Good news for a failing American Empire (or would we rather take ourselves into the abyss in exchange for hot pizza and cold beer?)

Photo: Llyn Gayatri Crounse

Transition Voice

When people tell me the dire messages about which I write don’t resonate with other people, I struggle with a coherent response. Would you prefer continued overshoot on an overshot planet? Would you prefer we keep heating our overheated home? Would you prefer we ignore the most important issues in the history of our species?

Okay, well party on, brothers and sisters, until you can be bothered to extract your heads from the sand. You’re welcome to operate as if as long as we ignore reality, it’ll all be fine. That is the cultural norm.

Judging from their actions, most people I know are more committed to maintaining their imperial lifestyles than in securing the lives of their children by retaining a livable habitat for humans on Earth. At least for me, this aberrant behavior explains how we managed to find ourselves in this dire array of interconnected predicaments. Empathy is so rare we treat it as a treasure. Which, of course, it is.

We’re willing to risk extinction by nuclear meltdown to keep the lights on. And not merely the extinction of other species, which we’ve been causing for generations. This time, we’re willing to take Homo sapiens into the abyss in exchange for hot pizza and cold beer. Meanwhile, governments of the world continue to cover up disasters as they occur. And we, the people, willingly let them because we can’t handle the truth.

Seeking energy at all costs

How far will we go to secure energy? Clearly, to the ends of the Earth. And perhaps, if we’re successful industrialists, even to the end of the (living) world.

As if ongoing events in Japan aren’t enough to convince you that dependence upon nuclear power plants isn’t a good idea — and apparently those events have failed to convince Barack Obama, who refuses to step down from his pro-nuclear stance — what about drilling for oil at depths we know are profoundly unsafe? That pesky Gulf of Mexico has sprung another leak, this time near yet another deepwater oil rig. Of course, this event isn’t deemed newsworthy, even as cleanup efforts have been under way for weeks.

Increasingly desperate for crude oil, the International Energy Agency is begging Norway to ratchet up production. Sorry, no dice from post-peak countries. The Obama administration’s response includes curtailing funding for the US Energy Information Administration, as if hiding from the facts about energy decline will help develop a coherent response.

Among the prices we pay for our imperial desires, apparently all too willingly: Ice is melting from Greenland and Antarctica at a rate that surprises even the global-change scientists studying the issue. This is merely one more notch in the miles-long belt of industry, yet another minor insult on an overheating, overwrought planet.

Tack on the couple hundred species we drive to extinction each and every day, along with utter destruction of every other aspect of Earth’s environment, and you start to get the idea our efforts aren’t entirely positive.

Big changes are on the way

Fortunately, our opportunities for planetary destruction are dwindling along with the supply of planetary energy.

In the absence of a willing transition to a future with access to less energy, geology will force us to power down, hence reduce the size of the industrial economy. Already it’s too late for a fast collapse of the industrial economy: According to every significant index, the US hit its economic peak in 2000. We’ve been in the midst of an economic recession since 2000. We’ve been mired in an economic depression since 2008, when the industrial age came within an eyelash of reaching its overdue terminus.

Even Ben Bernanke admitted American Empire nearly sucked its last breath, albeit years after the 2008 meltdown on Wall Street. When all the banks fail — or even a significant proportion of them — we’ll suddenly lose access to the fiat currency that allows the current set of living arrangements to persist.

Just as spikes in the price of oil preceded every economic recession since 1972, so too will the next price spike drive the industrial economy to the abyss. At the very least, the next spike in the price of oil will lead to another huge downturn.

According to dozens of energy literate pundits, the next spike in the price of oil will be the one that puts western civilization in the abattoir. This will be no surprise to the few Americans paying attention, given the fragility of the industrial economy and its near-termination back in 2008 when it was on much stronger footing than now.

Oil priced at $140 barrel is almost certainly coming this year, and that should do the trick, much to the astonishment of those who believe the industrial economy is unaffected by spikes in the price of oil, or that a long-time economic decline can turn into economic collapse.

Good news about our future

When American Empire completes its ongoing fall, we’ll be focused on the only economic system too big to fail: Earth. We will revere the ecosystems that provide us with water, food, clothing, protection from the elements, and all the philosophy we’ll ever need. We will witness the end of the seemingly endless wars for energy. We’ll live as part of the Earth, rather than apart from it.

As relocalization comes back in style, we’ll know all the non-human neighbors by name, and we will nurture them as they take care of us. We will learn to care for the planet that sustains us all and we’ll honor the lives of humans and other animals in the region we occupy. Along the way, we will concern ourselves with storing the harvest and saving seeds, harvesting what we sow and eating what we harvest, and paying careful attention to what we feed our children.

When American Empire completes its fall, we will learn to cherish our (human) communities while relying on them for care, just as we will care for others. Instead of being slaves to the economy and its government, we will be partners with our neighbors and the lands and waters that sustain us. We will conduct the difficult and meaningful work associated with stewardship of the lands, waters, and human communities that support us. Along the way, we will all learn how to accept death as we celebrate life.

When American Empire completes its fall, we will ignore the gods of economic growth who demand we destroy the planet in their name. We will not be attracted to shiny objects and those who promote those objects as wealth. Instead, we’ll be concerned about legitimate wealth: food and water supplied by healthy soils and the company of friends supplied by healthy communities.

This all sounds too good to be true. Why are we afraid of imperial collapse? Why are we not eagerly trying to destroy the empire that is destroying us?

One Comment

“This all sounds too good to be true.”

It sure does. Especially after a rather blunt assessment of the current state of affairs. The first things we’re likely to get hit hard by up here in the land of wine & weed will be shortages of fuel and food, and the results are probably not going to be pretty. How well are we doing as a “community” in dealing with the already-displaced and homeless? The lessons to be learned are profound, and the road will be long and rocky. As long as we’re pulling our heads from the sand, let’s not get too romantic about the difficulties ahead on our “overheated, overwrought planet”.