Monday, 21 January 2013

The End of the Age of Abundance?

photo of Michel Bauwens
Michel Bauwens
17th June 2010

Within not too many years, it’s safe to predict, only the relatively rich will have the dubious privilege of spending the last months of their lives hooked up to complicated life support equipment. The rest of us will end our lives the way our great-grandparents did: at home, more often than not, with family members or maybe a nurse to provide palliative care while our bodies do what they were born to do and shut down. Within not too many years, more broadly, only a very few people anywhere in the world will have the option of trying to escape the core uncertainties and challenges of human existence by chasing round after round of consumer goodies; the rest of us will count ourselves lucky to have our basic material needs securely provided for, and will have to deal with fundamental questions of meaning and value in some less blatantly meretricious way.
Food for thought by John Michael Greer:
“The price of oil in dollars functions here as a workable proxy measure for the real cost of oil production in energy, resources, and materials. The evidence of the last few years suggests that when the price of oil passes $80 a barrel, that’s a sign that the real costs have reached a level high enough that the rest of the economy begins to crack under the strain. Since astronomical levels of debt have become standard practice all through today’s global economy, the ability of marginal borrowers to service their debt is where the cracks showed up first. In the fall of 2007, many of those marginal borrowers were homeowners in the US and UK; this spring, they include entire nations.
What all this implies, in a single phrase, is that the age of abundance is over. The period from 1945 to 2005 when almost unimaginable amounts of cheap petroleum sloshed through the economies of the world’s industrial nations, and transformed life in those nations almost beyond recognition, still shapes most of our thinking and nearly all of our expectations. Not one significant policy maker or mass media pundit in the industrial world has begun to talk about the impact of the end of the age of abundance; it’s an open question if any of them have grasped how fundamental the changes will be as the new age of post-abundance economics begins to clamp down.
Most ordinary people in the industrial world, for their part, are sleepwalking through one of history’s major transitions. The issues that concern them are still defined entirely by the calculus of abundance. Most Americans these days, for example, worry about managing a comfortable retirement, paying for increasingly expensive medical care, providing their children with a college education and whatever amenities they consider important. It has not yet entered their darkest dreams that they need to worry about access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and shelter, the fate of local economies and communities shredded by decades of malign neglect, and the rise of serious threats to the survival of constitutional government and the rule of law.
Even among those who warn that today’s Great Recession could bottom out at a level equal to that reached in the Great Depression, very few have grappled with the consequences of a near-term future in which millions of Americans are living in shantytowns and struggling to find enough to eat every single day. To paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, that did happen here, and it did so at a time when the United States was a net exporter of everything you can think of, and the world’s largest producer and exporter of petroleum to boot. The same scale of economic collapse in a nation that exports very little besides unpayable IOUs, and is the world’s largest consumer and importer of petroleum, could all too easily have results much closer to those of the early 20th century in Central Europe, for example: that is, near-universal impoverishment, food shortages, epidemics, civil wars, and outbreaks of vicious ethnic cleansing, bracketed by two massive wars that both had body counts in the tens of millions.
Now you’ll notice that this latter does not equate to the total collapse into a Cormac McCarthy future that so many people like to fantasize about these days. I’ve spent years wondering why it is that so many people seem unable to conceive of any future other than business as usual, on the one hand, and extreme doomer porn on the other. Whatever the motives that drive this curious fixation, though, I’ve become convinced that it results in a nearly complete blindness to the very real risks the future is more likely to hold for us. It makes a useful exercise to take current notions about preparing for the future in the survivalist scene, and ask yourself how many of them would have turned out to be useful over the decade or two ahead if someone had pursued exactly those strategies in Poland or Slovakia, let’s say, in the years right before 1914.
Measure the gap between the real and terrible events of that period, on the one hand, and the fantasies of infinite progress or apocalyptic collapse that so often pass for realistic images of our future, on the other, and you have some sense of the gap that has to be crossed in order to make sense of the world after abundance. One way or another, we will cross that gap; the question is whether any significant number of us will do so in advance, and have time to take constructive actions in response, or whether we’ll all do so purely in retrospect, thinking ruefully of the dollars and hours that went into preparing for an imaginary future while the real one was breathing down our necks.”
2. Stoicism and Christian/Buddhist monasticism as previous answers to post-abundance periods:
“It’s worth noting that while there’s been plenty of talk about the monasteries of the Dark Ages among people who are aware of the impending decline and fall of our civilization, next to none of it has discussed, much less dealt with, the secret behind the success of monasticism: the deliberate acceptance of extreme material poverty. Quite the contrary; all the plans for lifeboat ecovillages I’ve encountered so far, at least, aim at preserving some semblance of a middle class lifestyle into the indefinite future. That choice puts these projects in the same category as the lavish villas in which the wealthy inhabitants of Roman Britain hoped to ride out their own trajectory of decline and fall: a category mostly notable for its long history of total failure.
The European Christian monasteries that preserved Roman culture through the Dark Ages did not offer anyone a middle class lifestyle by the standards of their own time, much less those of ours. Neither did the Buddhist monasteries that preserved Heian culture through the Sengoku Jidai, Japan’s bitter age of wars, or the Buddhist and Taoist monasteries that preserved classical Chinese culture through a good half dozen cycles of collapse. Monasteries in all these cases were places people went to be very, very poor. That was the secret of their achievements, because when you reduce your material needs to the absolute minimum, the energy you don’t need to spend maintaining your standard of living can be put to work doing something more useful.
Now it’s probably too much to hope for that some similar movement might spring into being here and now; we’re a couple of centuries too soon for that. The great age of Christian monasticism in the West didn’t begin until the sixth century CE, by which time the Roman economy of abundance had been gone for so long that nobody even pretended that material wealth was an answer to the human condition. Still, the monastic revolution kickstarted by Benedict of Nursia drew on a long history of Christian monastic ventures; those unfolded in turn from the first tentative communal hermitages of early Christian Egypt; and all these projects, though this is not often mentioned, took part of their inspiration and a good deal of their ethos from the Stoics of Pagan Greece and Rome.
Movements of the Stoic type are in fact very common in civilizations that have passed the Hubbert peak of their own core resource base. There’s good reason for that. In a contracting economy, it becomes easier to notice that the less you need, the less vulnerable you are to the ups and downs of fortune, and the more you can get done of whatever it is that you happen to want to do. That’s an uncongenial lesson at the best of times, and during times of material abundance you won’t find many people learning it. Still, in the world after abundance, it’s hard to think of a lesson that deserves more careful attention.”

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