27 September 2011

Beggars, Barterers, and Bandits (Part 2)

In the previous post, I began a brief description of the issues that might bring about our demise as described by six experts in the History Channel's, "Prophets of Doom."   Their warnings echo common fears expressed in many media outlets, but at the end of this series of posts, I'll propose some reasons for hope.

"We have to look at what comes out of our tap as being more precious than oil, being more precious than a gold standard, being more precious than our currency, being something that we have to immediately protect." John Cronin

The water problem: Supplies of clean water in amounts sufficient to sustain our growing world populations may soon run out. We have polluted many of them, diverted most of the them, and stolen and sold the best of them. In 2004, I worked for Clean Water Action, and I listened to activists from Michigan describe how bottling companies stole water from the Great Lakes to sell to the nation, causing significant declines in water levels in the lakes and, subsequently, fish populations. John Cronin, author of The Riverkeepers, points out how seafood has become unsafe to eat in many areas of the country. He describes how some governments, including some municipal governments in the United States, have begun considering the recycling of sewage waste into potable water. The crisis of water shortages and poor water quality already exist. Maybe we could expand desalination processes along coast lines, but what will the inlanders drink? Is the grain belt in the U.S. prepared for another drought, or an end to the fresh-water aquifer that sustains modern agricultural methods? Municipal water systems, Cronin says, aren't equipped to filter pharmaceuticals and viruses, spreading them throughout populations. If we do not protect our fresh water sources and perpetuate technologies to keep water safe and sufficient, we will suffer food shortages, plagues, and eventually, anarchy.
"This isn't about environmentalism anymore. This isn't a lefty, feel-good, fuzzy warm save-the-whale issue. This is a matter of survival." Michael Ruppert
Overpopulation: the entire left side of the scale (image in the last post) teeters on how we manage population growth. Beyond thinking of where we will all live, we must also consider how we will feed ourselves, how and where we will dispose of our waste, and how we will obtain and distribute fresh water to the masses. Clearly if those basic needs aren't met, nothing else much matters. The problem doesn't just belong to the United States, but to the world. Michael Ruppert, author of Confronting Collapse, states that our current population is unsustainable without the fossil fuels that allowed for our explosive growth in the past century and a half. Those fuels allowed for technological advances in farm production and food distribution. Clearly an increasing population using up shrinking fuel supplies leads to other problems.
"The real story is going to be how the major complex systems of daily life begin to destabilize and mutually reinforce each other's instabilities and failures as we get into trouble with this peak oil problem." James Howard Kunstler
Energy shortages: Fossil fuels will run out; they cannot be formed naturally faster than we use them.  "Peak [production of] oil happened in America in 1970," James Howard Kunstler, investigative journalist and author, explains. While we scramble to find alternative sources of energy, Kunstler points out we have not come close to replacing fossil fuels as a source of energy. We aren't just dependent on petroleum in its myriad forms, but also on natural gas for fuel and fertilizer, and on coal for fuel and electricity. Nuclear power, though an alternative to fossil fuels, carries risks of large-area obliteration through spills and other disasters, as witnessed in Japan, plus we have yet to figure out the problem of nuclear waste disposal. Hydropower is limited by geography, and we haven't yet figured out how to harness the power of the sun to its full potential. If we run out of fuels before we find the solution, we have no more electricity, no more modern agriculture, and no more transportation of good. We create encapsulated communities with no means of communication or logistics and very limited medical capabilities. Hurricane Katrina warned us of the dangers of isolation. Without power, we have no stock market, and the virtual value of every publicly traded company, bank note, and credit extension vanishes. The worth of any company will be in what it can produce and how it contributes to sustenance, security, or safety. Long before we run out of fuels, though, we will witness the commodities price increases that will divide our society even more by privilege and potentially ruin entire cities as area resources become limited and riots ensue. When prices rise, nations struggle, as evidenced very recently in Northern Ireland (today's article) and Bangledesh (last week's article). This would lead to the next potential disaster: economic collapse.
"You cannot solve a credit crisis by adding more credit. Period." Dr. Nathan Hagens
Many people see the potential for economic collapse. Economist Dr. Nathan Hagens points out that we have an economic system based on perpetual, consistent increases in sales and profit. We have an economy based on credit and the assumption that everyone will be able to make more than was borrowed and be able to pay off those credit extensions. As the last few years have reminded us, that belief can lead to corporate downfalls and market crashes that can cripple the globe. We now face a time when some credit obligations may never be met. The housing market failure has given us a glimpse, the commercial market teeters on faith in the future as much as the potential return on investment, the nation of Greece might upend the European Union, and all of these fears of economic collapse actually hasten its fruition. Our tenuous, speculative currency and stock markets rely on so many ingrained beliefs in economic theory that if either of those markets collapse, the system topples in on itself. Like an infection, failure after failure of businesses, communities, and then governments can spread. We are stretched too thin already, with military might scattered too far and local governments and infrastructure like bridges failing due to a lack of funding. Dr. Hagens suggests that we must begin the process of economic healing by living within our means. Instead of forcing out more credit, we must reign in our use of credit as individuals, as businesses, and as a nation. The implication of his argument is that our country needs to reconsider how we manage every aspect of the economy, including financial institutions, governments, and commerce. We have to find a way to transition into this new economy without breaking it, like squeezing into something too small. We also have to plan for worst case scenarios.

(To be continued. Next post: robots, bombs, and a plan.)

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