December 8, 2017 § 11 Comments
In the dull glow of my headlights, he drags the deer off of the road while a cigarette clings to his lower lip. My hazard lights blink rhythmically, an orange glow rising and falling on the grass lining the shoulder of the road. His son stands back and watches, and the man stumbles as the deer kicks her legs. I was the first to pull over, having seen the doe lying in the road as I drove passed her. She craned her neck and swung it in a large halo arc as if trying to shake free of an invisible infliction now crippling her. After a quick U-turn and parking my jeep in the grass, I approached the doe to find that she did not seem to be losing blood, but she clearly could not stand. A broken leg, or legs, perhaps.
The man and his son pulled over a few moments later. I had a gun in my car, but I was within town limits and not eager to commit a firearms violation. Ironically enough, I chose not to bring my knife with me to town this morning. The man’s son procured one from his pocket after his father had moved the injured animal out of the path of traffic. He flicked the blade open and it clicked into place. Turning the handle outward, he said, “Dad.”
I have made an effort to always treat the act of killing an animal as significant. What ceremony I make in the moment before I kill could be preposterous and meaningless for all I know. But I make ceremonies anyway because I am wary of hardening off, of callousing myself in manners of death. People who talk to trees do not create a business of clear cutting forests, and people who are humble in the act of killing for food do not develop a blood lust, or a sick enjoyment of the act of taking life.
Extending her neck by tugging on one of her ears, the man pulls the short blade across the frightened doe’s throat. I see the dark blood on the wet green grass, and I whisper to her. Orange light from my flashers pulses as the deer’s breath quickens. The man and his son return to their car and drive off. With my hood pulled over my head to hide from the night’s chill, I stand and watch the doe slowly die. Steam rises from the hole in her neck, and at first I speak, suggesting that she think of her mother, of days spent in the forest, of running and the wind. Then I am quiet, wondering if human voices may be hideous to her, especially in light of the circumstances. I spend the minutes silently, and somberly, until her tail flutters and her body writhes with that last flow of electric vitality that animates us all. When she is entirely still, I wait a minute longer before approaching. Her eyes are glass. My fingertips drag across her barrel.
I load her into my trunk, and head home.
Just like that, Ventura, California went up in flames. Wildfire season has drifted long past its October peak, and a week into December southern California’s hills are ablaze. Anaheim suffered massive fires already this year, as did the wine country region north of the bay. 2017 has been a record year for wild fires. Washington state, Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia; all were affected by droughts, record temperatures, and other conditions which saw elongated fire seasons and increased destruction.
Then there were the hurricanes. Houston was underwater after Harvey dumped rains that obliterated records. Florida was walked over by Irma. Puerto Rico and several other island states were utterly hammered by Maria, and months later they still endure a lack of electricity, clean water, and supplies.
With one million cars destroyed by floods, and countless homes needing gutting or even total rebuilds for those consumed by fire, the fallback for most people is some form of insurance. In order to function, an insurance company must presume that the likelihood of a maximum payout is very small. In a world of increased storm intensity or fire frequency, the numbers insurance companies use as a foundation for their business model no longer stand.
The same runs true for health insurance. Conceptually, health is supposed to be the presumed baseline for any given human being paying into the system. Injury or severe illness should be the outlier. At least in the United States, that no longer is the case. The CDC reported in October that the American obesity rate is at an all time high, with one in four Americans registering as obese. In July, the CDC reported that more than one-hundred-million Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic, which breaks down to one in three people.
Of course, regarding insurance, increased natural disasters and a dramatic slide in human health quickly conjure images of the mathematical doom and gloom scenarios of increased premiums, failing markets, and government bailouts. But beyond the obvious morass of economic consequences, when I think about insurance as a concept, what comes to mind is the modern desire to iron out the disruptions of life.
People in modern, western societies would like to move the starting line of existence out of a wild and chaotic world and into one which is static and controlled, a world in which disasters and loss are flukes, like bugs in a software system that with enough attention and manipulation can eventually be eliminated entirely. With large material acquisition comes the desire for permanence and predictability.
A house is the greatest expense in one’s life, typically. To labor for decades on decades in order to pay for the house, as well as to fill it with stuff, is dangerous business in a world that can take it all away with one fell stroke. Insurance is a casino game we play, regularly laying a chip on a low probability event “just in case” the unthinkable happens. Is there a greater fear than being reset to zero after years and years of numb drudgery, all of it in the service of stacking up a bigger and bigger pile of things? The entire edifice of consumer society rests on the idea that we will work today and that the things we buy will still be ours tomorrow. No longer able to live in the world, to see the providence in the fields and streams, only the store shelves can keep us alive, and so we tithe the gods of chance praying that the future is long and uneventful.
The ravages of civilization and its primary bag man of capitalism are skewing all of the odds. The seeds of climate change long planted and fully in bloom, the coastal property will flood, and the house in the hills will burn. War will rage, broken people will commit mass murder, and infrastructure will fail. On top of all that, the long process of killing the family farm, destroying decent wages, and handing out subsidies and favorable legislation to agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations has placed a too heavy burden on individual human bodies and the ecology that keeps them alive. Health is no longer the baseline. Diabetes cases will increase, cancer cases will increase, mental health will decline, opiate addiction will flourish.
A numbers game generated to give the masses a sense of safety, to propagate the illusion of a world of stability and permanence will fail. It is a game that was always predicated on growth, on there always being more, on the energy and capital to rebuild bodies and homes and cities to always be plentiful. And now what? What becomes of the modern world when there is no promise of tomorrow? How will people respond when certainty decomposes and there is no promise of rescue from rare events that quickly become regular? Forget the markets, and behold the global philosophical breakdown.
The temperature was just below freezing when I hung the doe from a young maple tree outside of my house. In the darkness my cold hands were warmed as I pulled her entrails from her body cavity, slowly, so as not to burst her full stomach. With the sunrise I was outside, my newly sharpened knife barely dragging over the membrane connecting the deer’s hide to her muscle. So finely honed was the blade that it took but the faintest painter’s touch to complete the work. I cut away strips of white fat and fed them to my dog who was eagerly observing me. The chickens were given the viscera and the carcass. One foreleg was placed in the forest, a gift for the ravens.
The meat of the animal was divided into three piles, most of it wrapped in used plastic bags. One of the piles was for us, and the two others were for friends of ours. They are the families on whom we rely for anything from companionship to childcare to car repair. In this way I pad my security, with a surprise trip to a friend’s house, fresh meat and a dozen eggs in hand.
Tomorrow was always an illusion.
August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.
November 9, 2015 § 8 Comments
Deep in the hardwood forest I watch the first orange light crest over the eastern ridge as dawn unfolds casting its warmth on the surface of the yawning Earth. Poplar trunks stand firm above the gold and brown leaf cover that now mulches the hopeful seedlings while granting the white tail deer an auditory advantage over those who would stalk them through the hollers. At this time of year the forest exhales and retreats from the above ground toil of photosynthesis to a season of focus within the dense and teeming skin of the planet. Without the brush and laden bough, one can see for miles across the waves of ridge and ravine. Sound is without obstacle, and seems almost propelled by the chill wind when it punctures the otherwise heavy silence. The feeling is one of calm, of that restfulness that comes when one crawls into bed and their leg muscles finally release the day’s tension. Autumn contains a library of lessons, none of which can be learned until one is still, patient, and not fucking talking.
My year was not what I had planned for it to be. Many tasks remain undone. Our family was interfered with by a local government body, and we are now in the process of installing an overpriced septic system for our cabin. It is a headache, to be sure, dealing with puffed up bureaucrats and their ad hoc adherence to antiquated and at times contradictory laws. As is often the case in this society, compliance is cheaper and faster than justice. Proving to a judge my case that I should not be required to acquire such a system would find me spending more money, time, and personal energy than just going along with the racket that the good old boys and connected families have established in these parts. I have made my peace with the conflict, and am calmly dancing through the hoops laid out for me. When all is said and done, the cabin I built with my two hands will be a legal residence in the event that we ever decide to move and to sell our land. Property value and all that, right?
Here we are again, dear readers, staring down another winter in which we can together reflect on the state of the world, both the portion that modern humans point their attention at, as well as to the far larger portion where, as Cormac McCarthy wrote, “Storms blow and trees twist in the wind, and all of the animals that God has made go to and fro.” Despite a massive downturn in the global economy, money moves and the smokestacks belch their poison. To be sure, man’s world of markets and digital notations percolates. An event is brewing that portends itself in plummeting rig counts and commodity prices. What grand show this event will perform for people rich enough to have a stake in it is to be seen. The rest of us will scrape by like the peasants that we are until even scraping fails, and only bloodletting remains.
Superstorms and hurricanes ravage from Texas to Yemen. Starved and hopeless human beings are playing the only card they have and abandoning the sure death that awaits their children in the war ravaged and drought plagued middle eastern and north African regions. Rich white people who are to blame for such wars, droughts, and famines are bellowing from the America’s, clear across Europe, and down to Australia about the brown victims of centuries of Anglo-capitalism and how they are not supposed to do anything but suffer their circumstances in place. Where these white adherents to national boundary and culture were as the US, UK, and other global powers were setting about to wage war and destabilize governments in these now uninhabitable places, I’m not exactly sure.
This is the crisis unfolding. This is what it looks like. Real life plays out a lot more slowly than the Hollywood scripts that have to crunch collapse adventures into one hundred and twenty minute films complete with explosions, comeuppance, and a love story for the girls. Tracking the decline of global industrial civilization is seemingly gaining in popularity, and it is all too common for those new to such a curiosity to expect an impending grand finale in which all bets are off; the power grid fails, store shelves empty, gas pumps get bagged, and all hell breaks loose in suburban cul-de-sacs where soccer moms in body armor pump 7.62 into hordes of urbanites (read: blacks and latinos…OK, and maybe a few white guys with neck tattoos get plugged for good measure) who are scouring the once idyllic portions of America in search of condensed soup and cheerleaders for their rape rooms.
Instead another year grinds by in which forest fires destroyed more than they ever had in North america, heat waves killed thousands in Pakistan, sea levels continued their upward march, and political institutions seemed ever more and more inept in the face of all the compounding emergencies that industrial civilization faces. Even my own humble region was affected by unseasonable levels of rain this July which were punctuated by a night of flash flooding that tested my mettle and resolve as I spent hours trying to find an unblocked path home.
Of course, we know that there are no solutions, not for the major crises. There is no putting back what is broken, and limits to growth are not optional. They are not suggested daily values. Sustainability isn’t a lifestyle choice. That which cannot be sustained will not be. For us as individuals, families, tribes, and communities, there is only endurance. How do we get by, and not just with the calories in our gut to labor forth, but with the joy in our hearts to make us want to carry on? Times of decline are times of darkening in the human heart and soul. Atrocity follows shortage. A world of hunger, hate, and blood is a world in which human conscience is called upon to rise, to shield, to burn brightly, despite less and less obvious motivation to do so.
The year draws down and grants us all yet another season to breathe. Let us use the time wisely.
April 7, 2015 § 7 Comments
March 15, 2015 § 21 Comments
“Protect your spirit, for we are in the place where spirits get eaten.”
– John Trudell
Spring is moving in quickly, more quickly than I might necessarily want. My arms are worn enough to keep me from complaining about the break from hauling and splitting firewood, and sleeping the night through instead of waking up at three a.m. to stoke the embers and add more fuel to the stove is a welcome respite. I am quite concerned however, that the season for collecting maple sap may be cut abruptly short. For the best syrup season, night time temperatures need to drop below freezing, and day time temperatures need to rise to just shy of forty degrees Fahrenheit. A week ago, nights were just above zero and days didn’t creep past twenty. This week, nighttime lows hover in the high thirties and the days are approaching sixty. Of course, this could be a fluke, and I don’t want to scream “climate change” with every strange localized weather event, but the songbirds seem to be dropping anchor for the season, and I am recording the details of this winter’s drastic waning in the ledger book of such things in my mind.
The arrival of spring brings for me a surge of energy as I feel life return to the above ground world from the root-balls and burrows where it slumbered during the frigid and dark portion of the year. Spring also brings with it a workload beyond what I ever have time for, so the energy I feel running through my limbs as the sun shines down on my jacketless body is quite a gift. I mention such things because as the days lengthen and grow warmer, I have commitments in the garden and about the homestead that keep me from writing, so this will likely be my last piece for a good while. Such a hiatus comes none to soon, as I feel I am running short on things to say for the present time.
Why do we seek such writing anyway? If you’re like me, you are reading this very piece as you drink your morning coffee or tea. You are mustering the wakefulness required to go about your daily activity, but before you do, you are washing your mind in a bit of confirmation bias concerning the state of the world. Everything is going to hell, and on a daily basis you check in with the news feeds and blogger community to peruse the latest data points that confirm what you already know: climate change is accelerating as superstorms and droughts increase in ferocity. The people in power are still maniacs insistent on walling themselves off from the public with cordons of brutish and overly armed police. People without power are still being brutalized when they stand up for their dignity or merely exist between a capitalist and a resource. Some species went extinct. Some rainforest was clear-cut. Some stretch of ocean was overfished, or used as a radioactive dump-site, or both.
Rise and shine, the world is right where you left it when you went to sleep last night. Now go to work.
A few days ago I asked a young man I know who works as a dishwasher in a deli, “Why do you get up and go to work every day?” He answered, “To pay the bills.” I then asked, “What would happen if you didn’t pay your bills?” “I would be evicted eventually,” he replied. It quickly became evident that I was engaging in an exercise more than I was asking sincere questions, and he quite happily humored me as we ran through the entire sequence of events that would follow his not paying his bills. There are the police who would serve his eviction and the consequences they would face if they refused to do so, the police chief who would fire them, the mayor that would fire him if he didn’t terminate non-compliant police, and on, and on down the line. It wasn’t a new line of thought for him, and after playing the game of hypotheticals, I asked him what was behind this whole machination of human dominoes that forces people to work doing things they hate, like washing dishes in a deli.
He said, “Money. Greed.”
I offered a different possibility. “There is a demon behind all of this, manipulating us. It is an invisible and nameless demon that is trying to eat our souls.”
He laughed. I told him I was serious.
Perhaps you don’t believe in demons. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that no matter how much we know, individually and collectively, no matter how much anger we harbor, no matter how much we hate what it is our bodies and minds are engaged in for hours at a stretch every single day, we still go and do it. Minute by minute, hour by hour, no one is standing there making us do anything. It is all internalized. We are obedient. We are docile. We are domesticated.
Here is where you jump in and interject that bosses and landlords and police and judges all are waiting in the wings to punish disobedience. Of course they are. I don’t disagree. But remember, there are more bosses and landlords and police and judges all waiting behind the first set to make sure they keep to the rules and continue the game of civilization uninterrupted. Though this is obvious I point it out for a reason: there is no one to kill. There is no one person who if eliminated would provide for us the opening we need to stop the insanity of industrial civilization and to build something new, something sane, something with the potential for longevity.
Thinking of such things reminds me of “The Grapes of Wrath.” In the story, Steinbeck writes a scene in which the agents of the landowners come to tell the tenant farming families that they have to leave.
“Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there-quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The tenant farmers are pushed to anger at the blamelessness and absurdity of their situation.
“We’ll get our guns, like Grampa when the Indians came. What then?
Well-first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.”
Steinbeck does a masterful job outlining the maddening and perplexing nature of our conundrum; people comprise the system, people act out their roles within the system, but people are not the system. So what the hell is the system? It seems so innocuous. It is rules. It is expectations. It is a series of triggers by which one human action results in an automatic response by another human who is just doing their job, and if they weren’t doing it, someone else would be. Of course, I am not trying to absolve any single person of the responsibility they bear for the actions that they individually engage in. I am however, interested in exploring the construction of the invisible forces that keep all of us participating in a system that we know is toxic to us physically and spiritually, as well as to the living planet at large.
It is so easy to blame the system. It’s just a word, and it is a stand in for the pieces and the whole of everything we see that is wrong with the way human society is behaving. Poverty? Blame the system. War? The system. Racism? The system. But what is the system? If it is just rules, expectations, and essentially stories that we tell each other, then why is the system so hard to change? Why is it so seemingly immutable? Why are we so damn helpless and ineffective at altering something so fragile, so simple, so made up? Could all of us really be so captured by something invented, something spoken into being and jotted down on flimsy pieces of paper? It’s as though we all began playing a game, only to realize that the game was playing us, and once begun there was no way to stop playing, even as we watched our movements destroy the world.
Maybe there is a demon after all. Maybe ignoring the demon, pretending it is not there endangers us further. Maybe the demon is an eater of souls, and its strategy is to diminish our power and our will through mindless labor, through a dulled existence of symbols and static, flashing lights and loud noises, addiction and poisonous food. Maybe for millennia, this demon has been slowly at work, gaining strength and refining its strategy, inserting its desires and ploys into our lives as politics, as capitalism, as war, as revolution, as status, as sex, as culture, as normal, as human nature.
Is it so hard to believe? Look around. Walk through a gas station. Look at the racks full of five hour energy bottles, E Cigarettes, scratch and win lottery tickets, chili cheese flavored corn chips, male enhancement pills, and thirty two ounce aluminum cans full of Monster and malt liquor. Step outside and see the fifty-foot glowing signs advertising Arby’s, Taco Bell, and some nameless pornography and sex toy megastore. Each establishment is serving up a small slice of death, of exploitation, of misery. Each storefront and corporate logo is masking a sweatshop, a slaughterhouse, a slave, an oil spill, another species gone from the Earth forever.
But we don’t believe in demons. We are too rational for that, too objective, too advanced. At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. But then I look around at the tortured landscape and the careless people moving through it who don’t seem to notice that they are traversing a spiritual wasteland, and I have to wonder.
Maybe when we go to the internet in the morning and look for the daily headlines and editorials, we are really looking for a friend, someone of like mind to join us in our knowledge and our fear of the events taking shape all around us that individually we are just too damn small to do anything about. Like office workers who jumped from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center, we want someone with whom we can hold hands as we take the plunge into a future that has no good outcomes.
Or maybe, we are looking for hope, logging on and scrolling past link, after, link, after link until we find what we have been waiting for; a set of instructions. No more data points, no more statistics and measurements confirming what we already know, but a plan. For God’s sake, the catastrophe is spelled out in neon lights and it howls from a megaphone all day, every day. I have more awareness than my mind can bear, but what the hell am I, are you, supposed to do about it? We are so small. We are just one person. We are already late for work.
Step one: Protect your spirit, for you are in a place where spirits get eaten.
March 8, 2014 § 13 Comments
My friend and I joke about techno-optimists. Both of us have wasted enough time on the internet reading the prognostications of self described technocrats, transhumanists, and even optimistic liberals who carry with them and promote a picture of the future that is near utopian in it’s advancements and its cleanliness. This optimism is shared widely by younger generations who cannot be bothered to understand the totality of the destruction wrought on the planet and its ecosystems over the last few hundred years. Advances in communications technology have people believing that anything is possible, and depending on their politics, their reasoning is essentially that either government, corporations, capitalists, or some combination of them is all that stands between us and a near workless future of global equality and abundance. A trip to the Apple Store and a copy of Popular Mechanics seemingly forms their understanding of not only what humans can do, but what they should do.
What is frustrating about these techno-topians is that for them, name dropping a technology is supposed to convince the rest of us that said technology has all of the prerequisite systems in place for its global implementation and that said technology can effortlessly be scaled up to replace current technologies. Further, the techno-optimist speaks as if technologies exist in an ecological vacuum where they can be designed, manufactured, deployed, utilized, upgraded, and ultimately dismantled when they are inevitably made irrelevant by new developments without damaging ecosystems and living communities. Arguing for the bright future society these technologies will grant us usually finds their acolytes rebuffing their potential flaws by name dropping another, then another, then another hypothetical invention or method, creating a fractal universe of innovations that are essentially non-existent today, but that we are supposed to have faith will rescue us from the crises that are meting deleterious effects right now.
Techno-optimists talk about Moore’s Law and the doubling of computing power that will lead to computers smarter than humans in mere decades. I’m not sure what these super smart computers are exactly supposed to provide for us. Bitcoins? 3-D porn? 42?
This is the rim of the rabbit hole. Computers are manufactured at great ecological and material cost. They are created with rare earth metals, plastics, copper, fresh water, slave labor in mines, near slave labor in factories, fossil fuel powered mining equipment, fossil fuels converted into materials, fossil fuel powered assembly lines, global shipping and distribution, and they are eventually obsolete which lands them in third world neighborhoods to be “recycled” by poor people who burn them to extract what of value they can. Of course, the techno-optimist is likely someone who lives in a wealthy nation, and it is likely that they primarily see the benefits of technology, not the drawbacks. They probably have never assembled an iPad or spent three days underground mining coltan by hand under the watchful eye of an AK-47 toting guard.
There are very real crises that are unfolding now. Solutions to these crises needed to be implemented years ago. In fact, crises like climate change, peak oil, deforestation, species die-off, top soil loss – all needed to be addressed decades and decades ago. Talking about them solves nothing. Chanting the words “Solar panels, wind turbines, hemp oil” over and over again does nothing to address the net energy decline of peak oil, especially as on the whole, industrial capitalism has clearly chosen to go full tilt with hydro-fracking for tight oil and gas and strip mining for tar sands bitumen and low return coal deposits. It is hard to join any optimism that refuses to look around and see that technology is not, right now, this moment, saving the day. Technology is being used to maintain the status quo as the train of industrial civilization hurtles towards a gorge.
Technology comes with costs. There are the ecological costs of the places destroyed so that raw materials can be extracted. There are ecological costs of energy acquisition necessary to power engines and electronics. There are ecological costs to discarding defunct and obsolete machines and products. There are human costs to communities displaced, sickened, and killed by extraction and technological implementation. There are human costs in the immiseration of labor forces which crawl into copper mines, work assembly lines, wither in cubicles, and work the fields picking vegetables to keep all of the above alive. There are energy costs, as no technology exists without energy. An electric car needs electricity flowing through an electric grid, and as it stands, that electricity is primarily created through the burning of hydrocarbons. Nuclear power should need no discussion as to its dangers, and all of the pie in the sky “renewables” are all dependent upon industrial processes and none are eternal.
James Kunstler wrote a book on the optimism of techno-fetishists who cannot seem to do the math on what a technological society begins to cost. In “Too Much Magic,” Kunstler tells an anecdote about a visit to the Google Campus where he gave a talk. After describing the “tricked out” offices laden with snacks and video games, he describes the question and answer session that followed his speech, in which the general statement from employees was summed up as, “Like, dude, we’ve got technology.” Kuntsler writes:
“This informed me of something pretty scary: The executives and programmers at Google didn’t know the difference between technology and energy. They assumed that these were interchangeable, that if you run out of one you just plug in the other, which is inconsistent with reality.”
Seeing the childishness of the office layout and employee dress and behavior, Kunstler comes to a realization about the type of playful creativity at the backbone of Google’s business model:
“The childlike thinking at Google was a logical extension of this corporate culture: the belief in magic, in this case the magic of high tech. A lot of the high-level employees I spoke to in the auditorium that day were people who had become millionaires before they had turned thirty (thanks to Google Stock), mainly by pushing pixels around a screen with a mouse, that is, by making computer magic. They had magically become rich by making magic. Naturally, then, they were true believers in tech magic, and also, by extension, believers that any problem facing the human race could be fixed by applying tech magic.”
The attitude Kunstler describes is permeating the masses in the west. It’s reasonable to assume that the advances in technology available to the general public in wealthier nations is partly to blame. Twenty-five years ago there was Nintendo, and now there is Playstation 4. Before either, kids played outside. Twenty-five years ago the cordless phone was a wonder, and now you can tweet your musings on a touch screen smart phone from pretty much anywhere. Yes, computer technology has advanced quickly and has been dispersed to wealthier masses. At the same time, Hollywood has applied this technology to story telling, creating visual spectacles which can make the imaginary seem very real. The problem with this, is that stories on the screen which themselves describe constant advancement in technology come to life in the minds of the audience members who come to believe they aren’t witnessing fiction, but a commercial for the world of tomorrow. Finally, life in the modern middle class west is in so many ways separated from the foundations of these advances. People who have access to yearly upgraded smart phones never see the regions of land deforested and strip mined to gain access to a mineral. They don’t live in the sacrifice zones where fossil fuel is refined so that a rocket can put a satellite into space. They are privy to almost none of the miserable labor that makes any of these technologies possible. That’s what makes technology oh so magical – because it appears out of nowhere. One day it just shows up at a Sprint store and then it’s yours! The witches brew of dead migratory birds, dead gorillas, dead forests, dead rivers, and dead people that made such magical technology possible is never seen or tasted.
This magical attitude is a byproduct of living in a nation that exports currency and forces the world to accept it at the barrel of a gun. In a nation where none of the “doing” happens, a mere hypothesis is just as good as a completely implemented and functioning process. It is impossible to have a productive conversation about the myriad costs of any one technology, let alone all technologies, with someone who thinks in plug-and-play fashion. Mention global declining net energy, and they will say “algae,” “hemp,” or “solar,” as if the problem isn’t complex and nuanced, but merely a lack of suggestions of things that we can burn. Mention declining stores of materials or the ecocide involved in getting at them, and they will say “asteroid mines” or “3-D printers,” as if just coming up with something conceptually is the first and last step towards making it a reality. Time after time I have tried to describe the depth of modern agriculture and its drawbacks; fossil fuel dependence, top soil depletion, chemical run off, destruction of bioregions, pollinator kill off, etc. and with near unanimity the response is a vague mix of the words “permaculture” and “cloning.” Of course, this is from people who have never gotten one potato to pop out of the dirt.
Last week in North Carolina the Dan River had thirty thousand tons of coal ash spilled into it when a pipe burst beneath a containment pond. In the last month there have been two massive leaks of toxic chemicals in rivers in West Virginia, one of which poisoned the water source for over three hundred thousand people. It was discovered just the other day that the Wanapum dam in Washington state has a sixty-five foot crack in it. Toss in recent incident after incident in which natural gas pipelines have exploded and oil pipelines have burst, and I cannot help but think about upkeep.
When people speak of the future and all of the things humans will be able to create, rarely do they consider all of the things humans have already created which need constant upkeep and maintenance in order to not fail critically. In his short film about hydraulic fracturing, Josh Fox details the necessity of concrete gas well casings to last indefinitely in order to prevent gas from seeping into groundwater. Fox goes on to document that these concrete well casings last on average for twenty years.
Many of us have owned a car, and we know that over time, the damn thing falls apart. Metal rusts, fluids leak, components fail, and in general entropy wreaks havoc until we realize that it makes more sense to scrap the vehicle than to try to repair it. Industrial civilization is our collective jalopy.
Speaking of cars, according to USA Today:
“An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as “structurally deficient” and 20,808 as “fracture critical.” Of those, 7,795 were both — a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse.”
And these are just the bridges. Transporting all of our techo-gadetry, let alone our food, will require roads. Roads require constant repair. Repairing roads requires petroleum powered vehicles and well fed crews. As it stands, the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2013 “report card” for the US gave the roads a “D.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers also graded the water mains. They are apparently in about the same crappy shape that the roads are, as they were also given a “D.” Every year there are 240,000 water main breaks, which comes to about six hundred and fifty or so per day. The power grid on which all of the “World of tomorrow” fantasy technology will clearly rely was given a “D+” by the ASCE.
Of course, we could all scratch out a living without highways, water mains, and electricity, but what becomes downright concerning is the breakdown of existing infrastructure that can be fatal. How are the US’s nuclear power plants holding up? According to an Associated Press investigation into the aging of US nuclear reactors:
“Federal regulators have been working closely with the US nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them. Time after time, officials at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.
Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards. Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident. Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.”
Add in the chemical weapons storage depots, the bio-warfare weapons depots, the thousands of chemical plants, fertilizer plants, oil wells, refineries, nuclear research facilities, nuclear warships and nuclear waste storage facilities, and it becomes hard to fathom how a point won’t come when a large portion of human effort won’t be dedicated to merely maintaining what civilization has built while attempting to mitigate disasters caused by aging and dilapidated infrastructure. All of this while trying to grow a civilization and its technological capacity as fish stocks disappear from the rapidly acidifying oceans and top soil blows away from drought parched and poorly managed fields.
To believe in the techno-topian future is to ignore the concept of diminishing returns. Physicist Geoffery West gives a Ted Talk in which he demonstrates that living organism operate on a sublinear, bounded growth pattern. What this means is that across the living kingdoms, the larger a being’s mass, the less energy per capita it requires to keep said being alive. Of course, every living being has its optimal size, and no living thing grows forever. West goes on to point out that human cities operate on similar principles, except that their growth is superlinear, and that as populations grow, there is an increase in per capita energy required to maintain these systems. He points out that this makes cities unsustainable without innovation, with the added caveat that the innovations that prevent collapse in cities must also be innovated upon at an ever increasing pace. The question, according to West, is whether or not people can keep up.
Geoffery West also points out in his presentation that the growth of a city not only requires exponentially larger energy inputs, but that it necessarily will have exponentially increased levels of crime, disease, and discontent. Does it then not stand to reason that human innovations which provide the basis for growth also inadvertently sow the seeds of their own destruction? Every new band-aid technology which buys time for industrial civilization is itself a chaotic butterfly flapping its wings. Hydraulic fracturing temporarily offset declines in oil production while also causing Earthquakes, poisoning groundwater, and adding to climate change. Genetically modifying food crops to resist herbicides has led to increased herbicide use which increased the toxicity of ecosystems while simultaneously causing weeds to adapt to these chemicals. Yesterday’s solution becomes today’s problems. Eventually, today’s solution will be tomorrow’s cataclysm.
Of course, standing on a stage with a headset microphone and speaking to a horde of technophiles, I’m sure the on the ground reality of West’s suppositions is lost. Innovation isn’t magic. The resources and supplies that make innovation possible are not limitless. Right now, global net energy is on the decline. New sources of energy from “tight oil” plays to solar panels do not add more energy than is lost as conventional petroleum fields reach and pass their production peaks. Nor are the inventions of humankind timeless. An innovation may bring temporary gains, but then like a nuclear power plant or a gas well, the innovations themselves require ever increasing amounts of upgrades and repairs. This ever quickening race up an ever steeper slope is not one industrial man can win. In the interim, a particular class of human runs this race while throwing larger and larger swaths of everyone else into the furnace of development. When the eventual breaking point is reached, not only will civilization lose its ability to innovate and grow, it will lose it’s ability to contain its slumbering killers.