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Time and time again…

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Among humanity’s greatest failings is our inability to process time.  No doubt in our evolutionary past, the need to focus on the here and now – both to avoid danger and to secure the means of staying alive – will have left little time to think about the future.  The transition from hunting and gathering to agrarian settlement, of course, required the development of the calendar – which is why, for example, neolithic Britain was dotted with stone circles – but even then, the aim was to remove the need to think about the future.  Instead, generation after generation learned that when the sun comes up over this stone, it is time to plant seeds.  And when the sun comes up over that stone, it is time to bring in the harvest.  And later, these neolithic time markers were incorporated into the Church calendar in the form of “holy days.”

In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel devised an experiment to test children’s ability to defer gratification.  This “marshmallow test” confirmed that, in fact, very few of us are able to make rational decisions about even the short-term future.  Only ten percent of children managed to “pass” the test and earn the promised reward.  And this has more than humorous consequences.  The ten percent of children who could process time rationally, went on to get higher educational grades, better jobs and more stable relationships.  As I explained in my 2015 book, The Consciousness of Sheep:

“The overwhelming majority of us are completely disconnected from our future selves.  We understand at a cognitive level that we will become a different person in the future to the person that we are today.  But we struggle to understand that these people that we are to become are really ourselves.  If they become unwell, we are going to have to experience their pain.  If they are poor, we are going to have to experience their poverty.  If they are obese, we are going to have to struggle for breath as we lug their excess weight around. 

“Nor is it only our negative future life events and situations that we cannot connect with.  Another famous experiment, in which adults are asked to choose between a small box of chocolates today and a large box next week, has exactly the same outcome as the marshmallow test.  Ninety percent of us take the immediate gratification of the small box today rather than the deferred gratification of a large box later on.  We simply cannot connect with the fact that it is the same me who will get to enjoy a large box of chocolate next week if only I can resist the temptation of a small box immediately. 

“This experiment has important consequences for all of humanity.  It highlights a key reason why so many people stay stuck in unpleasant situations simply because they will not put effort into making change.  Again, we all ‘understand’ this at a cognitive level.  For example, we know that someone who is in a poorly paid and/or stressful job would be better off taking up a night school or distance learning course than, say, going to the pub in an attempt to unwind.  Nevertheless, adult education is struggling to recruit students while pubs are full of people complaining about their jobs!

“To most of us, our future selves are complete strangers.  Indeed, we are often more caring about our present friends and relatives than we are about our future selves.  And if our future selves are strangers, is it any surprise that we offer them no greater support than we would to a stranger today?  It is not that we wish them harm.  But – let’s be honest – how many of us would give up a small box of chocolate today so that someone else can have a large box next week? 

“Of course, many of the issues facing us are so much greater than who gets chocolates.  An adult will not educate themselves so that a stranger can get a better job.  A drunk will not turn down a drink so that a stranger will be spared a hangover.   A smoker will not turn down a cigarette so that someone else does not get cancer.  And none of us will leave our cars at home or turn down holidays abroad so that strangers do not have to cope with economic collapse and climate change.”

This is why we should avoid making radical changes to our way of life – such as locking down national economies in the face of a not particularly dangerous pandemic – without having sought to understand and mitigate the likely consequences.  Even economists and central bankers understand that economic policy is often like pulling on a brick with an elastic band – minor changes seem to make no difference but then all of a sudden, the brick comes flying up to hit you in the face.  This is why, for example, central bankers tend to raise interest rates gradually in case they trigger a massive debt default crisis.  Nevertheless, a financial economy which, today, is largely divorced from reality, responds rapidly in comparison to the real economy of energy and materials which economists hubristically refer to as “externalities.”  Acting in ways that impact the real economy is more like attempting to steer a supertanker – the ship may travel tens of miles before the change of course takes effect.  And in the event of over-steering at the beginning, the ship may well end up grounded on the rocks (which is why, incidentally, modern oil tankers have double hulls).

It was not until the summer of 2021 that the economic effects of the lockdown in March 2020 began to be felt.  First in the form of the fake fuel shortage, but later in the very real surge in oil and natural gas prices.  We might look back fondly at an oil price of $80 per barrel.  But this time last year, there was concern that a rise above $80 would be enough trigger a global recession.  In truth, recessionary indicators could be seen all over the place if anyone cared to look.  Town and city centres were devastated by lockdowns.  The entire travel and tourism industry is little more than a corpse waiting for a priest to arrive to administer the last rights.  Hospitality businesses have closed in droves.  Even Cardiff’s iconic Brains brewery had to be quietly sold off to the English – something akin to sacrilege in these parts – during the pandemic.  All around the world, supply chains have been collapsing as shipping and transport costs rise far above anything the economy can afford in the long-term.

In the UK, as the winter of 2021-22 approached, people faced the biggest cost-of-living crisis since records began.  What began as a series of eye-watering fuel and energy price increases, morphed into a generalised inflation as everything which depended upon energy and fuel in its manufacture and delivery became more expensive.  The situation was not helped by central and local government tax hikes, nor by the central bank’s decision to raise interest rates.

Similar economic disruption was experienced across the western economies, as households and businesses attempted to come to terms with the new – and far more austere – post-pandemic landscape.  Which is why it was foolish in the extreme to turn Ukraine into the world’s latest Christ nation[1] in order to destabilise Russia in the hope of overthrowing its leadership.  For while we cannot but have empathy for the latest civilian population to find themselves on the wrong end of a hail of missiles, bombs, artillery shells and small arms fire, we should not allow this alone to obscure the power-politics behind the conflict:

“Only the autocrats and politicians who dream of empire and global hegemony, of the god-like power that comes with wielding armies, warplanes, and fleets, along with the merchants of death, whose business floods countries with weapons, profit from war. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe has earned Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Analytic Services, Huntington Ingalls, Humana, BAE Systems, and L3Harris billions in profits. The stoking of conflict in Ukraine will earn them billions more.”

As always, it is ordinary people who will suffer, as even our life support systems are undermined by technocratic and autocratic elites oblivious to their own unknown unknowns.  Just as they – and we – are time-blind, so too are they energy-blind.  Moreover, this is a far greater weakness for those of us who have enjoyed the fruits of western imperialism since, with the exception of a couple of blips in the 1970s, we have forgotten what it is like to have energy shortages.  This is why so many of us – from the technocrats who rule over us, the politicians they pay for, and the fake-left activists who parrot the approved slogans – have fallen for the myth of a green energy revolution, despite our economies being wholly dependent upon the fossil fuels we claim to eschew.

Western imperialism also suffers a tendency to racially stereotype its opponents.  Just as in 1941, the west made the mistake of dismissing Japanese air power on the grounds that Japanese people were too short sighted to fly aeroplanes properly, so our current elites have made the mistake of believing that Russia is no more than a “gas station with nukes.”  There may have been some truth to this in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the average male life expectancy fell below 50 (and remains a good decade shorter than western men even now) but in the years of recovery since, Russia has developed its position as one of the world’s essential commodity and energy suppliers.

As immoral as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is, realpolitik leaves the west with no rational response.  Any direct combat between NATO and Russia will result in nuclear war simply because neither the Russian military, nor the Soviets before them, bought into the western myth of military escalation – since the western military is so much larger, Russia may launch an all-out nuclear strike immediately after first contact.  We cannot know this for sure, of course.  But then, that’s the beauty of “mutually assured destruction” … you’d have to be MAD to risk it.

That leaves us with the unsatisfactory prospect of prolonged economic warfare.  As Lee Jones, Professor of Political Economy and International Relations, writing for UnHerd explains:

“The fundamental problem is that sanctions are based on a dubious understanding of human behaviour. They are a quintessentially liberal instrument, resting on the assumption that every man has his price: if I impose economic costs on you, you will revise the cost-benefit analysis of your course of action, and change your behaviour accordingly.

“In the real world, however, many regimes and their supporters are willing to endure colossal economic costs to pursue their political and security goals. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party regime preferred to see Iraq’s economy and society destroyed rather than relinquish power. Fidel Castro’s regime withstood a punishing US embargo for decades. Iran has suffered serious economic harm under Western sanctions without relinquishing its nuclear programme…

“Classically, comprehensive embargoes seemed to be guided by a ‘naïve theory’ of sanctions, whereby economic suffering is expected to compel the population to rise up against their wicked leaders. But this rarely, if ever, happens. If anything, economic immiseration tends to fragment and weaken the population, who become absorbed by the struggle to subsist and more reliant on government help — as seen in Iraq.”

A Russian population which in the 1990s saw pro-western oligarchs appropriate their national wealth, even as US neo-cons attempted to balkanise their country, is even less likely to respond to western sanctions by blaming their own government.  And so it was essential that the largely ill-prepared barrage of sanctions imposed on Russia served to crash the Russian economy in short order.  The Putin government had, however, spent the best part of the last decade preparing to be sanctioned.  And while the decision to sanction the Russian central bank – a breech of international law – appears to have been unexpected in Moscow, the worst effects of the sanctions were avoided.

Most worryingly, the western elites were demonstrably unaware of their own weaknesses when they rushed to impose sanctions.  So that while the western media plays up non-deals with Qatar and Biden’s – probably unachievable – offer to supply the equivalent of five percent of Europe’s gas needs, in reality the European states – including Britain – have exposed themselves to a prolonged energy crisis for which there is no immediate or even medium-term solution.

Yes, we can build more wind turbines – which currently depend upon Russian steel, nickel and copper in their manufacture – but this does nothing to replace the natural gas which provides essential back-up for days and weeks when the wind doesn’t blow.  As data from the National Grid shows, despite Britain being a global leader in wind-powered electricity, in not one month in the last year has wind come close to overtaking gas as the primary source of our electricity.  In the best month for wind – February 2021 – wind accounted for 26 percent of our electricity while gas accounted for 36 percent.  In the worst month for wind – April 2021 – wind accounted for just 15 percent while gas provided 45 percent.  In any case, those wind turbines are not going to build themselves.  And the kind of expansion of capacity needed is not going to happen overnight.

The same goes for the nuclear power plants which the UK government has raised from the dead.  Even if – you know, because there’s a war on – we dispensed with all of the planning inquiries and safety certification, it still takes the best part of a decade to construct a new nuclear power station.  The same goes for coal.  Only two of the UK’s coal power stations are still in operation – fuelled, ironically, by coal from Kazakhstan which can no longer be transported here.  Nor is there much hope of bringing new coal mines or opening abandoned ones in anything like the time required.

Fracking the Bowland shale formation might be a little quicker – one of the very few advantages of fracking in the USA was the speed at which a deposit can be drilled and tapped.  But on the scale to make up for the loss of Russian gas, the UK lacks the workforce, equipment and materials for the task.  Even if they didn’t, when it comes to energy, cost is as important as quantity.  And in the end it was the high cost of fracking which destroyed the embryonic UK fracking industry four years ago.  The same problem applies to recent interest in opening oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic west of Shetland.  At an economically affordable price, those fields are inaccessible.  A rise in the price of oil above $200 per barrel may make them appear viable.  But at that price, few people will be in a position to afford any fuel and gas which is produced.

Energy problems – including economy-crushing diesel shortages – though, are merely the most obvious short-term consequence of western sanctions.  People are going to die of starvation later this year as a consequence of both the sanctions – Russia is the world’s leading exporter of wheat – and of the ongoing military conflict – Ukraine is the third largest exporter of wheat.  And even those countries which escape famine can expect eye-watering food prices on top of an already growing cost of living crisis.  Joe Biden has said as much:

“President Joe Biden said that the world will experience food shortages as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and production increases were a subject of discussions at a Group of Seven meeting on Thursday.

“’It’s going to be real,’ Biden said at a news conference in Brussels. ‘The price of the sanctions is not just imposed upon Russia. It’s imposed upon an awful lot of countries as well, including European countries and our country as well.’

“Ukraine and Russia are both major producers of wheat, in particular, and Kyiv’s government has already warned that the country’s planting and harvest have been severely disrupted by the war.”

The less obvious food crisis though, stems from the fact that Russia is the world’s largest exporter of nitrate and potash fertiliser.  Industrial agriculture – without which currently, six in every seven humans would die – has so drained soils of nutrients that crop yields can only be sustained by pumping these artificial – natural gas based – chemicals onto the land during the planting and growing season.  But because of last year’s gas price spikes, fertiliser was already too expensive for many farmers to afford.  And so, just at the point when all of that Russian grain is diverted elsewhere, crop yields around the world will be far lower than required.  Moreover, if sanctions continue, widespread food shortages could continue for years to come.

Even these medium-term problems pale into insignificance compared to the potential long-term fallout from the western sanctions.  Watch, listen to or read mainstream western media and you might be forgiven for thinking that a world, outraged by Russia’s actions, has come together to impose sanctions.  But as Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas has helpfully shown, it is the western technocracy which is in the minority:

The wider world may not be Putin-loving war mongers, but neither are they so stupid as to destroy their economies over a conflict which, beyond the technocracy, tends to be viewed as having been provoked by NATO and the EU.  And while a raft of non-aligned states refusing to sanction Russia might not be the end of the world, ever closer trading relationships within a new Sino-Russian trading system really is… for the technocracy at least.

The problem is that when the non-aligned states saw the Russian central bank sanctioned and watched as the western population and its political parties cheered as authorities impounded the wealth of private individuals, the conclusion they drew was that financial centres like London and New York are no longer places that can be trusted.  All it would take is for a future US administration to take offense to something they were doing – usually wanting to tax western corporations, force them not to despoil the environment or to provide decent pay and conditions – for them to end up in a similar position to Russia.  This fear has already caused states including Argentina, Brazil, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the UAE to enter into negotiations to trade with Russia and China using a non-dollar exchange system.

It is this threat of de-dollarisation which could plunge western populations into levels of poverty not seen since the 1890s.  And the reality of our predicament came several steps closer last week, when Russia announced that in future European states will have to pay for oil and gas in Roubles.  In effect, Russia is calling European leaders’ bluff, since they had notably excluded oil and gas from the package of sanctions precisely because they are irreplaceable.  By insisting on payment in Roubles, Russia is challenging European leaders to choose between keeping the lights on and the industry running and maintaining a western currency system which allows millions of Europeans and North Americans to live well beyond their means – trading money spirited out of thin air for the real goods, commodities and energy of the wider world.  As Philip Pilkington at UnHerd explains:

“The effects of this in both the short-term and the long-term are likely to be profound. In the short-term, Europeans will have to enter currency markets and exchange euros for roubles any time they need to pay the electricity bill. This will mean that nearly €100bn a year will have to be converted into roubles.

“In the medium term this will greatly bolster the rouble’s purchasing power relative to the euro, increasing European energy bills and boosting Russian exports to the region. The second effect will come when the Russians then turn around and dump these euros back into the market — to buy up renminbi, gold, commodities and so on. The Russians will do this because our sanctions have convinced them that euros are not worth holding. This will put further downward pressure on the value of the euro and cause it to decline against all these other assets.

“The longer-term effects are even more important. Russia denominating its energy exports in its own currency or in an alternative to the dollar will signal to the rest of the world that, should they want to, they can do the same. Many will follow along…

“We are watching, before our eyes, the unwinding of the post-1945 US dollar-based global monetary system. It looks to me like the Russians and the Chinese have been planning this for some time. Our leaders, on the other hand, seem to have been completely caught off guard.”

It is hard to see how any of this benefits the people of Ukraine, which at best faces a massive reconstruction problem and at worst may become a failed and divided state, flooded with NATO surplus weapons.  And whichever way it turns out, the European states will be snapping up all of the most qualified Ukrainian refugees – doctors, engineers, academics, etc – while the UK uses cheap Ukrainian labour to replace the exploited eastern European workers who left Britain for good following Brexit and the pandemic lockdowns.  Suffice to say that Ukraine is going to lack the skills and the labour force needed to recover.

Indeed, and ironically, the only winners in this economic conflict are the very states the western technocracy claims to fear the most – China and Russia.  In a future – most likely gold-backed Renminbi – currency system used by the seventy percent of the world which still has access to Planet Earth’s remaining energy and mineral resources, some modest rise in living standards is likely still possible.  But across western states which have largely burned through their own resources, and which depend upon imports to maintain their way of life, only economic chaos and misery await.

The desire to destabilise, balkanise and cannibalise Russia has been a force among a faction within the western elite since at least the end of World War Two.  The excuse of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was like that first marshmallow in the marshmallow test – it was just too tempting to take a potential short-term risk at the expense of long-term gains.  And the marshmallow they bit into turned out to be bitter.  And for the ordinary people of Europe, the bridges have been burned.  In the western economies, the cheap Russian energy, food and commodities are going away for good.  So too are the cheap Chinese and Indian goods and components that have kept the western economies going through the post-2008 period of near stagnation. 

That’s the trouble with time… we get to repent at our leisure.

[1] Fated to be crucified between two thieves.

As you made it to the end…

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