Peak Empire: Capitalist Theology and Population


Capitalism, cheap resources, democracy, and population have a very intricate Woody Allen like love-hate relationship with each other. Let’s look who is laughing?

Peak Capitalism

The world owes a great debt to imperialism for developing a socio-economic theology that has brought about unprecedented accumulation of power and wealth: the so-called free-enterprise capitalism. It is a system akin to Petri’s Happy Hour which is designed to attract and profit from the top 1 percent of the customers who can afford to stay beyond the end of cheap booze and free peanuts.

It is yesterday’s news that the overclass or the top one percent of the population now makes more than the bottom 95 percent [1]. The unaccounted 4 percent are of course the pit-bulls, the middle managers, the bookies, and the pastors, who serve their masters for a little bit more than nothing.

Capitalism loves people, it feeds on people. Peak Capitalism runs on disposable workers and cheap energy. It thrives on relentless escalation of consumption to serve ever-increasing consumer population. Its mantra of success is exponential growth: exponential growth in the use of resources and energy, exponential growth in the production of goods and money supply, exponential growth in the worker-consumer population. The rabbit is safe, but only if he runs faster than yesterday.

The colonial masters succeeded on the backs of an expanding source of brown and black serfs and slaves as they extended their power to every nook and cranny of the globe. It was the abundance of slave labor and menial classes that helped concentrate wealth and provided the necessary leisure time to spark the industrial revolution. There is no adequate substitute for a butler.

The Church deserves a special mention as the capitalist’s tool of choice: The open-source double-standard Jesus freaks in the Vatican and elsewhere are the vanguard that have led the charge to overwhelm the “so-called” sustainable and bartering communities around the globe. It is their job to soften up the natives into dollar-loving god-fearing free-trading gobble-gobble go-lucky insatiably hungry hordes. The Church purifies the innocent.

The larger the population, the better. The Church, unlike the nation-state, has a few cycles of feast and famine under its belt since the Roman days. The Vatican is richer than ever collecting roman candles for celibate nuns from the poor who cannot afford the breakfast. “This earth was made for a few, the rest can go to heaven” is the Holy Bull of them all. I am sure the college of cardinals yearns for the days when slavery was the corner-stone of the creed of warring popes. What it wouldn’t do to help the modern day Medici’s. The women are free to work for less, all sanctified by the holy writ.

Democracy

Democracy runs well when there is abundance of cheap resources and a population well below the carrying capacity.

The carrying capacity, of course depends on the total quantity of the most constrained resource available divided by the “acknowledged minimum” use of that resource per capita. Is it oil or water or both? Just do not forget to include your friendly cats, polar bears, and dolphins in your calculation.

If one factors in human folly into the carrying capacity formula, the “acknowledged minimum” can be replaced by “absolute minimum” without any loss of generality.

The democracy offers a facade of freedom to the citizens. In politics of abundance, if the citizen are taught well in public schools, the teeniest of them will bark like a plutocrat, salute the flag like a hawk, willingly die for the country like a lemming, and unwittingly support the capitalist goal of accumulation of wealth and power in a few hands. Their willing participation is cheaper and more efficient.

Ancient democracies ran on slave power. As citizen population hovered at its carrying capacity and nutrient-depleted fields required increasingly higher input of slave power, the plutocrats were compelled to adopt autocratic form of rule. When you need to starve a population to maintain opulence of a few, democratic accountability does not work too well.

As an aside, it is not all bad for the democracy buffs. The paradigm works in reverse as well. When Western Europe found itself awash with colonial wealth beyond belief, the hold of autocracies crumbled. For example, British history aptly illustrates how the divine rights of the Kings vanished, leaving behind a royal zoo at Buckingham Palace, as resources became abundant at the expense of the colonies and industrialism broke out.

Peak Oil

The current imperial energy binge went into high gear when James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine in 1769. It heralded the beginning of the energy revolution. The splurge continues to this day, marred only by a few internal squabbles like the so-called WWI and WWII, and massive genocides elsewhere to keep the sometime unruly warlords in check.

We shall not discuss the coming plateau and eventual decline of available resources, energy really, on a global scale here [2]. Suffice it to say the current oil production is about 83 million barrels per day, and it is highly unlikely it will ever go much higher than that. So if there is an alternate source of energy waiting in the wings, it better come up quick, it better be huge, and it better be dirt cheap. Yes, garbage will work if we can make Professor Brown to come back from the future [3].

Once again we are at the edge of carrying capacity. Once again we are entering an era of chronic shortage of all known usable sources of energy [4]. Once again the plutocracy is arming itself to starve the population to keep its wealth to itself.

We are told humans have this ability to turn it on! When oil is gone, we will find something else, or we will transform ourselves overnight to sustainable localized anarchies, or we will simply wait for the Rapture, or we will let the junkers whip our ass. I bet a dollar most anarchists will die in the corn fields, shackled and pulling the yoke. And, I bet yet another dollar that if we do find another source of energy it won’t be in time, it won’t be as cheap as oil, and it won’t be as abundant.

Population

The population ties it all together. Cheap resources serve the population, led by the plutocrats who get the lion’s share of wealth and power. Once the genie of cheap resources is out, the capitalist diligently invokes the Faustian principle of exponential growth. There is no turning back: the production, the consumption, and the population all must increase exponentially to maintain economic health. The only way to avoid Malthusian death is to discover a still cheaper set of resources. Increasing population coupled with the depletion of the resources du jour nibble away democracy and freedom. Prof. Bartlett has pointed it out before, “Malthusian predictions may have been premature, but his math is impeccable.” As Romans discovered slave power was unsustainable, so is oil power.

The population has doubled since the 1970s. There are more selfless people contributing to the wealth building process and sleeping hungry on the streets of cities like Calcutta and San Francisco today than there were people in the world in 1930. They have provided the ticket to make space exploration possible. Their unshakable resolve to help the plutocrat’s wealth-building machinery is nothing short of a miracle.

Consider this: In 1960, the oil production was about 20 mb/d and the world human population was 3.02 billion. The prediction is in the year 2040, while the world oil production is expected to fall to the 1960-levels, the world population will be almost 3 times higher to about 8.58 billion [5]. We will need alternate energy source to feed 5.5 billion of them! Not to worry, the politicians, between now and then, expect to rediscover cold fusion with a real punch.

We know we have big brains, and that makes us different from bacteria. Yet, our Faustian contract with peak capitalism makes us one.

Let’s dispense with the niceties, shall we?

The Peak Empire proclaims democracy, justice, and equality for all. But runs on a social theology that enriches the plutocrat at the expense of disposable people (working population) and throwaway diapers (consuming population). If you do not like it or cannot hack it, pray. The god is waiting for you on the other side with sexy damsels and honey.

George F. Kennan wrote in 1948 “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population…In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security…The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”

Half a century later, we are there. There is little left on the globe that can be had by political or financial chicanery. Expect to see “straight power concepts” in action: the resource wars are here to stay.

The overclass knows too well the era of abundance in America is in its twilight years. It will be hard to maintain democracy while continuing to accumulate wealth. It is time to starve the citizenry.

Wealth building is a god-given right, and hiding it in nice-sounding words is an essential subterfuge to protect the plutocrats from the unworthy hordes. In polite company it is called the free market democratic capitalism. It runs on growth. It uses population growth as a resource as well as the final destination for rampant consumption. Its purpose is to aggregate huge wealth and resources for the oligarchs. Its tools include World bank, IMF, Haliburton, Microsoft, the organized church, the drug policy, the Patriot Act, military adventurism, and the nuclear option.

Count your blessings and check if your other car is a Lamborghini. If not, know that the offer of an 80-hour work-week to the American families is more than generous, especially when you know anyone can be a millionaire.

Poor sods going three rah-rah-rahs for free enterprise should check-out the latest statistics on their chances to become a millionaire or even their ability to get a degree from a decent school. If you want to be a millionaire, plan to move to Iraq or Russia or central Asia. Destabilized plutocracy in those places offers better odds for the enterprising thief to become a millionaire than the Peak Empire. Upper middle class living in Indonesia or India includes a cook, a maid, a gardener, a driver, and if it is your fancy, a concubine. Stop drooling!

Jevons Paradox is usually applied to the resources like coal and oil of exponentially growing economies. However, peak capitalism treats working-class humans as a resource much like oil. With this fresh insight, one can see why the real earnings of working people have been stagnant if not reduced over the years. As workplace becomes automated and efficient, individual worker is offered less compensation to maintain body and soul together. While energy (or money) expended to maintain a single worker deceases, larger armies are needed to sustain the growth of the economic ensemble. Like the bacteria on a Petri dish, the humans multiply while the going is good [6].

This is the crux of the reason why human population cannot stop growing until it overshoots the absolute carrying capacity. Peak capitalism feeds on institutionalized greed. Which bank would lend you 100 and expect 90 back? What CEO would consciously produce less (using less resources) than the last quarter and expect to survive in his job?

So far the peak empire has had the luxury to maintain disparity between itself and the globe around it a la Kennan. It was relatively less expensive to keep the citizenry happy with bones and democracy. As the world begins to run dry things are changing.

Let us look at the current state of the home of the braves: Does an over-populated oil-hungry peak empire augur well for human dignity, freedom, or democracy?

Is loss of human dignity, the corner stone of the politics of abundance, a big concern of the Empire?

Dignity of the human species is personified in the president, the pope, and Brittany Spear. The lack of dress on Brittany, the girly dress of the Pontiff, and the defaced Mount Rushmore say it all. When was the last time you went sightseeing strip-mines in Pennsylvania? It is a pernicious concept that man-in-the-street needs dignity, especially since it does not help his disposition to selflessly contribute to the osmotic concentration of wealth.

Would you risk your life to climb a coconut tree to get your lunch and barter some to get the penis-erector herbs from the local shaman to engage in big-bam open-air under-the-full-moon sex, or rather participate in a dignified Darwinian struggle with your neighbor to win the right to suck at the barely dripping municipal faucet?

Who wouldn’t want to replace a rather poor sustainable little tribal community in central Africa that has no use for the Monsanto seeds by a metropolis, built around imposing skyscrapers, teeming with AIDS-infested purified Christians who would selflessly give their life-savings to help the pharmaceuticals and the local warlords?

Is loss of freedom a big concern of the Empire?

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, pull back the curtains, and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.” [Frank Zappa]

Well, Frank, it is about time to pull back the curtains.

Is loss of democracy a big concern of Empire?

“…democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive. Convenience and decency cannot survive. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters.” [7]

Some people say we worry that our democratic values are being undermined. This is neither unexpected nor a problem. It is only natural that our dictatorial behavior as the fattest bully on the globe gets duplicated at home to discipline the increasingly poor citizenry. It happened in Rome, it shall happen in Washington.

Does the citizenry know what’s going to hit them?

No. But that is just because I am a confirmed misanthrope.

I do promise to say something nice soon about what a citizen is to do in the coming decades of disorder.

———

[1] Edward N. Wolff, “Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership,” Conference on “Benefits and Mechanisms for Spreading Asset Ownership in the United States,” New York University, December 10-12, 1998.

[2] See, for example, Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Beyond Oil. The View from Hubbert’s Peak, 2005, or Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrère, “The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American, March 1998.

[3] See the movie “Back to the Future.”

[4] What is not peaking yet is also very telling: the global temperature, the global garbage and sludge production, the world population, the global starvation and disease.

[5] For population estimates see United Nations, “The World at Six Billion,” 1999. For oil statistics, see for example, Ref. [2] above.

[6] Author’s end-of-the-world limerick

Mr burgundy begot a brat on Sundy
One on Mondy, and another on Tuesdy, …
The earth got hit
With so much shit
It decided to stop spinning on Fridy

[7] Issac Asimov, Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas, 1989]

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