“[Politics is] but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
By the time you read this, the election will be over, and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Granted, we still have to endure the hindsight, the analysis and the spin. The winners will celebrate; the losers will recriminate. Football and the holidays will bring a welcome, if temporary, remission.
When it’s needed, a new drama, a scandal or a disaster will be presented for our consumption, and then comes the next election cycle and the long crescendo of sound and fury until 2020, when it all starts over again.
If you’ve studied marketing or been involved in sales, you understand that marketing is a form of conditioning. Technology has enabled non-stop saturation by marketing, and we are well-trained to respond in predictable ways. (Keep in mind that marketing, politics and propaganda are all first cousins.)
Media companies have always known that pouring gasoline on fires is profitable, and social media, well, that, my friends, is a magnifying glass on an ant hill on a sunny day. We are inspired, frightened, angered, but always confounded and often burned. We’ve been feeling the heat for a long time now.
Think about this while the memory of the most recent campaigns is still fresh in your mind. Try to hang on to this memory through the coming distractions. Remember all the promises from our politicians telling us we aren’t going to take it anymore, that it’s different this time, and they are going to create new solutions to our problems while they repeat the speeches we’ve heard all our lives. Yet we take their words, and words about their words, so personally.
Unless they are self-deluded (as some clearly seem to be), politicians know very well that we will forget their promises as soon as the next drama is presented for our consumption. We could stand on the deck of a ship, blowing on the sails, and have as much chance of altering its course as the speeches by our professional windbags have of affecting our future.
This is truth, but in the aftermath of a bitter and disgusting election cycle, it will be the losing team that first comes to recognize it. Let the winners celebrate while they can. Their elation will be short-lived. Ilana Mercer wrote, “The glue that allowed so lofty a debate throughout early America is gone (not to mention the necessary gray matter). The Tower of Babel that is 21st century America is home not to 6 million but 327 million alienated, antagonistic individuals, diverse to the point of distrust. Each year, elites pile atop this mass of seething antagonists another million newcomers.”
The United States today is less a nation than it is an economy. We are no longer united by common ideals and purposes. It is our patterns of consumption that bind us, that direct the action on the stage. It’s time we learn to understand what builds and maintains that stage.
History is moved by forces that are much less dramatic than our headlines, though quite extraordinary in their effects. It is energy, more than any other single factor, that decides economies. It is economies that decide history. This interaction draws the boundaries within which we strut and fret our hours on the stage. No matter how enlightened the ideal or passionate its devotees, there is no political philosophy, no social movement, that can bring peace and prosperity unless there is energy to fuel it and money to pay for it.
If we look at the history of world energy consumption and pay particular attention to the transitions from wood to coal to oil to natural gas, we begin to see the shape and the dimensions of our theater. Periods of peace and stability tend to occur when, and arguably only when, the energy supply is plentiful and affordable. When the energy supply is tight, the economy behaves in unexpected ways – unexpected because we insist on trying to understand history in social and political terms. The world supply of energy has been tight for some time, but a growing debt bubble has delayed the consequences.
People who follow markets often say that a rising tide lifts all boats. When the tide goes out, everything sinks. Some things sink faster than others. Debt can temporarily keep peace and prosperity afloat (think of the remarkable story of American energy, which has been almost entirely fueled by debt). Debt is the star of the show on the world stage now, and the curtain is just about to go up.
Debt patches but does not repair, delays but does not resolve. It creates wealth disparity, and the greater the debt, the wider the distance between the haves and have-nots. Debt bubbles always burst, eventually, and when they do, there is always pain. Economic depression and war are common symptoms of debt bubbles collapsing – debt bubbles caused by tight energy supplies and transitions.
If you’re pleased by the results of the election, enjoy your moment, but it’s probably not a good idea to celebrate by borrowing money to make a major purchase. If you’re grieved by the election, you won’t have to endure the celebration of the other team for long.
I realize there is little comfort in the cold equations governing the forces that make history. But there may be some practical value in breaking the spell that has mesmerized and transformed almost half the nation into political devotees, stirred the pot of hatred and mistrust and weakened our civil society. No political party, and particularly the democrats and republicans, have any long term solutions to the problems that affect us the most.
If you are reluctant to believe that energy is the main driving force behind history, or if you seek more information, a good place to start is an article by Gail Tverberg, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.”
Remember, it’s all about energy, and the human energy we’ve wasted on politics and media can be better applied to a stage where we can be more effective. After the votes are all counted, it’s past time to get our personal houses in order. We would be well advised to reduce debt. Learn to live within our means. Disconnect from the echo chambers of politics and media. Concentrate on our families and our local communities. Do not neglect the faith and the spiritual growth that gives meaning to our lives and fills the void that we seek to fill with consumption and distraction. Doing this will not alter the course of world history or prevent energy transitions and collapsing debt bubbles, but it will make our personal journeys safer and more comfortable.