Monday, April 06, 2009
Burning our Bridges to the XXI Century
The future does not resemble the past – or does it? When the lights go out, people burn candles and oil lamps, just like they used to before the electric grid came into existence. No longer accustomed to working with open flame, they tend to set things on fire, and for a while, until they regain this experience or until natural selection whittles away the truly incompetent, the neighborhood is a constant blaze.
When we find out that the supermarket is out of food and that the cupboard is bare, we hunt, fish, forage, plant kitchen gardens, and start experimenting with raising poultry and rabbits. Those who are incapable of doing so, or who feel that such lowly pursuits are beneath their dignity, become dependent on the charity of those who are more adaptable, or starve.
As modernity runs out of resources (those photons sequestered eons ago in fossil form, now released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere) patterns of life naturally retreat to their pre-modern forms. If there are no more sneakers from China, we sew moccasins or whittle clogs. If we are resource-poor but resourceful, we can still weave basket-like shoes out of birch bark, stuffed with straw for insulation, called lapti. If we are truly destitute and feckless to boot, then we go barefoot.
It seems commonsense to accept this reversion to norm as natural, and to strive to have enough of whatever we are going to need, be it tools for working leather, a stock of paraffin, seeds, fishing tackle, and a myriad of other similar items that comprised the pre-industrial survival kit. The last thing we should want to do is to throw these things away at first sign of economic distress and for trivial reasons. And yet that seems to be the prevailing pattern.
For instance, if the expectation is that foreigners will no longer want to trade their dwindling crude oil endowment in exchange for worthless US Dollars, and that the US will lose access to 2/3 of its liquid hydrocarbons, it would make sense to make some provisions for raising food and for moving freight. Since a John Deere won’t run on hay, that calls for some horses. Furthermore, now is a perfect time for farms to get “horsed up” because so many horse-owners can no longer afford the luxury of keeping a horse, and it is possible to buy a horse very, very cheaply. Many horse-owners would be perfectly happy to donate their horse and take a tax write-off rather than see their beloved pet turned into glue. Instead, horses are trucked to rending facilities across the border in Mexico, to endure incredible suffering while in transit, and then to be incompetently hacked up with machetes.
Before the advent of fossil fuels, freight that could not be moved by horse and wagon moved by sail. It would therefore make perfect sense that we keep all the sailboats we currently have, because they will surely be pressed into use once other transportation options are no longer available. Keeping a sailboat afloat is not particularly expensive; there are protected coves where a boat can be kept anchored free of charge, provided it is tended to once in a while. The smaller, trailerable boats are also useful, and can keep for years on the hard, under a tarp in someone’s back yard. And yet what is happening now is that sailboat owners, unable to pay the slip fees and the upkeep of their luxury toy, abandon it, simply letting it float away and eventually sink, with its mast protruding out of the water at low tide, or to wash up on a beach, where the surf pounds it into rubble. Even if the boat itself is unsuited for any practical purpose (and, thanks to the combined detrimental effects of sport and luxury on the sailboat market, there are far too many of these) then at the very least they could be stripped of Dacron sailcloth, stainless steel and bronze fittings, lead ballast, marine-grade stranded copper wiring, aluminum spars, and many other items which are both very useful and unlikely to be manufactured in the future in an economy that runs on wind, hay and firewood. The remaining hollow fiberglass husks could make interesting, long-lasting treehouses.
Not that, in general, there is a lack of effort to save things. We are making an effort to save financial institutions, which are the ultimate ephemera of industrial civilization, and are absolutely guaranteed to have no reason to continue into a future in which debt, denominated in future earnings that will be meager at best, and money, which will only hold its value for as long as it guarantees access to sources of pure, concentrated energy, all steadily dwindle to nothing. It is as if the doctors decided to only try to save persistent vegetative quadriplegics with terminal cancer, or if the environmentalists decided that the endangered species list only has room for one animal: the vampire bat. It would make much more sense to try to save small businesses, such as family businesses that serve local communities, because there is a good chance that they will find a use in the future, or at least facilitate the transition. Instead, we are squandering the remaining resources on the various dinosaurs of the industrial age.
I believe in providing a hopeful vision of the future as much as I believe in providing a sufficiently horrific vision of the present for it to be, in my opinion, a realistic one. However, I am beginning to feel somewhat thwarted in my efforts by this new compulsion sweeping the land to shoot oneself in the foot while simultaneously setting one's hair on fire. The only hope I can offer you today is that this current trend toward suicidal stupidity is temporary, and that it will run its course long before we completely ruin our chances for an orderly regression.