The Era of Cheap Living is Over

Thanksgiving food prices will be higher this year due to supply chain issues, limited trucking, limited labor, and higher costs to food producers.  Thanksgiving could be seen as a symbol of the American life style, our tendency to over-consume an abundance of cheap goods.  We’ve lived this way for decades, but if we are going to address climate change it’s time for us to recognize that the era of plentiful, cheap goods is over.   We will pay more for everything.

The only reason that food in America is cheap is because of industrial agriculture, namely animals grown in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). We mass produce animals in highly cramped conditions, stuffing them with all the corn and soybeans they can eat, and often keeping them alive with low doses of antibiotics added to their drinking water.  The entire industrial meat producing industry is vertically integrated and controlled by a few large corporations.

Vertical integration means the owners control  everything from the feed market, to the farm contract, to the slaughter facility, to the packaging factory, and in some cases even the trucking companies and warehouses.  Since they control the entire supply chain, they can make a small profit on each unit as food moves along the supply chain.  A small profit on each unit translates into hundreds of billions of dollars when they move hundreds of billions of units along the supply chain.  Small farmers can’t compete with this system.  Most can’t even find local butcher shops anymore.  And the reason for labor shortages is because the employer only offers low wages to desperate people willing to work in dangerous and stressful conditions with few benefits.  Many of these jobs are held by immigrants.

As Americans wake up to the reality of climate change, there will be less fossil energy available and this will mean higher costs for manufacturing and transporting products using fossil energy.  We are beginning to see the end of industrial agriculture and mass produced food.  This year natural gas prices are driving up cost for fertilizer. China is shipping less glyphosate to America.  Farm equipment and parts to repair them are in short supply.  These are some of the reasons why food costs more or is less available.  This is why even schools are having difficulty getting enough food for school lunch programs.  These will not be short term issues for America nor will we ever go back to “life as usual”.   Believing so is wishful thinking.  We can blame the current Administration.  We can demand our government do something to fix these problems, but if we were honest we would realize that cheap, mass produced food would no longer be feasible without cheap and plentiful fossil energy.

Locally produced farm meat will cost us more but when raised humanely on pasture it will also be much healthier for us to eat. Buying locally produced food also supports local farm families.  And if meat is more expensive people will be forced to eat less of it, another thing that will benefit our health.  So rather than complaining that our Thanksgiving meal is going to be more expensive, be thankful we have food when many others don’t, which brings me to the real issue at hand…climate change.

Most people don’t pay attention to weather unless it is severe.  We often live in a bubble that encompasses waking in our climate controlled home, getting in our climate controlled car parked in our attached garage, and driving to our climate controlled place of work.  We spend only a few minutes outdoors in non-climate controlled environments.  And even though the news media broadcast images of weather disasters, the storms tend to fade from our memory fairly quickly (unless we were impacted by them and then the damage lasts for years, sometimes never being repaired).  This year there were several such weather events; a deep freeze in Texas, Hurricane Ida, and catastrophic flooding in Europe and China among many others across the world.  Unfortunately few Americans pay attention to how weather impacts our economy, and this ignorance (or our ability to forget) could be the reason why we are not acting fast enough to address climate change.  Yes, we may be saddened by news that other people are devastated by weather disasters, but we aren’t bothered enough to change the way we live.  We have ignored how weather impacts food, water, and energy supplies.

To remind you…in July disastrous flooding events in Europe and China disrupted global supply chains.   In September Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and caused disruption in the agriculture sector.  Currently China and Europe are being hit with an energy crisis.  All of these events can be linked to climate change, or in the case of energy disruptions, attempts to reduce carbon emissions.  After last February’s deep freeze in Texas some people blamed the near grid failure on renewable energy.  Now several Republican controlled states have brought a case to the Supreme Court hoping to limit the ability of the US EPA to regulate power plant carbon emissions. Why? Because they want the US to continue using fossil fuels; to pump oil, frack gas, and mine coal. They don’t want to see that climate change is affecting them. This is a grave mistake.

Scientists have long predicted that as climate change worsens we will increasingly experience more severe storms, droughts, and wildfires. They predict shortages of water, degradation of fertile soils, and desertification of rain forests.  They predict that glaciers and ice caps will melt causing sea levels to rise.  Today we see all these predictions happening, and at increasing rates.  Experts also predict that nations will begin to fight over sparse resources.

The destructive hurricanes and floods get a lot of attention, but far worse, is the scale of droughts we see and their impact on water resources.  As the earth’s atmosphere warms droughts will spread, deepen, and last much longer.  The Middle East and Africa are already being hit hard, and this is largely the reason people are migrating.  Climate change migration is becoming a severe problem and one that developed nations are ill prepared to manage.  In many countries it is already too late to provide money for them to adapt, people are desperate for a place to live.  Droughts will impact nations that have grown dependent on irrigation for crops (including the US).  Drinking water resources will disappear in nations who have always depended on melting mountain snows to bring drinking water in summer (including the US western states).  Nations without energy resources will be held hostage by countries with energy (as we are currently seeing in Europe and former Soviet Union countries).

Water, food, and energy are critical for our survival, but so too is fertile soil, ocean fisheries, forests, lakes, and biodiversity.  All of these resources are being threatened by climate change, pollution, and exploitation.  We are finally seeing predictions become reality…. day-to-day events.  If we have any hope of preventing the worsening of climate change we absolutely must cooperate with other nations and with each other.  We simply cannot solve our problems alone.  Retreating behind national or state boundaries is no different than retreating to your survivalist bunker and hoping that when you emerge the world will be livable.

As nations struggle to feed and shelter their people, as people flee failed, violent states, our leaders will be under increasing pressure to ‘fix’ what is wrong. The only way to fix our problems is to change our lifestyle.  We need to buy less stuff, travel fewer miles, consume less resources, live in smaller homes (or share your larger home with more people).  We need to live less complicated lifestyles including little or no social media.  We can plant a garden, eat more plant based, locally produced food.   We can slow cook more meals (including vegetarian and vegan options).  We can recycle our clothes and household goods by giving them to stores such as Goodwill.  We can enjoy the simple but rewarding experience of sharing a meal with friends and family.  Unless Americans are willing to change our lifestyle the world cannot fix its problems, because our consumption is a large part of the problem.  We might castigate China for it’s carbon emissions, or Russia for its energy blackmail, but Americans still buy 40% of the goods China produces, and Europe is still dependent on Russia for energy.

I don’t think our supply chain issues are just about truck drivers and warehouse workers. We face an increasingly hostile world.  We are going to see more desperate, autocratic leaders taking control, rattling sabers at their neighbors.  We are also going to see people taking resources by force rather than payment.  I believe we have entered the most dangerous decade in human history.  If nations go to war now, the destruction of infrastructure will be impossible to rebuild.  We won’t have access to the abundant, cheap fossil energy we used to build them in the first place.  We won’t have ample forests, rich mines to plunder, or fertile soil to help us rebuild.  Our access to resources will shrink down to the footprint of a region where we live (assuming we still live). There will simply not be enough resources to rebuild our cities, highways, bridges, water treatment facilities, factories, etc.  If we go to war what little of humanity survives will live during the longest dark age ever experienced.  It will make surviving an ice age pale by comparison.

I’ve often said that if we wait too long to address climate change we will find ourselves between a rock and hard place, none of the options available will be easy. The easy time to address carbon emission was 50 years ago.  It isn’t going to ever get any easier, and it will get a whole lot harder.

7 Replies to “The Era of Cheap Living is Over”

  1. Jody, you put our planetary situation in stark relief. This is where we are and where we are headed. World governments, corporations, big business, the wealthy people who influence the aforementioned , and all the rest of us just can’t get beyond our own specialness. The best we can muster I say is in the words of young Greta; Bla bla bla bla bla. Great writing Jody! Thank you.

  2. Great piece, Jody. It really sets out the context and the challenges facing us. One part that resonates: “The only way to fix our problems is to change our lifestyle…We need to live less complicated lifestyles…”. I think more and more of us in the West would agree in principle – we need to shrink our personal footprints and (difficult sell, this) shrink the economy.

    The mighty flywheels of “lifestyle as usual” (as you put it) keep turning, for now, but how powerful it would be if millions of us started to look on the holiday season each year as an opportunity to give a middle finger to the “buy more stuff” industry!

    1. Yes, I am tired of the commercialization of Christmas. The holiday brings so much stress to people…and debt. I often think about home economics, the lessons I learned from my parents and Grandmother. How to stretch resources, to save wisely, to make due. People today don’t think carefully about how they spend their time or money, often wasting both.
      I have hope that as times become increasingly difficult more people will learn to be wiser with their resources, including the teaching of our children.

    2. The “buy more stuff” industry, the industry dependent on discretionary purchases, will implode soon enough. History has already given it the middle finger of energy and resource depletion.

      What we need to really worry about is whether essentials such as food, water, heating/cooking fuel and other necessities will still be available as the really crucial supply chains that underpin modernity crumble.

      Essentials won’t keep flowing around the world for much longer. This is time to get ready for the time when “things fall apart”. This is the time to get ready for self-provisioning.

      1. Excellent advice, Joe. I agree that “buy more stuff” industry is imploding, interestingly as a result of labor shortages. Once people decide they just won’t work under these conditions anymore, this industry will fail.
        As energy prices soar, as water and food, and energy (to heat and cook) become limited we will see the industry fail more. Together these pressures along with greater frequency of weather disasters, will cause our modern lifestyle to fail. Having the tools and knowledge to provide for our self and our family will determine who survives and who does not.

        I also think we have entered the next decade when we are going to see a rapid decline in human population. Just as we have become ‘accustomed’ to worsening climate change (higher heat waves, catastrophic floods, wildfires, and storms), we will soon become ‘accustomed’ to the new reality of people dying. It started with the pandemic. You might have read an earlier post of mine. I expect that population is declining in countries whose government and economy are failing. Sadly it is the poorest, the least able to provide for themselves, who are dying. We already see states failing leaving the women and children vulnerable to violence. As populations become overrun with young men, who have no hope of finding a wife or raising a family, there will be increasing violence. It is not hard to imagine that populations are already in decline but we may not be counting the numbers.

  3. Is it possible to say “nicely put” on this essay? Why yes, yes I can. Pointing out the likelihood that infrastructure will not be rebuilt if there is another global conflict is a sobering thought. Although not one to slow down the path we are on.
    We find on our farm that as the years go by we spend more time building in personal resilience, less time in expanding the farm’s business. Not sure how that fits in completely, although it dovetails with Joe’s observation about getting ready. And I hear a similar tale from other small farms in our valley.

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