Our Capitalist Civilization’s Last Shot

What hole…? Bah, gotta keep on diggin’… Image credit: Dominik Vanyi via Unsplash

For those of my readers who follow this blog for a while now it has probably become pretty much clear that this global capitalist high-tech industrial civilization is slowly over. What we are experiencing these days is nothing but an opening to a period of long slow decline — taking decades, if not a century to unfold — barring a literal Armageddon unleashed by fundamentalists seeing it as a way to redemption. The underlying dynamics, however, are common to all previously lost societies, no matter how sad it is: all civilizations rise and fall in familiar patterns and ours is by no means an exception. What can our leaders and the political class in general do about it? What are the proposed ways to avert our fate? This is going to be the topic of today’s post.

Bigger, better, greener…?

Renewable energy is what seems to get all the attention in fighting off climate change, and beating those nasty petrol states at the same time. These resources are said to bring electricity prices down (after all, these are the ‘cheapest’ sources of electricity nowadays) and give us the only hope of continuing our comfortable lifestyles in the West.

After half a century of handwaving though, touting how electricity generated by nuclear power will be too cheap to meter, or how power generated by renewables will be so abundant that it will be virtually for free, oil, gas and coal are still powering 85% of the real economy. Just like 50 years ago. As Germany’s year-ahead electricity contracts testify, after having went through a whopping 500% increase over the past year, we are not quite there yet… But will we ever reach this utopia…?

Hardly.

After I’ve spent the last year researching whether such a major change in energy resources is possible, I have to say: it is not very likely. Contrary to modern beliefs, we simply lack the resources, technologies and time to replace fossil fuels with anything else at scale. Fuels, which besides overheating the planet, are coming closer and closer to the brink of their own terminal decline.

As I keep warning my readers for almost a year now: this crisis was not born out of a war, or a much touted rebound after a pandemic — these events only made it worse. Much to my surprise, these facts and my earlier statements published 10 months ago were finally confirmed by The Financial Times — only stopping short of admitting that peak oil is here. I guess we don’t have to wait long for that to be admitted too — only to be used as a Casus Belli against not so cooperative states, or making others a protectorate.

This is a major, major issue, which cannot be resolved by adding renewables to the grid and hoping that industries which were made possible by fossil fuels in the first place will switch their energy sources (and all their related equipment) overnight — if it is possible at all. (This series of articles might be good start to understand what makes me say so. For a short version click here).

In a nutshell: this is energy crisis, started well over a year ago, is not an anomaly — this is but a taste how the end of the fossil fuel age will look like: dirty, uneven and hallmarked with extraordinary stupidity.

The real issue

Technological aspects aside, such a switch in energy consumption still completely fails to address our civilization’s core predicament. In fact, it only deepens the untold crisis of our time: the unsustainable drawdown of both natural and mineral resourcesthe ultimate reason behind every civilization’s failure.

Climate change, pollution, the sixth mass extinction, pandemics, supply chain breakdowns, wars, crisis upon crisis: these are all tell tale signs of us overshooting our possibilities. Now we must fight tooth and nail to stay top on all of these problems — all at the same time.

If the world were a rational place, led by rational, forward thinking people, we would simply admit as a society, that the era of unsustainable growth is over, and the inevitable onset of contraction is upon us. That we would need to shrink our activities till we reach a sustainable steady state — something which would be considered perfectly normal and widely accepted.

As a logical outcome we would aim to power down and strive for a peaceful population decline via birth control and women’s education to prevent wars and conflict. We would make international agreements on how to use less of Earth’s remaining resources, and how to leave a healthier planet to our descendants.

Carried out carefully and in a coordinated manner this planned de-growth would hit many birds with one stone: effectively reducing pollution load (of all kinds, not just CO2), resource and ecosystem drawdown, delaying the onset and reducing the severity of climate change, while preventing poverty and hunger.

Mind you, there is nothing revolutionary in this. As the old adage goes:

“If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”

Greens are right by saying that we should stop drilling for oil — but we should also stop digging for rare minerals, drawing down finite reserves of water, and polluting rivers and the groundwater with a radioactive toxic sludge.

We need to stop digging our own graves.

As a recent Editorial in the Guardian rightly observes:

Mining for rare earth minerals generates large volumes of toxic and radioactive material. The transition to climate neutrality cannot mean replacing a reliance on dirty fossil fuels with a dependence on raw materials, the extraction of which leaves large tracts of the Earth uninhabitable. […] Guillaume Pitron wrote in his book The Rare Metals War that over the next three decades “we will need to mine more mineral ores than humans have extracted over the last 70,000 years”

Square this with ‘saving the planet’.

A fool’s errand

Now back to reality. Getting the political class to jump onboard the de-growth bandwagon is a fool’s errand. Their power is not based on their goodwill to help the people they rule over, but on wealth and how to make more of it. They were selected based on their merits to disregard human needs, and their talents in serving nobody but a set of powerful plutocratic supporters. It increasingly looks like, that Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges was right in saying:

“There is no way in the American political system to vote against the interest of Goldman Sachs. It’s impossible.”

Well, if I may correct: There is no way in any political system to vote against the interest of the ruling elite. It’s impossible. Contrary to what politicians would like us to believe, it is not them, but the later group of people — the billionaire plutocratic class — are the ones who are calling the shots. It is this ever changing group of people (based on which industry wields the highest lobbying power) who provide their favored politicians with election budgets, while expecting lax legislation, tax breaks, subsidies and fat government orders in return.

Is it any wonder, that plundering the planet under the disguise of the law and international trade deals is so profitable?

As coal oil and gas reserves slowly deplete and fail to provide the immense gains extracting them provided for the elites, the wealthy now turn their eyes towards the green movement. A quick sift through the main titles on the №1 Source for Oil and Energy News tells it all:

The Unstoppable Growth Of Carbon Markets

Big Oil Looks To Capitalize On The $1 Trillion Offshore Wind Boom

How To Play The Surge In Lithium Demand?

Clean Energy Stocks Are Shining

The $369 Billion Promise That Sent Clean Energy Stocks Soaring

It looks like that it has been never more profitable to save the planet (ahem civilization, OK: the ruling class) than ever before. Don’t ask, just invest. The more capitalism, the better.

Seen from the halls of power, what we are presented with as a ‘boom in renewables’, is really nothing more than the last run of the same old planet plundering model which has elevated modern day empires to their current status. No one voted for the original run, but somehow we were made believe that mining the entire planet for rare resources, and pouring it chuck full with pollutants will be good for us. Yeah, I want a slice of that cake too!

A historical analogue

Yet, we are constantly told by our corporate rulers how renewables are going to redistribute power (in both meanings of the word) and somehow make previous wrongs good. But is this really the case? Note the following similarities with drilling for oil, our mining coal and turning these resources into energy and products. One can observe quite a few interesting parallels at work here:

  1. There are mining companies and governments controlling the supply of lithium, rare earth metals, polysilicon crystals and so on. Unlike food or firewood you planted yourself, you cannot grow these resources in your garden.
  2. Due to the nature of their geology and the complex technologies needed for their extraction, supply will be always limited… and capitalized.
  3. We already see huge refineries and battery mega factories popping out of the ground, polluting the air and groundwater around them, built by large multinational corporations, made possible by lax legislation and tax holidays.
  4. There are landlords / governments leasing large swathes of land for mining metals, or installing solar and wind — eager to collect their rents for doing nothing but sitting on the fence.
  5. There are banks lending money for the huge upfront investment. There are subsidies lobbied for, large amounts of money changing hands, bribery, corruption and all the usual tidbits of doing business with governments.
  6. While the Sun or the wind might seem like an ‘unlimited’ source of energy, the raw materials out of which panels, batteries, turbines and all the rest are built-up are made from completely finite resources — already used by a number of other businesses. Depletion and peak supply is very much a real concern already — especially with copper — as supply bottle necks and price spikes started show their teeth.

What is the difference between building out this green utopia and getting more fossil fuels then? In my opinion: not much. We should be using renewable energy as a parachute to land us safely in a de-industrialized world, not as a means to continue this bat-shit crazy model.

Same shit — different day

If you think that the wealthy and powerful will limit themselves, or let this tasty mammoth herd roam free, letting individuals hunt them and reap the benefits, then chances are that you are wildly deluding yourself. The system is heavily rigged to benefit corporations, regulators and all the (un)necessary intermediaries — not the end-users installing the panels on their roofs.

This is the crux of our predicament — and the predicament of many prior civilizations who have already completed their own cycle of rise, prosper and fall. Their elites simply cease to be a creative minority and become nothing more than a burden on their society. (In our case this category involves the plutocrats themselves as well.) They’ve become senile and very much like the proverbial old dog: knowing only one trick on how to do business — thinking that we still live in the good old days, when resources were abundant and the consequences of spending them were far-far away. Now that the consequences have arrived, our elites found themselves in crisis after crisis, amounting to a long emergency.

I doubt, however, that any of them will realize what the real issue of our time is. Instead, they will continue to mistreat our predicament which begs for less technology and plundering — not more of the same.

While being busy continuing ecocide by different means and amazed by their own technocratic powers, our elites forgot about the mounting problems at the bottom half of the society: unplanned de-industrialization, rising food and energy prices, increasing inequality — an overall cost of living crisis. All begging for a correction, which, if delayed too long, might neither be rational nor technical, but visceral: based on a religious belief that the end days are here and the sinners of the world must burn in a cleansing fire… An all too familiar pattern near the end days of a civilization’s era of rationality and its losing touch with reality — but more on that in a different post.

Until next time,

B

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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.