Few citizens of the world’s advanced economies can fail to notice that something strange is going on in the management of our global systems. Disorder is creeping in from the margins to center like some kind of grave illness, with the symptoms showing up as an economic failure-to-thrive as presented in faltering GDP numbers, real unemployment above 20 percent in several nations, governments falling, and enormous distress in international banking that can only be concealed by ongoing systematic accounting fraud. All these symptoms are evidence of the coming, unavoidable “re-set” in the terms of everyday life on this planet.
It appears that we will be dragged kicking and screaming to our destination: life lived much more locally, at a reduced scale of activity and even of innovation. The current popular narrative in the West is based on a vague wish that some technological miracle will permit the continued operation of gigantic systems that have been running for about a century on fossil fuels, and liquid petroleum based fuels in particular. By this I mean systems such as industrial farming (“AgriBiz” in the USA), global commerce based on long supply lines, and integrated global finance based on ever more implausible promises to repay loans, especially in the form of bonds.
These integrated systems are winding down now, largely in response to the peak oil (and other mineral resources) quandary. The response to this predicament, especially in America, has been the mounting of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. It expresses itself as an adamant, child-like refusal to engage with the mandates of reality, which are telling us to prepare for a broad re-set in everyday life. It can be heard in the claims by high government officials that we have “a hundred years of shale gas,” that we will shortly be “energy independent,” or that the USA will soon be “a net energy exporter.” These are all grand fibs constructed to conceal from the public that our leaders in government, business, education, and media have no real “Plan B.”
The public itself is inclined, in the face of these challenges, to massive denial that the future now requires them to behave differently. The denial is a result of what I call the psychology of previous investment. We have invested so much of our accumulated wealth in an infrastructure for daily life that is now obsolete – in particular, the massive armatures of suburbia – that we can’t imagine letting go. Hence all this resistance, refusal, and denial plays out in the hapless and ineffectual politics of the day, which amount to an inability to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us and what we are going to do about it.
The task before us is fairly straightforward and clear: managing contraction in a way that will minimize human misery on our way to making new arrangements for daily life. So far, we have been unwilling to recognize it.
Illustration by Fanqiao Wang