Thursday, May 20, 2010

political interlude

"The current crisis facing the euro is the biggest test Europe has faced in decades. It is an existential test and it must be overcome ... if the euro fails, then Europe fails," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Finally, a leader says something honest. Or more honest than anything any other leader of anything has said. No surprise she's from the least socialist country in the EU, while the "bailout" went to the most.

And it is more than an existential test; it is an existential crisis and the truth of the matter is that the existence has shifted, changed, never to go back, so all the looking for "the recovery" and "getting back to the way it was" are whistling past the graveyard, covering the ears and singing "lalalala". The currency almost has no option but to break what with all the printing going on.

So the questions to ask yourself are these: what will I eat, where will I live, how will I keep warm?

Husband and I were out yesterday. I couldn't believe the building going on, with empty building right beside, but it was the new cars on the lot that got me. "I can't believe they still make new cars," I said. "We could go twenty to forty years without a single new car being made."

"And imagine all the jobs there would be," husband chimed in. "Mechanics and machine shops."

"And people to paint and upholster," I said.

And in real estate, four or five families could live in a McMansion and again, people could be employed gainfully, doing something real, making those monstrosities into functional and efficient living spaces. And every yard, and every median, could grow some food.

It isn't a grim thing, this existential crisis.


Madcap said...

I was in the new developments of the west end of The City last week, and I couldn't believe all the new housing going up, and the new cars, and the new furniture, and NO GREEN SPACE. That's the part that gives me the heebie-jeebies. There's no where of consequence to plant anything.

WV - chess. It's all a game?

Wendy said...

Very good questions, those. What will we eat? Where will we live? How will we stay warm ... and cook our food if we don't electricity and oil?

What's funny is that people keep holding on to those jobs, like making new cars or building new houses, thinking of all of the jobs that would be lost without them, and totally ignoring all of the skills that would be gained by learning how to maintain, repair, reuse and repurpose what we have. Just the job of making our McMansions more low-energy friendly (adding insulation and an alternative heat source, for instance) would be an enormous task and create a huge job market.

CG said...

Ah, but you notice not one single thing on really mainstream media about our "existential crisis"?

Jenny said...

Europe has survived plagues that more than decimated its population. Europe has survived from without the threats of the Khans and Moors, and from within wannabe emperors like Napoleon, Hitler... all to say nothing of the hell-on-earth religious wars of the 17th c.

The collapse of some overly-ambitious collectivist banking system won't destroy Europe. It'll just make it uncomfortable for a decade or two.

What happens *in* that discomfort is another question entirely, but given what Europe has weathered in the past, I'd hardly call it existential.

Frankly, I'm more concerned about the effects of importing wholesale a new underclass, sometimes hostile to the culture of the host country. That's got the potential to end in tears no matter what they do. Especially given the above, and that people don't make the best of decisions when they're scared and hungry.

On our side of the pond, I frankly expect we'll reset more quickly. I think there's a good chance we'll have the doubling-up and Victory Garden period you speak of, but that it won't be universal, and won't last longer than a decade or so. If there's one thing Americans are good at, its innovating material prosperity.

Time will tell though. Sure is interesting. :)

CG said...

Jenny, "Europe" has survived in the same way that "North America" has survived. And fact is, we'd pretty much be pretty much fine right now if we'd just live like the 1950s, much less like 1066.

Wendy said...

What's interesting about that, CG, is that the news about our "existential crisis" is being reported by the mainstream media - right next to the article about the Academy Award fashions or who's on and who's off Dancing with the Stars or some other fluff piece of journalism.

It's there, certainly dumbed down quite a bit, but it's there, and so many people are just refusing to see things for what they really are. We think, if there were a problem, the government would tell us, but the fact is, that they have.

Nixon, Carter, and GW Bush all told us about the energy crisis, and we decided not to believe them. Carter put a solar hot water heater on the White House, and Bush has an off-the-grid house in Texas.

What's the saying "actions speak louder than words"?

They're telling us. We're ignoring them. Shame on us.

Anonymous said...

Americans are only good at innovating material prosperity based on fossil fuels. There is no example of our increasing our material prosperity beyond the Pastoral Age (pre-industrial) except by the accelerated use of fossil fuel.

While Europe and N. America have "survived", its cultures and economic paradigms have not survived. The Saxon culture was entirely supplanted by the 1066 invasion of the Normans and never returned, the feudal system was wiped out by the population decreases from the plagues and it never came back, the land use economic system was obliterated by the influx of New World gold and never came back, the Celtic clan system of economy was destroyed in the War for Southern Independence and became extinct for ever.

Jennifer, the point you make that I find the most significant (and the one being made by so many) is the notion of a 'reset' and that even though we might have a few years of a changed lifestyle, we will go back to the way things were before.

History tells us that it never happens. I'm sure there were feudalists who thought all they had to do was wait out the massive shift in paradigm and one day they'd be right back to the old order of things. I'm sure that many a laird thought tat precious metal coinage as a basis for wealth was a passing phase and we'd soon return to the old system of land tenure. The South is gonna rise again!

No, this paradigm shift is permanent.

Jenny said...

CG - I think we may be talking about different things. In what sense (and what time frame) are you saying North America has or has not survived?

Eleutheros - respectfully, I disagree. "Yankee ingenuity" was regarded as an American trait well before the rise of fossil fuels. While you can - very fairly - lay the root of many of our modern discontents to life within them, the industrial mills of the North (run on water power) provided comparatively cheap fabric, machine parts, and more to a continent*. It wasn't heaven by any means - but it *did* make life better and more comfortable for a lot of people. Just as the fossil fuel age did. Just as molecular assemblers will eventually finally begin to end the drudgery of factory life.

Philosophers have the luxury of perfection. Engineers have to settle for "better than before."

To "reset" - you're right, there is no stepping twice in the same river. 2050 - no matter what happens - will not be 2010. Or 1840.

What "paradigm shift" are you speaking of? If you mean that people will continue to choose the luxury of voluntary simplicity and soulfulness, I'd very much agree. Especially as more people *can*.

If you mean the fossil fuel age will end - quite possibly within our lifetimes - again I (provisionally) agree.

If you mean we'll return *as a civilization* eternally to pre-industrial technology, I very much disagree. And for that matter, I don't think it's desirable. But then, I'm biased... I'd have been one of those high infant mortality stats if I'd been born before more than a couple decades earlier. :)

* If you haven't been there yet, take a tour of Harper's Ferry workshops sometime. Amazing how well thought out the place is. Though I'll confess a hand-powered lutherie is a much more pleasant place to be.

Anonymous said...

The notion that "yankee" ingenuity made life better is a construct and a myth. Before the coming of the textile mills, cloth was a cottage industry as it had been for several thousand years. Individual households specialized in shearing, carding, spinning, fulling, sizing, wauking, dying and weaving. The technology and even some mechanization applied to textiles did not require factories and sweat shops. Had we taken a different route in our paradigm and thinking, we'd still have modern cottage industries on a very different footing than the factory floor.

The industrial model destroyed the social order that was supported by cottagers. Self-contained home life and village life was replaced with a sweatshop existence.

And the goods that resulted from this shift were cheap in more ways than one.

You rightly point out that there was a time of "yankee" ingenuity before the rise of coal and oil fired technology, but rather than depending on oil for its fuel, it depended on the virtual enslavement of impoverished factory workers which more often than not meant child labor. So yes, before the wholesale use of fossil fuels to support our consumerism, we relied on slavery and human misery in one form or the other.

As to the notion that it was the industrial age that allowed you to survive infancy: industrialization supplanted and destroyed a great body of knowledge and healthful practices which resulted in rampant disease and weakness. Then this same industrialization slowly improved the mess it had made. In short it broke the legs of humanity, gave it some crutches, and then praises itself that mankind can walk.

Our indoctrination toward industrial "civilization" puts blinders on us until we think that it has to be the industrial model or a nearly feral existence. The sole purpose of the industrial model is to make some wealthy at the expense of the many and to accomplish this end it propagates the myth that it is more efficient, better, and gives us many more material things.

Pretty much just the opposite is true. Had we forgone industrial technology we'd have continued to develop skills and knowledge, but we'd be at an entirely different place today.

Jenny said...

E - Note I didn't say it made life universally better, and had granted the very points you bring up ("While you can - very fairly - lay the root of many of our modern discontents to life..."). Further, as I'm sure you'd say yourself, the impoverished factory workers haven't gone away - we just don't have to look at them 'cause they're in China now. And before there were impoverished factory workers, there were (and are) impoverished fieldhands.

That doesn't mean the overall material standard of living- and civilizational room to breathe - didn't improve with industrialization. When was the last time in the industrialized world a bad harvest year meant famine?

"Better" is a value judgement, but I don't think you can honestly argue that it hasn't been "more efficient" and "gives us more material things" - whether that's soul-satisfying is another thing, but it *does* deliver on those promises. You can't "skills and knowledge" your way out of the industrial bootstrap phase - the economy of scale just isn't there.

No person on earth can make a pencil as it were.

Please don't think I *want* to see factories littering the landscape, here or in China. Personally, I'm looking to the post-industrial era here AND there. (Heck, one of the best things thing about the Internet - a product of the industrial age - is that it's leading to a RETURN of the cottage industry and empowerment of individual artisans in a way we never could have had before).

It's a tradeoff. It's not perfect...but there's a world of difference between a life of voluntary simplicity and one of subsistence farming without the civilizational safety net of modern medicine, modern transportation (and therefore abundant food), so forth an so on.

And as an interim phase between family farms and cottage industries WITH all matter of physical ailments, famines, easy death or disability from injury, etc..... and much the same WITHOUT those scourges, I think posterity will be grateful for the sacrifices of the industrial age. After we clean up the mess. :)

Anonymous said...

J - The economy of scale is an illusion. Take your example of famine. Sure, through industrialized agriculture we have abundant "food", but we do not have abundant nutrition. Hence we traded periodic famine and starvation for chronic obesity, malnutrition, poor health, and epidemic incidences of degenerative diseases.

Further all this abundance of industrial food depends directly on the Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixing using natural gas or oil. Once we deplete those resources and can no longer supply chemical nitrogen fertilizer for agribusiness at current levels, food production will drop like a rock with the result of mass starvation on a scale unimagined.

There will be no cause to thank the industrial age. The knowledge to ease disease, injury, and famine was going to happen anyway. The industrial age did not bring it about, in fact it hampered it and brought with it devils far worse than the ones we'd known.

The internet is not a product of the industrial age, it is only coincidence that it happened at the same time.

Would it surprise you to find that most of the components in your computer are not made in a factory? One of the reason that "third world" countries can produce things so cheaply is that the work is not centralized but most of the assembly is done in people's homes. The parts are delivered to them and finished articles are retrieved without their ever having to leave their home and family.

At any rate, for good or ill, the world will come to grips with a much simplified life soon, and it won't be a voluntary choice.

CG said...

Jenny, I think you are intentionally blind.

Dylan Taunt said...

If all you've ever done is build/sell new houses or make/sell new cars it must be hard to start over.

Anonymous said...

CG, based on your comments, I assume you are ruling out the possibility of technological advancements in alternative fuels for vehicles, etc.? What's your opinion on the vaibility of the Pickens Plan?

E, while I won't argue your point on the effect of industrialization on health, I will point out that the grave yards in Cades Cove seem to have a high percentage of headstones for infants and young children.


CG said...

Dylan, I think it is difficult for people, all of us, to see how it can be different and still be good. People cling to what they know. I see it. I try to tell people about it. They mostly don't believe me.

Anon, yes, I'm ruling that out. There is no free lunch. Pickens has given up on the pickens plan!

Look, all energy sources except nuclear depend on solar, and nuclear depends on uranium (of which we're at peak uranium too). Fossil fuels are stored and concentrated sunlight. We could capture all the sunlight and still not fuel current consumption (and live in a dark world). Is it so hard to stay home? Is home such a bad place, are other people so much more fascinating than your own neighbors (community), that you will fantasize dylithium crystals while burning up every drop of oil you can get your hands on and killing and enslaving people around the globe?

Just as a note, most energy "sources", like wind, depend on oil for start up and never pay that energy debt back in their lifetimes. That means they are not sustainable. What is sustainable is using a lot less energy.

And we do not have to give up hand washing, antibiotics, vaccinations, or even computers necessarily, to do that.

I will also note that I still use excess energy. I'm not a purist and I'm not punishing myself and I'm not trying to save the planet or indulging in excess guilt. But I can live without it and (generally speaking) you can't. I can be happy without it and (generally speaking) you can't. I suggest to people that they remedy that situation.

Anonymous said...

Jake, the residents of Cades Cove were already in the industrial age and living (albeit on the fringes) the effects of the industrial mindset. This very same area had been sojourned (if not occupied) by the Cherokee for about three thousand years before the arrival of the makers of said graveyard. Infant mortality was so low among them that they had a ritual where the father took the afterbirth away after a child was born and the number of ridges he crossed before he buried it was to be the number of years before the next child was born. Couples generally had two or three children, not the dozen or more that was common among the Europeans with an industrial mindset.

In every case where we point out some ill or deficit that technology and industrialism has improved upon, it is just an ill or deficit that industrialism has created in the first place.

Industrial technology's MO is to break your legs, give you crutches, and then take credit for your ability to walk.