Thursday, January 31, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For…

…you might get it, as the saying goes. There is much discussion these days about the impending collapse of civilization, along with ample evidence to support this inevitability and legions of well engineered and self evident suggestions guaranteed to avert or mitigate said disaster. I have read many articles and seen several documentaries which say something to the effect, ‘If people were made to understand X, then they would surely do Y.’ X is allowed to be any of a set of a priori assumptions about the universe, such as ‘This or that technology will save us’, ‘The moon is a sponge of green cheese saturated with Helium-3’ or the equally ludicrous ‘Oil enters the earth’s crust through a white hole connected via pipeline to a black hole in an alternately fueled universe entirely composed of hydrocarbons.’

Conversely, other candidates for argument X include, ‘We are all doomed, anyway’, ‘The cheap energy carnival is caput’ and the ever popular ‘It’s all a hoax propagated upon us by THEM.’ (Being interested in anthropology, I would definitely like to know more about those THEM. Maybe an ethnography of the Bilderberg Group would make a good read. What sorts of islands do they prefer for their post apocalyptic slave labor camps? How many cases of Russian caviar must each bomb shelter contain? Where do I send my request for membership? But I digress.)

The Y portion of the equation is populated with ideas guaranteed to fix the problem. Things like, ‘Laminate Arizona with solar panels’, ‘Grow legumes in that spot in your back yard where you used to change the oil in your riding mower’, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die off’ and ‘Just keep drilling until the drill bit melts.’ Dick Cheney’s favorite, I might add. Personally I prefer, ‘Take a stick of petroleum wax and apply directly to the forehead.’ Why not? It works just as well for headaches.

The problem is that people are notoriously reticent to change their opinions, let alone their behavior, when someone pretending to know more than they do tells them how to behave. Like the old saying goes, People who think they know it all really make life miserable for those of us who do. Jimmy Carter couldn’t even get the conversation going thirty years ago, let alone outline his own plan Y, and that was when the memory of gas lines was still fresh in our minds. Arguments like those outlined above (admittedly presented in a Mad Libs format) have more to do with social engineering than any other kind of engineering. The jist of these arguments seems to be, ‘If everyone just does what I say, everything will be fine.’ This line of reasoning is always flawless to the reasoner, if nobody else.

Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you had in your possession the absolute best plan for the post oil future of mankind. Your muse, higher power or perhaps a fortune cookie laid it out for you in blinding alacrity. You cannot convince anyone to espouse your wonderful plan because, well, because people are not hotwired that way (see above.) Now, for the sake of the thought experiment let us further suppose that you are the supreme ruler of the world (why not? If talk is cheap, than surely thought must be nearly worthless.) You are either a philosopher king with absolute authority and power as well as a perfect, selfless and incorruptible grasp of what is right and wrong or a member of a beneficent and like minded oligarchy. More on that later.

So you create your five year plan-oops, I mean absolute best plan for humanity, and implement it. To do this you have to just plain force people to do what you know is right, gosh darn it. You organize work camps-no, that’s not right. Living camps-no, that’s not right, either. I know. Fun camps where people can live while laminating Arizona or blasting off to the moon to mine magic beans or whatever. Other segments of the population are busy growing food on the strips of land between the rail road tracks of the mass transit systems that they are also building from the left over corn stalks.

If there are too many people for all of the available farm land, minus that used for bio diesel, well, you are the king of the world. You can enforce population control (that sounds better than the more fascist ‘depopulation’) via some sort of technique that you are rather nebulous about and don’t really want to discuss. A smaller human footprint with fewer useless eaters (got to get a better phrase for that one. Maybe later) will benefit mankind in the long run. It will be like culling the herds. Some of our grandchildren will live in a technological world with mass transit and Disney World, only not as many. You are willing to make this sacrifice even though the world will despise you and place your name at the head of all lists of tyrants. What else can you do? You are insuring that there will be a (smaller) human population in the future to hate you.

I think you can see from this thought experiment that the one thing that might stand a chance of actually insuring a bright future for the earth and for some members of the human race, as opposed to obliteration for all, is the very thing that we fear the most. Big Brother, through some shadowy secret society, creating a New World Order for a privileged elite, whereas the rest of humanity (the superfluous part) is culled from the herd or placed into labor camps. Come to think of it, if one super rich person consumes as much resources as one thousand of the poorest, wouldn’t we get more bang for the buck were we to ‘depopulate’ that one person? Better not go there. I’m sure Henry Kissinger would not be impressed by this analysis.

Of course, I don’t want to see this happen, nor do I believe that it will actually happen. Even if it might work and even if it would be less cruel than what is actually going to happen, you will never get a secretive group of social engineers, no matter how shadowy, to go along with it. Not because it is too horrible, we are talking about mass euthanasia, after all, but because of the ‘If X, then Y’ dilemma above. You just can’t get a group of people working together toward some single goal, no matter how important, unless you are the king of the universe. Herding cats comes to mind. Not to mention the fact that this is far beyond anything that Alexander the Great attempted in his Hellenization of the mid east. Even Sargon II did not engage in what we today call ‘ethnic cleansing.’ He only relocated the population in an attempt to control them.

I personally don’t believe that there is any sort of secret society ruling the world, not because someone might not wish for this to happen or even attempt to make it happen, but because he will never get that many people to agree to any single master plan. Philosopher kings are in short supply, you know. Philosopher kings with standing armies even less so. Just look into any town zoning board meeting. Your belief in secret societies ruling the world will collapse faster than western hegemony. Though it does make for a good conspiracy theory.

Since making a concerted effort to decrease the surplus population (Dickens’ reference intentional) and to conserve is too hideous to contemplate, then that leaves collapse. Nature will do all that for us, in other words. She can be the bitch that killed off most of the population. She’s done it before and doesn’t appear to mind.

So what might that entail? At the risk of sounding like our last legitimately elected president, it all depends on what the definition of the word ‘collapse’ is. Unless something catastrophic happens I expect to see the United States continue to weaken, just like it has since the 70’s, and then simply crack up. What has been called ‘the Balkanization of the United States.’ Until that time, there will undoubtedly be a patchwork of government run soup kitchens, under bridge condos, clever tax rebates and Bush bergs sprouting up everywhere, complete with moon shine stills, a booming sex trade and pot patches strangely ignored by the local strongmen. You’d be amazed at what you might come across in national forests. Just watch out for the booby traps.

The media will tell those of us with radios and TV’s how well things are going, and they will be true. Some segments of the economy will be functioning, albeit at an increasingly smaller and smaller pace all the time. The rich will stay just ahead of the oil supply. The poor will be ignored, as usual. At least they are not being ‘culled.’ Or, if you notice them at all, you will assume that this is just a problem in your area. After all, everywhere else is doing better, right? They will tell you this right up to the point where static is all you pick up on the air waves. The haves will continue to have and the rest of us will continue to not count. Depopulation will occur right before our eyes and we will never see it. David Copperfield does social engineering. Collapse, in short, will be banal. How can I be so sure? Because it is happening right now.

I often hear people compare the decline of this empire to the fall of the Roman Empire. What they miss is that Rome didn’t really ‘fall’ in any sense of the word. At least not during the fifth or sixth centuries, when it is usually considered to have done so. Rome was downsized when the emperor Constantine wrote off the western empire in the forth century, with all of its red ink, pesky barbarians and high military expenses, and created a new city in the eastern empire (which he modestly named after himself, by the way. It is good to be emperor, philosopher king or otherwise.) The eastern, Byzantine Empire went on strong for another thousand years. The western empire just did not have the good graces to realize that it was doomed for a few more centuries. I think a similar trend will occur here with wealthier areas consolidating and disavowing any knowledge of poorer ones. This will give the illusion that everything is OK in that empire while the rest of the world falls apart. If I don’t see you, then you are not there.

I expect to see California secede from the union at some time in the future, probably merging with Mexico. It is something like the nineteenth largest economy in the world and has its own supply of oil, food and movie stars. Once it realizes that the federal government has no more Jedi mind tricks with which to control it, California will flip a dismissive avocado in our direction and go it alone. My native Connecticut will rejoin a northeastern block from perhaps Philadelphia to southern Maine. The southern states never really accepted defeat, so any appearance of political kinship between them and the rest of the country over the last one and a half centuries was merely cosmetic, anyway. And the remainder of North America? Well, go ahead and rebel amongst yourselves, will you? Just keep away from my pot plants. Instead of going backwards, as some people suggest, I expect civilization to simply shed what it can no longer sustain as rapidly as Greenland sheds icebergs.

Every year I go to the local agricultural fairs in eastern Connecticut and muster up some hope that at least some people out there will actually know what to do with seeds, tools and livestock. Those people are called ‘farmers.’ Those of us who talk about permaculture and backyard farming obviously have never gotten manure on our shoes. I look at the fairground stalls (you have to go past the midway) and marvel at the people who keep alive the small farm, raise rabbits, can vegetables and show horses right here in snooty, urbane Connecticut. How well will they survive in the post peak compost heap? I wish them well and hope they remember us kindly.

And Me? I have a little square of land in my back yard where I used to change the oil in my riding mower. I fill it with weeds and a few cucumbers each summer. They make good pickles. Being not much use in the sex trade I have already checked out my Fodor’s guide for the homeless and staked out my place under the bridge.

Say, while we are on the subject of social engineering, how many anthropologists does it take to change a light bulb? Why, none, of course. We just study the light bulb tribes objectively in the interest of scientific inquiry, without intervention. If we did get involved, though, we’d need a linguist to translate their language, an ethnographer to record their oral traditions, a medical anthropologist to, you know, ‘discuss health issues’ with them and several hundred grad students to keep notes. Oh, and don’t forget the social workers (and soldiers) to assist in their ‘relocation’ when oil is discovered under Lightbulbia.


KarateTraining said...

You probably won't like the source but this article gives a concise picture of what is happening globally today. The article stops short of making predictions but clearly outlines the dangers and importance of proper leadership. Can "We the People" overcome the corruption in time? I haven't given up hope yet but I am brushing up on my farming skills!

Thank you for a well written, lucid and thought provoking article that is all the while entertaining.

Jon said...

Thanks for your comments. You are right that the 'great game' is still afoot. Unfortunately, this time the prize is just holding onto the deck of the Titanic for a little bit longer instead of world hegemony. I hope it doesn’t come to depending on my farming skills for survival, though learning to live with less is always a virtue. My parents and grandparents lived through the depression and a world war. Canning some food, fixing broken furniture and car pooling were natural to them. They may be again. With any luck the descent will be cushioned. But we will see.

Thanks, Jon.