On this blog and others, you can find a bit of healthy expression of some of the what-ifs of our society powering down to lower levels of energy consumption. In a previous post I mentioned how the easily-available “green energies” are nowhere near enough to meet our present profligate consumption rates. In fact, they are so minuscule in comparison that instead of using them to maintain an Apollo-era lifestyle for a few (complete with remote garage door openers, electric clothes washers & dryers, wall warts everywhere, broadband for each of the kiddies, flatscreens in every room, recessed quartz lighting in the cavernous lawyer-foyer, etc) we will necessarily use them to produce the goods necessary for our own local needs and for export to the markets, and it’s through that local export that we’ll make money.
There is a rather long list of goods that are necessary for our own local survival. Mrs M and I have already spent some time working on this and will probably spend a lot more. The really sharp immediate needs are food, water, shelter, warmth; without any of these, survival in this climate would be dicey indeed come wintertime. A close fifth category is clothing, and that’s where I’ve been focusing my obsessions lately, since I am big into sewing and especially into clothing manufacture at home. Like a bunch of other home sew-istas, I use a factory-type industrial machine for most of the work. It was designed to run 3 shifts per day making clothing. There is little chance I could wear the thing out in a dozen lifetimes. And I have come to realize that industrial production on any scale is a matter of organization and not of bringing everyone together in a big, highly visible, energy-sucking, centrally-located easily-found building with a company name painted on the outside.
Some of us are already asking the question of how our local needs will be met when the container ships stop bringing slave-made cheap stuff from halfway around the world, when the ATMs are no longer disposing cash on demand, when the resources we have within the area of our own communities are basically all the resources we’ve got to work with. Some of us are already making plans for meeting some of these needs. There will of course be business opportunities for enterprising individuals .. it feels redundant to point this out.
Kunstler and a few others like to predict that the power and reach of the government will necessarily contract as available fossil-fuel energies slowly disappear. I’m not so certain about that. While it is indeed true that automated data collection may be useless when people are grubbing around in the dirt for whatever potatoes they can take home and eat or store in a root cellar, it must be remembered that the US government was functioning long before telegraph and radio were around, or even before we had plumbing or electricity. One does not need these things to run a resourceful and pervasive sort of authoritarian regime. All that’s needed is a network of local agents who’ve got some means of communicating with the mother-ship. In historical times, that communication probably took place through the postal system. The matter of recruiting agents (ie, nosy people) locally is probably quite easy during hard times. Remember, this system was quite effective even in so primitive an era when sending a couple dozen armed guys on horseback was “projecting force”.
I believe we are already seeing the predicted two waves of a) steeply declining expenditures on government/public benefits & services and b) increases in taxes. This is the only route open to the government at this point. Right now we have a bizarre system by which taxes are all sent up to the mother-ship which then doles out payments to the individual states which then splits them amongst the towns or counties. That sort of beneficence-from-above is about to get much, much stingier.
Right now you can sort of get away with flying under the tax-seeking radar by bartering things or doing business only in cash, as long as you keep no records and make sure that all transactions are private. Hopefully they’re not already keeping vast databases on the serial numbers of all those $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills in circulation, though I wouldn’t put it past them to attempt such an Apollo-age thing. All ATMs are capable of recording the serial numbers on dispensed cash.
(I assume that anyone reading this blog knows the easy way to get rid of the trail of those serial numbers .. just go for a drive and buy a pack of gum here, a cup of coffee there (all the cheapest items in the store) and spend a fresh crisp ATM-provided $20 bill on each. If you’re feeling especially evil, spend them in a line pointing from your home area to someplace else you’re not actually going to [or some other meaningless path] then turn around when you’ve spent all the original bills. Common cash registers do not record serial numbers. Do it during the busy time so there will be lots of unrecorded smaller bills in circulation, dropped off by other customers.)
A very good question to ask is that of what we the common people might use as currency if we decide that US paper money is just a bit too tainted to use for common transactions.
There are the classic choices of gold and silver, of course, but merchants everywhere would need to become re-acquainted with the concept of weighing the shiny stuff on their own scales and being familiar with the metal content of various coins and then translating that into some agreed-upon “value”. Most such coins designed for circulation (ie, for being used as real money) are not pure gold or pure silver. It has been found best to alloy the metals somewhat. Gold is usually mixed with copper and a few other trace metals, just like the way the British Commonwealth money has been done for hundreds of years.
There are also trade goods, such as a 10-yard bolt of pretty fabric or sturdy denim or some such, or bread, or fresh/canned vegetables (returnable deposit on the jar & lid, of course), or fresh milk (ditto with bottle deposit), or cheese, or firewood, or hand tools, or having someone fix your roof .. you get the idea. But I think we should all get used to the idea of the government wanting to get more intrusive, as time passes and as things unwind further, just so it can keep up with its desired level of expenditures. It will not willingly let go of its current 30% income tax rate. In this regard, government acts somewhat like an aggressive tumor or cancer: the more “food” it gets (money) the bigger it grows and the more it wants. Right now it’s as humongous a tumor as it ever gets to be, in terms of how much money it collects and what percentage of the total spending is done by it. The only way to cure it is to starve it of resources. And I happen to think that my clever & inventive countrymen and -women are able to figure out how to handle this task. (just speaking theoretically, of course! heh)
Get used to the idea of thinking of all commerce as private transactions that the government has no business knowing anything about. Right now the tumor is eating its host alive. There is no indication anywhere that the government will drastically scale back its tax rates in response to the lesser needs of a lower-energy mode of existence. (for historical reference, please note that the “horrible” income tax over which we rebelled against Great Britain was one-half of one percent, and was unaccompanied by any representation) No doubt the government will want to maintain the seductive security of the high-tech age long after it has become necessary or even possible to do so. The spy satellites will continue to circle the earth long after their station-keeping propellant has been exhausted, long after everyone’s stopped listening, and eventually they will just be strange moving objects in the night sky.