Thursday, July 15, 2010

The next twenty years

The next twenty years are very unlikely to be like the last twenty years. Most of the time, it is reasonable to expect and plan for the future on the basis of the recent past. This is how we are wired and the force of habits and the power of cultural inertia make this kind of thinking natural.

However, for all the reasons I have listed here (and quite a few more, which include consideration of the present economic situation and a debt-based economy that requires continued growth (or at least the perception of the likelihood of continued growth over the long term) to prevent meltdown), I am fairly pessimistic about the likely economic, social and/or political stability of the coming decades.

I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son and I make no claims to predicting what is likely in a massively complex and historically novel globalised system with all kinds of unexpected feedbacks. It is also very hard to be precise about the level of severity we're talking about it. I expect that we will face more than a recession, and something larger than the credit crunch of 2008.

However, I don't think we're talking Mad Max or The Road anytime soon (unless global tensions reach a point where someone reaches for the nuclear option, in which case all bets are off). But we're also not talking Star Trek or even . I think the possibility of political and/or technological silver bullets to avoid the raft of approaching crises is low enough to make it reasonable to hold a fairly bleak outlook.

There are three interconnected systems that are currently under grave threat, and the failure or further deterioration of any one of them will have significant knock-on effects on the others. These are economy, energy and ecology, or finances, fuel and flora & fauna (and fresh water and flooding and fires). I've written primarily about the third category, with occasional references to the second (especially regarding peak oil). In more recent weeks I've been learning quite a lot more about the first, and the ways in which the failures of the other two can be magnified and brought home by the financial system.

Two presentations
I plan to say more on this in due time, but I thought I'd flag the development of my thinking and suggest two presentations that might give you a taste of the kinds of things I've been pondering recently. Both are far from perfect and contain material or emphases which I think are wide of the mark, but at a broad level, I suspect they are identifying some of the most pressing issues of our day.

The first is this talk recorded at the Transition movement conference earlier this year by Stoneleigh, one of the authors of The Automatic Earth blog (H/T Sam and more thoughts here).

The second is called the Crash Course by Chris Martenson. This one is quite a bit longer, but most of the meat is in the second half so feel free to skip the explanations of what money is and how credit works if you like.

Both these presentations major on the first of the three crises (i.e economic), not because it is necessarily the most dangerous, but because it is most likely to make itself felt first and most directly. I suspect that the ecological crises which are largely in the background of these presentations will ultimately prove to be larger and more significant in the long term.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Hi Byron - your readers might also be interested in the talk I gave to the CEL conference this year, which sketches a theological response:

I wanted to come back to you on a comment you left on one of my posts about this. The way I see the three problems interacting is that each diminishes the impact of the other (that is, one on its own is more apocalyptic than all taken together).

What I mean by this is that the financial crisis will give severe but comparatively short-term pain. The resource crisis will give difficult, slightly longer term pain. Global warming etc will give awkward, long term pain.

But... the financial crisis will mean that the plateau for oil is at a lower level, and more stable for a little longer, before a more gentle decline.
Peak Oil (and coal etc) will mean that less CO2 is generated and we peak at a lower level of ppm.
Which means that the problem of global warming won't be as apocalyptic as (sometimes) predicted.

That's my two pennies anyway.

byron smith said...

Yes, I was going to link to more resources, including for instance this one I just came across and I also think that some theological reflection is crucial. I just ran out of time and decided to post a shorter piece. It's not like we're not discussing the theology of the situation much of the time anyway.

You're right that the interactions between the three crises will include some mutual mitigation. But the overall effect of interactions will be complex and difficult to predict. For even though in the senses you have mentioned, the crises dilute one another, in other (and possibly more important) senses, they multiply one another. And this is because responding to each crisis at a societal level will require large amounts of resources and focussed attention. But multiple concurrent crises compete with one another for such attention and resources. For instance, a financial crash and global depression will make it far more difficult to afford the enormous energy transition required by both peak oil and climate change. Declining oil will make unconventional fossil fuels (and the combustion of more of the remaining lignite coal) more attractive, exacerbating the carbon issue. And so on.

So I don't think there is a single, simple story to be told about converging crises, which is why any attempt to articulate a likely path for the next twenty years beyond "very bumpy" is fraught with difficulty.

I think we both agree that a further financial crisis is not going to "save" us from peak oil, and perhaps we agree to disagree on whether peak oil will avoid dangerous climate change (though in both cases, it may rule out some of the more extreme scenarios, though once you realise just how extreme these are, and how nasty other scenarios that remain plausible still are, this may or may not be much of a comfort!).

byron smith said...

PS I think your theological reflections on our current situation over here are very important and a great resource. Thanks! I'm not sure that came through clearly enough in that previous comment.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Byron - there is a fourth element to consider, which I originally talked about here, and I'm going to say something else about (briefly) in a new post.

byron smith said...

Sam, you may be right, but militant Islamism is not something that I've done much reading or thinking about. It is yet another area that is very difficult to get a sane handle on.

Any recommendations in addition to your latest post?

Sam Charles Norton said...

Not sure Robert Spencer would qualify as sane, although he is very interesting! Probably start with Michael Gove's Celsius 7/7 for a British point of view. I'm currently reading Mary Habeck's 'Knowing the Enemy' which is the best thing I've yet read (and I've read quite a bit). I'll probably do a further post on my blog on this topic in the near future.

byron smith said...

Understanding deflation.

byron smith said...

A good interview with Steve Keen, an economist who predicted the GFC in the mid-naughties, but who thinks that peak oil and climate change are far larger than even "peak debt".

byron smith said...

Steve Keen is also an Australian and addresses the issue of why Australia largely avoided the GFC (so far...).