Monday, September 26, 2016

D is for Degrowth

Or it could also be for Depletion or Dieoff, which are related topics. The human species has been expanding rapidly since the Industrial Revolutions, but really took off in the 20th century. Masses of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels allowed us to mine and exploit the planet's mineral, animal and plant resources as if they were infinite. We measured all of this activity by giving things a monetary value and measuring the rate at which primary goods (raw materials) were turned into manufactured products, supported by a web of services. We called this system of measurements "the economy".

Because we had an economy we had to have economists. These were the technicians and theoreticians who claimed they knew how to make the system function and grow. If the system was growing then material prosperity - or at least the promise of it - could be made available to more and more people. Banks made loans and lent money, governments issued bonds and initiated works of infrastructure, generals grew their armies and waged wars, and the common person got a credit card and a mortgage to buy a house. All of this economic activity went into the melting pot and was used to calculate a country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

This all worked well until the limits of growth were met. However, by that point, the system had evolved into one with no reverse gear. Booming populations, exponentially rising debt and an infrastructure designed and built on the assumption that there would never be any limits to growth had painted us into a corner. The economists, being only concerned with economics and not ecology, failed to recognise that the human economy is merely an artificially created system existing within the wider ecology of planet Earth. As a result of this minor oversight ecological systems are breaking down at an alarming rate. The planet is running out of capacity for dealing with the rising tide of waste from the human species,  just as it is running out of fresh water, fertile topsoil, biodiversity and a climate amenable to continued human civilisation.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Standard neoclassical economics says that when one good becomes scarce the free market will step in and - as if by magic - a substitute good will be found. This hasn't happened in the case of our biological life support systems and represents the ultimate market failure. But this hasn't worried the true believers, and the concept of infinite substitutability has now been taken to its logical conclusion ad absurdum with serious talk about moving to a new (as yet unlocated) planet.

So, given the huge footprint of the human species on a finite planet, there can only be one logical solution to save ourselves: to degrow the economy. This is not a popular option. For an economy geared for growth, and only growth, any backward step to a smaller and less complex state of affairs is calamitous. Financial ponzi schemes collapse, asset bubbles burst, people lose their jobs and governments find themselves unable to supply basic services. All of this tends to lead to riots, revolutions and wars.

And yet we don't have any choice. Given the basic mathematically impossible concept of continued growth in a finite space, it is inevitable that limits will be reached sooner or later. Yet we have engineered a system whereby continued growth is suicidal, and the opposite will be very painful. But given the choice between an outcome that is certainly fatal and one that is likely very painful but not fatal, most rational people would choose the latter, all other things being held equal.

But what would degrowth look like in practice? Imagine, for a moment, the existence of a far-sighted and benign government that wanted to look out for and protect its citizens (I know it's hard to do these days). It might, for example, make cars prohibitively expensive and invest in public transport and cycle lanes instead. It might pour subsidies into researching and developing more benign technologies for generating energy and it might equally focus on energy conservation. Young citizens would be taught at school how to conserve energy and how to decode advertisements. Far fetched? This is exactly what Denmark did in the 1970s following the oil shocks. Alas, being one of only a very small number of countries attempting to unhook themselves from fossil fuel addiction, it was always going to be difficult. Yet its efforts could act in some way as a template for a wider programme.

Is this going to happen? Common sense says it doesn't look like it. Any imposition of degrowth policies by governments would likely be viewed with extreme suspicion - the suspicion being that the brunt of any degrowth would be shouldered by the masses while the rich and powerful minority continued living with wild abandon. This would likely lead to outright rebellion and revolution, or at the very least a new government would be elected on an anti-degrowth platform.

But that doesn't mean individuals, families and groups can't attempt to wriggle free of the economic suicide belt. Sure, it might be difficult to do so, but it has its merits; increased resilience and empowerment being but two. After all, there is no choice in the end. Degrowth is already happening but they just haven't told us yet. All that is left of the world economy is a series of get-rich-quick schemes backed up by asset bubbles, crooked economic figures, a rising tsunami of unpayable debt and ponzi madness. Strip all of that out of the equation and you're left with an economy that is struggling for breath as it sinks beneath the waves, dragged down by falling real energy availability and an increasing complexity that has long since passed the point of positive marginal returns.

The only real question that remains is whether a chaotic and unplanned degrowth scenario will leave the planetary biosphere in an inhabitable state by the time we have returned to a state of sustainability. That, to an unknowable extent, is up to us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

C is for Control

The future will be about a loss of control in our daily lives. Some of it will be big stuff that will affect you, such as your pension fund going bust or your country experiencing hyperinflation, and frankly there's not much you can do about it. On the other hand there are other things that you can control, and it's best to get a handle on them now while the going is still good(ish).

Health is one of the most precious things that you can have. To remain in good health for as long as you can without the need for hospitals and drugs and doctors is a worthy aim. For the average person, a healthy diet, a moderate amount of exercise and the avoidance of too much stress will suffice. A scary proportion of people are hooked on medicines dished out by doctors, as well as any number of other harmful substances. Try to get rid of any harmful addictions while help is still available. Likewise, get dental procedures and the like out of the way while the health systems are not collapsing. Assuming you are able bodied and of sound mind, nobody is responsible for your health except you.

Finances are another area where you can take control. Avoid all debt, if possible, and at least avoid all unpayable debt. Being in debt means that other people and entities have control over you. Downsize as much as you can in the expectation that if you don't voluntarily downsize you will be downsized involuntarily at some point. Live within your means - it's good practice for the future. Stop wasting money of takeaway food - learn to cook instead.

Make your home as resilient as possible. Insulate it, fix the roof, get rid of unnecessary energy wasting appliances and do what you can to cut down on its running costs. Have an energy holiday one weekend (i.e. no electricity or gas) and see how you get on. Get rid of any unnecessary clutter in your home by selling it or giving it away - it'll make you feel better. If you wish to hoard food and other dry goods at least put them somewhere out of your immediate living zone.

Try and get control over the essentials of life. This means water, food, warmth (or cooling, depending where you live) and shelter. Play what if games. What if the electricity went off for a month? What if the taps stopped running? What if the heating breaks down and it's minus 30C outside? In this way you will be prepared. If you don't do it already, learn how to grow food. If you have no space for growing food then volunteer at your local organic farm. Make friends with them and help them out so that they'll help you out one day. If you are well prepared for hard times then put aside a little extra to help others.

Taking back control is empowering, but try not to get too carried away with it as nobody has total control over their life. If and when a major disaster or shortage occurs one of your greatest resources will be your friends, family and neighbours. Make yourself indispensable to them and they'll do their best to look after you.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

B is for Brexit

Brexit [a contraction of British Exit (from the EU)] is the 'cat among the pigeons' event that future historians may see marked the end of our love affair with globalisation. When, in June 2016, people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland were given the chance to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, or to leave it, the majority chose the latter. The 'Leave' camp won in spite of a media campaign of epic proportions to convince people to stay.

Discourse, if one could call it that, was heated and often venomous, with 'Leave' voters subjected to much ridicule and accusations of being fascists. On the other hand, 'Remain' voters were framed as clueless metropolitan liberals - the kind of people who would willingly have rolled over for Hitler and his Third Reich.

In the aftermath of the vote there was much fallout. Many high ranking politicians, including the prime minister David Cameron, found themselves at the end of their political careers. Such had been the level of fear whipped up over what was likely to happen in the event 'Leave' won - including Cameron and his chancellor warning of a market crash and a Third World War - the aftermath felt like something of a damp squib. To date, the only measurable effect has been a smallish downward correction in the value of the pound, and better than expected GDP growth figures.

Media organisations who backed the 'Remain' camp are still in a state of denial. The Guardian, for example, immediately chose to run with the narrative of a wave of hate crime being unleashed across the country - a phenomenon of which there is scant proof. Brexit supporters are routinely labelled as 'misguided', foolish' or 'racist', and are compared to supporters of Donald Trump in the US. Yet the majority of Leavers, when questioned, cited concerns with globalisation as the main reason they chose to vote the way they did. Globalisation, for them, had become something of a disaster in which their jobs were exported overseas and, in return, waves of immigrants moved into their communities and put further strain on the already over-subscribed public services and infrastructure. Put bluntly, as one interviewee stated, "If you've got money you vote 'Remain', and if you've got nothing you vote 'Leave'.

The referendum revealed a split in the nation that ran between social classes, right through the middle of communities and even between friends and family members. For some, voting Leave had little to do with politics and was merely a chance to spit in the eye of the powers that be. Likewise, for some voting Remain, it was like casting a penny into a well and making a wish for a better, fluffier world (albeit a world backed up by punitive EU trade deals, turbo capitalism, non-democratic supra states using NATO's firepower to keep the dispossessed from their borders). There was very little common ground on which anyone from the two sides could agree.

However, some have pointed out that despite the furore the UK has not so far left the EU and may never do so. They assume the EU will continue to grow in power and size and that no prime minister will ever dare trigger the article needed to exit the EU club. But perhaps that misses the point. The world of business and politics runs on sentiment. The one thing they hate, we are told, is uncertainty. The UK has stated its intention to leave - an unutterably offensive thing to do - and thus shattered the looking glass. All bets are off as to how this will play out, although other states will likely follow in the UK's footsteps as the internal and external pressures on the debt-burdened EU continue to mount.

So if there's one lesson to be learned by the globalists from the Brexit debacle it's that the disenfranchised and angry should not be allowed to vote.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A is for Alternative Media

The alternative media has exhibited an exponential growth pattern in recent years due to the digital revolution and the unsatisfactory narrative offered by traditional media. The ease with which new media ventures can be incubated and by which information is distributed has broken the stranglehold the mainstream media (MSM) has enjoyed in terms of setting the narrative agenda in society. In a recent survey it was found only 6% of Americans have a lot of trust in the MSM, and that figure is likely to be repeated, to a greater or lesser extent, across the industrialised world.

This rapid growth of the alternative media has occurred in parallel with the diminution of trust in the MSM. Since the early 1970s - when the rich economies of the West began to depart from a reality based upon physical productivity and currencies backed by precious metals - the MSM has caused ever-growing levels of cognitive dissonance in its consumers. However, the widespread ownership of computer technology which has occurred in recent years has allowed the vacuum to be quickly filled by thousands of YouTube videos, blogs and alt news sites, all distributed at lightning speed via social media, email lists and RSS feeds. The cumbersome business model of the conventional media has found itself unable to compete with this networked and distributed onslaught and faces a lingering death as its cash reserves and lines of credit deplete. All it can do is dig itself into an ever deeper hole as it desperately tries to rescue its own credibility, but finds it is unable to do so without compromising the power structures behind it.

One way in which the MSM and its supporters are attempting to fight back is by discrediting all alternative media. Due to the anarchic nature of the alternative media arena a wide range of controversial topics are addressed in a range of tones. Some of these are singled out as conspiracy theories in an attempt to discredit the entire phenomenon of non-hierarchical information disbursement and the old maxim of slinging mud at a wall in the hope that some of it sticks applies here. This tactic in itself seems to be backfiring as one 'conspiracy theory' after another is proved to be reality; a phenomenon that has turned the tables and appears to be inducing cognitive dissonance in the MSM itself. A prime example of this is the Washington Post's simultaneous championing of the ex-NSA computer analyst turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, whom the paper simultaneously supported to earn industry plaudits, whilst subsequently calling for his arrest due to the existential threat he posed to the establishment.

The MSM is acutely concerned by its shrinking power but does not appear to be able to repel the swarm attack. If it mimics the alt media it shoots itself in the foot, but if it ignores it it further erodes its own self-defined relevance. Instead it repeatedly doubles down on failed strategies and expects them to succeed. With so much capital invested in their enterprises the controllers of the old media have yet to figure out a way to compete with alternative media sources. The new media is unbound by any editorial and political constraints and willing to offer up their services for free, whereas the old media must play by the old rules and is forbidden from 'rocking the boat'. Thus, in the face of this existential threat they are churning out more and more 'news' in the form of entertainment, mixing commercials with supposed reality in the form of sponsored content and retreating behind paywalls that nobody wants to pay for. This has created a negative feedback loop for them and, in fact, without the help of generous benefactors or cash engines strapped onto their media enterprises, we could see the death of the MSM within a few short years. Reports of social media sites censoring alternative media material are only likely to quicken the erosion of whatever trust remains in the MSM.

What emerges from the wreckage is unclear but the issue of trust has been thrust to the fore. In the same way that not all MSM content is 'bad', conversely, not all alternative media is 'good'. The same shady array of forces harbouring murky intentions and blatant attempts at propaganda remains, and we can be sure it is desperately attempting to reconfigure itself in new ways for it to continue to control the narrative and perpetuate the status quo. Perhaps, as the collapse of industrial society intensifies more local forms of media will rise in relevance and importance. This would be one way the trust horizon of information providers could be verified. At the same time, in a deglobalising world, people may find they do not have as much time to follow world events from their own home. Instead, they may be too busy raising chickens and growing vegetables.