Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Apeakalypse Now

In March when I returned from Thailand, the situation with the subprime mortgages unnerved me. I had heard too many stories from Thai farmers about the impact of personal debt on their lives. How they had to dig themselves out and rebuild a new life while still paying back thousands to the old one at the rate of five dollars a week. This during a currency devaluation that halved the value of everyone's bank account and an economic slow down that halted construction jobs mid-project. Stop down was more like it.

Workers went home to their family farms. What they did next made me realize that these farmers were rich, much richer than I felt living here in the US. They had land, enough rice stored to feed everyone for some time and skills to rebuild along with a renewed sense of self-reliance. They were also committed to being sustainable in a way that actually seemed possible. The lessons of the boom and bust had taught them to rethink their wants and their dreams of wealth while their immediate needs were taken care of.
The culture shock I felt upon my return was so severe I was in a stupor for a month not knowing how to direct my life. I did not feel safe sitting in a house with a mortgage. I did not feel safe in America itself. I saw a nation of people carrying massive amounts of credit card debt and few practical skills. They had less of a safety net than a Thai farmer. How would they fare in a future that seemed to offer nothing, but apocalyptic scenarios? Peak oil, peak natural gas, peak metals, peak food, peak everything. And climate change already upon us, too. This forward tilted perspective made me feel I was slowly going mad while all around me people continued as if life was normal. Catherine wanted to remodel the bathroom.

"Do you like this tile?" she asked me showing me photographs of expensive natural stone from Italy. I suppressed a snickering chortle. What's natural about it I wanted to know, having spent ten days touring houses made from earthen bricks dug from the soil underfoot. I couldn't take a first world remodel seriously. I felt anachronistic. I used to be a designer interested in how things looked together, but now I was useless.

When world grain prices shot up Catherine let me buy two 25 pound bags of rice. I stored them under the guest room bed, then started a collection of dried beans. I sold stuff—including my father's Leica camera, a family heirloom I had used in college.

This severed me from the past and funded my survival kit—a solar panel to recharge flashlight batteries and electronics, an expedition size camp stove and a field grade water filter I had seen at the Doctors Without Borders refugee camp exhibit. The stove would come in handy during our kitchen remodel next year, I justified. (The water filter, however, was seriously over the top.) And because I had always wanted one I picked up a treadle sewing machine on Craig's List and a recumbent bicycle. Oh and a slide rule.

Catherine hired an interior designer and gave me a stern talking to about how estranged I had become. I told her of my fears. Fears of "what if things don't work out the way they are supposed to." I sounded unduly paranoid, but she was sympathetic.

"Well, at least we did the best we could," she said, sitting as she was, on 17 years of equity in the house and having scored the best interest rate possible on the most recent refi. Really what was there to worry about? Oh just a complete economic collapse.

I willed myself to be supportive of a bathroom remodel. I could see how happy it would make her not to have to look at the moldy grout and the badly set tile. It was not a well designed bathroom in the first place. I gave my opinion. Yes, on grey tile and dark wood cabinets. Yes on a glass shower and a skylight. And no on recessed ceiling lights that act as chimneys robbing the house of heat.

To please me, Catherine agreed to have the house envelope sealed and the insulation in the attic doubled. The day it was done the house was so airtight and snug it made us feel different in it. There were no more drafts. The heater only had to be turned on for ten minutes in the morning to chase the chill away. I felt better. Now I wanted a wood stove. One can always find stuff to burn, I thought, picturing the scene from Dr. Zhivago when they burned chairs in the fireplace to keep warm during the Russian revolution.

Then the stock market did its heart stopping dive. When I stopped wanting to scream, I felt downright cheerful, my fears were confirmed. My how quickly the world financial system was unraveling. It gave new, capitalist, meaning to the term Domino Theory.

The Ecology of Money

Just as the tide going out reveals an awesome array of flora and fauna living in hidden tide pools, so too did the economic crisis reveal an amazing array of creatures I had no idea existed. As writers poured explanations into articles that would have been too dry to read a few months ago, I stumbled upon a body of knowledge that constituted a major Missing Link in my quest to understand how the world works.

As the tide of bailout money flowed out of the US treasury, pulled like gravity by the weighty mass of companies too big to fail, questions tugged at me. Money doesn't grow on trees we all know, but now apparently it does. Possibly more trees than can grow on the earth. Trillions and trillions. Was money now infinite? Surely there were consequences. An online comment sent me to a site that gave me answers. Surprisingly simple answers, but so unbelievable my mind repelled the information. Money doesn't grow on trees, it grows on loans. You could say it is wished into existence.

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," said my English grandmother in response to my eight-year-old wishes. I was entranced by this curious answer. I had seen plenty of beggars on the streets of my home in Bangkok, but I had only seen horses at the racetrack. Why would beggars want horses unless you had to have one in order not to be a beggar? Oh, I realized, it's a word puzzle from history! About people, like me, who don't have money for things that they want. My grandmother had as good as told me that money must be earned before wishing can begin or I would be no better than a beggar.

But as it turns out, upwardly mobile beggars wishing for horses could take out loans. In the US banking system loans are a signal for money to be printed. By a privatized arm of the system—the Federal Reserve. Thus, if certain beggars make wishes, money appears and both can ride. The beggar on his horse and the money on the interest paid back. Meanwhile the loan is paid back with money exchanged for actual things produced in the physical world (or services utilizing same).

The implications of this suddenly hit me. We are under contract to fleece the planet! The fractional reserve banking system is designed so that it must keep on giving out loans just to stay solvent, but there aren't enough resources in the world to be sold for all the money that needs to be paid back.

I once had a long-winded snail mail correspondence, back in the '80s, with John Mackay, the founder of Whole Foods. He put out a newsletter then. In one he insisted that wealth was infinite. I was prompted to challenge him. Technology, he insisted, would find ways to split our resources into ever more useful bits that could only improve our productivity and efficiency. And that is probably as good an example as any of why concepts like ecological limits had little impact on my generation.

Our money system had limits once, when it was a representation of something finite and physical—gold. People borrowed money to create things that allowed them to use resources more effectively just as John Mackay was trying to tell me, but gold had limits just as the earth had limits. Wars upset the balance, for wars required unreasonable amounts of money to make things, which were then blown up, destroying more things in the process. Wars did not make society more productive. (One could say the same for disposable convenience items, MacMansions, assorted consumer addictions and planned obsolescence.) Nixon took us off the gold standard in order to pay back the foreign loans that financed the Vietnam War. Our money supply could now inflate beyond all physical limits; too much money, and not enough things available to buy, equals inflation. Fortunately for the planet, eventually the currency will destroy itself by collapsing under its own weight.

And that's what it's scheduled to do. The chart on inflation, at the Chris Martenson site, showed the now familiar hockey stick configuration that Al Gore introduced regarding emissions that lead to global warming. Here was another impossible to sustain growth factor leading to collapse. This time in the form of hyperinflation. Insert here, picture of wheelbarrow loaded up with money to buy a loaf of bread. (You'd get more caloric value from it if you burned it in my new wood burning, low emission, fireplace insert.)

Journey's End, Journey's Beginning?

How to prepare for such a kaleidoscope of possible collapsing futures? There are too many variables. We know the why, but not the when and the how or even the where or which one first. Even the next six months seem iffy. If inflation rules the day everything will become extremely expensive so you should buy what you need now. If it's deflation, because no one has any credit to buy what's out there, then stores will lower prices as we go along and big ticket items will fall in price too in which case you should sell all your assets, including your house, and buy them back later at the lower prices. Whoa doggies. I came on this journey to understand How Things Work not to have to figure out What Will Happen Next. It's against my religion. I am not Cassandra. I just read her notes.

So was this the end of my journey? Could I do nothing more than wait to see what happens?

At the Bioneers Conference in October, I was at a lost as to which workshops to attend. Should I seek inspiration in native foods, bio-mimicry, the wisdom of indigenous tribes or the social networking tools of the Internet. I kept going to one and wishing I had gone to another. Finally at the last session of the last day, I went to the one where I heard the most laughter and which had the most comfortable seats.

Inside, the theater auditorium a man named Michael Meade was telling stories and playing a drum—no PowerPoint presentation, no hockey stick charts, no data, nothing. Just this comfortingly wise, happy voice telling a story about the ancient cave of knowledge where the Old Woman of the World was weaving a most beautiful garment only to have it pulled apart by a black dog just as she was putting on the final touches. She then surveyed the destruction, picked up the threads and began intently to weave it whole again with a different, more fitting design.

Ah, I thought relieved, so the world is supposed to fall apart. This end of the world feeling was an archetypal story! I wasn't crazy after all. But maybe going a little mad was an appropriate response.

Michael continued. When the end seems near it's because the mythic sense and creative imagination are missing and we have lost track of life's meaning. To have real vision, he said, you have to have a period of despair.

"We must suffer in a way that generates meaning," he said, "Myths make meaning. The world can't end unless it runs out of stories."

Really? So stories do have a purpose. I grabbed onto this lifeline. The world would certainly not end on account of my not telling stories. Perhaps what I feared was that the story I was following was too big to fit into the humble parameters I had set for myself. (Of course, trying to explain How The World Works was not exactly a small-minded task, but I was only doing it for myself before.) My stories are already long enough as it is. But better metaphors make them digestible. And what were myths, but more efficient metaphors.

We need stories, Michael was telling us. And inside the story of the world is the story of the individual. We need mythic stories to connect our imagination to the eternal. A mythic imagination can hold the ends and beginnings together. This connection will show the path to renewal.

It sounded like a New Deal for artists. What did we have to loose? We sure needed something that would pull us together. Leaving the theater I walked through the campus to find Catherine. She was already at our meeting place smiling and eager to tell where she'd been.

"I just heard the most amazing talk. I hadn't even planned on going to it... He was this poet telling stories with a drum…"

Michael Meade is the author of The World Behind the World: Living at the Ends of Time. Also CD of his workshop The Great Dance: Finding One's Way In Troubled Times.

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At 2:17 PM, Blogger Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Independent studies conclude that global crude oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. And since the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The independent scientists of the Energy Watch Group conclude in a 2007 report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."

With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated building systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed:

I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.


The McCain drilling strategy is a win for the Republicans, maybe just in time for the November elections.

More drilling will the lower the rate at which the U.S. is increasingly dependent on imported oil at some time in the distant future.

Drilling for oil in ecologically sensitive areas is a partisan political issue.

The impacts of Peak Oil, however, will soon shift the focus of debate toward how to survive high oil prices, maybe as soon as an attack on Iran.

Increasingly, average Americans will not be able to afford both fuel oil for heating and gasoline for commuting to work (starting in to be felt more in November). When unemployment increases in the ever worsening global recession, a larger and larger percentage of people will not be able to pay for fuel oil to heat their homes. These realities will shock the nation with big increases in home heating bills this winter (starting in November). Oil prices will be higher for the winter of 2009.

In such an environment, the Democrats are making a mistake with their “no drilling” position on this issue. As Peak Oil becomes more widely known as the cause of economic malaise, public attitudes will shift away from environmental concerns and toward more drilling.

According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons and other independent forecasters, global crude oil production will now decline, from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%.

This is equivalent to a 33% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue steadily until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from “outside,” and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed:

I used to live in NH, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil?
clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.

At 7:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amanda -

What a powerful story you tell! :-)

I was in that room with Michael Meade, too, at Bioneers. It was electric! And so nourishing. His storytelling really put things in a new perspective.


At 9:10 PM, Blogger wonderingmind42 said...

Amanda--someone forwarded your piece to me. I was glad to find someone else struggling with the same feelings I am. When you're running around screaming that the ship is sinking but no one wants to disrupt the dinner party, it's hard to tell which is true: that you've seen the looming threat and they're too self-absorbed to let themselves see it? or that they've got a level-headed assessment of the situation, and you've just gotten too overexcited? Because both look the same.

"The Crash Course" did it for you. What did it for me was the 47 minute animation "Money as Debt." The pieces finally fell together, and I realized there's a third horseman on the same timeline: Climate Change, Peak Oil, and now collapse of the fractional reserve banking system. Hard to care about tile, isn't it?

Greg Craven (creator of "How It All Ends" video series)

At 9:53 AM, Blogger AK said...

Judith, how cool that you were there too, listening to Michael Meade. I'm reading his book and finding so much that resonates. He's teaching me how to direct my writing. And I am much encouraged that you found my story powerful.

Greg, both Catherine and I watched your "how it ends" video when it was first being passed around the internet and we marveled at your ability to explain things. As for the creature comforts of modern life, after I wrote this piece, I found that I was able to care about tile on a different level because even when facing the end of the world there is still room for beauty and hope while seeking renewal. We just have to remember not to be too attached because all is transient.

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Amanda, for your insightful and heartful writing! Your journey is one that resonates (despite my Yankee WASP upbringing). Keep writing . . .

At 12:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your blog and I really loved this post. I was just talking to a friend the other day about the lack of positive myth in our modernized world thanks for bringing a inspiring myth into my life just when I need it.
~permie boi

I write at


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