Apocalypse Not Yet

I was talking to my independent financial adviser the other day. He’s a patient man. He mentioned that I’ve been predicting the cataclysmic disintegration of the financial system for 10 years now.

Ten years. So it is. Although to be fair, I got past the ‘Armageddon tomorrow’ stage quite a long time back. The point my IFA was wearily making is that I still won’t be convinced that Business As Usual (BAU) is sustainable whereas he can’t see what’s wrong when the markets keep going up and the funds his clients are invested in keep growing nicely.

A courtesy call isn’t the place for a discussion about net energy and turning points, so I agreed to his proposed reallocation of my modest exposure to the markets and left it at that.

The thing is he’s right; there are very few signs on the surface that much is wrong with the economy. The big picture looks, if not rosy, at least reassuringly ‘normal’.

Yet this reassuring picture is made up of details that are consistently unsettling. The financial woes of schools and the NHS, even before the back-loaded Private Finance Initiative interest payments start to kick in. The bursting of the university-places-for-all bubble as more and more school leavers recognise it was only a scam to load them up with debt in return for mostly worthless degrees.

Behind all this is a sense of growing weakness; like a racing cyclist who’s been unable to take enough food on board – their finely-tuned system wants to keep going but the flow of fuel to the muscles is no longer sufficient.

When the flow of high-quality energy from coal faltered a century ago, oil and gas kicked in with the thermal bonanza that took the industrialised world from Kittyhawk to the moon and from the Bell telephone to the Internet.

This time round, there are no more massive seams of cheap BTUs to be mined. It’s manifested in the phenomenon where oil producers can no longer extract oil profitably at the kind of prices consumers are willing or able to pay. Which is another way of saying that net energy is entering the twilight zone.The fires under the boilers are dying down. Renewables will realistically run an economy about 25% the size of today’s.

That’s an article for another time, though. The take-away today is that the solid mass of thermal Jenga blocks that underpins our way of life has been eroding since the Millennium, when net energy turned the corner. What’s happening to the NHS, pensions, the auto industry and almost everywhere else you look are the first small cracks you see in the soil at the top of the slope as the land starts slipping.

Let’s see how they widen over the next 10 years. Easily far enough to swallow a good many of today’s expectations, I’ll bet, even if there’s no full scale avalanche.

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Dominoes Fall for Self-Driving Cars

Latest hilarious development in the autonomous car saga is Ford’s breathless announcement that it’ll be providing self-driving cars for pizza deliveries in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Only, as with all autonomous vehicle stories, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts. When tech-savvy Ann Arborians call up a 25-inch Quattro Staglione with extra everything and buckets of soda, it’ll traverse the city to their door in a vehicle laden down with a human driver (yes, really) plus a few Ford technicians, not to mention all the auntonomising gubbins on the car’s roof, sides and ends.

The hungry customers must then liberate their pizza from a ‘hot box’ squeezed into the trunk alongside more car-tech. Obviously, they’ll need to avoid eye contact with the car’s occupants since any acknowledgement of a human presence will ruin the self-driving vibe.

Domino’s Pizzas openly state that they’re only actually interested in the final 50 feet of the pizza’s journey, since the big worry is that customers will prove too lazy to walk out to the road to collect their meal – and let’s be honest, the customer is really only thinking about their pizza’s final five inches.

Mr Pizza must be hugely grateful to Mr Ford for creating a carbon footprint the size of the Tour de France merely to deliver smallish slabs of dough, cheese and toppings around a small city.

I think we can safely bet that Mr Pizza’s ultimate vision is not so much Ford/Tesla as small, self-piloting, heated mobile sideboards handling 25 deliveries at a time. The only catch being that the ruinous societal cost of all the thermodynamic dead-ends represented by autonomous cars will so impoverish Domino’s customer base that the only folk who can afford their product will be the very rich, who’d never dream of subjecting their bodies to the wellbeing downsides of a take-away pizza.

There goes the equestrian statue

Genocidal maniacs get statues put up in their memory. So do lots of other people. Florence Nightingale, Paddington Bear and Oliver Cromwell come to mind. Oh, sorry, quite a few people think Cromwell was a genocidal maniac, don’t they?

No-one could call Robert E. Lee genocidal. Or a maniac. He was rather prone to fighting battles using an army of men with no shoes on their feet or food in their bellies but that wasn’t unusual in the mid-19th century. General Lee was a good military leader who fought for what most people see as the morally-wrong side in a war whose nuances were so complex that legions of historians are still fully occupied sifting through them 150 years later.

No-one should have the slightest respect for white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the still-extant breed of bullying, black-hating redneck that does his or her best to restore overt segregation. But does that mean removing every lump of bronze recognisable as General Lee on an ‘orse from town squares across the former Confederacy? I’m coming from this from the point of view of the great-grandson of a genuine black slave (though his masters were also black and also African).

General Lee certainly fought, to a greater or lesser extent, for the right to keep slaves, since that was a large part of the root causes of the civil war. It tends to get forgotten that the North’s animus against slavery was not solely or even primarily a moral issue. Abolitionists there certainly were, and they were vocal in their opposition to slavery on what we’d today call human rights grounds. But they were a minority in the North where it’s fair to say that many citizens’ views on freeing slaves didn’t extend to welcoming them as next door neighbours or as prospective sons or daughters in law.

The North’s anti-slavery concerns in the lead up to the civil war were quite as much economic and political as moral.

America’s main economic rival, Britain, together with her neighbouring northern European countries, was rapidly developing the new form of fossil-fuelled industrial consumer economy that conferred enormous economic and military reach on those nations. America, with its enormous resource base, had the potential to outdo the combined might of Britain, France, Germany and Italy (the latter’s north industrialising on the back of imported British coal) in the long run. But in this context, the southern states’ slave economy was a millstone around America’s neck.

Slavery allowed the south to maintain a near steady state economy. It didn’t create consumers, which were essential to the expansion of  the new industrial economies. Worse, since Britain’s early-mid-19th century industry centred on textiles, cotton exports from the American south actively helped Britain to increase her dominance at the same time as holding back the North’s attempts to grow as a rival industrial power to Europe.

Throw in the traditional American culture of independent-mined obstinacy that helped create the states in the first place, and the south was never in a million years going to to sit back and allow the North to tell it to industrialise for the sake of Yankee global ambitions.

Underneath those pretexts, everything quickly got all human and very messy as people used their big brains to come up with as many tendentious and self-serving justifications for, on the one hand, maintaining slavery as others came up with moral arguments for abolishing it. By the 1850s, it was clear to any logically-minded person who’d ever seen a coal fire, let alone a steam engine, that the southern economy was doomed in the long run as long as fossil fuels remained economically viable.

Given humans’ tendency to try to delay whatever inevitable is staring them in the face, the southern states’ cascade of secession declarations was a completely predictable response to what southerners saw as rising coercion from the North. To the industrialising North, an independent south was no more use than a south that stayed within the union but ran on raw human power.

That meant war. The wonder was that the south lasted so long: the hungry, unshod rebel infantry who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg were in many ways symbolic of the confederacy’s relative economic weakness. A lot of the credit for losing the war so slowly has to go to better southern generalship. If Robert E. Lee was the right man fighting the wrong cause with insufficient means, George McClellan was his mirror image. Preening, petty, backstabbing, timid and tactically inept, George B.’s mishandling of the more powerful Union armies came close to costing his side the war and definitely prolonged the struggle.

How many more statues of Robert E. Lee are there in the US than statues of McClellan? At least 10:1 I’d guess. Militarily, that makes complete sense.

More to the point, though, how many statues, busts and plaques are there in southern state capitols (and not a few northern ones) commemorating the many racist politicians behind the Jim Crow laws, which denied black Americans civil rights for a century after the civil war? I bet there are boatloads of them. But of course no-one learns their names in history lessons and their prideful memorials don’t sit astride horses in public squares so no-one’s agitating to pull them down.

The point is rightly made that many of the statues of southern generals were erected as recently as the 1930s and the 1950s. Quite a few people see such rearward-looking statue-raising as a two-fingered gesture to the north and to agitators for civil rights for blacks. But if they’re southerners, I guess, the statues are a symbol of resurgent southern pride and culture. Of course, that all depends on which bits of your culture you’re actually proud of.

By all means, discuss removing statues of dead generals. While we’re at it, let’s take a vote on chipping Washington and Jefferson’s faces off Mount Rushmore. Me, I guess I could take a trip to Ghana, where I’m sure I’d find a statue or bust somewhere of a past Ashanti (Asante) ruler to object to on the grounds that his people kept slaves and one of them was my great granddad and therefore his statue might be seen as a symbol of oppression (note: I wouldn’t see it as such).

If a particular statue of Robert E. Lee was erected as a sly symbol of oppression, it shouldn’t be difficult to identify that fact by reference to press reports of the speeches and from articles published at the time. In that case, everyone can debate the speeches and articles and decide whether the statue should stay, go or be given some contextual signage (although good luck to the latter lasting more than a few days). If not, leave it up, even though it’ll always be a dog-whistle to certain people.

As Jim Crow showed, the pen is mightier than the sword. It was politicians’ pens that condemned generations of black Americans to violence, poverty and insecurity for 100 years after the civil war, not a bronze replica of Robert E. Lee’s ceremonial sabre.