Friday, February 24, 2006

The whole world in our hands
James Lovelock's Gaia theory inspired the Green movement. But as fossil fuels begin, literally, to cost the earth, he argues that nuclear power could save the planet. Tim Radford reports

Tim Radford

Saturday September 16, 2000

Life is not just a force for good, it is a force for its own good. Life has a way of managing things in favour of more life. And in the course of doing so, life manages a whole planet. It makes an atmosphere to breathe, and water to drink, and food to eat and then it recycles its own detritus. It hijacks sunlight and passes it around to the next user in digestible, shrink-wrapped form. Having done that, it disposes of itself, directly as nutrient for some other creature, or indirectly as a strata of phosphate or a layer of chalk or fossil limestone, or as energy to burn 1bn years later.

Earlier this month, Austrian scientists detected bacteria, living comfortably in high clouds, reproducing themselves and - some think - serving the world by playing rainmaker, acting as "seeds" around which water vapour could become raindrops.

But this heavenly host of living things surprised no one. Life has been turning up in improbable places for years. People who drilled a mile deep into the basalt of the ocean floor found tiny microbes living on a diet of warmth and rock. Submarine explorers have found huge colonies of strange creatures basking in a kind of chemical cornucopia at the bottom of the ocean's depths, far from any sunlight. Microbes have been found in acid flows, in lakes of soda, down the vents of volcanoes and on the underside of the polar ice, organising the planet for the rest of creation.

Might things have got a little hot when carbon dioxide levels built up dangerously at the dawn of the Eocene, 55m years ago? Fear not. The rapid response team was on hand. An Anglo-American team of scientists reported on Thursday that plankton bloomed, the oceans became a garden and greedily mopped up the excess carbon, cooling the greenhouse world to acceptable levels. Not for the first time, nor the last, the biosphere had risen to the challenge, and adjusted itself.

It is more than 30 years since James Lovelock, a freelance chemist with a background in medical research and a gift for devising sensitive detectors, worked for Nasa on the Mars exploration programme. While doing so, he began to form the idea of the biosphere as a self-regulating entity, of life and the planet as a kind of sensitive organism, not sensitive to any particular form of life, just to the principle of life. He called it the Gaia hypothesis. The novelist William Golding, a friend and neighbour, suggested the name. Gaia was the Earth goddess, the Greeks' Mother Nature.

Touchingly, Lovelock reports in his latest book that he originally thought Golding had suggested calling it the Gyre hypothesis, after the gyres or vortexes that drive ocean and atmospheric circulation. The idea of Gaia caught the imagination of people everywhere. Gaia is a kind of metaphor for a very subtle lesson in the physiology of a planet. But Gaia became a reality, too, for the Greens, particularly those inclined to mysticism. Lovelock doesn't mind. He finds things to marvel at in Gaia, too. "Some very distinguished scientist, I have forgotten his name, told me when I was quite young that the one thing you have got to keep right through your life or right up to your dotage is a sense of childlike wonder and once it goes, stop doing science," he says.

He is fond of individual Greens, but he doesn't have much patience for some Green thinking, and in particular the Green attitude to nuclear power. Never mind the British government's little local difficulty with fuel prices, fossil fuels are literally beginning to cost the earth and meanwhile the Green campaigners are rejecting at least one easy answer to the great problem of how to power an economy without shutting down the biosphere with polluting greenhouse gases.

This answer, Lovelock says, is ecologically clean and tidy and has a very bad press. It is nuclear power. "I can envisage somewhere about 2050, when the greenhouse really begins to bite, when people will start looking back and saying: whose fault was all this? And they will settle on the Greens and say: 'if those damn people hadn't stopped us building nuclear power stations we wouldn't be in this mess'. And I think it is true. The real dangers to humanity and the ecosystems of the earth from nuclear power are almost negligible. You get things like Chernobyl but what happens? Thirty-odd brave firemen died who needn't have died but its general effect on the world population is almost negligible.

"What has it done to wild life? All around Chernobyl, where people are not allowed to go because the ground is too radioactive, well, the wildlife doesn't care about radiation. It has come flooding in. It is one of the richest ecosystems in the region. And then they say: what shall we do with nuclear waste?" Lovelock has an answer for that, too. Stick it in some precious wilderness, he says. If you wanted to preserve the biodiversity of rainforest, drop pockets of nuclear waste into it to keep the developers out. The lifespans of the wild things might be shortened a bit, but the animals wouldn't know, or care. Natural selection would take care of the mutations. Life would go on.

"I have told the BNFL, or whoever it was, that I would happily take the full output of one of their big power stations. I think the high-level waste is a stainless steel cube of about a metre in size and I would be very happy to have a concrete pit that they would dig - I wouldn't dig it - that they would put it in." He says he would use the waste for two purposes. "One would be home heating. You would get free home heat from it. And the other would be to sterilise the stuff from the supermarket, the chicken and whatnot, full of salmonella. Just drop it down through a hole. I'm not saying this tongue-in-cheek. I am quite serious," he says. "They would be welcome to take pictures of my grandchildren sitting on top of it."

Lovelock regards himself as an eccentric, and a radical, and he enjoys being a member of the awkward squad. The Gaia hypothesis was a huge delight to some, but it was a huge provocation to others. It also plunged Lovelock into a war of metaphors. Most of the battle was with the biologists, who had a different set of metaphors to defend. Some scientists, for example, call the Earth the Goldilocks planet, because Venus, hot enough to melt lead, was too warm and Mars, the frozen desert, was too cold, but Earth was just right for life. So in their view, the planet manages life, not the other way around.

Another group thinks of the fullness and richness of biodiversity as the outcome of "selfish genes", hectically competing to replicate themselves. So for them, life is a battle for tenure rather than an invitation to the dance. And then along came Lovelock, a non-biologist who proposes something disconcerting: that the earth is fit for life because life made it that way. The battle was brisk, because life is the great mystery. There are three great stories that science has to tell: one of these is where the universe came from, one is where life came from and the third is where humans came from. The first and the last are being sorted out right now. Cosmologists think, for instance, that they have the story of creation figured out, except for the first 1,000th of a second. Anthropologists have settled on a consensus that modern humans emerged in Africa about 250,000 years ago, the latest and only survivors in a line of hominids.

But the origin of life is a puzzle. Think of it as a kind of reverse murder mystery. The bringing-to-life happened in a locked room in a strange world 3.4 bn years ago. There is no surviving scene of the not-crime. There are no footprints, no strewn clues. The evidence was destroyed by the very creatures that rose from original experiments in fashioning the living chemistry from non-living chemicals. Whatever conditions made life possible were promptly erased by the action of life itself. The last surviving universal common ancestor went round eliminating all chances of new rivals emerging.

Life came into a planet with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, and began to alter it, producing as waste a dangerous, reactive gas called oxygen which could ultimately have brought the whole experiment to a halt. So life's - and Gaia's - next step was to favour a balancing set of creatures that consumed oxygen and breathed out carbon dioxide. But once that was done, the original atmosphere was gone, and water and nitrogen cycles were wiping away any evidence that might have been left in the rocks.

Lovelock began thinking of such things three decades ago when he worked on Nasa's search for evidence of life on another planet. He proposed in effect that you could tell that the earth was alive from a million miles away. Its atmospheric chemistry would shout of life. He proposed that the 70s Mars probe instruments could confirm the presence of life on the red planet by detecting an atmosphere of dynamic disequilibrium.

If there had been life on Mars, it would have been a very different planet. The atmosphere of Mars is 98% carbon dioxide and very stable. Venus is 98% carbon dioxide and a very nasty example of a runaway greenhouse effect. The earth no doubt started at 98% carbon dioxide too but today's atmosphere is a mixture of inflammable oxygen and reactive nitrogen with just a touch of carbon dioxide, and something is definitely keeping this explosive mixture primed.

He says Nasa ignored his proposal at the time but the future search for life on planets outside the solar system will be based entirely on Lovelock principles. At some future point, fleets of spacecraft working in exquisite unison will focus on little specks of light reflected from parent stars, looking for the spectral signatures of telltale gases such as oxygen and water vapour and methane.

You couldn't imagine oxygen and methane surviving together for very long in the same atmosphere. So if you spotted these in the gleam from a planet 30 light years away you'd start to wonder. "If there is a lot of methane, oxygen won't rise by accident. So you have to postulate a process on the surface that is producing gigatonnes if not teratonnes of both of those gases all the time and not only that but regulating them, because if you didn't regulate them you would be in danger of making an inflammable atmosphere or something like that. So that then becomes conclusive evidence of life," he says.

The American enthusiasm for possible life on Mars amuses him. "I think it is all part of the American frontier mentality. This Mars is the ultimate place, we can go there when we have screwed up the earth. We have the technology, we can fix it. The national legend of America is very tied up with Star Trek and if you go to scientific meetings you hear Star Trek metaphors paraded around all the time and to them it no longer is a kind of story, it is reality and there is a great danger in their thinking."

Lovelock is now 81. He and his wife Sandy - his first wife, Helen, the mother of his children, died after a long illness - have completed the 600-miles coastal walk from Poole, Dorset to Minehead , Somerset. He has pursued a long career as a kind of freelance scientist and he says big corporations are not for him, although he is happy to sell them his inventions. He doesn't care for science run by bureaucracies. He lives in an idyllic corner of Devon, on a 35-acre farm, on which he has planted 25,000 trees.

He takes the long view of eco-hazards, he says. He isn't bothered by the menace of industrial chemicals like PCBs or agricultural fertilisers in the way that Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth are. A chemist from the start, he points out that according to a Royal Society of Chemistry survey, chemists live longer than most scientists. The big threat to the planet, he says, is people: there are too many, doing too well economically and burning too much oil.

"It's the people that count and the only message I would have to give is to stop fretting, stop looking for scapegoats, people are to blame for the condition of the earth. It is me, you, all of us that are to blame and if we are going to do anything about it we have to tackle it individually, not expect anybody to take the load off us and do it. If you are a housewife in Balham you are not, probably, doing anywhere near as much to damage the planet as suburbanites and exurbanites living around here, using their cars wholly unnecessarily in huge numbers of journeys and burning far more fuel. The more money you have, the more damage you can do."

His new book is a hymn to science, and to Gaia and to the other makers of his great idea, and to the forces that made him choose to swim upstream, to stay independent, to be free to follow his nose. He grew up with Quaker principles, and became a conscientious objector in the second world war. He spent 20 years at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, a lab with 100 scientists and six Nobel prizewinners, and then he started pleasing himself, usually by devising instruments that pleased big business, or Nasa, or the Ministry of Defence.

He built a detector so sensitive it could trace seemingly infinitesimally small concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. Famously, he remarked that such low levels could do no harm. He should have written no toxic harm, he says. They were, of course, the chemicals that began to demolish the ozone layer. He thinks the big dangers to the planet are the greenhouse effect and the spread of humanity. Humans, just by their fecundity, and their economic demands, have begun to affect habitat and biodiversity so furiously that it might be that one day Gaia might not be able to step in and adjust the conditions to secure her own reign. The planetary regulator might not regulate so efficiently.

In that sense, biodiversity was a kind of insurance, a spreading of bets to allow life to survive the kind of catastrophes - from outer space, or from volcanoes - that have seriously interrupted evolution at least five times in the last 600m years. Meanwhile, humans could get their comeuppance in some quite mundane but unexpected way.

"Every few hundred years or less, there is a natural geological disaster, like a big volcano. Tambora was the last, in 1815, and the one before that was Laki in 1783. Both of those were followed by two years without any harvest. Now in those days, people survived. There were famines, but people survived. What would happen now?" he asks. He was speaking before the British pickets began their fuel blockade, and before panic-stricken consumers began clearing supermarket shelves. He was speaking long before word began to leak of UK government statement to be made on Monday about research into the possibility of some future collision with a large asteroid, an event which would darken the sky, shake continents, shut down agriculture and certainly clear the supermarket shelves the world over.

He was simply taking, as he has done all his life, the long view. "Two years without a harvest? It would probably bust civilisation. People would survive all right. It really would cut us back, and that is the sort of thing nobody really prepares for. It's not some ecological poison or GM foods or nuclear that is going to get us, it is going to be some perfectly ordinary natural event."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

March 20 to 26, 2006: Iran-USA, beginning of a major world crisis
or « The End of the Western World we have known since 1945 »

Written by LEAP/E2020
Friday, 17 February 2006
The Laboratoire européen d’Anticipation Politique Europe 2020, LEAP/E2020, now estimates to over 80% the probability that the week of March 20-26, 2006 will be the beginning of the most significant political crisis the world has known since the Fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, together with an economic and financial crisis of a scope comparable with that of 1929. This last week of March 2006 will be the turning-point of a number of critical developments, resulting in an acceleration of all the factors leading to a major crisis, disregard any American or Israeli military intervention against Iran. In case such an intervention is conducted, the probability of a major crisis to start rises up to 100%, according to LEAP/E2020.

An Alarm based on 2 verifiable events
The announcement of this crisis results from the analysis of decisions taken by the two key-actors of the main on-going international crisis, i.e. the United States and Iran:

- on the one hand there is the Iranian decision of opening the first oil bourse priced in Euros on March 20th, 2006 in Teheran, available to all oil producers of the region ;

- on the other hand, there is the decision of the American Federal Reserve to stop publishing M3 figures (the most reliable indicator on the amount of dollars circulating in the world) from March 23, 2006 onward[1].

These two decisions constitute altogether the indicators, the causes and the consequences of the historical transition in progress between the order created after World War II and the new international equilibrium in gestation since the collapse of the USSR. Their magnitude as much as their simultaneity will catalyse all the tensions, weaknesses and imbalances accumulated since more than a decade throughout the international system.

A world crisis declined in 7 sector-based crises
LEAP/E2020's researchers and analysts thus identified 7 convergent crises that the American and Iranian decisions coming into effect during the last week of March 2006, will catalyse and turn into a total crisis, affecting the whole planet in the political, economic and financial fields, as well as in the military field most probably too:

1. Crisis of confidence in the Dollar
2. Crisis of US financial imbalances
3. Oil crisis
4. Crisis of the American leadership
5. Crisis of the Arabo-Muslim world
6. Global governance crisis
7. European governance crisis

The entire process of anticipation of this crisis is described in detail in coming issues of LEAP/E2020’s confidential letter – the GlobalEurope Anticipation Bulletin, and in particular in the 2nd issue to be released on February 16, 2006. These coming issues will present the detailed analysis of each of the 7 crises, together with a large set of recommendations intended for various categories of players (governments and companies, namely), as well as with a number of operational and strategic advices for the European Union.

Decoding of the event “Creation of the Iranian Oil Bourse priced in Euros”
However, and in order not to limit this information to decision makers solely, LEAP/E2020 has decided to circulate widely this official statement together with the following series of arguments resulting from work conducted.
Iran's opening of an Oil Bourse priced in Euros at the end of March 2006 will be the end of the monopoly of the Dollar on the global oil market. The immediate result is likely to upset the international currency market as producing countries will be able to charge their production in Euros also. In parallel, European countries in particular will be able to buy oil directly in their own currency without going though the Dollar. Concretely speaking, in both cases this means that a lesser number of economic actors will need a lesser number of Dollars [2]. This double development will thus head to the same direction, i.e. a very significant reduction of the importance of the Dollar as the international reserve currency, and therefore a significant and sustainable weakening of the American currency, in particular compared to the Euro. The most conservative evaluations give €1 to $1,30 US Dollar by the end of 2006. But if the crisis reaches the scope anticipated by LEAP/E2020, estimates of €1 for $1,70 in 2007 are no longer unrealistic.

Decoding of the event “End of publication of the M3 macro-economic indicator”
The end of the publication by the American Federal Reserve of the M3 monetary aggregate (and that of other components)[3], a decision vehemently criticized by the community of economists and financial analysts, will have as a consequence to lose transparency on the evolution of the amount of Dollars in circulation worldwide. For some months already, M3 has significantly increased (indicating that « money printing » has already speeded up in Washington), knowing that the new President of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, is a self-acknowledged fan of « money printing »[4]. Considering that a strong fall of the Dollar would probably result in a massive sale of the US Treasury Bonds held in Asia, in Europe and in the oil-producing countries, LEAP/E2020 estimates that the American decision to stop publishing M3 aims at hiding as long as possible two US decisions, partly imposed by the political and economic choices made these last years[5]:
. the ‘monetarisation’ of the US debt
. the launch of a monetary policy to support US economic activity.
… two policies to be implemented until at least the October 2006 « mid-term » elections, in order to prevent the Republican Party from being sent in reeling.
This M3-related decision also illustrates the incapacity of the US and international monetary and financial authorities put in a situation where they will in the end prefer to remove the indicator rather than try to act on the reality.

Decoding of the aggravating factor “The military intervention against Iran”
Iran holds some significant geo-strategic assets in the current crisis, such as its ability to intervene easily and with a major impact on the oil provisioning of Asia and Europe (by blocking the Strait of Ormuz), on the conflicts in progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the possible recourse to international terrorism. But besides these aspects, the growing distrust towards Washington creates a particularly problematic situation. Far from calming both Asian and European fears concerning the accession of Iran to the statute of nuclear power, a military intervention against Iran would result in an quasi-immediate dissociation of the European public opinions[6] which, in a context where Washington has lost its credibility in handling properly this type of case since the invasion of Iraq, will prevent the European governments from making any thing else than follow their public opinions. In parallel, the rising cost of oil which would follow such an intervention will lead Asian countries, China first and foremost, to oppose this option, thus forcing the United States (or Israel) to intervene on their own, without UN guarantee, therefore adding a severe military and diplomatic crisis to the economic and financial crisis.

Relevant factors of the American economic crisis
LEAP/E2020 anticipate that these two non-official decisions will involve the United States and the world in a monetary, financial, and soon economic crisis without precedent on a planetary scale. The ‘monetarisation’ of the US debt is indeed a very technical term describing a catastrophically simple reality: the United States undertake not to refund their debt, or more exactly to refund it in "monkey currency". LEAP/E2020 also anticipate that the process will accelerate at the end of March, in coincidence with the launching of the Iranian Oil Bourse, which can only precipitate the sales of US Treasury Bonds by their non-American holders.

In this perspective, it is useful to contemplate the following information[7]: the share of the debt of the US government owned by US banks fell down to 1,7% in 2004, as opposed to 18% in 1982. In parallel, the share of this same debt owned by foreign operators went from 17% in 1982 up to 49% in 2004.
? Question: How comes that US banks got rid of almost all their share of the US national debt over the last years?

Moreover, in order to try to avoid the explosion of the "real-estate bubble" on which rests the US household consumption, and at a time when the US saving rate has become negative for the first time since 1932 and 1933 (in the middle of the "Great Depression"), the Bush administration, in partnership with the new owner of the US Federal Reserve and a follower of this monetary approach, will flood the US market of liquidities.

Some anticipated effects of this systemic rupture
According to LEAP/E2020, the non-accidental conjunction of the Iranian and American decisions, is a decisive stage in the release of a systemic crisis marking the end of the international order set up after World War II, and will be characterised between the end of March and the end of the year 2006 by a plunge in the dollar (possibly down to 1 Euro = 1,70 US Dollars in 2007) putting an immense upward pressure on the Euro, a significant rise of the oil price (over 100$ per barrel), an aggravation of the American and British military situations in the Middle East, a US budgetary, financial and economic crisis comparable in scope with the 1929 crisis, very serious economic and financial consequences for Asia in particular (namely China) but also for the United Kingdom[8], a sudden stop in the economic process of globalisation, a collapse of the transatlantic axis leading to a general increase of all the domestic and external political dangers all over the world.

For individual dollar-holders, as for trans-national corporations or political and administrative decision makers, the consequences of this last week of March 2006 will be crucial. These consequences require some difficult decisions to be made as soon as possible (crisis anticipation is always a complex process since it relies on a bet) because once the crisis begins, the stampede starts and all those who chose to wait lose.
For private individuals, the choice is clear: the US Dollar no longer is a “refuge” currency. The rising-cost of gold over the last year shows that many people have already anticipated this trend of the US currency.

Anticipating… or being swept away by the winds of history
For companies and governments, it is crucial to integrate now action plans in today's decision-making processes, which can contribute to soften significantly the "monetary, financial and economic tsunami" which will break on the planet at the end of next month. To use a simple image – by the way, one used in the political anticipation scenario « USA 2010 »[9] -, the impact of the events of the last week of March 2006 on the “Western World” we have known since 1945 will be comparable to the impact of the Fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 on the “Soviet Block”.

If this Alarm is so precise, it is that LEAP/E2020’s analyses concluded that all possible scenarios now lead to one single result: we collectively approach a "historical node" which is henceforth inevitable whatever the action of international or national actors. At this stage, only a direct and immediate action on the part of the US administration aimed at preventing a military confrontation with Iran on the one hand, and at giving up the idea to monetarise the US foreign debt on the other hand, could change the course of events. For LEAP/E2020 it is obvious that not only such actions will not be initiated by the current leaders in Washington, but that on the contrary they have already chosen "to force the destiny" by shirking their economic and financial problems at the expense of the rest of the world. European governments in particular should draw very quickly all the conclusions from this fact.

For information, LEAP/E2020's original method of political anticipation has allowed several of its experts to anticipate (and publish) in particular : in 1988, the approaching end of the Iron Curtain; in 1997, the progressive collapse in capacity of action and democratic legitimacy of the European institutional system; in 2002, the US being stuck in Iraq’s quagmire and above all the sustainable collapse of US international credibility; in 2003, the failure of the referenda on the European Constitution. Its methodology of anticipation of "systemic ruptures" now being well established, it is our duty as researchers and citizens to share it with the citizens and the European decision makers; especially because for individual or collective, private or public players, it is still time to undertake measures in order to reduce significantly the impact of this crisis on their positions whether these are economic, political or financial.

Franck Biancheri, Director of Studies
A Letter from the Future
By Richard Heinberg

Greetings to you, people of the year 2001! You are living in the year of my birth; I am one hundred years old now, writing to you from the year 2101. I am using the last remnants of the advanced physics that scientists developed during your era, in order to send this electronic message back in time to one of your computer networks. I hope that you receive it, and that it will give you reason to pause and reflect on your world and what actions to take with regard to it.

Of myself I shall say only what it is necessary to say: I am a survivor. I have been extremely fortunate on many occasions and in many ways, and I regard it as something of a miracle that I am here to compose this message. I have spent much of my life attempting to pursue the career of historian, but circumstances have compelled me also to learn and practice the skills of farmer, forager, guerrilla fighter, engineer - and now physicist. My life has been long and eventful . . . but that is not what I have gone to so much trouble to convey to you. It is what I have witnessed during this past century that I feel compelled to tell you by these extraordinary means.

You are living at the end of an era. Perhaps you cannot understand that. I hope that, by the time you have finished reading this letter, you will.

I want to tell you what is important for you to know, but you may find some of this information hard to absorb. Please have patience with me. I am an old man and I don't have much time for niceties. If what I say seems unbelievable, think of it as science fiction. But please pay attention. The communication device I am using is quite unstable and there's no telling how much of my story will actually get through to you. Please pass it along to others. It will probably be the only such message you will ever receive.

Since I don't know how much information I will actually be able to convey, I'll start with the most important items, ones that will be of greatest help in your understanding of where your world is headed. Energy has been the central organizing - or should I say, disorganizing? - principle of this century. Actually, in historical retrospect, I would have to say that energy was the central organizing principle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well. People discovered new energy sources - coal, then petroleum - in the nineteenth century, and then invented all sorts of new technologies to make use of this freshly released energy. Transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, lighting, heating - all were revolutionized, and the results reached deep into the lives of everyone in the industrialized world. Everybody became utterly dependent on the new gadgets; on imported, chemically fertilized food; on chemically synthesized and fossil-fuel-delivered therapeutic drugs; on the very idea of perpetual growth (after all, it would always be possible to produce more energy to fuel more transportation and manufacturing - wouldn't it?). Well, if the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the upside of the growth curve, this past century has been the downside - the cliff. It should have been perfectly obvious to everyone that the energy sources on which they were coming to rely were exhaustible. Somehow the thought never sank in very deep. I suppose that's because people generally tend to get used to a certain way of life, and from then on they don't think about it very much. That's true today, too. The young people now have never known anything different; they take for granted our way of life - scavenging among the remains of industrial civilization for whatever can be put to immediate use - as though this is how people have always lived, as if this is how we were meant to live. That's why I've always been attracted to history, so that I could get some perspective on human societies as they change through time. But I'm digressing. Where was I?

Yes - the energy crisis. Well, it all started around the time I was born. Folks then thought it would be brief, that it was just a political or technical problem, that soon everything would get back to normal. They didn't stop to think that "normal," in the longer-term historical sense, meant living on the energy budget of incoming sunlight and of the vegetative growth of the biosphere. Perversely, they thought "normal" meant using fossil energy like there was no tomorrow. And, I guess, there almost wasn't. That was a classic self-confirming expectation - nearly.

At first, most people thought the shortages could be solved with "technology." However, in retrospect that's quite ludicrous. After all, their modern gadgetry had been invented to use a temporary abundance of energy. It didn't produce energy. Yes, there were the nuclear reactors (heavens, those things turned out to be nightmares!), but they cost so much energy to build and decommission that the power they produced during their lifetimes barely paid for them in energy terms. The same with photovoltaic panels: it seems that nobody ever sat down and calculated how much energy it actually took to manufacture them, starting with the silicon wafers produced as byproducts of the computer industry, and including the construction of the manufacturing plant itself. It turned out that the making of the panels ate up nearly as much power as the panels themselves generated duing their lifetime. Nevertheless, quite a few of them were built - I wish that more had been! - and many are still operating (that's what's powering the device that allows me to transmit this signal to you from the future). Solar power was a good idea; its main drawback was simply that it was incapable of satisfying people's energy-guzzling habits. With the exhaustion of fossil fuels, no technology could have maintained the way of life that people had gotten used to. But it took quite a while for many to realize that. Their pathetic faith in technology turned out to be almost religious in character, as though their gadgets were votive objects connecting them with an invisible but omnipotent god capable of overturning the laws of thermodynamics.

Naturally, some of the first effects of the energy shortages showed up as economic recessions, followed by an endless depression. The economists had been operating on the basis of their own religion - an absolute, unshakable faith in the Market-as-God; in supply-and-demand. They figured that if oil started to run out, the price would rise, offering incentives for research into alternatives. But the economists never bothered to think this through. If they had, they would have realized that the revamping of society's entire energy infrastructure would take decades, while the price signal from resource shortages might come only weeks or months before some hypothetical replacement would be needed. Moreover, they should have realized that there was no substitute for basic energy resources.

The economists could think only in terms of money; basic necessities like water and energy only showed up in their calculations in terms of dollar cost, which made them functionally interchangeable with everything else that was priceable - oranges, airliners, diamonds, baseball cards, whatever. But, in the last analysis, basic resources weren't interchangeable with other economic goods at all: you couldn't drink baseball cards, no matter how big or valuable your collection, once the water ran out. Nor could you eat dollars, if nobody had food to sell. And so, after a certain point, people started to lose faith in their money. And as they did so, they realized that faith had been the only thing that made money worth anything in the first place. Currencies just collapsed - first in one country, then in another. There was inflation, deflation, barter, and thievery on every imaginable scale as matters sorted themselves out.

In the era when I was born, commentators used to liken the global economy to a casino. A few folks were making trillions of dollars, euros, and yen trading in currencies, companies, and commodity futures. None of these people were actually doing anything useful; they were just laying down their bets and, in many cases, raking in colossal winnings. If you followed the economic chain, you'd see that all of that money was coming out of ordinary people's pockets . . . but that's another story. Anyway: all of that economic activity depended on energy, on global transportation and communication, and on faith in the currencies. Early in the twenty-first century, the global casino went bankrupt. Gradually, a new metaphor became operational. We went from global casino to village flea market.

With less energy available each year, and with unstable currencies plaguing transactions, manufacturing and transportation shrank in scale. It didn't matter how little Nike paid its workers in Indonesia: once shipping became prohibitively expensive, profits from the globalization of its operations vanished. But Nike couldn't just start up factories back in the States again; all of those factories had been closed two decades earlier. The same with all the other clothing manufacturers, electronics manufacturers, and so on. All of that local manufacturing infrastructure had been destroyed to make way for globalization, for cheaper goods, for bigger corporate profits. And now, to recreate that infrastructure would require a huge financial and energy investment - just when money and energy were in ever shorter supply.

Stores were empty. People were out of work. How were they to survive? The only way they could do so was by endlessly recycling all the used stuff that had been manufactured before the energy crisis. At first, after the initial economic shock waves, people were selling their stuff on internet auctions - when there was electricity. Then, when it became clear that lack of reliable transportation made delivery of the goods problematic, people started selling stuff on street corners so they could pay their rents and mortgages and buy food. But, after the currency collapse, that didn't make sense either, so people began just trading stuff, refurbishing it, using it however they could in order to get by. The cruel irony was that most of their stuff consisted of cars and electronic gadgets that nobody could afford to operate anymore. Worthless! Anybody who had human-powered hand tools and knew how to use them was wealthy indeed. And still is.

Industrial civilization sure produced a hell of a lot of junk during its brief existence. Over the past fifty or sixty years, folks have dug up just about every landfill there ever was, looking for anything at all that could be useful. What a god-awful mess! With all due respect, I have always had a hard time understanding why - and even how - you people could take billions of tons of invaluable, ancient, basic resources and turn them into mountains of stinking garbage, with apparently almost no measurable period of practical use in between! Couldn't you at least have made durable, well-designed stuff? I must say that the quality of the tools, furniture, houses, and so on that we have inherited from you - and are forced to use, given that few of us are capable of replacing them - is pretty dismal.

Well, I apologize for those last remarks. I don't mean to be nasty or rude. Actually some of the hand tools left behind are quite good. But you have to understand: the industrial way of life to which you have become accustomed will have horrific consequences for your children and grandchildren. I can vaguely remember seeing - when I was very young, maybe five or six - some old television shows from the 1950s: Ozzie and Harriet . . . Father Knows Best . . . Lassie. They portrayed an innocent world, one in which children grew up in small communities surrounded by friends and family. All problems were easily dealt with by adults who were mostly kind and wise. It all seemed so stable and benign.

When I was born, that world, if it had ever really existed, was long gone. By the time I was old enough to know much about what was happening on the bigger scene, society was beginning to come apart at the seams. It started with electricity blackouts - just a few hours at a time at first. Then the natural gas shortages clicked in. Not only were we cold most of the winter, but the blackouts got dramatically worse because so much electricity was being produced using natural gas. And then the oil and gasoline shortages hit. At this point - I guess I was a young teenager then - the economy was in tatters and there was political chaos.

By the time I was an older teenager, a certain identifiable attitude was developing among the young people. It was a feeling of utter contempt for anyone over a certain age - maybe thirty or forty. The adults had consumed so many resources, and now there were none left for their own children. Of course, when those adults were younger they had just been doing what everybody else was doing. They figured it was normal to cut down ancient forests for wood pulp for their phone books, pump every last gallon of oil to power their SUVs, or flick on the air conditioner if they were a little warm. For the kids of my generation, all of that was just a dim memory. What we knew was very different. We were living in darkness, with shortages of food and water, with riots in the streets, with people begging on street corners, with unpredictable weather, with pollution and garbage that could no longer be carted away and hidden from sight. For us, the adults were the enemy.

In some places, the age wars remained just a matter of simmering resentment. In others, there were random attacks on older people. In still others, there were systematic purges. I'm ashamed to say that, while I didn't actually physically attack any older people, I did participate in the shaming and name-calling. Those poor old folks - some of them still quite young, by my present perspective! - were just as confused and betrayed as we kids were. I can imagine myself in their shoes. Try to do the same: try to remember the last time you went to a store to buy something and the store didn't have it. (This little thought exercise is a real stretch for me, since I haven't been in a "store" that actually had much of anything for several decades, but I'm trying to put this in terms that you will understand.) Did you feel frustrated? Did you get angry, thinking, "I drove all the way here for this thing, and now I'm going to have to drive all the way across town to another store to get it"? Well, multiply that frustration and anger by a thousand, ten thousand. This is what people were going through every day, with regard to just about every consumer item, service, or bureaucratic necessity they had grown accustomed to. Moreover, those adults had lost most of what they had in the economic crash. And now gangs of kids were stealing whatever was left and heaping scorn on them as they did so. That must have been devastating for them. Unbearable.

Now that I'm so ancient myself, I have a little more tolerance for people. We're all just trying to get by, doing the best we can.

I suppose you're curious to know more about what has happened during this past century - the politics, wars, revolutions. Well, I'll tell you what I know, but there's a lot that I don't. For the last sixty years or so we haven't had anything like the global communications networks that used to exist. There are large parts of the world about which I know almost nothing. But I'll share what I can.

As you can imagine, when the energy resource shortages hit the United States and the economy started to go into a tailspin (it's interesting that I still use that word: only the oldest among us, such as myself, have ever seen an airplane tailspin, nose-dive, or even fly), people became angry and started looking around for someone to blame. Of course, the government didn't want to be the culprit, so those bastards in power (sorry, I still don't have much sympathy for them) did what political leaders have always done - they created a foreign enemy. They sent warships, bombers, missiles, and tanks off across the oceans for heaven knows what grisly purpose. People were told that this was being done to protect their "American Way of Life." Well, there was nothing on Earth that could have accomplished that. It was the American Way of Life that was the problem!

The generals managed to kill a few million people. Actually, it could have been tens or hundreds of millions for all I know; the news media were never very clear on that, since they were censored by the military. There were antiwar protests in the streets, and persecutions of the antiwar protesters - some of whom were rounded up and put in concentration camps. The government became utterly fascistic in its methods toward the end. There were local uprisings and brutal crackdowns. But it was all for nothing. The wars only depleted what few resources were still available, and after five horrible years the central government just collapsed. Ran out of gas.

Speaking of political events, it's worth noting that, in the early years of the shortages, the existing political philosophies had very little to offer that was helpful. The right-wingers were completely devoted to shielding the wealthy from blame and shifting all of the pain onto poor people and overseas scapegoats - the Arabs, North Koreans, and so on. Meanwhile, the Left was so habituated to fighting corporate meanies that it couldn't grasp the fact that the problems now facing society couldn't be solved by economic redistribution. Personally, as a historian, I tend to be much more sympathetic to the Left because I think that the accumulation of wealth that was occurring was just obscene. I suspect that a hell of a lot of suffering could have been averted if all of that wealth had been spread around early on, when the money was worth something. But to hear some of the leftist leaders talk, you'd think that once all the corporations had been reined in, once the billionaire plutocrats had been relieved of their riches, everything would be fine. Well, everything wasn't going to be fine, no way.

So here were these two political factions fighting to the death, blaming each other, while everybody around them was starving or going crazy. What the people really needed was just some basic common-sense information and advice, somebody to tell them the truth - that their way of life was coming to an end - and to offer them some sensible collective survival strategies.

Much of what has happened during the past century was what you have every reason to expect on the basis of your scientists' forecasts: we have seen dramatic climate shifts, species extinctions, and horrible epidemics, just as the ecologists at the turn of the last century warned there would be. I don't think that's a matter of much satisfaction to those ecologists descendants. Getting to say "I told you so" is paltry comfort in this situation. Tigers and whales are gone, and probably tens of thousands of other species; but our lack of reliable global communications makes it difficult for anyone to know just which species and where. For me, songbirds are a fond but distant memory. I suppose my counterparts in China or Africa have long lists. Climate change has been a real problem for growing food, and for just getting by. You never know from one year to the next what swarms of unfamiliar insects will show up. For a year or two or three, all we get is rain. Then there's drought for the next five or six. It's much worse than a nuisance; it's life-threatening. That's just one of the factors that has led to the dramatic reduction in human population during this past century.

Many people call it "The Die-off." Others call it "The Pruning," "The Purification," or "The Cleansing." Some terms are more palatable than others, but there really are no nice ways to describe the actual events - the wars, epidemics, and famines.

Food and water have been big factors in all of this. Fresh, clean water has been scarce for decades now. One way to make young people mad at me is to tell them stories about how folks in the old days used to pour millions upon millions of gallons of water on their lawns. When I describe to them how flush toilets worked, they just can't bear it. Some of them 'm making this stuff up! These days water is serious business. If you waste it, somebody's likely to die.

Starting many decades ago, people began - by necessity - to learn how to grow their own food. Not everyone was successful, and there was a lot of hunger. One of the frustrating things was the lack of good seeds. Very few people knew anything about saving seeds from one season to the next, so existing seed stocks were depleted very quickly. There was also a big problem with all the modern hybrid varieties: few of the garden vegetables that were planted would produce good seeds for the next year. The genetically engineering plants were even worse, causing all sorts of ecological problems that we're still dealing with, particularly the killing off of bees and other beneficial insects. The seeds of good open-pollinated food plants are like gold to us.

I did some traveling by foot and on horseback when I was younger, in my fifties and sixties, and we do get some reports from the outside world. From what I've seen and heard, it seems that people in different places have coped in different ways and with widely varying degrees of success. Ironically, perhaps, the indigenous people who were most persecuted by civilization are probably doing the best. They still retained a lot of knowledge of how to live simply on the land. In some places, people are dwelling together in makeshift rural communes; other folks are trying to survive in what's left of the great urban centers, ripping up concrete and growing what they can as they recycle and trade all the old junk that was left behind when people fled the cities in the 'twenties. As a historian, one of my biggest frustrations is the rapid disappearance of knowledge. You people had a mania for putting most of your important information on electronic storage media and acid-laden paper - which are disintegrating very quickly. For the most part, all we have are fading photographs, random books, and crumbling magazines.

A few of our young people look at the old magazine ads and wonder what it must have been like to live in a world with jet airplanes, electricity, and sports cars. It must have been utopia, paradise! Others among us are not so sanguine about the past. I suppose that's part of my job as a historian: to remind everyone that the advertising images were only one side of a story; it was the other side of that story - the rampant exploitation of nature and people, the blindness to consequences - that led to the horrors of the past century.

You're probably wondering if I have any good news, anything encouraging to say about the future of your world. Well, as with most things, it depends on your perspective. Many of the survivors learned valuable lessons. They learned what's important in life and what isn't. They learned to treasure good soil, viable seeds, clean water, unpolluted air, and friends you can count on. They learned how to take charge of their own lives, rather than expecting to be taken care of by some government or corporation. There are no "jobs" now, so people's time is all their own. They think for themselves more. Partly as a result of that, the old religions have largely fallen by the wayside, and folks have rediscovered spirituality in nature and in their local communities. The kids today are eager to learn and to create their own culture. The traumas of industrial civilization's collapse are in the past; that's history now. It's a new day.

Can you change the future? I don't know. There are all sorts of logical contradictions inherent in that question. I can barely understand the principles of physics that are allowing me to transmit this signal to you. Possibly, as a result of reading this letter, you might do something that would change my world. Maybe you could save a forest or a species, or preserve some heirloom seeds, or help prepare yourselves and the rest of the population for the coming energy shortages. My life might be altered as a result. Then, I suppose this letter would change, as would your experience of reading it. And as a result of that, you'd take different actions. We would have set up some kind of cosmic feedback loop between past and future. It's pretty interesting to think about.

Speaking of physics, maybe I should mention that I've come to accept a view of history based on what I've read about chaos theory. According to the theory, in chaotic systems small changes in initial conditions can lead to big changes in outcomes. Well, human society and history are chaotic systems. Even though most of what people do is determined by material circumstances, they still have some wiggle room, and what they do with that can make a significant difference down the line. In retrospect, it appears that human survival in the twenty-first century hinged on many small and seemingly insignificant efforts by marginalized individuals and groups in the twentieth century. The anti-nuclear movement, the conservation movement, the anti-biotech movement, the organic food and gardening movements, indigenous peoples' resistance movements, the tiny organizations devoted to seed saving - all had a profound and positive impact on later events.

I suppose that, logically speaking, if you were to alter the web of causation leading up to my present existence, it is possible that events might transpire that would preclude my being here. In that case, this letter would constitute history's most bizarre suicide note! But that is a risk I am willing to take. Do what you can. Change history! And while you're at it, be kind to one another. Don't take anything or anyone for granted.

Monday, February 20, 2006

How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth
by Ran Prieur
December 19, 2004

1. Abandon the world. The world is the enemy of the Earth. The "world as we know it" is a deadly parasite on the biosphere. Both cannot survive, nor can the world survive without the Earth. Do the logic: the world is doomed. If you stay on the parasite, you die with it. If you move to the Earth, and it survives in something like its recent form, you can survive with it.

Our little world is doomed because it's built on a foundation of taking from the wider world without giving back. For thousands of years we've been going into debt and calling it "progress," exterminating and calling it "development," stealing and calling it "wealth," shrinking into a world of our own design and calling it "evolution." We're just about done. We're not just running out of cheap oil -- which is used to make and move almost every product, and which gives the average American the energy equivalent of 200 slaves. We're also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived fertilizers to grow food; and forests, which stabilize climate and create rain by transpiring water to refill the clouds; and ground water, such as the Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains, which could go dry any time now. We're running out of room to dump stuff in the oceans without killing them, and to dump stuff in the atmosphere without wrecking the climate, and to manufacture carcinogens without all of us getting cancer. We're coming to the end of global food stockpiles, and antibiotics that still work, and our own physical health, and our own mental health, and our grip on reality, and our will to keep the whole game going. Why do you think so many Americans are looking forward to "armageddon" or the "rapture"? We hate this shitty world and we want to blow it up.

In the next five or ten years, the US military will be humiliated, the dollar will collapse, the housing bubble will burst, tens of millions of Americans will be destitute, food, fuel, and manufactured items will get really expensive, and most of us will begin withdrawal from the industrial lifestyle. SUV's will change their function from transportation to shelter. We will not be able to imagine how we ever thought calories were bad. Smart people will stop exterminating the dandelions in their yard and start eating them. Ornamental gardens will go the way of fruit hats and bloomers. In the cities, pigeon populations will decline.

This is not the "doom" scenario. I'm not saying anything about death camps, super-plagues, asteroid impacts, solar flares, nuclear war, an instant ice age, or a runaway greenhouse effect. This is the mildest realistic scenario, the slow crash: energy prices will rise, the middle class will fall into the lower class, economies will collapse, nations will fight desperate wars over resources, in the worst places people will starve, and climate disasters will get worse. Your area might resemble the botched conquest of Iraq, or the depression in Argentina, or the fall of Rome, or even a crusty Ecotopia. My young anarchist friends are already packing themselves into unheated houses and getting around by bicycle, and they're noticeably happier than my friends with full time jobs. We just have to make the mental adjustment. Those who don't, who cling to the world they grew up in, numbing themselves and waiting for it all to blow over, will have a miserable time, and if people die, they will be the first. Save some of them if you can, but don't let them drag you down. The first thing they teach lifeguards is how to break holds.

2. Abandon hope. I don't mean that we stop trying, or stop believing that a better world is possible, but that we stop believing that some factor is going to save us even if we do the wrong thing. A few examples:

Jesus is coming. If you believe the Bible, Jesus told us when he was coming back to save us. He said, "This generation shall not pass." That was 2000 years ago. Stop waiting for that bus and get walking.

The Mayan calendar is ending. Some people who scoff at Christian prophecies still manage to believe something equally religious and a lot less specific about what's going to happen. At least Jesus preached peace and enlightenment -- the Mayans were a warlike people who crashed their civilization by cutting down the forests of the Yucatan and exhausting their farmland. That's what we should be studying, not their calendar and its alleged message that a better world is coming very soon and with little effort on our part. Now the Mayan calendar gurus will say that it does take effort and we have a choice to go either way, but go back to 1988 and read what 2004 was supposed to look like, and it's obvious that we've already failed.

Technology will save us. If it does, it will be something we don't even recognize as "technology" -- permaculture or orgonomy or water vortices or forest gardening or quantum consciousness or the next generation of the tribe. It will not be a new germ killer or resource extractor or power generator or anything to give us what we want while exempting us from being aware and respectful of other life. Anything like that will just dig us deeper in the same hole.

The system can be reformed. Yes, and it's also not against the laws of physics for us to go back in time and prevent the industrial age from ever happening. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago the ecologists said "we have to turn it around now or it will be too late." They were right. And not only didn't we turn it around, we sped it up: more cars with worse efficiency, more toxins, more CO2, more deforestation, more pavement, more lawns, more materialism, more corporate rule, more weapons, more war and love of war, more secrets, more lies, more callousness and cynicism and short-sightedness. Now we're in so deep that politicians right of Nixon are called "liberal" and the Green Party platform is both totally inadequate and politically absurd. Our little system is not going to make it.

Also, there's a time lag between smokestacks and acid rain, between radioactivity and cancer, between industrial toxins and birth defects, between atmospheric imbalance and giant storms, between deforestation and drought, between soil depletion and starvation. The disasters we're getting now are from the relatively mild stuff we did years or decades ago, before SUV's and depleted uranium and aspartame and terminator seeds and the latest generation of factory farms. Even if we could turn it around tomorrow, what's coming is much worse.

We're not strong enough to destroy nature. Oddly, this argument almost always invokes the word "hubris," as in, "You are showing hubris, or excessive pride, in thinking that by lighting this forest on fire to roast a hot dog, I will burn the forest down. Don't you know humans aren't capable of burning down a forest? Shame on you for your pride."

In fact, we've already almost finished killing the Earth. The deserts of central and southwest Asia were once forests -- ancient empires cut down the trees and let the topsoil wash off into the Indian Ocean. In North America a squirrel could go tree to tree from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and spawning salmon were so thick in rivers and streams that you couldn't row a boat through them, and the seashores were rich with seals, fishes, birds, clams, lobsters, whales. Now they're deserts populated only by seagulls eating human garbage, and nitrogen fertilizer runoff has made dead zones in the oceans, and atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing oceanic acidity, which may dissolve the shells of the plankton. If the plankton die, it's all over.

Maybe we can't kill absolutely everything, but we are on the path to cutting life on Earth down to nothing bigger than a cockroach, and we will do so, and all of us will die, unless something crashes our system sooner and only kills most of us.

3. Drop Out. (See my essay How To Drop Out.) Dropping out of the present dominant system has both a mental and an economic component that go together like your two legs walking. It's a lot of steps! Maybe you notice that you hate your job, and that you have to do it because you need money. So you reduce expenses, reduce your hours, and get more free time, in which you learn more techniques of self-sufficiency and establish a sense of identity not dependent on where you get your money. Then you switch to a low-status low-stress job that gives you even more room to get outside the system mentally. And so on, until you've changed your friends, your values, your whole life.

The point I have to make over and over about this process, and this movement, is that it's not about avoiding guilt, or reducing your ecological footprint, or being righteous. It's not a pissing contest to see who's doing more to save the Earth -- although some people will believe that's your motivation, to justify their own inertia. It's not even about reducing your participation in the system, just reducing your submission and dependence: getting free, being yourself, slipping out of a wrestling hold so you can throw an elbow at the Beast.

This world is full of people with the intelligence, knowledge, skills, and energy to make heaven on Earth, but they can't even begin because they would lose their jobs. We're always arguing to change each other's minds, but nobody will change if they think their survival depends on not changing. Every time you hear about a whistleblower or reporter getting fired for honesty and integrity, you can be sure that they already had a support network, or just a sense of their own value, outside of the system they defied. Dropping out is about fighting better. Gandalf has to get off Saruman's tower!

4. You are here to help. In the culture of Empire, we are trained to think of ourselves as here to "succeed," to build wealth and status and walls around ourselves, to get what we desire, to win in games where winning is given meaning by others losing. It is a simple and profound shift to think of ourselves instead as here to help -- to serve the greatest good that we can perceive in whatever way is right in front of us.

You don't have to sacrifice yourself for others, or put others "above" you. Why is it so hard to see each other as equals? And it's OK to have a good time. In fact, having a good time is what most helping comes down to -- the key is that you're focused on the good times of all life everywhere including your "self," instead of getting caught up in egocentric comparison games that aren't even that fun.

Defining yourself as here to help is a prerequisite for doing some of the other things on this list properly. If you're here to win you're not saving anything but your own wretched ass for a few additional years. If you're dropping out to win you're likely to be stepping on other outsiders, instead of throwing a rope to bring more people out alive. And as the system breaks down, people here to win will waste their energy fighting each other for scraps, while people here to help will build self-sufficient communities capable of generating what they need to survive.

In the real world, being here to help is easier and less stressful, because you will frequently be in a situation where you can't win, but you will almost never be in a situation where there's nothing you can do to help. Being here to win only makes sense in an artificial world rigged so you can win all the time. Thousands of years ago only kings were in that position, and they reacted by massacring all enemies and bathing in blood. Now, through a perfect conjunction of Empire and oil energy, we just put the entire American middle class in that position for 50 years. No one should be surprised that we're so stupid, selfish, cowardly, and irresponsible. But younger generations are already getting poorer and smarter.

5. Learn skills. Readers sometimes ask for my advice on surviving the crash -- should they buy guns, canned food, water purifiers, gold? I always tell them to learn skills. You know the saying: get a fish, eat for a day; learn to fish, eat for a lifetime. (Just don't take it too literally -- there might not be any fish left!)

The most obvious useful skills would include improvising shelter from materials at hand, identifying and preparing wild edibles, finding water, making fire, trapping animals, and so on. But I don't think we're going all the way to the stone age. There will also be a need for electrical work, medical diagnosis, surgery, optics, celestial navigation, composting, gardening, tree propagation, food preservation, diplomacy, practical chemistry, metalworking, all kinds of mechanical repair, and all kinds of teaching. As the 15th century had the Renaissance Man, we're going to have the Postapocalypse Man or Woman, someone who can fix a bicycle, tan a hide, set a broken bone, mediate an argument, and teach history.

Even more important are some things that are not normally called skills, but that make skill-learning and everything else easier: luck, intuition, adaptability, attentiveness, curiosity, physical health, mental health, the ability to surf the flow. Maybe the most fundamental is what they call "being yourself" or "waking up." Most human behavior is based neither on logic nor intuition nor emotion, but habit and conformity. We perceive, think, and act as we've always done, and as we see others do. This works well enough in a controlled environment, but in a chaotic environment it doesn't work at all. If you can just get 10% of yourself free of habit and conformity, people will call you "weird." 20% and they'll call you a genius, 30% and they'll call you a saint, 40% and they'll kill you.

6. Find your tribe.
We minions of Empire think of ourselves as individualists, or as members of silly fake groups -- nations, religions, races, followers of political parties and sports teams, loyal inmates of some town that's the same as every other. In fact we're all members of a giant mad tribe, where the relationships are not cooperative and open, but coercive, exploitative, abusive, and invisible. If we could see even one percent of the whole picture, we would have a revolution.

You may feel like you want to do it alone, but you have never done it alone. To survive the breakdown of this world and build a better one, you will have to trade your sterile, insulated links of money and law for raw, messy links of friendship and conflict. The big lie of postapocalypse movies like Omegaman and Mad Max is that the survivors will be loners. In the real apocalypse, the survivors will be members of multi-skilled well-balanced cooperative groups.

I think future tribes are already forming, even on the internet, even among people thousands of miles apart. I think the crash will be slow enough that we'll have plenty of time to get together geographically.

7. Get on some land. This might seem more difficult than the others, yet most people who own land have not done any of the other things -- probably because buying land requires money which requires subservience to a system that makes you personally powerless. I suggest extreme frugality, which will give you valuable skills and also allow you to quickly save up money. You probably have a few more years.

If you don't make it, it's not the end of the world -- oh wait -- it is the end of the world! But you still might know someone with room on their land, or someone might take you in for your skills, or if you have a tribe one of you will probably come up with a place in the chaos. And if not, there will be a need for survivors and helpers in the cities and suburbs. So don't force it.

If you do get land, the most valuable thing it can have is clean surface water, a spring or stream you can drink from. Acceptable but less convenient would be a well that doesn't require electricity, or dirty surface water, which you can filter and clean through sand and reed beds. At the very least you need the rainfall and skills to catch and store enough rainwater to drink and grow food. (The ancient Nabateans did it on less than four inches of rain a year.) Then you'll need a few years to learn and adjust and get everything in order so that your tribe can live there year-round, even with no materials from outside. With luck, it won't come to that.

8. Save part of the Earth.
When I say "the Earth," I mean the life on its surface, the biosphere, as many species and habitats as possible, connected in ways that maximize abundance and complexity -- and not just because humans think it's pretty or useful, but because all life is valuable on its own terms. We like to focus on saving trophy animals -- whales, condors, pandas, salmon, spotted owls -- but most of them aren't going to make it, and we could save a lot more species if we could put that attention into habitats and whole systems.

So how do you save habitats and whole systems? You can try working through governments, but at the moment they're ruled by corporations, which by definition are motivated purely by short term increase-in-exploitation, or "profit." You can try direct physical action against the destroyers, but it has yet to work well, and as the world plunges to the right I think we'll see more and more activists simply killed.

My focus is direct positive action for the biosphere: adopting some land, whether by owning or squatting or stealth, and building it into a strong habitat: slowing down the rainwater, composting, mulching, building the topsoil, no-till gardening, scattering seed balls, planting trees, making wetlands -- a little oasis where the tree frogs can hide and migrating birds can rest, where you and a few species can wait out the crash.

Tom Brown Jr. mentions in one of his books that the patch of woods where he conducts his wilderness classes, instead of being depleted by all the humans using it for survival, has turned into an Eden, because his students know how to tend it. Some rain forest environments, once thought to be random wilderness, have turned out to be more like the wild gardens of human tribes, orders of magnitude more complex than the soil-killing monoculture fields of our own primitive culture.

Humans have the ability to go beyond sustainability, to live in ways that increase the richness of life on Earth, and help Gaia in ways she cannot help herself. This and only this justifies human survival.

It requires a new set of skills. A good place to start is the permaculture movement. Sadly, in the present dark age the original books are all out of print and rare, and classes are so expensive that the knowledge is languishing among the idle rich when it should be offered free to the world. But the idle poor can still find the books in libraries, and many of the techniques are simple. What it comes down to is seeing whole systems and paying attention and innovating, driven by the knowledge that sustainability is only the middle of the road, and there's no limit to how far we can go beyond it.

9. Save human knowledge. When people of this age think about knowledge worth saving, they usually think about belief in the Cartesian mechanical philosophy, that dead matter is the basis of reality, and about techniques for rebuilding and using machines that dominate and separate us from other life. I'd like that knowledge to die forever, but I don't think it works that way. Humans or any other hyper-malleable animal will always be tempted by the Black Arts, by techniques that trade subtle harm for flashy good and feed back into themselves, seducing us into power, corruption, and blindness.

Our descendants will need the intellectual artifacts to avoid this -- artifacts we have barely started to develop even as the Great Bad Example begins to fall. In 200 years, when they are brushing seeds into baskets with their fingers, and a stranger appears with a new threshing machine that will do the same thing with less time and effort, they will need to say something smarter than "the Gods forbid it" or "that is not our Way." They will need the knowledge to say something like:

"Your machine requires the seed to be planted alone and not interspersed with perennials that maintain nitrogen and mineral balance in the soil. And from where will the metal come, and how many trees must be cut down and burned to melt and shape it? And since we cannot build the machine, shall we be dependent on the machine-builders, and give them a portion of our food, which we now keep all for ourselves? Do you not know, clever stranger, that when any biomass is removed from the land, and not recycled back into it, the soil is weakened? And what could we do with our "saved" time, that would be more valuable and pleasurable than gathering the seed by hand, touching and knowing every stalk and every inch of the land that feeds us? Shall we become allies of cold metal that cuts without feeling, turning our hands and eyes to the study of machines and numbers until, severed from the Earth, we nearly destroy it as our ancestors did, making depleted uranium and polychlorinated biphenyls and cadmium batteries that even now make the old cities unfit for living? Go back to your people, and tell them, if they come to conquer us with their machines, we will fight them in ways the Arawaks and Seminoles and Lakota and Hopi and Nez Perce never imagined, because we understand your world better than you do yourself. Tell your people to come to learn."

Monday, February 13, 2006

Rhizome, Communication, and Our “One-Time Shot”
Theory of Power: Jeff Vail


My aim with this essay is to illustrate the historical circumstances that led to the constitutional evolution of the modern state system of hierarchal power centralization, to explain how contemporary events are invalidating the basis for that system, and to present a rhizome scheme of power distribution as a valid and desirable replacement. In addition, I will attempt to show that rhizome must transition from the parasitic use of hierarchy’s communication infrastructure to its own organic infrastructure in order to grow and flourish. Hopefully this will serve as a theoretical framework for people who wish to nurture the development of rhizome as a replacement to hierarchy. MAJOR TAKE-AWAY: Rhizome must develop a superior, organic communication theory or wither on the vine of hierarchy.

The Modern Development of Hierarchal Systems of Power Centralization

Machiavelli consciously shaped Florentine state structure to cope with the dynamic world facing the Italian city-states in the renaissance: the offensive dominance of siege artillery, the unreliability of Condottieri militaries, the need to use a state-structure to fund defenses alongside the contradicting need to establish personal legitimacy. These conscious actions are often cited (see Philip Bobbitt’s ‘Shield of Achilles’) as the turning point in the transition towards the unified hierarchal structure of the modern state, as they replaced the competing and overlapping hierarchies of the church-state system of feudalism. Perhaps most important in Machiavelli’s actions was that he consciously identified the need to create institutions that would intentionally intensify the hierarchal structure of a state in order to compete in a peer-polity world. Furthermore, he clearly articulated this message, influencing the generations of statesmen to follow.

This system is based on the creation of cascading dependencies: the need to continually grow and intensify hierarchies, created by the competition in the world’s peer-polity environment, forces the use of highly optimized systems. Highly optimized systems suffer from a technical difficulty known as ‘highly optimized tolerance’ (HOT), in which the need for continual growth and centralization forces the system to push well past the point of diminishing marginal returns to the boundary of diminishing aggregate returns. HOT systems are vulnerable to minor perturbations causing significant, cascading failures. In order to forestall the inevitable collapse of HOT systems, states create a “tragedy of the commons” scenario: they attempt to stave off diminishing aggregate returns by exploiting finite resources more quickly (and more unsustainably) than their peer-polity competitors. While some states recognize the futility of such non-sustainable resource use, if they refuse to follow such a policy they are summarily eliminated from the peer-polity game, as a state that does follow such a policy can absorb the non-participant and reap the benefits of this additional, temporary subsidy.

The End of the Power-Centralization Era

In the past, such peer-polity resource races led to periodic regional collapse. Today such a collapse is not possible—with the ‘Closing of the Map’ it is no longer possible for one region of the world to collapse while progress, technology, and “civilization” are maintained in another location, much like epidemic diseases. Instead, our global civilization simply swallows up non-performers or attempts at regional collapse and immediately reintegrates them into the global system. Take Russia in 1990, for example. In a ‘non-closed-map’ world, Russia may have languished for years, even centuries, while the reduced drain on resources permitted a reconstitution of resources and ecosystems that would later provide fuel for a renewed race towards yet another collapse. In today’s system there is no respite for such a recovery—“Western” and western-influenced internal forces immediately set to work continuing the exploitation of Russia’s resources, both natural and human. In today’s world, without the ability for regional collapse and reconstitution, the entire world functions as an integrated system. We have had a remarkable run of development, fueled by the twin processes of improving energy subsidy (coal, nuclear, oil, petroleum based fertilizer, etc.) and globalization (always newer and cheaper labor pools, newer and cheaper resource sources). But this will soon come to an end. The fundamental reality of the finite nature of resources upon which we depend (fossil fuels, uranium, metals), combined with the accelerating depletion of renewable resources which without regional collapse can no longer recover (forests, topsoil, clean water) is leading down the road to an inevitable global collapse.

The Fundamental Shift in Economics

At some point, there will be a global collapse. Which resource exactly that will trigger the chain of cascading failures is uncertain, as is uncertain exactly how far global civilization will slide. Perhaps it will be peak oil in 2006? Maybe peak natural gas in 2005? Or perhaps it will not happen until topsoil depletion and global pandemics provide a catalyst in a few decades. Either way, it seems certain that our civilization can only press inexorably forward until we find ourselves already off the edge of a cliff. Whatever resource is the catalyst, there will be a fundamental tipping point in our global economy. Our current system is predicated upon the need to centralize power and create dependency. Hierarchy must grow and expand, and in a closed system this is only possible by finding smaller, less hierarchal entities and unifying them into larger, more starkly hierarchal systems. Centralize power, wealth and control, and create dependencies and power relationships—this is the natural progression of hierarchy. The systemic tipping point will be when our system realizes that resource constraints will not only prevent a continued expansion and intensification, but will actually demand a continued contraction and devolution of hierarchy.

The Necessity of Power-Distribution in a Contracting Economy

In a post-peak world, the progression of structural systems must reverse. Creating dependencies, centralizing power will no longer be tenable in a contracting economy, a shrinking population, and a dwindling resource environment. As these factors converge, any attempt to create dependency (e.g. “here’s a new product and you need it”, or “I produce grain more cheaply and efficiently, so your nation can just import from us”) will face increasing difficulty as the cost of centralization will increase relative to the constant of available human labor. For example, it will be increasingly difficult for Uganda to prosper by developing a coffee-export based economy because it will cost increasingly more to transport that product to world-wide consumers, and to import the staples necessary to create a specialist-class of coffee producers. A poignant illustration of how cascading failures break apart the fabric of our modern world comes from New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

In short, the economic principles of economy of place and economy of scale which have driven economic growth throughout human history do not function in a contracting, post-peak world. This will fundamentally reverse the way our world works. Localization will be the new economic principle of the post-peak world order. As such, the new Machiavelli will tell us that our security and prosperity will hinge on conscious policies of reducing non-local dependency and distributing power.

Rhizome, a non-hierarchal, networked pattern of power distribution and economic organization, is the vehicle of choice. Rhizome does not represent a return to an impoverished and brutish world. However, a post-peak devolution slide, without the conscious implementation of rhizome, will result in exactly that. Without rhizome, we will gradually slide back to a sustainable level of internecine warfare, feudal fiefdoms and local strong-men. Rhizome promises a new means of connectivity and economic interaction that can substitute for the efficiency creating processes of hierarchy, in a form that is more compatible with the needs of humans. But rhizome is built upon a foundation of effective and efficient communication, and that development of that foundation is the issue upon which the future will turn.

Communication is the Lifeblood of Rhizome

Rhizome processes information entirely differently than hierarchy. It depends on the fusion of a regular network of local links between peers along with occasional, distant and weak contacts with a broad and diverse set of contacts. This “weak network” theory, and how rhizome can use it to process information more efficiently than hierarchy, is well illustrated by the classic example of the job search: in a traditional communications model (as used by hierarchy), you ask your 10 close friends for leads on jobs, and they each ask 10 close friends. The result—you don’t span a very large social network in your search. In the “weak network” model you ask 10 distant friends, and they in turn each ask 10 distant friends. With such a method you can span a far wider social network, and are more likely to locate a job prospect. Rhizome is defined by the non-hierarchal cooperation between peer entities, and this cooperation—the fundamental economic activity in rhizome—depends entirely on such effective forms of communication.

If rhizome is to provide a structural pattern for a post-peak world, then it must secure and advance its communication methodology and infrastructure.

Hierarchy Created the Communication Revolution

Hierarchy has created the revolution in communication technology and methodology upon which rhizome currently depends. Spurred by the benefits to hierarchy, technologies such as the telephone, internet, television, cell phone and computer define the current communications revolution. Similarly, methodologies like directories, contact lists, phone trees and push-pull theories have facilitated the ongoing expansion of hierarchal systems. Rhizome has developed as essentially a parasitic theory—in its modern form, with its promise to provide an alternative to the global, hierarchal system, it is a parasite on hierarchy’s communications infrastructure. The front line in rhizome communications—blogs, the internet, cell phones, message boards, etc.—are all technologies of hierarchy, if not all hierarchal themselves. They are technologies that will not continue in the absence of hierarchy, as the very processes that have made such personal electronics available to the masses are a result of our intensely hierarchal system.

The Dilemma of Hierarchy

Hierarchy will face a deepening dilemma: the very communication freedom that assists in countering diminishing marginal returns is also fostering an alternative system—rhizome—that is cutting in to perceived profits and power. At some point, hierarchy will try to re-exert control. Actually, this is already happening. DSL and cable internets do more than just provide greater bandwidth—they also take the internet access mechanism out of the world of more open phone systems and into the realm of exclusive distributorships and geographic monopolies. Microsoft Passport, trusted certificates, media consolidation laws, and other developments are but the first wave in the battle to take control of our communications. Rhizome and its continued viability survive as parasites on hierarchy’s communication backbone. The host is dying.

Transition from Parasitic to Organic Communication Infrastructure

In order to survive, to adhere to its own commandment to avoid dependency, rhizome must develop its own, organic communication hardware and software. There are examples from history and anthropology to draw on, but none of these have historically sufficed to prevent a relapse into hierarchy—especially in resource-rich and densely populated environments. Fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight, and the temporary surpluses of our hierarchal system to assist in the development of just such a system.


The Olduvai theory states that humanity gets one shot to develop sustainable energy independence. To do so requires using up the surplus of fossil fuels that humanity started off with—this is a one shot deal. It looks like humanity has squandered that shot—but even if we could snap our fingers and invent cold fusion, that might not be the best possible outcome. Continued increase in energy surpluses will only lead to increased hierarchy, and increasing incompatibility between that hierarchy and our ontogeny. The single-shot opportunity to develop a utopian hierarchy is a fantasy; it is really no opportunity at all. In reality, we do have a single-shot opportunity. That opportunity is to use the one-time resources and infrastructure provided to us by our hierarchal system to create a communication system for rhizome—an organic system, one that will facilitate the post-peak transition to a rhizome world.


The basic theoretical model for rhizome communication is the fair or festival. This model can be repeated locally and frequently—in the form of dinner parties, barbeques, and reading groups—and can also affect the establishment and continuation of critical weak, dynamic connections in the form of seasonal fairs, holiday festivals, etc. Additionally, historical land use patterns can be revived towards these ends. In rural Austria the farmers traditionally live in small villages, facilitating frequent interaction and exchange, with each farmer walking each day to his fields a short distance away. Aborigine would gather seasonally in large encampments to exploit temporary resource surpluses, often not re-visiting a specific site again for several years. After this temporary camp, they would break up into smaller bands and retreat to less resource-rich environments. This is what history has to contribute to the structure of a future rhizome communications system.

It is not enough. History has also shown us that, absent something more, rhizome will fall prey to the cancerous spread of hierarchal structures. Where will we find such additional developments? I don’t have the answers to this, at least not yet. I don’t want to cloud this essay with ideas in progress and brainstorming—that is not the point of this piece. This is a call to action—a call to work towards this end. We still have a little time to come up with an answer, but probably not much...

posted by Jeff Vail at 9:11 PM
Join us as we watch the crisis unfolding

Beyond Oil - the View from Hubbert's Peak by Kenneth Deffeyes

February 11, 2006
In the January 2004 Current Events on this web site, I predicted that world oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2005. In hindsight, that prediction was in error by three weeks. An update using the 2005 data shows that we passed the peak on December 16, 2005.

"A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" that I present an update on the data sources and the interpretation.

The underlying methodology is Hubbert's postulate that the rate of new oil discoveries depends on the fraction of the oil that has not yet been discovered. Similarly, the rate of oil production depends on the fraction of oil that has not yet been produced. A test of Hubbert's hypothesis, using the long history of US oil production, is on pages 35—42 of my book Beyond Oil. An algebraic result from the Hubbert theory says that the production rate peaks when half of the oil has been produced.
The most accurate measure of the eventual total oil comes from the "hits" graph on page 48 of Beyond Oil. The input data for that graph are the dates of the first well in each oilfield. The February 2006 edition of Colin Campbell's ASPO newsletter contains his updated version of the ExxonMobil discovery dates. I enlarged Campbell's graph and scaled off data for 2004 and 2005. An update of the calculation reported on page 49 of Beyond Oil gives an unchanged estimate: 2.013 trillion barrels. (There is always a statistical nervousness when an estimate does not change. I make the estimates by stepwise trials, and the winning step was 2.013. What I know is that neither estimate was 2.012 or 2.014.)
The world peak would then happen when 1.0065 trillion barrels have been produced (half of 2.013). Following Hubbert, I used the Oil & Gas Journal end-of-year production numbers. It isn't that the Oil & Gas Journal reports are divinely inspired; their methodology is well explained and their reports constitute a relatively consistent data set. The cumulative world production at the end of 2004 was 0.9812 trillion barrels and at the end of 2005 it was 1.00748 trillion. During the year, we passed the halfway point. The graph shows the date of the crossover: December 16, 2005.

During the year, we passed the halfway point. The graph shows the date of the crossover: December 16, 2005.

There are some interesting additional bits in the end-of-year statistics. Compared to 2004, world oil production was up 0.8 percent in 2005, nowhere near enough to compensate for a demand rise of roughly 3 percent. The high prices did not bring much additional oil out of the ground. Most oil-producing countries are in decline. The rise in production was largely from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Angola. The Saudi production for 2005 was 9.155 million barrels per day. On March 6, 2003 Saudi Aramco and the government of Saudi Arabia announced by way of the Dow Jones newswire that they were maxed out at 9.2 barrels per day. In retrospect, that statement seems to be accurate. Further details are in Matthew Simmons' book Twilight in the Desert.

Could some new discovery come along and reverse the global oil decline? The world oil industry is a huge system: Annual production worth 1.7 trillion dollars. I don't see anything on the horizon large enough to turn it around.

So what are the policy implications? Numerous critics are claiming that the present world economic situation is a house of cards: built on trade deficits, housing price bubbles, and barely-adequate natural gas supplies. Pulling any one card out from the bottom of the pile might collapse the whole structure.

There are calls for embargoing Iranian oil because of the nuclear weapons situation. Pulling four million barrels per day out from under the world energy supply might trigger a severe worldwide recession. In the post-peak era, we're playing a new ball game and we don't yet know the rules.
Ghawar, the supergiant Saudi oilfield, is producing increasing amounts of water along with the oil. When Simmons sent Twilight in the Desert to the printer, the water cut at Ghawar was around 30 percent. There are later reports on the Internet ( of water cuts as high as 55 percent. Ghawar has been producing 4 million barrels per day; when the Ghawar field waters out, you can kiss your lifestyle goodbye.
Since we have passed the peak without initiating major corrective measures, we now have to rely primarily on methods that we have already engineered. Long-term research and development projects, no matter how noble their objectives, have to take a back seat while we deal with the short-term problems. Long-term examples in the proposed 2007 US budget (Feb. 9, 2006 New York Times page A-18) include a 65 percent increase in the programs to produce ethanol from corn, a 25.8 percent increase for developing hydrogen fuel cell cars, and a 78.5 percent increase in spending on solar energy research. The Times reports that solar energy today supplies one percent of US electricity; the hope is to double that to 2 percent by the year 2025. By 2025, we're going to be back in the Stone Age.

By 2025, we're going to be back in the Stone Age.

Ethanol, fuel cells, and solar cells are not the only shimmering dreams. Methane hydrates, oil shale, and the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste depository would be better off forgotten. There are plenty of solid opportunities. Energy conservation is by far the most important. Initiatives that are already engineered and ready to go are biodiesel from palm oil, coal gasification (for both gaseous and liquid fuels), high-efficiency diesel automobiles, and revamping our food supply. Every little bit helps, but even if wind energy continues its success it will still be a little bit.

That's it. I can now refer to the world oil peak in the past tense. My career as a prophet is over. I'm now an historian.
Published on 18 Jan 2006 by Energy Bulletin. Archived on 18 Jan 2006.

The Proposed Iranian Oil Bourse
by Krassimir Petrov

I. Economics of Empires

A nation-state taxes its own citizens, while an empire taxes other nation-states. The history of empires, from Greek and Roman, to Ottoman and British, teaches that the economic foundation of every single empire is the taxation of other nations. The imperial ability to tax has always rested on a better and stronger economy, and as a consequence, a better and stronger military. One part of the subject taxes went to improve the living standards of the empire; the other part went to strengthen the military dominance necessary to enforce the collection of those taxes.

Historically, taxing the subject state has been in various forms—usually gold and silver, where those were considered money, but also slaves, soldiers, crops, cattle, or other agricultural and natural resources, whatever economic goods the empire demanded and the subject-state could deliver. Historically, imperial taxation has always been direct: the subject state handed over the economic goods directly to the empire.

For the first time in history, in the twentieth century, America was able to tax the world indirectly, through inflation. It did not enforce the direct payment of taxes like all of its predecessor empires did, but distributed instead its own fiat currency, the U.S. Dollar, to other nations in exchange for goods with the intended consequence of inflating and devaluing those dollars and paying back later each dollar with less economic goods—the difference capturing the U.S. imperial tax. Here is how this happened.

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. economy began to dominate the world economy. The U.S. dollar was tied to gold, so that the value of the dollar neither increased, nor decreased, but remained the same amount of gold. The Great Depression, with its preceding inflation from 1921 to 1929 and its subsequent ballooning government deficits, had substantially increased the amount of currency in circulation, and thus rendered the backing of U.S. dollars by gold impossible. This led Roosevelt to decouple the dollar from gold in 1932. Up to this point, the U.S. may have well dominated the world economy, but from an economic point of view, it was not an empire. The fixed value of the dollar did not allow the Americans to extract economic benefits from other countries by supplying them with dollars convertible to gold.

Economically, the American Empire was born with Bretton Woods in 1945. The U.S. dollar was not fully convertible to gold, but was made convertible to gold only to foreign governments. This established the dollar as the reserve currency of the world. It was possible, because during WWII, the United States had supplied its allies with provisions, demanding gold as payment, thus accumulating significant portion of the world’s gold. An Empire would not have been possible if, following the Bretton Woods arrangement, the dollar supply was kept limited and within the availability of gold, so as to fully exchange back dollars for gold. However, the guns-and-butter policy of the 1960’s was an imperial one: the dollar supply was relentlessly increased to finance Vietnam and LBJ’s Great Society. Most of those dollars were handed over to foreigners in exchange for economic goods, without the prospect of buying them back at the same value. The increase in dollar holdings of foreigners via persistent U.S. trade deficits was tantamount to a tax—the classical inflation tax that a country imposes on its own citizens, this time around an inflation tax that U.S. imposed on rest of the world.

When in 1970-1971 foreigners demanded payment for their dollars in gold, The U.S. Government defaulted on its payment on August 15, 1971. While the popular spin told the story of “severing the link between the dollar and gold”, in reality the denial to pay back in gold was an act of bankruptcy by the U.S. Government. Essentially, the U.S. declared itself an Empire. It had extracted an enormous amount of economic goods from the rest of the world, with no intention or ability to return those goods, and the world was powerless to respond— the world was taxed and it could not do anything about it.

From that point on, to sustain the American Empire and to continue to tax the rest of the world, the United States had to force the world to continue to accept ever-depreciating dollars in exchange for economic goods and to have the world hold more and more of those depreciating dollars. It had to give the world an economic reason to hold them, and that reason was oil.

In 1971, as it became clearer and clearer that the U.S Government would not be able to buy back its dollars in gold, it made in 1972-73 an iron-clad arrangement with Saudi Arabia to support the power of the House of Saud in exchange for accepting only U.S. dollars for its oil. The rest of OPEC was to follow suit and also accept only dollars. Because the world had to buy oil from the Arab oil countries, it had the reason to hold dollars as payment for oil. Because the world needed ever increasing quantities of oil at ever increasing oil prices, the world’s demand for dollars could only increase. Even though dollars could no longer be exchanged for gold, they were now exchangeable for oil.

The economic essence of this arrangement was that the dollar was now backed by oil. As long as that was the case, the world had to accumulate increasing amounts of dollars, because they needed those dollars to buy oil. As long as the dollar was the only acceptable payment for oil, its dominance in the world was assured, and the American Empire could continue to tax the rest of the world. If, for any reason, the dollar lost its oil backing, the American Empire would cease to exist. Thus, Imperial survival dictated that oil be sold only for dollars. It also dictated that oil reserves were spread around various sovereign states that weren’t strong enough, politically or militarily, to demand payment for oil in something else. If someone demanded a different payment, he had to be convinced, either by political pressure or military means, to change his mind.

The man that actually did demand Euro for his oil was Saddam Hussein in 2000. At first, his demand was met with ridicule, later with neglect, but as it became clearer that he meant business, political pressure was exerted to change his mind. When other countries, like Iran, wanted payment in other currencies, most notably Euro and Yen, the danger to the dollar was clear and present, and a punitive action was in order. Bush’s Shock-and-Awe in Iraq was not about Saddam’s nuclear capabilities, about defending human rights, about spreading democracy, or even about seizing oil fields; it was about defending the dollar, ergo the American Empire. It was about setting an example that anyone who demanded payment in currencies other than U.S. Dollars would be likewise punished.

Many have criticized Bush for staging the war in Iraq in order to seize Iraqi oil fields. However, those critics can’t explain why Bush would want to seize those fields—he could simply print dollars for nothing and use them to get all the oil in the world that he needs. He must have had some other reason to invade Iraq.

History teaches that an empire should go to war for one of two reasons: (1) to defend itself or (2) benefit from war; if not, as Paul Kennedy illustrates in his magisterial The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a military overstretch will drain its economic resources and precipitate its collapse. Economically speaking, in order for an empire to initiate and conduct a war, its benefits must outweigh its military and social costs. Benefits from Iraqi oil fields are hardly worth the long-term, multi-year military cost. Instead, Bush must have went into Iraq to defend his Empire. Indeed, this is the case: two months after the United States invaded Iraq, the Oil for Food Program was terminated, the Iraqi Euro accounts were switched back to dollars, and oil was sold once again only for U.S. dollars. No longer could the world buy oil from Iraq with Euro. Global dollar supremacy was once again restored. Bush descended victoriously from a fighter jet and declared the mission accomplished—he had successfully defended the U.S. dollar, and thus the American Empire.

II. Iranian Oil Bourse

The Iranian government has finally developed the ultimate “nuclear” weapon that can swiftly destroy the financial system underpinning the American Empire. That weapon is the Iranian Oil Bourse slated to open in March 2006. It will be based on a euro-oil-trading mechanism that naturally implies payment for oil in Euro. In economic terms, this represents a much greater threat to the hegemony of the dollar than Saddam’s, because it will allow anyone willing either to buy or to sell oil for Euro to transact on the exchange, thus circumventing the U.S. dollar altogether. If so, then it is likely that almost everyone will eagerly adopt this euro oil system:

· The Europeans will not have to buy and hold dollars in order to secure their payment for oil, but would instead pay with their own currencies. The adoption of the euro for oil transactions will provide the European currency with a reserve status that will benefit the European at the expense of the Americans.

· The Chinese and the Japanese will be especially eager to adopt the new exchange, because it will allow them to drastically lower their enormous dollar reserves and diversify with Euros, thus protecting themselves against the depreciation of the dollar. One portion of their dollars they will still want to hold onto; a second portion of their dollar holdings they may decide to dump outright; a third portion of their dollars they will decide to use up for future payments without replenishing those dollar holdings, but building up instead their euro reserves.

· The Russians have inherent economic interest in adopting the Euro – the bulk of their trade is with European countries, with oil-exporting countries, with China, and with Japan. Adoption of the Euro will immediately take care of the first two blocs, and will over time facilitate trade with China and Japan. Also, the Russians seemingly detest holding depreciating dollars, for they have recently found a new religion with gold. Russians have also revived their nationalism, and if embracing the Euro will stab the Americans, they will gladly do it and smugly watch the Americans bleed.

· The Arab oil-exporting countries will eagerly adopt the Euro as a means of diversifying against rising mountains of depreciating dollars. Just like the Russians, their trade is mostly with European countries, and therefore will prefer the European currency both for its stability and for avoiding currency risk, not to mention their jihad against the Infidel Enemy.

Only the British will find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They have had a strategic partnership with the U.S. forever, but have also had their natural pull from Europe. So far, they have had many reasons to stick with the winner. However, when they see their century-old partner falling, will they firmly stand behind him or will they deliver the coup de grace? Still, we should not forget that currently the two leading oil exchanges are the New York’s NYMEX and the London’s International Petroleum Exchange (IPE), even though both of them are effectively owned by the Americans. It seems more likely that the British will have to go down with the sinking ship, for otherwise they will be shooting themselves in the foot by hurting their own London IPE interests. It is here noteworthy that for all the rhetoric about the reasons for the surviving British Pound, the British most likely did not adopt the Euro namely because the Americans must have pressured them not to: otherwise the London IPE would have had to switch to Euros, thus mortally wounding the dollar and their strategic partner.

At any rate, no matter what the British decide, should the Iranian Oil Bourse accelerate, the interests that matter—those of Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, and Arabs—will eagerly adopt the Euro, thus sealing the fate of the dollar. Americans cannot allow this to happen, and if necessary, will use a vast array of strategies to halt or hobble the operation’s exchange:

· Sabotaging the Exchange—this could be a computer virus, network, communications, or server attack, various server security breaches, or a 9-11-type attack on main and backup facilities.

· Coup d’état—this is by far the best long-term strategy available to the Americans.

· Negotiating Acceptable Terms & Limitations—this is another excellent solution to the Americans. Of course, a government coup is clearly the preferred strategy, for it will ensure that the exchange does not operate at all and does not threaten American interests. However, if an attempted sabotage or coup d’etat fails, then negotiation is clearly the second-best available option.

· Joint U.N. War Resolution—this will be, no doubt, hard to secure given the interests of all other member-states of the Security Council. Feverish rhetoric about Iranians developing nuclear weapons undoubtedly serves to prepare this course of action.

· Unilateral Nuclear Strike—this is a terrible strategic choice for all the reasons associated with the next strategy, the Unilateral Total War. The Americans will likely use Israel to do their dirty nuclear job.

· Unilateral Total War—this is obviously the worst strategic choice. First, the U.S. military resources have been already depleted with two wars. Secondly, the Americans will further alienate other powerful nations. Third, major dollar-holding countries may decide to quietly retaliate by dumping their own mountains of dollars, thus preventing the U.S. from further financing its militant ambitions. Finally, Iran has strategic alliances with other powerful nations that may trigger their involvement in war; Iran reputedly has such alliance with China, India, and Russia, known as the Shanghai Cooperative Group, a.k.a. Shanghai Coop and a separate pact with Syria.

Whatever the strategic choice, from a purely economic point of view, should the Iranian Oil Bourse gain momentum, it will be eagerly embraced by major economic powers and will precipitate the demise of the dollar. The collapsing dollar will dramatically accelerate U.S. inflation and will pressure upward U.S. long-term interest rates. At this point, the Fed will find itself between Scylla and Charybdis—between deflation and hyperinflation—it will be forced fast either to take its “classical medicine” by deflating, whereby it raises interest rates, thus inducing a major economic depression, a collapse in real estate, and an implosion in bond, stock, and derivative markets, with a total financial collapse, or alternatively, to take the Weimar way out by inflating, whereby it pegs the long-bond yield, raises the Helicopters and drowns the financial system in liquidity, bailing out numerous LTCMs and hyperinflating the economy.

The Austrian theory of money, credit, and business cycles teaches us that there is no in-between Scylla and Charybdis. Sooner or later, the monetary system must swing one way or the other, forcing the Fed to make its choice. No doubt, Commander-in-Chief Ben Bernanke, a renowned scholar of the Great Depression and an adept Black Hawk pilot, will choose inflation. Helicopter Ben, oblivious to Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression, has nonetheless mastered the lessons of the Great Depression and the annihilating power of deflations. The Maestro has taught him the panacea of every single financial problem—to inflate, come hell or high water. He has even taught the Japanese his own ingenious unconventional ways to battle the deflationary liquidity trap. Like his mentor, he has dreamed of battling a Kondratieff Winter. To avoid deflation, he will resort to the printing presses; he will recall all helicopters from the 800 overseas U.S. military bases; and, if necessary, he will monetize everything in sight. His ultimate accomplishment will be the hyperinflationary destruction of the American currency and from its ashes will rise the next reserve currency of the world—that barbarous relic called gold.