COVID-19: What’s Really Happening?
Well, you wanted a different world, and now you’ve got it. No matter how the misery and mayhem being wreaked by the Coronavirus crisis plays out, it’s difficult to imagine a comprehensive return to ‘business as usual’. Indeed, in one or more important respects, the lives we once knew may be gone forever. Systemic global change was long overdue, of course. As this crisis has unfolded, the large scale, hierarchically-organised, centrally-controlled systems in energy, industry, transport, health, banking, politics — and more — upon which our modern societies depend, have once again proven dangerously unstable. So, whether the pandemic occurred naturally, was deliberately engineered, or somewhere in between (‘Never allow a crisis go to waste!’), seismic shifts in society are underway, and it is in the areas of the economy and of personal freedoms that we may feel them most.
For decades, American author and blogger James Howard Kunstler has been warning about increasing instability in the systems which underpin industrial civilization. The Coronavirus crisis has merely served to underline just how accurate his predictions have been. And as Kunstler himself has lamented, his home country in particular is woefully unprepared to face such unprecedented challenges.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in the advanced world in my lifetime, a great array of nations in a state of lockdown. And we’ve never been in a situation where the fragile global economy all of a sudden hit a giant speed bump and in effect, production has stopped all over the world, and everything connected with that production, including trade and all the normal professions and vocations, and the things that they depend on. It’s an absolutely extraordinary situation. The last time our countries were in a big war, even regular commerce did not shut down, and the bars stayed open. So, this is something that is all new for us, it’s obviously very traumatic, and it’s really hard to calculate what the effect of that trauma is going to be. But one effect is already clear; the disorder in our lives is making people a bit crazy.
“Americans tend to live more as if they’re in a TV show or a movie. Their grasp on reality is a bit more tenuous than other people, so there’s plenty of room for mischief. I haven’t seen any sign yet of any kind of insurrection against the government. God knows what happens after weeks if it continues. There are an awful lot of people in the United States who, as the saying goes, don’t have $400 to cobble together for a domestic emergency, like their car breaking down or a child getting sick. There must be many among them who are not well prepared to be locked down for any period of time. They’re going to run out of Netflix movies to watch. God knows what’s going to happen when they get hungry and desperate.”
In the wake of the great financial meltdown of 2007–08 there were near-constant warnings that we were headed for a repeat performance, possibly on an even larger scale. Many of the investment, debt, and property bubbles which had popped so spectacularly were gradually being re-inflated. ‘Too big to fail’ institutions were getting bigger and looking more likely to fail. Somehow, however, the looming financial implosion always seemed to lurk just over the horizon — visible, but still at a safe distance.
Then along came COVID-19. Governments, banks, and corporations worldwide were drowning in ever-increasing debt which could never be repaid and, sooner or later, something had to give. It almost doesn’t matter that it took a pandemic to pull the plug. The real action is in what happens next. Opinions diverge over what’s occurring right now in the shadowy realms of global finance, but it seems likely that, whatever lies behind the Coronavirus itself, frantic moves are being made to re-configure the world, of which a massive re-set of the global financial system may be but one. It has been called a ‘controlled demolition’. Any and all financial loss and hardship that results from the coming economic collapse can be blamed on the virus. And just like 9/11, any and all loss of freedoms and privacy will be swallowed up in the scramble for so-called ‘safety’ and ‘security’.
“The $200 trillion-plus of debt that is out there is an enormous problem,” says Kunstler. “It’s perhaps insurmountable by any normal means we can imagine. It seems to be imploding now and sending out the signal that the system just could not bear that load any more. I’ve been saying all along that the expression of all of these disorders in finance and banking was probably going to be the most damaging part of this crisis, apart from the possibility of war or violent conflict. That’s exactly what’s happening. What’s really behind it is the simple fact that we put too many layers of hyper complexity over each other. And that the system can’t bear that complexity. And now it’s all cratering.
“We’re probably going to err on the end of throwing too much money at every facet of this, and that’s already begun. We are throwing trillions of dollars against this, including a whole lot at the banking system, which has already been bailed out in 2008, and we’re preparing to bail it out again. So that’s going to cause further distortions and perversions of the monetary system and the markets. It’s going to create further problems down the road that will ultimately probably be expressed as currency crisis in one way or another.
“I don’t see it as some kind of a teachable moment, as they say in the PC world. It is an emergency that we’re going to emergently struggle through one way or another. The real question is, how much disorder does it produce? And where does that disorder manifest? And one of the things that is quite clear and we could have easily seen this in advance, was that it would manifest in the financial sector and in the banking sector, because that is the part of our world that is composed of the most abstract kind of relations and so it ends up being the most fragile. It’s a system that’s based largely on promises to do this and that, promises to pay back money that you’ve borrowed, promises to pay people money that you owe them. It’s a very fragile part of our world and naturally, it’s the first one to explode spectacularly. That’s what’s happening today. It remains to be seen what can be put back together when the dust settles.”
MONOCULTURES AND MONOPOLIES
As noted earlier, many of the systems on which modern society depends are themselves reliant on a very narrow range of operating conditions. Relatively minor disruptions — especially sudden ones — can ripple through the entire mechanism causing unforeseen failures and knock-on effects. This applies to both abstract and ‘real world’ physical systems alike, and the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Dmitry Orlov, author of books such as The Five Stages of Collapse and Shrinking the Technosphere, is another prominent critic of the precarious house of cards that industrial civilization has become.
“There have been a lot of structures, mostly political but also financial, that there have been incredibly weak for a long time. Very large, overblown organisations like the European Union or the United States are just incredibly fragile. What we’re watching now is these very fragile structures disappearing. It turns out that they didn’t really exist, they were sort of a figment of some official’s imagination. It was sort of a theatrical suspension of disbelief that led us to believe that a structure like the European Union actually existed. So the Coronavirus is actually something that pulled the veil off the whole thing and made it obvious what’s really going on. It’s not really a prime mover of any sort, it’s the trigger.”
“We’ve made this real bad choice of making everything gigantic,” says Kunstler. “A monoculture or a monopoly of one kind or another. And that’s particularly irksome in the United States in our commercial economy where we have so many giant retail sellers of various things, and when they become dysfunctional for one reason or another, for instance, if the supply lines from China put an end to their merchandise resupply, what are they going to do?
“The food system is a big part of that. We’re going to have to produce more of our food locally and not depend on getting all this fruit from the southern hemisphere in our winter time and things like that. We’re going to have to downscale our agriculture so it doesn’t follow that agribusiness model which is also a model of a huge behemoth monoculture. That is oil-based and also, a lot of people forget that farming, at least as it’s done in the United States, one of the biggest so-called inputs is money. The farmers have to borrow. These farmers on these giant farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Iowa, they have to borrow hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their crop in. And then they have to use all these petrochemicals to make the crops grow, and it’s really a wickedly bad system and it’s going to fail in the face of the things that we’re confronting. So the farms are going to have to get smaller, they’re going to have to be distributed more equitably around the country. It will probably require more human labour and more human attention. As this emerges and evolves, more people will be working in agriculture. Another feature of this for the United States is that there are a lot of parts where you can’t grow stuff locally. That suggests that a lot of places like Tucson and Pasadena and Phoenix and parts of Texas, they’re not going to be able to gin up any kind of food production system in these places. A lot of these places don’t even have a water supply that’s reliable, without some artificial means. So, I think a lot of these places are going to be depopulated, and it’s going to be a big deal. They may not go down to zero, but they’re going to become much smaller places. Indeed, I would make the argument that all giant metroplex cities, as they’re called, around the world are going to be faced with this predicament and are going to have to get smaller one way or another and probably will, and that the process will be pretty disorderly.”
CONTRACTION AND RE-LOCALISATION
Peak oil, the hotly-contested theory which predicts a precipitous decline in the fossil fuel resources on which industrial civilization depends, is another topic that both Kunstler and Orlov have written a great deal about. One of the conclusions which makes their take on the situation such a bitter pill to swallow is that it is simply impossible to replace current levels of fossil fuel energy with so-called ‘green’ alternatives. Any post-fossil fuel civilization will almost inevitably mean less people having less and doing less. Coincidentally (or not, should you believe it has been deliberately engineered), the Coronavirus crisis has resulted in dramatic cuts in industry, travel, and associated pollution, the extent of which Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg could only have fantasized about.
“A lot of the green talk about carbon neutral taxes and arrangements, you really have to write that off simply as just political virtue signalling,” says Kunstler. “It’s no more complicated than that. And it’s at odds with the basic problem of facing a world that is not going to know the economic ‘growth’ that made the last ten decades possible. We’re now going into a period of comprehensive contraction and we’re not going to be able to grow largely because the picture on the energy return on energy produced is changing. The ratio has simply gotten too low. We’re not getting enough back for the amount of energy that we’re putting into it, and that prangs the whole system.
“We are looking at a whole matrix of wishful thinking that goes very deep and broad over the whole picture. As I wrote in The Long Emergency, there was at least one fundamental problem that I didn’t believe we could overcome, which was [peak oil]. Something that the green folk don’t really take into account is we really need a platform of a fossil fuel economy underneath the green economy in order to even manufacture the hardware for the green economy. How are we supposed to manufacture all these wind turbines and solar panels and all of this very complicated hardware, without the energy to do it? And it’s not going to be the alternatives powering the manufacture of more alternatives, that’s just not going to happen. You could see that point of failure from 25 years out. But we wanted to tell ourselves a bunch of fairy stories. The idea that we could save suburbia, if we could just get all the cars electrified, and create a charging system. It never occurred to people that the energy that was going to come out of that plug in the wall was actually made by doing something like burning coal. But that was part of the the delusion. So none of that stuff is where we’re going, in my opinion. I think that where we’re going is pretty clear, but it’s pretty unacceptable to most of the people in advanced countries: We’re going to have to seriously downscale and re-localise our activities.
“America is not going to continue to engage in these trade arrangements with China that we’ve had. We’re going to be forced to at least think about how we’re going to make stuff again in North America. The problem with that, as I just said, is that the basic energy economics has changed to the degree that it’s not going to be 1960 again. We’re not going to make things like that again. We may be reduced in scale to the shocking degree that we have to depend on water power and hydroelectric just to make a few things. You can make things with hydroelectric and you can make things with direct water power, but you’re talking about going back to an 1883 level of industrial economy, if you’re lucky. And these are ideas that I don’t think most thinking people in advanced economies are ready to entertain.”
THE (DIFFICULT) FUTURE OF ENERGY GENERATION
Orlov has long predicated a US collapse as the result of huge military budgets, government deficits, an unresponsive political system and declining oil production.
“If the share of wind and solar in power generation exceeds something like 20–30%, then the grid falls apart,” says Orlov. “It’s rugged generation, it goes up and down. To compensate for that ruggedness, it’s necessary to have standby sources of power, mostly based on natural gas, that are expensive and inefficient. So the entire system is basically double or triple what it needs to be to produce the same amount of power. It’s a prescription for having either incredibly expensive electricity that will preclude any sort of industry, or the grid will just fall down. There’ll be just constant blackouts and things will fall apart. Renewables are sort of a poison pill, they’ve been discovering that. The UK has ended up with very high electricity rates. Germany has done the same thing by shutting down their nuclear reactors and coal-fired plants and going with wind and solar. In Australia, they’ve basically ended up in the same situation. They continue to add solar in Western Australia, to a point now where the entire grid is in danger from disruptions. So none of these things actually work. People buy into them because they sound good and they sound green. But if you look at the technology and how it functions, it turns out that first of all, it’s not green at all. It produces a lot of toxic waste and it actually wastes a lot of energy on all of these hot standby installations that are spinning just in case there’s a cloud in the sky or the wind dies.”
In recent years, hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — the high-pressure injection of fluid into rock containing ‘unconventional’ oil and gas so that they may be extracted more easily, has been held out as the answer to impending shortages in economically-viable fossil fuels. But Orlov, like Kunstler, is dismissive of the industry’s claims citing, among other things, massive government subsidies propping up otherwise uneconomic enterprises.
“The fracking industry is over, it’s shutting down, and that will prevent any sort of restoration of status quo. It won’t be restarted because it started up as a desperate resource exploitation scheme because this is a very low-grade resource. Shale oil — nobody except the very desperate would ever think about exploiting it as a resource. Then it turned into a financial swindle because companies could raise money to exploit this resource because of very low interest rates and because of pension and various other funds looking for anything at all with a yield, to prolong their agony as it turns out. But now all of the sweet spots, all of the easy to drill locations, have been drilled and pumped out. What’s left is not that productive. The drilling rate has come down. A lot of these companies are bankrupt already. So there will be no resumption of shale oil, although shale is what has been allowing the world to avoid the ravages of peak oil, which already happened in 2005. So this has been a postponement of peak oil. What we need to understand is that what Kunstler calls the society of ‘happy motoring’, that’s over. The United States, the entire suburban way of life, that’s finished. The entire industrial scheme that supports it, where the Chinese make products and then Americans pay for them by printing pieces of paper for the Chinese to buy, that’s over. All of these things are finished. They’re not coming back.”
THE END OF MASS TOURISM?
Although levels of tourism and travel in general have collapsed since the onset of the Coronavirus crisis, as with many aspects of pre-pandemic life, it remains to be seen how much of the ‘new normal’ turns out to be temporary. However, with person-to-person contact apparently the main vector of contagion, strict controls on freedom of movement may continue indefinitely, with enormous impacts.
“What we will go through is a process of regionalization,” says Orlov. “We’ll have clusters of relative prosperity and development. For instance, Russia and China and some of the countries allied with them will go on. They will continue along an industrial path for the time being, possibly for hundreds of years. That depends on various things but the potential is there. Then various other countries and regions will de-industrialise. If they’re lucky, they’ll become very rural and will develop subsistence economies. If not, then they’ll just basically devolve into a few loners dwelling within ruins of cities. It could go down that far. Large cities that are full of people right now could end up as no-go zones. Nobody will know what’s going on there, nobody will report from there, nobody will travel there. They’ll just continue to exist but nobody will be particularly interested in what goes on there.
“We already saw the collapse of tourism, we’ll have to see to what extent it comes back. Tourism is something that is relatively recent. Up until very recent times, only the very wealthy could go ‘on tour’. Only the aristocracy could afford to do that. Mass tourism is a very recent, late 20th Century development, and it could be that it’s over. It could be that we’ll revert back to a state where the vast majority of the population barely moves 100 kilometres from where they’re born during their entire life, with a few exceptions. We’ll probably still have trade and international shipping, but we won’t have masses of people flying across the world on two-week vacations to sun-tan on a beach somewhere in an exotic locale. That could just be finished. In terms of the sort of fluidity where large groups of people migrate, well, there’ll still be migrations, but they won’t be these sorts of back and forth migrations that we’ve been seeing. I think a lot of countries will be rather careful in terms of who they admit. The idea that you’re going to admit a whole bunch of complete strangers who can then live as a separate community in your midst without trying to integrate, without trying to become culturally the same as everyone else, that might go away because first of all, it’s dangerous and secondly, it’s too expensive.”
The territory we are tentatively exploring looks markedly different from that which we are leaving behind. While many of the coming changes merely represent the extension and intensification of trends already underway, others will be a shock to the system, both personal and collective. New mantras such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ could equally have been coined to characterise the ways in which 21st Century humanity has been withdrawing from itself, shunning social contact and interaction, and retreating into virtual fantasy worlds of gaming, pornography, and info-tainment.
Millions of small businesses are now being decimated, many — if not most — never to return. At the other end of the scale, global industries such as airlines, shipping, transportation, and travel are also being hit. Anyone who believes that, due to the current surge in online activity, the future of shopping is mail order is urged to read When Trucks Stop Running by Alice J. Friedemann. If the dire predictions about the future of fossil fuels are correct, long supply chains, vast automated warehouses, and just-in-time manufacturing and stock control will soon be things of the past. Any future cleansed of independent competition and dominated by corporate cartels may therefore be rather short lived. Amazon and Walmart are currently hiring like there’s no tomorrow, but when tomorrow comes, unemployment levels may reach heights unparalleled in modern history.
THE POSITIVES — RE-ASSESS, DOWNSIZE AND BREAK FREE OF OLD HABITS
But there are also potential positives, some of them as yet unrealised. Aside from emphasizing the extremely marginal benefits generated by industries such as marketing, advertising, investments, and insurance, the current crisis is helping to highlight what is and what is not truly important. As a result, many people are reassessing almost every major aspect of their lives. Widespread lockdowns have proved once and for all that both working from home and home-schooling children — although not without challenges — can be done on a much larger scale than previously imagined. Downsizing and localism — both already underway — mean that the pace of life can be less frantic and that more of what needs to be done can be done much closer to home. Opportunities for cottage industries, producing goods and services for family, friends, and local community, have begun to spring up. People are re-learning forgotten skills or acquiring new ones, opening up new employment possibilities for the future.
“A lot of people are locked in kind of a loop,” says Orlov, “where they’re forced to make money because they have habits that require them to have money. So, there’s a huge amount of freedom to be gained by lessening one’s appetites, by reducing consumption. Now that everyone’s under lockdown, it’s a really good time to look at what you’ve been wasting money on. Realise that maybe you could be just as happy by working and consuming a lot less and having a lot less money in the future. Not go back to the same grind once things pick up again.”
In re-evaluating what genuinely matters, much of what currently passes for culture may prove ripe for permanent retirement. Those Netflix movies will run out. We may conclude that celebrities — be they actors, footballers, chefs, or TV presenters — probably aren’t worth what we’re paying them. The divisive politics of gender, race, and identity, too, may move down on any newly-drafted list of priorities.
“A number of things that can be used as a distraction in quiet, comfortable times,” says Orlov, “immediately look preposterous when times suddenly change and there’s an emergency. For instance, the concept of gender lacks physical reality. There is no lab test to show what gender you are, therefore, it’s not physically real. It’s psychologically real, but so are all sorts of hallucinations experienced by mentally ill people. Then, if you put people in a state where they can’t just waste their time on things that don’t really exist, where they actually have to worry about survival, all of these phantoms disappear. In a sense, a lot of these afflictions of identity and gender politics and all of that are just first-world problems experienced by bored people. When they can no longer afford to sit around and be bored because they have to start thinking about how to survive, suddenly all of these problems just completely disappear. There are a lot of similar problems. For instance, there’s been an obesity epidemic in the United States because people sit around, eat junk food, and watch TV. Well, if they go hungry for a few months, then they’ll lose weight. Problem solved. There are lots of things like that and we don’t know that they aren’t real until there’s a stress test. So now we have a stress test. Now is when we find out what actually exists and what doesn’t.”
PREPARING FOR THE ‘NEW NORMAL’: WHAT COMES NEXT
Assuming that the coronavirus crisis is eventually declared ‘over’, how events unfold in the aftermath depends on whether cool heads and wisdom prevail, or whether we allow our societies to be pitched into some kind of dystopian police state. Although many potential future scenarios are imaginable, there are a number of dark possibilities which warrant particular vigilance:
- Social credit system — rewards for ‘good’ behaviour.
- Mandatory vaccinations — ‘passport’ for international travel.
- Digital currency — no cash, all transactions recorded.
- Universal Basic Income — subsistence income instead of a job.
These are some of the hallmarks of a possible future with constant tracking and surveillance of citizens, indefinite detention without charge, blanket censorship, and absolutely no freedom of assembly, movement, expression or, eventually, thought. Should the state deem it necessary, a coronavirus ‘state of emergency’ can be declared and re-declared again and again. The ‘new normal’ could be that of routine flare-ups and repeated lockdowns, all the easier to implement and enforce in a world of contraction and collapse in which the real pandemic is fear.
Times of stress tend to be terribly revealing. The rapidity with which billions have surrendered to fear and complied unquestioningly with near-martial law has been truly staggering, even to seasoned watchers of globalist shenanigans. Contemplate how swiftly your lives have become like The Lives of Others — nervous curtain twitching, nightly pronouncements from The Party on the tele-broadcast unit, and constant chatter about what is and what is not available at the food distribution centre. Will this Orwellian vision really be the ‘new normal’? As ever, that’s up to us.
Originally published in New Dawn magazine Special Issue Vol. 14, №3