Crash Course Chapter 25: Future Shock
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You are at the part of The Crash Course where everything you learned comes together into a single narrow range of time we'll call the twenty-teens.
What I am offering is a comprehensive view of how all of our problems are actually interrelated and need to be viewed as such, or solutions will continue to elude us.
So let’s review the key trends that all seem to be converging.
We began with an understanding of money and the fact that our money is loaned into existence, with interest, which means it grows exponentially - by design - and that this results in powerful pressures to keep the amount of credit, or money, constantly growing by some percentage each year. We can easily see this in the charts.
Keeping this dynamic in mind, we then learned how debt, which is really a claim on future money, is vastly exceeding all historical benchmarks. The flipside to this, but a significant sociological trend in its own right, has been the steady erosion of savings observed over the exact same period of time.
Combined, we have the highest levels of debt ever recorded coincident with some of the lowest levels of savings ever recorded.
And we saw that our failure to save extends through all levels of our society, including a rather profound failure to invest in national infrastructure.
Next, we saw how assets have gone through a series of bubbles and that ALL bubbles eventually burst When credit bubbles burst, they result in financial panics that end up destroying a lot of capital. Actually, that’s not quite right; this quote says it better:
“Panics do not destroy capital; they merely reveal the extent to which it has been previously destroyed by its betrayal into hopelessly unproductive works”.
- John Stuart Mill Political Economist 1806 - 1873
So we learned that a bursting bubble is not something that is easily fixed by authorities because their attempts to “limit further damage” are misplaced. The damage has already been done. The capital has already been betrayed.
It has been betrayed by too many houses and too many stocks sold for too high prices, and too many goods imported and bought on credit. Money was borrowed for speculation and consumption, not investment for the future.
All of that is done. All that’s left is figuring out who ends up eating the inevitable losses. And right now the system is working hard to assure that’s going to be you.
When these speculative bubbles pop, we’ve seen history’s lesson that efforts to 'fix' the damaging aftermath only results in a larger future bubble which will, of course, be even more damaging than the last one.
Then we learned that the most profound US government financial shortfalls rest atop a demographic problem that itself cannot be fixed by any act of policy or law or level of optimism. It is simply a fact. An inconvenient fact of circumstance much like gravity sometimes, but a fact nonetheless: the assets that comprise the wealth of the baby boomer generation -- stocks, bonds and houses -- all have to be sold to somebody at some point in order to extract their value
But there are simply fewer people behind the boomers to whom these assets can be sold. When sellers exceed buyers, values fall.
On top of all of this, the economic numbers we report to ourselves have been systematically debased until they no longer reflected reality. We’re flying blind at this point. If false data leads to bad decisions, then it’s no wonder that we find ourselves in our current predicament. Only by returning to an honest self-appraisal can we plot a strategic and meaningful course to the future.
Of course, this is just the economic side of the story – the first “E”. The challenges we face become much, MUCH larger when we bring the other two “Es” into the picture.
We learned that energy is the source of all economic activity and that oil is, by far, the most important source of energy. Our entire economic configuration is built around the assumption of unlimited growth in energy supplies but, it turns out, this is an easily-refuted proposition.
Individual oil fields peak and so do collections of them. And so Peak Cheap Oil is not so much a theory as it is an observation about how oil fields age. We then explored the tension that obviously exists between a monetary system that demands exponential growth and the fact that our most important energy source is entering decline and well past the era of being cheap.
Somehow, America has not even begun to seriously invest for a future without cheap oil; like nearly every other nation on the planet, the US has no plan “b”.
And last, we noted that the environment, meaning the world’s resources and natural systems upon which we depend and the waste and pollution we put back into our ecosystems, is exhibiting clear signs of stress.
Oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years, we are in the midst of a 6th mass extinction, and the stable weather patterns that we utterly depend upon to grow our foods are becoming increasingly chaotic and unreliable.
Sentinel species such as the pollinators that add beauty to our lives and perform essential services in our food and ecological systems are disappearing.
And so here we are. These are the reasons for my claim that the next twenty years are going to be completely unlike the last.
Yes, we’ve successfully faced large problems before in the past. But my concern is over have to face so many tremendous ones all at once.
Placed on a timeline, we see that the next asset bubble is cresting just as the first wave of boomers enters retirement. At the same time peak cheap oil is starving the world's economic engine for the growth its money systems demand of it, and someday – likely very soon -- world oil production will peak and terminally decline.
But that’s not all. Resource depletion, increasing pollution levels, and a shifting climate are costing us more, and diminishing our way of life.
Sitting over all of this and limiting our options further is our national failure to save and invest, and historically-unprecedented levels of debt.
This timeline stretching from now to 2035 reveals a truly massive set of challenges converging on an exceptionally short window of time.
One important question is; how will we fund our efforts to address these challenges if our savings are depleted and our debt levels already in uncharted territory?
So far, the answer has been "print more money”. That is as disappointing as it is unsurprising.
Any one of these events will prove to be a difficult strain on our national economy, while any two could be truly disruptive. But what if three or more happen simultaneously?
What if oil spikes in price as food harvests fail and debts collapse?
It’s not hard to foresee the economic destruction of our country as a result, or perhaps see the dollar utterly ruined as a store of wealth.
How many trillions will be required to fund boomer retirement? How many trillions will be needed to reshape our transportation infrastructure to accommodate Peak Oil? Where will the tens of trillions come from to make up the shortfalls in pensions and entitlement programs?
How do we make good on our pension and entitlement promises while burdened with the highest debt loads ever seen? Where does the money come from to clean up the aftermath of the newest and largest asset bubble bursting? How much more expensive will food and minerals be in the future when oil has peaked, but many more people are placing higher demands on increasingly marginal resources?
Each of these key trends or threats will take many years, if not several decades, to address. And yet we find them all parked directly in front of us without any serious national discussion or planning.
With every passing day we squander precious time while the problems grow larger and more costly, if not thoroughly intractable. Buying time, as the central bankers and politicians the world-over have opted to do, is not a strategy. Simply hoping for better times has a much different probability for success than having a well thought-out plan. The mark of a mature adult is someone who can manage complexity and plan ahead. The same description applies to an entire society. My opinion is that with precious few exceptions, the current political and corporate leadership of this country are not adequately managing the complexity of the situation. And they are not planning ahead.
Simply put: We've lived well beyond our economic, energy and ecological budgets. It's time to change that.
It is time, to return to living within our means. We need to set priorities, set budgets, and stick to both.
If we do, the next generations following us will have opportunity to pursue, as well as a plan and a narrative that makes sense, into which they fit, and which seems prudent and rational.
And you? If you haven’t already, you need to begin to embrace the possibility that the road to the future will not be straight and smooth; it may take a few twists and turns and end up somewhere unexpected. You happen to be alive at one of the most interesting points in human history – a time when a great shift will occur. This can be frightening or it can be exhilarating, and that choice is yours.
So what do we do about all this? What can you do and what steps should you be considering right now?
Please join me for the final chapter of the Crash Course.
Thank you for listening.