November 3, 2011

Redolent of Olduvai

Filed under: Peak Oil, Relocalization, Tower of Babel — Tags: , — Russ @ 8:18 am


I haven’t read Richard Duncan’s Olduvai theory in a long time, but over the last few days I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s a Peak Oil theory which forecasts a pretty rapid collapse of civilization. One of its novel features is the prediction that blackouts of increasing frequency and length will plague technological societies. When we see these occurring, that should be taken as a milestone along the road to collapse. The proximate cause of this or that blackout isn’t what’s important according to the theory. The point is that as fossil fuels becomes harder and more expensive to extract, energy harder and more expensive to deliver, the likelihood of any particular event causing a blackout will increase, and the likelihood of that blackout being severe in range and duration will increase.
This is an anecdotal post along the lines of my previous one on Hurricane Irene. Last weekend the region experienced a snowstorm. I’ll grant that it was unseasonal and unexpected until a few days before, and the snow was pretty thick, but there wasn’t that much of it, and rapidly warming temperatures quickly melted most of it in most places. Yet it’s left many places without power entering the sixth day now. It’s simply astounding how the “greatest civilization on earth” looks utterly incompetent to even keep its lights on the moment a few flakes fall and a little wind blows. Based on what I’m told by people I know who lost power, they can’t get accurate information when they talk to the utilities, only optimistic timetables whose deadlines come and go. One town seems able to restore electricity by the street, seemingly at random, but has a long way to go to get everyone up. The main impression one gets of the “authorities” is of desperate, confused struggle. I say again, we got one snowfall over c. 12 hours, with nothing but beautiful weather since then.
Nor should repair efforts be much hindered by traffic, since the roads ought to be less traveled considering how many other systems were shut down. Many corporate schools remained closed, mostly on account of lack of power, for days. My nephew only finally went back to school on Wednesday, and with a delayed opening on that day. (Meanwhile, my friend’s home-schooled children didn’t miss a single day, even though they too still have no electricity. They’ve also endured the electricity loss with little trouble, while others I know, corporatized types, had to flee their houses as refugees to sleep on couches.)
Meanwhile I saw several towns which looked like disaster zones. Traffic lights out, clearly insufficient police to direct traffic at major intersections, traffic snarling at those intersections, the back roads filled with cars trying to avoid these snarls, and topping it all, major emergency roadwork, detours, and “Local Traffic Only” signs everywhere you looked. We couldn’t figure out what it was all about, but it must have had something to do with the storm. A little snow, and everything looks like an anthill kicked over.
I know this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. I recall sneers and complaints about how people were becoming prone to panic over a little snow as early as the 90s. But as I recall, that was mostly just the psychological aspect. As my friend commented the other day, they jam the stores to stock up on bottled water, and not because they think the taps will run dry, but because they can’t conceive drinking tap water for a few days. We’ve long seen this psychological decadence.
But this menagerie of blackouts and incipient infrastructure collapse does look more recent to me. I grew up used to big snowstorms in suburban areas, and it doesn’t seem like it used to be this way, that a lesser storm has such crippling effects.
So it was while surveying all this that I thought of Olduvai again. It does seem like more and more this extremely top-heavy tower is unstable, tottering, and finding it harder and harder to right itself given the slightest breeze.
Of course, we’re talking mostly about the infrastructure and neighborhoods of the 99%. No doubt anything the “public authorities” needed to do for the 1% was done crisply, well ahead of time. Looking at my friend’s generator, it occurred to me for the first time that for someone from a suburb to feel the need to buy a generator is a form of covert privatization. One is implicitly conceding that one has to go to a private market to actually obtain a service one’s public taxes already paid for. The list, of course, could be multiplied forever, starting with her needing to home school in the first place. Here again we see what I’ve written about many times before, how the taxes on the 99 are merely extortions by the 1.
I’m not saying I’ve changed my mind and become a believer in the fast crash scenario. I still think it’ll be a tortured process taking decades. But this confirms my existing prediction of a weaker form of the thesis, that degradation will be much faster in some areas than others, and that lumpensuburbia and its desperate corporatism-hangers-on will be especially vulnerable.
Meanwhile, as I’ve alluded to here, those of us who are already trying to build lives outside the system are already giving some proof of principle, that we’re better off physically and psychologically.