existing infrastructure of our technologically based society. So many resources need to be devoted just to keep the system going, to repair the downed lines, the restore the power, to repave the buckling roads. What will we do about the crops dying in the heat across the country? Where will the water come from? Here’s a good summary from Tim Egan in the New York Times:

It is one thing to hear that 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in June throughout the United States, following a winter and spring that were the warmest ever recorded. Numbers are like box scores.

It is another to look up from the eerie serenity of the Holy Cross Novitiate here in this chalk-dry hamlet west of Colorado Springs and see the ridge on fire, as if bombed from aerial assault, as the Rev. Kevin Russeau did. The 1922 novitiate is built of marble that was shipped from Chicago after a zeppelin crash destroyed a building there. It is supposed to be fireproof, protecting men devoted to a life of prayer and humility.

Just down the mountain from him, the storm of the Waldo Canyon fire forced 32,000 people out of their homes. The most destructive wildfire in Colorado history tore through half-million-dollar houses near the Garden of the Gods, at the edge of a city that has shrunk its police and fire department in a tax-cutting binge.

In Colorado Springs, where even municipal officials have taken the mindless Grover Norquist pledge to never raise taxes, it cost at least $12 million in tax money — most of it from the rest of us — to contain the fire. Not everybody thinks like Norquist.

Summer is barely two weeks old and two-thirds of the country is in the grip of a severe drought. More crops will die. More forests will burn. More power brokers will become familiar with the consequences of a derecho. It sounds biblical, but smart scientists have been predicting this very cycle.

In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a special report of “unprecedented extreme weather and climate events” to come. The events are here, though the skeptics now running the Republican Party deny the obvious, in large part because they are paid to deny the obvious.

“When you live up here now, it’s always a question of when, not if,” said Eric Eide, head of the volunteer fire department in Cascade. He’s been on duty, without pay, for almost two weeks. A few days ago, when it looked as if all 140 homes of Cascade would burn, Eide’s volunteers joined federal firefighters in digging a line and saving the town. It was a daring triage, and heroic. By summer’s end, such actions may be routine — the price of living in a new world that we made, but can no longer dominate.
And then there’s the economic breakdown. Once again, the economy failed to create anywhere near enough jobs for entrants into the workforce – a paltry 80,000 in a nation of 310 million people. Yet the unemployment level remains “unchanged”. The statistics are so cooked that no one believes them anymore – the economy hasn’t kept up with population growth for years, yet the unemployment rate is holding steady or declining. Meanwhile at the state level:

…since its postrecession peak in April 2009 (not counting temporary Census hiring), the public sector has shrunk by 706,000 jobs. The losses appeared to be tapering off earlier this year, but have accelerated for the last three months, creating the single biggest drag on the recovery in many areas.

With the economy expanding, albeit slowly, state tax revenues have started to recover and are estimated to exceed prerecession levels next year. Yet governors and legislatures are keeping a tight rein on spending, whether to refill depleted rainy-day funds or because of political inclination.

At the same time, costs for health care, social services, pensions and education are still rising. Fourteen states plan to resolve their budget gaps by reducing aid to local governments, according to a report by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

So while the federal government has grown a little since the recession, and many states have recently begun to add a few jobs, local governments are making new cuts that outweigh those gains. More than a quarter of municipal governments are planning layoffs this year, according to a survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. They are being squeezed not only by declining federal and state support, but by their devastated property tax base.
In fact, municipalities are going bust all over the country, including Stockton, California, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history to date. Detroit, once one of the wealthiest cities in the world, teeters not far behind, as do a host of other large cities like Pittsburg and innumerable smaller hamlets.

Is this it? Is this what we’ve been waiting for? Is this what Rome’s collapse looked like?

Many of the predictions of Peakists are coming true even as Peak Oil is increasingly denounced in the corporate media.

Oil remains around a hundred dollars a barrel. Every stop has been pulled out to access every stash of carbon left on the planet to keep the industrial economy growing, such as hydraulic fracturing, a process known to pollute groundwater and cause earthquakes. Plans are afoot to exploit oil under the Arctic’s melting icecaps and drill five miles under the ocean. Coal, the mainstay of the industrial revolution, is touted as necessary for the future of world energy supplies. This is in line with what Peak Oil has been saying – future oil sources will be dirtier, harder to get, and of lower quality, leading to economic hardship. In addition, other essential resources for which there are no substitutes like water and rare earth metals are in short supply, constraining the global economy, exactly as Peakists predicted. The number of miles driven is down and according to some reports, cities are now growing faster than suburbs (although this has been disputed)

Europe suffers under austerity measures unseen since the second world war. In Greece, suicides have skyrocketed, hospitals lack medical supplies and people are burning trees for heat. Italy and Spain are in similarly dire straits, with youth unemployment up to fifty percent in some countries. Tales of austerity from highly indebted countries are a daily occurrence. In Britain, a soccer betting scandal was followed by a phone-tapping scandal, followed by a rate fixing scandal followed by a pharmaceutical bribery scandal, all within the course of two years. Meanwhile, China’s growth has finally started to slow down, and energy shortages hamper India’s economic growth.

The “crisis” has now been going on for five years. It is a long emergency, indeed.

All over the world police are beating and tear-gassing their citizens. Empty ghost towns dot the planet from Ireland to Africa to China. Welfare states and basic social services are being dismantled all over the world as “unaffordable” (even though they were affordable for the previous six decades). Even western “democratic” states are turning to mass surveillance and oppression of the citizenry in what I’ve termed authoritarian capitalism. The public commons is being sold off in a wave of privatization to an international rentier class.

This is the sign of the breakdown. I really try not to think of myself as a “doomer,” but even I’m having a hard time processing all of this.

Here’s what you’re not seeing: empty shelves, gas lines, riots in the streets, bank runs. It’s hard to predict the breakdown, and creeping normalcy is a formidable smokescreen. It’s happening slowly, but it is happening. This post, which many readers are probably already familiar with, details how predictions about the future are rarely straightforward.

Again, had you predicted this even a decade ago, no one would have believed you. Yet here we are. I wonder what future predictions are too outlandish to become true. New York and London underwater? Entire nation states going bankrupt? Resource wars? Incurable diseases? Fifty percent unemployment? Debtor’s prisons? Martial Law? What kind of world will your children live in?

The old system is dying. Reading the news, it seems the only alternative to being a doomer is being in denial.

3 comments:

  1. thank you,good article.my family thinks I'm not all there when I bring this stuff up,but,really,how can ppl NOT notice?

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  2. It's an inherent cognitive bias in humans to only be able to deal with circumstances experienced directly, that is, what is right in front of them. That and no one wants to believe bad news, a bias especially strong in the US.

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  3. Love your blog, and I roughly agree with 80-90% of what you say. Rare to have erudite voices like yours (or Dave Cohen over at http://peakwatch.typepad.com/decline_of_the_empire/ ) seeing the messy chaotic long and painful unwinding as we hit Limits to Growth. I particularly love the pithy remark "the only alternative to being a doomer is being in denial." Sadly, 80-90% of the population is in a state of denial well past the diagnostic threshold for either psychosis or enfeeblement.

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