A recent comment here, however ineptly phrased, has started Chaos musing about the direction the Edge has taken since the beginning of its short life. Because Chaos is of a certain, well, age, potential for life changes has inevitably diminished, although there are still opportunities for movement. Younger sentient beings, however, may face a future quite different from the present conditions. How to identify and react to certain forces which may determine the conditions in that future is the subject of this post. To consider the conclusion first, Chaos would offer the following advice to those of fewer years: consider a geographic change; leave the Empire. The reasons for this stark admonition are many and deserve thoughtful exploration. In so doing, Chaos recognizes the fallacy of reaching a conclusion based upon insufficient evidence or tunnel thinking; we therefore look for many indications rather than just a singularity. Chaos also realizes that predictions of the future are invariably wrong in some or many respects; hence, the further desirability of considering multiple factors and being as conservative as possible. At the outset, on the other hand, it is necessary to realize that simply because certain conditions have been present for long periods of time does not mean that they will always continue, e.g., empires eventually collapse, (all of them have to date) and with great suddenness upon occasion. Dmitry Orlov makes for good reading in this regard.
The Peak Oil Thesis: Location Matters
As Orlov notes, the fact of peak oil is not really in dispute anymore. The timing is, for sure, and its effects and potential “solutions” are endlessly argued (Chaos sometimes likens this to mental masturbation…). Ones’ biases and prejudices seem to be reflected in the solutions one advocates or the vision of the future one finds most compelling. To remind readers, then, of Chaos’ somewhat obvious (and hopefully noncontroversial) theses on the subject: first, societies and regions can and do vary with respect to their awareness of and attempts at mitigation of peak oil. For example, Sweden aspires to be oil-free by 2020, while the Empire’s politicians avoid the truth about the causes of recent oil price gyrations, and the Empire’s citizens blame the oil companies. Large portions of African and Asia may not lose much at all, for these regions use very little oil presently (although what little they use is vital to their survival, a grim prognosis). Germany and Japan lead Western nations in alternatives such as solar and conservation. (These examples represent the very ends of the spectrum). Second, the most oil-addicted places which have done the least mitigation will suffer the most, when oil begins its long decline. This does not seem to require an unreasonable leap of logic or predictive ability. To the extent that it proves true, ones’ location will be important. (Chaos’ reference to “awareness” above is a shorthand way of referring to the culture of a location’s inhabitants; one then might rephrase the theses as “a nation’s culture determines its response to peak oil, or other major catastrophe; the US response to Hurricane Katrina is instructive in this regard). It is also beyond debate that the Empire uses by far the most energy per capita on the planet. In response, optimists would say there is quite a bit of room for conservation (undeniably true), to which the pessimistic (Kunstler, et al) would point out that the way the Empire is structured is entirely based upon cheap energy, i.e., beyond a certain point, there is a limit to demand destruction, after which will come a hard and long visit to the House of Pain. A look at any sprawling suburban development in the US through the prism of limited energy is an eye opening experience (for more, see Kunstler’s opus, The Long Emergency). At any rate, it is clear that if one uses the above as a guide, one is compelled to look beyond the borders of the Empire. Not enough? Let’s now explore other reasons for emigration, beginning with
The Decline of the Empire
Not for nothing does Chaos refer to the mighty USA as an empire. From the 750+ military bases worldwide to the heavy-handed way it throws its weight around, the nation still dominates and influences the rest of the planet. (For excellent reading on the subject, check out the month of January, 2007 at TomDispatch and any book by Chalmers Johnson). It is apparent, however, that the chinks in the armor have become ever larger cracks as the country flails impotently at foreign adventures designed in part to “project” American strength and intimidate those who might oppose its thirst for cheap energy. Alas, all the recent “war” has done is to expose the weaknesses and limitations of American power, while painting a target on the backs of its citizens. It should go without saying that the costs of these forays are borne directly by the taxpayer, and they are disastrously high now and likely to rise higher (see Economics, below). Far from securing the country, America’s imperial adventures have made it much more likely to attract the attentions of terrorists, although Chaos would be the first to say that the odds of such are currently still exceedingly low for any one individual living here (and certainly do not justify the ridiculous rationales and justifications given for the loss of civil rights, see below). However, “low” does not equate to zero, and it is reasonable to assume that a smaller, more peaceable nation may have much less chance of being victimized by destruction and chaos (sorry). In some ways, all this and that which follows are inevitable, and the US started down this road a long time ago, with the more obvious signs only visible recently, not that anyone should succumb to it any more readily. The care and feeding of the most expensive military machine on the planet may contribute to the eventual collapse of the Empire, caused by
Again to quote Orlov, the United States at this moment is essentially bankrupt, having engaged in ruinously expensive military adventures, refused to live within its means and continued to run record-setting trade deficits with the rest of the world. The price of oil has a good deal to do with the latter, which is to say that the higher oil goes, the larger the trade deficit. The country has also become the chief and unwitting victim of globalization, trading its former world-leading industrial capacity for service jobs and importing large quantities of cheap goods made in third world nations. Some of this is inevitable, and is perhaps a further signature of a declining empire, but the vulnerability it poses is quite real. Some recent signs of a potential global “rebalancing” of the scales include the tendency of some trading partners (China) or energy exporters (Russia) and others to diversify away from the dollar, which has historically been the “currency of record” worldwide. Income and wealth disparities between the very rich and most other citizens are becoming more pronounced, to the detriment of the nation’s economic health (and social stability). Chaos notes that the phrase “shrinking middle class” has become quite prevalent of late, and indeed, average real wages have remained stagnant for perhaps 20 years or so. The savings rate among citizens has declined to zero in the last few years, reflecting both cheap and easy credit and a “something for nothing” mentality. Trade and budget deficits, income stagnation, inequality and lack of savings, while alarming, pale in comparison to the looming Medicare/Social Security crisis, which features a projected shortfall of 74 trillion dollars. There are only two solutions to this particular problem: 1. (much) higher taxes on working (younger) people, and 2. fewer benefits for the recipients (older folks). The first is more likely, considering the voting demographics in the Empire, but there may be a combination of these two imposed, and at any rate, a younger citizen of the Empire might prudently consider there to be no pension protection waiting upon retirement. In this instance, many other Western nations (and other pension systems within the Empire) are subject to similar mechanisms, due to similar demographics of the retiring Baby Boom Generation, but the version in the United States will be particularly severe, due in part to the
Health Care Crisis
Kindly recall that Chaos has had personal experience (recently repeated) with the hugely wasteful and dysfunctional US healthcare system. It is also worth noting that the costs of this leviathan have outpaced inflation as a whole for quite some time, and there is no realistic prospect for much slowing. The Medicare/Social Security crisis referred to above is in fact primarily caused by Medicare expenses. In fact, it is becoming clear that the costs of the healthcare system are mutating into distortions (or disincentives if you like) of economic behavior (e.g., CEO of Starbucks indicates that the price of healthcare for employees surpasses the cost of the coffee beans the chain sells, employees taking or remaining at jobs solely for the health insurance, the rise of “medical tourism”). These are classic indicators of diminishing marginal returns, a la Tainter (in other words, spending more resources to get less return, and participants beginning to opt out of the system). The results of the US system are equally eye-opening: the nation spends more money on healthcare than any Western nation, and US residents have higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancies than most Western countries and some third world ones, including Costa Rica and Cuba. The medical profession (hospital infections, doctor errors) is the cause of more deaths than any other. Once again, it is not a leap of intuitive logic, predictive ability or rank speculation to project that things will continue to get worse, and an imagining of the system in 20 years or so is simply to say that there may only be a working apparatus for the wealthy. As with income and wealth, there exists now a vast gulf between the haves and have nots in the US regarding healthcare, and this will most probably continue to widen. It may surprise residents of the US to know that some countries consider health care to be an actual right, rather than something whose availablility depends on one’s financial and employment status. In other places, health care, while not a formal right, is simply more reasonably priced and affordable for most people.
As has been noted, the US has one of the worst population problems on the planet, because its energy use per capita far surpasses any other nations. The country is anomalous vis a vis other Western nations in that its population rate is projected to increase by another 100 million or so by 2050. Whatever the problems that now exist due to numerous people (and there are many), another 100 million will make the country a vastly more uncomfortable place in which to reside. Overcrowding, overuse of resources, loss of civility, pollution, crime, and various other negatives are all associated with overpopulation. (For an interesting exercise, consider the issues discussed in the local or national news and realize how many are caused by simply too many people). On a basic level, a large country teeming with people, most of whom live from one paycheck to another and possess little survival skills (and a notable lack of affinity for reality, see discussion of a nation’s culture, above), is not the place one would want to be when one or more crises erupt. Perhaps Dr. Bartlett’s most startling insight relating to population is that more population is correlated with less freedom; the usefulness of this concept as an organizing principle is without peer. As we can deduce, the country is already on a path towards
Less Civil Rights, More Military Might
From the events of the last five years, it has become depressingly clear that the American public will gladly trade its civil rights away (or, more correctly, not protest when these are stolen by power-hungry officials) for the illusion of “security.” One has only to imagine what draconian restrictions might be imposed the next time a terrorist attack occurs within the country’s boundaries to see where it might end. As it stands now, the Emperor and his minions have willingly engaged in flagrant violations of the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and the like, to the point where the US has now become known around the world as an advocate of kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment without charges, rights or trial. The increasing militarization of the country is positively associated with this trend. For example, the Bush administration used its astounding failure in New Orleans as an excuse to authorize the military to respond to the next domestic catastrophe, a historic and profound change (until now, the military never operated domestically). Halliburton has been engaged to construct “enclosures” for unnamed populations of undocumented persons or refugees (or perhaps your friends and neighbors) under vaguely underdescribed scenarios. The NSA and other agencies are right now engaged in spying on American citizens at home, on the telephone, emails, and snail mail, apparently simply because they can. A national identification card (in fact, if not in name) may be instituted soon. The use of video cameras are on the rise. In fact, examples are endless, and the direction of the trend can be easily discerned: less freedom, not more. Here, we again adopt the principle that past conditions (America as the beacon of freedom for the world) are simply no longer true.
Chaos suggested at the beginning of this screed that a nation’s culture determines its destiny. To that end, study closely the cultural values of the United States of America at this particular moment in time. Chaos would suggest that some of these are the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing, that trivia and celebrity trump issues of substance, that magical beliefs in supernatural beings are more valid than science, bigger is better, that the nation somehow has the right to more than its share of the world’s resources for its own benefit, that savings are passé and all these things will continue. It is also important to note that the timing of all the events discussed here is quite unpredictable, but it would be reasonable to assume that once certain events begin, the time for considering relocation will be short or nonexistent. Chaos, then, is advocating advance planning for an uncertain future. The decision to relocate not a trivial one, and should not be undertaken without a thorough understanding of the consequences, not the least of which might be the disapproval or bewilderment of family and friends. One is, in effect, voting with one’s feet and rejecting the country of one’s birth, which requires a certain intellectual flexibility to even consider, which most beings are simply unable to contemplate. One should also analyze in detail the potential cultural differences and other factors between the US and other locations before taking a hasty plunge. On the other hand, close attention should always be paid to the surroundings (or the landscape, if you will), and such scrutiny compels a sober hint that the future of and in the United States may be quite different, in some or many negative respects, than today. Some or all of the issues discussed here may not play out in the future in a linear fashion, making predictions difficult or simply wrong. Nonetheless, a flawed or incomplete analysis of the future is still better than nothing, and Chaos believes the value in attempting to synthesize many trends at once may partially mitigate the hazards of prognosticating. In Part II of this series, Chaos will outline some criteria for locations and offer some suggestions for consideration of individual countries.