Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Big Picture

In Peering Through the Haze, we did a high-level flyby of some hotspots I expect will turn into raging volcanos once mood rolls back over.

I want to revisit one area in particular and discuss some possible scenarios that could unfold.

The Middle East

I keep revisiting this region due to the many memes that have been seeded/have emerged that focus on this area in the minds of many Westerners. These memes may have little to no basis with the beliefs on the ground in this area of the world, but I am trying to examine this through the lens of a "typical" Westerner who chooses not to be aware of the rhythms inherent in living as part of a big social "organism" - also known as socionomics - and who will be using news stories and religious metaphors to explain the rage, anger and fear that will have a focus over in the Middle East.

Please note this is all very speculative. This is not meant to be fear-mongering, but to be scenario building and planning from it. Big changes are coming. Fear is a weakness none of us will be able to afford when TSHTF, so panic now and avoid the rush so you can be reasonably clear-headed when the news-talkers and radio-shouters and internet-rumor-spinners react to the storm coming our way.

Let's tackle a few of the memes that are circulating and that I think may become very "energized" with anger, fear and other emotions prevalent during an era of negative social mood:

1. Peak Oil

I've mentioned multiple times that I regard the Peak Oil meme as a particularly powerful set of ideas that is well-evolved to feed on the anger and fear that will grow to outlandish proportions all too soon.

The rationale for this opinion is that Peak Oil focuses attention on the coming scarcity of a critical raw material, the stories that can be told about a world that is trying to run on $300/bbl oil are frightening and apocalyptic, the decisions that would be suggested by adopting this theory involve restriction of people and goods, rationing of food and other resources and it plays into the more general ecology meme that has been growing since the sixties.

That a shortage of light sweet crude is coming our way by 2012-2015 or so (matching up pretty well with recent work by Mr. Robert Prechter on timing the bottom of this leg of the Supercycle downturn) is pretty much baked in the cake at this point, based on oil field development projects.

What "stories" we tell ourselves as a society about the coming shortage will be key in how dysfunctional the response will be. I expect a strong bifurcation in the U.S. - a majority will be sure that there is plenty of oil available and that the oil companies are screwing them or the Saudis aren't pumping enough or the federal government is hiding it or other political factors are keeping oil prices high. The anger at the political elites will probably become quite intense, with enormous crowds marching and protesting for them to "do something."

The other branch of mass reaction will probably reinvigorate the Ecological Movement in the U.S. In my opinion, this is a well-prepared meme that many in the political elite are familiar with (Baby Boomers who grew up with it) and it can easily expand into an almost Stasi-like grass-roots fever of individuals informing on others who "use too much" and justify everything from vandalism (destroy that guy's air conditioner because it pollutes and uses too much energy!) to political activism (we must unite to save Mother Earth!) to religious fervor (we are soldiers of Gaia and if you are against us then you hate the Earth and need to be culled).

Minor branches of response will probably evolve that seek to address the issue through technology - be it algae biofuel, ethanol, basement tinkerers looking for free energy, etc. Expect them to be dumped on by both sides - either viewed as suckers who should be going after corrupt corporations or as evil technologists trying to keep humanity enslaved to civilization (cue the viewing of Avatar in political re-education camps...).

This could inform political responses such as:

  • Occupying Mexican oil-producing regions in a vain attempt to restart Mexican oil exports which will have collapsed to nothing by then - either through internal conflict or through the basic and inexorable mechanics of the Export Land Model.
  • Initially trying to attack and/or occupy oil-producing regions in the Persian Gulf region. See below for why I regard this as an initial strategy, not a long-term one.
  • Corporate cronyism results in Congress passing laws to force a move to all-ethanol engines. Think of it as a cash-for-clunkers type program that would require engines to be retrofitted to be able to burn alcohol in them. Auto shops (that pay the right fee, of course) would be certified to do the work and the country would have be forced to participate.
  • City, then State and eventually Federal level legislation forcing a reduction in transportation and home energy use. Examples include you can only drive your car on alternate days, based on the odd or even number on the license plate (or the first or last 13 letters of the alphabet), smart meters forced into every home (wouldn't you love to have the contracts for that?) and power rationing enforced that way, etc.

Think of ways that political busybodies could try to tax or restrict your use of energy and keep an eye out for it. Someone will suggest it eventually and ask that those restrictions be enforced through the barrel of a gun.

Through it all, expect the Middle Eastern oil-producing powers to be the subject of many conspiracy theories and complaints from Westerners.

2. Israel-Iran (-Hizbullah-Hamas-Syria-Lebanon)

This topic probably fills entire shelves of scenarios planning documents at the Pentagon. Suffice it to say that if war does come to the region, it may not be the kind of short, intense conflict we have been used to over the last fifty years or so. The era of the Six Day War has come and gone. If conflict comes again, expect it to be long and bloody and punctuated by various bouts of armistices, ethnic cleansing and the use of every type of weapon devised to date - including nuclear warheads.

If Israel goes after Iran, the only way they can hit them hard enough to make it worth the risk, in my opinion, is to deploy nuclear weapons. The fallout will be ugly, both literally as a scar of death will be carved through Iran and some effects drifting into Pakistan and India, depending on prevailing winds, as well as figuratively, as Israel becomes a pariah state on par with what South Africa faced in the 1980's.

This field of memes has been well-plowed and expect angry partisans for every side to spring up with their stories to explain the expression of anger and fear that will come to cities, homes and battlefields throughout the region. No one will want a long and bloody war, but I think that mood will trump reason and the tragedies that will spill from it will be enormous.

3. Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Israel vs. Christian (Clash of Civilizations)

This is an increasing worry for me. The whole Clash of Civilizations meme has enormous story-telling power, strong propaganda value and can be used to explain away all kinds of atrocities. As we move into what I think will be a post-State type of conflict (4GW) all sorts of cross-currents of tribes, family groups, mafias, etc. will be able to deploy violence to "solve" problems.

Initial conflict in the Middle East will, in my opinion, begin as some sort of Israeli-involved war. The responses, which will devastate the governing elites of countries that oppose Israel will invigorate the 4GW elements, breaking down the network of alliances that the U.S. has built up in the region and that China is attempting to build.

Combine this with Peak Oil (and the very high prices for crude, along with supply shortages) and you have a mix for a horrible conflict that could be a reprise of the Thirty Years War, with the U.S. playing a key role in fomenting instability instead of its traditional role of trying to keep a lid on things using pliant rulers in the region.

How so and why? Well, if oil becomes expensive and in short supply even without war and if the coming U.S. bankruptcy means that the financial leverage formerly available to the U.S. is gone, and if the Pacific Rim nations have lots of cash and manufacturing capability, then why would the U.S. want to invest billions in keeping the region stable? Why not move into a strategic footing that uses regional bases to keep rebellions going, to keep oil supplies restricted by using war to damage loading facilities, pipelines and transport routes? Keep war of Shia vs. Sunni going, no matter who the country (for instance, by supporting Iraqi Sunnis against the Shiite majority or ethnic and criminal gangs in Iran vs. the mullahs or Shiites vs. Sunnis in Saudi Arabia) so that this whole region - the "breadbasket" of world oil production - is crippled and thus China, et al, can't benefit from their financial strength.

This war could stretch from the India border to Europe to North Africa and up into Russia. Keeping this kind of war alive won't be near as expensive as investing in stability and by keeping peer competitors weak, the U.S. could keep its relative position of strength alive for quite some time - until internal dysfunction forces a total disengagement from World Empire...

Some will say that this kind of realpolitik would never happen and that the West is too squeamish to enter into this kind of possible world-spanning war. I refer to the quote I pulled from Charles Smith yesterday - the present is a great predictor of the future, until it isn't. The West invented mass slaughter in World War I. The West invented globe-spanning industrial conflict in World War II. The West (the U.S. specifically) developed and dropped nuclear bombs. When mood changes, be aware that common sterotypes can fail you.

In Conclusion

Just some thoughts.

I am not sure if there is a clear way to "deal" specifically with everything discussed or if events will follow anything similar to what I've outlined. Do try to be prepared, but if you haven't done it by now, the hour is probably too late.

Remember, at least according to socionomics, always keep in mind that causality is rooted in mass mood. The news is just stories we tell ourselves to explain this amorphous herding impulse we are all part of.

Know that there are times to take action and times to keep your head down. Good luck figuring out when to do what...

1 comment:

David said...

Hi Michael,
Very thought-provoking as usual. Great post!

I finally grasp what you mean with references to "stories and memes." I now see that humans only perceive reality via "stories," and I believe that each of us has, internally, our own personal "plot line" determined by the seat of self, the limbic system. From this "basic plot" we weave our individual "screenplays," the central tales of our lives. Outside inputs that are consistent or additive to our screenplay are incorporated, those that conflict are ignored or attacked.

I think this is why debating political (or even moral) questions is usually meaningless; people can't accept that which conflicts with their preexisting screenplay. They see only that which they want to see. For example, a person whose screenplay fits the "God, Guns, & Guts" heroic myth of American Exceptionalism can embrace waterboarding people or bombing Pakistani wedding parties while simultaneously embracing Christian fundamentalism. Such cognitive dissonance is a natural outgrowth of that "screenplay" analogy.

This explains to me how individuals in the throes of an intensely negative social mood can do any crime, embrace any evil, and still think of themselves as "the good guys." Appeals to morality, humanity, or empathy will fall on deaf ears in coming years. As individuals we must be prepared to avoid and evade, zig, zag, run and hide because confrontation will not be a productive strategy.