Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558 Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire

Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire

by Mary Logan

Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558 Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

“Bruegel’s paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman. . . . The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. . . . Virgil’s account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall.” Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtues of rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces the bravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.” . . . The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God’s kingdom. With its elemental contrasts, the picture would have also suggested to its educated viewers one of the central questions of Renaissance humanism: what was human nature and how did it relate to nature’s wider orders.” (Baldwin, 1986, p. 101).

Thanks to Gail at Wit’s End for the Baldwin/Bruegel links above. The painting represents the tensions between agrarian and urban society that has occurred over and over in civilizations throughout history, as we pulse up into civilizations that later fail. Bruegel’s good plowman, sensible sailors, shepherd, and fishermen in the painting above are symbolic of a culture that harnesses earth, wind, and sun to live within the restraints of nature, in contrast to foolish, ambitious Icarus. Early scholars associated Icarus with urban technologies of “kingdoms doomed to fall.” What symbolic culture will represent us as empire wanes?

First, we need to define empire and symbolic culture. An empire organizes diverse materials and people into spatial centers that concentrate resources through domination and innovation. The Roman empire is often used as an isolated example of centralized power built solely on solar energy, through innovations in organization, and military and government service. American imperialism is a unique modern example, as America dominated the high empower industrial revolution, creating an early advantage. The US remained as the only superpower after the Cold War, allowing for further global colonization through military-industrial and corporate reach. American imperialism has evolved over time through stages of industrial revolution and population explosion to the current stage of global information storm and peak empower as seen in the progression in the figure above (Odum & Odum, 2001, p. 120).

And what is culture? What are symbols? Cultural knowledge, beliefs, art, law, moral and customs help humans adapt to and maintain their ecosystems in different physical environments. The environment determines many cultural traits. Economic and political institutions can be adaptive or maladaptive, and if the ecosystem changes, cultures may change, diffuse, or clash with other cultures, resulting in acculturation or assimilation.  Geertz viewed culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” (Geertz 1973, p. 89).

Religion was historically a means of conveying culture. While culture and religion have separated in the last 200 years, political, economic and religious symbols are beginning to merge again. Religious symbols are even being commodified. As the social system changes, religious and political symbols will need to change to represent “stability over growth, organization over competition, diversity over uniformity, system over self, and survival process over individual peace” (Odum, 1971).

Perhaps the most prevalent modern symbol of empire is the corporate suit and tie. This uniform represents the profit-making values of the growth economy. Clothing is a powerful cultural identifier, and as attitudes about power and the pursuit of wealth shift, we will need new symbols of relocalization with ethnic dress. In Alaska, those symbols might be Carhartts and ball caps, or kuspuks, for instance, depending on cultural preference, emergy basis, and availability of materials as fossil-fuel based cloth becomes rarer.  The Occupy counterculture favors t-shirts and hoodies, while women’s skirts are longer again, reflecting economic slowdown.

Clay in Carhartts

Food is another common cultural symbol. The foods of empire are exotic, imported foods prepared without regard to the season. Organized sports competitions such as football and basketball are also symbols of competition and power for empire. Faceless terrorists are distant symbols of threats to our empire that unite us. The threat of loss of control of nature in the form of climate change also looms on the comfortably distant horizon of the future. In descent, symbols of threats will probably be more prosaic, imminent, and closer to home.

Powerful Symbols-Adbusters Occupy Wall Street poster

There was a reason the Occupy movement began with the symbol of Wall Street and the Wall Street bull. The Corporation and the stock market have become the best symbol of America’s ever-growing financial health, inextricably intertwined with a financial empire around the globe. Fiat currencies are other powerful symbols of empire with great emotional value, that are largely fictional. Thomas Jefferson said that “money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nations.”Our representations of money are not even physical anymore. Money consists of digits on a screen, plastic cards, or derivative paper being traded for more paper in distant urban centers. As we print money and the supply grows, its connection to real assets is disappearing as the counter-current

Spinning military- industrial deathstar?

of exchange with real assets strips its gears and starts to spin, creating a separate surreal super-circulation where the monetary information is no longer connected to the underlying reality of real production and consumption. This slippage is now occurring, even to the point of causing monetary unions to fracture off and devolve away from traditional political and economic states. When confidence fails, the money stop being used. All fiat currencies eventually fail. When the economy collapses, the shock may cause us to replace the pursuit of money in our value system. The sense of being cheated at a very fundamental level may become the cultural tipping point for descent. What trustworthy symbols will replace destroyed currencies? New, transient, digital forms of money may also fail as confidence in representative moneys fails. And what connotation does unforgivable debt have? We are at the point where “student loans have basically ruined my life”and student loans may

Adbusters spoof ad reminding us that we are, after all, part of Nature

prevent or delay students from marrying or having families. Suddenly the corporation is intruding into our most basic social decisions of who to marry and when to procreate. Obligations to corporations and to a culture that insists that growth will continue clash with our most basic needs. What will the new local financial values and symbols be? Old religious ideas that disfavored debt and moneylenders will probably resurface, and simple barter may aid the transition as we attempt to reboot. We must “judge value by the energies spent, the energies stored, and the energy flow which is possible, turning not to the incomplete measure of money” (Odum, 1971, p. 244).

Academia is yielding to the enticements of technology and corporate culture, too. Perhaps the biggest symbol of the corporatization of learning is the ubiquitous use of Microsoft’s business tool, Powerpoint (PPT), in lectures. Students in my courses are surprised to see chairs arranged in a talking circle on the first day of class, as opposed to the usual arrangement oriented towards the projector screen for the PPT sage. PPT creates distance and dehumanizes teaching, and “disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content” (Tufte, 2003). Additional complexity and tasks come between message and students. Click on the 6-slide PPT presentation above for a demonstration of how technology is changing our methods of teaching. Symbols of science and the consumer culture are also merging.

Status symbols reflect hierarchy of social elevation in different cultures. Symbols of cultural status and power in empire include large, fast, expensive cars, big houses, skyscrapers, new technology, and other symbols of affluence such as jewelry, clothing, and other costly items. I ask my freshmen students what they want out of life, and they say that they want to be rich.  Fame and money are typically the source of power in this culture. Recent interviews of sinking middle class Americans revealed shifting views of status and priorities. Debtors weren’t paying their home mortgages but they were continuing to pay their car notes. Perhaps the more mobile car represents the last hope of upward mobility for the middle class? We will always have hierarchy and status symbols, but traditional cultures were more stratified through roles, with less mobility. Will successful farmers be the new source of power in a hungry world? If so, is land ownership the rising status symbol? I just know that I will be happy when the SUV departs as status symbol.

Polarized politics is the final resting place of hope that some charismatic leader will save the world, so that we don’t have to change. Political symbols include leader’s images, maps, flags, and symbols such as the donkey, the elephant, the hammer and sickle. But transformational leadership is difficult in a gridlocked, teetering economic system that has ground to a halt. Disengaging from politics allows us to free our activist space for something different to rise up out of the ashes. As we relocalize, symbols of polarization will still exist, but the clashes may fall back into patterns similar to those found in the American Revolution where the resource competition occurs between failing urban empower centers and rising rural agricultural zones. The Hunger Games (again!) reflects that theme in the homespun sacrifice of children symbolized in the reaping ceremony in District 12. Revolution begins with inequities and maladaptive cultural institutions that no longer work.

“Organizations at great distance from their source of control develop tensions if the reinforcement loop between the people and distant governance fails. For example, in the early American colonies, self-organization on the frontier reinforced local needs, whereas the English crown tried to sustain the inequitable exchange of empower favoring British needs in its trade with the colonies. Thus two feedback loops were competing for control, one for local benefit and one by and for the governing parent. Protests such as the Boston tea party started the American Revolution. In the subsequent empower testing of war, there was enough empower in the 13 colonies, supplemented with empower aid from the French, to overcome the empower that Britain could transfer easily across the ocean” (Odum, 2007, p. 304).

How will the empower balance between rural agrarian society and urban empire shift during transition? As we descend the energy hierarchy over time, will Odum’s zonal distribution shift back towards an agrarian economy slowly in stages or will it crash? Are there other lessons we can take from Icarus’ fall of the mighty?  And if we merge our social, political, economic, and religious symbols into the multinational Corporation, and the corporation fails, what will we be left with? And are our cultural values for sale? Recognizing symbols of empire helps us to clarify and shift our world views. Are you ready to give up skyscrapers and business suits for Bo Falk’s peasant imagery of the good plowman? What are your symbols of Empire, and are your ready to find some new symbols for descent?

  • Jan Steinman

    My prototypical symbol of our current empire is the automobile.

    I get a little crazy when some well-intentioned, self-professed “greenie” starts talking about electric cars or hybrids or such things, as though changing the paint on your house can change the way you live.

    My symbol for descent is the scythe.

    I can move almost as fast as someone using one of those gawd-awful string trimmers, but I can listen to the birds, feel the wind, get exercise, and smell fresh grass instead of unburnt gas. The resulting “product,” with its clean cut, lasts longer and the goats prefer it to the beat-up stuff that comes out of machines — which generally gets bagged in petroleum and hauled to the dump, anyway. (I’ll take it! Deliver your grass clippings and other vegetative waste to me! But take the plastic bags back with you.)

    It takes more skill. There is more nuance. Give a beginner a scythe and a gas string trimmer, and they’ll make mistakes quicker with the string trimmer every time. Power tools for power fools.

    But those who observe and interact can pick up scythe technique quickly — sawing rather than slicing, the quick “pull back” around posts or valuable plants, valuing slow and small swipes, rather than attacking broad swaths, recognizing which plants will cut easily, and which will require a short bite. (Hint: the ones with barbs and thistles that are not accessible to ruminants are generally the softer, easier ones to cut.)

    The scythe has a dual meaning. The scythe-carrying “grim reaper” is symbolic for those who continue to worship at the Church of Growth in their symbolic automobiles, while the scythe itself is symbolic for those who understand that whatever future we have will be powered by adenosine triphosphate, rather than by hydrocarbons.

    • Admin

      Yes, the car. The post was way too long, Jan. I had to beat it into submission so the car got lumped into status symbols. Environmentalists suffer from lack of imagination. We’re going to need a new culture from the ground up. Downsizing what we have is only a temporary transition step for those with distance vision of several years.

      I keep the plastic bags, too. Our soil needed a lot of amendment, so in the fall, I scrounge curbsides looking for the neighbors who have lawn service rake and bag their birch leaves. Nature’s wealth free for the taking. I get some odd looks, and I avoid lawns where people are using weed and feed. This year, the birch leaf amendments are finally paying off, along with the chicken manure applicator/soil managers we hired.

      Our family lived in Puerto Rico for three years when I was young. I learned to swing a machete then. The future will be solar, yes, and I don’t think you mean by that solar panels everywhere!

      • Jan Steinman

        Mary, I didn’t mean to sound critical of you for lumping the car in with status symbols! Like your father, you have a lot of good stuff to say, and I’m enjoying every word!

        When we see a puff of smoke on the horizon, we head over there before the fire gets too big, and offer to “help them” by taking their slash off their hands. The way I see it, they’re exporting their soil fertility! We run as much of it as we can through goats and chickens, then run the rest through a biodiesel-powered wood chipper, and spread it on garden paths or mix it with crude glycerine (from our biodiesel processing) and compost it.

        (Is there a way to post a link on this blog? My HTML got stripped. Let’s try the link to a story about our invasive plant intake program this way:

        • Admin

          Thanks. I’ve got the setting for discussion set to hold comments for moderation for 2 or more links, and I see your link made it through the second time around for whatever reason.

          Goats! “He figures it takes the herd about a week to eat its way through two or three truckloads of material. When the goats are through with the tastiest bits, stalks and stems are thrown into a wood chipper and spread along the 43-acre property’s extensive network of garden pathways.” Very efficient critters!

          Anchorage has a free wood chip facility that we scavenge from, and we also scavenge (with permission) from construction sites and friends who ask us to come get their trees. Neighbors have learned that they don’t need to worry about the house when Todd is felling their trees. But we could use more leaf mulch, we never get enough. Like you, I marvel at people hiring someone to bag up and discard all of that wealth on the curb. How many ways can we circle the right thing to do, all the while burning /wasting fossil fuels?

          • Jan Steinman

            I didn’t try to post two or more comments; I tried to include HTML for a link on some text, using the “a” tag. The HTML was stripped, and the text came through as plain text, no link.

            I have no problem with that if them’s the rules.

  • scarecities

    A long and well thought out piece, but impossible to cover in comment form without duplicating its length and testing the patience of readers
    So to cover just the final, and most important paragraph.
    No, there will not be a long peaceful descent into some kind of Breughel-esque rural paradise. The energy input of our industrialised system is the only factor keeping us (reasonably) safe from the pestilence and famine of the 14th century. As our hydrocarbon driven economy collapses, those two horsemen will reappear quickly, and the other two won’t be far behind.
    The descent will not be gradual, because without energy input our cities can last no longer than a week. The bucolic images of Breughel shows individuals trudging out to strip-farms for a day’s honest toil. It is irresponsible to promote the idea that somehow the citizens of Washington or London can do the same thing. As to using oxen to plough fields, the word ‘Morgen’ has two meanings. It is the old word for morning, it also denotes the area of land on which oxen can be worked at the plough before they are exhausted. (ie: a morning). Horses and oxen need energy sources too, but we no longer have room for the millions of animals needed to replace tractor power.
    As humanity realizes that we do not have the means to produce our food, we will fight over what’s left. Anyone doubting this should consider that we’ve spent thousands of years fighting over resources when the planet had more than enough for everybody. To think that we will act differently when faced with absolute shortage is naïve in the extreme.

    • Jan Steinman

      “The descent will not be gradual, because without energy input our cities can last no longer than a week.”

      Why assume energy will go away all at once?

      This is going to be a process, not an event. (Although if you look at any process in a big enough time scale, it looks like an event.)

      “To think that we will act differently when faced with absolute shortage is naïve in the extreme.”

      To think one’s crystal ball is perfect and that all others’ have some defect is arrogant in the extreme.

      Why is there no life on other planets in our solar system? Why is there no detectable life anywhere else in the universe?

      It’s because things are “clumpy.” Galaxies form in threads, with vast empty regions between. Human population is in cities, with vast, relatively empty areas in between. Matter as we know it is composed mostly of what we’d call empty space, with a marble of an electron at one end of a football field and a beach ball of a protron or neutron at the other end.

      Why, then, is it so hard to imagine that the energy descent will not also be “clumpy?”

      There’s going to be a big distribution of effects. That’s one reason why I moved to a net energy exporter. (Although the current government is hell-bent on exporting every bit, without reserving any for its own citizens.) There will continue to be the super-wealthy and the dirt poor — the ratio is going to change dramatically.

      And there will continue to be a middle class — I would call them the “landed peasants.” These will be the people who manage to secure land and produce energy — individually or in small groups — using their own labour and resources.

      So I see three possible paths: 1) become tremendously rich enough so that you’ll always be on top of anything that happens, 2) slide into destitute poverty, losing your health care, employment, and probably food supply in the process, or 3) produce as much food and other energy as you possibly can, on as much mortgage-free property as you can muster, with friends and relatives and neighbours.

      At least that’s what my crystal ball tells me.

  • scarecities

    Relying on wealth for safety in the future has a problem: Money has no value unless it is backed up by energy producing assets. In pre-industrial times that meant land, from which you could produce food, plus an excess with which you could feed and arm a soldier caste to defend it, and hopefully invade someone else’s land to get more. Given enough land/wealth, you could trade energy. Your army needed the embodied energy in weaponry, or in stone to build your castle through which you could control the serfs (muscle-energy) who owed you allegiance in return for protection. It was a society held in balance by food production; 90% of people worked the land to provide enough food-energy to support the other 10%.
    Now only 2% of (western) people work the land, the difference is made up by hydrocarbon energy input which supports our cities and the rest of our infrastructure. The slightest slowing down in energy input leads to severe decline in basic standards of living, hence 44 million on food aid in USA alone.
    It is that energy input that has driven what we know as growth, when it goes into decline we will return to an economic system whose prime function is almost exclusively food production, just as it was before the industrial revolution.
    200 years ago, most people knew how to grow food, and they had space in which to do it. Yes, we could go back to that rural idyll, but not with 7 billion people demanding to be fed; to do that would mean acknowledging the food producers as the most important members of society, and there would have to be fewer of us. Those who don’t know how to produce food will find themselves working for those who do: the need to eat will reflect the ultimate cost of labour. Human nature cannot change, those able to control land will also control the lives of those who are landless because the alternative is starvation. The decline in societies prior to total anarchy has always been episodic, but things invariably snap with sudden violence as those who have defend themselves against the have nots. Expecting benevolence to somehow become the predominant aspect of human nature after a million years of collective homicide is stretching wishful thinking beyond breaking point.

    • Admin

      Thanks, Scarcecities, for the old meanings of “morgen.” My mother was fascinated by etymologies, and there is a lot of important history to uncover there. Horses and oxen will not be equally distributed, I agree–here is an article I linked to Bo’s post on some of the energetics for 18th-20th century draft animals in Europe if you’re interested. Friends in Alaska have horses, which are heavily supported by fossil fuel resources.

      There will be pockets of thriving culture and pockets of collapse, depending on a number of factors, including emergy basis. Parsing out what those factors are and how we can optimize for those factors locally is something scientists need to be actively engaged in, instead of the many foolish things we now devote our science to. Until scientists’ world views shift and their scope broadens, they will continue to devote their time to reductionist agendas guided by the increasingly powerful military-industrial interests that have poked their noses under the academic fence.

      You make a lot of great points in your post, and I agree that there will be a lot of strife in the future. But I would like to focus on one point you’ve made, perhaps unfairly, as it reflects the emotional content that we have all felt from time to time as we watch the empire slash and burn what is left. “It is irresponsible to promote the idea that somehow the citizens of Washington or London can do the same thing.” Yes, you are correct that there won’t be room for everyone in Washington and London to decentralize. Dieoff and devolution will decrease concentrations in urban centers either quickly or slowly, in one way or another. But if we don’t start making the change, all of us, then there is no hope. Hilfiker at the link below has some inspiring things to say about hope and whether it makes sense to try. (Unfortunately he focuses too much on climate change, IMO, thus creating the cognitive error of reductionism–reductionist problems lead to proposals by others for reductionist solutions that may be harmful, such as geoengineering.)

      “But we must also remember that what’s coming makes it even more important to find hope within our grief and act with courage and decisiveness. We can’t make it all better, but we have been given the opportunity to participate in what is perhaps the greatest human struggle in recorded history. We are witness to a time in history like no other, and we can make a difference. Helen Keller once said, “I rejoice to live in such a splendidly disturbing time.””

      I agree with Jan’s comments about the future being unequally distributed. Our minds react to threat by polarizing into black and white. Those of us who can see have to try, and hope for the best. People are social, and eventually enough people make the change that feedback loops develop and tipping points occur. We have to try.


  • scarecities

    While I agree that we (at least those able to give it some lucid thought) must begin to make change, like it or not, we are all locked into survival through adherence to commercial enterprise, even to the smallest degree. We all expect to come home and flick a switch for instant light and heat. Someone’s ongoing (profitable) enterprise has made that possible. Someone’s wages depends on us doing that, and he likes his job.
    We talk of ‘transition towns’; but the moment one of us gets sick we expect the attention of a competent medic, with all his industrial backup to make us well again. No one will vote to downsize hospitals to the level of cupping and bleeding. No one will quietly die for the good of the community without trying every other option. We have no choice in the matter, our genetic structure will not allow it.
    In the final analysis, our survival depends on access to around 2500 calories of food a day. That will be the focus of everyone in a post industrial society, just as it was 500 years ago when those with enough muscle power to take and defend land controlled the food energy of everyone else.
    That is happening again. Already, farms are merging into big industrial complexes, falling into fewer and fewer hands with individual farmers gradually disappearing, coinciding with the collapse of the market economic system that makes our food supply chain function. This means that our food supplies effectively belong to big corporations who will strive to hang on to what they have just as they did in a feudal society.
    Police and armies are human beings whose ultimate need is also 2500 calories a day, they will have no choice but to sell their loyalty to the hand that feeds them, and protect the food production system of whoever that might be. Every pre-industrial society has functioned on this principle, essentially the control of the food production system for the profit and luxury of a privileged few. We have enjoyed a century of relative luxury for all exclusively through the input of hydrocarbon energy. That cannot continue, but there will be those who will go to any lengths to make it so.
    It is perhaps an interesting debating point to consider that the ending of slavery (converting muscle power directly into wealth) in the USA coincided exactly with the usage of oil on an industrial scale.

    • Jan Steinman

      I can’t argue with anything you assert, except to again point out that this will probably not be universal, and that there is a great deal one can do to try to find or create a niche.

      Nature likes niches, and is constantly creating them. In fact, it is high-energy situations that tend toward homogeneity and competition, whereas low-energy situations tend toward diversity and cooperation. I think Howard and Elizabeth might have written about that, and it is certainly a well-know tenant of ecology.

      So, are the “doomers” right? Absolutely! Are the “slow crashers” right? Certainly! Sometimes, the opposite of a great truth is also a great truth, and two seemingly contradictory things can both be “right.”

  • scarecities

    I agree on the ‘niche’ concept. I have no doubt that humanity will hang on, the aboriginal societies have probably had it right all along and will possibly show everyone who chooses to learn, that survival is both possible and pleasant provided we don’t demand too much.
    though even ‘low energy’ species/groups compete for space and dominance, and opportunities to procreate their own genes at the expense of others

  • Admin

    I agree; resilience at this point means having one foot in each camp, Scarcecities. One foot in the old to make money to maintain some aspects of the old way of life (pay the utilities), and one foot in the new, a universal or multicultural citizen, moving fluidly between two cultures. There will be many new niches for relocalization, downsizing, and recycling specialists. I think that needs further discussion.

    And I did notice that slavery ended in the US about the time fossil fuels started to rev up. Were we moral only when it was convenient? Will debt from the old regime have any meaning in the next political system (debt slaves), or is the degree of debt so egregious that we will forgive all debt?

    Yes, Jan. HT’s favorite lecture was about succession. Over and over and over I heard this one. Except that the ecologists then took that to mean that there was never a downside to climax, so HT emphasized pulsing later on (3rd link).
    (EPO on succession, 1969)

  • scarecities

    The point about ‘making money’ still assumes that money can exist in a post-industrial society. To explain money in terms as I see it:
    I work, and get paid for my labour with colored bits of paper which are tokens of my muscle or brain output. I then take those tokens, and buy the results of someone else’s labour, whose work output I need: Food, fuel, medical care, whatever. Money becomes a token of energy exchange, it has no intrinsic value of its own; passing it around doesn’t create ‘wealth’ unless there is that constant input of effort. No matter how big the amounts spent, money has value only if it is supported by primary energy. That’s why job creation schemes always fizzle out.
    Our economic system really is that simple, and has worked that way through the entire history of civilization.
    We all talk of ‘making money’ when what we are really doing is exchanging energy input/output with one another. Some are better at it than others, which is why you have rich and poor, but that still doesn’t alter the energy exchange dynamic.
    That’s why ‘printing money’ is effectively like trying to print energy. It doesn’t work
    Our economy is driven by energy, not money; as energy (availability) declines our future is going to be very unpleasant when we find that out.
    yes I do think mass morality is there when convenient. We are (mostly) warm and well fed, but you might say you’re is as safe as your neighbour’s full stomach.
    Which brings up the next point, that pockets of resilience and relative affluence will not be safe from those who are less well provided for.
    To use the USA as an example: $15 tn in debt based on a promise of future prosperity which cannot possibly be repaid because it is wholly dependent on hydrocarbon energy input, making economic collapse a certainty. America is effectively borrowing money to buy oil to sustain its ‘way of life’ but 15% of the population are already on food aid, climate change and oil depletion will cut food supplies drastically making this more and more difficult to sustain. The majority of the population are armed with modern weapons, and will have the inclination to use them to support their divine right of consumption. A main tenet of Republicanism is ‘minimal government’ which in essence means you look after yourself, the politics of the frontier in other words. Even Obama has described America as a nation obsessed with god and guns.
    Not a pleasant combination for the future

  • Admin

    On debt in the US–I’ve seen estimates of unfunded liabilities for the future that vary from $100T to over $200T. And additional promises to the future are being made daily. From Tytler (perhaps), “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing . . . .”

    And the credit debt, which is inextricably mired with the securitized assets of other countries globally, is somewhere over $1.5 Quadrillion. The BIS image below says it best, and that image is 4 years old. I’m not sure anyone has a real grip on the numbers, since the casino chips are all created OTC (not through a formal exchange).×235.jpg

    Exponential money with contracting resources and a still expanding population. Something doesn’t add up, quickly, especially with the casino games and power inequities going on in Wall Street. From Jesse:

    “The world will soon wake up to the reality that everyone is broke and can collect nothing from the bankrupt, who are owed unlimited amounts by the insolvent, who are attempting to make late payments on a bank holiday in the wrong country, with an unacceptable currency, against defaulted collateral, of which nobody is sure who holds title.” – Anonymous

    Or the older version:
    “Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who writes the laws.” – Mayer Amschel Rothschild, 1790

    What goes around comes around. What is old is new again. Too bad we can’t remember.

    • Jan Steinman

      My advice: get off the economy to the greatest degree possible — and then work at the next step of greater economic independence. Grow food. Produce energy. Grow herbal medicines.

      “you might say you’re is as safe as your neighbour’s full stomach.
      Which brings up the next point, that pockets of resilience and relative affluence will not be safe from those who are less well provided for.”

      Ah, but isn’t this based on the American “rugged individualist” world-view?

      Another way of looking at it: you and your neighbour are both safe as long as you make sure the other has a full stomach.

      If enough people have that attitude, pockets of relative prosperity can exist.

      So many Americans can only think in black and white. It’s either “business as usual,” or apocalyptic crash. I prefer Dmitry Orlov’s view of five levels of collapse. The situation you describe is an “Orlov Level-5 Collapse,” every person for themselves, including cannibalism.

      On the other hand, the Former Soviet Union only went to an Orlov Level-3 Collapse during their peak of oil production and the collapse of the empire.

      Orlov goes on to note that nearly 40% of the population “went away,” and yet, the country still functions. He said you don’t really notice what’s going on until you look a your high school yearbook, and realize that nearly half the people in it are dead.

  • scarecities

    I try to frame my comments in general terms, while drawing on examples of history for credibility, and known facets of human nature.
    Humanity, in the western developed context, has got used to a certain mode of life, stupid maybe, but there it is. We will not surrender it without struggle and denial, and until the inevitable is forced upon us. Collectively, we want to believe that there’s an energy ‘breakthrough’ about to come on the market that will allow our lives to continue as ‘normal’, ie we can go on hauling 2 tons of steel around to go buy a pint of milk; or the other line of thinking, that a conspiracy is preventing that from happening right now. Hence you have loony presidential candidates promising $2 gas, and millions chorusing in belief.
    They need to believe in a ‘normality’ that has only existed for about a century, much less for many people, and that is the danger, a collective insistence that normality can go on into infinity, when common sense says it can’t
    As to my neighbors full stomach, however far one extends one’s neighborhood, one will eventually run up against those of an unpleasant disposition. Here in the UK when we had a fuel delivery drivers strike for a week, within days fights were breaking out on fuel forecourts. Our government was informed by a consortium of supermarkets that enough food was in the delivery pipeline for 4 days. We can grow 60% of our food, we must import the rest.
    We need fuel energy to live, and relatively few have the means to opt out of that economic system. Think of all the people who we depend on to do jobs that enable society to function. They cannot opt to downsize. Those jobs have grown in tandem with our ‘civilized’ fuel burning society.
    Russia still functions because it exports oil and gas, in the same way that Saudi does. Saudi had a pre-oil population of 1 million in 1900. There’s now 29 million. The arithmetic will be catastrophic in its conclusion when the oil runs out.

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