March 10, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: The Environmental Problem That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Brought to you by Mill Valley's La Coppa house blend.

As the result of writing a series of posts on Craig Dilborn's amazing Too Smart For Own Good, I drew the attention of the notable Prof. Dilborn himself, and the next thing you know I was on a mailing list of people in Europe and the U.S. who think a lot about the ecological predicament of mankind, write about it, and for some of whom it is even their day job. Including one of my intellectual heroes from way back, Herman Daly, the author of Steady State Economics, a seminal work if the word "seminal" has any meaning. I'm halfway to thinking I should almost take myself seriously, what with my readership suddenly doubled and whatnot, but I'll resist the temptation. It just wouldn't be me, you know?

Environmentalists tend to be a dour and surly lot, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, and I suppose that's because of the fundamentally discouraging nature of the enterprise. I would not accuse Henry David Thoreau of being a cockeyed optimist, for example. It begins with the recognition that, especially in a country like the United States, "environmentalism" is an "issue" that may or may not even come up during one of our quadrennial rearrangements of the deck chairs on the Titanic. That is deeply weird. Another name for the so-called "environment" is Planet Earth, where we more or less have to live. How can it not be virtually the only thing we ever think about? What can be more fundamental than making sure the planet which sustains human and all other life remains ecologically viable?

Instead, we analyze "economics" as if it occurred in some sort of netherworld vacuum. Most of the mainstream economists of the popular press seem to analyze economics in this sterile way, simply comparing previous recessions or boom cycles to similar "patterns" in the distant past, paying no attention to issues such as: (a) the population in the United States is over twice what it was at the end of World War II; (b) the United States now is simply one of the economic "players" on the world stage, competing for dwindling nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs) with other big industrialized nations; (c) world population has doubled since the late 1960's, to its current 7 billion, in line with Paul Erlich's predictions in The Population Bomb, but we all know Erlich was "wrong" because the Green Revolution saved everyone from starvation so it's all good, except the Green Revolution allowed the world's population to increase to 7 billion, a level which cannot be sustained under any set of economic or ecological circumstances.

Yeah, that's the issue no one likes to talk about: overpopulation. It's a dicey topic. The human race, vis-a-vis the increasingly tired and depleted Mother Earth, is in a state of massive overshoot with respect to the Earth's real tolerance for modern Homo sapiens. Earth can handle maybe one to two billion of us on a sustainable basis, one where huge inputs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides are not essential to keeping the yields of arable land at impossibly high levels forever, especially with steadily eroding soil, vanishing water, and an increasingly wobbly climate caused by mankind's enormous releases of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It just isn't going to work. There are things that can be done. I commend Lester Brown's "Plan B: 4.0," available on the internet, to you as a comprehensive treatment of how to get out of this mess in a humane and equitable manner. Mr. Brown's work is quite an opus, a very thoughtful analysis of ecological economics and what you might call the science of survival. My inclination is to side with those who try to imagine ways out of the predicament rather than to make an obsession out of pessimism. If nothing can be done, there will be plenty of time to suffer and tell everyone I told you so later on.

Of course, optimism isn't always easy when you live in a country, the largest polluter per capita on Earth, which features as one of two leading Republican candidates for president a guy who takes the position that maybe contraception ought to be criminalized. I'm trying to figure how an idea, in this day and age, could be farther out of whack than that, and I'm coming up empty. We are descended from ancient forebears who routinely practiced infanticide (the ultimate in late-term abortion) as a means of dealing with what they considered population problems of their own, and Rick Santorum (whose personal sexual psychology must be enormously messed up) doesn't think that condoms or birth control pills are a good idea.

Well, the epidemic of idiocy in the United States isn't all bad. We've trashed our economy to the point that our fossil fuel use, particularly gasoline, is way down. As mentioned before, it appears we might stupid our way into compliance with the Kyoto Protocol. Let's take what we can get. It's the optimistic way.

March 09, 2012

An email to Dmitry Orlov on Mediated Reality

Greetings, Dmitry:

I think I was first introduced to your writing, thinking and speaking by James Kunstler on his Clusterfuck site, which of course is always an entertaining, usually hilarious take on the increasingly ridiculous nature of American society's "attempts" to come to terms with its fallen economic state. Jim combines the novelist/journalist's flair for the colorful turn of phrase with (what seems to me) a well-grounded analysis of the immediate problems presented by Peak Oil.

Your analyses (it also seems to me) are based on a more rigorous appreciation of the problems we face, and this is consistent with your background, education and training, as I understand them. I have especially appreciated your development of an alternative description of what happens after Peak Oil (at the global scale) is hit - that it cannot really proceed as a smooth descent mirroring the phase before Peak Oil, but is more of a calamitous, "step function" process. I think we're beginning to see some of these effects now, as the worldwide price of oil remains stubbornly high despite the rather dramatic fall-off in gasoline usage in the world's biggest customer, the United States. We're straining at the limits, and the bellicose developments in Iran are obviously connected to all of this, as the BRIC countries, on one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other, try to control the situation and secure their market share.

Your more "subjective" takes on American culture are also frequently hilarious and insightful. In the C-Realm interview I heard you discuss, for the second time to my hearing, the exploitation by Facebook and other internet businesses of the American penchant for time-wasting, but in your usual thorough-going way you relate this to an underlying "existential" problem, which is that the artificial (built) physical environment (especially in "metroplex" America) has gotten so intolerably ugly to look at that it is simply a relief to escape into the pretty, glowing images on a computer, smart phone, iPad or television and be done with the reality "out there." If one possesses any sort of functioning aesthetic sensibility, this is pretty hard to argue with. I actually think that this single fact of modern existence explains almost everything that troubles our nation's youth - the extreme acting out (the school shootings, the bullying), the teen suicides, the despair. (I have a daughter who has grown up during this Ugly Phase, and the kids are quite aware they are living in a hideous, monotonous environment.)

Jim Kunstler (in "The Geography of Nowhere") quotes Lewis Mumford to the effect that one way to understand the years of Mutual Assured Destruction between the Soviet Union and the United States, how the constant threat of nuclear annihilation could even have been thinkable and "tolerable," is that Americans, hunkered down in their suburban tract homes, narcotized night after night by meaningless television, were simply indifferent to their fate. That's pretty funny even if it probably overstates things a little. But such ideas do remind me of a writer that my brother and I became very interested in back in the 1970's-early '80's named Jerry Mander, who wrote "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" (with "elimination" italicized in the title). Mander had been one of the partners in the legendary San Francisco advertising firm Mander & Gossage, who originated the "minimalist" style of advertising featured in the Volkwagen ads several decades ago, a real "breakthrough" in how ads were done (in effect, advertising making fun of itself, which is now widely imitated). One of his main points (and arguments) reminds me of the point you were making on the C-Realm interview: television presents what Mander called a "mediated reality" which stands in for (and between) a human being and the natural realm which lies outside the front door, and to the extent that we continually escape from the increasingly ugly physical realm into such mediated reality, we allow the trashing of the world to progress unopposed. To wit, why do we even need the "real" world? The "smart phone walk" which we now see humans execute on streets all over America is the latest, most extreme expression of this tendency: people hunched over their iPhones and Androids as they cross streets, walk into traffic, bump into other pedestrians, their eyes fixed not on the actual world but on the glowing images and text emanating from the Web.

Like Lewis Mumford's Nuke Fatalists, I watch these developments get completely out of hand (Mander of course was ignored - when my brother and I saw him give a free lecture in a small class room at San Francisco State decades ago, he would not allow videotaping of the talk - so how was anyone to know he existed or what he was saying? Yet more irony.). And I realize that wholesale change in culture and society, if it can be managed without utter chaos and violence, is not altogether a bad thing. I believe this underlies the increasing interest, and even enthusiasm, in America for the things you write about. You may live on a boat in Boston Harbor, in other words, but for that very reason, along with the deep and penetrating analysis you offer, I think your time has come.

Keep up the good work, please.

March 07, 2012

Bye Bye American Pie

I do not want to sound like the kid with the Magic Decoder Ring in overusing the insights from Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good, tempting as that might be. Nevertheless, there is something uniquely useful about employing basic, evolutionary principles when trying to understand something as complicated as the species Homo sapiens, of which I (and presumably you, since you're reading this) are members.

Thus, in trying to understand the long slide into degeneracy of the United States, the fading of its empire, and the eclipse of its Middle Class (that bastion of Good Living that thrived, for a time, in the 1950's and 1960's, the decades of my own consciousness-formation), I have been intrigued, and highly amused, by Dilworth's recapitulation of certain anthropological evidence that strongly suggests that human beings resisted the use of horticultural technology (farming, cultivation of the land for food) for quite some time after the basic techniques were known, preferring to remain in the hunter-gatherer mode even as this approach to living was straining against the ecological limits. To wit, for about thirty thousand years.

Now in truth, some anthropologists have noted that, quite in line with what Gary Taubes has written in Good Calories, Bad Calories (about the benefits of the Paleolithic Diet), that as soon as humans embarked on a grain and vegetable based diet, dental caries and other disease markers began showing up. Still, it was getting obvious that hunting and gathering, even at a point when there were only about 5 million humans worldwide, could not go on for everybody. As a general principle, once Homo sapiens is on the scene, the other species begin disappearing. (I can just hear the mammals who survive our 200,000 year Reign of Terror talking among themselves after we're gone: "Oh God, you mean you were alive during the humans!") Granted also that hunting and gathering are just intrinsically more fun, and much closer to the uses for which we actually evolved. This second point is closer to the truth, because the real reason that farming was resisted for so long was because it's just too much damn work, and humans prefer doing nothing whenever possible. Early humans finally capitulated to the sedentary, agrarian life style because they had no choice; it was the only way to feed the burgeoning population, to create a surplus that would get the swelling tribes through good years and bad and to substitute for all the plentiful game that humans had already succeeded in driving to extinction. (Sure, Rick Santorum: we're terrific Stewards.)

Bringing things up to date and applying this "insight" to modern America: it all depends on where you want to start the analysis, I think. Pretty convincing economic evidence suggests that American males topped out in their earning ability, in constant dollars, by the end of the 1960's. What has contributed since to the increase in household income (a misleading stat used interchangeably by economists who wish to confuse the issue of which of our two utterly useless political parties, the Dems or Repubs, are "better" for the economy) is that women have had to go to work, much as the species as a whole had to settle down into the utter drudgery of earning a living by the sweat of their brow, tilling the fields and harvesting the grain. In our highly-specialized, monotonous, Weberian organic society, we are apt to romanticize the agrarian life, a self-indulgence which my Southern farming forebears would no doubt find highly amusing. It's just a lot of hard, back-breaking work when it's done at the small scale which is actually sustainable. Not a whole lot different from mill work, which James Taylor wrote about:

Mill work ain't easy, mill work ain't hard,
Mill work it ain't nothin' but an awful boring job...

Given these insights, it is somewhat instructive to reconsider the disappearance of the American "manufacturing" base in favor of what was breathlessly described, in such glowing terms, as the "service" or even "information" economy as those fads took root in the 1980's and 1990's. While we have now settled into a national narrative where there are Bad Guys (the 1%) versus the newly-crowned Good Guys (99%), a narrative in which all the Commoners were simply hoodwinked, and sold out, and forced to the economic cetera, I wonder if the truth is somewhat less convenient and self-laudatory. Namely: who the hell really wanted all those awful boring jobs on the assembly line? Did we really want to be workers like those at the weirdly-named Foxconn in China who assemble all those Apple and other hi-tech gizmos, the workers who are restrained by suicide nets on the top floor of the building because their work drives them stark staring mad?

Admittedly, I have framed the question in a somewhat manipulative way. The point still remains that it is in fact possible to maintain a reasonably high standard of living in a globalized economy, one where energy use per capita is about one-half that of the United States, where engrained habits of thrift and use of public amenities such as trains, bicycles and walking predominate, where the great superfluities of sprawling suburban "countryside-imitating" housing tracts are not mindlessly indulged, where the personal automobile running on gasoline is not the only way to move from Point A to Point B to keep the economy moving. And for proof of this assertion I give you modern-day Germany. Germany does all these things and has a reasonably solid economy, with a higher GDP per capita, a higher standard of living, and a much higher availability of basic public amenities than the United States. It does all these things while still maintaining a manufacturing base (because it maintains a manufacturing base). Its exports create the surplus necessary to keep the internals going, and the Euro crisis is first and foremost about Germany's loss of its captive export market within the European Zone that is at the root of the hysteria over there. (I would bring up Denmark, but I don't want to rub it in.)

So we could have done it another way, but it would have required a different outlook on life, one that is not based on the self-destructive notion of "American Exceptionalism." Germans have maintained a work ethic which is more realistic than the American self-image, which is that we ought to be able to afford everything, live like royalty, while essentially mailing the economy in. When it became apparent that this approach was not going to work, that we as a nation were broke except for a handful of schemers and fraudsters (whom we tolerated, of course, and even idolized so long as the rest of us could enjoy la dolce vita too), we decided to switch the national narrative to a Manichean framework; to wit, we wuz robbed!

Oh please. We were completely complicit in our own destruction. Face it, if your house could make you rich, why the hell go to work? Work is awful. Let the house do it, let it finance everything, let it ka-ching! like an ATM for all those fancy SUVs and flat screen gizmos that fill to overflowing the American crapscape.

Americans, always ahead of whatever Zeitgeist curve is bending, are simply all too human. We're lazy about everything, lazy about how we eat, about our political civics (if Congress is filled to the brim with clowns, how did that happen?), about taking charge, about assuming leadership, about everything. And this is what happens when God kicks you in the butt and tells you you are being evicted from the Garden of Eden. See ya, and don't let the apple branch swat you in the ass on the way out.