Friday, July 29, 2011

Ghost Town Blues

I saw a very interesting piece (here) on the shift of population from America's rural areas to the cities, especially the northeast.  This really isn't news to anyone who has spent any time in a rural town in recent years.  If you go to "main street," you'll see most of the beautiful old brick buildings have fallen into disrepair, with cracked or boarded up windows, peeling paint, water damage.  They no longer serve any use, no more than a castle in the countryside in Europe.  Yeah, sure, you might find something like a photo studio in one, a pizza parlor in another, maybe even a government office, but mostly, the occupants are like pigeons living in the loft of an abandoned mansion -- they're there, but just because it's there and have no real tie to the place.

Interestingly, the piece even talks about post offices closing up.  This is in addition to sheriff's departments who are increasingly unable to provide patrol services to rural areas as their own budgets evaporate.  So, not only are rural areas losing population, they are also losing any kind of political organization.  Roads, also, are going back to gravel and bridges that are in need of maintenance or are damaged are often simply closed until the necessary funding can be found (good luck).  Of course, some roads aren't all that passable to begin with. 
Part of the problem is the loss of jobs in the rural areas.  Farming is increasingly done on a very large scale, requiring lots of energy input and expensive machinery, putting it out of the reach of most people as a practical way of making a living.  A number of the plants which were opened in rural areas (due to low land costs and lower living costs) are closing or relocating because of the economy and rising shipping costs.  Of course, as population shifts, all the service-based businesses close as well, as there's no one left to patronize those businesses.

This seems to be a trend with most empires, at any rate.  Rome, for example, was relatively decentralized for quite a long time, with the bulk of the population being composed of small-scale farmers.  As slavery increased, and landowners grew and consolidated their holdings, the population tended to move to the cities and seek handouts, leaving the rural areas relatively deserted.  In turn, this put considerable pressure on the administration and stability of the Imperial cities, that of trying to make sure the populace was fed and didn't riot or revolt.  While arguably not a factor which directly contributed to the fall of Rome, it isn't hard to imagine that it made the Empire somewhat less flexible and able to respond to other problems.

There are some obvious implications for modern America here.  One is that the loss of smaller-scale farming, distributed populations, and close ties to rural areas, means that agriculture and food distribution is going to wind up being even more "brittle" than it has been in the past, and dependent on effective transportation.  Another is that the population which moves to the cities is probably not any more likely to find work than it would have in the countryside -- the continuing Depression, combined with the fact that many people are going to be competing with an established labor force that already has existing social connections, means that opportunities will be limited, even on a generational basis.  Politicians are going to face the dilemma of trying to fund social programs to appease an increasingly restless urban population and further ruining the budgets, or are going to face a situation like the Paris communues -- modern "ghettos" which erupt in violence from time to time (I'm reminded of "Mega-City One" from Judge Dredd, too).

As it gets harder and harder to maintain a workable economy, too, the cities are obviously going to see a serious degregdation in living standards.  While people have advocated staying in urban areas during periods of collapse, it may get to the point where they are not worth occupying any longer, by any rational measure.  The larger the population, the worse these problems will be. 

On the other hand, this does present some opportunities for people who are interested in transitioning to a post-oil, post-industrial lifestyle.  Entire towns are up for sale now, apparently, and more and more land is going to simply be abandoned and allowed to become overgrown again.  One aspect of the Leibowitz Society's philosophy has been the exploration of forming communities around the preservation of knowledge, similar to Dark Ages monasteries, meaning that these efforts would find plenty of open and unused space.  It is obviously up to the individual to decide what their best course is, but this is still some food for thought.  The key idea to remember is that what a person who has grown up in the information age is looking in terms of dwelling space or lifestyle is going to be vastly different from a person who is contemplating the transition to post-collapse life. 

Monday, July 25, 2011


This summer is shaping up to be one for the history books, and not in a good way.  Another drug-addled musician joined the "27 Club," some headcase with a vaguely racist-nativist agenda kills nearly 100 people in Norway, record heat is cooking crops and tempers in most of the lower 48.  While nothing is on the radar at the moment, I wouldn't be surprised if we wake up one morning and hear about a Category 5 killstorm barreling its way toward the Eastern Seaboard.

However, all of the topical bad news of the day is still overshadowed -- in spite of the media's best efforts -- by the impending economic financial implosion in America and the Hobson's choice it poses for people in political office.  The choices have boiled down to extending the debt ceiling and seeing the dollar slowly sink, or not raising the debt ceiling and seeing the dollar melt down overnight.  This is what the media and politicians are not presenting to people -- that there is no way out with the two "options" being floated right now for people.

The logical choice would be to simply stop spending money that the nation doesn't have.  This is what most people do when they're faced with bills they can't pay.  If they're smart, they don't go get another credit card.  For the American government, it would mean drastically cutting defense and social spending, pushing it down to levels where it would be possible to stop adding to an already massive debt and maybe even start cutting that debt a little, here and there.

There is of course a small problem with this.  Objectively speaking, the United States is an empire, not a nation.  It maintains military bases in many different parts of the world, something that is almost unique at this point in time, and exercises a great deal of influence over many governments through economic incentives.  In addition to maintaining external control, America itself is not really a nation in the sense of a shared culture and values, with the Civil War being an obvious example of this heterogeneity and the problems it can cause.  The "War on Poverty" itself was simply a massive attempt to soothe the pain of and address the injustices directed at the African-American segment of the American population before it tried again to assert itself politically, and so on. 

Ultimately, America cannot disengage from where it already is, without first dealing with the issue that the definition of America itself would change, and this is what the real heart of this political battle is all about.  The right wants to support military spending, the left wants to support social spending, and neither type of spending can be sustained in the long run.  This is the fate of empires...extending themselves to the point where they can't be maintained and destroy themselves in the process of trying to make it just a little longer, like the person who can't stop spending.  For people who have studied ecology, this is referred to as "carrying capacity" -- the population we have now (both literally and in terms of ideas and institutions) has been built around something which could not be sustained.

While people have mentioned that a default might be a good thing, to reign in spending, the issue here is that doing so is going to very quickly expose the fault lines in American public life.  Far too many people have their fortunes and fates tied to the American government, to the dollar, and to the systems that have been created around these two entities.  Could the pieces of lives and institutions be picked back up quickly enough once the dust of the economic chaos settled?  Or would we see a confusion with no clear way forward?  I think it would take only a very short time before people start mentally and emotionally, if not physically, heading for the exits.  It won't be longer after that all the systems which have been put in place and maintained by those same people will cease to exists.

It's never easy to know how to act in times like these, but I think one piece of advice makes sense -- disengage as much as possible.  Look to minding your own life and realize that the thunder you're hearing is the long-forecast storm finally arriving.  Get away from anything which requires a sound dollar and make sure you have plans in place for the day when there is nothing on the store shelves and what you need must be obtained through barter or local labor.  Understand that you are going to do with a much simpler lifestyle if you are not living simply.  If you already are, then be content in knowing that you're likely going to be okay in the long run.  Last, understand that all things come to an end, sooner or later, including nations and empires, and that what is really most important is likely in front of you anyway.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Consumer Confidence Game

Well, so we're in the middle of the vacation season.  As James Kunstler has put it, "The time of the year when we turn Lake George upside down with cigarette boat Cuinsiarts."  Or something like that.  I'll defer to his ability to turn a phrase, but you get the idea.  When the highways are even more choked with people going places they can't afford to go to, so they can start counting down the time until they can go home.

In the daily games of "How do we keep their eye off the ball?" at the alphabet soup networks, the Casey Anthony ordeal has come to a close for the moment, to be replaced by the aftershock of of talking heads all clamoring to make the most outrageous statements about how the process of law should work.  Some people have called for an end to the jury system, and I expect we'll eventually have someone stumble across the Code of Napoleon and decide to apply the bastard child of criminal law in post-Revolution France.  Maybe we'll just skip to the world of Death Race and be done with it (good flick if you enjoyed Running Man...haven't seen the original Death Race, so I can't comment).  

Unemployment is edging back up again, or at least hovering around like a buzzard who wants a snack.  It looks like the steam has run out from the stimulation, the census lift, and the Golden Age of Hiring at the Golden Arches.  Almost ten years of war and a busted economy which is falling off the cliff, slow-motion, like Homer Simpson, are leaving people wondering where we're going next. 

Consumer Confidence, that weathervane of how willing we are to spend money we don't have on crap we don't have, is sinking yet again, two straight months in a row now.  Some people will say that it's a sign we're not recovering, economically, but I think it's a sign that people are coming to their senses and realizing that no promises or debt-based government lottery/stimulus packages are going to make a damn bit of difference in what is a steadily declining nation.

Ultimately, people are going to start seeing they have to learn how to fend for themselves, or at least help each other out.  While I'm pretty jaded a lot of the time about collapse, having maintained this blog for most of a year, having kept something jumped out at me today that made even me sit up.  I was looking through a bookseller's items and noticed the little bar at the bottom which showed what other people were looking at:  Self-Sufficient Life Homesteading, Home Canning, Wilderness Survival Guide Books CD, Survival CD Self-Reliance, Raising Chickens Permaculture...

So much for books about World War Two, the Ford Mustang or vacation homes...