You will excuse me, I hope, of living a life of liberal bias. It’s a free country. Or so they say. I am a liberal though I prefer to say ‘progressive’ because I am more attentive to how what is happening now informs the future rather than being overly concerned with the past. As they say, it’s just a goodbye.
I am not a complete idiot so I would like to talk about my liberalism. I came by it honestly. I went to a Quaker school while Vietnam was a hot war and I was attentive to my duty but concerned that the fighting was wrong. I thought to protest was the patriotic thing. Now who was I to dispute the grand marshals of American exceptionalism; Rostow, McNamara, and Bundy? Weren’t they Kennedy’s “brain trust”? I thought America was too militaristic and needed to quit throwing its weight around. I was for a 50% reduction in DOD expenditures even when the Soviets were a “threat”. (Read Seymour Melman.) Of course, I could see the danger of nuclear war but the Soviets had a country no one wanted to live in and would do much to escape if they could. They did not seem to be much competition for how to organize a grand and glorious State. They seemed in fact pretty shabby. So even in the turbulent late 1970’s, America was the place to be. Conditions were in flux and it seemed time to get busy on a future that included all 4 billion people on the planet.
In my mind America needed to address the essential contradictions of capitalism, the problem of “externalities”, the problem of valuing the resources we all are dependent on, and then of course planning for energy and resource limits. How were we going to include the developing nations in the project of civilization? It did not seem right to argue for 3% growth for us and 5-7% for them which would enable them to “catch” us in 150 years. Actually it did not make sense to “grow” forever. A little sustainability was in order. These concerns appeared in books like Limits to Growth or Small is Beautiful. These issues had been brought to common awareness on the first Earth Day and now we were working through them politically. The 70’s were turbulent. Capitalism was consciously selfish. The inattentive and poor were being victimized. They thought the system cared about justice and fairness. Yes, it was gloriously productive BUT it had big failures. The hippies pointed it out but were unable (and unwilling) to actually follow through on difficult almost revolutionary change. Young people’s criticism was unfocused, lazy, and selfish. They wanted a so-called Clinton “third way” that would not require too much of a sacrifice.
I was in to hope and change before it became fashionable. Genial Reagan aggravated my worldview because he was ancient history, unable to understand the present, much less the future. He was the pretender of the greatest generation—an actor not a thinker. And he was senile! He was stuck on the whole American exceptionalism thing and unable to comprehend that the rest of the world HAD a world view. In short, it was all about US, and our glorious future was just a riff on our world saving past. It was the feel good politics of the stupid—we were facing all these modern, critical issues and he was trying to return to the 50’s. Who would speak for the necessary organization of the future? So our country was misdirected in the 80’s from the recognized problems of the 70’s and forced to try a return to Mayberry while building the biggest f***** army on the planet. We had neighbors that were reluctant to listen to us so we took a stick to Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama and let everyone know the Monroe Doctrine now applied to the whole world once Russia took a powder. WE were the end of history. Now that we were the sole superpower it was time to shuck the Miss Congeniality shtik and get the whole world shaped up to our satisfaction. As you may know it was libertarian Karl Hess(speechwriter for Barry Goldwater) who advanced the pithy idea that liberals think everybody else is stupid and conservatives think everybody else is lazy. Ok guilty. It only makes sense to work hard at something that has a prayer of working. We are deep deep into stupidity at this point.
So OUR biggest idea for the last 20 years has been “show me the money”. We learned to just make it up and then promptly forgot it’s supposed to be a measure of value, not permission to pillage. Value! What an outmoded concept! It’s OK, we thought, everyone has money now instead of lives of value. But the rich desired to be Icarus and fly not only up to the sun but to the other suns called stars and they needed everybody else’s money to do that. So they demoted them to Marx’s Industrial Reserve Army and piled up the money so they could escape Earth’s gravitational field and enjoy the incredible lightness of being. How are we going to get these yoyo’s back to planet earth? They have their international trust funds and multiple international houses with private jets and are planning on helicoptering from gated community to tiny personal island and back whenever necessary while the middle class pack mules try and find out where the feeding stations are when the whole edifice collapses.
Who brought this subject up? Was it Jared Diamond in 2004 with his best selling book after the successful Guns, Germs, and Steel? Probably. Since then, as in circa September 2007, I have been a reluctant (because I am earnest optimist) believer that systemic failure was at least possible. By dint of some ameliorative action we could have politically addressed some of the consequences of that unhappy fate but to some degree we have known the future would not be an unalloyed success. Progress was not going to be for everybody. It was not a completely zero sum game, events were too complicated for that, but in a real sense, the overpopulated resource constrained world was starting to play musical chairs for keeps. We watched the World Trade Center Towers fall and felt it was possible that the whole modernity project could sputter and fail like a high performance car that had not been properly maintained. So around 2005 it seemed the Zeitgeist had found its new metamorphosis and there sprang into the developing internet blogosphere the peak resource, peak oil, and financial system destruction acolytes.
They have all been around at least 10 years maintaining that the collapse of civilization and the world financial system is happening--soon. Just around the corner. Once you get into this sub-culture you wonder how prevalent the thinking is. In my everyday life as a dentist in a southern defense industry town, I note that very few of my neighbors, friends, extended acquaintances and even my family for that matter are particularly worried about the collapse of western civilization. I detect no worry that the Big Short redux could claim their bank account or that the electricity grid could sputter and just go out. The idea of no oil in gas stations seems farfetched. They don't worry about nuclear storage issues at our local TVA reactor. Obviously Rome was a Western civilization that collapsed some 1800 years ago but the concern that it is our "turn" to collapse is never mentioned in polite company. It's true that we Alabamians are a little slow to recognize and adopt the new, new thing. We have a certain protective religious conservatism that is not in a hurry to change. We are so-called "late adopters".
In truth I have a pretty big bone to pick with my fellow southerners as they have been foolish supporters of policies that have only further emasculated, enslaved, and undermined what they say they hold dear. They have been big time warmongers, demonstrating their US patriotism by supporting a plethora of military interventions both unhelpful and unnecessary. Southerners don't mind fighting and prefer to demonstrate their patriotism by being willing to support the cause of freedom. Whether it actually creates any freedom is an uncomfortable question. I don't really detect any angst or chagrin about the results of our "good intentions" in Afghanistan or Iraq. Perhaps they thought the wogs deserved it. Now personally I think they have been played the fool--sending our young and marginally employed to wars and police actions of dubious merit but they are proud of this sacrifice and don't want to hear it impugned. As payback they kind of expect to be left alone to go to church and watch NASCAR. They don't like being told they have to hire the transgendered, put illegal Mexican children in their schools, and rehabilitate criminals.
And my town has benefited mightily from the wars abroad. My representative thinks it's the greatest thing ever to cut the rest of the federal budget to give the DOD more money to "keep us safe". More drones, more helicopters, more missiles--good. More jobs. I must confess that it has supported my business, teeth need fixing and having good insurance helps those employed to get treatment. So if you talk to my mayor he will highlight how we recently have located a Polaris ATV manufacturing facility and a Remington gun plant here. More good jobs. Things are coming up roses here. I have even heard that the Arsenal is planning to bring the FBI training facility here that would consist of 2,000-4,000 new jobs. War and security are making us rich. In truth we have other high tech businesses like NASA, Adtran, Intergraph, and Hudson Alpha genomic research. Where is the collapse in all this good news?
They say that pride goeth before a fall and I suppose that we are proud of the concatenation of circumstances that has put us in the modern catbird seat. Ten years ago my office was downtown surrounded by Housing Authority low cost apartments but they have all been razed--new apartments renting for $1200/month are going up downtown with new restaurants and the like. Young people are moving in. How do they afford these rents? I have no idea. The restaurants are packed. Everybody has money it seems. Where does it come from? The government? Parents? I can't tell you the number of military retirees that settle here because we have a commissary and a veterans hospital. I played in a charity golf tourney that raised $25,000 and when I parked I couldn't believe all the new SUV's with disabled vet plates or stickers on their windshield detailing their branch of service. What I am suggesting is that the idea of collapse is just so obviously wrong for those of us situated in Fortunes good graces.
But I am a collapsnik and as such I look for a useful role to play. I do not see the prepper, doomer, and survivalist world view as being anything a society would consciously aim for. It goes for individualization when what is needed are societal solutions. Personal planning could obviously be a necessary mitigation strategy but they are not plans that foster community. The national political catfight actually confuses the issues that most localities need to be addressing. How does one both think and act locally while the news is everything that is happening somewhere else? It is irrelevant and meant to distract.
I like to talk probabilities. I read Ted Koppel's book Lights Out last year and he pegged the likelihood of grid failure in the next 10years at 50%. What do you think? Is it 1%, 10%, 50%, or virtually certain? Grid failure is a catastrophic civilizational collapse in short order. Without power, modernity is just not possible. A one week in house camping experience would be a salutary reminder of how electric dependent we are but a 2 month power outage is close to inconceivable. And the chances of it are 50%? I can tell you that my utility company is more than certain that it has emergency plans in place that would prevent that possibility. I guess, if it happens, we will get an apology by mail or an announcement on the radio. I am not too worried about terrorists, they are a certainty but quite localized. Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl or Fukashima or even a military mistake are always a concern. We have been lucky. I realize we have enemies but the blowback from attacking us would be apocalyptic. Another gas crisis is possible. We stood in line in 1973 but it strikes me that given all our wasteful consumption, we could easily drop demand by 25% with a painful price increase. People with gas want to sell it for other things and unless international trade stops, gas would likely be available at some price.
But it is the financial system that collapsniks are sure will fail first. Money is currently imaginary and illusory so when it disappears all of the signs of prosperity will vanish. How likely is another financial crisis? I have heard the mainstream experts say we have stabilized the system. In 2007, I thought the chance of system wide financial failure in 10 years was close to 90%. I am coming up on being very wrong (or just early). Should I change my mind? Debts are unpayable, climate is changing, resources are diminishing, populations are increasing and migrating, pollution is increasing, growth is slowing to a crawl. Why don't we just call our permanent recession - sustainability? Is healthcare going to be fixed? Are pensions going to be payable? Indeed! And No and no. At some point we will all be left with what we have. So ask yourself, what do you have? If the bank owns your home and doesn't like your re-payment efforts, the house is not yours to live in. It might be gifted to you because the banks are insolvent and can't collect but I do not think I would count on a gift mansion. I would PAY for one house and finance to the hilt an investment house that would pay off if debts were forgiven. It should be a "good" investment, not a hope and a prayer. That would be called an albatross.
So what happens if you own your house but all your neighbors have big mortgages and lose their homes in a financial crisis? You are likely to get new neighbors. Neighborhoods should become self aware of their financial vulnerability by creating an index of independence--how close a given set of houses is to being paid for. If you like and can work with your neighbors, then your group can face crisis a lot better than you as an individual.
Many people consider suburbs ugly and dysfunctional. Not so fast! They often have a good population density. A little land for home economy activities and enough people for protection. Apartments in a big city strike me as being vulnerable and lonely rural outposts have weaknesses. You have to go so far to get stuff. If you don't NEED anything, fine, but I have not met the home repair project that doesn't require a trip to the hardware store. My house is not really set up to live in without power. And I am not talking about the TV and internet. Refrigeration and Heating/AC are a big deal. We have about 4 months of comfortable living in our climate with no central air but I do not have a solar array that could run a 4-ton heat pump. I could heat a room or two with a fireplace insert but if all 1,000 of my neighbors were doing it, our neighborhood would look like the Sahara desert in 3 years and we would die of smoke inhalation before then.
Financial crisis is likely sometime but what sorts of impacts will it have? Will you have a job? Will there be products in the store, like food? Can you get money out of the bank, how much? I prefer to assume that the impacts will be on our future buying power rather than have stores without food, gas stations without gas, and banks without cash. A financial crisis will chew up the future value of money but leave the present limping along in coping mode. Civilization won’t just stop. But I can’t be sure about that so I’ll keep going to work until something changes….