Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Midas Moment - Summer 2010

I filled up at Costco this weekend and felt a sickening awareness that my petroleum lust was complicit in the BP oil disaster.  Do I need gas so badly that I would turn the Gulf ecosystem into an oil storage facility? The unthinkable happens when our faulty thinking is not focused on the harm we could unintentionally do.  Isn’t the first principle of medicine-First, do no harm?  Is that a naïve thought or a truism our pride entices us to forget? Naturally I wish no harm but with humans, failure is just a constant.  Preventable yes but inexorable given the level of world need and the scope of human action.  Some other disaster, perhaps one attendant to nuclear power, is a given as well.  The fact of long half lives ensures that the accumulation of radioactive crap will spoil some “natural” area.  People can’t go 10,000 years without screwing up.  But it is our blind desire for the baubles of modernity that make oil consumption a moral failure.  Every frivolous wish is granted.  We go to the grocery store for a forgotten gallon of milk on the wings of angels. We have a limitless genie in a bottle at our beck and call.  King Midas THOUGHT he knew what he wanted.  We think similarly.  We assume we will always have the natural world and so pursue the frivolous and trivial to make us happy. 

You know, I like my car and MacBook Pro, my “simple” flip phone but I wonder if the organization of economic production to provide these amazing things is not fundamentally flawed.  The quest for more of the stuff we find beautiful and entertaining  is gradually trashing what we must have to survive as a species.  And even if we really don’t need butterflies and tigers, it’s more than “just a shame” to lose them.  When the whole world looks like an abandoned industrial factory and neighborhoods are deserted and parking lots have only paper scuttling across them, we may miss the limitless forest.  In fact I already have a whimsical regret about the past.

   If your horse lies down in the road and you need to get to town, you may be tempted to beat him until he stands up and takes you there BUT,  you could just be wasting time and causing a lot of unnecessary pain.  You’re probably going to have to get to town a different way.  More stimulus money to a sick economy may be the same.  The dollars “invested” don’t create anything of long term value and are flogging a dying economy.   We can continue to pretend we are a rich country with a thriving middle class but we went from production to pretense years ago and now will have to figure out how to construct a new functioning economy.  The Rumplestiltskin model—straw into gold—is a fairy tale.

What exactly is wrong? The term, structure of the economy, means that we have specialization and interdependence to such an extent that our vulnerability to systemic failure is almost limitless. It is a bargain that has made us “rich”, if we all do our part, but now we don’t know what that is.  Someone wants to do soup kitchens, some one else performance art.  Landscape trailers roam the suburbs.  Not only can’t we grow our own food we don’t even know a farmer. If our electricity goes off, we are like ghosts in our own home.  Drifting like lost souls until it is restored.  Without gasoline at the service station, we have about 1 week of normal life and then we are unlikely to be able to get to work.  Everything we need is just in time delivery.  No truck from Publix, no vegetables, bread, milk, or meat in the fridge. And oil dependence. Oil is the lifeblood of modernity.  If its cost or its availability change, we are massively impacted.  All of the stuff we do becomes unimportant,  taking the kids to piano and football practice, etc.

     What has developed is an organic outgrowth of what came before but limits to inputs are causing fracture lines in communities.  Theoretically we could plan our way around impending disaster but we would need a clear idea of what the problem is or the infighting and cheating would not encourage the necessary change.  A whole structure of society has been built up based on What is valuable and what am I owed.  A sort of “if all do their duty, they will come to no harm” mentality prevails.  Just as trusting God does not mean a problem free existence so doing the right thing is no guarantee of justice.  In our complicated world I have limited capacity, the incentives in the economy determines my effort.  We “fit in” to maximize our own well being.   But what if the artificiality of an economy so distorted the normal incentives over a period of years and years that everybody was dependent on a completely flawed system?  Everybody lived in the wrong place and daily did the wrong things not out of malice but because their reading of the incentives encouraged them to do so.  Kids that can’t read or do math sell drugs because the incentives despite the dangers are better than working at Wendy’s.  I think we have found our way there.

  To help maintain order, government has intervened in countless ways to change the incentives and has created, like the former Soviet Union, a kind of Potemkin village where all go where they have been encouraged and now a NEW REALITY is struggling to appear.  The exoskeleton of the old order is being shed. Why is our leadership so uninterested in addressing this and why are we so uninterested in hearing it?  Warm and snug in dreamland, we do not wish to get up and face Reality.

So if oil suddenly spikes in price.  Let’s say doubles.  Our cost of living will almost double.  Without something changing, our quality of life could be halved.  It’s hard to be half hungry though and it’s hard to drive only half way to work.  The dislocations could be ruinous.  My power bill is doubled, my transportation cost is doubled.  Marginal labor is laid off.  Now the situation is akin to trying to build lifeboats when the Titanic is sinking.  Not enough to go around and hard to redeploy the iron and steel present in the mother ship to a new purpose.  Order, the old order is compromised and all rush for a safe seat.  Then, like a squirrel in the road and a deer in the headlights we are frozen as some monolithic aberration comes barreling out of the night into our world.  What else do millions of refugees worldwide mean?  “Events” displaced them.  I just wanted to fill my tank and now Egyptians are rioting about the price of bread.

Peak oil will necessarily require long term adjustments.  If we are being increasingly efficient—terrific- we may eventually substitute some better power source or find a better way of life.  But the structure we have created, the life as we know it and have now,  will have to change.

No comments:

Post a Comment