Monday, May 21, 2012

Hot and Hazy

Summer seems to be getting an early start this week, with forecasted highs coming close to records that have stood for sixty or seventy years now. This on the heels of a winter-that-wasn't-a-winter, so the countryside was flush with vegetation a month or two ahead of schedule. I'll make an easy prediction now that we can look forward to lots of verbal battles between people who advance theories of global warmings, and those who argue against them. Leading the way on the anti-side will be the pundits like Rush Limbaugh, who have zero scientific training or knowledge, versus people on the pro-side who accuse people like him of wanting to destroy the earth and life on it.

That's a simplification, of course, but I think it illustrates at least the caricatures of where people stand on the issue. I don't really pay much attention to the debate on manmade global warming, as I think we're likely to do ourselves in as a civilization before it will ultimately become a serious issue. However, I do listen to Limbaugh from time to time while driving and caught a tidbit along the lines of "Folks, if we had to heat up the earth, we could never manage that. Only God could do something like that." That anyone could take him seriously after a tidbit like that goes to show that his audience is no more sensible than he is. Again, while I don't really pay a lot of attention to the theory, it seems that statements like that at least tip the credibility scale toward scientists who actually try to seriously study the issue.

In a lot of ways, the cultural crisis which is starting to shake up human society seems to be cut from the same cloth. Why the term "cultural crisis," anyway, and not "economic crisis?" Think about this, though -- an economic crisis implies problems with the economy, confined to the economy. The Great Depression generally fell into this category, where people had built an economic model that had some serious problems, but the overall culture was relatively sound. When the economy collapsed, people were able to still get by, and had some idea of where they were going as a nation and a people (in contrast, look at Nazi Germany, which was the product of a destroyed German culture in the wake of World War One). Now, the problem is so much greater and is no longer really confined to just one aspect of human society. America is stumbling, has no idea of what values it should be embracing (we have Jersery Shore on one hand, we have Joel Osteen on the other, with NASCAR and militarism in between).

The rest of the world is largely in the same boat, too, because the economy and consumption have become the end-game of all human effort everywhere. People measure who they are by what they have. When you have it, then what? Things rust and rot away, or we just get bored with them, like a middle aged salesman with his wife, and go chase something new. The ancient Greeks put stock in philosophy and learning, the Romans in tradition, the medieval European in religion, the Chinese in meditations on the nature of things, Enlightement thinkers in science and natural philosophy, early Americans in rights and law...and modern Americans in phantom things like Facebook stock.

A Dark Age is a combination of many things, part of it a time when there is no longer enough of an input of energy to sustain the socioeconomic models that people have built, but it's also a time when old ideas that have carried us forward die. With the Greeks, it came when the notion of pan-Hellenism died out during the Peloponnesian War, the Romans when perpetual conquest could not be sustained, and in the modern day when the idea of perpetual growth and consumption run into the reality of limited energy and markets.

In the end, it's not unlike the global warming debate -- we see what we want to see, put so much faith into an idea, that we conflate our existence with that idea and mindset. Now, we're facing the fact that our models are broken and we still cannot come to grips with that, preferring to deny that there is even a fundamental problem with things and that life as we know it can't go on forever. Traditionally, the summer has always been a slow news season, as people vacate Washington to go on vacation, but the Greek crisis hasn't resolved itself (the Greeks not even knowing who they want to lead them), the French are still pursuing their own broken model, and America is forced into an election that will change nothing, because reality itself has begun to catch up with the process.

We may be coming up on a very hot and hazy summer indeed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

It's Material

The blessing, and eventual problem, of living in an industrial society, is that we are surrounded by lots of mass produced items we become dependent on for functioning. These things are often not made to last more than a few years, much less a generation or more, because they can be easily replaced, and because the people who manufacture them will go out of business if they don't. In fact, there is often such a surplus of manufactured goods that it sometimes make more short-term economic system to discard things people don't know what to do with than it does to sell them. One of my first jobs was working at a retail store that sold appliances. It was not uncommon for us to be told to throw a perfectly good returned or "scratch and dent" washer or dryer away, instead of marking it down and making it available for a customer. The problem was that a new unit could be sold in its place, and the company could still make more off of selling the new unit, and discarding the old, than it could by a mark-down. At least to the credit of the people I worked with, none of us was ever happy about having to do that and realized what a complete waste it was.

As a society, we still tend to operate the same way, even if we don't often think much about it. Most clothing really isn't purchased with the intent of durability over time. Elastic, for example, will tend to get brittle after a period of non-use. I was surprised when I pulled out a pair of socks the other day that I'd had for just a couple of years and heard the characteristic "crackle" of broken-down elastic. If we have the foresight to stock up on a few extra pairs of socks or underwear, are we taking this into account? Our ancestors made do just fine with underwear that used drawstrings and ties, if they wore any at all (see this).

Plastics, likewise, can break down over time, especially when exposed to sunlight. So can rubber tires (which is where "dry rot" comes from, having nothing to do with exposure to water). Our snazzy new greenhouse covers might look nice now, but what happens when they yellow and turn opaque from micro-cracks? Or the plastic handle on our mass-produced hoe or shovel snaps? Wooden handles, cared for, will last forever. Also, consider the problem of plastic pistols, such as Glocks. They have a claimed lifespan of one hundred years or more, but none of them have been around for more than thirty or so years, so who knows? (although, in fairness, ammunition's shelf life is generally between 20-40 years)

Even engines and modern vehicles are problematic, with ten or fifteen years doing pretty good on most things powered by internal combustion. I talked in my last practical commentary about the maintenance that vehicles require, and the need to find practical alternatives for transportation, both personal, and of goods. One thing that people might consider purchasing is a Vermont garden cart. My parents had one of these, didn't take good care of it, and it lasted for twenty or so years before finally falling apart due to neglect, not any flaw in the cart itself. While this is a mass-produced item, it is made to last for generations, and can be bought with solid rubber tires for durability.

People who "prep" always seem to operate from the assumption that the lights will come back on at some point, and Wal Mart can be cleaned up and re-opened after a few years of rot. Freeze-dried food and a locker full of ammunition are nice, I suppose, but the reality is that the lifestyle shift brought on by the new Dark Age is going to require an evaluation of how we live our daily lives and what we can do to best adjust. It's not the dramatic things which are going to make a difference to most people, but the simple items which made life easier for our ancestors, when our idea of a "Dark Age" was their idea of normal life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Chase-ing Rainbows

When I first started this blog, I was a little worried about finding things to write about. I guess if I was writing on advances in humanist philosophy, the pickings might be a little dry, but when you're writing about the slow-motion collapse of modern industrial civilization, you have the opposite problem -- trying to cover all the little mini-fires and negative trends.

Today's news really isn't a surprise, but another banking scandal just erupted with the announcement of Chase blowing $2 billion in trading losses. Of course, heads are already rolling because of this, but let's break the situation down a little. Ina Drew, the scapegoat for this brewing scandal is being out of managing a division which apparently worked with around $360 billion dollars in assets. Pulling out the calculator shows that this was a loss of 0.55 % of these assets. That's a little over one-half of one percent. Statistically speaking, this is nothing.

So why the head-rolling? Reading on, we see that Jamie Dimon apparently had "encouraged" her to take these risks. What does "encouraged" mean in the context of a CEO speaking? Especially at one of the world's leading banks? I wasn't a fly on the wall, but I'd guess it's something along the lines of "make something happen or make way for someone else." Of course, the D-word pops up in this narrative, too -- derivatives. The real story here, I think, is the fact that a bank CEO is pushing for taking more risks in the first place. The recession has not ended, the world is still reeling globally from a long series of screwed-up moves by banks, and no one knows where the path out of the mess is.

At the same time as this news, is the announcment that California's new budget shortfall is $16 billion, up from $9 billion. That would be pretty sobering news in good economic times, but in the continuing New Great Depression, how do you begin to make that up? There are only two real alternatives -- cut spending or raise taxes. Cutting spending is going to reduce the amount of money available for education, law enforcement, infrastructure, etc. In other words, all the things that make a region attractive to people and businesses in the first place. The other option is to raise taxes some more, and see another "Atlas Shrugged" moment like are becoming popular in places like France, where rich people leave so they can try to remain rich for a while longer.

Sadly for Jerry Brown, California can't print it's own money, like Congress can. Like most states and cities, people were content to live it up and enjoy the excesses of prosperity, without realizing that prosperity can eventually fall on hard times and incoming tax revenues will sooner or later be "disappointing."

Last, Greece is back in the news again. The funny thing is that if Europe itself was healthy, it would've tossed the sick man of the EU overboard long ago. Unfortunately for proponents of European unity, this would just make everyone in Berlin (perhaps the only really healthy Eurozone country left) ask tough questions like "Hey, if we got rid of Greece, why is Spain in our little club?" I guess enough people in Europe still see enough of value in the EU to determine that the modern-day version of the Hanseatic League needs to limp along until the fiction that it was ever a workable idea can be done away with.

The common thread in all these stories is still the denial of reality and living in the mindset of the past. A bank CEO decides that risky behavior is just fine, even after too much risk almost torpedoed the world economic system. A state governer admits that the state has been leaving in a budgetary dream world. And an economic union pretends that booting one bad apple will get rids of the worms in the rest of the system. It's all about living in a dream world.

We still have enough "slack" to make some intelligent decisions about our future -- downscaling, modifying, adapting -- to where the loss of cheap energy and abundant resources can be offset by good planning. The problem is that we cannot let go of the past, of the notion that we can have "forever growth" and endless bounty. Reality has already begun to catch up to people -- those who have seen their unemployment run out, those who were conned into mortgaging their future for the promise of a good job, and those who have worked hard their entire lives to enjoy the fruits of their labor, only to find those fruits have rotted. At some point, it's going to catch up to everyone all around the world, then we're going to see the new Dark Age show itself in full glory.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I noticed the brief back-and-forth exchange on vehicles in comments on my Monday column. The topic of transportation is one which comes up from time to time, but doesn't really get as much discussion in preparedness circles as do things like food storage and weapons. I think it's a natural progression -- after all, the modern car is very much an item which is dependent on a long "tail" of industrial production, fuel production, road maintenance, regular repair and upkeep, and so on. Car ownership, even of a smaller or older car, is very expensive in actual economic terms.

When people think in terms of collapse, there is a real question in the air, too. If we see the death of modern industrial civilization, just where do we actually plan to go with ourselves? When the Wal-Marts of the world close, and eventually collapse in on themselves because they're not built to last the ages, is there a point to having a car? You can drive up, take a look around an overgrown parking lot, watch the birds nesting in rusting trusses, then leave. As a whole, do we expect to really travel all that far in the future, anyway? After all, governments are starting to replaced paved roads with gravel roads.  Is replacing the gravel with dirt all that far behind?

The price and availability of oil is also another big question mark. As it dries up, there is less capacity to operate cars. For all the talk of falling oil prices, gasoline is still around $3.75 a gallon, and people who expect it to return to $1.50 a gallon are delusional. It's conceivable to power cars with alcohol, or even steam, but how much effort is expended on doing this that could be put to other uses? Cars themselves also require tires, batteries, and oil, as expendable supplies that cannot be easily replaced, stored, or duplicated.

Mobility in the past hundred years has been something of an anamoly anyway. Prior to the Industrial Age, it was unusual for people to travel long distances. Anything more than a day's walk was considered a major trip. There was a reason that a pilgrimage to the "Holy Land" was quite an accomplishment.

It seems logical that relying on mechanized transport may be a fool's game. However, we don't necessarily have the luxury of chucking our cars just yet. Most of us live some distance from our employer, or from stores, etc. Few people are self-reliant or live in an area where there isn't a need to travel for necessities. Options such as horseback travel are even less practical than cars right now, and bicycles don't make sense except in limited circumstances.

Discussion about the future is something else, however. We tend to think of transportation in personal terms -- i.e., how do I get to work or the store? The reality is that transportation of goods, produce, and materials will probably be a more important consideration. Wooden wheels can be manufactured relatively simply, and a person can pull a cart much more easily than they can carry the same amount of goods. Animal transport can also be used to haul goods and people. Remember that even as late as WW2,Germany made standard use of horse-drawn wagons for transport.

Bicycles also seem to be a viable alternative for a while, at least until supplies of tires and chains run out. Solid bicycles tires are available, and while I don't know about dry-rot, it seems like if they are stored in the generic "cool, dry place," bicycle transport could conceivably be available for a couple of generations after cars. One caveat, however, is to assume that roads are going to be increasingly rough and mountain bikes would be preferred over other kinds. Bulk transportation by bicycle doesn't seem as practical as by animal, but I guess could be done in limited cases.

The truth is, any discussion about automobiles tends to return us to the reality of seeing the coming collapse, but also understanding that we're straddling two ages -- the consumerist age, and the post-consumerist age. To live in one, we generally have to think in ways which are alien to the other. The key is to live in such a way that we can address the needs of the present while preparing for the future.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Posterity Measures

The French elections will probably be commented on for a while, the victory of Francois Hollande, a socialist, raising the hackles of various commentators and likely prompting some discussion on the "inevitable linkage" between the new French president and Obama.  Fortunately, it's probably easier to make sense of this than it is of neo-Nazis picking up seats in Greek elections.

Taken at face value, the election appears to be a referendum on the austerity measures that Sarkozy favored, and a return to the notion of lowering retirement ages and funding more public sector workers, and all the other cornucopian ideas that come from good intentions and a winning smile. However, I think there are some crucial points being missed from the media analysis which give some insight into why the French voted the way they did, as well as insights into which way nations will choose to act as resources become scarcer and the money dries up.

France is a very, very old country. Assuming we date it from Francia, it is around 1800 years old, and has been a political, social, and economic powerhouse for much of its history. The caricatures along the lines of "French Army rifle for sale -- dropped once, never fired" are painfully ignorant and conveniently forget how France nearly brought Europe to its collective knees in the Napoleonic Wars. The image of the surly, xenophobic Frenchman is likewise belied by the cosmopolitan French culture.

And the French see Germany as calling the tune now. For centuries, Germany was nothing but a collection of bickering principalities and petty princedoms, numbering in the the thousands, once all political units were counted. The was followed by a remarkable coalescing, followed in turn by trouncing France in two World Wars and becoming the economic leader to the rest of the EU. It's a little like your kid brother, who cheated on all his college MBA exams while partying like Cheech and Chong, coming home to tell you how to run the family business.

Greece, likewise, with the reappearance of radical nationalism, is showing what lies in the hearts of most Greeks. Even older and more fabled than France, ancient Greece still captures the minds and imaginations of modern people, as shown in the architectural and naming influence across the Deep South, for example. The Romans, as powerful as they were, still imported Greek tutors and felt they owed much of their culture to Greece. Even Obama and other politicians make speeches in front of Greek columns. The reality of Greece in centuries past, though, has been a waystop for first Slavic, then Ottoman, armies marching back and forth across the continent. Younger than America, the modern Greek state is heir to the richest and most prestigious cultural tradition in the world.

Now, take both of these countries. Some people in them may be wanting to retire a few years earlier, not have to pay as much out of their own pockets for benefits, but I think the real issue goes deeper -- people living in these nations are aware of their heritage and conflate compomising with economic reality to be compromising their national identity. So, instead of simply saying "Okay, we have to make do with less," it's becoming an international game of trying to keep up with the Jones and save face as much as possible. Whatever it takes, the lifestyle will not be compromised.

Unfortunately, there's not room for this kind of thinking any longer. There are no colonial empires to build an economy on. There are no lands occupied by poorly-organized barbarians who can be clobbered with a disciplined phalanx or two. Even in America, politicians routinely trot out the notion that there can be no compromise on the "American way of life." What route are we going to take in America when we finally see that there's a choice between austerity -- in other words, living within our means -- or just trying to live one more generation in the family mansion before retiring to a tarpaper shack by the river? Or have we already made that decision, committing to maintaining our own empire and domestic benefits, while racking up the largest debt the world has ever seen?

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I'm going to slightly change how I post on this blog.  The original intent for the Leibowitz Society was to discuss knowledge preservation and lifestyle changes as we enter a new Dark Age.  Unfortunately, it's also pressing to understand why we're taking the course we are, and the primary mission has suffered because of this, so I'm going to start posting twice a week, probably on Thursday or Friday, discussing something related to personal preparedness, building lasting communities, academic topics, and so on.  I'd welcome suggestions for what to cover, but will also see what comes out of comments on the blog.