Saturday, February 27, 2010


Who Is Greenspan?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday said "outrageous" advice from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan helped create record U.S. budget deficits that put national security at risk.

Appearing before congressional panels to defend the State Department's $52.8 billion budget request for 2011, Clinton said the massive U.S. foreign debt had sapped U.S. strength around the world.

"It breaks my heart that 10 years ago we had a balanced budget, that we were on the way of paying down the debt of the United States of America," Clinton said.

"I served on the budget committee in the Senate, and I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday when we had a hearing in which Alan Greenspan came and justified increasing spending and cutting taxes, saying that we didn't really need to pay down the debt -- outrageous in my view," she said.

Though she did not give a date, that hearing must have taken place during the presidency of George W. Bush, who authored a massive tax cut while spending billions on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sponsoring a major expansion of the Medicare health program for seniors.

Clinton urged lawmakers to tackle the federal budget deficit, which reached a record $1.4 trillion for the fiscal year that ended last September.

"We have to address this deficit and the debt of the United States as a matter of national security not only as a matter of economics," Clinton said. "I do not like to be in a position where the United States is a debtor nation to the extent that we are."

Having to rely on foreign creditors hit "our ability to protect our security, to manage difficult problems and to show the leadership that we deserve," she said.

"The moment of reckoning cannot be put off forever," she said. "I really honestly wish I could turn the clock back."

Though she did not mention it, China's portfolio of some $755 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds has become a concern for some U.S. policymakers. They worry that Beijing's creditor status could create leverage to influence U.S. policy.


Clinton's swipe at Greenspan symbolized the way the former central bank chief's reputation has fallen since he left the job in 2006.

First named to the office by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Greenspan served throughout the presidency of Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton. He was regarded as economic oracle whose cryptic pronouncements were searched for inner meaning and regularly moved financial markets.

Now, he has become a handy whipping boy blamed for helping inflate a housing bubble that eventually burst, setting off a grave financial crisis and plunging the economy into the worst recession in decades.

Greenspan, known as a deficit hawk, late last year endorsed a proposed bipartisan commission to help make tough calls needed to bring U.S. debt under control.

Clinton noted that the 2011 budget request for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development represented a $4.9 billion increase over 2010, most of which would fund work in the "frontline states" of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We are now assuming so many of the post-conflict responsibilities, and that is the bulk of our increase," Clinton said.

Republican Representative Ron Paul, who has helped lead congressional efforts to rein in the deficit, pressed Clinton on U.S. diplomatic spending including a plan for an expensive new U.S. embassy building in London

Clinton said the costs of the proposed modernist glass cube would be offset by savings on rent for satellite offices that embassy personnel must now use. "I believe I can make the case that we're not asking for new money," she said.

Source - Reuters

Saturday, February 20, 2010


The Empathic Civilization

Q - What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?

My sense is that we're nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two singular events in the last 18 months that signal the end. First, in July 2008 the price of oil hit $147/barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries, the price of basic items shot up and purchasing power plummeted. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. It signaled the beginning of the endgame of a great industrial era based on fossil fuels. The second event, in December 2009, was the breakdown in Copenhagen, when world leaders tried to deal with our entropy problem and failed.

That's the context of the book. Why couldn't our world leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown of the industrial revolution? And why can't they deal with climate change when scientists have been telling us that it may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced?

Q - What do you think the problem is?

My sense is that the failure runs very deep. The problem is that those leaders are using 18th century Enlightenment ideas to address 20th century challenges. I advise a number of heads of state in Europe and over and over again I see how these old ideas about human nature and the meaning of life continue to cloak public policy. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents that pursue our own self-interests and our nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we really are dispassionate, disinterested agents pursuing our own self-interest?

A lot of interesting new discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, child development, anthropology and more suggest that human nature might not be what Enlightenment philosophers suggested. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy or utility but for empathic distress; we are a social species.

Q - If we begin to change our ideas about human nature and, as you say in the book, view history through an empathic lens, what new things do we discover?

We can see how consciousness, which is wired for empathy and social engagement, changes over history. Obviously consciousness has changed over history--a Paleolithic hunter is wired differently than a medieval serf or a modern human. My belief is that when energy and communications revolutions converge it creates new economic eras and changes consciousness dramatically by shifting our temporal and spatial boundaries, causing empathy to expand.

For instance, wherever there were hydraulic agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation systems, humans independently created writing. That's fascinating to me. Writing made it possible to manage a complex energy regime. It also changed consciousness--transforming the mythological consciousness of oral cultures into a theological one. In the process, empathy evolves. The range of oral communication is limited--you can't extend empathy beyond kin and blood ties. With script you could empathize further with associational ties, you broaden your frame of reference.

In the 19th century the printing press communications revolution converged with new energies: coal and steam. This led to the introduction of public schools and mass literacy across Europe and America. Theological consciousness became ideological consciousness. The same shift occurred in the 20th century with the Second Industrial Revolution, the electronics revolution, which gave rise to psychological consciousness.

Each convergence of energy and communications technology changed our consciousness, extended our social networks and in turn expanded our empathy.

Q - But all of that happens at the expense of the environment?

It's the conundrum of history that these more complex civilizations that use greater energy flow-through allow us to bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the extreme dangers posed by climate change we need to find a way to increase empathy while decreasing entropy. The question is, how do you do that? How do you break the paradox?

Q - In the book you argue that we can break the paradox by shifting from geopolitical consciousness to biosphere consciousness.

We need to implement reglobalization from the bottom-up in order to achieve a more sustainable global economy. Geopolitics is an extension of the Enlightenment view of human nature, the idea that we pursue our utilitarian pleasures and individual self-interests. In geopolitics, the nation-state becomes a macro view of that. Nations deal with nations by being rational, detached and calculating, pursuing self-interests, excercising power and acquiring more capital and wealth. That's why Copenhagen failed. The world leaders weren't thinking biosphere, they were thinking geopolitics. Everyone was looking out for their nation's self-interest.

What we need to do is attempt biosphere politics. Governing units are going to change--I think there's going to be a shift toward continentalization. The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it's a transitional governing form. The Asian Union, African Union and South American Union are in their early stages.

Q - Why "re-globalization"?

The global economy didn't work in its first stage. And that's because the economics and the technology raced ahead of our changing consciousness. A global economy requires social trust; you need biosphere consciousness, not geopolitics. You're never going to get globalization until empathy extends to the whole species.

As I said in the book, I think we need to rethink economic policies and make thermodynamics the basis of economic theory. The price of energy is embedded in every product we make. At the same time, the effects of climate change are already eroding economies in many parts of the world as extreme weather events destroy ecosystems and agricultural infrastructure. The Third Industrial Revolution will be driven in part by the need to mitigate the entropic impact of the first two industrial revolutions.

A lot of business people would say that you can't be empathic in the market. But the market is a secondary institution--it's an extension of culture. The real invisible hand of the market is trust, which is the result of empathic engagement. The only way you can have a market is if you have a shared narrative. The market is not a utilitarian frame of reference, it only exists by the social trust that allows people to engage in anonymous settings and believe that their engagements will be honored. When that trust fails, markets collapse and that's what is happening now.

Q - What will the Third Industrial Revolution look like? When will it happen?

I think we're on the verge. I had the privilege to help design the European Union's Third Industrial Revolution economic stability game plan, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. What we noticed is that in the last 10 or 15 years we've had a very powerful communication revolution with the internet, and the key word is that it's distributed. What's beginning to happen now is that the distributed ICT [information and communication technologies] revolution is beginning to converge with a new energy regime: distributed renewable energy. When they do converge, it's likely to change consciousness once again.

Distributed ICT will organize distributed energies. Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are found in some proportion everywhere, in people's backyards. As people begin to harvest these renewable energies they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents. We see buildings as the new power plants. Buildings are the number one source of C02 emmissions, but they might also be the solution if they can harness renewables to produce their own energy on site. People will also need new energy storage technologies like hydrogen. The EU has committed 8 billion Euros to hydrogen storage technologies. Those technologies will give us dependable distributed energy.

I founded the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which is comprised of 100 leading companies from renewable energy to utilities to architectural firms. We're starting to lay out plans.

Q - How will the Third Industrial Revolution change our consciousness?

It extends it in a distributed fashion, with everyone taking responsibility for their swath of the biosphere and then sharing their energy across continents. We have to take responsibility where we are but we have to share across the world for it to work. That would allow us to think biosphere politics not geopolitics and extend empathy in that regard. That gives us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. Will we actually do it? If I were a betting person...well, I wouldn't even want to make a bet. But it's our best shot.

It's a tough challenge. What I'm saying is so difficult. But what
encourages me is the empathy we are already seeing resulting from technology.
After the Iranian elections a young college student was gunned down in the street by an Iranian militiaman for protesting, and someone took a cell phone video. The world instantly empathized. Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. There was an immediate response. That's new--we're thinking as a human race. We still have our xenophobia and our prejudices but I think we're catching a glimpse of something new, and we're going to have to if the possibility of our own extinction depends on it.

I think the question hasn't been asked yet, what is the point of this exercise in connecting the human race in this way? Up to now, most people's reasons for supporting it is more information, quicker information, better entertainment, improved commerce and trade, etc. What I'm suggesting is that that is not enough. When Henry David Thoreau saw the telegraph, he said, "Well, now Maine can talk to Texas, but does Maine really have anything to say to Texas?" If we can't have a global discussion of the transcendent purpose of this connectivity, I don't think entertainment and information are going to be enough to justify the Third Industrial revolution. We have to think deeper, to think as a human family, to take responsibility for the biosphere and our fellow creatures.

If human nature is Homo empathicus, as scientists are suggesting, if that's our true nature, then we can begin to create new institutions--parenting styles, education, business models--that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this Third Industrial Revolution will happen.

Q - Perhaps we are too cynical for these ideas. Do some people see an empathic global society as an idealistic dream?

If you know my past work you know I'm not utopian. But empathy isn't about utopia. It's about knowing how damn tough it is to be alive. We empathize with others because we smell the whiff of death in their vulnerabilities and so we celebrate their life. There's no such thing as empathy in heaven because there's no mortality, no suffering. Empathy is about encouraging another person's struggle to be. It's a tough feeling to have. In utopia there's no struggle, there's nothing to empathize with. Empathy is more than just, "I feel your pain". We root for each other's struggle to live out this mystery of life.

Q - I was struck by the vast number of fields you explore in your book. Do you think there's a need for more cross-disciplinary scholarship?

Absolutely. Education is a total mess. Our educational model is based on Enlightenment ideas and progressive ideas of the 20th century--if human nature is autonomous, calculating and self-interested and if the market is the way we fulfill those interests, our education reflects that. We are taught that knowledge is a personal asset to achieve one's aims in the world--knowledge is power. If you share your knowledge, that's cheating.

It limits us to a more vocational idea of what life is about. We all become little drones. And as we go through education it grows narrower and narrower. But what's happening with the internet is that young folks are growing up believing that information is something you share, not hoard. That thinking is a collaborative exercise, not an autonomous one, and that spaces ought to be commons. That's completely alien to the Enlightenment ideas I grew up on.

I'm a big fan of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching. If you're studying evolutionary biology, let a philosopher come in and talk about the way our concept of nature has changed over history. Allow young people to have so many frames of reference so they can be more open and more synthetic in their thinking. If we are a social animal and we live by our stories, then our stories are only made richer with more points of view.

Sharing knowledge is considered cheating, yet collaboration has been shown to improve critical thinking if it's done in a disciplined way. There was a doctor at UCL medical college in the 1950s who realized that if he brought all of his interns to a patient's bedside at the same time, the collaborative response got to a diagnosis quicker than if only one intern was there.

Education has to be completely reformed to reflect the new era of distributed knowledge. I'm currently in deep private discussions with some major educational associations in the US who want to put together a team of people to begin rethinking this.

We still don't know how to grade people in a collaborative model. But if we're moving from Homo sapien to Homo empathicus, we have to rethink all of this.

Q - You've also said we need to rethink the scientific method.

The scientific method reflects Enlightenment thinking. You have to be detached, rational and value-free; you can't be connected or use empathic imagination. But we're seeing that you need both. If the scientific method is the way kids learn, how do they grow up to form an empathic connection to the world?

There are scientists who are practicing a different kind of science, a not-too-close, not-too-far empathic engagement. Jane Goodall is a great example. I told Jane, what you did was so amazing because it's a new approach to science, and she said she had never thought about it that way. She began to empathize with the chimpanzees she was studying, imagining their experience as if it were her own. What she learned about chimpanzee behaviour was massively more than what people had previously learned by studying them in a completely detached way.

Goethe understood this a couple hundred years ago--he disagreed with Francis Bacon's approach. He argued that we understand nature by participating, not by standing back and observing with dispassionate neutrality. Especially in the ecological sciences and climate science, you need to be engaged, interactive and interdisciplinary, because you're dealing with systems thinking.

Empathic science is a good balance between the traditional scientific method on the one hand and something that wouldn't be science at all on the other. Empathy requires that you not be too close or too far away. You have to be close enough to feel the experiences biologically as if they are your own but far enough to use your cognitive abilities to rationally respond.

I hope scholars will take these ideas much further. I'm hoping a younger generation can do that.

Q - I found it interesting that you correlate the expansion of empathy throughout human history with a growing sense of self. I would naively think that they would have an inverse relationship.

Empathy goes hand-in-hand with selfhood; if you know you're a self you can see yourself in relation to the other. People hear "empathy" and they think socialism or something--that's completely missing the point. Increasing individuation and selfhood is critical to increasing empathy.

We are wired for empathic distress. If you put a bunch of babies in a nursery and one starts crying, the others start crying but they don't know why. Real empathy - empathic expression--doesn't occur until children develop a sense of self and recognize themselves as being separate from others; when they can recognize themselves in a mirror, for instance. When kids learn about birth and death they think, uh oh, now I know I have a history, I'm finite. Realizing their own vulnerability allows them to feel another's vulnerability. The more advanced your selfhood, the more you can feel another's fragility and empathize. Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated.

Q - You said that people hear "empathy" and think "socialism". How does capitalism survive an empathic society?

Market capitalism will be transformed into "distributed capitalism". Just as the internet led to the democratization of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy. The required changes to infrastructure are going to create massive amounts of jobs and a whole new economy. But when you have peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system, you no longer have the top-down, centralized economic system. Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism. But the politics isn't right or left--its centralized, top-down versus collaborative commons. You don't hear people say, I'm going onto a social networking space because I'm a socialist--it's just a different frame of reference.

Q - At over 600 pages, The Empathic Civilization is a long book! How long did it take you to write it?

I didn't mean for it to be a long book, but my wife says the older I get, the longer my books get. It took over five years. I got so deep into the research; I read about 400 books and maybe 3,000 articles. The actual writing took about a year and a half. My wife has made me promise no more books!

Source - New Scientist


Thursday, February 18, 2010

USA = Waiting To Be Third World

In the course of writing last week’s Archdruid Report post, I belatedly realized that there’s a very simple way to talk about the scope of the brutal economic contraction now sweeping through American society – a way, furthermore, that might just be able to sidestep both the obsessive belief in progress and the equally obsessive fascination with apocalyptic fantasy that, between them, make up much of what passes for thinking about the future these days. It’s to point out that, over the next decade or so, the United States is going to finish the process of becoming a Third World country.

I say “finish the process,” because we are already most of the way there. What distinguishes the Third World from the privileged industrial minority of the world’s nations? Third World nations import most of their manufactured goods from abroad, while exporting mostly raw materials; that’s been true of the United States for decades now. Third World economies have inadequate domestic capital, and are dependent on loans from abroad; that’s been true of the United States for just about as long. Third World societies are economically burdened by severe problems with public health; the United States ranks dead last for life expectancy among industrial nations, and its rates of infant mortality are on a par with those in Indonesia, so that’s covered. Third World nation are very often governed by kleptocracies – well, let’s not even go there, shall we?

There are, in fact, precisely two things left that differentiate the United States from any other large, overpopulated, impoverished Third World nation. The first is that the average standard of living here, measured either in money or in terms of energy and resource consumption, stands well above Third World levels – in fact, it’s well above the levels of most industrial nations. The second is that the United States has the world’s most expensive and technologically complex military. Those two factors are closely related, and understanding their relationship is crucial in making sense of the end of the “American century” and the decline of the United States to Third World status.

The US has the world’s most expensive military because, just now, it has the world’s largest empire. Now of course it’s not polite to talk about that in precisely those terms, but let’s be frank – the US does not keep its troops garrisoned in more than a hundred countries around the world for the sake of their health, you know. That empire functions, as empires always do, as a way of tilting the economic relationships between nations in a way that pumps wealth out of the rest of the world and into the coffers of the imperial nation. It may never have occurred to you to wonder why it is that the 5% of the world’s population who live in the US get to use around a third of the world’s production of natural resources and industrial products – certainly it never seems to occur to most Americans to wonder about that – but the economics of empire are the reason.

A century ago, in 1910, it was Britain that had the global empire, the worldwide garrisons, and the torrents of wealth flowing from around the world to boost the British standard of living at the expense of everyone else’s. A century from now, in 2110, if the technology to maintain any kind of worldwide empire still exists – and it can be done with wooden sailing ships and crude cannon, remember; Spain managed that feat very effectively in its day – somebody else will be in that position. It won’t be America, because empire is the methamphetamine of nations; in the short term, the effects feel great, but in the long term they’re very often lethal. Britain managed to walk away from its empire without total catastrophe because the United States was ready, willing, and able to take over, and give Britain a place in the inner circle of US allies into the bargain; most other nations have paid for their imperial overshoot with a century or two of economic collapse, political chaos, and social disintegration.

That’s the corner into which the United States is backing itself right now. The flood of lightly disguised tribute from overseas, while it made Americans fantastically wealthy by the standards of the rest of the world, also gutted America’s domestic economy – the same economic imbalances that funnel wealth here also make it nearly impossible to produce goods or provide services at home at a cost that can compete with overseas producers – and created a culture of entitlement that includes all classes from the bottom of the social pyramid right up to the top. As always happens, in turn, the benefits of empire are failing to keep pace with its rapidly rising costs, and in addition, rising demands for imperial largesse from all parts of society are drawing down an increasingly straitened supply of wealth. Meanwhile other nations with imperial ambitions are circling like sharks; the wisest among them know that time is on their side, and that any additional burden that can be loaded onto a drowning empire will hasten the day when it goes under for the third time and they can close for the kill.

This view of the world situation is not one that you’ll find in the cultural mainstream, or for that matter any of its self-proclaimed alternatives. The contrast with a century ago is instructive. A great many people in late imperial Britain knew perfectly well that the empire on which the sun famously never set – critics suggested that this was because God Himself wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark – had had its day and was itself setting; the lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” –

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo! All our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

– simply put in powerful imagery what many were thinking at that time. You won’t find the same sort of historical sense nowadays, though, and I suspect the role of the myth of progress as the secular religion of the modern world has a lot to do with it. In 1910, the concept of historical decline was on a great many minds; these days you’ll hardly hear it mentioned, because the belief in history as perpetual progress has become all the more deeply entrenched as the foundations that made the progress of recent centuries possible have rotted away.

The resulting insistence on seeing all social changes through onward-and-upward colored spectacles has imposed huge distortions on our perceptions of recent events. One good example is the rise and fall of the so-called “global economy” in recent decades. Its proponents portrayed it as the triumphant wave of a Utopian future that would enable everybody to live like middle-class Americans; its critics portrayed it as the equally triumphant metastasis of a monolithic corporate power out to enslave the world. Very few people saw it as the desperate gambit of a faltering imperial society that could no longer even afford to run its own economy, and was forced to outsource even its most basic economic functions to other countries. Nonetheless, this is what it has turned out to be, and it had the predictable result that several other nations used the influx of capital and technology to build their own industrial sectors, bide their time, and then enter the market themselves and outcompete the very companies and countries that gave them a foot in the door.

More broadly, it seems to have escaped the attention of a great many observers that the day of the multinational corporations is drawing to an end. The struggle over Russia’s energy resources was the decisive battle there, and when Putin crushed the Western-funded oligarchs and retook control of his country’s energy supply, that battle was settled with a typically Russian sense of drama. The elegance with which China has turned international trade law against its putative beneficiaries is in its own way just as typical; a flurry of corporations owned by the Chinese government have spread operations throughout the world, using the mechanisms of global trade to lay the foundations of a future Chinese global empire, while the Chinese government efficiently stonewalled any further trade negotiations that would have put Chinese economic interests at home in jeopardy. More recently, China has begun buying sizable stakes in the multinational corporations that so many well-meaning people in the West once thought would reduce the world to vassalage; the day when ExxonMobil is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CNOOC may be closer than it looks.

The same biases that make such global changes invisible have impacts at least as sweeping here at home. Faith in progress, coupled with the tribute economy’s culture of entitlement I mentioned earlier, have made it nearly impossible for anybody in American public life to talk about the hard fact that America can no longer afford most of the social habits it adopted during its age of empire. It’s almost impossible to think of an aspect of daily life in America today that will not change drastically as a result. We will have to give up the notion, for example, that most Americans ought to go to college and get a “meaningful and fulfilling” job of the sort that can be done sitting at a desk. We will have to abandon the idea that it makes any sense to spend a quarter of a million dollars giving an elderly person with an incurable illness six more months of life. We will have to relearn the old distinction between the deserving poor – those who are willing to work and simply need the opportunity, or who have fallen into destitution through circumstances outside their control – and those who are simply trying to game the system. The great majority of us will get to find out what it’s like to make things instead of buying them, even when that means a sharp reduction in quality; to skip meals, or make do with very little, because the money to pay for anything more simply isn’t there; to treat serious illnesses at home because care from a doctor costs too much; I could go on for paragraphs, but I trust you get the idea.

All these changes, it needs to be said, would be inevitable at this point even if the industrial world depended on renewable resources and had a stable, sustainable relationship with the planetary biosphere that supports all our lives. The United States has played its recent hands in the game of empire very badly indeed, and responded to each loss by doubling down and raising the stakes even higher. If, as a growing number of perceptive commentators have suggested, the US government has been reduced to borrowing money from itself in order to pay its bills – the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post – the end of that road is in sight. It’s hard to see this as anything but a desperation move on the part of a political and economic establishment that sees no other options for short-term survival and thinks it has nothing left to lose. It’s the exact equivalent of paying household bills by running up debt on credit cards; it can buy a little time, but at the cost of making bankruptcy a certainty once that time runs out.

The global context of the crisis, though, also needs to be kept in mind. The industrial world does not depend on renewable resources, and its relationship with the biosphere is leading it straight down the well-worn path of overshoot and collapse; the endgame of American empire, while it would be taking place anyway, has the additional factor of the limits to growth in play. In an alternate world where energy and resource flows could be counted on to remain stable for the foreseeable future, it’s quite possible that one of the rising powers might offer America the same devil’s bargain we offered Britain in 1942, and prop up the husk of our empire just long enough to take it over for themselves.

As it is, it cannot have escaped the attention of any other nation on the planet that something like a quarter of the world’s dwindling resource production could be made available for other countries, if only the United States were to lose the ability to purchase energy and other resources from outside its own borders. It’s not hard to think of nations that would be in a position to profit mightily from such a readjustment, and nothing so unseemly as a global war would necessarily be required to make it happen; to name only one possibility, it’s by no means unthinkable that the United States, having manufactured “color revolutions” to order in countries around the world, might turn out to be vulnerable to the same sort of well-organized mob action here at home.

Exactly how things will play out in the months and years to come is anybody’s guess. One of the consequences of America’s descent into Third World status, though, is that a great many of us may have scant leisure to contemplate global and national issues amid the struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. In the long run, this shift in focus may have certain advantages; I have argued in previous posts that those nations that undergo the deindustrial transition soonest, and are thus forced to learn how to get by on the very modest energy and resource flows available in the absence of fossil fuels, may find that this gives them a head start in making changes that everyone else will have to make in due time. Still, making the most of those advantages will require a very different approach to economics, among other things, than most of us have pursued (or imagined pursuing) so far.

Source - Archdruid Report

Sunday, February 07, 2010


China or USA

Silly me. Here I had thought that world leaders would want to keep their nations from collapsing. They must be working hard to prevent currency collapse, financial system collapse, food system collapse, social collapse, environmental collapse, and the onset of general, overwhelming misery—right? But no, that's not what the evidence suggests. Increasingly I am forced to conclude that the object of the game that world leaders are actually playing is not to avoid collapse; it's simply to postpone it a while so as to be the last nation to go down, so yours can have the chance to pick the others' carcasses before it meets the same fate.

I know, that sounds unbearably cynical. And in fact it may not accurately describe the conscious attitudes of leaders of some smaller nations. But for the U.S. and China, arguably the countries most likely to lead the way for the rest of the world, actions speak louder than words. (Mental health advisory: readers with a low tolerance for bad news should turn back now; there are lots of cheerier articles on the Internet and this might be a good time to find and enjoy one.)

For these two nations, avoiding collapse would require solving a range of enormous problems, of which at least four are non-negotiable: climate change; peak fossil fuels (in effect, stagnating and, soon, declining energy supplies); the inherent instability of growth-based financial systems; and the vulnerability of food systems to factors like fresh water scarcity and soil erosion (in addition to global warming and fuel scarcity). If they fail to address any one of these, societal collapse is inevitable—in a few decades certainly, but perhaps in just the next few years.

So how are our contestants doing? There's not much to report on the climate score—just vague promises for future action. So their apparent strategy in this case is to delay (not to delay the impacts, mind you, but to delay efforts to address the problem).

Likewise, there is little positive action occurring regarding food systems: the assumption appears to be that conventional industrial agriculture—which is responsible for most of the global food system's enormous and growing vulnerabilities—will somehow shoulder the task of feeding seven to nine billion humans. We just need to continue with what we are already doing, but on a larger scale and using more gene-engineered crop varieties.

Officially, peak energy is not even a concern, so evidently the strategy being adopted here is denial. We'll see how that works out.

How about the financial mess? Here the U.S. and China are in situations so different that a more extended discussion seems justified.

China Surges to the Lead!

The U.S. is in debt up to its eyeballs and has mortgaged the paychecks of every generation approximately until hell freezes over in order to bail out its "too-big-to-fail" banks. In contrast, China has piles of cash (resulting from its enormous trade surpluses) and has bought a mountain of U.S. debt in order to keep its main customer's currency from losing value. It would seem that, in this department, one nation is set to flag while the other is poised to leap into first place as world economic superpower.

And that happens to be the conventional wisdom on the subject. It's not hard to find commentators who say the United States is a has-been for a variety of reasons. In addition to its huge debt burden, the U.S. also suffers from a shrinking manufacturing base, a big trade deficit, eroding quality of education, and a foreign policy that serves the interests of arms manufacturers while undermining the long-term interests of the nation. Regarding the last of these items, a 2006 World Public Opinion poll showed large majorities in four leading ally nations (Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia), together accounting for a third of the Muslim world's population, believe the U.S. is determined to destroy or undermine Islam. Within those countries, most people surveyed support attacks on American targets. And it just so happens that most of the world's future oil supplies will be coming from Muslim nations. Brilliant.

By contrast, China is enjoying springtime on amphetamines. It now has the biggest car market in the world. And, according to Stuart Staniford in a recent fact-filled article, "if present trends continue, the Chinese expressway system will likely grow larger than the U.S. interstate highway system within the next couple of years, and Chinese car ownership will exceed U.S. car ownership by somewhere in the neighborhood of 2017." As of 2010 China is the leading producer of hydroelectric and solar power and by 2011 will be the top producer of wind power. China's smart grid investments dwarf those of the U.S. by 200 to one. The Chinese are also investing heavily in nuclear energy. Staniford goes on: "Oversimplifying greatly, it's as though the U.S. borrowed a pile of money from China in order to fight a war to free up oil supply in Iraq in order that China could become the greatest industrial power the world has ever seen."

China's foreign policy consists largely of buying friends by purchasing rights to oil, gas, coal, and other resources (in Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Iraq, Kazakhstan, and throughout Africa), while the U.S. spends money it doesn't have rooting out bad guys and making more enemies in the process.

In an October, 2009 lecture, George Soros showed refreshing candor about the seriousness of the continuing global financial crisis: "What differentiated [the recent economic crisis] from the Great Depression is that this time the financial system was not allowed to collapse, but was put on artificial life support. In fact [however], the magnitude of the credit and leverage problem we have today is even greater than the 1930s." Soros then went on to discuss the relative positions of the U.S. and China:

In the short term, all countries were negatively affected. But in the long term, there will be winners and losers. . . . To put it bluntly, the U.S. stands to lose the most, and China is poised to emerge as the greatest winner. . . . China has been the primary beneficiary of globalization, and it has been largely insulated from the financial crisis. For the West, and the U.S. in particular, the crisis was an internally-generated event [that] led to the collapse of the financial system. For China, it was an external shock [that] has hurt exports, but left the financial, political, and economic system unscathed.

China Stumbles!

But remember: without solutions to climate change, peak energy, and the looming food crisis, winning the financial contest is only temporary solace. Consider just the energy conundrum: China may be building nukes and windmills, but there's no way it can maintain 8 percent annual growth for long with flat or declining energy from coal. China and India, between them, are currently planning to build 800 new coal-fired power plants by 2020. Where will the coal come from? Both countries are already experiencing domestic production shortfalls and are starting to import the fuel. But coal-exporting countries will be unable to keep up with their growing combined demand.

Moreover, there is a school of thought that says China's apparently unstoppable economic miracle is a bubble waiting to burst. Beijing's housing market is overheated, like that of Las Vegas circa 2006. Last year, the Chinese economy enjoyed 9 percent GDP growth—on paper. But in order to achieve that goal, the government and banks had to loan out 30 percent of China's GDP (the rate of growth in loans accelerated during the latter part of the year; at year-end rates, banks were on track to loan out an amount equal to the nation's entire GDP in 2010). In any case, much of that growth probably occurred through speculation on real estate and questionable stocks.

Generally, China is at a Wild West stage of economic development: it is a collection of powerful local capitalist power bases unaccountable to anyone, all jockeying to create and inflate assets and credit. While the central government has recently exerted control over the banks, its ability to halt regional Ponzi schemes is still limited.

In January the Chinese banking regulatory commission attempted to rein in lending in order to slow the rapid increase in real estate and stock market values. (On the other hand, during the same month, China's cabinet agreed to permit margin trading and short selling of stocks and to launch a stock futures index.) Significantly, there is evidence that China's central bank's attempts to harmlessly deflate the housing and stock market bubbles may be going badly. The sudden suspension in lending has, according to Joe Weisenthal in Business Insider, "caught importers, along with many other companies, by surprise and could cause turbulence in China's import orders. Letters of credit (LoC) suddenly became unavailable, despite previous agreements. We believe that this will inevitably lead to delays or cancellations in China's imports. Import orders for commodities and machineries could be affected most." Translation: the government was faced with the options of letting a rapidly growing bubble burst, taking the economy down; or deliberately deflating the bubble, risking taking the economy down by another route. The central bank chose the latter, and the risked takedown may be unfolding.

Meanwhile Google and the Obama Administration have been exerting external pressure on China to relax its censorship of electronic communications—moves that some see as reducing the central government's options for controlling both information flow and the economy.

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman countered worries about a bursting of the China bubble with a robust display of confidence in Beijing's unstoppable expansionary momentum. Given Friedman's record (remember his columns in 2003 extolling the benefits that would flow to America from an invasion of Iraq?), this alone should be cause to doubt whether the Chinese locomotive can stay on its tracks much longer.

What Does It Mean to "Win"?

In his book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, Dmitry Orlov discusses the "collapse gap" between the United States and the old Soviet Union: the latter, he argues, was in effect much better prepared for economic crisis and the fall of its central government; when the U.S. eventually goes the way of the U.S.S.R., the pain and suffering of its citizens will be much greater. (I can't adequately summarize Orlov's evidence and reasoning here, but they are persuasive; if you haven't read the book, do yourself a favor.)

So: How is the U.S. doing today in terms of collapse preparedness as compared to China?

After six decades of nearly uninterrupted economic growth, Americans have developed unrealistic expectations about the future. They are urbanized consumers whose manufacturing capability has shriveled and whose practical survival skills are in most cases vestigial. The Chinese, in contrast, have less of a steep fall ahead of them. Most still dwell in the countryside, and many who live in the cities are only one generation removed from subsistence agriculture and can still draw on their own, or their parents', practical skills learned during decades of poverty and immersion in a traditional farming culture.

Both nations face fierce political challenges. In the U.S., the central government has reached nearly complete paralysis: it is evidently incapable of solving even relatively minor problems, and confidence in it among the citizenry has largely evaporated. Political leaders have succeeded in polarizing the people geographically with "hot-button" issues, few of which have anything to do with the factors currently undermining the nation's ability to survive. The Chinese central government appears far more capable of acting decisively and strategically, but it is confronted with nasty facts of geography and history: there is an extreme and growing economic and social division between the wealthy coastal cities and the poor, rural interior; and a demographic schism between those 40 years old or younger who have high economic expectations, and the older generation who grew up under Mao, with an ethic of collectivism and self-sacrifice. The young, especially, have accepted a trade-off between civil freedoms and economic prosperity. If the latter is not delivered, there will be shrill demands for the former. These divisions are so deep and profound that they could tear society apart if expectations are dashed—and the leaders know this.

Thus, in the event of collapse, both nations face the possibility of a breakdown in their political systems, entailing widespread violence (uprisings and crackdowns).

China still maintains a crucial advantage in one key area: its food system. Far more of its citizens still grow food, even taking into account recent trends toward rapid urbanization (in the U.S., full-time farmers make up only about two percent of the population and the average farmer is approaching retirement age). This is not to say that China will have the capacity to feed all its people; it is already moving in the direction of being a major net food importer. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains a significant food exporter. The key difference has to do with the resiliency of the two nations' respective food systems: that of the United States is more centralized, more highly fuel dependent, and therefore probably more vulnerable.

The Geopolitics of Collapse

It's easy to see the advantage of collapse preparedness for the citizenry—with better preparation, more will survive. But does a higher survival rate during and after collapse translate to some sort of geopolitical advantage?

The process of collapse will be determined by many factors, some hard to predict, and so it is difficult to know the size or scope of the political power structure that might re-emerge in either country. It's possible that one nation, or both, could devolve into smaller political units squabbling among themselves and unable to engage much in global jockeying for resources. All new political units emerging within the present territories of China or the U.S. would be immediately beset with enormous practical problems, including poverty, hunger, environmental disasters, and mass migrations.

Presumably some potent weaponry from the age of global warfare would remain intact and usable, so it is possible in principle that one or another of these smaller political entities could assert itself on the world stage as a short-lived, bargain-basement empire of limited geographic scope. But even in that case "winning" the collapse race would be small comfort.

The possibility of armed conflict between the two powers prior to mutual collapse is not to be entirely excluded if, for example, U.S. efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions were to set off a deadly chain reaction of attacks and counter-attacks possibly involving Israel, with world powers being forced to choose sides; or if the U.S. were to persist in arming Taiwan. But neither the U.S. nor China wants a direct mutual military confrontation, and both nations are highly motivated to avoid one. Thus all-out nuclear war—still the worst-case imaginable scenario for homo sapiens and planet Earth—seems thankfully unlikely, though in the few decades ahead the use of some of these weapons, on some occasions, by one nation or another, is probable.

Trade wars are another matter, and we might even see one this year, according to Michael Pettis at Financial Times, who notes that

. . . trade imbalances are more necessary than ever to justify increased investment in surplus countries [i.e., China], but rising unemployment makes them politically and economically unacceptable in deficit countries [i.e., the U.S.]. Rising savings in the U.S. will collide with stubbornly high savings in China. Unless a long-term solution is jointly worked out immediately, trade conflict will worsen and it will become increasingly hard to reverse offensive policies. Most importantly, if deficit countries demand structural change faster than surplus countries can manage, we will almost certainly finish with a nasty trade dispute that will . . . poison relationships for years.

How likely is the prospect for the last nation standing to be able to, as I put it in the first paragraph above, "pick the carcasses" of its competitors? Such a scenario presupposes that one nation will be able to stay on its feet for at least a few years after others fall. But this may not be possible. Recall the prophetic words of Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988):

"A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates, its population and territory will be absorbed by some other [or bailed out by international agencies]. . . . Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse."

When the U.S.S.R. crashed, the U.S. and various multinational corporations were able to sweep in and gobble up some of the treasure left lying around. One example: U.S. nuclear power plants have for many years been using uranium fuel cannibalized from old Soviet missile warheads. Soon, international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF helped organize new financial structures for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and the other nations born from Soviet political and economic disintegration, so as to limit and reverse the process of social disintegration that had already passed beyond its early stages.

But now the game has changed. A collapse of the U.S. would leave China devastated. Not only would Beijing lose its main customer, but the hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of treasury notes it has accumulated would be rendered worthless. If China were internally stable, such impacts could be absorbed with difficulty. But in light of China's own simmering social and financial predicaments, a U.S. collapse would almost certainly be enough to tip Beijing's economy into a tailspin, resulting in both social and political crises.

A collapse of China would similarly devastate the U.S. Obviously, the loss of a source of cheap consumer products would discomfit WalMart shoppers, but the shock soon would go much deeper. The Treasury would lose its main foreign buyer of government debt, which means that the Fed would be forced to step in and monetize that debt (in common parlance, "turn on the printing presses"), undermining the dollar's value. The result: a hyperinflationary economic crash. Such a crash is probably inevitable at some point anyway, but a collapse of the Chinese system would hasten and worsen it.

In neither instance would international institutions be capable of preventing substantial social and political fall-out. The last nation standing would not stand for long. We have reached the stage where, as Tainter says, "World civilization will disintegrate as a whole."

The Transition Marathon

Okay, so there is no serious effort on the part of U.S. or Chinese leaders to avoid collapse in the long run (say, over the next 10 to 20 years). Perhaps this is because they have concluded that it is impossible to do so—there are just too many trends leading in the same direction, and actually dealing with any of those trends head-on would entail huge, immediate political risks. In reality, however, it is much more likely that they simply refuse seriously to think about these trends and their implications, because they do have another option—to postpone collapse through deficit spending, bailouts, and more financial bubbles, while enacting their parts in a climate-policy kabuki play and engaging in resource geopolitics. This way blame will at least fall on the next set of leaders. Postponing collapse is itself a big job, enough so as to take all of one's attention away from having to contemplate the awfulness and inevitability of what is being postponed.

Do these short-term efforts in any way reduce the risk of dissolution? Hardly. In fact, the longer the reckoning is delayed, the worse it will be.

What would make more sense than just trying to put off the inevitable is quite simply to build resilience throughout society, re-localizing basic social systems involving food, manufacture, and finance. There is no need to rehearse the existing discourse about this strategy: readers who are not familiar with it can find plenty of useful pointers at, or in the books and articles of authors such as Rob Hopkins, Albert Bates, David Holmgren, Pat Murphy, and Sharon Astyk (and in some of my own writings, including Museletter #192).

It is understandably hard for national politicians to think along those lines. Building societal resilience means disregarding the dictates of economic efficiency; it means systematically reducing the power of the central government and national/global commercial institutions (banks and corporations). It also means questioning the central dogma of our modern world: the efficacy and possibility of unending economic growth.

So if the best outcome lies in a strategy of resilience and re-localization, and our national leaders can't even contemplate such a strategy, that means those leaders are, in one sense at least, irrelevant to our future.

Some blog readers are so in tune with this line of thinking that they no longer see any point in paying attention to the global scene. They may even think this article is a waste of time (and I expect to get an email or two to that effect). But following world events is more than a matter of infotainment: when and how China and the U.S. come apart at the seams is a question of far greater consequence than that of whether the New Orleans Saints or the Indianapolis Colts will win the Superbowl. The reality is that no nation, and no community will be able to completely protect itself from the sudden, harsh winds that will rush to fill the vacuum left by an implosion of either superpower.

By the way, my apologies to the other 190 or so nations of the world, large and small: my singling out of the U.S. and China for discussion does not signify that other countries are unimportant, or that their destinies will not be as unique as their cultures and geographies; merely that those destinies will probably unfold in the context of a global collapse spreading from the two nations we have been discussing. For any nation—India, Bolivia, Russia, Brazil, South Africa—and for any community or family, survival will require some comprehension of the direction of large events, so as to get out of the way when debris is flying and to anticipate opportunities to regroup.

So: Pay attention to the weather reports from Washington and Beijing, but meanwhile build local resilience wherever you are. If the roof needs mending, don't dawdle.

Meanwhile, after a long day of organizing neighborhood Transition gardens, you may want to get a foretaste of post-collapse America by reading James Howard Kunstler's A World Made by Hand; or savor an entertainingly erudite discussion of collapse as an extended process (which it will likely be), rather than as a sudden, all-out event, by reading John Michael Greer's books The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future.

Just because the sky is falling, that doesn't mean it's time to stop thinking.

Source - Richard Heinberg