Posted by: terrapraeta | February 11, 2010

Peer Polity


Johnny’s playroom
Is a bunker filled with sand
He’s become a third world man
Smoky sunday
He’s been mobilized since dawn
Now he’s crouching on the lawn
He’s a third world man

Soon you’ll throw down your disguise
We’ll see behind those bright eyes
By and by
When the sidewalks are safe
For the little guy

I saw the fireworks
I believed that I was dreaming
Till the neighbors came out screaming
He’s a third world man

Steely Dan, Third World Man

I want to talk some more about yesterday’s topic. John Michael Greer has posted his latest installment on the future he suspects is approaching. He proposes that the US will fall into third world status over the next few decades. As a metaphor, I think that is a useful way to look at it. However, I have some concerns that he is also missing The Big Picture.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Toby Hemenway’s suggestion that breadbasket nations will not see food shortages or famine in the near term, simply because they are breadbasket nations and can function on less than we have been producing. A large part of his argument assumes that the government will do what is necessary to make the transition from oil-based agriculture relatively smooth and functional. As I wrote then, I have some concerns about whether that can honestly happen. If, as Greer suggests, the government and US status in the world economy are the first things to go, that merely increases my concerns. For what defines a third world nation more clearly than the fact that control of productive capacity is instituted from outside, based on the needs of other nations and other peoples? That could make for ugly circumstances, americans reduced to growing cash crops for others, while we, here at home, starve. I’m not going to get haughty about it, however – after all we have been doing exactly this to Africa and others for the last fifty odd years. There would be a sense of poetic justice in the event.

My question, actually, is whether there would be a nation left to impose such things on us, once peak oil has come and gone. After all, one cannot be a “third world nation” unless there are first world nations available to exert control over internal policy. My first thought – though I do not like it much – is perhaps, for a short while, this could happen. The question relies on when the US finally tumbles. If, as Greer suggest, over the next couple decades we finish becoming a third world nation, and if, as current projections by the DOE suggest, oil production has not yet peaked and will not peak for at least another decade, then yes, the US could become a de facto third world nation. (I am, as always, suspicious of DOE projections, when so many statistics have been modified for political reasons.) Currently, we produce less that half of our annual consumption and consume more than ¼ of the world supply. If, in the near term, we were to be shut out on oil imports, or gods forbid, our own supplies were to be taken away (likely, as a third world nation), then certainly there are nations (China is my first guess) that could build an empire off of those supplies. Not for long, but perhaps long enough to maintain the global peer-polity system for another several decades.

If, on the other hand, the US government manages to hold onto global political influence until well after the peak, I doubt there is much chance of another nation stepping into our shoes. While our own fall will still free up resources for other nations, the impact of US collapse is likely to take the rest of the peer-polity system down with us. After all, if China is suddenly able to ramp up production but, at the same time, losses its primary customer, what will that do to world economics? (In fact, I strongly suspect that the reason US influence is still relatively strong is that most of the rest of the world believes that when we go, we will take the rest with us.)

Now, let me stress, I have very little understanding of economics, so most of my thoughts on this cascade effect are based on the essays of other writers whom I trust. As such, I cannot give a cohesive argument on the economics at play. But I have read enough that I am confident in suggesting that these are questions that should be asked.

In his essay, Greer also suggest a possible return to empire based on wooden sailing ships and cannon fire (a la Spain in the seventeenth century). I think that version of future history is naive. The resources that Spain had access to in the seventeenth far exceeded anything that we will see in the mid-range future. Greer has argued that the US will be unable to wage wars of conquest as we slide down this slope, merely because we will not have the resources to do so – to suggest that other nations, also experiencing declining resources will somehow be able to do what we cannot does not make any kind of sense to me.

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