May 15, 2010

Maintaining vital heat

I suppose if I were going to write a book about the economy, or the transformation of the American lifestyle, I would give it some such title as the above. It's from Walden, of course. Thoreau, that most logical and empirical of thinkers, performed his experiment in rudimentary living, on land owned by Emerson in rural Massachusetts, to figure out just how much of the complications of modern life were strictly necessary in order (a) to stay alive and (b) to thrive, spiritually and emotionally. He reduced the basic necessities to food and shelter, and then deduced that these in turn were essential only because they maintained vital heat.

It appears, therefore, from the above list, that the expression,animal life, is nearly synonymous with the expression, animal heat; for while Food may be regarded as the Fuel which keeps up the fire within us — and Fuel serves only to prepare that Food or to increase the warmth of our bodies by addition from without — Shelter and Clothing also serve only to retain the heat thus generated and absorbed.

[18] The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us. What pains we accordingly take, not only with our Food, and Clothing, and Shelter, but with our beds, which are our night-clothes, robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter, as the mole has its bed of grass and leaves at the end of its burrow! The poor man is wont to complain that this is a cold world; and to cold, no less physical than social, we refer directly a great part of our ails.

Thoreau didn't stop there; he wasn't actually suggesting that we should reduce human life to eating and getting dressed. He was simply attempting to establish the basic framework for existence, and to determine how little effort, time and complication were unavoidable in creating such a framework. Despite claims to the contrary (envy and professional jealousy are always prime motivators of criticism, and we secretly hate people who prove they're right by putting their money where their mouths are), Henry David proved his thesis; he stayed in the cabin on the shore of Walden Pond for 26 months, and figured it all out.

It seems like a reasonable thesis that modern American life is about as far removed from Thoreau's sylvan idyll as it is possible to be. Many of the simplicities of his approach appeal to us, naturally, but we have taken the idea of specialization, and the abstraction of existence, to extreme lengths, so that even our relationship to nature is for the most part mediated through electronic means. We still like the old verities, the ideas of conscience and ethical behavior, but they are hard to descry through the electronic static and Byzantine complexities of modern life.

I was thinking about this the other night while watching "60 Minutes" and its piece on "strategic default," the growing practice of home"owners" whose mortgages exceed the value of their houses simply walking away and starting over. Morley Safer was trying to generate some controversy over this no-brainer by shaming the defaulters into a sense of guilt and not living up to their end of the contract. Such ideas are sort of the vestigial tail of old-fashioned business practices. Think about what this hallowed "mortgage" is that Safer was referring to. It's a loan put together on the fly, immediately sold into the secondary market of the shadow banking system or mortgage bundler, jammed into a mortgage-backed security, then tranched and stuffed with many other such securities into a collateralized debt obligation full of thousands of mortgages, then sold off as a marketable security to the Norwegian Teachers Pension Fund or the California Public Employees Retirement System. Let's just say that the relationship between Mr. & Mrs. Smith in Sun City and CalPERS is a little too "attenuated" for anyone to get too excited about ethics or responsibilities. It's a very remote and impersonal business deal; if it works for both sides, fine; if it doesn't, then one side or the other has its legal remedies. End of story. Leave off with the moralizing, Morley. Go guilt trip the ratings agencies who assigned these stacks of crap gold plated Triple A's. Leave the realm of ethics to two people who depend on one another's performance and fidelity, shaking hands and looking each other in the eye. If we want to do business on the mass, impersonal and "scalable" level we now do things, this is what we get.

Oddly enough, if you read about all the sovereign debt crises, and the looming specter of hyperinflation, it seems pretty evident, almost at the level of virtual certainty, that we're headed toward a form of economic collapse which is going to bring some of Thoreau's ideas back to the forefront of our thinking. Foreclosure, job loss, worthlessness of paper money all fix the mind on essentially one issue: how do we maintain our vital heat in the face of such dislocation? That simplifies and localizes matters in a hurry. The international system of world trade, "globalization," Friedman's "plug-and-play, flat Earth" nonsense, are all pretty useless when that happens. America has so hamstrung itself with income and wealth disparities, with moving its means of production offshore, with corporate farming, with creating a giant cohort of dependent "consumers," that we're almost uniquely ill-equipped to deal with this looming crisis. This is why the national mood is so unsettled; whether the fat part of the bell curve completely figures it out cognitively or not, instinctively humans start freaking out when they see their abstract and incomprehensibly complicated means of support begin to unravel before their very eyes.

That's why I think a new energy regime designed to bring the means of maintaining vital heat to the localized level is the only way out. If the United States moved to a paradigm of a highly local system of solar power (in its various forms, wind, photovoltaic, ethanol from switchgrass and other non-food sources), then we would develop a means of support independent of the inherently unreliable, prone-to-Black-Swan vicissitudes of globalization, which plays against the interests of all but the highly-placed business and government elites.

Which, as a political digression, is why I have been so dismayed by the revelation that Barack Obama is simply another conventional American politician. I suppose it was a matter of projecting my own hopes onto someone who seems, in the fullness of realization, primarily interested in his own ambition and in proving that a slender African-American can pull off a convincing reenactment of the Clinton presidency. He's succeeded in that, but he didn't "change" a damn thing. Now he writhes and thrashes about, attempting to convince us that he's anti-oil drilling this week (since it's politic to be so) or anti-Fat Cat Banker the week before (for the same reason), as his weathervane follows winds blowing from the direction of the Villain of the Moment.

I think we'll eventually get there, to the idea of locally-produced renewable energy and a more basic economy centered on production we ourselves control, but it will be a bumpy transit as we attempt to hang on to the unworkable regime we have lazily allowed to become dominant, with its crushing trade deficits and debt-fueled "prosperity." First, unfortunately, things have to get considerably worse.

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