Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Could Be Wrong

Okay, the long-awaited, much-anticipated happy ending, or where Kunstler gets it wrong. James Howard Kunstler, with his highly acerbic wit, has been foretelling The Long Emergency for some time now. And for the most part, I think he has cause and effect pretty well nailed. Where I think he errs is in predicting the demise of suburbia -- wishful thinking on his part. Kunstler hates the suburbs, sees them as an ugly blight on America and an affront to his sense of esthetics. Ugly they may be, but ugliness is not a fatal flaw, not even for boxes of ticky-tacky.

Kunstler assumes that with happy motoring a relic of the past, suburbanites will be forced to flee – either to the more densely populated urban centers or to walkable small towns. While I agree small town life will soar to the top of the hit parade, why would anyone want to relocate to the city? If we do have a break-down in the supply chain, densely populated areas would be hardest hit and more than likely to experience civil unrest, aka ‘get yer guns out boys and let’s have us a looting spree!’ Cities are where black-outs and brown-outs are most likely to trap people in unlivable circumstances and where potentially unsanitary conditions could lead to epidemic. Why would someone living in their own home in a friendly suburb want to uproot and move into chaos? Okay, so maybe the bank actually owns the home and the neighbors aren’t all that friendly, but those are details that can be managed by the resourceful suburbanite.

As I see it, Joe Suburban loses his job. Wifey is still employed but the income is stretched really thin. The kids have to quit the soccer team and karate lessons – gas is too expensive to waste on unnecessary jaunts – but they have dusted off their skateboards and everyone knows to look out for them when they turn into the cul-de-sac. Joe is actively looking for work but with unemployment figures climbing Mt Everest, he is doubtful of finding anything soon. But he can grow a few vegetables in the meantime. Hey, the Obamas have dug up the White House lawn, why not do the same? Soon his front yard tomato patch is one of many on the street. Suzie next door has chickens but no one is telling code enforcement. Suzie is sharing the eggs with neighbors and who knew she had such a killer recipe for blueberry crumble? Tom down the block is being foreclosed upon but the bank is telling him to stay where he is and pay what and when he can. Better to have Tom and kin in the house than another vacant home no one will buy. Mary’s kids have moved back home and her house is a bit crowded, but they’re finding ways to adjust. When the out-of-work gather in the streets to talk economy, the question du jour is ‘how bad will it get?’ Consensus is that it could get really, really bad. No one is spending money on video games or electronic gadgets any more. Every extra dollar goes towards stocking the pantry with staples. Oprah recommends having a three-month supply of food on hand and people are taking her advice. She is Oprah after all.

When Wal-Mart’s shelves start looking bare, the tomato patch becomes a full-fledged garden. The Dervaes family of Pasadena is the new American Idol. There is hunger in suburbia, but not starvation; old Mrs. Applebee can’t get out and garden anymore, but the neighbors take turns bringing her meals. In return, she’s sharing her Depression Era knowledge of how to prepare cabbage a hundred different ways. When gas rationing becomes a reality, Mrs. Suburban can no longer get to work clear across town, so she and Joe turn their garage into a family business. Joe was always good at tinkering so he starts a little repair shop and his wife is cutting hair. Suzie, next door, is running a bakery. Mary, with the houseful of grandkids, puts all those kids on bikes and is running a fetch-and-deliver service; there aren’t many cars on the streets anymore, so traffic isn’t a problem for the two-wheelers. Zoning laws are being ignored with impunity and code enforcement hasn’t been seen in years. There are occasional disputes among neighbors but a newly formed neighborhood council is hearing complaints and people pretty much abide by their decisions.

Not everything is Green Acres meets Leave it to Beaver. Times are tough. People are making do and doing without. The weather is playing havoc, flooding some and leaving others burned out in extended drought. In places where the growing season is short, people are finding it difficult to store up enough food to make it through the winter. Pigeon pie has become a new favorite though some prefer roast squirrel, and venison stew solves the browsing deer problem. Armed gangs make occasional forays out into the suburbs, but not like they used to. Wonder if they’ve all killed each other off?

With all the hardship, one would think people would be bitter and angry. Well, some are. There are those who sit around and moan all day about the good old days and how easy it was back then. But for the most part, people are finding they enjoy their lives more than they ever did. There is a new energy in America, a new sense of purpose. People are finding clever ways to recycle discarded junk into useful new items. Kids are playing in the streets when they’re not being home-schooled or picking peas. Mom brings her homebrew to the nightly neighborhood pot-luck and Dad is helping the next-door neighbor create swales in her garden. The empty house at the end of the block has become a civic center; everyone donated extra tools, cooking utensils, sewing supplies and books to its lending library. When advertising dried up, television went off the air, and the internet is down, but radio has enjoyed a new surge in popularity. Oh, it’s not the commercial radio of a few years back, this is people in their garages giving the local news, relaying messages to loved ones in distant places, reading recipes and putting on talent shows. The electrical grid has become unreliable but people are generating their own power with windmills made from parts salvaged from the dump. It’s not 24 hour power, but it’s enough to get by. And it’s not the America we thought we were getting when we were saving to send our kids to college and putting our money in 401K's, but it’s an America of amazingly resourceful, innovative, caring people who have risen to the challenge of their times and have been pleasantly surprised by life without widescreen TV’s and morning commutes.

Okay, that’s the happy ending I’ve managed to eke from where I see us headed. Of course, I could be wrong. Actually, I know I’m wrong. The future always has a joker to play – the one thing no one foresaw, the one thing that changed everything. No one ever gets it right. But maybe I’m close. And maybe not.

Friday, April 17, 2009

And They Lived Happily Ever After

I’m a sucker for happy endings. If a book or movie doesn’t have a happy ending, I don’t want anything to do with it. That’s part of why I spend so much time peering into my crystal ball, trying to understand where we’re headed. As I look at the near future, I see us falling inexorably into turmoil – but what comes after that? I’m trying to look far enough into the future to find the happy ending. Which brings me to John Michael Greer and where I believe he has it wrong.

I have only been reading the archdruid a short time, so I may be mischaracterizing his prognostications, but he did write recently, “one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process.” I’m not sure what he means by ‘the fall of civilizations’ as it applies to life-as-we-know-it, nor am I certain what he means by ‘slow,’ but I do have my own take on where we might be going and how fast we’re getting there.

I believe that life-as-we-know-it is about to change drastically and forever and that the process will be anything but slow. It will, however, be uneven. If you live in Monroeville, Alabama where the paper mill that was one of the town’s biggest employers has now shut down, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. If you live downriver from TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. If you lived in Plaquemines Parish, Pass Christian or Dauphin Island prior to Katrina, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. But are these isolated events – life as it has always been – or are these events part of a newly emerging pattern of disaster?

The answer to that question is a long one. It begins with money. Money is a shared fiction – dollar bills have no intrinsic worth and for the most part our money today isn’t even that tangible – it’s nothing more than numbers in a computer. As long as we all agree to share the fiction, things go along pretty smoothly, but lately the fiction is wearing thin. Chris Martenson does a very easy-to-understand crash course in global economics but the bottom line is this: our financial system is based on growth. Without growth, everything falls apart. Our whole economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme where tomorrow’s assumed growth is what pays today’s bills. To keep everything greased and in running order, we must spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need. If we stop spending – because we’ve been laid off from the mill or the business where we worked is now wiped off the planet by a tidal wave or just because we’ve decided that we don’t need all that junk – then the dominoes begin to fall, and once they start falling, they will have to play themselves out. I don’t see how it can happen any other way. We cannot sustain infinite growth in a finite world – eventually we will run up against the wall of limited resources and I believe that eventually is now. Yes, there are great new ideas out there – cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, for example -- but the scale of the necessary changeover and the pressures of limited time and funding mitigate against a smooth transition. And as with any transition, there is hardship. What happens to lumber jacks and coal miners if we no longer need their services? What happens to Chinese manufacturers if we no longer buy their plastic salad shooters?

After money, we have oil. Oil is the wonder resource – it not only provides cheap, abundant energy, but it provides it in an easy-to-refine-and-use form and leaves us with side benefits -- the chemical concoctions that make agri-business a going concern and provide us with our ubiquitous plastics. But oil is running out. Okay, we’ve only used about half of the world’s supply, but it was the easy, cheap half. And as demand eventually outpaces supply, we will see both rising prices and shortages. Rising oil prices means that the price of everything goes up. Considering the shaky foundation of the all-mighty dollar, we could even see hyper-inflation. Shortages could just mean long lines at the gas pump but they could mean much worse, especially if they occur during a long, cold winter. And if there is a sustained disruption in our oil supply, we could see something that looks like this:

Almost overnight, gas stations are running on empty. The trucking industry is unable to deliver groceries to the stores. The airline industry is unable to get its airplanes in the sky. International commerce grinds to a halt as cargo ships sit idle in ports. Farmers are unable to get gas for their equipment or fertilizers for their fields. Construction equipment sits rusting. The power industry is unable to deliver coal to power plants. The power grid is still viable but unreliable. In a desperate measure, the U.S. government starts rationing gasoline. First priority are the military, emergency responders, and public works. Second priority are truckers transporting food and/or coal. Third priority are farmers and coal miners. Private vehicles are last on the list. Many of those who still have jobs are forced to quit as they can no longer get themselves to work.

Yes, but it doesn't have to be oil. We can build electric cars, wind mills, solar arrays, and generators powered by the tides. We can use passive solar and geo-thermal to heat our homes and photo-voltaics to power our television sets. Maybe, but here again, the scale of the necessary changeover and the pressures of limited time and funding mitigate against a smooth transition. And none of the above can replace oil’s side benefits.

I’m not even going to go into the possibility of war, water shortages, or extreme weather events due to climate change because I think that we already have enough ingredients for a breakdown in civil order. People who are out of work, out of food, and out of hope but who have ready access to guns won’t sit quietly by and wait for things to get better. That takes me back to my previous post.

What???? I thought she was giving us a happy ending. Well, stay tuned . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dark Thoughts on a Bright Morning

I'm suffering from cognitive dissonance. I log onto the web and read in the blogs of people like Dimitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, and James Howard Kunstler that we are already well into national collapse and that our economy will only get worse, much, much worse, never, ever to recover. Then I turn on the TV and everyone, from the President to the man-on-the-street, is talking about 'things getting back to normal' with the question being 'when,' not 'if.' I look outside the window and the world looks the same today as it did yesterday. I go to Wal-Mart and the shelves are stocked, people are buying, and we are still a nation of abundance. Kids are going off to college and getting degrees in public relations and business administration. The neighbor ladies are planning their shopping trips as if they were mini-vacations. Golf courses are selling memberships, Creekstone is selling multi-million dollar mansions, and the stock market is selling stocks. Have I bought into the insane ramblings of fringe kooks? I ask myself that question almost daily and every time the answer is the same: our whole economic model is based on an absurd fallacy of infinite growth in a finite world. We may be able to eke out a few more months, even possibly a few more years, of business-as-usual, but business-as-usual cannot last much longer. So it isn’t what the pundits are writing that convinces me, it is the truth as I see it. I admit to the possibility of being wrong, but until convinced otherwise, I must live within the parameters of this reality.

Why this obsession of mine? I am trying desperately to understand where we are and where we are headed so that I may make intelligent decisions in the here and now. Three questions remain – how bad will it get, how long do we have, and what can I/should I do? I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but I spend an inordinate amount of time reading what others have to say and considering their take on things.

Dimitry Orlov uses the collapse of the Soviet Union as a model for what’s to come, but I think the differences are as important as the similarities and if he addresses those, I haven’t yet found it.

I believe the collapse of the United States will be worse than that of the Soviet Union for many reasons, the first of which is widespread gun ownership. In the USSR, guns were in the hands of trained professionals. These trained professionals, after the collapse, became a danger to society, but they were limited in number and they were for hire. In the US, guns are in the hands of petty thugs, organized crime, militant survivalists and AngryWhite Men. Cities will be hardest hit, but small towns won’t be immune. The bloodbath is likely to be horrific. In the beginning, I see the National Guard and local authorities being used as peace enforcers, but as collapse accelerates, they are as likely to become part of the problem as part of the solution. In cities, violence is likely to be random and chaotic in the beginning, but becoming more organized as time goes on. Thugs will form gangs, gangs will organize into competing Mafiosi, Angry White Men will shoot anyone who comes to the front door, and all the elements will be at odds. Sarajevo comes to mind. In the small towns, it may be just loonies who go on shooting sprees. But in some towns, there will be local thugs who band together to grab power and take control of dwindling resources. Angry White Men will stand in opposition. In some places, thugs will win. In others, they will be wiped out and Angry White Men will take control, which may or may not be any better. And in still others, coalitions will be formed. I don’t think national and state governments will disappear entirely, but I do think they will become increasingly irrelevant. Who ends up in control of the towns’ daily life and resources will depend on the comparative strength of local groups and their respective willingness to work together in peace.

Another reason the US will be worse off than the USSR is the old adage, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” The average American lives a life of much greater ease and prosperity than the average Soviet ever did. We have farther to fall, so the trauma will be that much greater. Adding to that is the American sense of entitlement and invulnerability – “it can’t happen here” is so basic a belief as to be almost unshakeable. The Russians, however, have a fatalistic mindset. They see life as struggle, and, indeed, their history has been one of constant struggle. So, not only will we have further to fall, we are psychologically ill-equipped to deal with harsh realities. Nor are we equipped to deal with the physical realities – public transportation is all but non-existent, supply chains are long, and farming has become, for the most part, agri-business. Rare is the family farm with horses and oxen or the blacksmith with fire and forge. The Soviet Union had not advanced so far as to have almost obliterated the old ways of doing things.

Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a rather isolated event. While their country was imploding, the rest of the world was going its merry way. It won’t be that way with the collapse of the US – in part due to a global economy that relies upon American consumerism and the American dollar, in part because the international web of finances binds our fates together, and in part because we share a common, fatally flawed economic model. The poor countries may fare the best – once we stop exploiting their resources to feed our insatiable appetite for stuff, they may have a chance to recover what they have lost. I hope they do. But it won’t be a collapse of the USA, it will be a global collapse with much more dire consequences.

The energy equation is also significant. Russia had enough oil and natural gas to supply not only its own needs, but to export in exchange for hard currencies. The US has no such luck. Not only is our own supply of cheap, abundant energy insufficient, but the global supply will soon become increasingly tight and expensive. As the shortfall becomes more and more apparent, the nations with oil are likely to begin hoarding it for their own use or selling it to the highest bidder. And when it is gone, it is gone. We’ll find some alternatives, but nothing will replace what we have squandered.

And lastly, the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred during a time of relative peace, prosperity, and climate stability. The collapse of the United States will occur during a time of potential resource wars, global poverty, and climate instability. Everything will be falling apart at once. Epidemics are likely to sweep across the world, natural catastrophes are likely to accelerate, and the food distribution chain is likely to disintegrate at a time when the world is not able to respond.

There are, however, some ways in which the US may fare better than our Soviet counterparts. For one, we are not an uneasy collection of conquered nations – we are truly a united people with a united fate. For another, our politicians are elected, not selected, and we do have more freedom than the average Soviet ever imagined. We have churches with a long tradition of reaching out to those in need, and we have a heritage of pioneering spirit. I watch Americans pull together to fight a flood, to rescue a community torn apart by tornado, or to comfort the victims of random violence. I see the upsurge in home gardening, the renewed interest in raising chickens and keeping bees, the inventiveness of earthships and alternative housing. I sense that there are great untapped resources in America just waiting to be unleashed. I think Americans, not all, but a significant number, will rise to the occasion in ways that will surprise everyone, myself included.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thinking, a head

I am not by nature a skeptic, but I am trying to become one. Growing up, I was taught not to question -- "because I said so" was a standard response at both home and school -- and to question God's Word, aka the Bible, was heresy so dire as to risk Eternal Hellfire and Brimstone. So nurture shares blame with nature. A lot to overcome, but not impossible.

Why the late-life effort to birth a skeptic's mindset? Because I have come to realize that we need to be questioning everything. We need to question what we are told by politicians and news media and religious leaders and the check-out clerk at Walmart. We are in critical times and critical times require the truth. If I am to know the truth, I will have to dig for it. It takes vigilance -- I tend to believe those with whom I agree without doing the proper excavation. Vigilance and practice. I'm not there yet, but I'm working at it.

However, skepticism is more than just questioning fact and opinion, it is identifying and questioning underlying assumptions. And this, my friend, is where true adventure takes place. When we take our most cherished beliefs, beliefs so fundamental that they have become virtually invisible, and hold them up to scrutiny, magical things can happen. This is the realm of the aha-moment. This is the realm of quantum leaps. And if one is so lucky as to possess a mind both skeptical and inventive . . . No genie in a bottle could hold more potential!

But are these qualities that can be learned? Is there any chance that both nature and nurture can be fooled into a change of course? My newfound skeptic says, "Believe no one. Check it out for yourself." And so I will.