Riddles in the Dark: The age of cheap energy stumbles to its end
By John Michael Greer
(The Intelligence Daily) — Any number of metaphors might be used for the predicament today’s industrial societies face as the age of cheap energy stumbles to its end, but the one that keeps coming to mind is drawn from a scene in one of the favorite books of my childhood, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It’s the point in the story when Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist, gets lost in goblin-tunnels under the Misty Mountains and there encounters a gaunt, slippery, cannibalistic creature named Gollum.
That meeting was not exactly full of bonhomie. Gollum regarded Bilbo in much the way a hungry undergraduate regards the arrival of takeout pizza, but Bilbo was armed and alert. To put his intended meal off his guard, Gollum challenged Bilbo to a riddle contest. So there they sat, deep underground, challenging each other with the hardest riddles they could think of.
I sometimes think the rock around Gollum’s lair must have been a Jurassic sandstone full of crude oil; if Gollum were around nowadays, his “Preciousss” would be made of black gold. Certainly, though, the world’s industrial societies right now are in much the same predicament as Bilbo, fumbling in the dark for answers to riddles that take on an increasingly threatening tone with each moment that passes.
I’d like to talk about three of those riddles now. None of them are insoluble, but they point to a profoundly unwelcome reality that will play a major role in shaping the economics of the age dawning around us right now – and unlike characters in a children’s novel, we can’t count on being bailed out of our predicament, as Bilbo was, by the unexpected discovery of a magic ring. Here they are:
First: It is the oldest machine in the world; it has raised the world’s greatest monuments and destroyed most of them, saved lives by the millions and killed them in like number; and when it is not in use, no one can see it. What is it?
Second: There is a thoroughly proven, economically viable way to use solar energy that requires no energy subsidy from fossil fuels at all, and every mainstream economist thinks that getting rid of it wherever possible is the key to prosperity. What is it?
Third: Two workers in different countries work in identical factories, using identical tools to make identical products. One of them makes twenty dollars an hour plus a benefit package; the other makes two dollars a day with no benefits at all. Why is that?
The last one is the easiest, though you’ll have a hard time finding a single figure in American public life who will admit to the answer………………
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