Fallen EmpireThe Age of Limits: Now, the Deluge

by Orren P. Whiddon

“Historically,  empires in decline invest ever-greater energy and complexity in a self-consuming cycle of diminishing returns...”

I am an unapologetic, dirt-worshippin’, now balding but once pony-tailed, back-to-the-land, never say die hippy. A child of the sixties, now pushin’ sixty. I have heated with wood since I was 22, killed my TV set in 1983, never owned a new car and spent 12 years designing clinical radioactivity detector systems in the Washington DC yeast-plex... while living in a log cabin. Can you say “cultural schizophrenia?”.

By 1994 I could no longer parse the dichotomy of these values with my deep embedment in the American Economic Hologram. I quit my career, sold my property, and purchased the rump scrap of an Allegheny mountain farm, which was to become Four Quarters. By the new millennium, Four Quarters was growing, and, armed with a 28k baud internet connection, I could return to a life-long interest: the study of the Global Industrial Model. During almost a decade of being “out-of-the-loop,” much had changed.

In 2003 I published my first article in this Wheel of The Year on the topics of Global Resource Depletion and the Limits to Economic Growth. I also made a day-long presentation of those issues to our Board of Directors that summed up with a prediction: If the church did not purchase the Land within 5 years, we would never be able to do so. That prediction was based on two observations: that we were in the midst of a real estate bubble driven by central bank lending; and that global conventional petroleum production would reach a maximum around 2005. We did succeed in transferring ownership to the church in 2005, and right on schedule the Great Recession began in 2008. I am not clairvoyant, but I can read science.

Also in 2008, we published our first Age of Limits Supplement in this calendar. Some years it has occupied as many as 16 pages devoted to introducing the science underlying our global predicament, The Limits to Growth. In 2012, we retired all of the debt on church-owned land, and then doubled down by launching The Age of Limits Conference, bringing together some of the best minds in the country for open discussion.

During that first decade, and now more than halfway through the second, the drip-drop events of the onset of global decline have become a steady flow of interlinked processes and their decline:
• The emergence of The Deep State of corporate oligarchy dominating the governmental processes of the West.
• And the effects of that corporate oligarchy in engineering an ever widening disparity of income and wealth accruing to the privileged classes through a system of debt based economics.
• Accelerating Global Climate Change now displaying social effects that transcend the borders of nation states.
• The increasing perturbation of the technical/financial/political system that supplies the world with hydrocarbon fuels.
• And the exhaustion of the resource base and planetary environmental services which underlie the Global Industrial Model.
          And... we canceled both the Age of Limits Conference and the Supplement to this calendar. An explanation is due, but first let me sum up where we find ourselves with this “Age of Limits at a Glance.”StateOfWorld

The Global Empire, often referred to as The Deep State, has entered into four preemptive wars of choice: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and fomented numerous color revolutions, most recently the Ukrainian coup that disposed of that country’s democracy. As a matter of policy, we have created, and surreptitiously support with our NATO allies, the most dangerous organization to stalk the Middle East... ISIL of the black flag. In doing so, we have set off one of the largest mass migrations in human history, as over 2 million people desperate to escape social, military and climate carnage flee into the relative safety of Western Europe.

We have driven China and Russia, historical enemies that they are, into each other’s arms; the greatest manufactory the world has ever known dancing with the world’s greatest source of raw materials. Much of our military has become privatized, with our foreign policy captured by corporate interests independent of, or rather indistinguishable from, the political party of the day. We engage in targeted assassinations by flying robot with our government admitting in secret leaked documents that for every “threat” terminated, we kill ten civilians.

Historically, empires in decline invest ever-greater energy and complexity in a self-consuming cycle of diminishing returns, a desperate effort to maintain the status quo of dominion leading to sudden and systemic collapse. Ming China, Imperial Rome, Byzantium, France of the Bourbons... and now our global empire of corporate oligarchy.

2008 saw the onset of The Great Recession, from which the middle class has still not recovered. Freed by the elimination of controls put in place after the Great Depression, financial institutions were free to tranche, rehypothecate, package and resell fraudulent securities across the markets. High-frequency stock trading emerged as computer networks shaved fractions of pennies from trillions of retail stock sales every day. HSBC redesigned their teller windows to accommodate the cash box deposits of their drug cartel customers. CITI Bank referred to a 680 million dollar fine as “simply a cost of doing business.” Wall Street completed the regulatory capture of government by placing their operatives as high as the US Secretary of the Treasury and throughout the SEC apparatus. In a reductio ad absurdum, the stock market now goes up if negative economic news is announced, secure in the knowledge that central banks will issue even more debt to sustain their valuations. In early 2016, the Bank of Japan formally announced negative interest rates on deposits in an effort to drive even more funds into the financial market. The next emerging bubble? Investment-grade student debt instruments as parents secure their pension plans by selling their children into a lifetime of debt peonage.

Hurricane Katrina well-nigh destroyed New Orleans, the greatest seaport of the Americas, much of which will never return. Houston just dodged the punch, but Sandy delivered New York City a message that even the Big Apple is not immune to the effects of global climate change. In fifteen years the science of climate change has been stood on its head as we have dimly realized the rapidity with which change can occur. Within the past five years, the two most powerful tropical storms ever recorded have occurred in the Pacific Basin. The great overturning thermohaline circulation of the North Atlantic, the heat engine responsible for palm trees growing in Cornwall, is changing, slowing, transporting less heat northward. The January 2016 Geophysical Research Letters spoke of near future Atlantic Basin storms “with peak Power Destructive Index increased by 100–160%, heavy rain by 70–180%, and maximum storm size more than tripled compared to present-day Superstorm Sandy.” Commercial freighter traffic now transects the Arctic Ocean with the North Pole awash in summer. Russian scientists have observed plumes of methane arising in the East Siberian Sea, with stadium sized blowholes created by land-side methane eruptions. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from its pre-industrial level of 275ppm, to 350ppm in the early 1990’s, to over 400ppm today. Almost 40% of the 200 year increase has occurred in the twenty years since the United States Senate refuted the Kyoto Climate Treaty.

OffshoreDerrickIn 2005, world conventional petroleum production peaked, setting off the Great Recession, $100 a barrel oil and a frenzied effort to develop tar sands, gas condensates and other near-oils with their exotic production techniques. The Federal Reserve instituted a near 0% interest rate for speculative oil production loans, and Wall Street packaged this debt as investment grade. The tight shale oil and gas plays rocketed into the public consciousness, with politicians talking of the United States becoming an oil exporter again for the first time since 1947. But by 2014, the global financial Ponzi that allowed for free loans and “greater fools’” financial instruments began to slow, as did the ability of an ever-shrinking middle class to consume and support $100 oil. In 2015, hydrofracted tight-shale gas production peaked at 27.9 billion cubic feet per day in July, and fell to 26.7 Bcf/d by December 2015, with the first two months of 2016 apparently doubling that decline rate. According to the EIA’s Productivity Reports, domestic oil production from the top four tight-shale oil fields peaked in April 2015, and has also entered precipitous decline. The oil price for sweet/prime has dipped into the $20s from a $100 peak of just 18 months before, with some producers actually paying refiners to clear their tanks of the lower grades. In early 2016 the bankruptcies started, with one tight-shale producer selling their $1.5 billion debt for 5% on the dollar. In a 150 year history of business cycles in the oil patch, nothing like this has ever been seen before, nor will be seen again. The technical realities are that once abandoned, most of these fields can never be returned to production.

In 1965, world grain storage stood at 40 days’ supply per capita. After the Green Revolution, per capita storage peaked in 1986 at 185 days’ supply. In 2016, storage rates stand at less than 40 days and decline with each year. These numbers reflect the fact that the complex of environmental services allowing for 7.3 billion planetary humans is in full decline, and that we have reached hard limits in our technical ability to exploit those environmental services.

Total oceanic biomass stands at 15% of pre-1800 levels, with that biomass now outweighed by suspended plastic. The Grand Banks cod fishery, closed in 1992, has never recovered and remains at 1% of its former level, functionally extinct. The California Sardine fishery was closed in 2015 and will likely suffer the same fate, along with unexplained new die-offs of non-commercial sea life in the region. The American Southwest slips into permanent drought, as California’s Central Valley agricultural production, the largest in the nation, goes into decline. Rising temperatures prevent water storage via snowpack, and groundwater pumping to maintain production is so deep that pore spacing collapse now prevents any future aquifer recharge. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, is in terminal decline, storing less than 30% of its capacity, last reached in 1983. Worldwide, arable land per capita has decreased by 55%, from 1 acre in 1960 to less than 0.5 acre today. In the United States, 50% of all crops are now genetically modified and treated with Monsanto’s Glyphosate herbicide, listed in 2015 by the UN as a “probable cancer causing agent.” In that year 50% of the population of the EU was found to have blood trace levels of Glyphosate, even though the EU has never allowed GM food crop production. Such studies, and the labeling of GM foodstuffs, are forbidden by law in the United States.

Frankly, it is no longer a question of “If,” or even “When.” It is now. This is what collapse looks like. Feels like. Is. The drip-drip of 20 years ago has become today’s steady stream, and tomorrow’s deluge. If you can’t see it, you’re not paying attention.

And since we see so plainly, why would we not redouble our efforts with conferences, publications and outreach? Simple answer.

Late in 2014, our Board of Directors rolled the dice and made a very risky decision to purchase an adjoining abandoned farm of 110 acres, and in doing so, incur $375,000 in debt. We were debt free, but we think our business model has just enough of a lifetime to pay down that debt. If we are right, we will skid into home plate with our housing and arable land doubled, and the core church properties forever secured from encroachment in any direction. If we are wrong...

So it’s buckle-down-and-batten-down time at Four Quarters. From being debt free, we have turned a 180 to be fully engaged in the moneymaking debt-based system of an empire gone mad. Gone is our five-year-plan to provide the Church Wards with private rooms or health care. Gone is any chance to finish the Farmhouse. And so too went The Age of Limits Conference and publications. But for good purpose; sometimes you must give up what you want, to get what you need.

Already Four Quarters Members are beginning to unplug from the city and purchase neighboring land. The Age of Limits Conference and our outreach have left a lasting impression on many. And I can promise you it will return, and with bells on.

In the meantime, pay attention, take a stand and “Collapse Now, Avoid the Rush.”