Thursday, December 18, 2008

A New Kind Of Hybrid

As the oil spigot sputters, we leave the era of Great Games and enter the murky epoch of grand paradoxes. It is hard not to sound a trifle glum when considering the possibility that a large part of western infrastructure, which has literally cost the earth, is going to be at best useless and at worst utterly counter-productive in the great economic and energy contraction that we are now entering.

Some will say that it is doom-mongering even to utter such thoughts, but it may in fact be the only hopeful pathway - to recognise the full depths of the nightmare, and try as quickly as possible to remake the parts that can be useful and transform those that can't while looking for new and sensibly sustainable ways of conducting human life. All of that will certainly create much pain and many a paradox, but it will also either spawn the pathways that lead to a long-lasting future for humans or we'll witness a long and not very pretty sunset.

One of the biggest problems, if not actually a paradox, may be that the economic systems that helped so mightily to create so much growth, may be ill-suited to a long contraction. To be specific, it seems increasingly likely that straight market systems will increasingly appear to be what they are - blind watchmakers, or perhaps bomb-makers. A blazing example is the way in which two auto makers, GM & Toyota, are delaying factories to make some of the most advanced road-ready hybrid electric vehicles - the Volt & the Prius. The reason is the current collapse in car sales, in part due to recent high gasoline prices. Yes, fuel prices in America have fallen astonishingly since July, but what happens when they shoot up again? Suddenly there will be immense demand for the partly electric Volt and Prius, and lo and behold there won't be the factories to make the vehicles.

I admit to mixed feelings in writing the last few lines, because cars are really part of the problem. But since I am a proponent of avoiding chaos and trying to keep life civilised and as decent as possible, what we'll need is phased change away from cars, given that few places have good enough public transport systems to deal with the sudden disappearance of the car, and there is surely nowhere outside of tropical rainforest tribes that would last long without deliveries by trucks and lorries.

There is a parallel with our wider socio-economic systems. We are still in the old paradigm, still talking of how to return to growth and get the economy back on track again. And for good reason - it's ghastly to be out of work, and in many places, downright dangerous for your health. Thus I am not surprised that I do not yet see any signs of the realisation that we'll have to develop some different systems to manage overall decline and contraction. Like the cars that may one day get us away from cars, the kinds of systems we'll need will almost certainly be a new kind of hybrid - we'll need to keep some aspects of the way markets work whilst developing systems that can help predict and plan for a world that will require new kinds of innovation as we are forced to shorten our supply chains and work out how to manage on a great deal less than many have been used to. For some this challenge is exciting, but for now, the task remains one of trying bring reality into focus.

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