Monday, September 12, 2011

Somme Ideas

World War One has faded into distant memory as the last few survivors have passed into memory and their eternal rest, with the death of the last English veteran of the war.  The horror of the war, eclipsing any war before or since, is a footnote in the history books, perhaps as it should be.  Clearly, humanity didn't learn anything from it, as the men who saw it first hand were all too eager, perhaps even anxious, to fight another one only two decades later, to settle old scores and right old wrongs. 

In the mind of those who are at least somewhat familiar with the war, the Battle of the Somme is probably most representative of the conduct of the war.  Repeated bloody Allied assaults on fortified and well-prepared German positions, at with only moderate gains and massive casualities, became the model of the conflict in the public mind.  Tragically, the Somme was the only another link in a chain of bloody battles, where the same "over-the-top" and "hearts of oak" mentality prevailed again and again, until the French army mutinied in 1917 and refused to participate in futile attacks. 

It's hard to really fathom the mindset of the generals involved and why this repeat slaughter happened.  There are a number of theories, including the problem of military conservatism, unfamiliarity with the true lethality of weapons at the time, political pressure, and so on.  I think it was simply that the leadership could not even begin to grasp the size of the problem and had no way to deal with it outside of trying the same thing over and over in the hopes that somehow it would work.

Just as the tragedy of World War One was that the leadership could not learn from their mistakes, and could only think of repeating them in the hopes that somehow, somewhere, it would finally work, we see the same mindset and approach in modern America with the economy.  After multiple stimulus packages and massive government spending in the hopes of somehow creating jobs, of getting the economy rolling and avoiding another recession/depression, the next idea that is going to be tried is...more stimulus packages and massive government spending.  A $450 billion dollar jobs bill proposed by Obama is the stuff from which tragic jokes are made.  The only reason that it's not being laughed out of Washington is because the Republicans are made from the same cloth, only they believe that warfare, not welfare, is the key to economic health.

While it's tempting to say "Well, it's just money, and not lives," we have to remember that this kind of spending is going to lead to economic and social collapse, sooner or later.  There are around three hundred million people in modern America, most of whom are far removed from the land and any means of food production, not to mention that this population well exceeds what pre-industrial agriculture could functionally maintain.  What would happen in the case of a fast economic crash, with all the following chaos and inability of people to obtain food at any price, similar to Germany post-World War One? 

Like World War One, I think the problem is also that the political and economic leadership really has no idea of the size of the problem and how to address it.  On one hand, there is a restive public that threatens to vote out anyone who cannot deliver the sun, the moon, and stars at no cost.  On the other hand, there is a changing reality, where the excess reserves built up by over five hundred years of pre-industrial and industrial economic activity are finally exhausted, when land and resources are running scarce and the only answer seems to be to burn them faster.

What needs to happen?  What are the solutions?  Are there solutions?  Those are three questions I won't address, because the very first thing that needs to happen on the public stage -- that of admitting that there IS a problem, that the old models will no longer work -- hasn't even happened yet.  Just like generals marching soldiers into the maw of death at the Somme because their playbook has only one page, we citizens of the industrialized world are being marched straight into the maw of collapse, because our own "leaders" seem to have only one fix to these kinds of problems -- more of the same until there is no more left.


  1. Excellent post. Many thanks for the keen insights.

  2. Actually the WW1 armies are in some ways in a much better position than we are today.

    They were actually aware that they had a problem and were working very hard to solve the problem. But without radios to coordinate the movement across no man's land, it was all easier said than done.

    But by 1917 the Germans and French had started to develop ways to get around the trench deadlock, and by 1918 the British were also able to do so convincingly.

    So within two years of the Somme, the major participants were able to stage effective attacks across trench lines.

    The cost was of course enormous. In addition to the lives lost, the debt from WW1 was one of the major contributors to the Great Depression on the European side of the Atlantic.

    Do you see our current governments, or our countrymen and women for that matter, willing to pay that type of price to solve our problems?

  3. I think the problem is, in essence, mass delusion over the nature and role of the various parts of modern life, plus the irresistible tendency to treat the next crisis like it were the last.

    The problem is that this crisis is being treated as a short-term economic bump in the road, as opposed to a "paradigm shift" (ugh, I hate buzzwords) in the nature of our socioeconomic models. The reason that the jobs aren't coming back, that real unemployment is around 15-20% is because those jobs are never going to come back, period, end of story. We've burned through the excess wealth built up over generations that made them possible in the first place.

    To change things now would mean recognizing this in the first place, and taking all the political fallout, then proposing a new change in direction which would pretty much destroy our current economic models. I don't see any will to do this, especially when as soon as someone suggests that something like Social Security is an inherently flawed ideas leads to everyone else shooting him down. What would happen to the politician that suggested that our current way of life is also inherently flawed and doomed?

  4. Five flat, clear acres (2 hectares) in mid latitudes can produce 1 MW of PV power or on average 4 MW-hours of electricity daily all year, enough for 80 McMansions consuming 50 kW-hours each. Yes you would need storage (batteries, fly wheels, stored hydro with a turbine) for nights if the Grid weren't available or functioning but this is all off the shelf technology, shovel ready, if you will.

    So all is not lost, just need the will and funding, but hey it's only money.