Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Last Cars

An interviewer recently asked me whether I am a futurist. After all, in my book, I make many predictions about the shape of the future – a practice that is taboo among social scientists. What, the interviewer asked, would be my response to criticism from social scientists? I answered that my response would be to request that they put the book down and back away slowly. It was not written for them.

I am more of a “presentist” myself, and a reluctant one at that: I see the world around me, observe its general direction, and then make predictions about its destination, which, I hope, it will take a long time in reaching. In this I am often frustrated, and developments that I would wish to take the better part of a decade materialize in a mere year or two.

Still, the idea of futurism sounds lovely. I have enjoyed reading futurist writers, Olaf Stapledon especially. And so I see no harm in trying to channel Stapledon. In sincere imitation of his great work “The Last and First Men,” I present here “The Last Cars.” (As for the “First Cars,” should you find the subject interesting, I encourage you to visit your local public library.)

In the middle of the year 2008 C.E. information technology finally reached a point of development known as the Singularity. Beyond that point, the combined intelligence of networked computers made further technological developments fast and effortless. The Singularity had little or no impact on cars, which, being rather bulky and slow to replace, continued to move at or near the speed limit, which was usually much, much lower than the speed of light. Nor was the Singularity able to achieve much when it came to increasing oil production, in order to alleviate the gasoline and diesel shortages that were beginning to put the economy in a state of shock.

However, the Singularity did manage prove its worth organizationally, by enabling the swift and universal introduction of so-called “driving plans.” Fuel could no longer be purchased directly, but only by entering into a contract with one of the two remaining oil companies: ExxonMobilShellBP and RosNeftGazProm. A driving plan entitled a driver to obtain a certain number of gallons per month from a set of approved gas stations. Unused gallons became “roll-over gallons,” which could be used during one of the subsequent months, and which eventually expired. A driving contract could be cancelled simply by going to the nearst hospital and donating a kidney – a brilliant arrangement that made cancellations quite rare.

The introduction of driving plans likewise did nothing to improve the situation with regard to the availability of transportation, which by the autumn of 2008 was bordering on the disasterous. To remedy the situation using a quick, Singularity-powered techno-fix, American auto companies teamed up to quickly design and mass-produce much smaller cars. In this, they recruited the help of the Shriners – America’s secret weapon when it comes to small car design. After a kick-off prayer breakfast, the executives and the Shriners poured out into the parking lot, where they torched three effigies of America’s previous failed attempts at small car design: a Ford Pinto, an AMC Gremlin, and a Chevy Vega.

Again, thanks to the Singularity, the Shriner design team was able to produce a new product in less then a fortnight, and by Christmas America had a new car it could love: a NASCAR micro-racer. The enthusiasm of the early adopters was somewhat tempered by the realization that the new car could only turn left. This resulted from the design team’s use of a certain Rapid Development methodology which forbade impementing features that were not considered strictly necessary. In spite of such minor annoyances, millions of NASCAR micro-racers were manufactured in Japan, Chrina, India, and other countries where America did its manufacturing, and the Federal Reserve obliged by printing enough money for all Americans to be able to afford to import and purchase these cars. However, this strategy had the unfortunate side-effect of destroying what little value remained in the US Dollar, effectively cutting the country off from two-thirds of its oil supply.

Very little is known about the period that followed; apparently, the Singularity crashed when the power grid collapsed, and by the time it came back the one engineer who knew how to cold-boot it could not be found, and the page of instructions he taped to the side of the server rack could not be deciphered. And so nothing further is known about cars as we are used to thinking of them. But some information survives about some alternative meanings that the word "car" subsequently acquired.

For instance, the term "car" came to be applied to wheeled contraptions with straps used by obese Americans to paddle about, to position themselves in front of television screens, to watch videos of bunnies that baked and ate cupcakes. They made it easier for their Iraqi handlers to feed them, hose them down, and to push them into the liposuction pens when it came time to harvest the biodiesel.

Later on, the term "car" came to be applied to an ingenious confection, which emitted the "new car taste" when you bit down on it, and produced exquisite "Vroom-vroom!" sensations when rolled about on the tongue.


Jim said...

Your comment about being a "presentist" reminds of Alfonso Cuarón's brilliant Children of Men. Although superficially about the "future," with the baby standing in for future generations, it's very much about the present. I often catch myself saying "That's totally Children of Men," for example, when I read of Zimbabwean refugees fleeing South Africa. "Twenty minutes into the future," was the tagline for Max Headroom in 1987, and that future seems more imminent each day.

Hanley Tucks said...

I love European satire. It's so biting. When American satire tries to bite you usually find that they lost their dentures and are just gumming you.

Degringolade said...

You know Dmitry, I love your stuff, and this is a good one, but sometimes you are just not a well man. :}

Anonymous said...

Sharon Astyk and we (my wife and I) have been talking amongst ourselves about sailing and sustainable living. Sharon suggested we talk with you since you're among the people she knows with sailing experience. So, what do you think? Two adults and three young children on a nice, big sailboat? I think it sounds perfect (I am the sailor of the family, and happy to consider moving aboard and LEAVING). I'd be interested in talking with you about this.

Anonymous said...

ya, kinda like we're beyond the point of diminishing returns. anything we do to "improve" or "shore up" the system (industrial civilization) can only serve to make matter worse.

ergo, since we have to do something, we can only make things worse.

kinda funny, well i think so anyways.


Peter Dodson said...

All I know is that I ain't driving a shriner car if there are still Hummer's on the road!

BTW - Just started your book Dmitry and it's fantastic. Love that you write with such a sense of humor. All the best.

Hadashi said...

Hi Dmitry

My wife and I loved your book. I got the library to order it, but I'll need to buy a copy myself - I'm thinking of the future after the USA has imploded and the ordinary Kiwi wonders 'Gee, what happened?'. And unless he (she or it) understands, then NZ will eventually head the same way.

The best part for me was the section about 'boondogles'. Yep, falling out of a first storey window (we call it the ground storey here) is not so bad.

The only place where we roared with laughter was when we saw your photo. I had a bespectacled Russian version of a Richard Heinberg in mind, but you look the spitting image of my uncle (on my mother's side). Coincidentally, a brother of theirs was lost at Stalingrad during WWII.

It helps such a lot to have the collapse commented on from a non-USA citizen's perspective.

If you ever abandon you adopted second country and sail off in your vessel, do consider calling in to the top of New Zealand's South Island.

Jim said...

Their foreclosures delayed, vacant homes fall into disrepair
Sunday, June 22, 2008
By Paul Wenske, McClatchy Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Some nights Terry and Carrie Madden won't even step onto their patio -- the stench and mosquitoes from the abandoned swimming pool next door are overpowering.

The Maddens' cash-strapped neighbors moved out in August, and the lender on the now-vacant house let it fall into disrepair. The pool is slime-green. The grass is knee-high. Once Carrie Madden had to call police to chase away burglars.

"It's frustrating," she said. "It's an eyesore, and it sits right at the entrance to our neighborhood. It's not only a blight, it's unsafe."

Not what you would expect in a neighborhood of homes whose average value is about $280,000.

City officials say the house is a prime example of a little-reported but increasingly worrisome trend: Lenders are delaying foreclosing on homes vacated by owners who can't keep up with payments. Maintenance then stops, or it falls on taxpayers. And neighborhoods have to deal with a growing cancer of blight and falling home values.

"Someone has to maintain the property," said Nathan Pare, the head of Kansas City's dangerous buildings department. "If the owner surrenders the house, then it's up to the bank. But some banks aren't doing it." ...

Patrick said...

Dmitry, hopefully you read these comments regularly. I tried to email you this link but I couldn't find an address for you.

Anyway, I ran across this on Wired and wanted to send it to you. You've hit "hipster," status, for what that's worth. If you follow the link to the original post you'll notice that Daniel Pinchbeck made the recommendation. Thanks for the great work, .

Michael Caddell said...

I heard you tonight on Alex Smith's Radio Eco-Shock and enjoyed your comments. The comments about the folks in the US and their cars is spot-on. However, I read books; Kunstler, Chalmers Johnson, Roberts and many others - most relevant to the subjects you discussed.

You ought to consider coming on my internet radio show "Radio Free Kansas" - people listen and email questions, callers - it would be good for people out here to hear about your experiences watching the S. Union collapse. I also find your reasons for collapse in the economic realm very informative for people out here, many who would agree with you.

george said...

I picked up a copy of your book "Reinventing Collapse" and I began immediately looking at my hometown Detroit in a different way. I always asked myself why do we have the worst mass transit in the country? Why do I have to drive five miles to buy groceries? Why does everyplace in Detroit look uniformly ugly? Now I know why and what I can look forward to in the future. It's too bad because places like Detroit might have a bright future if only the citizenry wasn't so nostalgic for the past.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Sometimes the future arrives almost instantaneously. In the previous post, I mentioned biodiesel from liposuction. Apparently, there is already a technical term for it: "flab gas"!

"If the concept of "flab gas" leaves you flabbergasted, prepare for a shock. Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital reportedly has signed a deal to supply Norwegian entrepreneur Lauri Venoy with 3,000 gallons-per-week of liposuction leftovers harvested by its clinics. This bio-fat could produce 2,600 gallons of biodiesel, sufficient to fuel a Hummer for a year."

Anonymous said...

Is the fact that 'flab gas' is considered a mark of desperation in our culture? Is it bad if I want to know the EROEI of this?

Did we collapse already and I missed it? ;-)

Anonymous said...

The fat to biodiesel story was in the San Francisco Chronicle as well, and portrayed in cynically biting manner that would have made you proud (Federal Liposuction Aggregation Bureau). Combine with thermal depolymerization for the dead, and you have a 'renewable resource' (*snark*).