Involuntary Simplicity

If you haven’t read John Michael Greer’s latest blog posting, “Christmas Eve -2050,” go read it and then come back here.

Welcome back. As is usual from Mr. Greer, it’s another moderate view of our low-energy future. Not optimistic, but not overly bleak as well. Continuing his theme of catabolic collapse, greer paints a picture of a life all of us could easily relate to, with some important differences.

The most obivous difference is that most everyone in the USA is poor. Using current rural poverty as his model, Greer’s future family is more-or-less intact, surviving, and improvising wherever possible to get by. There are references to climate change, financial crises, war, and a festering sense of revulsion and hatred against the previous generations (i.e. Boomers, gen-Xers, Gen Y-ers, etc.) who squandered so much of Earth’s energy stores on crap. I’m guessing the protagonists in the article to be about the same age as my young children are today, which makes the story all the more poignant for me.

By 2050 (an arbitrary date, but a useful one), the United States has collapsed. By collapse I mean reverting to a simpler society than the one we live in today, not a complete loss of control and/or chaos. The model for this kind of collapse that most people can relate to is the collapse of the USSR back in the late 1980’s. A variety of forces had pushed the Soviet Union to it’s breaking point financially, and it reached a tipping point: it could try and hang on to it’s satellite states, risking internal chaos, external war, and the very real possibility of the complete implosion of Russian power, or it could choose to give up it’s empire and retain some sort of national/regional power. It chose the latter option and went through a period of time ( the Yeltsin years) where the country was plunged into a steep recession, it lost influence over most if not all of it’s Warsaw Pact satellite states, and even lost the outlying Socialist Republics that formerly made up the USSR proper. It did survive, though, and in recent years has made a comeback of sorts, this time using oil and natural gas as it’s agents of hegemony in comparison to the old days, when the Red Army was it’s main tool.

Greer paints a similar picture for the USA of the future. Our ability to project influence around the world is based on three main areas: our overwhelming military power (at least in terms of ability to defeat other nation states. Iraq is showing that we cannot defeat low-intensity insurgents), our growing economy, and the US dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. We are seeing more signs of global disenchantment with the dollar every week, and our economy’s growth is directly tied to energy prices, which will continue to rise over the long term. If the dollar collapses, it will take our economy with us. That leaves one major force left that makes the US a superpower: our military.

Much of our military might is wrapped up in our impressive nuclear arsenal. I find it highly unlikely that any national leader would risk global nuclear war to retain our dominance of the world, especially with more and more nations joining the nuclear club ever year. While some theorists think a nuclear war is ‘winnable,’ I think the costs of winning would by pyrrhic at best. As time goes on, I think the utility of our naval assets will continue to wane, especially as technology continues to advance. One sunken aircraft carrier would pretty much spell the end of the blue water navy as anything more than a tool to scare off third world nations. Greer’s story has the USA involved in unspecified wars. I’m guessing that these are more resource wars, where US soldiers are employed much like they are in the Middle East today, as a petroleum protection force of sorts. Wars like this have no end in site, and will demand a steady stream of young people to fight them. A cynic would say that wars like these are both good for business, and it gives the disaffected populace a foreign enemy to hate and fight, instead of looking at the leadership that got them into this mess in the first place.

So, if we are faced with a scenario where oil rises have skyrocketed, the dollar has collapsed, and the economy has followed the dollar down, what will we do here? The USA will simply collapse into a simpler form of society, and probably not willingly. You could make the argument that we’re starting to see some of this today. The employment stats for “underemployed workers” (e.g. PhD’s working as baristas and the like) show a small but growing group of people who are choosing to work in lower-paying, simpler jobs than what they have been trained for due to a lack of opportunities in their chosen professions.

The way we work will change dramatically. 100 years ago, you could break most of the workers into several large groupings: farmers, laborers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and specialists (lawyers, doctors, etc.), with most of the populace falling into the first two groups. These days, our jobs are very specialized. The explosion of the US service industry has spawned numerous specialty employment niches: travel agent, mortgage broker, lobbyist, manicurist, etc. I work in the IT industry, and even here, the geeks are broken down by their specialties: networks, development, systems admin, email admins, security, you get the idea.

In the future, I could see job classifications reverting to something similiar to a century ago, especially considering that poverty, combined with rising energy costs, will mean that more Americans will have to be directly involved in jobs that support basic surivival: farming and manufacturing. Also, increasing energy costs will mean that human labor will be cheaper than big machines. Jobs that have been done with machines over the last few decades will change back to being ones done by human laborers. It won’t be pleasant or easy work, but it will create more job opportunities, which will be needed as more and more service industries wither and die in the face of reduced spending by a populace that continues to get poorer and poorer.

I first started paying serious attention to peak oil in 2004. At the time, the common joke was that all of us peakniks were going to become a nation of homebrewing, biointensive gardening bicycle repairmen. Assuming that collapse happens over a series of decades like Greer describes, I’m wondering how long it will take American society to shift to this simpler way of life. Many of us won’t take kindly to losing the perks that come with industrial living, and the short-term mentality that drives both business and politics likely won’t do us any favors. This is a damn shame, and it’s the major drawback of capitalism as practiced in the USA today in my opinion. The only thing that matters is keeping shareholders or voters happy until the next quarter or election. Making major investments now that will reap rewards decades later would be punished, even if it will make life better for our grandkids. Thinking we can keep the status quo going indefinitely in the face of declining resources is foolish at best.

I would have liked to see Mr. Greer give us a hint of what he sees in the future of US politics. Is the US still a representative democracy of sorts? Have we changed into a police state? Has the US truly collapsed into multiple smaller entities? He makes mention of new religions; how about new political parties?

It’s all good stuff, and he has two more postings coming: one for 2100, and one for 2150.

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