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2009-07-27 5:52 p.m.

a vial of hope and a vial of pain

I've been thinking about the future.

There are signs that American prosperity is coming to a close. As you may know, our financial system is in ruins, our health care system is falling apart, and our infrastructure is crumbling. All this will require a lot of money to fix- money that doesn't actually exist, meaning the government seemingly has no choice but to create it out of thin air. As mentioned last time, the national debt is expected to hit 12 trillion dollars this year, which is an unimaginably large number. Our currency is losing its value (93 yen to the dollar as of this writing, which borders on astounding), and devaluation can only continue due to this spending. And given that so many other countries hold so much US currency and treasury securities, we're set to drag the rest of the world down with us.

And that's without even mentioning the serious problems. A new study apparently supported by UNESCO, the World Bank, and the US Army, among others, predicts that climate change will cause "cause civilization to collapse."

And let's not forget about energy (a good summary of the issue from a mainstream source is here). You will note that world oil production has been flat since about 2005, and seems to be actually slipping this year. (If the Oil Drum is too biased a source for you, you can get the raw data straight from the US Department of Energy (the 1.1d spreadsheet has world production data) , which matches the data in the linked chart.) Suffice it to say, flatlining and dropping off is not the traditional pattern of oil production, and it is possible that we have now entered the post-peak oil era.

Is it just the recession reducing demand? That would be nice. But the plateau started way before the recession did. And when prices suddenly skyrocketed last year, you would normally expect supply to increase according to the increase in demand, but strangely, that did not happen. Is it mere coincidence that the price spike directly preceded the recession? That all the suburb-dwelling commuters who were barely scraping by with their usurious mortgages suddenly had to pay double to get to work, reducing their ability to pay those mortgages? Maybe. I will be very interested to see what oil prices do as the world economy "recovers".

Though I like Obama, I worry about the repercussions of what his administration is doing. But what else can he really do? It seems that what we need to do is to move to a system that is not dependent on exponential growth forever. But American people are not willing to support such a change. If Obama was to really try to move us in that direction right now, Congress wouldn't let any of it happen, and his approval ratings would drop through the floor. It's not going to happen.

I've read some things talking about how totalitarian governments are often better at dealing with these situations than democracies. It's much easier for those governments to make and implement decisions, especially unpopular ones. China's population control measures could never be implemented here, for example. But ultimately I just don't see how such approaches can lead to happiness and prosperity for the citizenry. The question of how it is decided who gets to call the shots and the way in which they are held accountable for their calls is an important one. And all too often the shot-caller in non-democratic systems is merely the most ruthless/lucky of the bunch, and has very little accountability for his actions. And that usually doesn't work out very well.

Alternative energy is not going to be a replacement anytime soon. The scalability and economy of biofuels is iffy. It's not very efficient and would require vast amounts of land, water, and fertilizer, beyond what we are currently employing to feed ourselves (and you'll recall there was also a major spike in food prices along with oil before the recession hit). Supply of all of these things is currently tightening. Fertilizer in particular is likely to become a problem, since much of it is made from petrochemicals. There's talk of switching over to electric cars, but our electrical grid is strained to capacity as it is. We're in no position to add the weight of the transportation industry onto it. And the power density of electric batteries isn't enough to drive a semi truck or an airplane, anyway. Solar and wind are nice but are a miniscule part of our current power output, and making them a major part doesn't look feasible in the near future. This whole changeover will require huge amounts of energy. It's possible natural gas could be a temporary stop gap, I suppose.

For all my constant cassandracizing, I don't know that I am prepared if the worst should happen. I've made some major changes to my lifestyle to reduce energy consumption- vegetarianism, not owning a car, generally reduced consumption- but I still fly on airplanes a lot. In fact, there's a part of me that thinks I should enjoy the ability to be anywhere on the planet in a matter of hours while I still can.

(Though this article makes the case that the contribution of private citizens to these problems is so minimal compared to that of industry and government that it doesn't make any difference whether we cut back or not, and it is pointless to feel guilty about it. That kind of overlooks the fact that industry and government provide services to us, and thus their waste really is our waste. And it's also interesting that the article seems to be suggesting (A) don't bother conserving, but (B) foment a revolution to destroy industrial civilization, instead. All the while ignoring the fact that many if not most of the humans on the planet are dependent on this industrial civilization for their survival, and if you were to be successful in destroying it you would be responsible for more human deaths than anyone in history except God Himself. Sounds like a supervillain plot, doesn't it?)

I've got a more or less guaranteed flow of income from the federal government for the next three years. I'm in the process of buying a condo. I'm making a big down payment, and my goal is to have enough money saved up three years from now that I could, if necessary, pay off the rest of it. In that case, were I to take on a roommate, I could probably cover my costs of living just on the rent collected. So I feel reasonably assured of my near-term future assuming some semblance of normalcy in the meantime.

Without that assurance, though, I don't know. For instance, I don't think I really have the skills to grow and preserve my own food, if it were suddenly necessary. It's hard to imagine things getting that bad, but history tells us that societal collapse often happens astoundingly rapidly after a society reaches its zenith. So, I'm a little bit nervous. The geographical location I live at now would not be the worst place to be if something like that went down, but it wouldn't be my first pick, either. The city is great, and the state could probably take care of itself, but I worry about what kind of government this state would come up with for itself in that case.

But maybe there's nothing to worry about. The late Julian Simon is an example of the opposing view. His camp seems to think that human ingenuity will always triumph over such paltry concerns as resource depletion, and therefore exponential growth can indeed continue forever. It seems like an oddly faith-based approach to economics and is an example of what tends to annoy me about libertarians.

Though looking a bit more closely at what the guy actually has to say… It is interesting that the historical trend has been that greater population growth has actually led to greater individual prosperity and lower commodity prices. This is not what you would expect, but it has happened. And Malthusian doomsayers do have a pretty poor track record the last few hundred years.

Interestingly, the guy who wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist started with the goal of proving Simon wrong, but he ultimately decided he was more or less correct about the fact that things have actually been getting better. I haven't read the book, but that and reviews like this one make me think I should. (On the other hand it seems there a lot of people who have written very detailed criticisms of the book, in response to a number of which the guy wrote detailed rebuttals. Yet another reminder that the truth is hard to pin down and only seems to become more so the more serious you are about actually pursuing it. You would think I wouldn't need to keep reminding myself of this after all this time, but it can be so hard to differentiate between reality and propaganda. Anyone who thinks otherwise has probably imbibed quite a bit of the latter.)

Anyway, the peak oilist in me would argue that the reason for these positive trends is that, thus far, humans have always managed to find a new and better source of energy to support their increased demands. I think the peaking of oil may be the first big test of this winning streak. Oil prices the last few years, even the last few decades, have pretty decisively gone against Simon's rule that commodity prices always trend downward.

Actually, there is currently a public bet between a Simon acolyte and one of the main peak oil dudes as to what the price of oil will be in 2010. The monthly average has to be above $200 a barrel for the peak oil dude to win. I don't anticipate that happening. But what do I know? (Tangent- Interesting article on recycling by the Simon acolyte in question.)

Actually, reading about these guys' work does make me feel a bit better about things. It gives me a bit more trust in human ingenuity and resilience on a societal level. I'm not about to convert to the Faith that this party can go on forever just because it's lasted this long, but it encourages me about our chances of making it through this without having to go Beyond Thunderdome.

Here's how I envision things could possibly work out relatively well. As oil dwindles, natural gas takes up the slack (the amount of known natural gas reserves has been increasing rapidly lately, and there actually seems to be a fair amount of it). Using this as a reprieve, we overhaul our electricity grid to be more efficient and higher capacity, and we ramp up solar and wind electricity production, as well as algal biofuels (plant-based biofuels are horribly inefficient and compete more directly with food crops- a non-starter in most cases). Personal vehicles become electric; big trucks and airplanes are fueled by algae. Eventually we move our solar arrays from the surface of the earth to space and beam the energy back. (And while we're at it, we might as well start mining asteroids. Developing these kinds of technologies is what NASA needs to be focusing on, not manned missions to Mars.) Maybe hydrogen-powered vehicles will one day become the norm if electricity is abundant enough to justify the waste in producing it. Then the Singularity, etc.

I would love for it to work out that way. I am optimistic that we will avoid the complete collapse of civilization, but from my current vantage point I find it hard to believe that we will wean ourselves off fossil fuels without going through a global depression first. Maybe if (1) we really do have enough oil left to support a couple more decades at current growth rates, AND (2) concern about global warming is enough to get us to switch sooner rather than later. Actually, a number of people have suggested that investing in green tech will be the best way for the American economy to recover. This article, which, incidentally, is a pretty good primer of what went wrong with the economy and seems like it could have been written a year after it was actually published, suggests that the next "bubble" is likely to be green tech. Actually, now would be a really good time for this country to give that sector significant financial attention.

Anyway, my plan is to try and live in such a way that I am not caught flat-footed if it all comes crumbling down, but have no regrets about my choices if it doesn't. Fortunately, I enjoy living simply. And as long as I have the internet, I'm happy to live a much less luxurious lifestyle than is standard in America.

(Incidentally, in addition to my recent purchase of an IPod, I'm planning to get an IPhone. I've decided it's just too useful and too cool for me to continue to ignore it. I also want to get an e-book reader at some point, though I've decided to wait until there is one that does color. The internet is currently awash with rumors that Apple will soon have me covered, there, too. I see promise in these devices to, in the not-so-distant future, allow me to live free of material possessions other than a computer (that will double as a television), a phone (that will double as an mp3 player), and an E-book reader (that will double as a laptop computer). (And perhaps a few musical instruments and other little luxuries.) That would be lovely.)

I'm hoping to be finishing up my PhD three years from now. I'm hoping it will be a little clearer where the world is heading by that time. It will be a good time to take stock of things. Especially since it's the start of a new b'ak'tun in the Mayan calendar. And the end of the world, according to some. We'll see if they're right.

in the light they both look the same,