Peak Everything

The following is the Foreword to the English-language edition of Piero San Giogio's Survive—The Economic Collapse.

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” Samuel Beckett once quipped, a reminder that, when all else seems to be lost, there is still comedy. Hence, I was prone to take a cheeky attitude about the awful and tremendous dislocations now underway in the so-called “developed” world when I wrote my own recent books about it. As we march toward a reckoning with the mandates of reality, delusional thinking increases in direct proportion to the general anxiety level; the net effect appears to be an aggregate loss of intelligence, especially among people who ought to know better. What is more comically sublime than smart people acting stupidly?

Political leadership especially appears mystified by the changes underway in the world. The most conspicuous feature in this period of history is the incapacity of the educated and ruling classes to construct a coherent narrative about what is happening to us and to form an intelligent consensus concerning what to do about it. This is tragic, of course, but watching it unfold has been a pretty riveting show, and the action is only beginning. Piero San Giorgio is arguably less prankish than I am in this very clear and useful guidebook to the present and future, but we share an appreciation for the comic gravity and strangeness of our time.

The three horsemen bearing down on industrial-technocratic humanity are well-known now: 1) peak oil (at least peak affordable oil); 2) the impairments of capital formation due to peak debt accumulation; and 3) the very tangible effects of climate change (or, at least, disorders of the weather). In the galloping charge of these horsemen, certain consequences seem predictable. For instance, we can see presently the relationship between fossil fuels and money. There is a direct link between the availability and quantity of cheap oil inputs to advanced economies and the expansion ofcheap credit, which, when activated, is converted into debt. So, at the moment of peak oil, you also arrive at peak debt. And in passing the peak of each, we begin to witness the epochal unwinding of that debt as claims on things of value exceed the existing collateral. The unwinding presents itself as the disappearance of money and, more to the point, of aggregate wealth possessed by a society. That translates into falling standards of living.

For, perhaps, an even more direct example, we can see the tangible effects of climate change (or weird weather) express itself in crop failure, food shortages, and higher prices; or in the destruction of seaboard city neighborhoods and infrastructure when great storms strike; or the desertification of drought-stricken regions driving people from their homes. In all these cases, people suffer terrible losses of health, property, or economic standing.

So the salient point that an interested observer would make of the situation is that the terms of existence are certain to become harsher for just about everybody, as we compete for scarcer resources amid crumbling infrastructures for daily life and ecological breakdown. There are peculiar and pernicious side effects, of course, such as the tendency for the remaining wealth of nations to become concentrated in fewer hands, the notorious “one percent.” But that, too, leads to other effects, for instance, political upheaval, in which the “one percent” (or the aristocracy or the elite or ruling class) is subject to overthrow and physical assault—as in heads rolling. This, in turn, often leads to more widespread civil disorder in which a very general suffering prevails, while economies crumble and new elites attempt to establish rule.

The threat of that disorder, widespread among civilized people, has never been so ominous, though as of early 2013, the people in these societies remain deluded, confused, and apathetic (as in the U.S.) or only verging on manifest discontent (as in Europe). This excellent book provides a roadmap for understanding the journey through socioeconomic upheaval, and what to do at the destination.

I concur with Piero San Giorgio that there is much we can do besides hand-wringing, prayer, and needless political conflict to facilitate the transition into the next era of human history. I think we also agree on the nature of that journey’s destination: a “reset,” shall we say, to far less complex living arrangements in a world that has grown wider, with fewer people, smaller sovereign units of governance, and reconstructed local economies. The “to do” list of crucial tasks for civilized people can be stated succinctly: we have to grow our food differently as industrial farming goes obsolete; we have to inhabit the landscape in ways other than suburbia and colossal metroplex cities; we have to move people and things in ways other than airplanes and automobiles; and we have to rebuild the fine-grained, local networks of economic interdependence that will constitute commerce as we leave the economic dinosaurs of Walmart (and things like it) behind.

In this agenda, there is no room for crybabies, scapegoating, or pettifogging. Piero San Giorgio lays all this out here with a most refreshing clarity of purpose, which I commend to you as a valuable cram course in how to survive the rest of your life.

James Howard Kunstler is best known as the author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere. He is also the author of many novels, including his tale of the post-oil American future, World Made By Hand. His shorter work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Metropolis, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and many other periodicals.

Survive—The Economic Collapse
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