“I’m trying to figure out how bleak the future of the planet is. I assure myself that, even if I’m a starving artist, at least I have thousands of dollars in my retirement fund that I’ve been saving up for the last 20 years. Now I’m worried that everything we always thought was true (that the stock market always goes up over time) may not be forever true. Is there a risk of the entire financial/banking system crashing anytime in our lifetime (or the next 20 years) so decades of savings just go up in smoke?”
It’s bad out there. Getting scary, economically, right?
Let me give it to you straight.
That bubble is now bursting. Our entire economy is in that bubble. We’re an industrial civilization on a dying planet. How much longer do you think it can really go on?
What is “the opulence bubble”? “Opulence” is a formal term. Economists — the really good ones, and there are about maybe ten of us left in the world at this point — use it to mean “things we don’t really need.” Or “things made with hidden costs.”
Just think of opulence as…the American lifestyle. When we live in the States, it’s in an affluent little neighborhood in a wealthy coastal town. Every house, is big. Air conditioned to the max. The neighbors used to have three cars, now they have four, maybe five. You need these things just to survive, many of them, in the States, because, of course, there are no real public goods. Good luck getting anywhere without a car.
That’s opulence. But there’s a lot more to it than that, too.
What is our “way of life” — meaning our economy, really — based on? An educated person will say “hydrocarbons.” And that’s true. Simpler minds read statistics about clean energy and whatnot and think we’re going to make it. The damning truth, as Vaclav Smil has tirelessly pointed out, is that the basic building blocks of our civilization — glass, steel, fertilizer, cement — all come from fossil fuels. We literally don’t know how to make these things without fossil fuels. But without those things — what exists of us? No factories. No dams. No food, water, energy, or buildings. Nothing. We go back to the Iron Age.
Nobody much seems to understand this point, because our media does a terrible job of educating people.
Now. Is our civilization “based on hydrocarbons?” Yes, but it’s much worse than that. There’s a truer truth here. Our civilization is based on externalizing the costs of hydrocarbons. What does that mean?
Well, just look around. What are the skies full of? Hydrocarbons. The ocean? Plastic — carbon. What’s all that doing? Melting the ice sheets. Destroying major, planetary ecology, one after the other, from the Amazon to the great currents in the seas. Raising the temperature. To levels not seen for millions of years. Are we walking naked apes? We’ve only been around for 300,000.
What is our civilization really based on? It’s a bubble. The bubble works like this. Having had an industrial revolution, we extract stuff from the earth, and all that extraction begins with hydrocarbons, which are our primary energy source. We use all that extraction to manufacture stuff. What stuff? All the stuff. That we take for granted. The stuff of our everyday lives.
Let me give you an example. Think of a broom. A broom used to be something made of wood and straw, in local factories. Now? They’re made in China, of plastic. Hydrocarbons. Everyone has one, two, five.
How much does the broom cost? I don’t know, $5 — and it doesn’t matter. Because the truth is that the true costs of the broom are way, way higher than that $5. They include the carbon emitted in manufacturing, the production, the distribution, and the waste. All the ways that carbon then goes on to kill off trees and animals — like birds dropping dead from the skies. Goes on to melt ice sheets and raise the temperature to the point of…
See why I called it a “bubble?” What I was trying to teach my peers was that we were not paying the true costs of the stuff of our civilization. We were just kicking the can down the road. But someone would have to pay those costs, in some way.
There were two ways that those “negative externalities” — hidden costs — would have to be resolved and only two ways. One, we’d have to clean up. We’d have to decarbonize the skies and unpolluted the oceans and learn to revive the planet’s dying ecologies — because all of those things provide us air, water, medicine, food, life. Or, two, they’d die off, and we’d pay the price in self-destruction.
Which one of those two options appears to be occurring right now? The self-destruction one.
We’ve spent centuries at this point being an industrial civilization. Extracting and manufacturing steel, glass, cement, plastic, fertilizer — choose a basic raw material, input, thing — with hydrocarbons. All those inputs become the stuff of our everyday lives. Everything from sugar and wheat and coffee — made with fertilizer — to buildings and electronics and household goods made with the rest of it. We’ve mastered this art, taken it to the limit. We can literally tear holes in the planet looking for yet more gas and oil to an incredibly sophisticated degree.
But. That whole time? All those centuries? We haven’t been paying the hidden costs. And so…well…our planet is now dying.
Extinction. You can literally see it happening now. I told you the story about the little girl who asks where the monster that’s killing all the birds is. How much longer is the American West going to be habitable? What happens when the water runs out here or there? When do the energy grids begin to fail? The harvests? They’re already failing.
What happens when you don’t pay a debt? Interest accrues, right? There’s a kind of interest at work here, too. We’ve spent centuries not paying off this debt, the debt of injuring the planet. Now the earth is mortally wounded.
See all that inflation around? What’s it really about? Second and third-rate economists — and there are a lot of them — crow, again and again, about the “pandemic ending.” It’s tiresome. Hello, we’re in the middle of another wave. It’s not over.
What was Covid? A fluke? Of course not. It was part of a pattern — SARS, MERS, Covid. Temperature rising. Habitable land decreasing. Animals and humans rubbing shoulders uncomfortably. Zoonotic flow — transmission of biomaterial between species — skyrocketing. Covid was just part of a trend. That trend is predicted to accelerate. Guess what happens as humans and animals both flee to highlands, as the earth scorches, looking for water, food, and relief from the killing heat? More pandemics. Not my guess — a scientific fact.
Pandemics? They’re part of extinction. Now think of how just one pandemic has brought our world economy to its knees. It’s not going to be the last one.
What were the effects of the pandemic? Well, Covid basically shut everything down — and then billionaires used it to profiteer since people suddenly couldn’t get the basics. That’s a tiny window into the future. Inequality skyrockets. The rich make out like bandits. The powerless and vulnerable begin to die — just like they are, of heat, even in rich nations, in rich cities, like Phoenix. Nobody’s rising from the ashes of extinction but the devil.
Shortages and inflation. What are they really about? The second and third-rate economists and analysts — the kinds you hear on CNBC or whatnot — will tell you it’s about some sudden spike in “demand.” LOL — who are they kidding? At this point, we have four solid generations experiencing catastrophic downward mobility. Gen X did way worse than Boomers, and it was still kind of funny, then Millennials did worse than Gen X, then Zoomers did worse than Millennials — and now it’s not funny, it’s shocking and tragic. Next come two generations we haven’t named yet, and they have no economic prospects whatsoever. None. Zoomers and millennials can’t afford houses and families. The two generations coming after them are going to be poorer than that.
There’s no sudden spike in “demand.” Quite the opposite. We are suddenly, rapidly growing dramatically and catastrophically poorer. Because we cannot supply the basics anymore. Suddenly, opulence has caught up with us.
Want to know why inflation’s really soaring — and shortages are becoming endemic? Because harvests around the globe are failing. For everything. Sugar, coffee, wheat. Commodities are soaring in price as a result — which is what we grossly call the planet’s natural bounty. What happens when a planet begins to die? Suddenly, it can’t provide anymore, at the same level, at the same rate. And prices skyrocket because supply goes into shock.
That is the real problem we face.
The opulence bubble is imploding now, all around us. Our civilization’s economy is failing — all of it. How long does it take to get a new Mac? Months. Shortages? Everything from tampons to baby formula to flights. Next up come energy, food, water, and medicine.
This isn’t a joke. It’s not a drill. This is the end of a chapter in human history.
The opulence bubble is popping — and it’s the greatest bubble in human history. It’s the bubble of an industrial economy pretending it could go on forever, injuring the planet, taking without giving, and the planet wouldn’t convulse in death spasms.
The bubble is popping. The planet can’t supply us anymore with the things we’re used to — especially not in the same abusive ways — and so we are now growing dramatically, rapidly poorer.
Is any of that making sense? Let me tell you why I ask. When I came up with this idea — and I wasn’t hardly the first, I was young. Really young. In my early 30s. I stood on the shoulders of elders — Partha Dasgupta, Amartya Sen, Herman Daly, and many more. But I was proud of my idea. I used to feel really strongly about it. I use to feel like I’d solved something when I came up with this idea. But you know how it goes for people like us. We’re the Cassandras, the different ones. And so almost every single one of my colleagues and peers — we were much younger then — turned on me, columnists and writers and economists and so forth. So I stopped writing about it for a very long time.
They thought I was saying all this to scare people. Some of them still do. They don’t understand — still don’t — that I’m the one with family in the hottest city on earth. With little cousins asking me where the monster that’s killing all the birds is. I inherit the burden of the wretched of the earth, man, because, well, where do you think I come from? I’m not trying to scare you. I never was. I’m just trying to warn you.
This is extinction. It’s not a game. It’s not a joke. It’s not a drill. This is the real thing.
What happens next? This does. When I say “our entire industrial economy was a bubble, and now it’s popping,” I’m not kidding. Do you think the harvests are magically going to come back to life? The rivers suddenly flow again? The animals resurrect themselves and frolic joyfully in the sunshine again?
None of that is going to happen. And so the future, economically, at least, is more of this. Accelerating. Faster and faster. Right on into oblivion. Shortages, inflation, uncertainty — all of which are really just part of the same thing: a civilization growing dramatically poorer, because it can’t supply itself with basics anymore, because it killed its planet.
I’m not trying to scare you. I’m warning you. How do you prepare for all this? You find a place to live. Harden it. Power it sustainably. Make sure it has a water source. In a temperate place. Surrounded by life, which has a chance of going on. You find a community that values life. You start or shift to a career in which you fight. To save what’s left of all this. Life and civilization. You love, as desperately and fiercely as you can. You grieve, every single day, for all those countless billions of lives, gone, in the wink of an eye. Extinction.
You grow and develop and mature into the kind of person who is better than all this. Just being a hyper predator killing a planet. You become.
Let me ask you a question. None of this is really about economics. It’s about who we are. What our relationship with time and being and life are. So let’s just get to it.
Do you think it’s possible to hurt God? I mean it in a secular way. The Universe. Can God be hurt? Or was Nietzsche right — God’s dead, good and evil don’t exist, and nothing but power matters?
What do you really think? Me? Here’s what I see. The light of a soul burns in every one of us. You know it and I know it. I don’t think you have to be religious to really know that much. Why else do we listen to music? Read poetry? Weep and laugh and sing and hold each other so desperately the second the night falls? Have little pets? Just look into a tiny thing’s eyes. See the way an ocean murmurs. You’ve heard the universe whispering the truth of it all to you. Over and over again. All this is alive, just like you. You are part of this, too. You are a child of stardust and time. Death holds you like a friend. All this is called “the universe.” It’s not out there, it’s in here. In each of us. We all know it, even if we pretend we don’t. I know we know it every time I see someone smile at my little puppy.
This is all there is. This is all there is. Just this. Life. In this beautiful and connected and timeless way. Each breath is every breath. In one eye, all reflections are beheld. Every moment is eternal, and each one is, as Camus said, the Last Judgment.
So let me ask you again. Is it possible to hurt God? As in “the universe.” Me? I think that’s what we’re doing. I think the universe is wounded. By us. I think it’s recoiling in pain. I can feel it these days. Am I the crazy one?
It is waiting for us to learn something. To mature into grace and truth. Or continue on, down the road of lost souls.
The road to extinction.
*Save up. Put the money somewhere safe. Invest a little bit every month in something real, a company you value, a home, things that keep their value, made with love and care, education, and people. Build systems of care for yourself and those you love. Don’t spend much, even if it feels like money’s losing its value. Sock it away. And think about all the above. Because it’s not just about money. It’s about life.