There are a few vantages from which to view our current economic malaise.
Some see it as an isolated bump in the road that can be fixed by the gummint doling out largesse to Wall Street and other failed ventures.
Others, like myself, see our current economic troubles as the first, spreading crack in an edifice on the verge of collapse.
Let me tell you why.
The US economy, and to a large extent the global economy, is dependent on constant increase in consumption and production. Don’t take my word for it, pick up the paper and read the business pages.
Economists are ecstatic when significant growth in the Gross Domestic Product is predicted, and they do the Chicken Little thing when growth stagnates. Please assimilate this completely. In order to maintain a constant standard of living for its citizens, the economy must continue to grow constantly. And the amount of “stuff” which we produce and consume must continue to grow. There is no room for the concept of “enough” in such an economy. We must consume or perish.
This consumes energy, primarily fossil fuels, in an ever-increasing volume. And the quantity of oil and coal in the ground is finite, fixed. Which means that the more our consumption and production increase, the more rapidly the global supplyl of fossil fuels decreases.
If we imagine it on a graph, it becomes clear that at some point, the upward curve of our increasing production and consumption will collide with the downward curve of the fossil fuel supply. At that point, or soon after, the ever-increasing growth necessary to generate economic stability will become impossible, and economic collapse becomes a near certainty.
Some call this phenomenon “peak oil.”
And it may well be the case that our current malaise is tied to it.
What will it look like? I don’t know. There are some historic parallels that are less than encouraging.
Easter Island is one such. Archeologists and paleontologists now agree that the Island was lush forest when the first Polynesian settlers arrived, somewhere around 400 AD. But by the time the first western explorers arrived, the people were gone, and the forest was gone, the island a near wasteland, and most of the island’s original species driven into extinction.
What happened to the Easter Islanders and their tropic paradise is a long story, but the short version is this - Although at their peak they had a complex civilization, they destroyed their habitat through overconsumption, and their once-great society fell to chaos and cannibalism before finally ending in their extinction.
Cro-magnon provides an earlier example. Cro-magnon excelled in crafting spearpoints and in hunting, and eventually rendered Neanderthal man extinct through competition. But the final joke turned out to be on the cro-magnon, who were such skilled hunters that they hunted their preferred prey, the mammoth and the giant sloth, to extinction, and, having eliminated their own food source, became extinct themselves soon thereafter.
Will we follow the cro-magnon and the Easter Islanders into extinction? I don’t think so. We have ruined much of our farmland and forests, and we have developed an extremely complex society which is utterly dependent on a vanishing resource, but our ancestors lived without fossil fuels as little as 200 years ago, and we can do likewise. What we will have to contend with is that as a result of the the fossil fuels bubble, the human population of this planet has ballooned as much as tenfold over its previous, stable levels. Will the deflation of the fossil fuels balloon be accompanied by a substantial human die-off? And if so, how substantial will it be?
We have an active role in determining the answer.
But we need to begin now.
If we begin now to make local food production a priority, and work towards creating human habitat that is intelligently designed for minimal energy usage, we can do a great deal to reduce potential human suffering down the road. If we can begin to envision and implement an economy in which growth is not a prerequisite for prosperity, we will be all the better for it. If we simply deny the problem, we may be in a great deal of trouble.
The thing is, the creation of a new economy, the revision of our infrastructure, and the successful transitioning from the status quo all will require energy and resources. If we begin now, while there are still energy and resources in excess, we can likely accomplish all, or at least most, of what we need to do.
If, on the other hand, we dwell in denial until the hard realities of our situation become inescapable, we will quite possibly at that point be unable to implement the needed changes for the simple reason that we are already far enough down the road of collapse that we lack the resources to do so.
Lee Einer is a certified permaculture designer and the Optic’s features editor. He can be reached at 425-6796 or firstname.lastname@example.org