Saturday, November 28, 2015

Coming downstairs, bump, bump, bump

Last year, a number of people noted that recently there had been a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled across the country. At a minimum, this shows that transportation engineers are wrong to base their recommendations on simplistic linear models. Connecting this with similar drops in vehicle sales and sales of sprawly houses, some felt that there was evidence that Americans are "falling out of love with the automobile."

I tend to agree with both of these points, and they're the kind of change I would like to see happen, but more recently the picture has clouded. Vehicle sales are up, the average fuel efficiency of vehicles sold is down, home sales in some sprawly areas are up, and VMT is rising again. What's going on? Was all that good news just a blip? Should we keep building big roads?

The Archdruid has the answer. I've tweeted about him before, and … crickets. If you're reluctant to click through and read him, let me just remind you that you're reading a blog by a guy with a name that sounds like a superhero crossed with a sugar cereal mascot. Go read the Archdruid, he's good.

So John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and an occasional guest on the KunstlerCast (December 2011, July 2014, December 2014), predicted that we'd see something like this. Basically, when a society has built more capital (infrastructure, buildings, mines, etc.) than it can maintain, it begins to defer the maintenance of that capital. When it can't defer maintenance any longer, there is a crisis. This crisis is compounded if the maintenance is dependent on non-renewable resources.

The critical thing to note is that we don't fall all the way down. When someone claims that a situation is unsustainable, one popular response is to deny it and predict business as usual, and another is to predict a complete and sudden collapse, all the way back to nothing. The Archdruid predicts something in between, something a lot like what we've been seeing.

Greer observes that a collapse has the effect of tipping "some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster." That relieves the society of the responsibility for maintaining it, providing an opportunity to recover some balance and stability. It can seem like the fall is over, and many people will then pick themselves up and resume business as usual. But business as usual will just lead to more capital that the society is unable to maintain, and eventually to another collapse. And so on.

When the resources used to build and maintain the capital are not renewable, it makes things worse, because the periods of stability and regrowth are shorter and the collapses are bigger. The result is what the Archdruid calls a "stair step down": with each crash, the standard of living gets lower and lower.

Our energy and economic crises fit the pattern that Greer describes. In 2008 we abandoned large tracts of McMansions, malls and Mitsubishis for apartments, streets and transit, and that helped us to recover a bit (in combination with unsustainable emergency strategies like fracking and quantitative easing). If we were smart we'd use that time and energy to build more sustainable trains and apartment buildings. But we're not that smart, so a lot of us have gone back to building mega-bridges and sprawl. That means that the next step down is not far off, and it will probably be painful.


Unknown said...

I don't buy it. We have the economic resources to maintain our infrastructure, we just choose to spend over 4% of our GDP on our military budget. The only countries that spend a greater percentage of their GDP on their military are economic basket cases like Chad, North Korea, and Eritrea, or countries like Saudi Arabia that could give two shits about the infrastructure requirements of most of their residents.

There are vast reserves of economic productivity tied up in maintaining our military that could be deployed to fix our infrastructure. It's like he kind of gets it, when he talks about the worldwide American Empire, but it seems like he makes the mistake of thinking that this is something that props up our lifestyle, instead of being a huge drag on it. Empires benefit some portion of the home country's economic and social elite, for everyone else, they're just an expense.

I dunno, maybe it's partly the association with Kunstler that bothers me. I used to think JHK was an interesting read, if at times a little over-wrought, until he went full paleocon and started talking about how black kids were getting shot by cops because of rap music...

neroden@gmail said...

Unkonwn is correct about this.

The US sets fire to an absolutely astounding amount of money, real resources, and manpower in military adventures which an acquaintance of mine described as "Quixotically attacking various windmills".