Are Gilets Jaunes the new guillotine?

8 12 2018

POPULAR UNREST IN AN AGE OF FALLING PROSPERITY

Between my French origins and the opinions expressed within this little blog, I have taken more than a passing interest in the events happening in France, especially when it’s fuelled by passionate and restless wwoofers who come from there too! As you will or should know, I believe the real economy runs on energy, not money, and surplus energy in particular…… as a result, I have been following Tim Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics blog for a while, which I would encourage you all to follow too. This is Tim’s latest gem, which proves that when you do the math…….  the truth comes out!

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This weekend, the authorities plan to field 89,000 police officers across France in response to anticipated further mass protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’. In the capital, the Eiffel Tower will be closed and armoured cars deployed, whilst restaurateurs and shopkeepers are being urged to close their businesses at one of the most important times of their trading year.

Though the government has climbed down on the original cause célèbre – the rises in fuel taxes planned for next year – there seems to be no reduction in the worst protests experienced in the country since the 1960s. Reports suggest that as many as 70% of French citizens support the protestors, and that the movement may be spreading to Belgium and the Netherlands.

For the outside observer, the most striking features of the protests in France have been the anger clearly on display, and the rapid broadening of the campaign from fuel prices to a wider range of issues including wages, the cost of living and taxation.

The disturbances in France should be seen in a larger context. In France itself, Emmanuel Macron was elected president only after voters had repudiated all established political parties. Italians have entrusted their government to an insurgent coalition which is on a clear collision-course with the European Union over budgetary matters. The British have voted to leave the EU, and Americans have elected to the White House a man dismissed by ‘experts’ as a “joke candidate” throughout his campaign.

Obviously, something very important is going on – why?

Does economics explain popular anger?

There are, essentially, two different ways in which the events in France and beyond can be interpreted, and how you look at them depends a great deal on how you see the economic situation.

If you subscribe to the conventional and consensus interpretation, economic issues would seem to play only a supporting role in the wave of popular unrest sweeping much of the West. You would concede that the seemingly preferential treatment of a tiny minority of the very rich has angered the majority, and that some economic tendencies – amongst them, diminishing security of employment – have helped fuel popular unrest.

Beyond this, though, you would note that economies are continuing to grow, and this would force you to look for explanations outside the purely economic sphere. From this, you might conclude that ‘agitators’, from the right or left of the political spectrum, might be playing a part analogous to the role of “populist” politicians in fomenting public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy professed here, your view of the situation would concentrate firmly on economic issues.

Though GDP per capita may be continuing to improve, the same cannot be said of prosperity. According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), personal prosperity in France has deteriorated by 7% since 2000, a trend starkly at variance with the growth (of 12%) in reported GDP over the same period.

Not only is the average French person poorer now than he or she was back in 2000, but each person’s share of the aggregate of household, business and government debt has increased by almost 70% since 2000. These findings are summarised in the following table, sourced from SEEDS.

France prosperity snapshot

Two main factors explain the divergence between the conventional and the surplus energy interpretations of the economy. One of these is the pouring of enormous quantities of cheap debt and cheap money into the system, a process which boosts recorded GDP without improving prosperity (for the obvious reason that you can’t become more prosperous just by spending borrowed money). The other is the exponential rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), a process which impacts prosperity by reducing the share of output which can be used for all purposes other than the supply of energy itself.

In France, and with all sums expressed in euros at constant 2017 values, GDP grew by 23% between 2000 and 2017. But this growth, whilst adding €433bn to GDP, was accompanied by a €3.07tn increase in aggregate debt. This means that each €1 of reported growth in the French economy has come at a cost of more than €7 in net new debt. Put another way, whilst French GDP is growing at between 1.5% and 2.0%, annual borrowing is running at about 9.5% of GDP.

Cutting to the chase here, SEEDS concludes that very little (about €100bn) of the reported €433bn rise in GDP since 2000 has been sustainable and organic, with the rest being a simple function of the spending of borrowed money. Shorn of this credit effect, underlying or clean GDP per capita is lower now (at €29,550) than it was in 2000 (€30,777).

Meanwhile, trend ECoE in France is put at 7.8%. Though by no means the worst amongst comparable economies, this nevertheless represents a relentless increase, rising from 4.6% back in 2000. At the individual or household level, rising ECoE is experienced primarily in higher costs of household essentials. In the aggregate, ECoE acts as an economic rentdeduction from clean GDP.

Between 2000 and 2017, clean GDP itself increased by only 5.7%, and the rise in ECoE left French aggregate prosperity only marginally (2.2%) higher in 2017 than it was back in 2000. Over that same period, population numbers increased by 10%, meaning that prosperity per person is 7.1% lowernow than it was at the millennium.

In France, as elsewhere, the use of credit and monetary adventurism in an effort to deliver “growth” has added markedly to the aggregate debt burden, which is €3.1tn (86%) higher now than it was in 2000. The per capita equivalent has climbed by 69%, making the average person €41,800 (69%) more indebted than he or she was back in 2000.

The prosperity powder-keg

Gilets Jaunes Acte 3 – Samedi 1er Décembre – Perpignan

To summarise, then, we can state the economic circumstances of the average French citizen as follows.

First, and despite a rise in official GDP per capita, his or her personal prosperity is 7.1% (€2,095) lower now than it was as long ago as 2000.

Second, he or she has per capita debt of €102,200, up from €60,400 back in 2000.

Third, the deterioration in prosperity has been experienced most obviously in costs of household essentials, which have outpaced both wages and headline CPI inflation over an extended period.

This is the context in which we need to place changes in the workplace, and a perceived widening in inequality.

On this latter point, part of the explanation for the anger manifested in France can be grasped from this chart, published by the Institut des Politiques Publiques.

In the current budget, policy changes hurt the disposable incomes of the poorest 10% or so (on the left of the scale), but ought to be welcomed by most of the rest – and perhaps might be, were it not for the huge handouts seemingly being given to the very wealthiest. Moreover, these benefits aren’t being conferred on a large swathe of “the rich”, but accrue only to the wealthiest percentile.

French budget 2

This is part of a pattern visible throughout much of the West. Unfortunately, perceptions of hand-outs to a tiny minority of the super-rich have arisen in tandem with a deteriorating sense of security. Security is a multi-faceted concept, which extends beyond security of employment to embrace prosperity, wages, living costs and public services.

Even in the euphoric period immediately following his election, it seemed surprising that French voters would back as president a man committed to ‘reform’ of French labour laws, a process likely to reduce workers’ security of employment. Add in further deterioration in prosperity, and an apparent favouring of the super-rich, and the ingredients for disaffection become pretty obvious.

Where next?

The interpretation set out here strongly indicates that protests are unlikely to die down just because the government has made some concessions over fuel taxes – the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement might have found its catalyst in diesel prices, but now embraces much wider sources of discontent.

Given the context of deteriorating prosperity, it’s hard to see how the government can respond effectively. Even the imposition of swingeing new taxes on the super-rich – a wildly unlikely initiative in any case – might not suffice to assuage popular anger. It seems likelier that the authorities will ramp up law enforcement efforts in a bid to portray the demonstrators as extremists. The scale of apparent support for the movement – if not for some of its wilder excesses – suggests that such an approach is unlikely to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the French predicament is by no means unique. Deteriorating prosperity, a sense of reduced security and resentment about the perceived favouring of the super-rich are pan-European trends.

In the longer term, trends both in prosperity and in politics suggest that the West’s incumbent elites are fighting a rear-guard action. The credibility of their market economics mantra suffered severe damage in 2008, when market forces were not allowed to run to their logical conclusions, the result being a widespread perception that the authorities responded to the global financial crisis with rescues for “the rich” and “austerity” for everyone else.

This problem is exacerbated by the quirks of the euro system. In times past, a country like Italy would have responded to hardship by devaluation, which would have protected employment at the cost of gradual increases in the cost of living. Denied this option, weaker Euro Area countries – meaning most of them – have been forced into a process of internal devaluation, which in practice means reducing costs (and, principally, wages) in a way popularly labelled “austerity”. The combination of a single monetary policy with a multiplicity of sovereign budget processes was always an exercise in economic illiteracy, and the lack of automatic stabilisers within the euro system is a further grave disadvantage.

Finally, the challenge posed by deteriorating prosperity is made much worse by governments’ lack of understanding of what is really happening to the economy. If you were to believe that rising GDP per capita equates to improving prosperity – and if you further believed that ultra-low rates mean that elevated debt is nothing to worry about – you might really fail to understand what millions of ordinary people are so upset about.

After all, as somebody might once have said, they can always eat brioche.

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The Bumpy Road Down, Part 5: More Trends in Collapse

21 02 2018

IrvMillsIrv Mills has published the fifth and last part of his 5 part series called ‘The Bumpy Road Down’, previous instalments being available here.

 

 

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In my last post I started talking about some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. (The bumpy road down being the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity). These changes will be forced on us by circumstances and are not necessarily how I’d like to see things turn out.

The trends I covered last time were:

  • our continued reliance on fossil fuels
  • the continuing decline in availability, and surplus energy content, of fossil fuels
  • the damage the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) will suffer in the next crash, and the effects this will have
  • the increase in authoritarianism, as governments attempt to optimize critical systems and relief efforts during and after the crash

Oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

I’ve once again included the stepped or “oscillating” decline diagram from previous posts here to make it easier to visualize what I’m talking about. This diagram isn’t meant to be precise, certainly not when it comes to the magnitude and duration of the oscillations, which in any case will vary from one part of the world to the next.

The trends I want to talk about today are all interconnected. You can hardly discuss one without referring to the others, and so it is difficult to know where to start. But having touched briefly on a trend toward increased authoritarianism at the end of my last post, I guess I should continue trends in politics.

MORE POLITICAL TRENDS

Currently there seems to be a trend towards right wing politics in the developed world. I think anyone who extrapolates that out into the long run is making a basic mistake. Where right wing governments have been elected by those looking for change, they will soon prove to be very inept at ruling in an era of degrowth. Following that, there will likely be a swing in the other direction and left wing governments will get elected. Only to prove, in their turn, to be equally inept. Britain seems to be heading in this direction, and perhaps the U.S. as well.

Another trend is the sort of populism that uses other nations, and/or racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities at home as scapegoats for whatever problems the majority is facing. This strategy is and will continue to be used by clever politicians to gain support and deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Unfortunately, it leads nowhere since the people being blamed aren’t the source of the problem.

During the next crash and following recovery governments will continue to see growth as the best solution to whatever problems they face and will continue to be blind to the limits to growth. Farther down the bumpy road some governments may finally clue in about limits. Others won’t, and this will fuel continued growth followed by crashes until we learn to live within those limits.

One thing that seems clear is that eventually we’ll be living in smaller groups and the sort of political systems that work best will be very different from what we have now.

Many people who have thought about this assume that we’ll return to feudalism. I think that’s pretty unlikely. History may seem to repeat itself, but only in loose outline, not in the important details. New situations arise from different circumstances, and so are themselves different. Modern capitalists would never accept the obligations that the feudal aristocracy had to the peasantry. Indeed freeing themselves of those obligations had a lot to do with making capitalism work. And the “99%” (today’s peasantry) simply don’t accept that the upper classes have any right, divine or otherwise, to rule.

In small enough groups, with sufficient isolation between groups, people seem best suited to primitive communism, with essentially no hierarchy and decision making by consensus. I think many people will end up living in just such situations.

In the end though, there will still be a few areas with sufficient energy resources to support larger and more centralized concentrations of population. It will be interesting to see what new forms of political structure evolve in those situations.

ECONOMIC CONTRACTION

For the last couple of decades declining surplus energy has caused contraction of the real economy. Large corporations have responded in various ways to maintain their profits: moving industrial operations to developing countries where wages are lower and regulations less troublesome, automating to reduce the amount of expensive labour required, moving to the financial and information sectors of the economy where energy decline has so far had less effect.

The remaining “good” industrial jobs in developed nations are less likely to be unionized, with longer hours, lower pay, decreased benefits, poorer working conditions and lower safety standards. The large number of people who can’t even get one of those jobs have had to move to precarious, part time, low paying jobs in the service industries. Unemployment has increased (despite what official statistics say) and the ranks of the homeless have swelled.

Since workers are also consumers, all this has led to further contraction of the consumer economy. We can certainly expect to see this trend continue and increase sharply during the next crash.

Our globally interconnected economy is a complex thing and that complexity is expensive to maintain. During the crash and the depression that follows it, we’ll see trends toward simplification in many different areas driven by a lack of resources to maintain the existing complex systems. I’ll be discussing those trends in a moment, but it is important to note that a lot of economic activity is involved in maintaining our current level of complexity and abandoning that complexity will mean even more economic contraction.

At the same time, small, simple communities will prove to have some advantages that aren’t currently obvious.

CONSERVATION

All this economic contraction means that almost all of us will be significantly poorer and we’ll have to learn to get by with less. As John Michael Greer says, “LESS: less energy, less stuff, less stimulation.” We’ll be forced to conserve and will struggle to get by with “just enough”. This will be a harshly unpleasant experience for most people.

DEGLOBALIZATION

For the last few decades globalization has been a popular trend, especially among the rich and powerful, who are quick to extol its many supposed advantages. And understandably so, since it has enabled them to maintain their accustomed high standard of living while the economy as a whole contracts.

On the other hand, as I was just saying, sending high paying jobs offshore is a pretty bad idea for consumer economies. And I suspect that in the long run we’ll see that it wasn’t really all that good for the countries where we sent the work, either.

During the crash we’ll see the breakdown of the financial and organizational mechanisms that support globalization and international trade. There will also be considerable problems with shipping, both due to disorganization and to unreliable the supplies of diesel fuel for trucks and bunker fuel for ships. I’m not predicting an absolute shortage of oil quite this soon, but rather financial and organizational problems with getting it out of the ground, refined and moved to where it is needed.

This will lead to the failure of many international supply chains and governments and industry will be forced to switch critical systems over to more local suppliers. This switchover will be part of what eventually drives a partial recovery of the economy in many localities.

In a contracting economy with collapsing globalization there would seem to be little future for multi-national corporations, and organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. While the crash may bring an end to the so called “development” of the “developing” nations, it will also bring an end to economic imperialism. At the same time, the general public in the developed world, many of whom are already questioning the wisdom of the “race to the bottom” that is globalization, will be even less likely to go along with it, especially when it comes to exporting jobs.

Still, when the upcoming crash bottoms out and the economy begins to recover, there will be renewed demand for things that can only be had from overseas and international trade will recover to some extent.

DECENTRALIZATION

Impoverished organizations such a governments, multi-national corporations and international standards groups will struggle to maintain today’s high degree of centralization and eventually will be forced to break up into smaller entities.

Large federations such as Europe, the US, Canada and Australia will see rising separatism and eventually secession. As will other countries where different ethnic groups have been forced together and/or there is long standing animosity between various localities. If this can be done peacefully it may actually improve conditions for the citizens of the areas involved, who would no longer have to support the federal organization. But no doubt it will just as often involve armed conflict, with all the destruction and suffering that implies.

RELOCALIZATION

The cessation of services from the FIRE industries and the resulting breakdown of international (and even national) supply and distribution chains will leave many communities with no choice but to fend for themselves.

One of the biggest challenges at first will be to get people to believe that there really is a problem. Once that is clear, experience has shown that the effectiveness of response from the victims of disasters is remarkable and I think that will be true again in this case. There are a lot of widely accepted myths about how society breaks down during disaster, but that’s just what they are: myths. Working together in groups for our mutual benefit is the heart of humanity’s success, after all.

Government response will take days or more likely weeks to organize, and in the meantime there is much we can do to help ourselves. Of course it helps to be prepared… (check out these posts from the early days of this blog: 12) and I’ll have more to say on that in upcoming posts.

The question then arises whether one would be better off in an urban center or a rural area such as a small town or a farm. Government relief efforts will be focused on the cities where the need will be greatest and the response easiest to organize. But just because of the millions of people involved, that response will be quite challenging.

Rural communities may well be largely neglected by relief efforts. But, especially in agricultural areas, they will find fending for themselves much more manageable.

I live in a rural municipality with a population of less than 12,000 people in an area of over 200 square miles (60 people per sq. mile, more than 10 acres per person). The majority of the land is agricultural, and supply chains are short, walking distance in many cases. Beef, dairy and cash crops are the main agricultural activities at present and they can easily be diverted to feed the local population. Especially if the food would go to waste anyway due to the breakdown of supply chains downstream from the farm.

So I think we’re likely to do fairly well until the government gets around to getting in touch with us again, probably sometime after the recovery begins.

In subsequent crashes the population will be significantly reduced and those of us who survive will find ourselves living for the most part in very small communities which are almost entirely relocalized. The kind of economy that works in that situation is very different from what we have today and is concerned with many things other than growth and profit making.

REHUMANIZATION

The move toward automation that we’ve seen in the developed world since the start of the industrial revolution has been driven by high labour costs and the savings to be had by eliminating labour from industrial processes as much as possible. That revolution started and proceeded at greatest speed in Britain where labour rates where the highest, and still hasn’t happened in many developing nations where labour is very cheap.

Sadly, the further impoverishment of the working class in Europe and North America will make cheaper labour available locally, rather than having to go offshore. During the upcoming crash, and in the depression following it, impoverished people will have no choice but to work for lower rates and will out compete automated systems, especially when capital to set them up, the cutting edge technology needed to make them work, and the energy to power them are hard to come by. Again, the economic advantages of simplicity will come into play when it is the only alternative, and help drive the recovery after the first crash.

THE FOOD SUPPLY AND OVERPOPULATION

In the initial days of the coming crash there will be problems with the distribution systems for food, medical supplies and water treatment chemicals, all of which are being supplied by “just in time” systems with very little inventory at the consumer end of the supply chain. To simplify this discussion, I’ll talk primarily about food.

It is often said that there is only a 3 day supply of food on the grocery store shelves. I am sure this is approximately correct. In collapse circles, the assumption is that, if the trucks stop coming, sometime not very far beyond that 3 day horizon we’d be facing starvation. There may be a few, incredibly unlucky, areas where that will be more or less true.

But, depending on the time of year, much more food than that (often more than a year’s worth) is stored elsewhere in the food production and distribution system. The problem will be in moving this food around to where it is needed, and in making sure another year’s crops get planted and harvested. I think this can be done, much of it through improvisation and co-operation by people in the agricultural and food industries. With some support from various levels of government.

There will be some areas where food is available more or less as normal, some where the supply is tight, and other areas where there is outright famine and some loss of life (though still outstripped by the fecundity of the human race). In many ways that pretty much describes the situation today but supply chain breakdown, and our various degrees of success at coping with it, will make all the existing problems worse during the crash.

But once the initial crash is over, we have a much bigger problem looming ahead, which I think will eventually lead to another, even more serious crash.

With my apologies to my “crunchy” friends, modern agriculture and the systems downstream from it supply us with the cheapest and safest food that mankind has known since we were hunters and gatherers and allows us (so far) to support an ever growing human population.

The problem is that this agriculture is not sustainable. It requires high levels of inputs–primarily energy from fossil fuels, but also pesticides, fertilizers and water for irrigation–mostly from non-renewable sources. And rather than enriching the soil on which it depends, it gradually consumes it, causing erosion from over cultivation and over grazing, salinating the soil where irrigation is used and poisoning the water courses downstream with runoff from fertilizers. We need to develop a suite of sustainable agricultural practices that takes advantage of the best agricultural science can do for us, while the infrastructure that supports that science is still functioning.

The organic industry spends extravagantly to convince us that the problem with our food is pesticide residues and genetically engineered organisms, but the scientific consensus simply does not support this. The organic standards include so called “natural” pesticides that are more toxic than modern synthetic ones, and allow plant breeding techniques (such as mutagenesis) that are far more dangerous than modern genetic engineering. Organic standards could certainly be revised into something sustainable that retains the best of both conventional and organic techniques, but this has become such a political hot potato that it is unlikely to happen.

As I said above, during the upcoming crash one of the main challenges will be to keep people fed. And I have no doubt that this challenge will, for the most part, be successfully met. Diesel fuel will be rationed and sent preferentially to farmers and trucking companies moving agricultural inputs and outputs. Supplies of mineral fertilizers are still sufficient to keep industrial agriculture going. Modern pesticides actually reduce the need for cultivation and improve yields by reducing losses due to pests. It will be possible to divert grains grown for animal feed to feed people during the first year when the crisis is most serious.

Industrial agriculture will actually save the day and continue on to feed the growing population for a while yet. We will continue to make some improvement in techniques and seeds, though with diminishing returns on our efforts.

This will come to an end around mid century with the second bump on the road ahead (starting at point “g” on the graph), when a combination of increasing population, worsening climate, and decreasing availability and increasing prices of energy, irrigation water, fertilizer, pesticides and so forth combine to drastically reduce the output of modern agriculture.

Widespread famine will result, and this, combined with epidemics in populations weakened by hunger, will reduce the planet’s human population by at least a factor of two in a period of a very few years. Subsequent bumps as climate change further worsens conditions for farming will further reduce the population, resulting in a bottleneck towards the end of this century. Without powered machinery, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and with drastically reduced water for irrigation, agricultural output will fall off considerably. And our population will fall to match the availability of food. I do think it unlikely that the human race will be wiped out altogether, but our numbers will likely be reduced by a factor of ten or more.

TURNING TO VIOLENCE AS A SOLUTION

It is a sad fact that many people, communities and nations, when faced with the sort of challenges I’ve been talking about here, will respond with violence.

In the remaining years leading up to the next crash, I think it is likely that even the least stable of world leaders (or their military advisors) will remain well aware of the horrific consequences of large scale nuclear war, and will manage to avoid it. As has been the case since the end of WWII, wars will continue to be fought by proxy, involving smaller nations in the developing world, especially where the supply of strategic natural resources are at issue.

War is extremely expensive though and, even without the help of a financial crash, military spending already threatens to bankrupt the U.S. As Dmitry Orlov has suggested, after a financial crash, the U.S. may find it difficult to even get its military personnel home from overseas bases, much less maintain those bases or pursue international military objectives.

But even in the impoverished post-crash world, I expect that border wars, terrorism, riots and violent protests will continue for quite some time yet.

MIGRATION AND REFUGEES

Whether from the ravages of war, climate change or economic contraction many areas of the world, particularly in areas like the Middle East, North Africa and the U.S. southwest, will become less and less livable. People will leave those areas looking for greener pastures and the number of refugees will soon grow past what can be managed even by the richest of nations. This will be a problem for Europe in particular, and more and more borders will be closed to all but a trickle of migrants. Refugees will accumulate in camps and for a while the situation will find an uneasy balance.

As we continue down the bumpy road, though, many nations will lose the ability to police their borders. Refugees will pour through, only to find broken economies that offer them little hope of a livelihood. Famine, disease and conflict will eventually reduce the population to where it can be accommodated in the remaining livable areas. But the ethnic makeup of those areas will have changed significantly due to large scale migrations.

IN CONCLUSION

I’ve been talking here about some of the changes that will be forced upon us by the circumstances of collapse. I’ve said very little about what I think we might do if we could face up to the reality of those circumstances and take positive action. That’s because I don’t think there is much chance that we’ll take any such action on a global or even national scale.

It’s time now to wrap up this series of posts about the bumpy road down. At some point in the future I intend to do a series about of coping with collapse locally, on the community, family and individual level. I think there is still much than can be done to improve the prospects of those who are willing to try.





From oilslick to tyranny

10 10 2017

A prosperous society is an orderly society.

Just found this……  says it all really.  I expect that one day Australia will also be ‘disunited’, I can see how easily Tasmania would cease to trade with the rest of Australia for starters…. republished from ExtraNewsfeed.

People with full bellies, stable homes and secure employment do not allow themselves to be involved in civil disorder. Unfortunately we are living on borrowed money in a bankrupt society. When our debts catch up with us, society will collapse, violent disorder will ensue and martial law will be inevitable. Pre-oil, despotic rule was the norm and democracies did not exist; we are going to return to that era.

The hallmark of the tyrant is already being stamped on the nation for anyone willing to recognise it. Suppression of truth is already in hand, information on climate change has been removed from government websites. It is the preparation for your future governance. No names are given here, because no-one will recognise the opportunist until he makes his grab for ultimate power. It will not be who you expect it to be.

forget Wall St., this is what world bankruptcy looks like:

Oil is our prime source of energy, ‘alternatives’ cannot power our industrial infrastructure.

Any business that continually burns through its assets at ten times the rate of replacement can be said to be bankrupt; that describes the global economy. Fossil fuels are the only asset we have, because everything else is a derivative of coal oil and gas inputs. Without heat, nothing can be manufactured. We elect politicians to lie on our behalf, because we want to be told that our resources and growth are infinite. In return for our votes, they are happy to do this. Everyone is complicit in the grand deceit, to accept the truth would destroy the existence of all of us.

So to perpetuate that lie there is a collective insistence that the global economy must continue to function to a very simple (but ultimately nonsensical) formula:

the more fuel we burn, the greater our gross domestic product. The faster we burn it, the higher our percentage growth.

Our machines and the (finite) fuels that move them now form the sinews that hold all nations together. They feed us, provide heat, light and transport, and with equal importance, stabilise international democracies and political systems.

No matter how complex or mundane your current job, whether garbage collector or brain surgeon, someone, somewhere is producing sufficient surplus energy to support it.

Prosperity is not an infinite right

Collective prosperity at the global level depends on cheap surplus fossil fuel energy. For 2 centuries we have been able to use those fossil fuels as collateral for future debt, to build ever bigger machines to extract elemental resources from the earth. This has been our great burning, because extracted materials of themselves are of no use to us unless we use heat to process them into desirable commodities.

That excess heat is altering our climate beyond human tolerance.

But heat provides our industrial growth economy: fuels must be consumed to sustain it and provide continued employment to make things that are ultimately thrown away in order to consume more to enable our debts to be continually carried forward. Our system of rolling debt depends on increasing energy input ad infinitum. So the one who asserts that climate change is a hoax gets voted into office, granting permission to burn our planet forever.

Without economic stability, democracy cannot survive.

Fuel resources have been a once-only gift of nature, and there are no viable substitutes. When they are no longer freely available, the effects will be catastrophic and force the events outlined here because the availability of surplus energy directly underpins our economic system. Without surplus energy you cannot have a modern democratic society. Be under no illusions, on current trends the events outlined here are certain. Only timing is in question by a few years either way.

Our global bank balance in oil has been falling for 70 years.

We are living on legacy oil. Oilwells cannot be refilled by votes, prayers or money.

We have created an industrial economy that is entirely predicated on a single factor: converting explosive force into rotary motion. Those six words separate us from the economics of the horsedrawn cart, windmill and sailing ship. They also separate us from the disease and deprivation that was the lot of our forebears only a century or two ago. Only fossil fuels can supply that explosive force at the rate we need.

The global industrial economy is now an interlocked progressive whole. It will not allow isolationism to function, neither will it allow a return to a previous era and downsized economic environment. We demand more, you have heard the aspiring tyrant’s words that promise more.

Political promises evaporate when there is insufficient energy to support them.

The notion of “Saudi America” is reassuring, but the facts are not.

Despite the rhetoric and posturing, reality cannot be ignored: the USA produces around 9 Million barrels of oil a day, but uses 0ver 19MBd. (2016). This imbalance is not going to change, despite collective belief to the contrary.

Price fluctuations and the ebb and flow of gluts should be ignored. If the cost of oil rises to a level that sustains the producers, users can’t afford to buy it; if it falls, oil producers can’t afford to extract it. This is the economic vice that is inexorably crushing the global industrial system as oil supplies decline.

Real wages fall in lockstep with oil depletion.

As surplus energy falls away, so does real income. We have substituted debt for income and allowed that debt to grow to mask the reality of our situation. We are stealing from our own future and from generations unborn to stay solvent. It might be called intergenerational larceny. When our great grandchildren arrive they will find nothing left for them to burn.

We are already in the phase of expending too much energy to get energy, which is why real income has been static for 30 years. We live in an energy economy, not a money economy. Wages are paid from energy surpluses, not printing presses, and that surplus has been gradually reducing.

The mirage of infinity.

The killer factor is Energy Return on Energy Invested, EROEI. Over the last 150 years civilisation has been built based on coal that returned an EROEI of 50:1, and oil that returned 100:1. Those ratios of return provided the cheap surplus energy that created our industrial infrastructure, and led to the expectation of infinite affluence.

We cannot maintain our current lifestyle using expensive fuels which give a return ratio of only 20:1 (and falling), which is what the best oilwells deliver.

Around 14:1 our society might hold together in a rudimentary sense if consumption could be balanced at that level, but 80 million new people arrive on the planet each year. They demand to be housed clothed and fed, spreading available resources even thinner. The mothers of the next 2 billion people are alive now. They will reproduce as a matter of personal survival, taking global population beyond 9 billion by mid century, guaranteeing our fall off the ‘energy cliff’.

The Energy Cliff:

There are numerous interpretations of the ‘energy cliff’, offering different return ratios that will supposedly allow our industrial society to function. 14:1, 12:1 even 8:1. The exact figure is irrelevant, right now we are entering the ‘elbow curve’ of the cliff, pinning our energy hopes on PV, wind, nuclear and tarsands; the ultimate downturn is inescapable. Wind and solar farms cannot supply sufficient concentrated energy to replace oil.

oil-gas-war-graffitiWe are 7.5 billion people on a planet that, pre-oil, supported between 1 and 2 billion. By any reckoning, 5 billion people do not have a future, let alone 2 billion more due over the next 30 years.

We must burn fuel to maintain what we have, but the act of burning destroys what we have. This is contrary to human instinct, so the only recourse will be armed conflict to take what others have. All wars are about survival and acquisition of resources. Conflict will drain what little energy we have left and finally exhaust any survivors.

When we reach the point of having only shale or tar sand oil or wind turbines returning 5:1, there will not be enough surplus energy in our industrial systems to provide the economic momentum we need, and maintain the necessary machinery to power the system.

When our wheels stop turning, we stop eating. Our situation is as brutally simple as that. Electric vehicles cannot function outside a hydrocarbon based infrastructure, and no transportation can exist beyond the extent of its purpose. A collapsed economy removes any such purpose. Battery power will not deliver fresh water and remove your wastes, and there isn’t going to be a bucolic utopia where we all become rural gardeners. We don’t know how, there isn’t enough room and probably not enough time. Hungry people will not allow a second harvest.

But the demand for answers will persist, a search for those responsible for our misfortunes, and insistence that our lives are restored to the ‘normality’ of previous times. Already the finger pointing rhetoric of the despot is being cheered on a wave of ignorance and bigotry: lock up opponents and dissenters, suppress the media, remove the unwanted, ignore the laws.

When that (and more) is done, all will be well. They are words from recent history, overlaid on our own time. We thought fascism was impossible in civilised nations; as long as prosperity held for all, that was true. As prosperity fails, it is stirring again, with an appetite easily fed but never sated.

Secession

As energy supplies deplete, the industrial economy will enter its terminal phase, still under collective denial. But no nation can hold together without the fuel sources that created it. Secession will become inevitable, into five, six, seven or more regions in the USA, along racial, religious, political and geographic lines. The faultlines are already there, with no energy base there will be nothing to stop ultimate breakup. Other conglomerations of states and provinces will also disintegrate. The EU, Russia, China, Africa will react and deny, but the end result will be the same: Energy depletion = social collapse.

As civil unrest takes hold, governments will act in the only way they know how: violent suppression to restore order. This will mean military intervention and imposition of martial law as civil breakdown becomes widespread.

At that point your elected leader will assume the role of dictator and suspend the constitution. Once established, godly certainties among those around him will cloak this in righteousness and subvert it into a theocracy of the worst kind. That will make it easier to identify the heathen and justify any form of retribution. It will be fascism cloaked in holy orders. It will not be the first time: Hitler’s army had “Gott Mitt Uns” stamped on their belt buckles.

Those who support him will become part of the new order. Those who do not will be dismissed from office, either voluntarily or by force. Police and military will fall in behind whoever pays their wages, and enforce the new regime. Totalitarian states have shown that there is never a shortage of willing hands to perform unpleasant tasks. They are always ready and waiting to be recruited.

The inevitability of regional secession will inflame regional differences, and spark civil war(s). It will be the time of petty states and tyrannies, each regime desperate to resist the decline into a different lifestyle, certain that the mess can be ‘fixed’, and only ‘they’ can fix it by enforcement of ideology. Yet without the power of fossil fuels there will be an inexorable regression to the brutalities of medievalism, with power resting only in the command of muscle.

Eventually they will be forced to accept each other’s existence, for no better reason than there will be insufficient means to do anything about it.

Welcome to the (dis) United States of America.

So what of the years to come? The dictator’s power will grow for a time, and make life unpleasant for millions, but ultimately his Reich will extend only to the door of his bunker. No doubt he will remain in his seat of imagined power for as long as possible, issuing incoherent commands that cannot be fulfilled because there will be insufficient energy to do so, just as his predecessor discovered 75 years ago.

You can follow me on twitter

or my book “The End of More” https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00D0ADPFY

might give a clearer insight into how we got into the mess in the first place.





The era of gnashing teeth

6 02 2017

Since Trump’s election to the Oval Office, there has been an unbelievable amount of teeth gnashing going on all over the internet….. HOW could it possibly have come to this..?

To me, the answer is as clear as a bell. People all over the world can sense that everything ‘is turning to shit’, if you pardon my fluent French. The economies of the world are faltering (in real sense, not GDP money throughput), unemployment is high, manipulated to lower figures with creative accounting, the climate is falling apart causing food shortages in Europe, and the Middle East appears as a seething hot bed of war and terrorism.

The problem lies in the fact nobody knows why this is happening, because they have been conned for years by governments everywhere telling them everything is fine, we just have to ‘return to growth’.

Trump convinces enough Americans to vote for him so he can make America great again, because neither he nor his voters have the faintest idea America is actually on the cusp of collapse.

In France, Marine Le Pen wants to make France strong again……. and just like in America, this resonates with the electorate who now look like they may make her the country’s first woman President, and the first from the extreme right.

Here in Australia, we have a similar rise from the right, with Pauline Hanson and her one nation party making scary inroads into popularity rating. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald states:

In the aftermath of Mr Trump’s US election victory, where he strongly advocated reviving that nation’s manufacturing industry, nearly 83 per cent of surveyed Australian said they strongly agreed (42 per cent) or agreed (40.5 per cent) with the notion we are too reliant on foreign imports. Only 6 per cent disagreed.

Support for an expansion of Australia’s manufacturing sector was robust regardless of age, gender, income or locality.

This unsurprising finding comes from the Political Persona Project, a comprehensive attempt to profile different types of Australians based on their lifestyles, social values and politics. Fairfax Media in collaboration with the Australian National University and Netherlands-based political research enterprise Kieskompas conducted the project which revealed there are seven types of Australians, representing seven dominant patterns of thinking in Australian society.

Manufacturing has been declining since the 1970’s, which coincides with the USA’s Peak Oil, in case no one noticed….. then, one in four Australian workers were employed in the sector. This downturn has gathered pace in recent years with over 200,000 manufacturing jobs lost between 2008 and 2015. But no mention of dropping net energy, or an energy cliff. The manufacturing sector now accounts for only about one in 13 Australian workers. The decline means Australia is relying more on foreign producers to supply manufactured goods……… not to mention we have to import over 90% of our liquid fuel requirements, with likely no more than 3 or 4 years before this turns to 100%.

Underpinning the nostalgia for manufacturing was a strong feeling of having been left out of the new economy, said Carol Johnson, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide.

Might this have anything to do with the fact that since the Thatcher/Reagan era, the economy was converted from an energy based one to a money based version…..?

“Manufacturing still matters to the economy and Australians know it,” he said.

“The public’s gut instinct is absolutely right.”

How much more wrong could they actually be……..?