April 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay, Charlie Bates Versus the Cars

Brought to you by Peet's Major Kong blend

This past Monday was the third anniversary of my cousin Jim Houston's passing, and to do something about the mood this put me in (generally down, and on a Monday to boot), I went to my Jim Houston Library (bottom shelf, bookcase in the den) and pulled out Gasoline, Jim's collection of Charlie Bates stories.  The collection I have was put together by Capra Press of Santa Barbara in 1980, and my volume was signed by Jim in 1986.  All of the stories are terrific, written in Jim's distinctive laconic, simple, flowing prose, which has a way of disguising the penetrating intelligence behind the beguiling language.

I chose "Gas Mask," just for old times' sake, and because it was the first story Jim ever talked to me about personally, as he was writing it in 1964 (he was thirty years old at the time; I was fifteen).  It was a summer get-together at his parents' place in Saratoga.  Jim's mother, Loretta, had made her trademark lemonade with grapefruit-sized lemons fresh from her own orchard.  It remains to this day the best beverage I have ever had the pleasure of drinking.  I asked Jim what he was working on, and he told me it was a story about a guy, Charlie Bates, his Everyman lost in an increasingly confusing and deranged technological wonderland, who is driving home one day on an elevated freeway (it sounds, in the story, like Los Angeles) when the traffic comes to a complete stop.  Charlie feels the pressure of a car pushing against the back of his Volkswagen Bug.  And the drivers, including Charlie, are then stranded with their automobiles in total, city-wide gridlock. After a while a helicopter appears overhead and moves down the road, announcing that traffic is blocked and that it will take at least twenty-four hours to clear.

"He was on a high, curving overpass that looked down on a lower overpass and farther down onto a twelve lane straightaway that led to the city's center.  As far as Charlie could see in any direction cars were jammed end to end, lane to lane, and nothing moved.  The pushing had stopped.  Evidently there was nowhere else to push."

Charlie strikes up a conversation with Arvin Bainbridge, who is in the car adjacent to his driver's side door.  This is the only other driver identified in the story, adding to the mood of alienation and anomie: there are thousands of stranded motorists on this nightmare-scape of roadways, but all are essentially alone and isolated within their steel vehicles. Where Charlie is different (in each story of the collection, actually) from those he finds in his shared predicament, he improvises in the face of these man-made, hostile environments.  He borrows a tow rope from Arvin, ties it to the railing, and goes hand over hand to the freeway level below.  From there he can climb into the top of a tall tree and shinny his way, at last, to terra firma.  He then walks several miles home to his wife Fay. 

Charlie discusses the situation with Fay and a decision is made to borrow a friend's two-seater bicycle and ride back to the freeway.  Eventually they take an elevator to the top of an apartment building with a view of the freeway, where Charlie can use high-powered binoculars to keep an eye on the Volkswagen.  Charlie follows the loops and curlicues of the freeway and realizes there is a way, using onramps and the median strip, to get back to his car on foot.  Meanwhile, the helicopters announce that the gridlock is likely to remain for thirty-six more hours, two more days, three more days.  Fay and Charlie then discover there is an apartment for rent in the building they have used for the roof-top view of the freeway.  They take the apartment and then divide "watches" into four-hour shifts.

A helicopter lowers a portable toilet onto the freeway, and a long line of stranded motorists wait their turn.  Through the binoculars, Charlie sees a woman enter the toilet and close the door. He tells Fay,

"A woman just opened the door and stepped inside."

"What if the cars start moving while she's in there, Charlie?  That's what I'd be worried about."

"It's a risk, all right, one of those risks a person just has to take."

Charlie begins frequent jogs to his car, leaving his bike at the foot of the onramp.  He talks things over with Arvin Bainbridge, who tells Charlie things on the freeway are "bout the same."  It's hot out on the asphalt during the day, and uncomfortable to sleep in the car at night, but Arvin tells Charlie that "you get used to it."  He compliments Charlie on his improving time in getting to and from the Volkswagen.  Charlie's been clocking himself, and Arvin asks for the time.  Charlie tells him.  Arvin is impressed:  "Cuttin her down, hey boy."  Charlie suggests that Arvin come to the apartment, have dinner, a drink, take a shower.  Arvin mulls it over.  He's still making payments on his car, he muses. Finally he tells Charlie that he "just can't."  Arvin wants to be there when the cars start to move again.  Charlie tells him that he understands.

And so the story ends, Charlie and Fay in their eagle's nest vantage point, the cars permanently gridlocked, the drivers in the stranded vehicles hollow-eyed, grimy, in wrinkled clothes, wraiths scattered along an endless terrain of asphalt.  "Gas Mask" cannot have a happy ending, because the madness will obviously continue whether or not the cars ever start moving again or not.  We leave Charlie in an army surplus store, buying a gas mask to help him deal with the eye-stinging, suffocating pollution he encounters during the times he spends on the freeway with his car, as the motorists periodically fire up their engines in anticipation that perhaps this is the Moment of Movement, a hope which spreads virally from car to car like an urban legend.

I've always considered this story a largely unrecognized miracle of dystopian satire.  I think it is brilliant in its spare, matter-of-fact depiction of the insane accommodation of oppressive, inhuman (even anti-human) technology in the lives of ordinary modern people.  It was written by a young man of prodigious talents (in so many arts) who looked on the world with wry bemusement, who understood, deep in his calm soul, that nothing can change the course of progress, that all we will ever do is make seemingly sane adaptations to a thoroughly mad artificial environment, and take the "necessary" risks involved, such as using a toilet on an elevated freeway in the middle of The Traffic Jam at the End of the World, without ever once asking ourselves how we created such a monstrosity in the first place, or what human purposes it serves.

April 12, 2012

Approaching One Grand

This will be the 997th blog post I've hoisted onto this site in the last six years.  I imagine that each one averages about 350 words, so that's a lot of brain-belching.  Still, it's a piker's effort compared to the big boys, like Paul Krugman, who writes about 997 blogs a day.  It should be pointed out that each of Mr. Krugman's blogs is the same as the one before, but it remains a prodigious effort simply to put that many words on paper (or into pixels), as I should know.

Philosophically, I think my orientation has changed over the last six years.  For example,  like many initially afflicted with Blogger Grandiosity Syndrome (BGS), at first I though it was incumbent upon me (even expected of me) to comment on every major meme arising from the maelstrom of American pop culture. 

The Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman saga is a case in point.  A few years ago, I would have felt it my solemn duty to weigh in on this sorrowful episode with my own pithy insights.  I now see that this is simply falling into the American Meme Trap.  It won't be long before this Crime of the Century will fade into absolute nothingness, and then all we will have as a memory is the unfortunate way that mass media intrude into the legal justice system and make it practically impossible for us to think straight about matters of crime and punishment. 

To fit the agenda of the News Cycle, a "hook" must be found.  It was easy in this case: a non-black shooter kills a black person, and the Florida police and district attorney do not immediately push for prosecution, citing Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, another artifact of America's gun-happy, bloodthirsty culture.  (It's always Frontier Land here in the U.S.)  The reason becomes immediately "obvious" to everyone: non-blacks shooting blacks are less likely to be prosecuted, while blacks shooting whites are always indicted.  I heard this exact formulation of the "issue" on our local KGO, as advanced by Ronn Owens, probably the dullest and most cliche-ridden talk-radio disc jockey in airwave history (NorCal Division), but with a huge following, it goes without saying.

Crime statistics certainly bear this bias out: African-Americans and other minorities are disproportionately charged and sentenced for crimes against whites, especially in the South.  However, there is a second question: was the decision by the Florida police and D.A. (at least initially) the result of this bias?  This is the difference between statistical tendencies and the facts of a specific case, and as every lawyer knows, only the latter, the relevant facts, have any bearing on the "truth" of a given event.  This did not stop pundits like Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC from screaming at the top of his lungs, crying for justice for Trayvon, or the President from making an extremely ill-adivsed comment about Trayvon's resemblance to a son he might have had, whatever that was supposed to mean.  O'Donnell and the President were behaving in extremely irresponsible ways in bringing pressure to bear on a matter under investigation (the second time the President has done so: will there be another Beer Garden photo-op?).  Thus, while it would be worthwhile and responsible to discuss the problem of discrimination in charging and sentencing minorities as a general proposition, we don't do Responsible in American media life.  You can't get the public's attention unless you turn the event into the kind of circus, based on a specific act of violence, as Tom Wolfe so eloquently (and searingly) fictionalized in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the lessons of which everyone has apparently forgotten.

So I've learned to refrain from such "advocacy" based on what is always a very partial understanding (filtered through a sensationalist media) of the actual facts.  What is increasingly more interesting to me these days is to assay the State of the Nation from a longer perspective.  We live at a particularly interesting time, here in 2012.  As Thoreau said in Walden, the Now is a meeting "of two great eternities," and we should "toe that line."  There is little doubt that we are living now in the aftermath of the Great American Experiment in Suburban Living, of the Consumer Society, of the debt-fueled maintenance of an expensive and extravagant lifestyle, which is groaning and collapsing under its own weight, as it has been for a very long time, but now the signs and symptoms have become too obvious for anyone to ignore or to hide behind the veil of American Exceptionalism.

Now there's an interesting topic.  To be of a certain age, old enough to have grown up in, and to have had one's consciousness formed by, the decades of the 1950's and 1960's, when there was no doubt America led the way in everything, and only the Beatniks were around to point out that the way we were leading was probably a very bad direction, indeed.  Nevertheless, the Western World (and Japan) followed us, all the way to the edge of the precipice, where we stand today, in an ecologically and economically unsustainable predicament.

As I mentioned the other day, Thoreau himself "toed a line" between the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in force in America, and a bygone agrarian, pastoral history.  Such times can be eras of acute clarity, and insight, into epochal transformation.  Thus, at Orwell's suggestion, I keep this journal of ideas.

April 08, 2012

The Simpler Way from Down Under

I think I mentioned a while back that as the result of writing about Craig Dilworth's book Too Smart For Our Own Good here at the Pond, I had heard from Prof. Dilworth himself, and that resulted, through the "connective tissue" of the Internet, in access to a lively discussion going on among those one might call Deep Ecologists. These are academics, thinkers and writers whose appreciation of the ecological predicament of mankind goes beyond the conventional "Green" narrative popular in America. The Green narrative suggests that if we all just insulate our houses a little better, support photovoltaics and windmills, and drive a Prius, we probably won't even notice a change from the current American lifestyle. One might even surmise that this way of thinking about the problem is the "Manufactured Consent" (in Chomsky's terms) of the issues: the mainstream media define the divide this way, between business-as-usual and slight tweaking along environmental lines to keep growth humming along and a bigger and brighter future on the horizon forever.

I asked permission from Ted Trainer, one of my new correspondents, who is based in Australia where he writes on Transition issues and oil depletion, if I could post one of his letters contributed to a recent discussion as a particularly good and concise introduction to the notion that the "Green" solution, as popularized in America, is way off the real mark, and Mr. Trainer graciously agreed. So, without any redactions, the letter follows:

[text of letter]

I was not able to contribute to your recent interesting discussion about the global predicament but I’d like to feed in what I see as a game-changing point of view that usually goes unrecognised.

So much of the discussion of the predicament takes for granted a uni-dimensional view of development, wealth, progress. For example many people (especially of the red-left variety) argue that there must be much more economic growth and therefore energy use to increase production so that the poorest billions can rise to satisfactory living standards. They therefore criticise the many green people who are saying that there is already far too much producing and consumption, energy and resource use going on. Many red left people argue for redistribution but many green people say that wouldn’t change the amount of consuming so it wouldn’t reduce resource and environmental pressure. So it looks like an insoluble dilemma.

The way out is to take The Simpler Way. I first put it in Abandon Affluence, Zed, 1985, and have detailed a more elaborate case in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010. The first point is that the big global problems cannot be solved unless there is dramatic reduction in the resource consumption, GDP and “living standards” we have in rich countries, probably to one-tenth of their present levels. Several lines of argument within the general “limits to growth” analysis should now leave no doubt about this. For instance the Australian per capita “footprint” is 8 ha of productive land but by 2050 the amount available in the world will be at best .8 ha; so we are 10 times over a level that it would ever be possible for all to have. ...and these numbers totally ignore the absurd commitment to economic growth. Anyone who thinks 9 billion can rise to the “living standards” Australians expect by 2050 given 3% economic growth is assuming the planet can sustain 30 times the present global volume of producing and consuming.

It follows that we must move to ways of living, institutions and systems that allow us to live well on a small fraction of our present rich world affluence, and indeed of the present world resource production levels. The Simpler Way argument is that this could be done, easily and quickly, thereby defusing all the big problems...if enough people saw the sense of it. TSW involves mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies processing local resources to meet local needs, via intensely participatory and cooperative ways, with no economic growth, in economies that are not determined by market forces...and value systems in which there is no interest in competing or gaining.

Many of us in the ecovillage and Transition Towns movements live in very resource-cheap but quality of life rich ways. I live way under the “poverty line”, never travel, never watch TV, almost never buy new clothes, and could build you a beautiful small earth house for under $5000. My quality of life is high, but nothing like that in some of the communities I know. Meanwhile most of you out there are working three times too hard, going down with depression and obesity, as your social cohesion crumbles. Why don’t you come across to TSW and devote most of your week to your arts and crafts, conversation or just sitting in the sun (…working three hours a week in the remnant offices and factories we’d need)?

Now you might think the prospects for such a transition are remote. My view is that the transition will not be achieved. But that’s not central here. What matters is that you are going to move towards TSW whether you like it or not. We are entering the era of intense and irremediable scarcity. The resources are already inaccessible for most people, and becoming scarcer, especially if you attend to declining EROI (energy return on investment) rather than price. (EROI has halved for oil in a couple of decades.) Only 1.5 billion are using the resources now...just wait until another 8.5 billion go after them. And we few in rich countries are losing our capacity to hog all the available resource wealth as we have for 500 years The Chinese are racing past us and Uncle Sam doesn’t seem to be able to win the necessary resource wars any more. You are in for a rocky road down to getting by on something like your fair share of the world’s resources for a change.

So you might be wise to join us in trying to work out how to run very frugal and self-sufficient communities well, because the most likely alternative will be a nasty feudalism as the rich and the middle classes call for repressive state power to secure their property and privileges against the accelerating scarcity, discontent and breakdown.

My main point is that TSW represents a rejection of the uni-dimensional way of thinking, i.e., that the only way development can be thought about is in terms of moving up the slope of progress towards more jobs, production, income, GDP, wealth and development. No group has been more trapped in this mind-set than one of the teams I belong to, the Marxists. They adopt the same capitalist conception of development as the neo-liberals; development involves investment of capital to increase production for sale...how else could it be conceived? (Marxists just don’t want the capital to be privately owned.) So 3-4 billion Third World people are trapped in hopeless squalor waiting for trickle down from capital invested in the most profitable ventures ... when most of them have all around them the soil, rainfall, forests, traditions, networks, knowledge and labour that could quickly develop the simple but sufficient housing, cooperatives, chicken pens, permaculture gardens, swales, schools, woodlots, sheds, clinics etc. they need to meet most of their basic needs. Appropriate development needs little monetary capital.

Of course the rich countries work hard to prevent the available resources being devoted to such purposes; they must be kept free for use by transnational corporations, and devices such as debt and the Structural Adjustment Packages ensure that they are. (And any country foolish enough to still deviate is likely to find itself invaded on some pretext.) But the main factor preventing appropriate development is the mentality that can’t deviate from the development=growth dimension. It’s as blindingly dominant within NGOs as within the IMF.

The main reason why I don’t think we will make it is because the commitment to affluence is now so deeply entrenched. No one wants to think about moving to any alternative to it. It has a firm grip on academics in general and Marxists in particular. Their classic statement is that the revolution will take the factories off the capitalist class and then everyone can have a Mercedes. The left has no idea about, and evidently no interest in living simply in highly self-sufficient communities. It is still focused on getting control of the state to organise utopia from the centre. Scarcity rules that out; from here on there can be very little centralisation, heavy industrialisation, globalisation, transport , travel or tourism. Now a satisfactory society all could share can only be organised and run by small towns, suburbs and regions via political systems directly involving all in the decision making and implementation. Sorry but the Anarchists have the right vision now. (There will still be a remnant role for centralised “state” bureaucracies...which are given no power...see Chapter 10.)

The Transition book argues that both red and green people urgently need to take these simpler way themes on board.