The race to economic collapse is an international competition sparking threats and tensions summoning the specter of war. The imploding center of this collapse is that of industrial technocracy based on fossil fuels. All the nations will go through it on differing schedules. It has been playing out slowly, painfully, and deceptively — hence, my term for it: the long emergency.
Following a dumbed-down media unable to parse the delusions du jour, one might think, for instance, that the USA and China are engaged in a symbolic battle for the heavyweight championship of the world. Rather, both are freaking out at a prospective decline in activity that will make it impossible to support their current populations at even close to the levels of comfort they had lately achieved.
For China, that means very lately. Up until the turning millennium, most Chinese lived as though the twelfth century had never ended. For but two decades now, a new and quite large Chinese middle class has been driving cars around freeways, eating cheeseburgers, wearing designer blue jeans, shooting selfies at the Eiffel Tower, and even dreaming of trips to the moon. They’ve barely had time to turn decadent.
Getting to that was quite a feat. China compressed its version of the industrial revolution into a few decades, catching up to a weary, jaded West that took two hundred years achieving “modernity,” and now it is seeming to surpass us — which is the reason for so much tension and anxiety in our relations. The real news is: we’re all already in the climax of that movie. Nobody will surpass anyone.
The reason is the decline of affordable energy to run the stupendously complex systems we have come to rely on. China never had very much petroleum. They import over 10 million barrels a day now, and most of that comes from far far away, having to pass through some very hazardous sea lines like the Straits of Hormuz and Molucca. They run things mostly on coal, and they’re well past peak — and let’s not get into the ecological ramifications of what they’re still burning. Even some intelligent observers in the West think that the Chinese have made gigantic strides in alt-energy, and will soon be free of old limits, but that’s a pipe dream. They have met the same disappointments over wind and solar as we have. Alt-energy just doesn’t pencil out money-wise or physics-wise. Plus, you absolutely need fossil fuels to make it happen, even as a science project.
The US is smugly and stupidly under the impression that the “shale oil miracle” has put an end to our energy worries. That comes from a foolish nexus of wishful thinking between a harried populace, a dishonest government, and the aforementioned brain-damaged news media. We want, with all our might, to believe we can keep running the interstate highways, WalMart, Agri-Business, DisneyWorld, the US Military, and suburbia just as they are, forever. So, we spin our reassuring fantasies about “energy independence” and “Saudi America.” Meanwhile, the shale oil companies can’t make a red cent pulling that stuff out of the ground. For the moment, ultra-low interest rate loans, riding on the back of all that wishful thinking, keep the racket going and sustain America’s illusions.
The disappointment over that error-in-thinking will be epic. In fact, it already is, considering how many working-age people without work or sense of purpose are ending their lives by opioid OD in Flyover country. The hipsters of Brooklyn and Silicon Valley haven’t gotten to that point because so much of America’s diminishing capital productivity still flows into their bank accounts - enabling a sunny life of caramel cloud macchiatos, farm-to-table suppers, and sexual reassignment surgeries.
The US and China are actually more like two passengers of a sinking ship racing to swim to a single lifebuoy - which is drifting ever-beyond the reach of both desperate parties on a powerful current of history. That current is the one telling nations quite literally to mind their own business, to prepare to go their own ways, to strive somehow to become self-sufficient, to finally face the limits to growth, to simplify and downscale all their operations.
Alas, the US and China — and everybody else — will apparently be dragged kicking and screaming to those transformational recognitions. (Thus, the agonies of Brexit.) In the meantime, we may choose to slug it out in pursuit of that chimerical world championship just because we still have means to go at it. Such a contest would certainly speed up the journey to our fated destination, and not in a good way.