Saturday, May 10, 2008

Shifting Gears

As most of you know, I worry a great deal about all kinds of things, mostly the future (to which one can reply "what else is there to worry about - the past?" Yeah, well, tell my mother that). By which I mean the things I have been worrying about for a long time, for those of you who have been reading my blog(s) for a while - you already know what these things are: the climate is changing, the oil is running out and everything is about to change completely and forever.

Not to be overly dramatic about it.

And when I really start to worrying, as opposed to just a generalized anxiety, I worry that I haven't taken all the necessary steps to be really ready for what comes next. I have packed "Go Bags" for me and Mrs. Joe, which are useful if the shit hits the fan while we're at home together, but since most of our days are spent not working at home, it won't do either of us much good in most situations. Nevertheless, I have plans for the various scenarios should some immediate disaster like another 9/11 strike the city. I have fairly clear escape plans, or at least semi-developed ideas about where to go and what to do. Living through 9/11 in New York will make a person want to be better prepared for the next, potentially worse one.

If something more drawn-out should happen, the kind of thing for which we could have one or more days of advance warning - something like a Hurricane Katrina hitting the city, let's say - I'm still fairly well-prepared with the materials and supplies I have. I can't live my life as though any particular terrible thing is imminent, but neither can I pretend some large scale disaster is only the stuff of Hollywood movies and paranoids. Again, post-9/11.

But what about something really drawn out, large-scale, long-term and irreversible? What about multiple things? Things that go to undermining the very socio-economic structures I live by? You know, like, such as, Peak Oil and Climate Change? How can I prepare for epic calamities like those? What about money? How will I live? Will I have a place to actually live in? Will I be able to work? Have I taken enough steps to have a marketable skills-set in a post-petroleum economy? Will I be able to feed and defend myself and my wife in a possible world where those systems have broken down? Can I do all of these things and continue to pursue the life and career I enjoy now, without retreating to a cabin in the mountains and living like a paranoid hermit? If so, how?

Perhaps it is in our collective cultural memory that civilizations erode and collapse into anarchy: Imperial Rome collapsing into Dark Ages Europe is of course the reigning catalyst for this idea in our shared history. I think these historical patterns are important because we are again on the precipice of an utter failure of the very engine of civilization as the underlying technology we have chosen to build our entire Flat Friedman World is finite, with deep, powerful side-effects, the scope of which we are only just now beginning to grasp.

As everything begins to break down, the scale of the disaster now besetting us will make itself known in successive waves that, at the time, will each seem like the most horrifying and insurmountable challenge in the history of humankind. Until the next thing overtakes it. Right now, that thing is the housing bubble and concommitant mortgage crisis. But, on deck in the batting circle is the collapse of international credit and the implosion of currency exchange. All of these things have real-world consequences, as many, many people are beginning to learn.

After that, who knows? The end point, though, and each in their own way a driving force behind the other, smaller problems, are (say if with me now...) Peak Oil and Climate Change.

James Howard Kunstler has been banging this drum for years, but his larger point has always been that "suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."

Now, he doesn't intend to specifically demonize suburbanites living suburbanally in their own right as much as he wants to condemn the essentially wasteful and wholly unsustainable nature of our modern living arrangement, of which American suburbia is the largest, guiltiest and most tragic. In the decades following WW2, in keeping with American tradition, rural life was romanticized as pastoral and authentic but - apart from food production - a kind of luxury, while city life was viewed as gritty and inhuman but vital for economic prosperity. The post-WW2 consensus viewed suburbia as the best compromise between the two. Leave aside the class-based and racist implications that lay below those widely held assumptions for a moment and government and banking policy, while still the primary forces behind the suburban build-out, were only possible because for several decades almost everybody in the country, including anybody who had decision-making power about the allocation of resources in America, saw suburbia as the cure for all ills. Many of those "ills" were of course assumed to be racial in nature, mind you, and the post-WW2 suburban build-out has been part of the unexamined secret behind the Rethuglican rise to prominence since the 1950's.

Once we had warning shots fired across our economic bow during the OPEC oil shocks of the early '70s, though, instead of using these intervening years to develop alternative energy and, more importantly, change our land-use patterns and goods & services distribution systems, we chose to double-down and do more not less of exactly the wrong things. Complex cultural and distinctly non-economic factors drove this knuckle-headed collective choice, but the manufactured Myth of Saint Ronnie and the Cult of American Exceptionalism are major culprits.

So, now that the Democratic race is winding down (finally!), despite the mewling of the Hill-bot Brigades, my posting will be shifting a bit more towards my thought about what's next and how I and everyone I know can fit into this new world emerging around us.

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