Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London's Burning

On September 7th, 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed London after a smattering of RAF attacks on Berlin.  Particularly excited by this turn of events was Hermann Goering, who telegrammed his wife Emmy and bragged "I've sent my bombers to London!  London's burning!"  The irony, of course, was that the shift by the Luftwaffe to the bombing of London provided a respite to RAF Fighter Command that was essentially on the ropes by that point in time, running short on aircraft and especially short on pilots.  Now, 71 years later after Germany failed to destroy England's defenses, London is once more on fire, but this time her own people are doing the deed.

There may be a handful of surviving RAF pilots who are now asking themselves just why they flung their Hurricanes and Spitfires into the sky against the Messerschmidts and Heinkels, if the end result was going to be angry mobs burning down shops, houses, and businesses.  Did they suspect that the nation of England might well be destroyed by the barbarians from within? 

There doesn't seem to necessarily be an easy way to categorize the riots.  Nativists would try to point to immigration or race as being the source of the problem, but there were plenty of pictures of Anglo-Saxon looking folking swinging heavy objects at police cars or being dragged off by riot cops.  Marxists, on the other side of the fence, would try to blame lack of economic opportunity, but can a convincing case be made when a Sony distribution facility was targeted and looted?  (I tend to doubt that anyone is going to put "The Internationale" on their stolen iPods)

It goes without saying that there won't be any shortage of opinions on the cause of these riots (and other ones around the world).  I don't think it's unlikely that we'll begin seeing the same sort of thing start to occur in America, either.  However, one explanation lies in complexity theory, the branch of mathematics which deals with spontaneous organization of patterns.  In short, complexity theory notes that patterns can arise where they didn't previously exist, generally caused by energy entering a semi-closed system.  An example of this is a neon sign -- neon gas just sits in the tube until electricity is applied, when the molecules begin to glow.  An even better example is a spontaneous traffic jam -- for no real reason, cars begin slowing en masse, until traffic slows to a crawl.  Just as quickly, it can dissipate, the road becoming clear once more, without anyone really knowing the cause.  Yet another example is the action of acts defending their colony or digging a nest.

While we see the effect of destabilizing industrial society in the riots, complex systems also seem to exist at a higher level in places like Washington.  A poster commented here a couple of weeks ago about the debt crisis solving itself, if the government would simply quit spending.  We look at the "debt ceiling deal," and ask just how each party can support something so meaningless, claim some victory, blame the other side, and kick the can down the road.  On top of that, we ask how someone like Alan Greenspan can just say that the printing presses can keep running, or Bernake can just float a trial balloon about QE3?  The answer is that our system of leadership has taken on a particularly rigid and chaotic pattern after years of energy inputs in the form of lobbying, power grabs over budgeting, and everything else that goes with fighting over the spoils in a late-state empire. 

The pattern which has emerged is very much like that traffic jam -- nothing is going anywhere and no one really knows why, even though there's no wreck on the road, no construction to channel the traffic down to one lane.  Nothing moves, nothing changes, it just keeps plodding on to the inevitable point where it collapses into chaos, once there is no more energy to feed into the system.


  1. Hello there, had seen your link weekly on Kunstler's site and decided to check it out. I think we're on the same wavelength re: peak everything and how conditions have set collapse in motion. I'm a saxophonist and while I spend much of my non-dayjob time focussed on my various musical projects I have been quite obsessed for the past couple of years on the ramifications of peak oil and how contraction in all aspects of civilization will play itself out.

    What's odd is that after learning what I have about our energy predicament I marvel at society's ability to "keep it together" in the face of it. I live in Stable Canada in Montreal and often wonder how the veneer of "normal" can continue. Believe me, I'm grateful that Montreal is powered by hydroelectricity, a fairly renewable resource as long as they can maintain the dams and until they eventualy silt up.

    My opinion on the riots in England is that they are a generally a manifestation of this veneer of normalcy coming apart at the seams. I'm sure the general consensus will continue to treat these incidents as isolated in themselves and not connected to a larger picture. Riots happen. They occur perenially in Montreal too but they generally follow hockey games.

    Thanks for your efforts in creating this blog, I will be following regularly from now on.

  2. Josh,

    I think we're basically seeing the socio-economic equivalent of the perfect storm forming. You have a civilization which patterned on the quasi-mystical belief in unlimited growth which is running up against looming shortages in oil, arable space, usable money, etc. A civilization which had a philosophy of management and maintenance would have a much better chance of adjusting (and in fact would likely not have these problems in the first place).

    I would agree that the riots themselves are a sign of fading normalcy. The pundits like to speak of the decay of the "nuclear family," but the decay of the extended family is really what the issue is -- extended families had within them the ability to be a guiding point for their members, while nuclear families are as subject to changing times as an individual is. So, what happens with our society is that we look to companies, politics, the media, to form our worldview/normalcy. When those begin to collapse, there is no real input for personal guidance and people resort to what makes the most sense for them -- unenlightened self-interest.

    Glad to hear you like the blog. Since you are involved with music, have you ever given any thought to how music is going to change, post-collapse?


  3. I have though a lot about music making post-collapse and I can't avoid the thought that any electronic music is going to be in trouble. Electric guitars, amps, PA systems, synthesizers ect. are dependant on cheap energy and as such are vulnerable. But who knows? maybe it will become fashionable to have armies of stationary bike powered generators to keep rock shows going after the power goes out.

    Personally, I'm glad I chose the sax as my main instrument years ago as it requires no electric amplification. I do feel that I may want to stock up big time on reeds in case of supply-line disruptions. Acoustic instruments are obviously more resilient than those dependant on electricity: Violins, pianos, acoustic guitars, drums, singing etc will be valuable to have. I'd like to think that musicians who have some skill in playing one or more of these acoustic instruments will be in greater demand post-collapse to provide entertainment especially if recorded music becomes rare and playback equipment stops functioning.

  4. Josh,

    For some reason, I have this mental picture of Burning Man going on, techno music and all, even after the collapse.

    What did woodwind instruments use for reeds before the industrial age? I've had a long-standing interest in early music, but never extended it to the actual construction of instruments.

    I'm also curious about strings -- steel strings would be difficult to make. Drums seem to definitely be "in" -- I've talked to a couple of people who made their own tribal/primitive drums.


  5. What did woodwind instruments use for reeds. Oh this is a classic. You sir owe me a painkiller pill. I have two broken ribs and you just made me laugh.

    They used reeds, you hapless child of the industrial age. Actual reeds. Wild cane.

  6. Well, I guess the rational response is the humor always contains a small edge of pain?

    I should've been a little more specific -- I know that they used reeds, in the same way that that intestines were used for the manufacture of strings. The problem is -- like with the manufacture of treated skin for clothing -- there are nuances for the production of these items which have either been lost, or people have incorrect information to work with.

    Reflecting on it, I don't know if it's really all that important or not, although I think we tend to equate "civilization" with the arts, more than anything else, over the ages.