November 11, 2016 § 14 Comments
Only two bolts hold the crankshaft-position-sensor in place. It is their distance from me that makes replacing the sensor a moderately frustrating task. The ratchet handle, cold in my left hand, has two six inch extensions on it, followed by an elbow joint, followed by a three inch extension, followed by the eleven millimeter socket. My right hand braces this ridiculous tinker-toy of a tool, or tries to at least, as I slowly loosen the bolts. The contraption feels only slightly more effective than attempting to loosen a bolt with a wet noodle. Through out the process, I have to constantly replace the socket as it slips off the hexagonal bolt head. More than once the extensions separate. At one point when they do, one of the heavy metal sections falls onto my face, smashing into my lip.
I don’t yell it. I just sort of say it.
The rain starts to fall harder. I am covered by the hulking mass of my Jeep, but I hear the patter of drops hitting the dry paper leaves that cover the forest floor. Pulling my body out from beneath the vehicle takes a few seconds, and when I stand I brush the mud from my black sweatshirt. The hood slams with a hollow aluminum thud, and once back underneath the car, I realize I cannot see what I am doing now that light cannot pass through my engine compartment. I call for my daughter. She brings me a reading light that works wonders in tight spaces between your exhaust and your transmission.
I spent my election day at home. A friend came over with her toddler son. She kept an eye on our children as I attended to tasks about the place. My Jeep has had a start up issue that I have been trying to solve for almost a year. It’s not nearly as prevalent during warmer weather, but now that November is bringing nights in the high thirties, the issue is rearing itself again, and I am piece by piece chasing a ghost in my machine.
Working on my own car makes me feel capable. By no means would I describe myself as mechanically inclined, but I hate having to pay mechanic’s rates, being that an hour of their time costs about what I can earn in four or five hours of my own. Further, I will fight tooth and nail to not ever buy a car with a loan. If I could get by without a car I would, and I think about this as my hands and arms become sore as I remove the sensor from my crankshaft. In order to see what I am doing and to manipulate the bolts through their last counter-clockwise turns in their threads I sort of have to hold my body in a crunch position, abs tight, torso heavy. With an exhale, I relax and lay back on the gravel beneath me. I think about the complexity of maintaining our stations in life. I think about the energy invested in maintaining even what might be described as a “lower standard of living,” by contemporary standards.
I don’t own a car because I love cars or driving. I own a car because the geography of my existence requires one. On our land we are doing everything we can to regularly increase our capacity to support ourselves, but our neighbors aren’t, and even if they are, we aren’t all doing it together, collectively, in a manner that would lend itself to efficiently creating a small community. When I draw a sketch in my mind of the ideal small community, there is one four-wheel drive truck between us. Once a week, maybe once a month, we carpool to town to sell our surpluses and to buy supplies. Maybe I really start dreaming and that truck is a horse or two and our nearby town, a day’s ride, is fit with a livery. Then I abandon the shackles that bind my imagination with questions like “how?” and get to the real joy of daydreaming a nomad’s life where my band follows seasons, follows herds, follows the rhythm of the Earth and the turning of the stars.
A crankshaft-position-sensor is basically a magnet. I turn it in my hands. Dangling from it is a long coil of a cord like that of a handset telephone from the eighties, only smaller. I toss it onto my passenger seat for the time being.
The best I can hope for is that in some amount of years my wife and I have created a homestead situation that supports our family well enough to where we might be able to drop to one car, and to use it infrequently. The simple fact is that the pace at which this society functions even makes horses irrelevant. If I am to need anything from the outside world, I need to be able to earn the currency it demands, which means operating on its timescales and pacing. Conversely, this means that a massive decline in the speed of this society will allow for people to slow down as individuals, and since the primary energy source that fuels society is declining in its net ability to do so, perhaps I will see the day when drawn carts return to common use. Or maybe people will just walk, to nowhere really.
This summer I wrote an essay in which I predicted hard economic times in the near term future to rise to the fore in a fashion that would be undeniable. Thus far, I must eat crow on this prediction. This is why I make no habit of prediction. Of course, I watch the daily tea leaves and bone castings that tell of real estate bubbles in China, negative interest rates in Europe, and shipping slow downs around the world. Like most, I try to arrange these shards of information into a complete picture by which to prevision perhaps the coming tides. I think of what I think I know about energy and economics and it seems as if objects are solidifying in the mist. But often shards of information begin to feel like knowledge, and not knowing what we don’t know prevents us from grasping just how many pieces of the picture we aren’t taking into account.
Complexity is a hell of a thing. My gut still says there is an event of severe magnitude not far from our doorstep, but for now I’ll suffice to finishing the current portion of corvid I have stewed for myself, and gander about at the present instead of losing myself in the future.
And though I am in a sense greatly loathe to do it, I will comment on the US presidential election.
This morning there was a crescendo of editorial pieces released trying to explain the campaign and now victory of Donald Trump’s run at the American presidency. He is a fairly disgusting braggart of man with few admirable qualities, and I feel I might be generous in presuming that he has any at all as they have not once been displayed despite his plethora of opportunities to do so over the entire sad course of this year’s election. But he won, and it’s no surprise really, which is why I find it stunning that so many people seem surprised.
The complexity of maintaining our station is too encumbered; the thermodynamic requirements of our class status are going unmet by a decline in available net energy per capita. It’s almost boring. Like when a spike in ethanol use in the US raises food prices in Africa and causes riots and revolutions. There is not much romance to analyzing large political swings and convulsions when we find that at their core, so rarely is sheer passion for life and love of justice the sole driver of mass movements. More often than not, the underlying cause of tumult and upheaval is access to resources. People like to eat. Every day if possible. They really like it when their kids eat. Clean water and a safe place to sleep are huge bonuses. Start inhibiting their access to such things, and people tend to stir.
Contemporary, “first world” people have less than they are used to, or less than they think they ought to, and they are mad about it. Sure, many of them still have access to cheap calories, electric lights, and a veritable universe of streaming time sucks. But then again, their lives are complex. Maintaining their station, even a low station often means having a car, and a phone, and enough money to clean one’s clothes, and to make themselves presentable, and so on. Even for the rural poor lucky enough to live on owned land, property taxes climb, gas prices climb, the kids need shoes, the kids need dental work, and the Dollar General is the only employment and grocery option around.
Meanwhile existing where we do on the arc of late-stage capitalism, which happens to intersect with the end of the oil age, it must be stated that growth is very clearly dead. Sure, there is a skulking heap dragging about that pundits and politicians call growth, but this gangrenous creature is nothing but central bank injections by way of bond purchases. More clearly stated, it’s fraud. And like most good fraud’s, a club of insiders are making a killing off of it. Everyone else slowly bleeds out, spinning faster and faster to keep the cobbled mess of their almost middle class existence glued together.
And then one morning, the car just won’t start.
Donald Trump has spent a year and a half hawking easy answers to this complex problem, and fortunately for the second rate grifter, the American lumpen has a third rate education. For years, network television has carried water for Trump by selling him as a shrewd and cunning businessman via his reality television show. Despite his repeated lambasting of the biased media, he forgets that they basically ran a commercial for him for several years in prime time.
Through out his candidacy Trump often spoke of himself as the best or smartest or most qualified person for this and that task, whether it was rewriting the tax code, brokering international trade deals, or defeating ISIS. Most of his explanations fell short due to his habit of meandering verbally from one topic to another while splashing his rhetoric with constant criticism for everything that his political opponents have done. This, in a way, left the audience to fill in the blanks, and when I listen to people in my rural community speak of Trump, or when I read the comments of well educated acquaintances as they degrade him, it is interesting to note that it seems as if everyone has their own take on the man. His blankness lends him to be a projection screen for each individual’s monsters from their id.
Personally, I find the man to be abhorrent. To be fair, I find representative government to be equally abhorrent, as well as nation states, rigid hierarchies, and capitalism. Clearly, I would not then favor anyone who ran for such an office or who believed they had the ability or right to represent anyone other than themselves. Trump is piggish to boot. But what is any of that worth?
Complex societies cannot be efficiently run via a hierarchy. Recently some people did math to prove this. I didn’t need numbers, I needed only to look at the state of the world from my still young eyes many years ago to abandon support for such systems. Support or no, the system persists, and in its current state of mal-service, it is convulsing, seizing up on itself like an engine in which water has entered into the combustion chamber. Like everyone else, I cannot predict where this current scenario leads exactly, but I can step back and point out that it is helpful to briefly put aside seeing Trump the man, Trump the racist, Trump the genius, Trump the misogynist, Trump the maverick, Trump the fascist, and every other shadow we have cast on him to instead, for a moment, view Trump the signpost on the road to collapse.
We are at a very specific place on the arc of decline, and the election of Trump in the US places a very bright red pin on the map of that arc. After decades of global expansion, oil fueled industrial civilization is in a state of crack up. It may be an early stage, but take note that protectionism is on the wind. That nationalism in the western world is timing out to completely coincide with the bursting of the fracking bubble in the US and the inundation of global financial markets with negative yield is likely no coincidence. The US electing a charlatan strong man is something that many presumed would come when conditions were right. So that is where we are. What comes next?
Complexity is a hell of thing. And even with great effort, consciously simplifying a vastly complex system when all previously existing support structures have been decommissioned and sold for scrap is a hell of a thing too.
I know this all too well. I would ride a horse to town if I could. Hell, I would live in a wig-wam if I could.
How do we slow the spin of this gyrating flywheel of a society? How do we walk it back? Can it be walked back? Or is everyone too damn convinced that they can grab hold and steady it, control it, hell, innovate it, automate it, make it more efficient?
It is probably silly that a sense of accomplishment coursed through me when I finished changing out the crankshaft-position-sensor on my Jeep. I knew to temper my optimism until I had turned the key in the ignition. The starter whinnied as the engine refused to turn over. I fought it for a moment and eventually the old Cherokee revved to life. The ghost has slipped me. Maybe a leaky injector, I wonder. Sitting in the driver’s seat I stared out through the windshield to the ravine before me. Very few leaves are left on any but the beech trees. The gray afternoon was calming if nothing else.
With effort I have worked at shrinking my world. I ready myself for a time when news that originates more than twenty miles from my front door is a rare and rumor laden thing.
I leave the keys on the seat as I walk to the house. My daughter’s hair is matted from the rain she demands to keep playing in. I take her hand in mine while our young friend picks up her son, and the four of us retreat to the house for warmth, and food, and calm.