Thanksgiving is coming, and Christmas and Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and New Year’s, and we should make the best of them. These are the good old days, and we should celebrate them well, because we are probably not going to see their like again. Gas is cheaper than it was, and we should go to see the relatives this year, because next year will be different. Food is a little more expensive than it was, yet we should eat hearty nevertheless, because next year will be different. We still have plenty of water (if we don’t live in California, or Brazil, or North Africa, or any of a multitude of other places being seared by implacable drought) but, because of changing climate and advancing pollution, next year could be different. The lights are still on, but the aging grid is creaking and groaning with the effort of meeting our burgeoning demand, and next year could well be different. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.
Predictions are dicey things, and are more often than not fatal to the credibility of the predictor. Premature declarations of the end of this, or the beginning of that, are legion — and legendary. From the Age of Aquarius to the light at the end of the tunnel, from the Rapture to Armageddon, history is lettered with the remains of discredited prophets. Why would anybody willingly step into their ranks?
First because many prophets are not really discredited. The fact that the big San Andreas earthquakes predicted to decimate Los Angeles and San Francisco have not yet happened, does not mean that the forecasters were wrong or that the quakes are now less likely to occur. To the contrary, they become more likely with each passing day of accumulating strain on the fault, and the prophets will be redeemed in the most unfortunate way. Similarly, those who have predicted that increasing population will exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, or that oil demand would exceed supply, are not wrong because they thought it would have happened by now. It is not the date on which a thing does or does not happen that matters; it is the thing itself, and its causes.
Secondly, there is a moral imperative. As I postulated in Brace for Impact, if you see a child playing on a railroad track in the path of an approaching train, you have no choice but to make a choice — between trying to save him and ignoring him. Basic human morality reduces that choice to one acceptable course of action. Unseeing him is not an option. Nor can you avoid the fact that your choice will affect the rest of your life. (Now, our world is full of people who, when they hear you shout, “That child is in danger!” will say in response “Why must you be so negative? Try to be more cheerful about things.” Ignore them. Though it be obscured by clouds of ignorance, the moral imperative is still there, hard as granite.)
So, because I must, here is a short list of the things that are bearing down on us like runaway trains.
- Financial collapse. There are so many bubbles reaching maturity in the near term — the subprime auto-loan bubble, the overvalued stock bubble, the China real-estate bubble, the fracking bubble, to name the biggest — that it is likely that this time, more than one of them will burst at once, with far worse effects that when the housing bubble went up all by itself, or the dot-com bubble, alone.
- Oil Depletion. The biggest con, and the one with the worst side effects, is the proposition that America is at the beginning of an oil renaissance, when it is in fact at the end of the oil age. When the giddy optimism among investors and the general public is blown up, by events likely to occur next year, this will be the unkindest cut of all, and will likely start, or contribute to, a cascade of crashes. When it happens, everything made from oil will return to its former high prices and keep on going up.
- The Water Problem. 2015 is probably going to see the first climate refugees in significant numbers leaving California’s Central Valley, and possibly parts of Arizona, Texas and Nevada, as well as Sao Paulo, Brazil and parts of China and India. For America, the loss of confidence in technology and a beneficent God implied by the loss of California agriculture to drought will be crushing.
- The Rotting Infrastructure. Every physical system in America, from highways and bridges to the electric grid to water and sewer systems to dams, ports and airports — even the credit-card system — has seriously exceeded its design life and its design capacity with no provision having been made for its replacement. Like the big earthquake, it is impossible to predict when any one of them will fail, yet impossible to believe that they will not.
What this prophet sees for next year is not yet The End of the World as We Know It, as in the ultimate crash of the industrial age, but another nasty shock as our economic tectonic plates sink jarringly to a lower level from which they will not rise again, as happened in 2007. That may make the final fall, whenever it comes, shorter, but no more pleasant.
So raise a glass, and hold a feast, in honor of 2014. May we always think fondly of the last good year.