Saturday, 24 November 2012

Waiting for Naglfar

We are watching our world die. The world is sleepwalking into an environmental, financial, and political Ragnarok. Like the Norse apocalypse, our own tribulations include rising seas, savage wars, and the death of the old order. The Arctic Ocean may be ice free in a few summers from now, raising sea levels around the world. More alarmingly, this will increase the moisture in the atmosphere, allowing the effects of climate change to snowball exponentially. There is also the possibility that the methane clathrates in the Arctic will burst forth like Lovecraft's Elder Gods, sending Earth's climate into uncharted territory. The methane released could greatly accelerate the greenhouse effect, a Surtur's flaming sword of runaway climate. 

Don't hold your breath for any sort of political solution. The major nations have no interest in curbing emissions, even at a time it would be prudent to kick their fossil fuel addictions. Fossil fuels themselves are becoming harder to retrieve, with a diminishing rate of returns. Some types of gas and unconventional oil, for instance, have a negative rate of returns on energy invested. The processes to recover them are environmentally disruptive, and require increasingly scarce water resources to retrieve. Wilderness, aquifers, and farmland are turned into septic cesspools as a result of the toxic chemicals blasted into the ground. It is only through massive government subsidies to fossil fuel companies and use of eminent domain to seize private property that such activities are possible. It is not unlike a desperate junkie in need of a fix slicing their skin to find traces of their drug. 

Alternatives to fossil fuels likewise cannot sustain the status quo. Fossil fuel companies wish to inhibit competition as long as possible. Big Government-funded "green jobs" are unlikely to do much, as the individuals responsible for the pollution (public and private) have little interest in fixing it. Technical problems with energy storage, including rare earth supplies for batteries, have yet to be fully addressed. Despite some promising developments, deploying the new infrastructure would require money that no longer exists. Even in a newer, low cost infrastructure was developed, governments tend to prefer cozy relationships with centralized oil companies rather than a competitive market of decentralized firms. 

The money that could have been used to fund and develop alternatives has essentially vanished from the real economy. Kleptocratic central banks and political insiders continue to print money to sustain the pyramid scheme of speculation markets. The majority of trades on most stock exchanges are performed by software rather than humans, often used to rig trades to favor an increasingly fat few. Euros, dollars, pounds, and other currencies are being increasingly devalued with rigged and low interest rates, which penalize savers and reward speculators. Like a rigged casino game, the world economy ensures most people who play lose. Financial emergencies (often declared by the same people who started them) are used to seize the remaining assets in the name of debts that cannot be repaid. 

Globalization overcame the feedback mechanisms able to stop it. Crime and black markets have likewise become globalized. One of the fastest growing economies is not a country, but an informal economy known as "System D." While System D includes "conventional" criminal activities (e.g. smuggling and protection rackets), it includes alternative and informal transactions of all sorts. "Technically legal" gray markets, digital currencies (such as BitCoin), and barter agreements all have grown. In areas where the economy has effectively collapsed (such as Greece), barter and informal agreements handle services from protection to waste removal to food production. Revenue-strapped governments eagerly try to reign in such transactions, but to little avail. 

Attempts to ban such transactions will likely raise black market prices and empower criminal syndicates due to the "Prohibition" effect. Militarization of the police force, surveillance technologies, and the loss of rights are the logical side effects of heavy-handed government crackdowns. One need only look at the War on Drugs to see how quasi-military tactics have backfired. Ironically, in areas were state power has weakened, non-state groups from guerrillas to crime syndicates may take the place of states in the role of service providers. Many drug cartels, for instance, maintain logistics networks that could smuggle anything from illegal aliens to weaponry and even their own communications infrastructure. Political disruptions can result in these groups becoming the de-facto government. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian Mafia was already the effective power in control of the streets. When Rome fell, many regions had already began to rely on local feudalism. 

Fear and panic are reported on by media firms and echoed by politicians. The realities of the elite and non-elites increasingly differ, despite (or perhaps due to) the attempts of politicians to hold onto the status quo.  This type of instability could easily be exploited or redirected into domestic opponents or foreign enemies. Resources from fuels to water to arable land become increasingly scarce, desperation reignites potential for conflict. From trade sanctions to shooting wars, "zero sum" foreign policy is seen as increasingly acceptable. From massive crop failures in the USA to glacial melt-water disputes between India and China, food and water become increasingly valuable. The parasitic kleptocrats and corporate socialists loot as much as possible before heading for foreign tax havens and private holdouts. When events similar to this happen in historical cultures, it simply means the former elites are the last ones to starve to death. 

 Those who oppose such policies can easily find themselves the targets of well-honed intelligence and dissident monitoring infrastructure. With drones and a lack of political transparency, targets can be executed from around the world. Even if actual assassination is impractical, character assassination and agents provocateur can easily sabotage attempts to form alternatives. With a dystopia worthy of a science fiction novel, the system ironically destroys any chance it has for genuine reform and survival. The resulting crash simply is delayed and made worse by shooting messengers. 

Alternatives to the highly-centralized consumer state are present. Power, food, water, production, and defense are things which would be more ideal as decentralized networks rather than hyper-professional bureaucracies. However, popular culture remains fixated on trivial politics, escapism, and propagation of the status quo for as long as possible. The solution is not the "doomsday bunker" mentality. Even rationed supplies cannot last forever, and a small family group is easy prey for a large group. Instead, form connections that matter. Replace "zero sum" with "positive sum." Strive for self-sufficiency whenever possible: in food, energy, water, production, and other methods. Aquaponics, desktop manufacturing, and home energy have all become cheaper, and will likely continue to do so. Resilience is a golden ideal, and will help as the world becomes unstable. Do not rely on Big Government or Big Business for employment or salvation from the problems they helped create. Find friends, family, and those you can trust. The reward is a genuine community you care about, rather than a hideously complex system built upon fraud and ignorance. 

We may draw some parallels to Norse mythology. A ship of dead men's nails, Naglfar, manned by the treacherous Loki, would start the final battle. With the endemic unethical behavior in once-trusted institutions, one failure could cause others. The venomous death throes of the old order, like mythic serpent Jormungandr, could destroy much of what we are used to. However, Ragnarok brought an end to a doomed world, so that new one could arise. The fever dream will eventually pass, although the transition will be difficult. It is better to strive and fail than to passively wait for Naglfar. Even the fallen warriors ended up in Valhalla.

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