I hear from various sources that retail companies are toppling like dominoes back in the US. The kinds of companies that you thought were solid: Mervyn’s, Linens ‘n’ Things, KayBee Toys. Macy’s had to close 11 stores after Christmas. These others are wannabes and parvenus compared to the institution that is Macy’s…
Does this mean that grotesque American consumption has slowed? Maybe a little. Does it mean Americans are changing their evil ways? Nope.
I get momentarily encouraged when I hear about SUV sales going down in the US when the gas prices go up. For a moment, I almost believe that Americans might finally be getting a clue. But then the SUV sales go right back up as soon as the gas prices go down again.
The truth is that only a Greater Depression or a Dustier Bowl, an Icier Age or a Blacker Plague will curb the gobbling behemoth’s gluttony.
But it shouldn’t be long now.
I occasionally read Question Everything, the blog of George Mobus, a polymath professor I discovered through my friend David Horton, also a polymath, and author of The Watermelon Blog. (Reading these brainy guys’ blogs makes me feel good about myself because it’s time well spent. They make me think. They sometimes make me feel smart, and sometimes stupid. I highly recommend them both.)
In The biophysical economy – the only model of reality, which I read today, George draws parallels between the systems of the economy and the human body, and argues that if we stay on our current course (trying to restore the status quo rather than changing the paradigm), the economy is headed for certain, literal starvation. The systems will crash, the organs will fail.
Of course, the food that nourishes the economy is fossil fuels (which you may have heard we’re running out of). And George says we’re all on drugs if we think that investing in green technology is going to be some kind of panacea for the ills of the economy and planet (only he says it fancier and with a lot more words). His arguments are compelling and downright terrifying:
Now lest you maintain that hope for technology to come to the rescue, bear a couple of things in mind. First, the amount of energy coming from renewable sources today is exactly zero. That’s right, zero. Secondly, alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, account for little more than 1% of the total energy consumed by American society. That means a massive build up of these sources would have to happen almost over night. And the reason I claim we get no energy from renewables is that the equipment used to capture sunlight and wind is built using oil, coal and natural gas (with a minor input from hydroelectric). And unless those capital goods can be built using strictly their own energy capture then they are not truly renewable, or sustainable for the long term. That is the problem. We use way too much energy, both collectively and per capita, compared with what we could get in a truly sustainable way, in a time frame necessary to prevent a real crash. There is no way to get there from here.
In other words, if we keep using energy the way we do, we won’t have enough fossil fuels left to build the giant pinwheels and whatever else we need to get us to a point where we’re using only renewable energy. It may already be too late. (So buy your solar panels while there are still enough fossil fuels to manufacture them…) He goes on to describe our only option:
I know that this is hard to swallow because of the implications — that the American/Western way of life is coming to an end. But it is time to face reality and start planning for the most likely scenarios. Rather than trying to jump-start the old consumer, wasteful economy, Obama should be leading the charge to get Americans off the energy splurge we have been on and start dieting ASAP. We have to shed the fat and conserve the raw energy as much as possible. This is the only way we will be able to have enough fossil fuels to bootstrap a new economy based on true renewable resources. It will mean abandonment of current lifestyles and beliefs about human destiny to be rich. It will require humans to recognize the ways of nature and forego hubris. It will require sapience!
(Ahh, sapience. If other creatures evolve or arrive and take over the planet millions of years from now and dig up our old stuff and learn that we called ourselves homo sapiens, they will laugh their asses off. If they have asses.)
Unfortunately, you know as well as I do that it ain’t gonna happen that way. Americans will keep consuming everything in sight, sucking the life out of the planet till it becomes physically and financially—and permanently—impossible for them to do so.
Because most don’t care. Most are utterly unaware of just how extravagant the American lifestyle is. Most don’t even realize they’re in jeopardy. (Shouldn’t somebody tell them?)
The only way Americans would ever radically reduce consumption right now would be if the government suddenly started rationing everything, punishing waste, ordering blackouts, limiting travel, outlawing big cars, making recycling mandatory, forcing them to buy local food…
All of which will happen. Just not in time.
So enjoy it while it lasts. Or, better yet, try cutting your consumption of anything and everything in half for a while. Just for practice.