The coming shitstorm, part 2

Imagine you’re on a ship crossing the North Atlantic. It’s night, and, being in the midst of a passionate but doomed affair with Kate Winslet and/or Leonardo diCaprio, you can’t sleep. You decide to go for a walk on the foredeck where, alone with your thoughts, staring out to sea, you spot several icebergs ahead. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like even if the ship misses one of them it’ll hit another — unless it makes a radical course correction. And yet, to your puzzlement and growing dismay, the ship continues steaming full ahead.

It seems that we (in a broad sense of “we” to be discussed later) are in a position similar to this imaginary passenger on this imaginary ship. At least three icebergs loom on the horizon: peak oil and unsound U.S. debt levels (per Kevin Phillips) and global warming (per Al Gore). Alone, each of the three counts as a potentially massive crisis. Together, they could be catastrophic. (If you like to worry, throw in a couple more items for good measure: the U.S. military becoming increasingly overextended in unwinnable Middle Eastern wars, a creeping proto-fascism here at home.)

And yet little, if anything, is being done to prevent disaster. Al Gore and many others who are concerned about global warming tell us that we still have time to scale back carbon emissions and prevent the worst consequences of the greenhouse effect. (See, for example, this Brookings Institution paper by Greg Easterbrook.) We’re also told that a concerted effort could mitigate the end of cheap oil and that sound policy could rein in the runaway U.S. debt problem.

But the necessary course corrections aren’t happening. Take global warming: While many nations, particularly in Europe, are committed to doing something about carbon emissions, the United States is not. And it’s not just the fault of the oil-soaked Bush/Cheney administration: When Al Gore as Vice President symbolically signed the Kyoto Accord in 1998, the Senate had already passed, 95 to 0, a resolution declaring it would not ratify the treaty. Never mind that Kyoto is just a first step toward the kind of global collective action necessary to fix the carbon emissions problem.

Maybe the ever-growing body of science, or the seemingly nastier and more frequent heat waves and bigger hurricanes, will convince the American public to take the issue seriously, and maybe that will translate into pressure on politicians to take real action. Maybe Al Gore’s movie will tip the balance.

It seems, though, that (to state the problem at hopefully not too great a degree of generality) various economic interests have gained enough political clout to prevent sufficient change to avoid or even substantially mitigate the approaching crises. The problem is not structural at the deepest level — i.e., capitalist democracies needn’t fall into the same traps that loom on our horizon — but it does appear deep enough and structural enough to be intractable, irremediable. Energy production and consumption in our economy is structured around fossil fuels, creating scores of interest groups that array themselves against serious reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Our patterns of living, working, manufacturing, and agriculture depend to an enormous degree on petroleum and natural gas, creating powerful resistance to any mitigation of approaching production peaks. And the financial-services industry, as Phillips points out, has now become the most powerful sector of the U.S. economy, making it unlikely that we’ll see a political solution to the complicated and multifaceted debt problem.

If these problems are not to be solved through the political process, some believe they can be fixed by markets or technology. (Salvation-through-technology is usually proposed by those who believe firmly in salvation-through-markets, and it amounts to one particular mode of operation of the Invisible Hand.) Biodiesel or ethanol or hydrogen could spare us any petro-pain, and carbon sinks or even more exotic solutions could reverse global warming.

On my reading of the evidence, these prospects are quite unlikely. But I’m far from being an expert or even a serious amateur on this subject — maybe technology and other market mechanisms will save us. Among other heuristic factors, though, the very feel of this hope for a deus ex machina doesn’t bode well.

It looks, then, like nothing is likely to save us. A question bears asking here: What is meant by “us”? Phillips’s worries are explicitly nationalistic. He is worried about the end of U.S. dominance, and in fact he shares that worry with the neoconservatives of the Project for the New American Century, who agitated for the Iraq War precisely as part of a larger scheme to maintain American hegemony. Phillips and the neocons differ about means, not ends. So one way of sidestepping — of dissolving — Phillips’s worries is to relinquish his concern for the United States. So what if China or India becomes the next world power, and if the U.S. is no longer able to impose its will on global institutions and foreign governments? On a long view, power simply passes from one nation to another, no real harm done.

To a certain extent, the anti-nationalist view seems right. There is no intrinsic reason to mourn the approaching demise of what passes for the American empire. Still, there are a couple of reasons to be uncomfortable. For one thing, I live here, and you, dear reader, probably live here. Our standard of living could decline rapidly if either of Phillips’s two worries comes to pass. Second, given the extent to which U.S. economic and military power is enmeshed in the current global order, there is a very real possibility that a catastrophic economic event for America would prove catastrophic for everyone. The fall of the Roman Empire brought centuries of increased misery for everyone within its sphere of influence, not just for the Romans. In addition, and maybe most importantly, even if “us” just means “us Americans” for some of these worries, global warming and to a lesser extent peak oil are bound to affect “us” in the sense of “us humans.”

This is the point in the essay where I’m supposed to propose solutions. I fear, though, that the only things that are clear are the icebergs ahead, big enough to sink the ship, and the apparent inability of the people in charge of the ship to change its course. In this case, the bounds of the “us” shrink to include only the tribe, the family, the individual. At best we can hope to muddle through some pretty bad times. At worst, well, it could be a lot worse than muddling through.

9 responses to “The coming shitstorm, part 2”

  1. dave — this has been, i think, your best political blogging since, well, since the old greatwhatsit.


  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    First off, I agree with Bryan, this is a great post.

    Now, mark me as a self-loathing human, but I find massive amounts of comfort in imagining the world after we’re gone: oceans, through the sedimentary process, will eventually become purified. Some fish species, probably the smaller ones, will survive through adaptation; others will become extinct. A similar process will take place in the forests, which will eventually invade the now urban areas of the world.

    Imagine how beautiful the ruins of our cities will look, trees poking though the windows of skyscrapers, birds nesting in rusted out tanker ships docked at our ports. Too bad we won’t be there to enjoy the scenery.

  3. Dave says:

    You guys are too kind. I’m hoping I’ve gotten some of this political shit out of my system for the time being.

    Scott, when I was a teenager I used to sit on the deck of our house overlooking most of the city of Albuquerque and imagine what it would be like with all the people gone. How long would it take for the weeds to take over, the houses to collapse, the coyotes to kill all the housecats? What would remain after a hundred years, or a thousand, for future archaeologists to puzzle over?

    Later I discovered the David Byrne song “Flowers” and thought it was a smart take on a similar vision, the world without technology. (“I just can’t get used to this lifestyle” he finally complains.)

    I actually don’t think, though, that humanity’s survival as a species is at stake. Under the worst scenarios for peak oil and/or global warming, which I think are maybe a little too dire to be believed, there’s massive population loss, a big decrease in living standards, and massive political failure leading to a kind of Dark Age. But if you take the problems I wrote about to be problems at all, even an optimistic scenario involves widespread suffering at least on the scale of the Great Depression. This seems quite bad enough.

  4. bacon says:


    You’re right to have no hope. As a rule, people don’t come together and agree to make self-sacrificing life changes to ward off some distant, abstract crisis. The world will learn to deal with global warming as it unfolds (and to paraphrase The Graduate, I have one word for all you aspiring civil engineers…are you listening?…”Levees”).

    And besides, only people who read print media believe in global warming. How many of you really are there?

  5. Scott Godfrey says:


    You’re probably right; humans won’t disappear. My scenario was just, as I see it, the best case. It’s how I find hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.

    Last night, Steph and I, as we were feeling as jolly as ever, discussed the possible ways to avert the “Shitstorm.” They are:

    One: figure out a way to abolish human greed (not likely).

    Two: use greed as an incentivizer of positive change (the free market as a savior model). This path is seen by many (including, presumably, Al Gore, chairman of Generation Investment Management, an investment firm that focuses on socially and environmentally sustainable corporations and technologies) as our most likely way of avoiding catastrophe. As someone who works in conservation, I understand the need for incentives, but I see this model as a bit overly simplistic. For example, market solutions rarely deal with the “human factor,” and I don’t think that the billions of really desperate people in the world will be kept at bay for ever.

    Three: anyone?

  6. Dave says:

    Indeed, as bacon points out, it’s hard to get people to undertake serious personal costs to prevent a far-away, ill-defined disaster. Often that’s not a bad thing; when a crisis hits, we’re able to rally and solve the problem. People didn’t want to deal with Nazi Germany in the ’30s, and it would have been easier to to it sooner rather than later, but eventually they were able to fix the problem, albeit at great cost.

    The problem with the threats we’re talking about here is they could potentially overwhelm any belated attempt at a response. Sometimes there’s no way at all to solve a problem if you start too late.

    On the other hand, my impression is that most European (and some other) publics are very concerned about global warming, for one thing, and are applying enough political pressure to get their leaders to take real action about it. Unfortunately, here in the world’s largest producer by far of greenhouse gases, there’s a different political reality.

  7. bacon says:

    Dave, of course Europeans are concerned. They don’t have talk radio, so they have to rely on newspapers. It makes me sad for them, fretting for decades about global warming. We get to live in childish bliss until the flood waters finally reach our front doors.

  8. […] Dave B, “The Coming Shitstorm” (Parts 1 and 2) Dave B, “Hope: a non-sermon” Scott Godfrey, “A journal of hope” […]

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