Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Solstice 2100

My second attempt to use the tools of narrative fiction to explore the deindustrial future, this story is set half a century after “Christmas Eve 2050.” Once again the subject is an American family’s experience in a world after peak oil. Between the two narratives, several more cycles of catabolic collapse, involving civil war, epidemic disease, and the onset of severe climate change, have transformed the physical and cultural landscape, with more changes in sight.


Bits of windblown rubbish clattered down the street as Molly reached for the doorlatch. She’d been at church most of the day helping get ready for the solstice ritual, and come home now only because the boy would be back from school soon and would need some getting ready himself. For that matter, she had a few preparations of her own to make, and one more than anything else. She opened the door, closed it quick behind her to keep dust out.

Once inside she took off coat and dust scarf, shook out hair the color of old iron, brushed dust off her hands: no water to spare for washing them, not since autumn rains all but failed this year. Still, the little two-room shack was as clean as dry rags and a meticulous eye could make it. The few furnishings she had—table and two chairs, cooking stove, cupboard, washboard and washtub—glinted in the vague light from the four small windows; not a spot of rust on any of them, and not because the blacksmith who made them used some fancy metal, either. Good plain salvaged iron kept if you took care of it, and it didn’t put a burden on Earth Mother or stray into the extravagance that got Old Time people in trouble with Her.

Knowing the boy would be home soon, she went into the bedroom right away, stepped past the two iron bedsteads to the room’s far end and unlocked one of the trunks there. Homespun was good enough for everyday but holidays called for better. She considered, chose a dress the color of Earth Mother’s own good green, set it on her bed. That would do. A small box inside the trunk gave up a pair of earrings with bright stones—her mother’s, worn only on special days these twenty years now. Then, from the bottom of the trunk, she pulled a package wrapped in coarse brown cloth. Her hands shook a bit as she set it on the bed next to the dress.

A few minutes later, dressed for holiday, she came out of the bedroom and put the package on the table. Clatter of the latch told her she was just in time. The door flew open, letting in a cloud of dust and a boy, brown-haired and barefoot, in clothes that had seen many better days.

“Earth’s sake, Joe, shut the door!” she chided. “You’ll let all the dust off the street in with you.”

“Yes’m.” Abashed, the boy pulled the door shut, submitted to a thorough dusting with the cleanest of the rags. “There,” Molly said. “How was school today?”

That got her a sullen look. “I don’t want to go any more.”

She said nothing, pursed her lips. “I don’t,” the boy repeated. Then, in a rush of words: “Pacho doesn’t have to go to school any more. He works for his brother the savager.”

“Salvager,” she corrected.

“Everybody says it ‘savager’.”

“You can say it however you want with your friends, but at home we speak good English.”

Joe gave her an angry look. “Sal-vager. That’s what his brother does, stripping metal in the towers, and Pacho helps him. He says his mom’s happy ‘cause he’s bringing money home.”


Another look, angry and ashamed at the same time. “Because he’s bringing money home. I bet I could make as much as he does, ‘stead—” He caught himself, glared at her. “Instead of sitting in old man Wu’s house and learning stuff that doesn’t matter any more anyway.”

So, Molly thought, it’s come to this already. “It matters more now than it used to, back in Old Time. You look at Pacho now, and you think he’s got a trade, he makes money, and that’s the end of it. But all he’ll ever be is a salvager. You deserve better.”

He said nothing, met her gaze with a hard flat look. That angered her more than anything he could have said. “You think school doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “You don’t know how many times I cried because I didn’t get to go to school, or how many times I did without because the jobs I could get without schooling paid barely enough to live on. And I promised your mother—” She hadn’t meant to bring up Linny, now of all times, but no point in trying to unsay it. “I promised your mother you’d get an education and I’m not going to break that promise.”

Joe looked away, his face reddening, and Molly berated herself inwardly for mentioning his parents. That had to sting, though Earth Mother knew there were plenty of families in the same case these days, young and old with no blood relation living together under one roof after plague and famine and two civil wars finished with the people they called family beforehand. At least she’d known Jeff and Linny back when Joe was born, had changed his diapers and fed him goat milk from a bottle often enough to feel like some sort of family.

Only one way to mend things, she decided. She’d meant to wait until after church, but that couldn’t be helped. She went to the table. “Come over here. I want to show you something.”

He came after a moment, still looking away, trying to hide the wetness on his cheeks. Molly unwrapped the package, revealing an old book and a long thin shape in a case of cracked black plastic. “What’s that?” Joe asked.

“Take a look.”

He picked the case up, gave her a wary glance, opened it. The slide rule caught the light as he took it out, numbers still readable on the yellowing plastic. “Hoo! Where’d you savage this?”

She let it pass. “I didn’t. That belonged to my brother Joe. When he died in the war, the army tried to send his things to my mother. We were in the refugee camp by then, but one of the families who stayed behind in our neighborhood kept the package for us until the fighting was over and we came back. And this—” She pointed to the book. “This was just about the only thing that didn’t get looted from our apartment. It’s one of Joe’s schoolbooks, and it teaches how to use a slide rule like this one. You need to stay in school so you can learn to read it.”

“I can read better than anybody in my class.”

“You can’t read this.” Meeting his angry look calmly: “Try it.”

That was a gamble—she couldn’t read more than a few words out of the boy’s schoolbooks, for that matter—but as he flipped through the pages and his shoulders hunched further and further up, she knew she’d won it. “Tom Wu says you’re a better reader than anyone in your class, too. That’s why it’s important for you to stay in school, so you can learn to read this and books like it. Do you know what my brother was going to do with his slide rule? He wanted to be an engineer, before they drafted him. He wanted to make solar engines.”

“Like the old rusty ones by the mill?”

“Yes. Nobody knows how to build them any more, or even how to make the old ones work. Maybe you could figure that out. People would be glad to get electricity again, you know.”

She watched his face, waited for the right moment, as dreams collided somewhere back behind his eyes, Joe-the-salvager against Joe-the-engine-maker, Joe-the-bringer-of-electricity. “That’s why,” she said, “I decided to give these to you.” That got a sudden look, wide-eyed, no trace of the old sullen anger left. “But,” Molly went on, holding up one finger, “only if you promise me you’ll stay in school. They would be wasted on a salvager. They should go to someone who’ll learn how to do something with them.”

Joe opened his mouth, closed it, swallowed. “Okay,” he forced out.

“You promise you’ll stay in school? All the way through?”

“I promise.”

Molly allowed a smile, indicated the book. “Then they’re yours. You can keep them in your trunk until you know what to do with them.” He picked up the book and the wrapping cloth, gave her an uncertain look, as though half expecting her to take them back. “While you’re putting them there,” she said then, “you should get something nicer to wear, too, and quickly. We shouldn’t be late for church, especially not on solstice day.”

“Yes’m.” He started toward the bedroom, stopped halfway there. “Didn’t people use to give each other presents on solstice day?”

Memories jabbed at Molly: the apartment she’d grown up in, full of soft furniture and the glow of electric light, scent of a big holiday dinner wafting from the kitchen, new clothes every year and Christmas stockings with real candy in them, and the look on her brother’s face when he got the slide rule that Christmas when she was eight. People had so much back then! “Yes,” she told the boy. “Yes, we did.”

His face grew troubled. “But wasn’t that wicked?”

“No.” Was it? She pushed the thought away. “There was plenty of wickedness in Old Time, all that extravagance, and next to nobody sparing so much as a thought for Mother Earth. But I don’t think it was wicked for my mother and father to give Joe a slide rule.”

Joe took that in. “Then this’ll be my solstice present,” he announced, and took it into the bedroom.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Christmas Eve 2050: Q&A

I had some questions for Jane Average, the viewpoint character of “Christmas Eve 2050,” and fortunately I was able to arrange an interview. We met in the lunchroom of the metal recycling plant where she works.

Q: Jane, thanks for taking the time for these questions. I’m afraid you may not want to answer some of them, though.

A: Like what?

Q: Well, for starters, how much money you and your husband make, and where it goes.

A: Oh, that’s nothing – you had me thinking you wanted to talk politics. I make N$250 an hour, like all the office staff. Flat tax is 30%, so for a fifty-hour week I take home N$8750. Joe’s on the factory floor so he makes less, even though he’s a foreman. The two of us make a bit over N$16,000 a week. That’s all in new dollars, of course, so figure $320,000,000 in old money.

Q: That sounds like a lot of money, even in new dollars.

A: Well, but remember that a bottle of milk is N$85. Half our income goes for food; even with rationing, it’s not cheap, so figure around N$8000 a week. Energy used to be close to half that in the winter, with our share of coal for the boiler, but it’s cheaper now that the new solar plant has gone online.

Q: Does the plant use solar cells?

A: Good lord, no—the raw materials for those hubberted years ago. No, they’ve got big dish mirrors and Stirling engines driving the generators. Joe Jr. could tell you more about it than I can. He wants to build them when he grows up. But where was I? Rent is a bit less than N$1000 a week—prices are coming back up, though they’re still pretty fair. I remember during the war you could get a place to live for the asking, there were that many empty buildings.

Q: Wow. What’s a gallon of gas cost?

A: Gasoline? I don’t have a clue. Jon? Any idea what a gallon of gasoline costs?

Jon (at the next table): N$450 if you can get a ration coupon. If you’re off book, the sky’s the limit; start around N$1500, maybe, if you’re lucky.

Q: Off book?

A: Under the table from an illegal dealer. If you get caught and the judge is in a bad mood, you could do a year in labor camp, too, so add that to the price.

Q: You mentioned labor camps in the Christmas Eve essay, too. How do those work?

A: Crooks used to go to jail, right? Well, after the war started they couldn’t be spared from the work force, and jails cost too much to run anyway, so the government moved the convicts to camps wherever there was work. These days convicts mostly do fieldwork on big farms, drought reclamation projects, that sort of thing.

Q: What are conditions like in the camps?

A: Well, convicts are supposed to get three meals a day and so on, but you know that doesn’t always happen. When food’s short, it’s twice as short in the camps, and convicts don’t get much health care. That was how we lost our friend Bill. He had some kind of heart condition, and he didn’t get medicine or anything, so he just dropped dead one day.

Q: That seems pretty harsh.

A: Yeah, but what are you going to do? There isn’t enough to go around, so one way or another you have to decide who goes without. Bill was a dear, but you know, a lot of people put everything they had into his firm, and lost it all in the crash of ’41. Joe and I tried to talk him out of going into derivatives in the first place, but you know how people are when they think they can get rich. It wasn’t anybody else’s fault; he hubberted himself.

Q: You used that word before, didn’t you? “Hubberted,” I mean. Do you know who M. King Hubbert was?

A: He’s the guy who figured out that oil was going to hubbert someday, wasn’t he? But it’s a word people use a lot. When you get to the point that you can see the bottom of the sugar jar, you say the sugar’s about to hubbert, but you also use it when something or somebody takes any kind of nosedive. A lot of banks hubberted in ’41, for instance.

Q: Tell me about the ’41 crash. What happened?

A: I don’t know much about it, really. The markets are always way up or way down, and there’s a crash every few years. ’41 was big, though. That was after the second currency reform, when inflation broke 500% a year, and they funded a lot of postwar rebuilding with derivatives sales. Things got really giddy for a while, and then of course it all fell apart.

Q: You mentioned the war several times in the essay. I don’t know anything about that, remember, and I'm curious about the details.

A: Oh, that's true. But I’m not sure where to begin. We were fighting the Persians before I was born – they were called Iranians then, weren’t they? There were wars in ’07 and ’12, before Daryavush took over the country from those religious people – I forget what they were called.

Q: The mullahs?

A: Something like that. Anyway, Daryavush made himself emperor of Persia in ’20. At first people said he was going to side with us against the Chinese, and then he sided with the Chinese instead, and then we were fighting him, and then we were fighting the Chinese, and then we were fighting just about everybody. We sent troops all over the world, and you saw gold stars in a lot of windows by the end of the war; my brothers were drafted and never came home. Jeff was killed in action in Africa, and Matt’s unit got hit by a briefcase nuke in Mexico.

Q: I’m sorry. Did a lot of nukes get used in the war?

A: Mostly just the little briefcase bombs. A few big ones got tossed between Persia and Israel around the time Jerusalem fell, and we used some tacticals in Africa, but that’s all. Toward the end of the war, when we were trying to hold onto Mexico in ’34 and ’35, everyone was scared to death that we were going to go nuclear with the Persians and the Chinese in a big way, but the peace treaty came first. You can’t imagine how it felt when the bells started ringing all over town and we knew the treaty was signed. We still had hungry days after that, with reparations and everything, but the war was over and we didn’t have to worry about the bombs.

Q: Reparations?

A: Well, we didn’t win, you know.

Q: I didn’t. But another question one of my readers had was about your adopted daughter Molly. Why can’t she get into a school?

A: The charter school only takes kids who pass the entrance tests, and the public schools shut down during the war to save fuel and money. The government says they’re going to open them again one of these days, but I don’t expect it any time soon. I worry about Molly a lot. She tries, but reading is just hard for her. If we can’t get her an education, she’s going to have a hard life.

Q: But Joe Jr. is doing well.

A: I’m so proud of him. He’s already talking to engineers about an apprenticeship once he leaves charter school. As long as we can keep him out of the army he’ll be fine.

Q: What’s the problem with the army? Are you worried about another war?

A: No, but we’re getting a little too close to politics, you know. Let’s just say that the army has things to do on our side of the border these days.

Q: Got it. Maybe I should finish by asking what you think the future holds.

A: I hope it brings better times. I know we can’t go back to living like it’s 2000, the resources just aren’t there any more, but I’d like to see our money go a little further, and I’d like to see Joe Jr. and Molly have better lives than Joe and I have. Still, if we can hold on to what we’ve got now that won’t be too bad. I hope we can do that. I really hope so.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Christmas Eve 2050

Human beings make sense of their lives by telling stories, and the tools of narrative fiction have enormous value for putting facts in context – especially when the context is as unfamiliar as the aftermath of peak oil will be to most people in the industrial world. With this excuse, if any is needed, I’ve sketched out the first of three glimpses of what life might be like for an average American family in the deindustrial future. This one’s set in 2050, about 40 years postpeak, during a respite from one of the first waves of catabolic collapse.

Jane tucked the pie into the oven, wound the timer, and allowed a smile. Though her last name was Average, courtesy of some forgotten Ellis Island clerk who garbled the Eastern European surname of her husband’s great-great-grandfather, she felt better than average this Christmas. She felt lucky, special. They’d been able to get a Thanksgiving turkey and a Christmas ham, for the first time since the war, and though they’d had to hoard ration coupons all year to do it, she didn’t regret all those dinners of squash and beans from the garden. There were presents for the children, candles for the table, more than enough food for all: just like old times.

For the first time in years, things looked bright and the future didn’t seem quite so threatening. She and Joe both had good jobs at a metal recycling plant; she did bookkeeping, and he’d just been promoted to shift foreman. Nothing the company depended on was about to hubbert, too, so their jobs would be around for a while. Inflation was down to 20% a year after the last currency reform, which was a big improvement. Food was still expensive, but at least you could count on getting it, and electricity was cheaper since the new solar plant went online last spring. All in all, life was good.

“Honey?” Joe’s voice, calling from the living room. “Everybody’s ready.”

“Pie’s just in. I’m on my way,” She took off the oven mitts and went out of the kitchen to where Joe and the children were waiting.

Memories from Jane’s childhood jarred against the little living room, with its single bare light bulb and the radio playing tinny holiday music in one corner. Back then, Christmas meant snow, colored lights, the balsam scent of a Christmas tree, crowds of relatives from all over, TV and internet entertainment blaring in the background. All of that was long gone, of course. Jane hadn’t seen snow since the big methane spike in ’24 sent the climate reeling. Electricity cost too much to waste on lights, and nobody cut down trees these days, though it wasn’t a labor camp offense the way it was when fuel ran short during the war. Traveling across country was for soldiers, prisoners, government officials, and the very rich. TVs were too expensive for most people, and the government and the army hoarded what was left of the internet after e-warfare and electricity shortages got through with it. Still, there were cards and decorations on the Christmas shelf, and stockings to hang underneath.

They always opened one special present each on Christmas eve, but the stockings had to go up first, and that brought a sad moment. She and Joe hung theirs, then stepped aside for Joe Jr. He had three stockings in his hands: one for himself and two for the children they’d lost. With all the solemnity a twelve-year-old could muster, he put the stockings on their hooks: one for him; one for Cathy, who died age three from drug-resistant pneumonia; one for Brett, who died age eight when hemorrhagic fever came through in ‘45. Then he stepped aside, too, and turned to look at the fourth person there.

Molly wasn’t Jane’s daughter, though it was hard for either of them to remember that sometimes. She was the child of their friends Bill and Erica. Bill was a derivatives broker who got caught cooking his firm’s books in the crash of ’41, went to labor camp, and died there. A very pregnant Erica moved in with Jane and Joe, gave birth to Molly, and died in the same epidemic as Brett. So Molly had three stockings to hang, too. She was small for her eight years, and had to stretch to get the stockings on their hooks.

Once all the stockings were in place, Joe crossed the room to his armchair, sat down with a grin, and took four small packages from under the end table with the air of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Each one was wrapped in a bright scrap of cloth. Jane recalled wrapping paper from her own childhood, used once and thrown away, and wondered why anyone even in those days put up with such waste. Didn’t people have better things to do with all the money they used to have? Jane was more sensible; once the Average family’s presents were unwrapped, the cloth wrappings went back to the quilt drawer where they came from.

Joe Jr. got his present unwrapped first. “Sweet,” he said in awed tones. “Look at it.” The slide rule sparkled as numbers slid smoothly past one another. He had a gift for math, so his teachers said, and he’d won a cheap slide rule in a contest when the government launched a Sustainability Initiative two years back. The government was always launching Sustainability Initiatives, but this one actually made some sense: pocket calculators cost close to a month’s wages these days, and word on the street was that some of the minerals needed for the chips were about to hubbert. Jane knew what that meant, so she and Joe worked extra hours to afford a professional model for Joe Jr. He’d need tech skills and an exempt job to stay out of the army, and those who went into the army came home maimed or dead too often to take any chances.

The wrappings of Molly’s present came open a moment later to reveal two books with bright flimsy covers. Jane caught the flicker of disappointment before the child put on a bright smile. Molly hadn’t tested high enough to get into charter school, and since the war, that meant no school at all unless she could get her scores up next year. She was bright enough when it came to practical things, and good at math, but reading was a challenge. One of the old women who kept themselves fed tending and teaching the neighborhood children guessed that Molly had dyslexia, but what exactly that meant and what could be done about it, Jane had never been able to learn. She gave Molly a hug, hoping she would understand.

She and Joe opened their presents, knowing that each contained something they already owned – one of Joe’s ties and a pair of Jane’s earrings, wrapped up late at night so the children wouldn’t know. After the slide rule, Molly’s books, and the ham, there wasn’t money for more luxuries. The rest of the presents, the ones that would wait for morning, were clothes and other necessities. They always were; it would take much better times to change that.

A chime from the kitchen caught everyone’s attention. “That’s the pie,” she said. “First one in to help set the table gets an extra slice.” The slice was for Molly, of course, though Joe Jr. made a game of it, racing her into the kitchen and losing on purpose. Jane and Joe followed at a less hectic pace. The four of them had the table set in minutes: ham and applesauce, sweet potatoes, cabbage, mashed carrots, a plate of homemade Christmas candies, and the squash pie steaming over on the counter: more food in one place than Jane ever thought she’d see again during the worst part of the war, enough for everyone to get gloriously overfull for a change. The plates and silver were Bill and Erica’s, real 20th century stuff.

They mumbled their way through grace, an old habit not yet quite put away. Jane and Joe belonged to one of the Christian churches years back, but drifted away around the time the last traces of religion got shouldered aside in favor of political propaganda for one of the prewar parties, she didn’t remember which. These days, you saw a lot of churches lying empty or converted to something else. Most of the really religious people Jane knew belonged to some other faith, Buddhist, Gaian, Seven Powers, or what have you. She’d thought more than once recently about visiting the Gaian church up the street. The Gaians took care of their own, and that appealed to her a lot.

She loaded her plate with food, glanced at the window. Warm December rain spattered against it, blurred the windows of the apartment building across the street into vague yellow rectangles and turned the unlit street into pure darkness. Joe Jr. chattered about the slide rule and his hopes of getting an apprenticeship with an engineer someday. Jane glanced across the table at Molly, then, and saw past the taut smile to the too familiar look of disappointment in her eyes.

Somehow that was the thing that brought the memories surging up: memories of Christmas from Jane’s own childhood, when her family lived in a sprawling suburban house and the world still seemed to work. She remembered snowmen in the yard and sled tracks down the street; the big Christmas tree in the corner of a living room bigger than their apartment was now, sparkling with lights and decorations; dinners where even the leftovers made a bigger meal than anyone could eat; driving – in a car, like rich people! – to a bright sprawling place called a shopping mall, where anything you could think of could be bought for money you didn’t even have yet; gifts that didn’t have to have any use in the world except the delight they brought to some child’s eyes; all the extravagant graces of a world that didn’t exist any more.

Tears welled up, but they were tears of anger. Why, goddammit? She flung the question at the memories, the bright clean well-fed faces of her childhood. Why did you have to waste so much and leave so little?

Joe saw the tears, but misread them. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Just like old times.”

She kept her smile in place with an effort. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Politics: Rebuilding Civil Society

My last two Archdruid Report posts argued that the American political system has wedged itself into the impossible position of trying to sustain an unsustainable empire, along with the even more unsustainable standards of living that the now-departing age of empire fooled Americans into seeing as their birthright. Like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, the petroleum-fueled prosperity of 20th century America fostered a culture of entitlement in which most citizens believed that they deserved to get whatever they wanted without having to pay the full price for it. One consequence of this cultural shift has been the collapse of democratic politics in the United States.

It’s popular these days to blame this consequence on the machinations of some nefarious elite group or other, but the real responsibility lies elsewhere. Democracy takes work. Casting a ballot in elections once every year or so is not enough to keep it going, though even this minimal investment of time and effort is apparently too much for something like six-tenths of adult Americans. What makes a democratic system operate is personal involvement in the political process on the part of most citizens. Precinct organizations and caucuses, town meetings, and other political activities at the local level formed the indispensible foundation of democratic politics in the days when the United States was not yet an elective oligarchy.

These activities drew on a broader base of local community organizations – churches, civic societies, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and the Grange, and many others – that rarely engaged in explicit political discussion and activism, but taught skills and made connections that inevitably found their way into a political context. These institutions of civil society created a context in which individuals could orient their lives to the politics of the day, and act in ways that could influence policy all the way up to the national level. People who wrestled with the nuts and bolts of the democratic process in community organizations needed no further education when time came for the precinct caucuses that chose candidates and evolved party platforms.

It’s often claimed by modern writers that these institutions of civil society thrived as they did because people didn’t have anything else to do with their time, but this says more about our own fantasies about the past than it does about historical reality. Most people a century ago worked longer hours than their descendants do today, and the popular media of their time was less technologically complex but no less widely distributed or eagerly sought than ours. The difference lay, rather, in prevailing attitudes. Alexis de Tocqueville famously described early 19th century America as a land of associations, where the needs of society were met, not by government programs or aristocratic largesse, but by voluntary organizations of common people. The civil society of pre-imperial America thrived because people recognized that the social and personal benefits they wanted could only be bought with the coin of their own time and money.

One example worth remembering is the way that fraternal orders, rather than government bureaucracies, provided the social safety net of 19th century America. The Odd Fellows, a fraternal order founded originally in Britain, launched this process shortly after its arrival in the United States in 1819. Odd Fellows lodges in Britain had the useful habit of taking up collections for members in need, especially to cover the living costs of those who had fallen sick – remember, this was long before employers offered sick pay – and to pay the burial costs of those who died. In the American branch of the order, this quickly evolved into a system of weekly assessments and defined benefits.

The way it worked was simple enough. Each member paid in weekly dues – 25 cents a week, roughly the equivalent of $20 a week today, was average – and the money went into a common fund. When a member in good standing became too sick to work, he received regular sick pay and, in most lodges, visits from a physician who received a fixed monthly sum from the lodge in exchange for providing care to all its members. When a member died, his funeral costs were covered by the lodge, and his dependents could count on the support of the lodge in hard cash as well as the less tangible currency of the nationwide Odd Fellows network. By 1900, as a result of this system Odd Fellowship was the largest fraternal order in the world. In that same year more than two thousand American fraternal orders had copied this model, and nearly half of all adult Americans – counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way – belonged to at least one fraternal order.

This effective and sustainable system, though, depended on the willingness of very large numbers of Americans to support their local lodges by attending meetings and paying weekly dues. Its equivalents throughout civil society had the same requirements, and with the coming of empire, these turned into a fatal vulnerability. As the profits of American empire made it possible for governments to buy the loyalty of the middle class with unearned largesse, the old system of voluntary organizations lost its support base and withered on the vine. With it perished the local politics of precinct caucuses and town meetings. When participation in the political system stopped being seen as an opportunity to be heard, and turned into an annoyance to be shirked, America’s democracy mutated into today’s system of elective oligarchy.

What happened, in effect, was that most Americans made the consumer economy their model for political participation. A consumer’s role in the economic process is limited to choosing among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed products provided by industry. In the same way, most Americans embraced a political system in which all they had to do was choose among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed candidates provided by the major parties. It’s not accidental that when people today complain about the low caliber of candidates offered for their vote, their tone and language aren’t noticeably different from those they use when they complain about the low quality of consumer products offered for their purchase. Absent in both cases, too, is any recognition that there might be an alternative to choosing among products somebody else made for them.

Until this attitude changes, nothing will bring back democracy to America. No institutional change, however drastic, will create a democratic nation unless the people of that nation are willing to invest the time, effort, forbearance, and resources that a democratic system needs. Nor, it probably has to be said, will throwing one set of rascals out of office, and replacing them with another set of rascals more to one’s taste, have any noticeable effect on the character of the system as a whole. Until the American people come to the conclusion that the costs of democracy are less burdensome than the costs of doing without it, America will continue to have a government of the people in name only – not because some elite group has taken it away from the people, but because the people themselves have turned their backs on it.

Nor, I think, is there much hope that peak oil, global warming, or any other aspect of our current predicament will induce them to do otherwise. Combine any of these factors with the decline of American empire, and the result you get is a future in which Americans of all classes must get by with a great deal less wealth and leisure than they think they deserve. It seems unlikely that they will respond by giving up even more of their wealth and leisure to renew a dimly remembered democratic system that, despite its many other virtues, offers no hope of regaining these things.

Instead, my guess is that the focus of the next century or so of American politics will be attempts to hang onto as much of the prosperity of empire as possible. Not all these attempts may be as hamfisted as current American foreign policy might suggest, and people of other nations might do well to be wary of proposals for some sort of “world community” emanating from American soil, no matter how apparently liberal the language in which they are phrased. The American people have already faced a choice between democracy and the profits of empire, and we know which one they chose. The fact that they will end up with neither is one of the ironies of history, but I doubt many will see it that way.

What, though, can those who value democracy do within the constraints of a collapsing empire and a declining industrial civilization? The one workable strategy, it seems to me, is rebuilding the foundations of civil society that made American democracy work in the first place. Though it’s unfashionable (and politically incorrect) to suggest this, and doubtless new forms will also need to be evolved, I think that much value remains in the old institutions of American civil society, and in particular in the handful of surviving fraternal orders – the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Grange, and their equivalents. Behind lodge doors, all but forgotten even by the retirees who keep the old lodges going, lies a rich history and a wealth of proven methods that weathered every challenge except that of unearned prosperity.

Those approaches could readily be put to use again. Equally, other dimensions of civil society wait to be rebuilt or reinvented. A great many of the common assumptions of our imperial age will have to go by the boards in this process, however. In particular, the notion of entitlement needs to be an early casualty of the approaching changes. The Odd Fellows and their many equivalents did not dispense charity; they provided a means for those willing to contribute to the common welfare to spread out the risks and share the benefits of life in an uncertain world. Those who did not help others did not get help in their own times of need. This may seem harsh, but in a time of unbending ecological limits, it’s also necessary.

The 19th century was such a time and, given the realities of peak oil, global warming, and the other elements of the predicament of industrial civilization, the 21st century will be no better – and it may be worse. The one question is whether enough people will embrace the challenge of rebuilding civil society in time to make a difference on a community scale, or whether – as in the decline of so many past empires – it will be left up to small groups on the fringes of society to embrace a path of mutual aid and preserve today’s legacies for the future.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Politics: The Eighty Percent Pay Cut

It's a well-known maxim that, in the final analysis, all politics are local. The political dimensions of peak oil are no exception to this rule; for that matter, the global politics surrounding the decline of American empire, the subject of last week's post, draw their force from everyday issues in the lives of 300 million Americans -- not to mention the six billion other human beings on this planet, most of whom must make do with less so that Americans can continue to live their unsustainably extravagant lifestyles.

It’s considered impolite to mention this last detail, of course. The mythology of progress treats it as a temporary state, and claims that someday or other, everyone in the world will be able to live like the affluent middle classes of the world's industrial nations. This faith is so widely held -- at least among those same affluent middle classes -- that few of its believers notice two awkward facts. The first is that the vast majority of the benefits of industrial civilization go to a tiny fraction of the world's population, while nearly all the costs are spread among everyone else. The second is that this state of affairs has persisted throughout the history of industrialism, and shows no signs of changing in the foreseeable future.

In his brilliant 2001 book The Power of the Machine, human ecologist Alf Hornborg argues that the disparities aren’t accidental. An industrial system concentrates resources in what Hornborg calls “centers of accumulation.” Those resources let the industrial system achieve economies of scale and concentrations of influence that distort economic exchanges in its favor. This allows it to gain control over more resources, allowing it to further expand production in a self-reinforcing cycle. The downside is that in a world of finite resources, what’s needed to build the industrial system must be taken from somewhere else, and the return to that “somewhere else” is less than what’s taken by at least the cost of building the industrial system. Thus the centers of accumulation accumulate by impoverishing other regions, classes, or economic sectors.

To see how this works, imagine two equally sized countries, Industria and Agraria, that trade only with each other and have preindustrial economies. One day, however, a rich man in Industria builds a shoe factory that produces as many shoes as the people of Industria can use. The resources demanded by that project equal those used by the local cobblers who used to make Industria's shoes, and any economic gain to Industria from the factory will likely be offset by the losses caused by putting the cobblers out of business. The chief difference is that the wealth once earned by thousands of cobblers now goes to one Industrial magnate, who pays his workers a fraction of what the cobblers once made. His accumulation is their impoverishment.

Then another rich Industrial builds a second shoe factory with equal capacity. Industria's shoe industry can now produce twice as many shoes per year as the Industrials need. This poses a major problem. If both factories produce shoes at full capacity, the law of supply and demand will cut the price of shoes in half, and each magnate will get only half the income the first one had all to himself. The same result follows if both factories work at half capacity. Either case makes it hard to maintain the concentration of resources that makes factories possible at all.

The magnates might hire an advertising firm to convince Industria's citizens that they all need dozens of pairs of new shoes every year, sell surplus shoes to the Industrial government, or make all their shoes so flimsy that every Industrial citizen needs a dozen pairs a year because each pair wears out in a month. All these expedients, though, simply shift the problem to the Industrial economy as a whole, since resources diverted into excess shoe manufacture aren't available for other needs. The solution that avoids this trap is selling excess shoes across the border in Agraria. The result is a net loss to Agraria and a net gain to Industria; Agrarian cobblers go out of business, and most of the money Agrarians spend on shoes goes to Industria instead of staying at home, turning the annual shoe budget of Agraria into a subsidy for the Industrial economy. Industria’s accumulation becomes Agraria’s impoverishment.

If Agraria then decides to build a shoe factory of its own, the project faces a welter of problems. The flow of wealth to Industria makes it harder for the Agrarian economy to gather the resources to build a factory, or maintain it once it’s built. Adding more shoe production brings an oversupply of shoes, launching price wars the Agrarian factory is more likely to lose. If Agraria erects trade barriers against Industrial shoe imports, it might be able to overcome these challenges, but Industria might not sit passively as a rival emerges on its doorstep. Its options range from bribery and manipulation, through economic warfare, to a military solution that makes Agraria a client state in an Industrial empire. The Industrial magnates might even choose to build their own factories in Agraria, especially if Industria’s economic boom makes it difficult to keep wages low there, since the profits from those factories will still come home to Industria. The result, one way or another, is Industrial prosperity built on the foundation of Agrarian impoverishment.

This is a simplified – some would doubtless say oversimplified – version of Hornborg’s carefully reasoned argument. He shows that from the standpoint of human ecology, what’s significant about industrialism is not its relation to technology, or even its dependence on fossil fuels, but its role as a means of creating inequalities of wealth and access to resources between classes, regions, and nations. “Industria” and “Agraria” have different names in the contemporary world, of course: on an international level, they are the industrial nations and the rest of the world; within the United States, they are the coastal urban regions and the impoverished hinterland; within individual communities, they are the investing (that is, middle and upper) classes on the one hand, and the working class on the other. In each case, the industrial system concentrates wealth and access to resources in one at the expense of the other.

This is not the way today’s economists and social theorists like to look at industrialism, to be sure. From their point of view, industrial production yields so much abundance that, in the words of a common cliché, the rising tide of wealth lifts all boats. This assumption requires a second look, though. Leave aside the fact that this abundance is actually the result of burning through the earth’s finite fossil fuel deposits at a reckless rate; in point of historical fact, does the tide of industrialism actually benefit everyone? As Hornborg points out, it does nothing of the kind. Leave out situations where political factors forced redistribution of wealth, such as the New Deal in 1930s America, and the rise of industrial economies produce more disparities in wealth and more impoverishment, not less.

All this is the roundabout but necessary background to understanding one of the most important and least mentioned factors governing local, regional, and national politics at the dawn of the age of peak oil. Among the core factors supporting business as usual in today’s world are unequal exchanges that funnel wealth from the rest of the world to the industrial nations, especially the United States. Those patterns are hardwired into the global economy in the form of wage, price, and interest differentials, and they enable people in the industrial world – again, especially in the United States – to use far more than their share of the world’s resources.

Petroleum, as the most important natural resource in the global economy today, makes a rough but workable surrogate for the entire pattern of unequal access. Right now the United States uses a little over 20 million barrels of oil a day, or about 25% of global production. The US accounts for a little less than 5% of the world’s population. If everyone on the globe had equal access to petroleum, the 5% who are Americans would use around 5% of the world’s oil, or around 20% of what they use today. And the other 80%? That’s a rough first approximation of how much of America’s lifestyle is paid for by impoverishing the rest of the world.

Again, this is not how today’s economists and social theorists prefer to look at the matter. They hold that Americans have simply reached the resource-intensive lifestyle ahead of everyone else, who will eventually all be using resources at an American rate. In a world of finite resources on the brink of peak oil, this is empty fantasy, but let that pass for the moment. Why is the distribution so asymmetrical now? It can hardly be said that the rest of the world has no use or desire for the oil Americans waste so profligately, and the willingness of people elsewhere to work hard and save – supposedly the foundations of prosperity in a capitalist system – far exceeds that of Americans. What keeps people elsewhere from having access to an equal share of oil? Systematic patterns of unequal exchange, hardwired into the global economy.

The dependence of the American standard of living on these patterns of unequal exchange goes far, I think, to explain the remarkable meekness of the political left in this country over the last few decades. It’s one thing to talk about bringing fairness and justice into the world economy, and quite another to face up to the consequences. Again, oil makes a rough but workable surrogate for wealth as a whole. If the United States were to abandon the patterns of unequal exchange that support its current standards of living, its citizens would face something like an 80% reduction in wealth and access to resources.

Put that in everyday terms and the political implications are hard to miss. Imagine that a candidate for public office launched her campaign with a speech announcing that if she were elected, everyone in the country would suffer a permanent 80% pay cut, while prices, interest rates, and outstanding debt would remain as they were before the cut took effect. The pay cut would bite deeper with each passing year, too, to make up for the effects of resource depletion. How many people would vote for such a platform? Would you?

This, in a nutshell, is why no useful response to the current global predicament will come from within the political systems of the world’s industrial countries. Where such a response might come from, and what forms it might take, will be the theme of next week’s post.