The natural world and industrialised civilisation are both in the process of collapsing. We apologise for the inconvenience.
Picking the winning horseman of the Apocalypse is a bookie’s paradise. But I’ll take a punt. The chances of stopping this death race completely looks like a laughable long shot. Unfortunately, that is precisely what we’ve all been betting on up until now.
First faller at the fence, shot in the snout and off to the glue factory: an old nag called The Financial System, ridden by, well, everybody. She’s now saddled with a crippling load of invented currency and a teetering stack of Ponzi schemes. Nobody sane would bet on her at all if it didn’t serve our short and medium term interests. It’s increasingly like trying to bet inside a burning casino.
The 2008 Global Financial Crisis was like when you realise you have filled your petrol car with diesel. Today’s economic situation is more like a dream when you realise your car is really a rabbit being driven by the infant baby Jesus.
The numbers on the chalk boards now bear almost no relation to what’s actually happening out on the track.
I remember my school economics teacher explaining the key principles of economics. “Natural resources are assumed to be infinite....” he began. I then split my time between drawing flaming skulls on my notebook and sniggering at everything he said. I wondered why he wasn’t being laughed at by the physics teacher in the staff room, with the biology teacher throwing taunts.
Today, Premier League footballers buy jewel encrusted smartwatches that unlock their supercars. They cost more than the vehicles. Idiots are selling jpegs to each other for enough money to feed the odd starving city. They say it makes sense because they’re using imaginary money generated by computers doing pointless maths puzzles in an energy and resource crisis.
Tell me again that this system isn’t nuttier than a bluetit’s breakfast. Tell me the dyke of unreality isn’t rumbling. That a crisis is not building to inevitability.
One way to picture this is as a children’s game of musical chairs. The chairs are the world’s dwindling real resources. The players are investors. They run around making it look like a happening party. All it takes is for someone to miss a chair and sit down hard on their coccyx. Like when US mortgage debt went bust. The music stops. Everybody panics and tries to sit down on the real resources. Mayhem. Since the last near collapse in 2008 we’ve just been pretending there’s more chairs than there are and praying nobody stops the music. Then, Covid, and the invasion of the Ukraine…
We’re in for a brutal detox from our outlandish debt addictions. Here in New Zealand our 'Rock Star' economy is staggering into rehab. As we all sober up, we may notice that our liquid fuel addiction relies on shady connections overseas. The endless wars this is fueling may mean oil becomes only erratically available and fearsomely expensive. The easy oil is gone. It’s costly and dangerous to keep invading countries for what’s left. Tar sands and fracking are like shooting crack into your ball-sack - a dirty and expensive last chance saloon. And New Zealand has shut down its only oil refinery. We’ve decided to rely on foreign oil tankers in the middle of a global shipping crisis.
In the coming years forces like these will continue systematically wiping out people’s savings and pensions. It will be a bit tricky for middle aged people like me to keep using their homes as cash machines. A lot of people will find they can’t afford cappuccinos, lettuce, mortgage payments or rent.
Nobody has figured out a way to safely stop this madness. It’s going on all over the world. Those shipping disruptions will help price places like New Zealand out of selling anything heavier than an idea. Surprise! Shipping milk powder, frozen lamb and logs from a remote island is not desperately cost effective. Meanwhile, places like China are making miraculous discoveries. They can grow cows, sheep and trees closer to home. How did they ever work that out? It’s not like they’ve been making all of our retail goods, complex electronics and vehicles for the last 40 years…
Did you enjoy lockdown? Welcome to your own edition of life in the Cuban blockade, which we’re largely imposing on ourselves.
In the long run everything made of oil or transported with it is set to become more expensive and difficult to get. This includes such fripperies as modern medicine. That should please the anti-vax crowd no end, until Covid-Catch-22 or whatever turns out to be a bit like the Black Death.
Politicians will continue their heroic struggle: reality vs the middle classes' perceived right to a king cab ute with jet skis or dirt bikes on the back. At some point they’ll probably nationalise and maximise domestic oil production while it’s still viable. That may be the only way to placate a seething populace and postpone heading back into a 19th century lifestyle with a knackered environment. Leave it too late and we won’t even have the resources to put the required infrastructure back in.
The idea that we will all shift to solar roofs, electric cars and batteries made of sea salt is great. We need an immediate shift towards resilient independent energy systems for the entire population. Let me know when you see that happening. And let me know when you see a national grid that can handle it.
None of this is a problem, because we can all go live on Mars. Not many people live in Earth’s deserts for reasons that are obvious to everybody. Elon Musk says we should abandon paradise for a lifeless rock marooned six months away across the void. It’s like burning down your penthouse to pogo stick to a dumpster in the Sahel. Or smashing holes in the bottom of your ship to make a raft. It’s baffling that obviously clever people can be so disastrously stupid.
These delusions have some things in common. They’re way too expensive and difficult for us to have any hope of making them reality. They would simply take more resources than we have. They require industrial civilisation to run as smoothly as a snake on freshly oiled roller skates. That’s the system acting like a roller skating elephant with a screaming chainsaw superglued to its trunk, surrounded by mice. Pursuing these mirages will wreck our uniquely beautiful living planet for the sake of a future that was never possible, let alone sustainable.
The US already tried to abandon reality and climate action in 2016 by voting a moron in as President. Russia is war partying like it's 1989. China’s pocketing the pacific while nobody’s looking. Its people didn’t spend their lives making movie tie-in knick-knacks to not be able to afford popcorn. All of them and more will likely default entirely on the greenhouse gas emissions targets in the next decade. They'll tell everyone they’re going nuclear instead, if not for their weapon of choice then at least their energy source. At that point nobody is going to give a shit about trying to earn credits in a discredited and largely pointless carbon trading system. It’s way too late to put that genie back in the bottle.
But there’ll probably be a whole lot of new forest to hunt in. Some will try to fish too. Commercial fishing will struggle on for a while, shamelessly scraping the bottom of the briny barrel, or intensively farming anything aquatic that's edible. We’ve already trawled almost everything out of the sea we could stomach in breadcrumbs. Pollution, acidification and oxygen depletion look set to ensure the oceans of my grandchildren will have more plastic by weight in them than fish, and they’ll be jellyfish.
Some ocean ecologies will survive. In New Zealand we just need to defend them against hungry all comers and Chinese dark fleets in the world’s largest Economic Exclusion Zone. We can use that massive navy we don’t have. If you’re near the crumbling coast you'll probably still be able to catch a feed occasionally, possibly in what used to be your front room.
This will leave our descendants with some interesting choices for living their best life. They won’t be about sustainability, or even economics. They will be about survival.
New Zealand has a fair bit of legroom. That is while we can still stave off millions of refugees from climate breakdown and resource wars. We can use that massive navy we don’t have. We’ll look back nostalgically on the days when the newcomers were largely unarmed and disorganised. At some point billions of people will be trying to get into the few places still worth living in. They won’t be asking nicely.
Our major cities will be metaphorically drowning in unemployment, crime and immigration, if not actually drowning in seawater. Our current preparations include the rapid expansion of heavily armed-drug peddling biker gangs.
A lot of folks may opt to go back to the land, or be forced there. They will discover blasted topsoil, obliterated wildlife and polluted streams. Think Little House on the Toxic Prairie. We can all grow beards and wear shapeless gingham with our strange and sickly offspring.
Hopefully someone will maintain the geothermal plants, hydro-electric dams, wind turbines and the national grid. That and New Zealand’s final fate will probably be left to the remaining world powers, or any army larger than the All Blacks. Australians, for example. They will be choosing between becoming extras in endless Mad Max reruns, or finding somewhere cooler to live.
That is of course, if we don’t get over our solution illusions and magical thinking and get our act together in a big way.
Shall we start those serious conversations now?