Blog post

There's a lot to digest in Michael Lewis' The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine but I was particularly struck by a passage at the very end of the book, which I think aptly describes one of the major obstacles to properly understanding the costs and consequences of our globalized, industrial way of life — distance.

The monster was exploding. Yet on the streets of Manhattan there was no sign anything important had just happened. The force that would affect all of their lives was hidden from their view. That was the problem with money. What people did with it had consequences but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other. The teaser rate loans you make to people who will never be able to repay them will go bad not immediately but in two years when their interest rates rise. The various bonds you make from those loans will go bad not as the loans go bad but months later, after a lot of tedious foreclosures and bankruptcies and forced sales. The various CDOs you make from the bonds will go bad not right then but after some trustee sorts out whether there will ever be enough cash to pay them off, whereupon the end owner of the CDO receives a little note: "Dear Sir, We regret to inform you that your bond no longer exists." But the biggest lag of all was right here, on the streets. How long would it take before the people walking back and forth in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral figured out what had just happened to them.

The Veil

This veil of time and distance is not just true for the consequences of the subprime mortgage scam, of course. It's true for many of the outcomes of our consumer-driven, globalized, and industrial way of life (those of us in North America, in particular). The obvious ones are climate change and the food system.

The specific qualities of the greenhouse effect make it incredibly hard to feel the causal links. The climate impacts of turning on the dryer, for example, couldn't be further removed from the place and moment you turn that dial; the four pounds or so of carbon dioxide produced are invisible and likely to spew from some coal stack hundreds of miles away, where they eventually dissipate to mix in with billions of other pounds of CO2 throughout the atmosphere for a period of 50-100 years.

Now if the result of turning that dial was, instead, to immediately spread an inch of sea water across the floor of the laundry room or raise the temperature in the room a degree or two, you probably wouldn't turn it on quite so often. But that's just the nature of fossil fuel addiction... The road trips my grandmother used to take to Vegas in the 1950s are now raising sea levels in Bangladesh while the coal being burned in China today is going to make my grand kids' August weather very different than my own.

The industrial food system, of course, has been intentionally designed to leave consumers as disconnected from the source of their food as possible. It's a lot easier to chow down that fast food burger when you don't realize that it contains meat from hundreds of different cows, let alone have to butcher them all yourself! And if you saw the conditions in which those cows were raised, well, you'd literally lose your appetite.

Thankfully it's easier to lift the veil when it comes to where our food comes from. For one, a lot of powerful documentaries and books have come out in recent years that bring the reality of the industrial food system to light. (And just wait for the forthcoming CAFO book by Watershed Media. I've had the, er, honor to see some of the images included in the photo book... If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth a million livestock lives.)

That's not to say it's easy to change where our food comes from. Not everyone has access to fresh produce or can afford organic food. But the veil can be lifted. (It doesn't hurt when efficiency-oriented industrial food systems break down like here and here enough for the media to notice.)

The Boomerang

The veil of time and distance makes it that much more challenging to change the behaviors that cause or reinforce the energy, economic, and environmental crises we face. But that's only part of the story. Another is how we react as the dues for our long, fossil fueled, industrial growth binge actually come due. Because the causal links are so complex and global, when these consequences do finally boomerang and hit us smack in the ass a lot of people won't understand how and why they happened. One result is that we're more likely to continue doing the things that got us in trouble in the first place, without ever connecting the dots. But there's also the psychological impacts that come from confusion and dissonance, which can lead to anger or a sense of victimization.

History is littered with horrific examples of when widespread fear and uncertainty are channeled into organized rage. I'll confess a deep concern about the near- and long-term results from the collision of four realities here in the US:

  1. The confluence of incredibly complex, interrelated economic, energy, and environmental crises whose particular impacts are impossible to predict.
  2. An American culture — politically divided and ethnically diverse, with a long history of xenophobia and racial tensions — that is ripe for conflict.
  3. A political system so corrupted by moneyed special interests and inertia that, while still ostensibly "democratic," is viewed with suspicion and cynicism by Americans of all political persuasions.
  4. A fourth estate that is in the process of massive contraction and is, for the most part, utterly failing to provide the populace with the reasoned, fact-based analysis people need to make sound decisions.

And so I worry about the kind of collective response we might see when the boomerangs really start hitting people.


Richard Heinberg wrote a fantastic op-ed for Reuters entitled "Goldilocks and the Three Fuels" that explored the possibility of a "just right" price range for oil, natural gas, and coal.

By mid-2009 the oil price had settled within a Goldilocks range—not too high (so as to kill the economy and, with it, fuel demand), and not too low (so as to scare away investment in future energy projects and thus reduce supply). That just-right price band appeared to be between $60 and $80 a barrel. How long prices can stay in the Goldilocks range is anybody’s guess, but production declines in the world’s old super-giant oilfields continue to accelerate and exploration costs continue to mount, which means that the lower boundary of that just-right range will inevitably continue to migrate upward. Meanwhile the world economy remains frail, so that even $80 oil could strain the recovery. When discussing the increasing perils of the current oil supply-demand-price balancing act, some commentators opine that the world supply of oil has peaked; others say it is demand that has peaked. It is a distinction without a difference.

Ever since, I've wondered if there's such a thing as a Goldilocks moment for the kind large-scale, collective action we need to avert collapse. If the metaphor is that we're on a runaway train, heading speedily towards a brick wall at the end of the tracks, then is there a "just right" moment to slam on the brakes?

Like a real train, there's an incredible weight and inertia in the system. This train will not stop on a dime. It's going to take a lot of force and enough track to stop the train before it hits the wall.

While there's a growing number of people who sense that the wall is looming — even before they can physically see it — there are not nearly enough of us to put sufficient weight on the brakes to slow the train down, let alone stop it. The closer we get to the wall, the more of us will see what's coming, but at what point will there be a critical mass to really punch the brakes, and will there be enough track at that point to avoid the collision?

I don't have an answer to this question. I'm not sure anyone does. What I can say, however, is three things:

  1. Whether from the wall or the brakes, a lot of us are going to get whiplash. There's no scenario I see to avoid some measure of hardship. But I'll take whiplash over broken bones. How about you?
  2. I know we're on a train here, but if you haven't already, you might want to think about putting on a seat belt. The seat belt in this case is personal resilience and community resilience.
  3. We increase our odds of stopping the train in time (and reducing casualties) if we help more and more people understand there's a wall up ahead.

One way or the other, it's going to be an interesting ride.

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Reader Comments



From: Dave Room, Sep 7, 2010 03:08 PM

Hey Asher

Thanks for the thoughts about the veil of time and distance. I used to talk about how the globalized system has created a layer of abstraction that prevents us from understanding the unintended consequences of our purchases. And I love the concept of the boomerang... Thank you for your work!

The future

From: Roger Dobronyi, Sep 4, 2010 06:23 AM

When I get into discussions I ask folks if they have heard of such a thing as Peak oil! So far I have not had anyone say "Yes, I know what that is." I went to a meeting of S.C.O.R.E. on small business on "How to put together what a person would need to be successful in the future". After the presentation I asked the speaker if he had heard of peak oil. His blank look and utter silence answered my question. I started talking and he started blithering about the economy will go up and float all the boats...yadda yadda. I told him that it was imperative that he learn about it because a fledgling business will fail in the future if they don't realize what is coming down the pike (or what is at the end of the track). I just read an article in our newspaper that said that Portugal was at 17% renewable energy production 5 years ago and now 45% of their energy is produced from solar, wind, and hydro-electric. If they can do it, why can't we?
People are having a hard time wrapping their head around oil depletion. If you throw all the other factors in, it will cause a major confluence of swirling depressive facts that will become completely obscured in a way that would make the manufacturers of misinformation proud!
When people like Richard Heinburg (whom I admire) gets paid to speak to a crowd, he is preaching to the choir! I like the idea of the information being passed on and keeping people informed but, there are too many people out there that do not have an inkling about what is going on. These people won't help solve a problem they don't know exists!
I wrote a "letter to the editor" of our newspaper, one of many that they have published, but when I wrote about peak oil, it was never published. The movie theaters in our town would not show Moore's movie "Sicko" until we complained (and probably other people too) but they showed it one day and did not advertize it. This is the kind of strangle hold these corporations have on our lives! The Post carbon think tank would do well to come up with a system to educate the public. People won't get up from watching television and leave the house until they REALIZE it's on FIRE!
I didn't know about peak oil either until I randomly chose the DVD "Crude Awakenings" from our library. How do we get the word out?

Mowing the Lawn

From: Ron, Aug 30, 2010 02:32 PM

I would call our energy problem the "Mowing the lawn" model. That is, we have lawns because they look nice but we have to mow them to keep them that way. This requires a continious input of energy. One day, the gas runs out on the mower and we can't get more so the grass starts growing tall then the weeds set in. We could use a manual mower but we are not use to all this hard work so only a few care enough. There goes the neighborhood with most houses looking abandoned. Everything was fine until the lawnmower stopped. This is what will happen to human civilization and it can happen in a short time.

Our only chance is to provide other energy sources such as nuclear power in the short term to cushion the blow while changing to simpler life styles.

Long term we need much less population and renewable energy. This is a good reason to stop population growth in the US with greatly reduced immigration. We should also stop tax breaks for any children over two so people will stop producing large families. In fact we need a whole new tax code. Helping the world recover from disasters will have to be reduced to conserve our own resources. I really don't think we have the nerve to do what is needed.

Stopping the Train in Time

From: Miles Mendenhall, Aug 30, 2010 11:50 AM

Very smart, very prescient, very scary. Stuff I've been saying for years. Richard Heinberg is The Man on Peak Oil and related issues.

As for stopping the train. I hope we can. I fear we can't. If I had to bet, I'd say th...e moment the train stops is when it slams full speed into the brick wall. Total downer, I know. But I'm a student of history. When, in the entire course of our time here, have humans made the changes necessary to prevent looming disaster, through rational, intelligent, collective action?

I don't mean tweaking the system (reforms), I mean real structural change that wasn't driven by a concatenation of chance factors, some of which were the result of intelligent decisions but which were coupled with a complex of other events that are not directly attributable to plans made and carried out by people.

We react and improvise. Rational design on a global scale? Haven't seen it yet. Unless you think the Illuminati have manipulated it all. If so, tell them they're not doing a very good job!

OK, one counter-example to my depressing argument above. War, Global War, we seem to be able to carry those on with conscious, planned and effective decision making. The results aren't so great, although the alternative to winning, say WWII, would have been worse.

The Enlightenment comes to mind as well, but was that planned? Or the result of cultural and intellectual forces that came together, made huge changes, created huger consequences both good and bad and in between. But was it a plan?

The Dream of Reason Leads To Madness - Goethe, as quoted by Goya in one of his best wood block prints.

Some say a spiritual revolutionary change in consciousness is what it will have to take. And they point to the evidence to be found among young people who are changing the way they live their own lives. I think that's a nice idea, but I don't see how the industrial, transportation, energy, agriculture and other basic structures of how we live, are going to be transformed just by thinking good thoughts, being chill, eating no meat, wearing hemp, etc. (you get the picture) How is all that going to transform, let alone replace, the basic systems that we all depend on?

The Hippies went back to the land, at least some of them did. It had an effect, but I don't think anyone can claim they changed Western Post-Industrial society in ways that made it significantly less destructive, let alone regenerative and sustainable. Yeah, lots of good ideas, as well as some bad ones (hygiene laxity comes to mind).

I'm still trying to find a combination of alternative energy production, organic agriculture and whatever else seems good, that promises to viably replace the death system we have now. I really want us to do it. I just don't see the plan. At least not one that looks feasible in terms of our current political, economic and ideological system(s).

Getting there, from here. How? Where's the roadmap?

(I'm a sick puppy, and never forget the absurdities of our national politics. At least I amuse myself?)

Please don't slit your wrists, at least not yet! The ride is rough but fun. There's an amazing amount of beauty and other sources of joy to revel in. We don't know exactly what the future holds for our kind and others on this little blue ball. Even if we have some pretty good clues.

It's easy to get discouraged, there are plenty of reasons. I do what I do politically (such as it is) in hopes that my efforts are a tiny drop in a big bucket of positive change. And I don't only depend on that to give my life meaning.

Hope springs eternal. We're a resilient and cagey kind. I intend to enjoy my time on this tilt'a'whirl. And that's the only real, good advice I can give to others.

Except, we're all in this together and we'd better get cracking before we're the ones totally fracked! It's better to have tried and become extinct, than to never have tried at all, and still become extinct.

Yeah, I know, I'm the life of the party...

Apocalyptic nightmares, must be mental scarring from my Jesus Freak years.

Love will find a way, or not. At least it's exciting!!!

(I originally wrote the above as a response to a question and sharing of this blarticle on Tod Brilliant's Facebook page. He essentially asked if we thought there was a "Goldilocks" solution to the runaway train dilemma. I placed it here at his suggestion.)

Preparing for Peak Oil..

From: MrEnergyCzar, Aug 30, 2010 11:37 AM

I've been preparing my family for Peak Oil for over 3 years and made some short videos showing what we are doing to prepare....