Gold divers and diazepam pens

What’s up with the world today?

Bread and circuses news: ‘Britain’ ‘won’ three gold medals in Rio yesterday. Actually, it was three people representing Britain … in a sense … who won three medals. In that they are young, fit and committed, they aren’t exactly representative of me or most people I know, none of whom took the time to watch them. Nevertheless, this news is wall-to-wall on every news website and dead tree outlet. You’d think we were insecure or something.

Running out of tunes news: Ed Sheeran, whoever he is, is being sued for plagiarising a Marvin Gaye track. Maybe we’re just running out of good tunes. Wasn’t there someone in the 18th century who went mad worrying about that?

Hillary health news: Some people are worried about Mrs Clinton’s brain function. On top of more-than-slightly odd behaviours on camera, the potential next leader of the free world appears to be accompanied by a minder with a diazepam pen. That’s used to treat fitting and mini seizures. Hope she’s all right. It’s a bit more of an important question than who’s best at falling gracefully from a 3m diving board. But for whatever reason the mainstream media won’t ask it.

Purple-faced news: Surveyors are saying that UK house prices paused for breath in July. It was Brexit, not the fact that the pool of buyers able to stomach stratospherically high prices is drying up. Yeah, right. Prices will soon be rising again, surveyors assure us. Could that be people whose fees are a percentage of their valuations talking their own book? Yes or yes?

Pushing on a string news: While athletes born and trained in Britain were winning athletic events at an athletic tournament in Brazil, the Bank of England was missing its bond-buying target in the latest round of QE. Seems the pension funds, at whose desperate plight this money printing bonanza is directed, inconsiderately failed anticipate the event and allowed their top people to go on holiday. In August. Can you imagine that? Your money. Safe in their hands.

Dreadful news: Tens of thousands of Nepalis are still living in squalid conditions a year after the earthquake. On top of muddle and corruption among officials, victims have been hit by an economic blockade imposed by India.

Helicopter hyperbole news: One paper is calling yesterday’s helicopter incident in Wales “The miracle touchdown”. No it wasn’t. There was a mechanical problem. The pilot set down safely on an open moor. Everyone got out before fire took hold and destroyed the aircraft. The story doesn’t even attempt to justify the headline. Which is par for the course these days.

Safe in their hands news: Hospitals in Middlesex, Devon, Lancashire and Shropshire are considering shutting A&E departments for lack of funds. They haven’t got enough staff. Their costs are rising faster than their incomes. But staff are the biggest cost and staff numbers are falling. So where’s the money going? Ah, that would be all those back-end-loaded PFI deals. Hospitals are getting what Tony Blair got paid for.

Habit of a lifetime news: Hard to believe it but the BBC is actually going to try to stop presenting misleading statistics. I know, I know. Some people think that is the BBC’s job. It says here that presenters will be urged to tell us when there’s no evidence to back up a claim, instead of giving us a “he said/she said” debate between two competing spokesmen. Three-quarters of stats from politicians quoted in BBC news stories come from the governing party, too. Will this be the end of meaningless tit-for-tat interviews instead of proper news analysis? Unlike the housing market I’m not holding my breath.

Green news: It was algae what done it. Turned the Olympic diving pool green. “Harmless” claim the organisers after the filtration system broke. “Not so sure about that,” says a tight-lipped spokesman for the UK Pool Water Treatment Advisory Group.

Vetus causa bellandi news: They’ve found a British steamship sunk in an arctic river in Russia. It sank 140 years ago and regional media say its the discovery of the year. Elements in Washington are hoping to find an excuse to start a war with Mr Putin over the loss of the vessel.

Clutching at straws news: Utterly aghast at having to live with a Republican presidential candidate they neither own nor control, America’s elite are going all out to diss Donald. His badly-phrased comment on the power of the gun lobby was immediately seized on as a thinly-veiled incitement for #2A-ers to assassinate his rival. Now that a day has gone by, the papers feel able to drop the scare quotes around “assassinate” and proceed as if that’s what he specifically said. While they studiously ignore the issue of Clinton’s physiological brain functions.

Born lucky

I was born lucky.

“What?”, people who know me could say. “You’re a diagnosed depressive. Your wife and daughter both have chronic illnesses. You hardly have any friends. You work on your own and you don’t really enjoy anything except getting out on a push bike by yourself.”

OK. So I have my fair share of #firstworldproblems. But I’m still lucky.

Lucky to have been born in the 1950s when standards of living, health and life expectancy were taking off like the exciting rockets that a merry band of ex-Nazi slave drivers were designing for the USA.

Lucky to have lived all my life under the umbrella of the National Health Service. Modern dentistry, eh? If we all have to go back to the simple life, I hope that comes along with us.

Lucky to have ridden the Internet wave for 20 odd years. 90% of online activity is as banal as human life gets. But what an enjoyable way to waste time. The remaining 10% is more than enough to keep all the commerce, education, war and spying we do or don’t need ticking over nicely. And it keeps me solvent too.

Talking of being solvent… Materially, I’m unimaginably comfortably off compared with 95% of the world’s existing inhabitants. Admittedly, if I’d been born 15 or 20 years earlier I’d be even better off. Why? Because I’d have retired at the very peak of the pension Ponzi.

It’ll be all downhill for retirees in a few years’ time (i.e. when I should be winding down at work). The looting of the funds is just getting started.

But I’m not terribly annoyed about that. Some you win, some you lose. On balance I’ve won hands down in the lottery of the forces of history. After all, my good fortune has everything to do with the forces that have driven up the world’s human population from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion in my lifetime.

That was a kind of luck too. Humans broke into 500 million years worth of fossilised sunlight and burned through it in a massive 300-year industrial jamboree. The party’s beginning to roll over now. The rich energy deposits are getting depleted. We can no longer ignore the waste side of the equation.

The oceans are heating and dying. Unless we keep industrial infrastructure constantly fed with high intensity energy, huge chunks of it will quickly cease being an asset and turn to waste (at best) or a millstones round the neck of any society trying to rewind to something that can be supported by renewable energy.

How a system as complex as ours is will unravel is anyone’s guess. The Roman empire was a cake stall compared to our 21st century global civilisation. Some of it went up in flames. Other bits still trucked along in their own sweet way 600 years after the empire is popularly reckoned to have collapsed.

So who knows? Assuming my luck holds out, I could go on enjoying the fruits of our unsustainable system many more years. Although it’s getting more touch and go all the time.

An evening of hypocrisy and moral cowardice in front of the gas fire

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of this little world don’t amount to a hill of beans to all these crazy people” – Collapsablanca

It’s Friday night and what John Michael Greer often calls ‘the predicament’ is in full swing over at the QuadRanting place.

Ma and Pa QuadRanting are sipping a chilled New Zealand white and nibbling pistachios. QuadRanting Jnr is watching YouTube on his tablet. He’s got headphones on but his helpless giggles keep cutting across Monty Don on BBC2, who’s looking ravishing in HD against the backdrop of a French millionaire’s recreation of a XVIIth century potager.

As it’s Friday, we’ve got the coal-effect gas fire on in addition to the central heating. And the wood/coal stove in the kitchen is still alight too – although to be fair, the stove is the only heater we use during daylight hours.

Cables and pipes radiate out from this cosy little scene to the Great Unsustainability Support Machine. For the avoidance of doubt on that subject, my role in the drama is to toggle my attention between Mr Don on the telly and the coffee table edition of the Post Carbon Institute’s “Energy – Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth“, which is open on my lap.

A bit of context here. QuadRanting’s gross income puts us narrowly into the highest/luckiest/most spoilt or whatever you want to call it quintile of UK earners. It was not ever thus, though. No silver spoons in our family. Nevertheless, the chain of lucky accidents that began with where and when I was born has borne me blindly along, atop a rising tide of pillaged common natural inheritance, to the point half a century later where I’ve washed up amidst the most materially-privileged 2% or 3% of humanity.

One wonders what my great-grandfather – a Sierra Leone-born black slave in Ghana who bought his freedom from his local owner by joining first the British army in Accra and later the Navy, which brought him to England after a decade spent patrolling the Caribbean – would have thought of where his lineage was headed.

Fluke

Great-granddad was a fluke of history. Timing and chance as much as character and determination got him from up country Ghana to the East End of London, from where his children and grandchildren headed west and south to leafy middle class suburbs.

Of course the lifestyle now enjoyed by his descendants was equally a fluke of history. Seventeen years after he was born, the modern oil age began in Pennsylvania. Thirty years after he landed in London, Spindletop inaugurated the explosive draw-down of the Earth’s energy inheritance that brought us to where we are today.

Which is at or near some kind of epochal peak in human history. For I’m in complete agreement with the PCI, and James Howard Kunstler, Nicole Foss, JMG, Tullet Prebon, the New Economics Foundation and many others, that the curtain has come down on the era of turbocharged growth bookended by my great-grandfather and his great-great-grandchildren.

What’s left to us is weak growth. For a while anyway. And even that can’t last for long as declining net energy sucks us on to its inexorable glide path. Stasis isn’t an option either. It’s as if the laws of thermodynamics are having their revenge: we can’t win; we can’t break even, and we can’t get out of the game. The PCI’s coffee table tome bleakly exposes the incredible cost of maintaining the gigantism that underpins high-energy civilisation. That civilisation is a precondition of my way of life, as described up top, (which is materially affluent by UK standards but decidedly average by American ones).

One obvious question is what am I going to do about this? Well, nothing, obviously. But surely one should do something when one realises that humanity is skipping, twirling and limping up a deadly cul-de-sac?

My dear fellow, welcome to the predicament.

Around six years ago, when I was beginning my mental journey into the ramifications of peak oil, I saw a clip of Michael Ruppert urging an audience of college kids to get out of (or stop going further into) debt. We’d been paying down our mortgage faster than necessary anyway – because it seemed vaguely like a good thing to do. Peak oil awareness sank sharp teeth into the backside of our good intentions, so we boosted our efforts and got out 10 years early.

Backyard chickens

We already lived in a small country town but, even so, we put chickens in the garden for eggs and the table, and started growing more of our own fruit and veg. Resilience and community matter: we got stuck in and helped to prevent half the town’s small number of allotment gardens going under houses. I could go on.

According to chaos theory, any of those gestures could have been the butterfly’s wing-beat that set off a chain reaction that culminated in a hurricane that would sweep away all the rotten, fossil-fueled overgrowth threatening the planet. Quite a violent image, of course, and only really a charming little fantasy (though a surprisingly popular one).

What has actually happened? Six years on, another 400 million humans have been born. Complexity and energy-dependency have risen massively everywhere. The financial breakdown predicted and chronicled for the past five years at The Automatic Earth has already taken one massive lurch forward with the financial crisis and is now coasting on something of a false flat before the next great spasm.

Our civilisation is doing what all civilisations do: outgrowing its resource base and morphing into something else through a phase of unstable contraction. But as JMG and a few others keep trying to point out, it’s quite likely that the process will take hundreds of years to work itself out. Along the way, there are bound to be some pretty impressive moments – after all, ours is by an order of magnitude the hugest civilisation to reach this point.

Such a moment could hit us in the next six months, in a couple of years or not for another decade or more. Like markets that can behave irrationally for longer than investors can remain solvent, collapse can easily take its own sweet time. Much as I’d love to be the brave little boy holding his finger in the dyke until the cavalry arrives (gaily blowing mixed metaphors on their burnished bagpipes), realistically nothing I do will change anything, even though I kept on doing whatever it was for years.

The energy-waste economy

There’s you could call the Paradox of the Inflection Point. It’s about being the first to walk away from over-consumption. Phrases like “we all need to make do with less” abound in the peak oil-o-sphere and they are no less true for being endlessly repeated. But we need to remember a couple of things about overconsumption. One is that it is merely the flip side of overproduction. Focusing on consumption makes us feel as though we’re in control but the truth is that the most of the impetus is “push” from the production side. As long as small fraction of stuff makes a buck, the rest can go straight to landfill as long as there’s surplus energy to market the next ship load of waste

Walking away from over consumption (bearing in mind that even a modest Western lifestyle would overload the planet if every human lived it) solves nothing at an individual level. My individual decision to be more slowly wasteful than someone else has no measurable impact on the tar sands operation, or the rate of coal fired power station construction or the sales of new cars in the UK. It cannot affect the decision of a Brazilian rancher to clear x more hectares of forest because the touch-points between her and me are utterly tenuous.

I could go off grid, I could starve, I could die. It wouldn’t make an iota of difference to the big picture. In the 50-odd years since I was born, I’ve gone from being one two-and-a-half-billionth part of the human machine to one seven-billionth. I live like a king. I consume as much energy as 200 pre-industrial workers. Yet if my existence blinked out tomorrow, the future trajectory of history wouldn’t deviate by a micron.

Involuntary simplicity

The paradox is that if voluntary simplicity really did have societal, as opposed to individual or small-group, effects, then collapse would happen all the sooner. The involuntary simplicity being forced on nations from Greece to the UK and US, because oil is now too expensive to waste, is promoting descent at an increasingly smart pace.

So I sit in our comfortable, well-insulated, warm home with fast broadband. It is cold outside. The economy has begun its long term contraction. The great pensions collapse of the late 20-teens is gathering pace behind closed doors. We know what is happening and why. Surely I should be trying to do something. Make sacrifices. Cut back. Or get out and warn people that the world they’ve believed in for a lifetime is coming to an end.

What’s stopping me? Is it hypocrisy? Moral cowardice? Or is that there is really not a lot to be done. We’re in extreme overshoot as a species. Collapse is coming – probably catabolically. It cannot be avoided or realistically pre-empted. So I’m going to cross that bridge when it comes to me.

As it surely will.

The Permanent Low Growth Disconnect

Pundits popped up on Radio 4 this morning to drop passing mentions of the UK’s permanent low growth outlook into their previews of the Autumn Statement.

Their hints bobbed across the breakfast airwaves as we digested the news that George Osborne will have to ‘extend austerity’ for another year to 2018.

I guess many people took away the thought that that means it will take even longer for things to turn round.

But that’s not what they said. When you cut the drug of hope with the talc of the truth lurking in that word ‘permanent’, the actual implication is that things won’t get better at all. Come 2018, we could find ourselves exchanging austerity for something more astringent.

We’re being softened up. The future won’t be the happy, shiny place we allowed ourselves to believe it would be. Or the one ‘they’ promised us if you took the politicians’ mantra of endless growth as a pledge they could somehow deliver.

Writing this at my PC in a warm room, central heating working and electricity flowing, streaming classical music over a 20MB web link, there’s no obvious connection between my blissful life and the bad news on the radio.

But the roll-over from increasing to decreasing net energy is not an abstraction. It’s real and it’s starting to trash the easy economic dogmas of the past 70 years.

UK industry hit by costs and ‘dying’ supply chain” reports today’s Telegraph business section. Yup. Not merely ‘inefficient’ or ‘under-invested’ but on the way to the knacker’s yard.

This is what happens to a highly technology-dependent society when its most important input – cheap fuel – goes away.

Life doesn’t suddenly change. Chaos doesn’t erupt. Hairline cracks appear. Then big ones. And even some of those – like the pensions breakdown – can be papered over for a long time.

But it gets clearer and clearer that we turned a corner five to 10 years ago. “Where’s the demand gone?” muttered one of Radio 4’s pundits this morning. That’s the connection. Welcome to the century of unaffordability.

The Ponzification of pension finance

Today’s Tory DailyGuff reports that the number of people paying into UK workplace pensions has fallen to its lowest level since 1953.

For some reason, the story makes the front page of the print edition but isn’t linked from any of the main sections of the web site. Nor does it show up if one searches the site for ‘pensions’. You have to search for James Hall, the writer, and look for the piece in his story list.

Anyway, it quotes Joanne Segars, the chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds, who says:

“… squeezed household budgets and the weak economy mean that many people see a pension as a luxury rather than a necessity”.

Yes, having enough money to live on after you stop working is now a luxury. Better die before you get old.

Lost faith and trust

Ros Altman, director-general of the Saga over-50s group, puts it plainly:

…people are leaving pension schemes because they struggle to afford the monthly payment.

“People have lost faith and trust in pensions. It is clear that workers are valuing pensions less and less, and companies are offering them less and less.”

Paying into a pension calls for tons of faith and trust by the payer. The biggest leap of faith is to believe that the fund managers will be able to earn 8% or more on their investments. Because the fund won’t pay out anything like what was promised if they don’t.

Eight per cent? Year in and year out when central bank interest rates are negative and the US, EU, UK and Japan are printing money like mad? Ha bloody ha.

No safe investments

One of the primary drivers of the great financial meltdown was the banks’ need to dress up massively risky derivative bets and subprime loans as ‘safe’ enough for pension funds to buy. Sure they reeked of rotting offal but, as long as they were unaccountably rated Triple-A, the institutions happily loaded up with these investments. They were the only way of getting the notional returns they need.

Worse, the banks then sold them ‘super safe’ Credit Default Swaps that also promised high returns as long as the debts the funds were insuring through these CDS didn’t go bad.

But they did go very bad. Now the funds aren’t able to make returns, aren’t able to recruit workers and are still technically on the hook for billions of pounds if they have to honour the CDS.

None of this is news to readers of The Automatic EarthEconomic Undertow or Jim Kunstler’s blog but even the least-switched-on punter can’t help detecting the aura of unreality and desperation that surrounds the whole business.

Goodies to insiders

The pensions industry obviously realises that its only remaining function is to wind itself up while making sure the remaining goodies go to the insiders. I know one guy who was the financial director of a division of a big name company who retired early years ago because he could see the writing on the wall.

“I felt really guilty,” he told me. “But what could I do? The fund’s first duty is to pay its members who are already drawing their pensions. When it all goes wrong, those still working are the ones who end up losing most or all of the pay-out they anticipated. I got out while I was still ahead.”

Peak oil killed the growth fairy

As far as the Western economies are concerned the pensions bubble burst when peak oil killed the growth fairy a few years ago. Big fat pensions were possible for a few glorious decades while fossil energy was, to all intents and purposes, limitless and virtually free and while the old wealth-funnels coming in from the rest of the world were still in place.

Now there are billions more human beings chasing their slice of the shrinking pie. They prefer to keep their wealth for themselves, thank you very much. Meanwhile the returns on setting fire to 500-million-year-old plants and plankton are diminishing steadily as the remaining reserves become ever-more difficult and expensive to exploit.

Cynical

All this makes the UK Government’s scheme to auto-enrol workers into workplace pensions look even more breathtakingly cynical. These schemes don’t have a hope of paying out much, if anything, to those required to pay into them.

Instead, they will be yet another manifestation of the Ponzification of finance: taking money from increasingly impoverished workers and shoveling it to the people now retiring at the end of the era of gold-plated pensions: ready to spend the next 30 years shopping in John Lewis, going on cruises and complaining about the price of petrol and the habits of younger people.

It’s highly unlikely that such an unequal arrangement will last long in a liberal democracy. But then who’s to say that liberal democracies themselves are not merely artefacts of the age of fossil-fuelled growth in the same way that fantastically generous final salary pensions once were?