|Breakwater off shore from Kincardine|
I've been promising to write about political realities for a while now. My last couple of posts were about ways of defining political positions (political compasses) and how well various positions are adapted to life in the age of scarcity (energy decline and economic contraction). Now the time has finally come to talk about those political realities and consider why modern politics is so maladapted to the challenges we face, now and in the coming decades.
There are many aspects to being a successful politician or political party, but surely the first is getting elected. If you don't have a reasonable chance of getting elected, then it's all just cheap talk (enjoyed by many of us, I will admit). In order to get elected you need two things: votes and money to run your campaign.
If you talk to voters you'll find that most of them aren't very happy with the way things are going and they'd like you to fix things. So you need a "platform", a story about why you are the candidate best suited to do that, to convince people to vote for you. To get the word out, you'll need publicity, and that costs money. Modern elections are such media circuses that it takes big money to win one and that means those who have big money have an inordinately large influence on who gets elected.
Unfortunately, the interests of voters and those who fund political campaigns don't always line up, and when they do, they line up in the wrong direction. A closer look at this will take us to the heart of what I want to discuss in this post. But first, let's take look at the real problems that governments should be addressing and aren't.
Since early in the history of this blog, I've been talking about three problems: resource depletion (Peak Oil), pollution (Climate Change) and economic contraction. But if you look closely you'll see that this all boils down into one thing—growth.
Our resource depletion problems arise from the exponential increase in our use of natural resources as both human population and standard of living have increased exponentially over the last few centuries. Climate change, and other sorts of pollution problems, arise from the way we are filling up the available sinks with our ever growing quantity of wastes.
Economic contraction arises from the declining surplus energy of our primary energy resources, fossil fuels—part of our resource depletion problem, again caused by growth. The more fuel we burn, the greater our gross domestic product. The faster we burn it, the higher our percentage growth. In the short run, this is conventionally accepted as a good thing. Copious quantities of high quality and easy to access fossil fuels have driven exponential growth, but those days are coming to an end. Our financial and political systems are addicted to growth and woefully unprepared for its end.
Yet it is ending. Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is the main concern here—a good measure of the quality of an energy source. The remaining fossil fuels (and there are lots of them) have an EROEI too low to support growth and none of the possible alternative sources of energy is any better. Somewhere around 15 seems to be the significant level of EROEI for operating a modern growth-based industrial society—and that's an average of all the energy sources used. As your average EROEI declines toward 15, growth slows and it becomes difficult to raise capital for new projects. Below 15 it becomes difficult to maintain existing infrastructure and things start to fall apart.
Many of those who acknowledge climate change today hold great hope for renewable energy sources that don't generate CO2. But those renewables, particularly when you include the storage technology needed to compensate for their intermittent nature, have such a low EROEIs that they won't support an industrial civilization, but require one to support them. In other words, if it is not already too late, we might be able use the remaining supplies of high EROEI fossil fuels to switch over to renewables, but if we rely on the energy supplied by them, we wouldn't be able to maintain them or replace them as they wear out.
Or, we can look at it another way. For most of our prehistory and history the burden we placed upon this planet grew very slowly and we were, at any rate, far below its carrying capacity. But in the last few decades our pursuit of growth has carried us into overshoot, currently by about 150% and increasing. This is possible because we are using up the planet's non-renewable reserves, but in the process we are actually reducing its carrying capacity. At some point soon our continued growth and that shrinking capacity will meet with catastrophic results.
As I've said before, our planet is a big place, so this will happen "unevenly, unsteadily and unequally". Indeed, it is already starting to do so. And in the long run, on a geological time scale, it's really no big deal. I think it is quite likely that a reduced number of human beings, with a more modest lifestyle will even manage to pull through.
But in the short run, the systems we rely on to supply us with the necessities of life are going to quit working. Yes, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. But the ability and willingness of the developed nations to mount relief operations (even to help their own people) will dwindle. If you are at ground zero in an area where things are taking a big step downward, it will, at least for a while, seem like the end of the world. If you are rich and not too unlucky, you may manage to avoid the worst of what's going on around you, otherwise... not so much.
So, I'd like our governments to do the best job they can of arranging a graceful decline to a workable level of population and consumption. But my experience suggests that this isn't a reasonable expectation. In fact, they will probably do quite a bit to make things worse.
This is because our political systems are incapable of acknowledging that limits exist, that we are nearing them and that because of this, growth is no longer a good thing. Why this difficulty with acknowledging reality? It's pretty simple, really—we've built a system that only works when it is growing.
Modern businesses operate on credit and rely on the global financial system to supply that credit. Even money, which many of us think of as hard, cold cash, is actually just credit, loaned into existence out of thin air by the banks. And of course it must eventually be paid back to the banks, with interest.
As long as the economy is growing, that's no problem. The banks have confidence that, on average, businesses will grow, and be able to pay back their loans with interest, so they are willing to make loans. Businesses have the same confidence and are willing to go along with this because it allows them to operate, expand and improve. But in order for them to pay back their loans, with interest, the supply of money must increase. This is done by loaning out more money, creating more debt and continuing the cycle onwards and upwards.
This system was adopted because the previous system, based on precious metals, would not allow the money supply to grow quickly enough. And because growth, fueled by high EROEI fossil fuels, was so highly beneficial to both banks and businesses, a way had to be found to accommodate it.
It is ironic that the U.S. ended the "gold standard" in the early 1970s, with the result that the whole world converted to "fiat money", just as oil production was peaking in the continental U.S. and other areas, and just before the first oil shock, when OPEC proclaimed an embargo and forced the price of oil up from $3 to $12 per barrel. Our efforts to financially accommodate endless growth where instituted just as that growth first began to falter. Since then, our economic history has been a case of governments trying to maintain economic growth in the face of declining surplus energy, the very thing that actually supports that growth.
To my way of thinking, this is an example of an insoluble problem.
Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits To Growth, talks about easy and hard problems. With easy problems, things start getting better as soon as you start applying some effort to solving the problem and the public can see that it is worth the effort. With hard problems, things initially get worse, but eventually, if you keep working at it, they do get better. Our political system is very poor at solving hard problems. A government that tries to solve such a problem, and can't show that things are improving before the next election, won't get re-elected. Even if, with just a little more time, things would have turned around.
But our current situation is in another class of problem altogether. In order to solve our resource depletion, pollution and carrying capacity problems, growth has to stop and indeed we need to go through a significant amount of degrowth, both in population and consumption. But this will be an economic disaster, leaving us all considerably poorer, with no prospect of things getting better. If we try to maintain economic growth, we will make the other problems, and our final situation, even worse. At best, we can aim to make things somewhat "less worse" than they would otherwise get. This is why I say there is no solution, only the prospect of various degrees of success at adapting.
The political reality is that in order to finance their campaigns, politicians rely on donations, some from private individuals, but most from banks and businesses. Banks and businesses want many things, but it all boils down to continued growth, if not in the long run, at least in the short run. If they want campaigns funds, politicians must do what they can in an attempt to guarantee this. Voters, too, want growth because they can see that the end of growth would be pretty hard on them, as well. If you want to get elected, better be strong on growth.
As I said at the start, voters can tell that things aren't going well and want politicians to do something about it. But the real problem is growth itself and we are pretty much all in denial about that, so politicians are in a difficult spot and have to come up with various creative ways out.
Those who I would characterize as "bad" politicians, for lack of a better turn of phrase, are eager to maintain the position and privilege of their supporters, the rich and powerful. They care little or nothing for the bottom 80% of the population. They deny limits, especially climate change and peak oil, reassuring everyone that business as usual can continue for the foreseeable future. For the purposes of this discussion I'll call them "exclusionist, capitalist, fiscal conservatives", using the some of the terminology from my posts on political compasses and positions.
You might think that this approach would make it hard to get many votes, but with enough money to spend it is amazing what you can convince people of.
And of course many voters are eager to hear that business as usual is a viable proposition, that with the right policies we can return to the "good old days". Add in some "trickle down" economics, promise to reduce taxes and government waste, fight an endless succession of foreign wars, blame poverty on the poor, and unemployment and crime on immigrants and visible minorities and you can come up with a winning platform.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this approach.
It's easy to reduce taxes, but harder to reduce spending, so you end up going further into debt and your government itself is crippled due to reduced revenue. It's hard to hide your lack of concern for the bottom 80%—your programs keep the top 20% in pretty good shape, but as the economy contracts, the bottom 80% suffer more and more. The ranks of the unemployed swell and with social programs cut to the bone, people aren't unemployed long before they end up homeless.
In the U.S., encampments of homeless people have sprung up in and around many cities. Sadly, when the number of homeless people increases to the point where they become quite visible, the typical response is one of distrust and even hate. The rest of the community want the homeless to simply go away, going so far in many cases as to make homelessness (and efforts to charitably help the homeless) essentially illegal. The tent cities are bulldozed and their inhabitants rounded up and sent on their way.
In capitalism societies where all the means of production (and even subsistence) are privately owned and even government owned parks do not welcome those who might seek refuge in them, there is nowhere for the homeless to turn. Eventually this will lead to large scale confrontations and riots that will be suppressed ruthlessly, temporarily diverting those who survive to privately owned prisons that are little more than a form of legalized slavery. But this will not make the problem go away in the long run—as the economy continues to contract, even the private prison system will prove unprofitable.
As collapse continues, along with economic problems like unemployment and homelessness and the social unrest arising from them, there will be continuing deterioration of infrastructure and a variety of natural disasters. The government will have no choice but to abandon the worse affected areas. Not officially of course, but simply by neglecting them due to a lack of resources to support or rebuild them, or even enforce the rule of law. This will start with just a few isolated areas and grow until the remaining governed areas become isolated enclaves in the abandoned expanses.
Strangely, I see some hope in this, as there will be no way to prevent anyone from leaving the governed areas and setting up their own communities in the abandoned areas. And the changes needed to successfully address the challenges we face can best be made by those who have nothing invested in our current system.
So, this "exclusionist, capitalist, fiscal conservatives" approach is good only for the short term interests of the rich and powerful, and bad for the short term interests of the bottom 80%. In the long run, it's bad for everybody involved, and only after it has largely dwindled away is it possible to see much hope.
On the other side things we have those who I would characterize as the "less bad" politicians. For the purposes of this discussion I'll call them "inclusionist, socialist, fiscal liberals", though this kind of socialism involves a lot of capitalist activity. They generally accept the reality of climate change, but claim that they can address it without damage to the economy or jobs, and that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels with no significant changes in the way we live. They use the term "sustainable development", an oxymoron if ever there was one, and claim that we can decouple economic growth from resource depletion and pollution. Many people are fooled by this nonsense, but the political reality is that these politicians also have rich and powerful supporters, so business as usual must be allowed to carry on.
What makes these politicians less bad is not their lip service to addressing climate change but the fact that they do care about the welfare of everyone in their societies, not just the rich and powerful. They are willing to tax progressively to keep government running efficiently and provide support to those who have been failed by the economy. This results in a society with significantly less crime and social unrest, and a higher level of social justice. Which is why the rich are willing to be taxed heavily.
In order to reassure voters that they are doing something about the problems of the day, these politicians tend to address symptoms of the real problems, which they don't want to admit exist. While this doesn't result in any lasting fixes, it does often temporarily improve things.
The "inclusionist, socialist, fiscally liberal" approach prevents the waste that occurs when the rich are allowed to become continually richer, and allows those resources to be used for the benefit of the society as a whole. It results in less war, social unrest and human suffering and can probably continue to function at lower levels of average EROEI than the alternative.
Unfortunately, because this brand of politicians doesn't acknowledge declining surplus energy as the cause of economic contraction, they frequently try to jump start the economy with large injections of borrowed cash. These efforts become ever less successful as the surplus energy problem grows, and leads to government debt. But here the money is spent on maintaining and improving infrastructure, helping the populace with training and education and other things that do some good at least in the short run.
There is enough slack in modern lifestyles to allow a considerable belt tightening before anyone really gets hurt, especially if the rich and powerful are willing to tighten their belts somewhat as well, and there are social programs to help the poor. So it may be possible to manage a more graceful energy decline even without acknowledging what is actually happening.
So, this "inclusionist, socialist, fiscally liberal" approach is not as good for the short term interests of the rich and powerful (still adequate, though), and much better for the short term interest of the bottom 80%. In the long run, it is still less than ideal. Economic contraction will still eventually make centralization of government unfeasible and countries will break up into smaller units supplying fewer services. But there is some possibly that these sorts of society may muddle through in a way that is less destructive than the "exclusionist capitalist fiscal conservative" alternative.
To sum it all up, we face an insoluble problem in the requirement to reduce our population and consumption to take us out of the current overshoot situation. Insoluble because of the political realities—politicians need the financial support of the rich and powerful to get elected and votes from the rest of society, and neither group is willing to accept the reality that growth must come to an end. This is dealt with in various maladaptive way by politicians, ranging from utterly awful to just moderately bad. And there is very little prospect of turning things around, at least at the level of global, national or state (provincial here in Canada) politics.
Given all this, it is tempting for those of us in the bottom 80% to be pretty apathetic about politics. I think this is a bad idea. It is important to remember that real politicians, political parties and countries exist somewhere on a spectrum between the two endpoints I've been talking about in this post. Have an eye to where your government lies on that spectrum, be aware of the political realities involved, and take what opportunities are within your grasp to push for improvements. Politicians love to be at the head of somebody else's parade, and even the worst ones are influenced by public opinion if it is strongly enough expressed. We need to get that parade heading in a better direction. Or be willing to accept a significantly worse outcome.
At the same time, individuals, families and communities should prepare for continued economic contraction, social unrest, war, infrastructure failure and various natural disasters. With a clear realization that help from higher levels of government will not always be forthcoming.