If you ever follow any real-estate “debate” in Vancouver sooner or later a bullish person will use “It’s different here because…” and then give you a variety of reasons. Be it the rich Chinese that seem to be lining up to buy property here or the lack of land.
But this is not what this is about, this is about something else, the question on why it is so hard for people to make changes that are necessary, or rather why most people only do things they can no longer avoid.
We are at a crossroads right now when it comes to humanity and how we will go from here. We clearly have risen, as a species, higher than anything else on this planet before (as far as we know) and we are now having to decide which direction to take. The one that will continue our dominance of this planet or the one where we will eventually be reduced to small groups and settlements.
Sounds negative? Maybe, but let me give you a rough overview on what we are facing.
Currently we are under “assault” (all mostly self made) on three main fronts:
- (Cheap) Energy
- Climate Change
Let’s tackle those one by one.
The current and most pressing matter (and the one that will have an impact on the other two as well) is the financial situation.
Now, depending on what side of the line you fall you either think all will be well soon or the current system as we know it will collapse. Personally I am in the middle. The current system clearly has failed, if it will fail catastrophically and completely implode over night (it is a possibility) or if it will be a slow decline will remain to be seen. For now though it’s pretty clear that we cannot continue the way we have.
So what caused this? There are a few reasons, chief among them are two though:
1. Greed, pure and simple (it is a bit more complex but that would be an entire book to deal with all the finer points, for this discussion I just go with that). Short term gain without any regard for the long term future. This isn’t just something that is done by big corporation, it’s also a trademark of our politicians and those they represent (that would be you and I).
2. No idea what Money actually is.
Okay, so it comes in coins, paper notes or as a number on a piece of paper or computer screen, but that’s just a representation. What money really is is a representation of work. You work, you get paid money which you can trade for other goods and services, like the new leather jacket I bought the other day.
Debt on the other hand is a promise to work. Every time you use that Credit Card and don’t pay it off right away or you go and get a mortgage or a loan you essentially promise the lender that you will work for however long it takes you to pay back the lender.
The problem is: In most of the western world we have completely forgotten that distinction and are using debt like money. Out of obvious reasons this can’t end well.
2. (Cheap) Energy
If you pick up a history book and read through the last two thousand years something should jump out at you: Technological advancements didn’t really start until we started replacing human and animal power more and more with fossil fuel energy. Yes, we have used water power, and in some places wind, for millennia but those are geographically locked energy sources. Coal though allowed us for the first time to use the energy input were it made the most sense. It allowed us to build railways and large factories where people worked and consumed their goods, in or near cities.
With this came quick scientific advances as we slowly entered an age of prosperity, and boy did this take off in the early part of the 20th century when we finally found all these uses for oil which just literally shot out of the ground and wanted to be used.
Fast forward 100 years though and we are quickly running out of cheap energy, not to mention the environmental damage we have caused by burning all these fossil fuels.
The problem is though: Without cheap energy our way of life cannot happen. Think about: Every time you flip a light switch, turn over the ignition of your car or right now when reading this on the computer. Our entire way of life depends on cheap energy. If it wouldn’t be cheap oil (and it still is, despite what you may think) those Strawberries that you eat in rainy Vancouver, freezing Edmonton or snow covered Toronto in the middle of January would not be possible. Neither would your vacation in Cuba in February be a possibility.
Your cushy office job? Not a chance, you’re more likely to be tilling a field behind an ox or a horse or do hard manual labor in a factory.
In short: None of our gadgets would work if we wouldn’t have had cheap energy for the last 100 years. So far, we have not invested heavily into alternatives to the fossil fuels. Not in the least because the current oil companies have no interest in being priced out of the market by alternatives. So for now we’re lumbering along in, as it has been called, the long emergency.
3. Climate Change
Let’s not talk about if we are at fault or if it’s just a natural cycle. The reality is sea levels have been rising, glaciers are retreating and growing seasons are shifting. Not to mention that pests are migrating further north and are surviving winters here. Just ask BC and northern Alberta about the Pine Beetle to get an idea on what this could mean.
The problem is: We are not dealing with the fallout of this. Vast investments in infrastructure need to be made as rising sea levels are threatening coast lines and billions of people and their livelihoods. An increase in droughts and floods will continue to take a toll on food production and other resources.
What I did not mention here are two other things: Peak Soil and Peak Ocean. The first one being the rapid loss of arable land due to either desertification or just plain lack of nutrients in the soil, and no artificial fertilizer is not the answer, not on the least because many are derived from fossil fuels.
Peak Ocean is the realization that we have essentially overfished vast amounts of it, and continue to do so. Will we be able to let fish stocks recover?
CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN
This was Obama’s slogan during the 2008 election. I am not going into US politics here, but I think this slogan is a good example of the problems we’re facing.
First and foremost after two years you’ll realize that Obama has achieved little of what he promised. The “Big Change” did not materialize. Why is that?
I am sure his opponents will say that he just isn’t as good as he made people think he is, but this is a bit too easy an explanation, plus it’s blame shifting.
So instead, let’s think about this for a moment.
As it is January I am sure many of you have made new years resolutions: No more fatty foods, no more drinking, get back to the Gym etc.
We’re around two weeks into the new year now. How are you doing? Have you stuck with them? Or are you already finding excuses? Are you doing all you could do to achieve your goal are you just doing token actions to “feel better”?
Going to the Y at least three times a week I have to admit I found myself a bit surprised to note that it seems the traffic has not picked up, so maybe the new years resolution for many is not to get fit. But a few weeks ago I ended up going with a friend. She made it clear to me that she needed to do something to get fit. All fine, but the moment we were at the Gym the overarching theme was this: “I don’t want to be sore tomorrow.”
“Ah,” I thought to myself, “typical girl.” Yes yes, call me sexist, but I have been around gyms often enough to have heard that song, mostly with the: “I don’t want to be too bulky”. Those are interesting statements out of a simple reason:
a.) As a girl you’d be hard pressed to bulk up with normal training.
b.) Soreness is a given if you go from a couch potato lifestyle to an active one. It’ll pass.
Point b.) is what made me realize something. She isn’t the only one who has this attitude, I know a few guys who have a similar attitude, they do “token workouts” but nothing that really challenges them. Why? Because they don’t want to “sweat” or “hurt” etc. In other words: They want the benefits but not do the work. If this would be the Matrix, most people would take the blue pill.
But here’s the reality too: Change is painful. There will be a phase of chaos, then a phase of pain as you adjust to the new way and then it will be just like before, just different.
But this bred in inertia, this “comfort seeking” is what is holding us back on all three levels right now as well.
The bailouts the Governments all over the world have performed over the last few years, and continue to do, are not really solving the problem. They are the “token workout” that many people are doing. Just enough to look as if they are serious about it but not hard enough to really create a change or cause them discomfort.
On the energy front it is similar, in order to make the cheap energy we currently have to last longer people need to use less of it, be it by eating more local, less driving their car or turning down the heat or AC or turning off the lights when not in the room. Instead people are told to buy hybrid cars and CFLs or get a more energy efficient device. All designed to force us not to change our lifestyle.
Same goes for Climate Change, in order to prepare for it, resources need to be reallocated, people moved etc. You get the idea.
The reality is we are failing on all three points out of the same reason: We don’t like to experience any discomfort. So people who see the writing on the wall either become activists (and in the course mostly alienate most people) or tell themselves pretty lies, like most of the real estate bulls in Vancouver, that it is “different this time”.
A short story from my past: When I started doing Triathlon and aiming for Ironman I hired a trainer. One of the first things he told me was: “Pain is weakness leaving the body”. This statement, although somewhat hollow, has a certain ring of truth to it: Once you’re over the pain you are stronger, more capable and, in a way, a different person. The old adage of “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger” applies.
So where does that leave us? We have three large problems that all require us to change the way we live our lives. Many people I think realize this but do not want to make the effort. If the choice is giving between no car or a hybrid, people will chose the hybrid. Not because they really necessarily need a car but rather they don’t want to have to deal with all the chaos and change that would ensue would they not have the car.
Or finances. The debt to income ratio in Canada right now is quickly approaching 1:1.5, BC’s own Government shows in their statistics that 1/8th of the Province’s GDP is generated by people buying houses / apartments / condos to live in. Think about this, 1/8th of the entire economic output is people borrowing money.
So why are people so reluctant? For one it is really the avoidance of “pain” and “suffering”, at least in the short term. But the much bigger problem is that people do not really understand the world we’re living in. We are meant to live in small groups, anything above around 30 people and we cannot emotionally attach to what happens to the individual. As Stalin said: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a number.”
Cynical? Maybe, but also pretty close to the truth, who here truly feels bad about all the people that day on a daily basis of preventable diseases or violence?
Then there is another reason: Until recently (~60 or so years ago), life in general was rather harsh and hard. We were also quite limited in the amount of resources each individual had access to. These days though we in the west have an abundance of stuff, quite often pillaged and plundered from other parts of the world. So we are “programmed” to hold onto the things that we possess. Furthermore, disasters / problems in the past were usually limited to the small group you were in. If things didn’t work out, say you ran out of water, you could pack up and move to another place where there was water, and people regularly did.
This time around though we are facing global problems, all three of the ones mentioned above, and for most people this is something they cannot really process. By the time the problem will land on their doorstep it will be too late to react and we won’t have the option to move to a different place to escape the problem.
So what’s the take-away? I guess: Be aware, prepare and hope for the best. There are forces at work right now that are away beyond the individuals control.
It truly is different this time, but not in the way many think (hope?) it will be.
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