The Ways of Contraction: A Failing Empire

As this blog lines out my thoughts on the world at hand, our responsibilities to it, and the better and worse ways we can live within it, a number of assumptions are going to be . . . well, assumed. This is, so far as I’m concerned, inevitable. I am not interested in simply rephrasing the arguments of more educated and more thoughtful people than I who have already laid out convincing cases as to the many reasons why we face a troubled future. Instead, I want to discuss and debate those troubles through a more personal lens, using my own lived experience and various ruminations to add my small voice to a conversation already rooted in these understandings.

That said, a new blog deserves both an introduction and an explication of the basic state of play of the author’s world view. Therefore, I will be using the next few posts here at Litterfall to lay out the the three key elements facing the United States that portend a continuing era of decline. At the end of the day, that is the basic world view this blog is rooted in and the projects of Figuration Press will be arising out of, so I think it beneficial to confer that world view to my readers.

I should note, too—since I know I will have international readers here—that many of the elements I will be talking about apply to the Western industrial world at large. Others, like today’s post, are more specific to the United States, though still containing a galaxy of consequences for the Western industrial world in particular, and the entire globe in general. Considering that I’m a resident of the United States and have no intention of becoming otherwise, my readers outside the U.S. will hopefully lend me a bit of patience for this entry.

On with it, then.

Estimates vary as to the exact proportion, but the United States uses a massive amount of the world’s energy and resources. At one point in the not-too-distant past, this was roughly a quarter of the world’s energy and a third of the world physical resources. By the accounts I can find, these number have changed a bit in recent years. I’ve seen estimates now closer to 20% of the world’s energy and the EIA claims the U.S. used 18% of the world’s entire primary energy consumption in 2013. To state the obvious, that’s quite a bit of resource usage, even if it is down from roughly 25%.

This is an interesting state of affairs when you consider that the U.S. currently comprises about 4.35% of the world’s population, and it means that we use energy at a rate more than four times the share we deserve based purely on a proportional representation (and the physical resources and industrial products of the world at a disproportionate rate even greater than that). American cultural myths would suggest that the inordinate wealth concentrated in our country is due to the ingenuity and hard work of American workers and businesses, as well as to our economic and political systems. But let’s be honest, folks—that claim makes about as much sense as an economist predicting human behavior. The massive amount of wealth and waste found here in America is not due to any sort of unique national virtue; it’s due—as John Michael Greer argued so well on his blog and in his excellent book on American empire, Decline and Fall—to the simple fact that America is the current global empire and has set in place a series of economic and political arrangements that serve to divert energy and resources away from other countries and toward our own.

Oddly enough, a great deal of the American populace would likely dispute that claim, or at least attempt to bog it down in numerous exceptions, asides, and random obfuscations. However, it bears repeating as a simple and honest assessment that America is currently the world’s dominant empire and it uses its military, political, and economic powers to arrange the global flow of energy and resources disproportionately to itself. All of us American citizens (and, to a lesser degree, the citizens of a wide variety of industrialized nations serving as satellite partners to the American empire) derive excess wealth and power from that arrangement, raising the general scale of living across the board.

Of course, this does not mean everyone in America is rich, or that there are no poor and destitute people in this country. There obviously are, and this country’s current wealth is immensely stratified and highly concentrated toward the upper levels of society. Even given that fact, though, the general standard of living for the majority of Americans is far and above that of a number of countries across the globe who are day in and day out getting the short end of the empire stick. And the simple fact is that most anyone reading this blog is almost certainly in the upper echelons of the global rich. For instance, I sit just barely outside the top 1% in income currently (though only in the top 20% by wealth). Just a few years back, when I was making only a few thousand dollars a year above the Federal Poverty Level, I was in the top 8% by income. A rising tide lifts all boats—and a sclerotic empire assures an outsized level of living for near everyone within it.

Unfortunately for us Americans, our empire is showing signs of serious strain. As we bog ourselves down in endless foreign entanglements with hazy objectives and missing timelines, beat our chests ever-more-loudly at foreign competitors who calmly counter with demonstrations of their own military might and the competent creation of new alliances with our enemies, and continue to prop up an immensely dysfunctional and corrupt military-industrial complex, the final days of our global superiority grow ever closer. It feels at this point as though any one of our myriad vulnerabilities could upend the global order any day now. Perhaps Syria will turn into our death knell; it’s the best option of any at the moment. Just as or more likely is that it’s some new and sudden entanglement that will arise in the coming years. I have little doubt that it’s coming relatively soon, though. As Russia, China, and Iran continue to align geopolitically against the U.S. and debut effective new military weaponry and technology, we seem too distracted with doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on the catastrophically useless F-35s to effectively counter the growing military threat to our hegemony. The utter cluelessness and hubris currently on display in this country is indication enough that our empire days are heading toward termination. It is not easy to hang onto an empire, and mindlessly shooting oneself in the foot is not the way to do it.

What does that mean for us? Most likely, it means a very messy contraction in wealth and resources at a relatively near future point, and the attendant political and economic chaos. Piled on top of that is a high likelihood that the termination of our empire will come through a massive military defeat, which threatens to wreak immense psychological damage on our national psyche, considering how invulnerable we Americans seem to think we are, and how sheltered we have become from the painful realities of being exploited by an imperial power. It may well happen in very short order that we go from a proportion of the world’s wealth and resources that is four or more times greater than what it should be by sheer population numbers to something far less—very possibly even below our proportion. Considering our unwillingness to gracefully back away from an empire we are failing to maintain and to dedicate ourselves to creating alternate global arrangements that will provide us a reduced but decent national living, all indications are that it is going to be torn messily from our grasping fingers—and such a scenario does not bode well for an amenable political and economic arrangement for us from the global power who seizes our current brass ring.

That’s the thing about a series of military, political, and economic arrangement that siphon wealth and resources from the rest of the world toward one single power: it can be changed in relatively short order. Granted, I haven’t done the background studies or historical survey to give you a specific time estimate in how long it may take to change that arrangement, but we could be talking a matter of months or a few years in which the United States goes from utilizing roughly a fifth of the world’s resources to something more like a twentieth or thirtieth. Consider that for a moment. What would the effect be on your life if your income were to drop to a fifth or sixth or tenth of what it is now? How about if your electricity or natural gas or gasoline usage dropped the same? And in what ways do you think it might affect you if that same trend took place across the country?

The full impact of such a change is impossible to know in advance, but I can’t imagine it taking place without massive consequence and disruption, and a whole hell of a lot of pain and suffering in the lives of millions of people across this country. If we’re smart, such a change in the global economic order would swiftly be answered by a huge reordering and redistribution of wealth and income in this country to soften the impact as much and as broadly as possible; but then, how often in recent times have we acted particularly smart as a nation? Granted, such trauma opens up a wealth of new opportunities and brings previous impossibilities swiftly into the realm of possibilities—and, as such, I expect that a good bit of redistribution of resources would happen under such a scenario in one way or another, whether by politics or mobs (sometimes indistinguishable). But even so, a redistribution of wealth under such a scenario is a salve, not a cure. The pain and disruption would still be immense.

I do not for a moment believe the American empire will outlive me. I expect to see it fall within my lifetime. As such, I expect to take a massive cut in wealth and resources available to me in my lifetime. I don’t know the details of that cut in advance: where it will start from, how great a cut it will be, the specifics of how it will play out, or what position in life I’ll be in when it happens. But I do know that, should it happen, it will be tremendously disruptive. There’s almost no way it couldn’t be. And it will likely become my immediate life’s work to deal with it.

Imagine for a moment that you knew your current source of income was coming to an end. Let’s say you know the date and it’s two years hence. You don’t know whether or not you’ll be able to find a new source of income, but you know for a fact that if you do, it will be a fifth of what it currently is—at best. Further, you will have no other ways to mitigate the cut in income; no ability to run up temporary or permanent debt, no new government programs to bail you out, no family members to take you in. What are the implications of that? How do you respond?

Your safety, comfort, and possibly your survival are dependent on your ability to learn how to make do with less under such a scenario. You will have less; there’s no way around it. Therefore, your only remaining response is to learn to live with less. The better you learn and the better you prepare, the better off you’ll be. Are there any guarantees of getting through unscathed? Most likely no, and you almost certainly won’t be able to get through unscathed. But there is a guarantee of tremendous pain and suffering if you do nothing to prepare. Under that scenario, there’s a guarantee that your life will be worse than it likely has to be. It’s not a question of getting through unharmed, but a question of the degree of harm you suffer. If you knew this was coming, would you hide? Would you ignore it? Or would you begin to prepare?

We face a future of contraction, of limits, and of less. I know it is coming and therefore I want to prepare. All the theorizing in the world will not change the fact of its coming. All the attempts to grapple with why it’s coming or how it’s coming may have their own particular worth, but they also will not change the fact that it is coming—though they could help you respond to it. Yelling about it coming? That won’t help you deal with it when it comes. Pretending it isn’t coming? No matter what The Secret tells you, reality is not a figment of your imagination. You, and I, are tiny and insignificant in this world; it’s going to do what it’s going to do whether we like it or not. Our task is to respond in kind, not to attempt to control it, because attempting to control the broader world is a fool’s errand. We can respond, and in our tiny ways we can impact it for the better or worse, but it is far too big and far too powerful for us to control.

So what does help? Working today on the adaptation and personal change needed to grapple and deal with the future facing us. By learning how to live with less now and by finding new ways to derive meaning and joy from our lives—ways that aren’t rooted in conspicuous consumption and displays of wealth—we will be in a better position to deal with the continuing decline of industrial civilization and the collapse of the American empire. In the face of such massive change, these efforts may prove limited, but they are important and worthwhile anyway. And, aside from their practicality, they have a moral dimension that we will be talking about at a future point here on this blog.

But what if I’m wrong? What if the American empire keeps trucking along and those of us in the U.S. continue to be able to divert a fourth or fifth of the world’s entire energy and resource base toward our own use and abuse? Well, even if our empire does find some way to continue to stumble along throughout my lifetime, there are still a number of other intractable predicaments facing us which guarantee continued contraction. I’ll be writing about one of those next week.

1 Comment

  1. The problem with scaling down your lifestyle is that for most people, it is not your income so much as your level of consumption that determines your status in society. Let’s say your household income is $300,000 a year and you decide to ramp down your level of consumption to that of an illegal immigrant doing lawn maintenance. What would that do to your social life? Let’s say you’ve decided to live on rice and beans for the most part and got rid of your expensive house and moved to a one-bedroom apartment in a bad part of town, sold your two nice cars and traded down to a beater with 200 thousand miles on the odometer and faded paint. You’ve also stopped buying new clothes and shop strictly at yard sales and thrift stores. You’ve also stopped taking vacations that involve airplane travel and gone to walking as your only form of exercise, dropped all your online subscriptions to entertainment outlets and cut back to reading books checked out from the library.
    If you have friends, you will most likely not force them to drop down to your low level of consumption. If you want to take them out to dinner to reciprocate for them taking you out, it will not do to take them out to a taqueria. If they took you out to a play, it will not do for you to reciprocate with a visit to a street fair. If they serve thirty dollar wine at their dinners it will not do to serve water or four dollar wine when you invite them. And so on and so on. It is one thing to embrace a poorer life style for your self and quite another to ask your friends to step down to that level when they come to visit you. Perhaps they will turn down the next invitation of dinner because they are scared by the neighborhood you live in and afraid that something will happen to their car if they park it on the street.
    We have found that as we simplify our own life we have inevitably started cultivating new friends who are comfortable with a simpler life.

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