Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Life is becoming far too complex. So much so, the complexity we create
brings about problems that we cannot solve. Things are out of control.

Take for example the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's pretty
impressive to get a live video feed from the ocean floor, 5000 feet
below the surface. It gives me pause to wonder. How did they manage to
drill a well at such depths? How did they even know where to drill? I
guess some smart people can pull off some amazing feats.

Yet, the more fundamental question to ask is why are we even drilling
into the seabed to find and extract oil. This is where things become

In short, we have created a massive global economy that is predicated on
the availability of cheap oil. With regard to supply, the low hanging
fruit has been plucked off the tree, in this case conventional oil that
is easy to find and easy to extract - remember good old Jed Clampett
from the Beverly Hillbillies, "one day when he was shootin for some
food, and up through the ground came some bubblin crude, oil that is,
black gold, Texas tea.

Today, however, to keep up with the increasing global demand, we have to
go further and deeper, to the very limits of our technological capacity
in order to bring new oil reserves to market, and if something goes
wrong, we'll simply fix it.

Well, so we thought until we realized that plugging a hole in the seabed
quickly, where the pressure is about a ton per square inch, is extremely
difficult. In fact, as it turns out, it is beyond our technological

It would appear that if we connect the dots, the picture that emerges
tells us that we need to kick our addiction to fossil fuels and power
down the economy towards a more human scale using more renewable energy
sources in the process.

Unfortunately for the planet, a small financial elite, less than
one tenth of one percent, has gained its fortune by ramping up production
of consumer goods to unsustainable levels while drawing down on our
non-renewable resources. This same elite is as addicted to material wealth
as is the rest of the population is to cheap oil and they are the ones
that hold the reins of power.

Faced with the choice between more modest returns on their investments
and greater financial gain as a result of engaging in higher risk
behavior, they opt for the latter and impose the cost of their repeated
failures on the rest of the society.

The collapse of the financial sector is another case in point. No
longer content with reaping financial reward the old fashioned way,
dividends payed out on retained earnings, financiers were able to
convince our political leaders that the best way to economic growth was
along the path of greater securitization, which means a greater capacity
to peddle speculative financial products and to earn higher fees on each
transaction. As a result, trillions of dollars of financial derivatives
were being traded until the house of cards came tumbling down when it
became apparent that much of the debt obligations that had been sold
were worthless. According to the risk management schemes that were
employed to sell the securities, a sudden market crash was extremely
unlikely, once in a billion years, and hundreds of thousands of
individual and institutional investors let themselves be bilked as they
went along buying and selling debt obligations that were too complex to
understand, being guided by dubious investment strategies that were too
good to be true.

That the global economy was plunged into a world-wide recession was an
unfortunate affair, especially for those without fortunes.

Upon reflection, I think that we need to own up to the fact that we have
put into process a chain of events that we are unable to control, the
results of which could lead us a species to a massive die off if we
don't come to terms with climate change.

Rather than pretending that we can deal with ever increasing levels of
complexity, we need to slow down and to simplify things and, like Mickey
in Walt Disney's Fantasia, give up the fantasy that we can control what we really don't understand.

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