Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Political Dimension of Breakdown

This article claims that scientists have discovered an energy-efficient way to make biofuels. This brings up an often-overlooked point that there is nothing we can do under our current techno-industrial regime that requires fossil fuels. Anything we can do currently with fossil fuels we can theoretically do without them – power cars, generate electricity, make plastics, and so forth. There are substitutes – for example, ethanol and biodiesel in place of gas, corn for plastics, solar panels for electricity, and the like. We simply cannot do them on the scale we do now, because we would be limited by the earth’s solar budget. Fossil fuels were essentially “free” energy in so far as the EROI was so high because the sunlight that had created them occurred over the course of millions of years a long time ago. But to say that the techno-industrial system will cease to function with decreasing quality fossil fuels or net energy is simply not correct. It will simply decrease in scale. But that’s a different problem.

That’s also why the price issue never made sense to me. The argument is that the lower EROI of unconventional oil will cause the price of fuel to rise and the industrial economy to crash. So oil gets more expensive. So? Lots of things get more expensive, and the economy adapts. Oil was probably a lot cheaper fifty years ago than today. Well, we had an exploitative capitalist economy then, and we have one now. Nothing’s really changed. When something gets more expensive, it simply means that less people have access to it. Yes, the economy contracts, but so what? If it contracts slowly enough, no one will notice thanks to creeping normalcy.

Two recent stories about Detroit should illustrate this point. One is that thousands of people have been cut off from running water for delinquent bills. What has not been shut off, however, is water to the golf courses, businesses and sports fields, even though their bills are also delinquent:
Welcome to Detroit's water war – in which upward of 150,000 customers, late on bills that have increased 119 percent in the last decade, are now threatened with shut-offs. Local activists estimate this could impact nearly half of Detroit's mostly poor and black population – between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

"There are people who can't cook, can't clean, people coming off surgery who can't wash. This is an affront to human dignity," Charity said in an interview with Kate Levy. To make matters worse, children risk being taken by welfare authorities from any home without running water.

Denying water to thousands, as a sweltering summer approaches, might be bad enough in itself. But these shut-offs are no mere exercise in cost-recovery.

The official rationale for the water shut-downs – the Detroit Water Department's need to recoup millions – collapses on inspection. Detroit's high-end golf club, the Red Wing's hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city's commercial and industrial users are also owing – a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.

Second, this story points out that while services and pensions are slashed for working people, billionaires are still enjoying taxpayer-funded subsidies:
As U.S. states and cities grapple with budget and pension shortfalls, many are betting big on an unproven formula: Slash public employee pension benefits and public services while diverting the savings into lucrative subsidies for professional sports teams.

Detroit on Monday made itself the most prominent example of this trend. Officials in the financially devastated city announced that current and future municipal retirees had blessed a plan that will slash their pension benefits. On the same day, the billionaire owners of the Detroit Red Wings, the Ilitch family, unveiled details of an already approved taxpayer-financed stadium for the professional hockey team.

There’s some idea that things will fall apart for everyone. They won’t. Things will keep chugging along for the rich and powerful in their air-conditioned sports luxury boxes and their golf courses and their gated communities; it’s just the people on the outside who won’t have access to jobs, adequate shelter, health care, decent food, or running water. Industrial society, however, will keep chugging along, even with $200.00 a barrel oil, because the pain and suffering can just be pushed down to those lower on the socioeconomic totem pole. We’ve already seen this with jobs – the workforce participation rate is down to what it was in the late 1970’s and this is rationalized as “the new normal.” No doubt not having access to healthcare and running water will be also rationalized as “the new normal” at some point in the not-to-distant future. There are still plentiful high-paying jobs for those with the “right” skills, and those skills mainly consist of having the right parents or knowing (or sucking up to) the right people. And if you’re not on the inside, it will be rationalized as “your own fault.”

People overlook the political dimension of collapse. Too often peak oil was used as an excuse for doing nothing. “What’s the use when it will all collapse anyway?” the argument went. "The economy will collapse and we’ll all be even anyway," they thought. The slate will be wiped clean. The dollar will collapse and we’ll all be on an even footing once again trading with gold nuggets or something.

But the stories from Detroit show that even in a collapse situation, the elites will keep resources – water, oil, money, etc. – flowing to themselves even as they deprive them from the rest of us. Politics will appropriate the remaining resources, however scarce, and keep them flowing to the elites. Technology and industry may be deprived from us, but it will not be deprived from them, because there will always be some way to power industrial civilization within the earth’s solar budget for a certain ever-shrinking segment of the population. In that sense, collapse will never happen. For a certain segment of people, though, it has happened already. Just ask Detroit.

If we use collapse as some sort of excuse to not fight back politically, we will be left without, but rest assured, the elites will not. Not only will it not happen, but we will be as lambs to the slaughter.

BONUS: Who Bled Detroit Dry? (Vice):
The Water and Sewage Department has claimed some residents could pony up if they really wanted to but were simply mooching off the city. 

This was a view shared by the surly cabdriver who gave me a lift into town from the airport. The city is “going to shit” he said before making the sinking sound of a bomb landing with his lips. The citizens of Detroit are, by and large, slovenly idiots—the kind of people who keep going back to the convenient store for cans of beer instead of buying the whole six-pack, he explained. The cabby had lived in the city for 35 years after immigrating from Iraq, but, he told me, these days “Detroit is worse than Baghdad.”

And certain statistics back him up. Baghdad actually has both a lower unemployment rate and a lower murder rate than Detroit.

1 comment:

  1. During WWII, we actually rationed. As resources get scarce, we will just ration based upon price- and over time more and more people will be priced out. Of course the thing about fossil fuels is that there actually is a limit- eventually there won't be anymore that is easily obtainable. But we could do a patchwork of options to keep some people going with electricity and powered vehicles and such- but we won't have as much energy to distribute as we do now.


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