Saturday, December 12, 2009


Around this time of year, some brave souls venture to put their reputations at risk by attempting to predict what the next year will bring. Some do so with uncanny accuracy, others — not so much. Being a serious author who hardly ever makes jokes, I generally sit out this annual bout of frivolity, but, noting that a new decade is about to burst upon us, I thought it reasonably safe to paint a picture of how I see the next decade. (In the unlikely case that my predictions turn out to be completely wrong, I would think that they will have been very thoroughly forgotten by the time 2020 rolls around.) And so, without further ado, here are my predictions for what it will be like in The United States of America during the second decade of the XXI century.

The decade will be marked by many instances of autophagy, in business, government, and in the higher echelons of society, as players at all levels find that they are unable to control their appetites or alter their behavior in any meaningful way, even in the face of radically altered circumstances, and are thus compelled to consume themselves into oblivion, as so many disemboweled yet still ravenous sharks endlessly gorging themselves on their own billowing entrails.

Governments will find that they are unable to restrain themselves from printing ever more money in an endless wave of uncontrolled emission. At the same time, rising taxes, commodity prices, and costs of all kinds, coupled with a rising overall level of uncertainty and disruption, will curtail economic activity to a point where little of that money will still circulate. Inflationists and deflationists will endlessly debate whether this should be called inflation or deflation, unconsciously emulating the big-endians and little-endians of Jonathan Swifts Gulliver's Travels, who endlessly debated the proper end from which to eat a soft-boiled egg. The citizenry, their nest egg boiled down to the size of a dried pea, will not be particularly vexed by the question of exactly how they should try to eat it, and will regard the question as academic, if not idiotic.

Distressed municipalities throughout the country will resort to charging exorbitant fees for such things as dog licenses. Many will experiment with imprisoning those unable to pay these fees in state and county jails, only to release them again as the jails continuously overflow and resources run low. The citizenry will come to regard jails as conveniently combining the features of a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter. Some towns will abandon the idea of having a fire department and decide that it is more cost-effective to just let house fires run their course, to save on demolitions. In an effort to plug up ever larger holes in their budgets, states will raise taxes, driving ever more economic activity underground. In particular, state liquor tax revenues will drop for the first time in many decades as more and more Americans find that they can no longer afford beer and switch to cheap and plentiful Afghan heroin and other illegal but very affordable drugs. Marijuana smoke will edge out car exhaust as America's most prevalent smell.

Several countries around the world will be forced to declare sovereign default and join the swelling ranks of defunct nations. There will be a mad shuffle to find safe havens for hot money, but none will be found. Investors around the world will finally be forced to realize that the best way to avoid losses is to not have any money to start with. Despite their best efforts to diversify their holdings, investors will find that they are all long paper, be it stocks, bonds, deeds, promissory notes, or incomprehensible derivative contracts. They will also find that, in the new business climate, none of these instruments make particularly formidable weapons: as the friendly game of rock-paper-scissors turns hostile, they will discover that rocks stave in skulls, that scissors puncture vital organs, but that the paper, even when wielded expertly, just causes paper cuts. Those formerly well-heeled persons who tend to believe that "possession is nine-tenths of the law" will find many extralegal exorcists eager to liberate their demons. In particular, organized crime rings will start using data mining software to identify lightly guarded cabins and compounds in Montana and other remote locations that are well-stocked with canned food, weapons and gold and silver bullion, and start harvesting them by softening the target with mortars, rockets and aerial bombardment, then sending in commando teams with grenades and machine guns. Once the harvest is in, they will expatriate the proceeds using the diplomatic pouches of defunct nations held in their sway.

While the bullion is expatriated, the Pentagon will attempt to repatriate troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and the numerous US military bases around the world, soon finding that they lack the wherewithal to do so, stranding the troops wherever they are, and forcing them to resupply themselves. Military families will be invited to donate food, uniforms, clean underwear and toiletries for their loved ones overseas. American weaponry will flood the black market, driving down prices. Some servicemen will decide that returning to the US is a bad idea in any case, and go native, marrying local women and adopting local religions, customs and garb. Although national leaders will continue to prattle on about national security whenever there is a microphone pointed at them, their own personal security will become their overarching concern. Officials at all levels will attempt to assemble ever larger retinues of bodyguards and security consultants. Members of Congress will become ever more reticent and will avoid encountering their constituents as much as possible, preferring to hide in Washington's hermetically sealed high-rises, walled compounds and gated communities. Meanwhile, outside the official security perimeter, a new neighborliness will take root, as squatting becomes known as "settling in," trespassing as "beating a new path," and fences, walls and locks are everywhere replaced by watchful eyes, attentive ears and helping hands.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Cracking Jokes at a Wake

As we approach the end of a year, and the end of a decade, it is a good time to draw some conclusions and think about the future... of the blog you are currently reading. I started it a few years ago, as part of an effort to promote a book I was writing. That went quite well, and in the process I built a small but enthusiastic audience of people who clamored for more.

They tended to be forward-looking, independent-thinking types who couldn't help but see that an American collapse was coming and were quite worried by this prospect. I was able to ease their minds, from several directions. Based on my first-hand observations of the Soviet collapse, I was able to add a lot of mundane detail, which is helpful in developing a realistic picture of the future and forming reasonable expectations. But perhaps more importantly, I was able to do so with a sense of humor. I find that a sense of humor is absolutely indispensable for preserving one's sanity. Furthermore, I feel that people who lack a sense of humor tend to be dreary, awful company, risky to have around, and a potential mental health hazard. (By the way, according to such people, that's not funny.)

To me, dead-serious people have always seemed much more dead than serious. Humor is not just about taking the edge off: most interesting critical thinking seems to happen at the cusp between seriousness and humorousness. Judging the serious and humorous aspects of each statement allows us to become cognizant of the expressive limitations of contemporary language and the imbecilic clichés with which it is riddled, and liberates us somewhat from conventional modes of thought. But what can be a benefit can also be a limitation: I find it hard to adequately express myself without recourse to parody, satire, absurdity, double entendres, gallows humor, irony or sarcasm. These are all arrows in my quiver, and I never go hunting without them. But humor, as it turns out, has its limits.

Over just the past year, based on the numerous blog comments and emails I have received, I could see the mood of the audience shift. First, the audience got much larger: collapse has gone mainstream. Second, the mood went from light-hearted and humorous to earnest, to serious, to concerned, to angry. This is, of course, perfectly understandable. Over the course of the past year, it has become clear that Obama is just the next political fraud-in-chief, that national bankruptcy is unavoidable, that economic recovery is a pipe dream, that Washington and Wall Street have congealed into a single kleptocratic monolyth impervious to popular influences, that Pax Americana is at an end throughout the world, and that if you aren't absolutely certain that you are high-class, then you must be low-class like the rest of us, because the middle class ain't no more. Funny, isn't it, the difference just one year makes?

I was lucky, because when I started writing about the collapse of the USA, it was still an arrogant, self-assertive, self-satisfied country that believed in its full-spectrum dominance and thought it was heading for a "new American century." In short, it was a country that could still take a joke rather than being one. What before seemed witty is now perceived as a mockery or an insult. Not only is it impossible to joke away pain, grief and despair, but attempts to do so are in rather questionable taste, and that, more than anything else, gives me pause, because if there is anything I detest more than humorlessness, it's mauvais goût.

And so, the time has come to make some changes. Henceforth, this blog will be for publishing perfectly serious articles about climate effects on the shoreline, sail-based transport, and my next book.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Selling Climate Change

[Late yesterday I killed this post, along with the previous one, because comment moderation got to be too much of a chore. The fellow depicted here has a lot of cousins, and they all have internet access. Then quite a few people wrote to me to ask me to bring it back. As a compromise, I am bringing back just this post.]

As some of you might have guessed by now, the topic of climate change is very important to me. I believe that all sorts of people should be made aware of climate change in ways that will make it very important to them as well. By "all sorts" I mean not just the intelligent, educated people with an ability to understand what a "climate model" is, but the sort of people you can see exhibited here.

I spent a year working in advertising, and have gained some understanding of what sort of ammunition it takes to make such people absorb and respond to a message. Significantly, it does not involve making them think; for those unaccustomed to thought, it is uncomfortable, and making them uncomfortable tends to anger them.

Climate scientists and environmental activists who support them have been struggling to get their message across: that an increase in average global temperature of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is likely and would be a catastrophe.

Let's deconstruct this message on behalf of the person you see seated here. Starting at the end, there is this big scary Greek word. Tune that out: "cat... here, kitty-kitty!" Let's also cross out all the words he doesn't care about: "scientists," "average," "global" and "Celsius." These are all noise words. What we are left with is "It will be 6 degrees warmer." If he were wearing a sweatshirt, he might be prompted to think about taking it off, but as he is already down to just the boxers and the wife-beater, we shouldn't wish him to disrobe any further. If he succeeds in processing "by the end of the century," he would translate it as "not any time soon." If the word "likely" makes it through his cognitive filter, it would come out as "maybe." The message, as received, thus reads: "Maybe it will get a bit warmer long after I am dead. Well, whoop-tee-doo! What else is on TV?"

You may ask yourself, What difference does it make what this individual thinks? Well, it does and it doesn't. It doesn't because he has zero political or economic power or influence. It does because those who run the country in which he resides find it convenient to pretend that his opinion matters, to dumb down public discourse so as to frustrate the smart, educated people to the point of not wanting to participate, because dumb people are easier to exploit than smart people. If we want to influence public policy and try to prevent climate catastrophe (to the extent that it is still preventable) we need to have this fellow squarely on our side. This is not impossible by any means, but it is a dead certainty that scientific mumbo-jumbo won't make a convert of him.

The word "climate" is a bit of a non-starter already. He likes "climate control," and what we are telling him is that he might have to get a bigger air conditioner... by the end of the century. That's just great. But the real howler is the persistent use of the word "average." Imagine him poking his head out of his double-wide trailer home to surmise the weather, and, turning to his Spandex-clad, morbidly obese wife, exclaiming "Sweet Jesus, what an AVERAGE day! Take out your teeth, woman! Let's celebrate!" Are you beginning to get the picture?

Here is a mapping I would like to contribute to the question of how to sell climate change to the general public.

Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo
1. Washington County
2. Jefferson County
3. Franklin County
4. All the way over in Madison County
5. Fabulous places you have only heard about but might want to visit when you win the lottery, like Orlando (not funny-sounding ones like Bangladesh: "Bang what?")
Screwed-up weather
Increased precipitation
Flood! Your double-wide will get washed into the ravine!
Average temperature increase
Heat waves! You'll be running you AC flat out and still sweating like a pig!
Atmospheric CO2 concentration
Burning stuff is screwing up the weather; everybody must stop burning so much stuff before it gets any worse.
Polar ice cap melt
Beaches, bridges and docks washed away. Interstate highway under water. Can't drive anywhere!

Unlike the problem of stopping climate change, I see this communication problem as solvable. The issue, as I see it, is that nobody has really tried to solve it. The reasons for this are many and varied, but none of them is particularly good.

If combating climate change requires everyone to understand climate science, then the battle has already been lost. As our dumb luck would have it, that is not necessarily the case.