Bring It On!

A Fiddle For Everyone

July 8th, 2008 | by Ken Grandlund |

It is a well known myth that while fires destroyed the great city of Rome, the emporer Nero sat on his rooftop playing his lyre and watching the flames engulf the heart of his empire. Whether true or not, the image persists and the popular saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is readily applied to any governmental figure who does little in the face of disaster or looming disaster. Our most recent example of such governmental inadequacy was painted bright by the photo of President George W. Bush peeking down upon a hurricane ravaged New Orleans from the safety of his jumbo jet, thousands of feet overhead. That Bush acted so aloof in the face of monumental disaster should have been an eye-opener to everyone, and for a great many it was. However, despite being in a position of power to effect change, Bush is not alone in his ability to ignore oncoming strife and potential disaster. Quite frankly, most of the American public (and the western world at large) goes about their daily lives with blinders firmly in place and with a fiddle in every hand. It takes no great talent to view our world today and conclude that big changes are just ahead of us, and that the near future is bleaker than it has been for a thousand years or more.

If a perfect storm refers to the simultaneous occurrence of weather events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting of their chance combination. Such occurrences are rare by their very nature, so that even a slight change in any one event contributing to the perfect storm would lessen its overall impact. Taken out of a weather context, our modern world is as close as ever to seeing a perfect storm of social, political, and economic upheaval that all but guarantees that life as we know it will be no more. The combination of resource scarcity, over-population, climate change, and globalized economics has put our modern world in a precarious position.

The rise in standards of living, scientific advancement, and population explosion can almost all be attributed to one primary resource-oil. Since its discovery as a source of fuel, the world has enjoyed an unprecedented era of cheap global travel and exchange of goods, an increase in agricultural productivity and economic growth, and a formidable advance in scientific knowledge and application. Cheap and plentiful oil made crops grow faster and more bountiful, allowing for the ability to increase populations around the world. Cheap and plentiful oil created and sustained global tourism, increasing our interdependence on each other as whole economies became based on catering to visitors from abroad. Oil drove manufacturing capabilities to previously unknown levels, creating entire industries devoted to creating modern amenities to make our lives easier and more entertaining. Very nearly everything we have or relate to modern society is derived upon the notion of cheap and plentiful oil.

Yet our dependence on and enslavement to cheap and plentiful oil has also helped to create a natural world on the brink of radical change. Pollution, whether directly from oil-related emissions or as a by-product of oil created consumer goods has spoiled our air and soils and water around the world. Changes to our atmosphere caused by unremitting releases of carbon based emissions are combining with naturally occuring forces to dramatically shift our weather patterns and yearly climate conditions. Cheap oil has led governments to expand their societies and strive for continual economic growth, which in turn has led to mass deforestation and land degradation as we search for precious metals and raw materials to sustain the unsustainable growth explosion. And as we continue to encroach upon the natural world to sustain our own, whole species have become extinct, thus changing the local ecologies of entire regions, which in turn create more changes to the environment at large.

And our love affair with oil has blinded or eyes (as love affairs so often do) to the reality of a globalized economy that is suited not to make the lives of everyone more equal and fulfilling, but rather to help enrich more modern societies at the expense of less modernized ones. But by obscuring this reality, most all societies have taken steps to become as modernized as the next, and whole populations have increased with the expectation that our modern world will find a way to not only sustain an ever growing influx of new people, but will indeed lift them up from poverty and create a level playing field the world over.

And despite occasional warnings from forward thinking people throughout the decades, by and large, we’ve been witnessing this great expansion of human prosperity with the impression that the end would never come, that human ingenuity would supplant the more rational notion that says a finite source will eventually run out. We’ve been playing Nero’s fiddle en masse.

I try to be optimistic about things when I can, but I’m primarily a realist. For many though, realism is synonymous to pessimism, meaning that to point out the obvious, especially when the obvious predicts bad times ahead, makes one a doomsayer at best. Yet at the risk of being labeled such, I’m putting my own fiddle down. Because regardless of the ultimate level of devolution modern society is facing, the facts remain clear- the way we are living now can not be sustained indefinitely, and in fact is on the brink of radical change.

The end of cheap and plentiful oil is upon us. Whether or not we have reached the point of peak oil production is still being debated by a few, but most oil industry experts agree that if we have not already reached this point, it will be upon us in mere years. We are seeing and feeling the effects now. As oil and oil derivatives become even more expensive, economies may well stop growing altogether and begin to seriously contract if not collapse. Governments will have to decide what is the more valuable use of oil-transportation or the chemical derivatives from oil that supply things like plastics and petrochemicals and petroleum based fertilizers. If transportation gets the nod, say goodbye to whole industries that depend on oil byproducts for their livelihood. Say goodbye to medical advances and higher yield crops. Say goodbye to ubiquitous electricity too.

Even as we make small strides to shift off of an oil-dependent economy (a near impossibility now, but let’s pretend for a moment), the state of our natural world is becoming overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of humans living on the planet. Potable water resources are not infinite either. Nor is the ability to produce enough food to feed each person. And without oil for transportation or electric generation, large scale water purification and food sharing become near impossibilities. Coupled with our overpopulation problem is the real fact of global climate shifts that are changing local weather patterns and decreasing the likelihood of future increases in food production. Starvation that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from afar may soon be at a city near you.

I’ve never put much stock in “end times” philosophies, largely because they are predominantly based on religious mythology and doctrine. To assume that an omnipotent being has preordained the time and path of humanity seems more than a little absurd to me. But “end times” are a human reality and have been over and over throughout the eras of human history. Yet where religious “end times” focus on a final battle between good and evil for the souls of mankind, in reality most “end times” come to societies because of the faults of human beings themselves, and are usually fomented by over-population of a particular region, over-extension of governmental dictates, or a lack of natural resources to sustain a society. Large nations become over-reaching in their desires and expectations and collapse under the weight of their inefficient bureaucracies. Societies degrade and lose cohesion. Unlike religious based “end times” where all mankind ultimately perishes to the lakes of hell or the promises of heaven, most real-life “end times” represent little more than drastic change from what came before them. “End times” signify a passing of the guard, as it were, from one type of human condition to another.

And so as we approach another potential ”end time” in human history, I can’t help but wonder how people will react when it becomes only too obvious to the majority that their fiddles can’t play fast enough or loud enough to drown out the reality of the situation.

As our perfect storm of resource scarcity, continued population growth, and interdependent economies based on cheap and plentiful oil converge, how will humanity fare? Will those who remain rise from the ashes of our near past to replicate the errors, taking advantage of a smaller population to extend the fragile resources left today? Will we devolve into another Dark Age period, ruled by superstitious and supercilious religious leaders?

In the possible (and perhaps even probable) face of such looming societal breakdown, it sometimes becomes hard to focus on the minutiae of current political desires or societal problems. In the face of potential societal collapse, how important really are the political problems of the day? Yet we can’t completely give up either, because we are human. And the human condition is one of hopefulness, creativity, and reactionism. Even when we can see intellectually that things are going sideways fast, we resist the temptation to throw in the towel and hide our heads in the sand. We infuse ourselves with the notion that our ingenuity will save us, despite some evidence to the contrary. And even with such troubling times ahead, even with great changes in lifestyle all but guaranteed, we continue to collectively play our fiddles. But not because we don’t actually care about what is happening. Rather, we play in the face of what is happening, because we see no ready solution to the end of cheap and plentiful oil and no interconnection between how we drive and what we eat. As a whole, we not only don’t believe the end is near, we deny that it can ever come. And so we continue to live as if things will all work out fine. Because if we let ourselves believe otherwise, we’d have a lot of scared, crazy people to deal with on top of the rest. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.

To the absolute deniers, I may be just another crock in the crazy world of internet doomsayers. But in all truth, I continue to play my fiddle too, albeit with less vigor than before and with only one eye on the sheet music. You see, I want society to figure things out. I want humanity to continue to exist, to improve, and to realize that as a species, we are not only intimately connected to each other, but to our planet as well. But I’m also taking small steps to prepare for economic collapse, making contingency plans, and looking at the evidence with eyes wide open. If really bad times do come to pass I don’t want to be caught completely uneprepared. And I don’t want you to be either.

I’m not trying to drive unsubstiantiated fear into your heart , dear reader. I’m not a Republican. I’m just calling it like it looks. And I’ve honestly never wanted to be more wrong about anything like I want to be wrong about this. So I continue to live from day to day, acting in one sense as if not much will really change. But I also am trying to make a plan because I just don’t see a way around it. And I don’t want the blinders on any more.

So go ahead and tell me I’m crazy-just give me the evidence to back it up. Like I said, I’d really like to be wrong.

(cross posted at Common Sense)

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  1. 2 Responses to “A Fiddle For Everyone”

  2. By Paul Merda on Jul 9, 2008 | Reply

    Ken,

    While I share your beliefs that humanity is facing a challenge not seen in thousands of years, I feel that you may be more pessimistic than need be. Thomas Malthus in his essay on population said that humans never would have reached the population we have since food sources would be scarce and so far he has been wrong. I do beleive one thing we tend to overlook is that humanity has made it through much adversity and primarily because of our intellect. I think that the problem of increasing oil prices will spawn a new age of innovation and development of alternate fuels sources that will allow us to move ahead.

    Though I do agree that the lifestyle we have enjoyed these past couple of hundred years since Industrialization took place won’t be capable of being sustained indefinitely. The hardest adjustment will be on us Americans since very few of us alive have lived through anything but prosperity. But I do not buy into the entire Peak Oil Theory because it does not take human ingenuity into account.

    Our species has survived ice-ages, and has covered the globe from the coldest tundra to the driest desert and everything in between unlike any other species besides bacteria. We are well adapted to deal with adversity and I do believe we will conquer our oil problem at some juncture in the fairly near future. Necessity is the mother of invention…and we need energy.

  3. By Ken Grandlund on Jul 9, 2008 | Reply

    Paul-

    Point by point-

    We don’t now have enough food production to feed all of humanity, even discounting the fraud and outright theft of charitable donations around the world. Over-population has outstripped the ability to adequately feed all humans. Water scarcity is well on the heels of food scarcity too.

    Yes, our intellect will eventually work towards solutions to our energy problems, but if peaek oil predictions are correct, or even close, I don’t anticipate a solution soon enough to push serious economic disruption and all that follows off the table. We have some seriously hard times ahead…

    Yes, America and other first world countries will feel the pain greatest simply because we haven’t seen real economic hardship on a large scale since the 1930’s. But all will feel the pain if wide-spread economic turmoil created by energy costs occurs.

    Peak oil isn’t just a guess either- it is a reality. At some point (if not already) all the “easy” oil will have been extracted and the ROI for future pumping (et.al.) will continue to raise energy costs. Human ingenuity could easily have abated this problem had we earnestly begun decades ago. Now we play catch-up and the task is ever more daunting.

    Finally, I have no doubt that humanity will prevail in some aspect, but not at our current population levels or current standards of living. Maybe down the road we’ll get back to where we are, albeit with more rational policies and practices.

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