Friday, March 18, 2011

The Math is Different at the Top (Part IV - When the Lights Go Out)

The first three articles in this series, Part I - The Math is Different at the Top, Part II - Financial Threats to Power, Part III - Will Water Set the World on Fire, discussed the impacts of financial deterioration and  ecosystem degradation (specifically water-based) on the ability of financial elites to retain economic and political power through centralized, global institutions.

A majority of the populations in the developed world or strategically critical countries (India, Pakistan, China, etc.) will be traumatized by the ongoing destruction of financial wealth, as well as water resources necessary for agriculture and household consumption (and, ironically, industry as well). Many of these locations can be considered "central hubs" of our global network civilization, and they must be coherently maintained for the overall system to have any meaningful structure (order).

It is possible, however, that these crises will be used by the elites as justification for further concentration of wealth and in power in their hands, through military interventions, the abrogation of legal protections, the implementation of oppressive legislative/executive policies, etc. So far, the global financial crisis has worked like a charm towards furthering this goal, as evidenced by the immense transfer of wealth that has occurred in the developed world since 2008. 

The imminent lack of adequate water resources in India, Pakistan and China, three countries with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, will be much more difficult for the elites to manage, but it is certainly not out of the question. China already has an authoritarian government in place that has been coerced to do the bidding of financial elites, and the same could be said of those in India and Pakistan, which are extremely corrupt and largely inept.

Billions of people throughout these regions may revolt in pure desperation, but we are still talking about a hungry, thirsty and disorganized mob facing off against a coordinated, well-equipped cadre of power elites, with every tool of oppression at their disposal (assuming relevant military commanders cooperate). That dynamic changes, however, when the issue of peak oil (decreasing global net energy availability) is factored into the equation, especially since our "central hubs" are net oil importers.

It is generally accepted that, since the discovery of fossil fuels about 150 years ago, at least half of all the crude oil in global reserves has been depleted. In the U.S. (largest per capita consumer of fossil fuels), this oil provided an energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of about 100:1 in 1930, but it is now less than 20:1 for imported oil and 10:1 for domestic (>85% of our crude oil is imported) []. No other alternative energy source (except hydroelectric) even comes close to these ERsOEI, and some, such as biodiesel, are probably net energy losers. [1]

The technical aspects of peak oil production have been thoroughly-documented by numerous analysts, and most of them conclude that it will become exponentially more difficult and expensive to maintain the current supply of global oil, especially when considering environmental concerns and the impact of the financial crisis. As credit markets deteriorate at an accelerated pace and financial economies renew their deflationary spiral, there will be much less capital investment in developing and maintaining oil production, refinery and transportation facilities.

An equally important fact is that oil exporting countries will continue to reduce their exports at an increasingly faster pace than the rate of production decline, as they require more oil for domestic energy consumption or as a part of other strategic policies. [2]. On top of that, resource conflicts generated between or within states could also take significant production capacity off-line and/or destroy already-extracted stores and related infrastructure (i.e. invasion of Iraq, potential invasion of Iran, Libyan "insurrection", potential revolution in Saudi Arabia, etc.)

Note the Steeper Negative Slope (rate of decline) in Net Exports vs. Production

Note the Steeper Negative Slope (rate of decline) in Net Exports vs. Production

These analysts also conclude that alternative energy sources will not come close to offsetting the net energy declines created by increasing gaps in oil supply and demand, given the various physical (thermodynamic - EROEI, resource - water scarcity), financial (front-loaded costs of scaling up production) and political constraints (greedy, short-sighted lobbies). []. The scope of systemic shifts that can be analyzed under the umbrella of peak oil is almost limitless, and many of these issues are highly inter-connected, but this article will, of course, only focus on its threat to a small group of financial elites in power. This tiny fraction of the population has benefited the most from gains in net energy and the global oil trade, and they stand to lose the most from its collapse as well.

The U.S. Military (Department of Defense) is the largest single institutional consumer of energy in the world, and more than 80% of its energy budget was spent on oil in 2008. It relies on oil for almost all of its critical functions, from transporting its troops to providing them with food, toothpaste and toilet paper, as well as the manufacture of weapons and armor, among other things. This institution, combined with a network of major financial institutions and a few dozen primary defense contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Xe, etc.), represent the core of global elite power structures and their most valuable mechanism of oppression.

U.S. soldiers are already some of the most over-worked and under-paid employees in the developed world, and human beings can only take so much abuse before their loyalty to an abstract concept gives way to basic needs and expectations. Still, just as discretionary spending freezes do not affect "defense spending", we can expect that oil rationing will divert large amounts of energy away from industry, transportation and possibly agriculture towards the Pentagon. In addition, the U.S. military has already positioned itself in strategic locations near the world's largest oil reserves, and will most likely use the rapidly progressing unrest in Middle Eastern nations to further justify expansion of this presence.

But, how far can this over-reaching logic carry the elites in power? Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter and notorious geopolitical strategist for the U.S., has accurately analogized the expansion of financial hegemony to a game of Chess. The players who take a hard bee-line for the opponents' major pieces make themselves acutely vulnerable and are bound to eventually suffer defeat. According to Brzezinski, this vulnerability takes the form of a "global political awakening", in which populist sentiment overwhelms the domination of power [3]:

America needs to face squarely a centrally important new global reality: that the world's population is experiencing a political awakening unprecedented in scope and intensity, with the result that the politics of populism are transforming the politics of power. The need to respond to that massive phenomenon poses to the uniquely sovereign America an historic dilemma: What should be the central definition of America's global role? [4]
By "uniquely sovereign", he means a country that is sovereign as a small group of powerful people  administering its policies, not as a democratic nation. What Brzezinski failed to recognize, however, was that these people no longer have the luxury of carefully crafting globalist policies in resource-rich regions, as he did with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Shah in Iran [5], due to peak finance and oil.

They have created an environment in which their only option to move forward is brute force, and it is simultaneously the worst option. In the process of deploying military hardware to secure critical resources such as oil, significant portions of these resources will be destroyed and increasing resistance will be met. Brzezinski also ignored the fact that "populism" would not be isolated to the system's developing periphery, but would rapidly spread to its center.

The recent events in Japan provide a vivid example of how our world's central hubs are extremely mal-adapted to energy scarcity. Here is a country that has been in a zombie financial state for two decades after a credit implosion in the 1980s, but could still boast that it was gradually weaning itself off of coal and imported oil for energy and substituting natural gas and uranium instead. In 2008, when it was still the second-largest economy in the world (now third-largest), Japan generated almost 40% of its electricity from nuclear power. [6].

A record-breaking, yet entirely predictable earthquake (and resulting tsunami), however, has led to severe complications at three of its nuclear power plants (Stoneleigh from TAE provides an excellent analysis of the situation here), which may reverse years of "progress" in its nuclear industry, and leave tens of millions of people without power for at least months. [7]. All of a sudden, access to increasing amounts of mined coal and imported oil appear to be more important than ever, but such resources no longer exist. The extent of systemic physical and economic damage resulting from this event is yet to be seen, and is most likely being drastically under-estimated by the mainstream at this point.

While experts are already predicting this event to be one of the "costliest natural disasters on record", it was no more "natural" than the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill at a practical level. The staggering consequences are entirely a function of humanity's relentless march towards increasing energy consumption, economic growth and global complexity. As Richard J. Samuels, MIT's Director of the Center for International Studies, put it in an interview with CNN:

Question: Why did Japan so readily turn to nuclear power when the country experienced the terrible effects of nuclear radiation when it was bombed during World War II?

Samuels: It's a good question, but it's a fairly easy one to answer. Despite that history, Japan is resource poor. And its resource poverty trumped its unpleasant history with nuclear radiation. That is, Japan knew that it would need more resources if it were going to transform itself into a global powerhouse. And it had no oil. It was running out of coal and there was no liquefied natural gas in the 1950s.
In fact, the critical nuclear situation in Japan is a microcosm of the critical global situation that will erupt over the next five or ten years, if not sooner. The risk to Japanese citizens is that radioactive isotopes will leak outside of the nuclear containment facilities, into the atmosphere and then into their bodies, where they will endogenously (without external interactions) release large amounts of harmful energy (to living beings) as they decay from unstable chemical arrangements into stable ones (the probabilistic rate of collective decay is predictable, but the decay of individual isotopes is not). [], []. This process of release is a dynamic fact of nature, and one that occurs at some of the smallest and largest scales of the Universe, as well as every scale in between.

The sad truth is that tens of thousands of people could end up dying from an earthquake, tsunami or exposure to nuclear radiation, and the financial elites would simply use those deaths to their material advantage, just as they did after Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or last year's earthquake in Haiti. Energetic releases on such scales occur very frequently in human society and nature, and our socioeconomic systems, while increasingly vulnerable to them, have so far absorbed them in stride.

Corporate media pundits are simultaneously talking about how tragic the disaster in Japan has been, and how it could also provide an opportunity for renewed economic growth through the rebuilding of its infrastructure. This latter claim is obviously nonsense to anyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds, but it reflects the fact that power elites are not at all shaken by the consequences of this event so far. They are actually benefitting from the "ratings" it generates in corporate media, and stand to benefit much more from financing the rebuilding of homes, schools, roads, factories, etc.

So what will it take to shake this arrogant sense of invincibility out from the consciousness of elites? It could be systemic financial deterioration, water scarcity, other environmental disasters or a combination of such events, but as mentioned throughout this series, it is quite possible that global structures of power will adapt to all of these things. However, peak oil represents an energetic release generated in the very heart of global human civilization, the industrial economy, which will spread through all of its extremities, up its spine and into its brain.

When tens of millions of people in the developed world are forced to live without access to basic electricity or fuel for transportation, along with any other expected luxuries, no amount of whitewashing or clever propaganda will dull the systemic shock. Television ratings won't soar, because consumers of entertainment will have neither the ability nor desire to watch themselves suffer in real-time. All bets are off when the energy finally stops flowing and the lights go out, and, right now, the financial elites are running the biggest, most complex bets on the table.


  1. Nice series of posts.

    Have you read Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production?

  2. My comment to "Language, Logic and Lies" seems to have dropped?

  3. Sorry for the delayed response... I believe you are referencing the FEASTA report by Horowitz? If so, I have and it's a great read.

    I'm not sure why your comment would be dropped... I certainly didn't delete it.