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Page added on April 1, 2011

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An employee’s guide to catabolic collapse

General Ideas

As the radioactive waste from the Fukushima nuclear plant settles, the clean-ups continue in Christchurch and large parts of Queensland and instability becomes the new norm in the Middle East and North Africa, perhaps it is time to ponder whether we are we approaching the most significant transformation in employment and labour since the industrial revolution? The transition from economies powered by human and animal muscle power to mechanised economies powered predominantly by fossil fuels saw major dislocations to the existing employment base that were no doubt traumatic for those involved. As the oil age enters its second half and industrial society commences down the bumpy road that is catabolic collapse, we are likely to see another revolution in employment and labour. These changes will no doubt be just as traumatic, if not more so, than those triggered by the industrial revolution. For those people, the author included, who depend upon a job for their continued prosperity this prompts important questions such as what jobs will be available and how do I position myself such that I might get one?

Changes in the nature of employment and the types of jobs available are not new. Since the beginning of industrialisation, new technologies and economic factors have seen the creation of many new types of jobs with just as many becoming less common or disappearing altogether.

Historically, as civilisations have grown in complexity there has been a trend towards increasing economic specialisation. The fundamental basis for this increase in specialisation is an agricultural surplus. An agricultural surplus enables a society to release parts of its labour pool from food production to other roles such as soldiers, bureaucrats and craftsmen and women. The essentially unlimited energy supply that fossil fuels have provided over the last two centuries has pushed this trend into overdrive with niche roles from neurosurgeon to mobile dog wash operators to lifestyle coaches and airline pilot’s now becoming commonplace whilst less than 2% of the Australian population is employed in agriculture.

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Collapse of socioeconomic systems has historically resulted in a reduction in the level of complexity of a civilisation and a corresponding drop in economic specialisation. For job seekers, understanding the implications of these factors to our current situation will go a long way to ensuring that they are equipped with the appropriate knowledge and skills to ensure that they are employable in the future. Before looking at some specifics an overview of a likely economic scenario as catabolic collapse unfolds might be helpful.

The factors driving catabolic collapse, peak oil, climate change, resource depletion and financial instability will largely shape the economy of the future. Assuming that industrial civilisation continues on its current path we are likely to see:

  • Less and more expensive energy due to the decline in both the Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) of energy sources and production of fossil fuel energy sources.
  • Less and more expensive food as climate changes and the availability of key inputs to industrial agriculture decline such as oil, phosphorus fertilisers, fresh water and arable land.
  • Less wealth as the enormous credit expansion of the last half of the 20th century deflates as a result of the first two points.
  • Eventually, these aforementioned factors will lead to less technology as the reliability and availability of high technology items falls due to a combination of factors such as the availability of inputs, disruptions to global supply chains and a shrinking customer base due to the decline in wealth.

Of course, how each of the factors affects any one region or nation will be highly variable both in timing and magnitude. However some general implications for current industries can be foreseen. Those industries that depend upon cheap energy, high levels of disposable income and/or an expansionary credit cycle are likely to be the first to downsize. Industries such as airlines, tourism, retail and financial services are particularly vulnerable. Even governments and their bureaucracies, perhaps with the exception of the policing/enforcement arms, are likely to downsize in the longer term as tax revenues fall. Undoubtedly, particularly in the early stages of decline, governments will continue to prop up some industries however these policies will be abandoned when they can no longer be afforded. So where does this leave employee’s currently employed in at risk industries? The downsizing of any industry will result in the trained labour pool being greater than the number of jobs that are available. Thus for those people employed in vulnerable industries it might be a good idea to prepare yourself for the possibility that you may need to seek a livelihood in some other manner at some point in the future.

Before looking at what jobs are likely to be available, perhaps it is worth discussing the revival of part of the economy that only a couple of generations ago was integral to virtually everybody’s life; the household economy. The backyard vegie patch, a few chickens, some fruit trees, home made preserves and clothes; these are some of the elements of the household economy that were a vital part of our ancestor’s way of life, and no doubt will be part of ours in the not too distant future. For the doubters, the potential of the household economy is significant. As an example, during World War Two the Victory Gardens program saw some 40 per cent of vegetables consumed in the USA being grown in backyards and other small plots. Reducing your reliance on the formal economy is one way of reducing the impact of disruptions caused by job losses or other systemic failures that are likely to occur in the future. Indeed, as the formal economy contracts and fewer employees are required, both the number of people ‘employed’ in the household or informal economy informal economy and its productivity are likely to grow dramatically.

Agriculture is expected to become one of the major growth areas in formal employment. Essentially, if we are to continue to feed ourselves as the traditional inputs to industrial agriculture decline, we will need, if not a nation of farmers, a significantly increased number of people employed in agriculture. The reason is simple. One barrel of oil is equivalent (equivalent) to about 25,000 hours of human labour or about 12.5 years at 40 hours of labour per week. Whilst the exact figures can be argued about, the implication is clear. As oil production (and more importantly for Australia, oil imports decline, the work that is currently completed using oil based products will need to be replaced by other sources. Human and animal labour will form a large part of that solution. The changes that will result from this forthcoming transition will see an enormous increase in the requirement for people trained and employed in a broad range of areas such as permaculture, organic gardening techniques, organic fertiliser production, soil fertility, animal husbandry, landscape rehabilitation, seed saving and propagation.

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Agriculture will not be the only industry where there will be significant job opportunities.  One of the benefits of globalisation has been the economies of scale allowing goods or services to be produced more cheaply. These benefits will erode in a catabolic collapse scenario resulting in diseconomies of scalefor many industries. In addition to increasingly fragile global supply chains, the increased transportation costs resulting from higher oil prices will see current the cheap labour advantage of East Asian nations erode. The implication of these factors is that many, particularly low value and low technology items will need to be manufactured locally. Manufacturing of these items will move towards more numerous but much smaller operations producing a narrower range of items, however with a combination of skilled and unskilled labour rather than automated assembly lines becoming the norm.

Cottage industries will no doubt return over coming decades. The scope for these industries is virtually limitless and will likely produce an array of goods from clothes to soaps and medicinal products that will provide many employment opportunities. Expertise in renewable energy systems, especially smaller scale systems will be in great demand, particularly in areas that are on the peripheries of the current grid system. The ability to repair all sorts of items, many of which are currently designed to be replaced every few years, will also be a growth area as people try to maintain their existing appliances, tools and devices for much longer periods of time. With some, if not many, of the qualifications, skills and knowledge required to gain employment today unlikely to be particularly useful in the decades ahead, equipping yourself with some new skills (skills that have largely disappeared over the last century) in the aforementioned areas and a basic knowledge of the associated sciences could provide a significant advantage to the prospective job hunter.

When should you start preparing for employment in an economy besieged by catabolic collapse? Given the uncertainties of the future and the accelerating rate at which disruptive events are occurring, the ideal time would be now. As eloquently argued by Sharyn Astyk we should plan on the failure of complex systems. Complex systems, as has been demonstrated regularly in recent years (examples include the Global Financial Crisis, BPs Macondo oil well spill and the Fukushima nuclear plant incident), can and do fail despite the very best endeavours of intelligent people. Increasing complexity might reduce the regularity of such failures but at the cost of greater impact when they do fail. The failure of complex systems will become increasingly regular in the years ahead as the complexity of the global economy contracts. With so many jobs currently dependent on complex systems and our inability to predict when or where the next natural disaster, financial crisis, political turmoil or liquid fuel emergency will strike, the Scout’s motto of ‘be prepared’ seems rather apt. Being prepared physically, mentally (it is no time to be suffering a mental breakdown when the world as you know it is disappearing) and with skillsets that will provide alternate options for employment, whether in the formal or informal economy, is an approach that should pay a handsome dividend at some point in the highly unpredictable future.

The constant reinforcement of the media’s and politician’s key, but ultimately foolhardy, message that a global economic recovery is underway will mean that the overwhelming majority of people will not be prepared for the seismic changes ahead in many industries. This is something that the astute observer of world affairs can use to their marked advantage. Preparing yourself ahead of time through an increased level of self reliance via the household economy and armed with some of the numerous skillsets that will be required for a catabolically collapsing economy to function will prove to be of great benefit. Such people will be highly prized in the future and should not want for a job.

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