Thursday, September 29, 2011

Delusional Thinking

Normally, I spend some time thinking about my posts and trying not to react off-the-cuff to items in the news and statements by public figures, as these just exist in passing in the grand scheme of things, but I heard a radio talk show host today railing against the idea of windmills and how foolish "green" (renewable) energy was to pursue, when fossil fuels were much cheaper and packed more energy, and could provide energy for 1/4 the cost.

Well, that's true for right now, but I can also go outside without a coat on today and not worry about freezing to death.  What about the future?

Really, what this represents is just the modern incarnation of fable of the grasshopper and the ant, and a stark reminder of how intellectually bankrupt most "mainstream" thinking has become.  Yes, we can use fossil fuels.  Yes, it is cheaper, more efficient, and packs more concentrated energy than solar, wind, tidal, etc.  It's more portable. long is it going to last?  This is such a simple concept -- if we use it up, it's gone.  It's that easy to figure out.

I wish I could capture the tone of the host, the sheer arrogance, the scorn at the suggestion of exploring things other than fossil fuels.  At least admit that they won't last forever...people raise their children with the idea of making them responsible adults and contributing something of value to the world, but why don't they take those same ideals and embrace the idea of guiding society and human civilization to be responsible and of benefit to future generations?

Americans take pride in the feat of their ancestors -- freeing the nation from the Royal yoke of England.  We take pride in electing our leaders.  However, there has long been a small minority of people who think we would be better off with a king or queen, because then the leader of the nation would have an incentive to pass on an intact nation to their heirs.  While this is probably just a fantasy, the reality is that we lack any kind of core guidance and desire to correct the course of industrial civilization much beyond token gestures and feel-good measures that have nothing to do with patching the holes in a rapidly-sinking ship.  

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way.  We could make decisions to move toward more efficient forms of transportation, live, work, shop, and play in small self-contained communities, moderate our energy use, etc, but this won't happen.  Unless we are burning our candle at both ends, people are always going to complain it's too dark. 

What are they going to do when the candle is gone and the lights are never coming back on?

Monday, September 26, 2011


In spite of the best efforts to get Europe's economic crisis under control, it's looking more and more like we're approaching the latest act in Europe's long retreat from anything resembling prosperity, optimism, strength, purpose, progress, and order.  In other words, entropy can only be held at bay for so long, before it completely overtakes any given system.

The award for being most nakedly out of touch with reality has to go to Angela Merkel, who states that faith in the idea of European unity would be destroyed by a Greek default.  What faith do people have in the EU, anyway?  This is when you know a politician has to go, when they state things like this, which are about as accurate and relevant as production figures from the old Soviet "five year plans."  Even Baghdad Bob wouldn't have bothered with drivel like that.

The levers of power in Europe have always had the tinge of inbreeding and incest about them, from the heads of different royal families being related (World War One was indeed a very bloody squabble between cousins), to the confusing claims and counter-claims on the English and French crowns, going all the way back to Charlemagne splitting his empire between his three sons and giving historians no shortage of things to write about for a millenia.  The difference with the age of nobility and the modern age is that it's now the bankers who are in bed with each other, while not having enough legal degrees of separation.  The latest sign of this is the IMF requesting more money from member states to solve the European debt crsis.

If anything, this should be the largest red flag, the loudest siren, the biggest shot across the bow, for anyone who thinks that a united Europe still has a future -- or, indeed, that Europe has much of an future at all.  States which are bankrupt are having to give money to an organization which is also pretty much broke, to bail out other states which are bankrupt...this is the financial equivalent of stretching a rubber band to its limit, then trying again, but cutting it in half so that it goes twice as far. 

The increasingly shrill warnings coming out of the European leadership aren't without some merit, though, even if those warnings are coming far too late.  Europe has always been at odds with itself.  A unifying religion (Catholicism) kept it somewhat together until the Reformation did away with that model and the continent was wracked with centuries of war as the yoke of the church was thrown off and replaced with the yoke of ambition.  Unifying philosophies (the Enlightenment and Nationalism) kept Europe together for around a century until it bled itself white through the competition of nations in two World Wars.  Now, the idea of the Cornucopian welfare state is running up against the hard reality of the decline of resources, the end of European global economic dominance, the lack of a Soviet threat to keep people all looking over the same shoulder, and it's anyone's guess as to which way the dominos will start to topple.  The European leadership isn't so stupid as to not know that history readily wants to repeat itself, just blinded by their own ambitions.

It should be hard to say what the future holds for Europe when (not if) the EU breaks up and old ideas begin to reassert themselves, but it's really not.  How long is it going to be before radical heads of state (of both the right and the left) find themselves with newfound political vigor, supported by a base of people who will come to see that all the promises made by European politicians are as empty as the national treasury?  How long will it take for these new radicals to start looking for others outside of their borders (or within, for that matter) to blame?  How long will it be until one leader or another decides that the only path for national survival is to seize things that someone else has? 

Much has been made of the ominous possibilities that might follow an American collapse, but looking overseas probably demands as much attention.  In either case, the cause is still the same -- a population that assumes that the lights will never go off or the oil wells will run dry, led by people who realize that the person who speaks truth will be lucky to keep their head, much less their elected office.  When we think that somehow, even if our own nation and sphere of influence implodes, that there will still be pockets of learning and civilization elsewhere in the world, we should remember that when collapse comes, it is not going to be local and limited, but global and profound.

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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Brother Against Brother

As part of writing this blog, and researching much of the material which goes into it, I've had the opportunity and need to talk to a wide range of people with an equally wide range of opinions.  This includes people who either back the Tea Party viewpoint or the pro-Obama viewpoint. 

The thing which stands out in many of these discussions, is that there is no reconciliation between one viewpoint and another.  People on the right accuse people on the left of wanting to use government to oppress them and destroy them financially.  People on the left accuse people on the right of wanting to "take over" the system and trample freedom in the name of some hidden agenda.  The facts no longer matter, the notion that each side genuinely believes it is trying to do what is best for the nation, is lost on the other.  The hatred between each camp is palpable and is not decreasing.

Things like this get glossed over in the good times, when there's no real pressure and competition for how to distribute limited resources.  When everyone is fat and happy, there's no need to worry about who's fighting over scraps.  Now, however, with uneployment and despair reaching catastrophic levels, a president with no ability to lead the nation out of the mess, a congress which is paralyzed by partisanship and whoring after lobbyist dollars, the pressures are growing until the inevitable is going to happen, a spark of some sort, the first rock through a window, which is going to set off a spiral of violence until a de facto state of civil war exists.

The first American civil war came perilously close to tearing the nation apart and has had repercussions that have not stopped to the present day.  This was in a time and place when there was a giant western frontier for people to escape to and rebuild new lives in a place of plenty.  Now that there are no ready-to-exploit frontiers left, no safety valve for radicals of both sides, what is going to be the end result?  A nonstop grind of civil conflict until there is not one stone standing on top of another?

It is in times like these when knowledge is lost and ideas die, in favor of the daily struggle to survive.  Look at any of the "third world" nations wracked by civil wars in recent decades.  What is there except using food as a weapon, making homebuilt AK-47s in the basement, and getting high in between clashes in the streets between one "militia" and another?  Do we think that we're any more immune to this than any other nation or culture?

While it doesn't necessarily seem that civil war and collapse would necessarily intersect with the storing of knowledge for rebuilding in the distant future, consider that the Khmer Rouge made a habit of putting plastic bags over the heads of people who wore glasses or didn't have callouses on their hands.  Would a few bins of carefully packaged books be enough to condemn someone?  Even if that were not the case, do we expect that anything resembling a public library would survive civil upheaval, or would they be torn down and disposed of along with all other institutions, such as universities, that one faction or another saw as objectionable?