Sunday, June 3, 2018

Waiting for Korowicz

"Notice how even greater fragility is being designed into the system."



The first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season took out our power briefly, and while nothing we experienced can compare to the outage still being suffered in the Caribbean from the last hurricane season, this one, Alberto, was enough to remind us of the Korowicz Crunch.

We have a standalone PV system on the ecohostel, although we are considering dropping the expensive and toxic battery bank in favor of grid-tie. There are massive solar arrays by the horse barn that feed power from The Farm into TVA’s supply, and in a long-duration power drought the community could quickly and painlessly disengage from our neighbors (and the government) and use our collective 150 kW to power essential needs, assuming TVA did not call in the Tennessee National Guard to take the power back and secure the site.

In that way, I suppose, having large PV arrays is a little like having massive oil reserves or an emergent nuclear weapons program. You may think those things are going to do wonders for your security but actually they do quite the opposite; they could mean you have to parse White House tweets to see if it is going to be safe to send the kids out to play that day.

Because of our solar roof, we often have power when our neighbors in the county don’t, but we get internet from a tower at the county seat and when they lose power, we lose internet. This time we also lost cellular service — never very good out here to begin with.

It is great not being tethered to an office, until you lose connectivity and realize that there actually was a tether and being untethered is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Nicole Foss and I were teaching permaculture in Ireland a few years ago we stayed in the Dublin home of David Korowicz, a mutual friend through the FEASTA network. Korowicz has devoted much time to parsing the coming years and the Seneca Effect that eventually overtakes our overstretched economy.
“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” 
— Lucius Annaeas Seneca (c. 4 BC — AD 65)
In the introduction to his 56-page white paper, “The Tipping Point” (2010), Korowicz laid out our predicament:
…a case is made that our civilisation is close to a critical transition, or collapse. A series of integrated collapse mechanisms are described and are argued to be necessary. The principal driving mechanisms are re-enforcing (positive) feedbacks:
A decline in energy flows will reduce global economic production; reduced global production will undermine our ability to produce, trade, and use energy; which will further decrease economic production.
Credit forms the basis of our monetary system, and is the unifying embedded structure of the global economy. In a growing economy debt and interest can be repaid, in a declining economy not even the principal can be paid back. In other words, reduced energy flows cannot maintain the economic production to service debt. Real debt outstanding in the world is not repayable, new credit will almost vanish.
Our localized needs and welfare have become ever-more dependent upon hyper- integrated globalised supply-chains. One pillar of their system-wide functioning is monetary confidence and bank intermediation. Money in our economies is backed by debt and holds no intrinsic value; deflation and hyper-inflation risks will make monetary stability impossible to maintain. In addition, the banking system as a whole must become insolvent as their assets (loans) cannot be realised, they are also at risk from failing infrastructure.
A failure of this pillar will collapse world trade. Our ‘local’ globalised economies will fracture for there is virtually nothing produced in developed countries that can be considered truly indigenous. The more complex the systems and inputs we rely upon, the more globalised they are, and the more we are at risk from a complete systemic collapse.
Another pillar is the operation of critical infrastructure (IT-telecoms/ electricity generation/ financial system/ transport/ water & sewage) which has become increasingly co-dependent where a systemic failure in one may cause cascading failure in the others. This infrastructure depends upon continual re-supply; embodies short lifetime components; complex highly resource intensive and specialized supply-chains; and large economies of scale. They also depend upon the operation of the monetary and financial system. These dependencies are likely to induce rapid growth in the risk of systemic failure.
The high dependence of food on fossil fuel inputs, the delocalisation of food sourcing, and lean just-in-time inventories could lead to quickly evolving food insecurity risks even in the most developed countries. At issue is not just food production, but the ability to link surpluses to deficits, collapsed purchasing power, and the ability to monetize transactions.
Among the alt-econ theorists, this Singularity-like scenario of cascading consequences has come to be called the Korowicz Crunch. Of course, the one thing neither Korowicz nor anyone else can predict is timing. We are at, or just barely past, the peak of a great arc of history, a golden epoch, and to ignore the benefits this moment has brought to freedom, medicine, science and the arts would be a pity. It would be equally remiss to ignore at whose expense most of those advances were purchased.

Still, as each year extends the untenable overreach of biophysical limits and the Ponzi scheme that is fracked methane underpinning the globalized economy, we notice how even greater fragility is being designed into the system, either by architects and economists unaware of Korowicz or by factors to which little attention is paid.

Not long ago — and still in many places in the world — homes would be only a short walk or bicycle ride from a market where groceries and other essential wares could be purchased. Then came the big box stores and these markets were consolidated, often to the peripheries of population centers, into shopping malls accessible by public transport if you are lucky, otherwise only by private automobile. Along comes Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and the stage is set for online purchasing and same-day delivery of your groceries, and everything else.

So much for the Bishop’s Storehouse, in the Mormon tradition, where a seven-year supply of food for the entire community was scripturally ordained.

Not long ago every community had one or more theaters or opera houses and on weekends everyone would attend, like a church service, to socialize before (in line), during (noisy galleries) and after (the corner pub). Then came Blockbusters with rental VHS and DVD and theaters moved into living rooms. Then came Netflix, and once more, Amazon, with view-on-demand services as long as you have the bread and the bandwidth. Much the same can be said for music, although live performances will always be with us in some way.

Not long ago, the bank would give you a passbook that showed, in handwriting, how much money was in your account. Then they went digital, and now even your monthly statements are online. With banks adopting cryptocurrencies, your readily-exchangeable wealth will soon be entirely on the blockchain.

I am old enough to remember backing up my data to 400 kB diskettes. They were called floppies even though they were hard plastic because before Sony shrunk them to 3 1/2-inch squares they had been flexible Teflon-coated magnetic disks storing up to 80 kB on every 8-inch platter. Now you can misplace a terabyte thumb drive if you are not careful. No worries! Storage and backups are all moving to the Cloud.

That is a good name for it — the Cloud. Wispy. Ephemeral. At its essence, just vapor.

I still have a functioning computer that loads CP/M instructions from a 5 1/4-inch floppy every time it boots, but I don’t think those are coming back any time soon.

Even though the coming of the Korowicz singularity cannot be Post-It’d to a particular date on the calendar, it’s wise to keep a foot in the prepper camp. A wall calendar, for instance.

Know where your water comes from. Have an antifragile supply of food — like the shiitake mushrooms that come after a big storm. They are a complete protein. Have back-up power that does not involve fossil fuels. Be able to cook. Keep your tools sharp and well-oiled. And have a good idea what you will do with your time when the internet goes away suddenly and permanently.

In the meantime, we are at the pinnacle of a gilded age. Be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.
 

3 comments:

Ian Graham said...

you need to give us more options to checkmark than interesting, cool, funny!
I would like to see a list of the credible chroniclers of the 'Korowicz' seneca effect: Do you have a fav list?
How about Janacovici, Stern, Anderson, Alpert, Breeze, Scott, Hansen, Kingsnorth...

Last week you recanted about BECSS and DAC, seeming to suggest there may be light at the end of the tunnel. This week, not so much after all.

Joe said...

Loved this post, especially the last sentence. Thank you for realizing that enjoying life, even in a doomed civilization, is OK. I have followed all of your prep suggestions and more. I'm as ready as possible and I'm not going to forego visiting my mother and my children (who all live in the same city) even though I must take an oh-so-horrible plane flight. Ya gotta live in the civilization that brung ya (as long as it lasts).

ccpo said...

Aren't you crediting Korowicz with discovering noon-linesr and chaotic systems here?

Seems he's merely describing how they might play out inthis system. And, where's the climate? Wasn't he one of those, like Foss (who now downplays her dismissiveness on climate), who misread the climate side of things back then?

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