Reblog: The Whisper of the Shutoff Valve

Originally Posted: WEDNESDAY, MAY 06, 2015

Last week’s post on the impending decline and fall of the internet fielded a great many responses. That was no surprise, to be sure; nor was I startled in the least to find that many of them rejected the thesis of the post with some heat. Contemporary pop culture’s strident insistence that technological progress is a clock that never runs backwards made such counterclaims inevitable.

Still, it’s always educational to watch the arguments fielded to prop up the increasingly shaky edifice of the modern mythology of progress, and the last week was no exception. A response I found particularly interesting from that standpoint appeared on one of the many online venues where Archdruid Report posts appear. One of the commenters insisted that my post should be rejected out of hand as mere doom and gloom; after all, he pointed out, it was ridiculous for me to suggest that fifty years from now, a majority of the population of the United States might be without reliable electricity or running water.

I’ve made the same prediction here and elsewhere a good many times. Each time, most of my readers or listeners seem to have taken it as a piece of sheer rhetorical hyperbole. The electrical grid and the assorted systems that send potable water flowing out of faucets are so basic to the rituals of everyday life in today’s America that their continued presence is taken for granted.  At most, it’s conceivable that individuals might choose not to connect to them; there’s a certain amount of talk about off-grid living here and there in the alternative media, for example.  That people who want these things might not have access to them, though, is pretty much unthinkable.

Meanwhile, in Detroit and Baltimore, tens of thousands of residents are in the process of losing their access to water and electricity.

The situation in both cities is much the same, and there’s every reason to think that identical headlines will shortly appear in reference to other cities around the nation. Not that many decades ago, Detroit and Baltimore were important industrial centers with thriving economies. Along with more than a hundred other cities in America’s Rust Belt, they were thrown under the bus with the first wave of industrial offshoring in the 1970s.  The situation for both cities has only gotten worse since that time, as the United States completed its long transition from a manufacturing economy producing goods and services to a bubble economy that mostly produces unpayable IOUs.

These days, the middle-class families whose tax payments propped up the expansive urban systems of an earlier day have long since moved out of town. Most of the remaining residents are poor, and the ongoing redistribution of wealth in America toward the very rich and away from everyone else has driven down the income of the urban poor to the point that many of them can no longer afford to pay their water and power bills. City utilities in Detroit and Baltimore have been sufficiently sensitive to political pressures that large-scale utility shutoffs have been delayed, but shifts in the political climate in both cities are bringing the delays to an end; water bills have increased steadily, more and more people have been unable to pay them, and the result is as predictable as it is brutal.

The debate over the Detroit and Baltimore shutoffs has followed the usual pattern, as one side wallows in bash-the-poor rhetoric while the other side insists plaintively that access to utilities is a human right. Neither side seems to be interested in talking about the broader context in which these disputes take shape. There are two aspects to that broader context, and it’s a tossup which is the more threatening.

The first aspect is the failure of the US economy to recover in any meaningful sense from the financial crisis of 2008. Now of course politicians from Obama on down have gone overtime grandstanding about the alleged recovery we’re in. I invite any of my readers who bought into that rhetoric to try the following simple experiment. Go to your favorite internet search engine and look up how much the fracking industry has added to the US gross domestic product each year from 2009 to 2014. Now subtract that figure from the US gross domestic product for each of those years, and see how much growth there’s actually been in the rest of the economy since the real estate bubble imploded.

What you’ll find, if you take the time to do that, is that the rest of the US economy has been flat on its back gasping for air for the last five years. What makes this even more problematic, as I’ve noted in several previous posts here, is that the great fracking boom about which we’ve heard so much for the last five years was never actually the game-changing energy revolution its promoters claimed; it was simply another installment in the series of speculative bubbles that has largely replaced constructive economic activity in this country over the last two decades or so.

What’s more, it’s not the only bubble currently being blown, and it may not even be the largest. We’ve also got a second tech-stock bubble, with money-losing internet corporations racking up absurd valuations in the stock market while they burn through millions of dollars of venture capital; we’ve got a student loan bubble, in which billions of dollars of loans that will never be paid back have been bundled, packaged, and sold to investors just like all those no-doc mortgages were a decade ago; car loans are getting the same treatment; the real estate market is fizzing again in many urban areas as investors pile into another round of lavishly marketed property investments—well, I could go on for some time. It’s entirely possible that if all the bubble activity were to be subtracted from the last five years or so of GDP, the result would show an economy in freefall.

Certainly that’s the impression that emerges if you take the time to check out those economic statistics that aren’t being systematically jiggered by the US government for PR purposes. The number of long-term unemployed in America is at an all-time high; roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure is falling to pieces; measurements of US public health—generally considered a good proxy for the real economic condition of the population—are well below those of other industrial countries, heading toward Third World levels; abandoned shopping malls litter the landscape while major retailers announce more than 6000 store closures. These are not things you see in an era of economic expansion, or even one of relative stability; they’re markers of decline.

The utility shutoffs in Detroit and Baltimore are further symptoms of the same broad process of economic unraveling. It’s true, as pundits in the media have been insisting since the story broke, that utilities get shut off for nonpayment of bills all the time. It’s equally true that shutting off the water supply of 20,000 or 30,000 people all at once is pretty much unprecedented. Both cities, please note, have had very large populations of poor people for many decades now.  Those who like to blame a “culture of poverty” for the tangled relationship between US governments and the American poor, and of course that trope has been rehashed by some of the pundits just mentioned, haven’t yet gotten around to explaining how the culture of poverty all at once inspired tens of thousands of people who had been paying their utility bills to stop doing so.

There are plenty of good reasons, after all, why poor people who used to pay their bills can’t do so any more. Standard business models in the United States used to take it for granted that the best way to run the staffing dimensions of any company, large or small, was to have as many full-time positions as possible and to use raises and other practical incentives to encourage employees who were good at their jobs to stay with the company. That approach has been increasingly unfashionable in today’s America, partly due to perverse regulatory incentives that penalize employers for offering full-time positions, partly to the emergence of attitudes in corner offices that treat employees as just another commodity. (I doubt it’s any kind of accident that most corporations nowadays refer to their employment offices as “human resource departments.” What do you do with a resource? You exploit it.)

These days, most of the jobs available to the poor are part-time, pay very little, and include nasty little clawbacks in the form of requirements that employees pay out of pocket for uniforms, equipment, and other things that employers used to provide as a matter of course. Meanwhile housing prices and rents are rising well above their post-2008 dip, and a great many other necessities are becoming more costly—inflation may be under control, or so the official statistics say, but anyone who’s been shopping at the same grocery store for the last eight years knows perfectly well that prices kept on rising anyway.

So you’ve got falling incomes running up against rising costs for food, rent, and utilities, among other things. In the resulting collision, something’s got to give, and for tens of thousands of poor Detroiters and Baltimoreans, what gave first was the ability to keep current on their water bills. Expect to see the same story playing out across the country as more people on the bottom of the income pyramid find themselves in the same situation. What you won’t hear in the media, though it’s visible enough if you know where to look and are willing to do so, is that people above the bottom of the income pyramid are also losing ground, being forced down toward economic nonpersonhood. From the middle classes down, everyone’s losing ground.

That process doesn’t continue any further than the middle class, to be sure. It’s been pointed out repeatedly that over the last four decades or so, the distribution of wealth in America has skewed further and further out of balance, with the top 20% of incomes taking a larger and larger share at the expense of everybody else. That’s an important factor in bringing about the collision just described. Some thinkers on the radical fringes of American society, which is the only place in the US you can talk about such things these days, have argued that the raw greed of the well-to-do is the sole reason why so many people lower down the ladder are being pushed further down still.

Scapegoating rhetoric of that sort is always comforting, because it holds out the promise—theoretically, if not practically—that something can be done about the situation. If only the thieving rich could be lined up against a convenient brick wall and removed from the equation in the time-honored fashion, the logic goes, people in Detroit and Baltimore could afford to pay their water bills!  I suspect we’ll hear such claims increasingly often as the years pass and more and more Americans find their access to familiar comforts and necessities slipping away.  Simple answers are always popular in such times, not least when the people being scapegoated go as far out of their way to make themselves good targets for such exercises as the American rich have done in recent decades.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s equation of the current US political and economic elite with the French aristocracy on the eve of revolution rings even more true than it did when he wrote it back in 1992, in the pages of The Culture of Contentment. The unthinking extravagances, the casual dismissal of the last shreds of noblesse oblige, the obsessive pursuit of personal advantages and private feuds without the least thought of the potential consequences, the bland inability to recognize that the power, privilege, wealth, and sheer survival of the aristocracy depended on the system the aristocrats themselves were destabilizing by their actions—it’s all there, complete with sprawling overpriced mansions that could just about double for Versailles. The urban mobs that played so large a role back in 1789 are warming up for their performances as I write these words; the only thing left to complete the picture is a few tumbrils and a guillotine, and those will doubtless arrive on cue.

The senility of the current US elite, as noted in a previous post here, is a massive political fact in today’s America. Still, it’s not the only factor in play here. Previous generations of wealthy Americans recognized without too much difficulty that their power, prosperity, and survival depended on the willingness of the rest of the population to put up with their antics. Several times already in America’s history, elite groups have allied with populist forces to push through reforms that sharply weakened the power of the wealthy elite, because they recognized that the alternative was a social explosion even more destructive to the system on which elite power depends.

I suppose it’s possible that the people currently occupying the upper ranks of the political and economic pyramid in today’s America are just that much more stupid than their equivalents in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. Still, there’s at least one other explanation to hand, and it’s the second of the two threatening contextual issues mentioned earlier.

Until the nineteenth century, fresh running water piped into homes for everyday use was purely an affectation of the very rich in a few very wealthy and technologically adept societies. Sewer pipes to take dirty water and human wastes out of the house belonged in the same category. This wasn’t because nobody knew how plumbing works—the Romans had competent plumbers, for example, and water faucets and flush toilets were to be found in Roman mansions of the imperial age. The reason those same things weren’t found in every Roman house was economic, not technical.

Behind that economic issue lay an ecological reality.  White’s Law, one of the foundational principles of human ecology, states that economic development is a function of energy per capita. For a society before the industrial age, the Roman Empire had an impressive amount of energy per capita to expend; control over the agricultural economy of the Mediterranean basin, modest inputs from sunlight, water and wind, and a thriving slave industry fed by the expansion of Roman military power all fed into the capacity of Roman society to develop itself economically and technically. That’s why rich Romans had running water and iced drinks in summer, while their equivalents in ancient Greece a few centuries earlier had to make do without either one.

Fossil fuels gave industrial civilization a supply of energy many orders of magnitude greater than any previous human civilization has had—a supply vast enough that the difference remains huge even after the vast expansion of population that followed the industrial revolution. There was, however, a catch—or, more precisely, two catches. To begin with, fossil fuels are finite, nonrenewable resources; no matter how much handwaving is employed in the attempt to obscure this point—and whatever else might be in short supply these days, that sort of handwaving is not—every barrel of oil, ton of coal, or cubic foot of natural gas that’s burnt takes the world one step closer to the point at which there will be no economically extractable reserves of oil, coal, or natural gas at all.

That’s catch #1. Catch #2 is subtler, and considerably more dangerous. Oil, coal, and natural gas don’t leap out of the ground on command. They have to be extracted and processed, and this takes energy. Companies in the fossil fuel industries have always targeted the deposits that cost less to extract and process, for obvious economic reasons. What this means, though, is that over time, a larger and larger fraction of the energy yield of oil, coal, and natural gas has to be put right back into extracting and processing oil, coal, and natural gas—and this leaves less and less for all other uses.

That’s the vise that’s tightening around the American economy these days. The great fracking boom, to the extent that it wasn’t simply one more speculative gimmick aimed at the pocketbooks of chumps, was an attempt to make up for the ongoing decline of America’s conventional oilfields by going after oil that was far more expensive to extract. The fact that none of the companies at the heart of the fracking boom ever turned a profit, even when oil brought more than $100 a barrel, gives some sense of just how costly shale oil is to get out of the ground. The financial cost of extraction, though, is a proxy for the energy cost of extraction—the amount of energy, and of the products of energy, that had to be thrown into the task of getting a little extra oil out of marginal source rock.

Energy needed to extract energy, again, can’t be used for any other purpose. It doesn’t contribute to the energy surplus that makes economic development possible. As the energy industry itself takes a bigger bite out of each year’s energy production, every other economic activity loses part of the fuel that makes it run. That, in turn, is the core reason why the American economy is on the ropes, America’s infrastructure is falling to bits—and Americans in Detroit and Baltimore are facing a transition to Third World conditions, without electricity or running water.

I suspect, for what it’s worth, that the shutoff notices being mailed to tens of thousands of poor families in those two cities are a good working model for the way that industrial civilization itself will wind down. It won’t be sudden; for decades to come, there will still be people who have access to what Americans today consider the ordinary necessities and comforts of everyday life; there will just be fewer of them each year. Outside that narrowing circle, the number of economic nonpersons will grow steadily, one shutoff notice at a time.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, the line of fracture between the senile elite and what Arnold Toynbee called the internal proletariat—the people who live within a failing civilization’s borders but receive essentially none of its benefits—eventually opens into a chasm that swallows what’s left of the civilization. Sometimes the tectonic processes that pull the chasm open are hard to miss, but there are times when they’re a good deal more difficult to sense in action, and this is one of these latter times. Listen to the whisper of the shutoff valve, and you’ll hear tens of thousands of Americans being cut off from basic services the rest of us, for the time being, still take for granted.