What to expect in the year ahead?
2021 was a remarkable year in many ways. Covid continued to make the headlines, along with supply shortages from lumber to microchips and natural gas. We can safely assume that the same will be going on for the first few months of 2022, but what about the rest of the year? Are we headed towards an economic depression, or will our woes finally end here? Will we return to normal this time?
These are the questions everyone attempts to answer. In a broader context however they are rather irrelevant. We are living in, and in fact are an inseparable part of a complex adaptive system, a ‘superorganism’ if you like, slowly transforming our planet into parts and copies of itself. Houses. Cars. Humans. Trinkets and charms. We are consuming Earth and give nothing in return. This is what civilizations do. And whether we know it or not, like it or not, in a finite world this behavior prescribes a certain trajectory for us. An intertwined, wavy, hard to decipher path, but a path nevertheless. It is impossible to predict where the next turn will take us, but knowing where we are headed helps us understand where we will most probably end up in the years and decades ahead.
Any attempt made at predicting what 2022 will bring exactly is thus destined to fail. Economies might crash in a domino like sequence under increasing pressures from energy, material and labor shortages — resulting in the greatest and longest economic recession in human history. Maybe these shortages will ease, and we will manage to pull up new supplies of coal, oil, natural gas, copper, rare earth metals etc, like rabbits from a hat. Who knows?
Note however, that these “new supplies” are just worsening the situation on the long term. They use up dense resources, which took millions of years to form, in a one time race to make yet another profitable year. The next crisis could not possibly be prevented this way, only postponed a few more years. It rarely occurs to anyone in a leadership position, that you cannot stop depletion by pumping and mining your resources even harder. The only way to slow this process down and to avoid widespread collapse is to decrease consumption and inequality. Drastically.
Unfortunately, so late in the game, decline itself cannot be avoided. We are already facing diminishing returns on everything we do, but most importantly on energy production (more precisely on extraction and conversion). Yet, this descent could be made much-much more manageable — if only we could accept the fact, that we are now on a downward slope and not on the way to colonize space.
The ruling class however is not willing to listen, they are doing what elites always do during decline: more of the same. More extraction. Burning more energy. As the authors of the NASA founded HANDY study put it so elegantly when writing about the compound effects of inequality and a rapidly depleting natural environment:
“[T]he Elites – due to their wealth – do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue “business as usual” despite the impending catastrophe. It is likely that this is an important mechanism that would help explain how historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory “so far” in support of doing nothing.”
Have this in mind whenever someone mentions that we have managed to overcome every obstacle so far, and we could not possibly collapse. Maybe try and refresh their expectations with the idea above. Net zero commitments or any efforts made at maintaining the status quo (be it via renewables or fossil fuels), without seriously lowering inequality and overall consumption, while encouraging smaller families, is thus doomed to fail.
Elites of course rarely give up power on their own or admit the failure of their prescriptions. Knowing this, and in light of the above I expect no major course corrections in any country, let alone on a planetary scale. Resources will continue to deplete, while EROEI will continue to decrease — slowly undermining every economic activity. Our efforts made at hiding the fact that we are spending a one time inheritance will continue to wreak havoc on our environment.
Our leaders are oblivious to the fact that this is a perfectly normal, albeit unstoppable phenomenon, which has caused many prior civilizations to fall in the past. Remember, cultures have disappeared from much less than what we are facing today. Climate change. Inequality. Rising costs of energy extraction. Loss of purchasing power. Ecological collapse. I would not break no sweat trying to stop elites however. Once one gets into power the “This time it’s different” mantra takes a firm hold on one’s brain.
On the other hand there are quite a few things you could do. Some even qualify as a new year’s resolution. Don’t fret though, you are under no obligation to save the world. Be realistic and focus on things under your control.
So here is my list:
- Learn a new skill requiring as little of modern technology as possible (using a scythe, making sour dough, cooking on open fire, repairing basic mechanical equipment etc.)
- Build community resilience (or learn what this word means, if you don’t know it already)
- Have a modest supply of basic necessities at home
- Save whatever small patch of forest or natural habitat you can from exploitation
- Take care of your health: exercise, eat healthy, have enough sleep
- Build mental resilience, develop your inner strength
- Get knowledgeable on low-tech solutions to everyday problems (water purification, solar heaters and cookers, waste management etc.)
- …and most importantly: don’t panic!
Rome wasn’t built in a day — and didn’t fall in a day either. We have built the most complex society Earth has ever seen. This comes with certain vulnerabilities, but also with a ton of resources waiting to be used during a crisis. If you are an avid believer of human ingenuity or kindness, then this is where you should place your hopes: no matter what the next year or decade will bring, we will make it through.
Live long and prosper!
See you in the next year,