Archive for the ‘Survival Issues’ Category

There comes a moment in the lives of most of us (thankfully, we almost all live long enough to experience this) when we discover that “it’s not just my kid that thinks of the events of my life as ancient history, it’s a whole lot of those folks out there!” When I think about the millennial generation (Net Generation, Gen Y, etc.), whose leading wave has seen its feet come ashore on the beach of “never trust anyone over thirty”, I reflect on the fact that between them and the trailing edge of Gen X about half the people on the street don’t share the experiences that I, as a boomer, found as formative. Considering, in turn, that the experiences of the 1930s and 1940s are as alien to me as those of the late 1960s and 1970s are to them, I can only conclude that Santayana’s aphorism about history and its repetition is about to be lived out again.

History as taught in schools has tended to fall into two main camps;

  • Categorization via the periods of war, the reigns of rulers or some other means of treating the clock and calendar as a line punctuated by reference marks. This is not only generally a method that bores 90%+ of the class into intellectual sleep; anyone who turns an active mind to it immediately sees that broad historical strokes don’t nicely align with centuries and decades, the throne-spans of rulers, or the like (this is the problem in the philosophy of history, of periodization, and an underlying reason why Henry Ford claimed “History is Bunk”).
  • The modern anti-historical method of taking an ideological stance (be it Marxist analysis, primacy of a nation-state, feminist theory, or many other forms) and “reading it back” into historical periods in order to establish clearly that they have nothing to teach us. This leaves the student with the clear notion that there is nothing history can contribute and thus a purely functional approach to current issues is defaulted to.

In history, there are significant events that warp the course of peoples. Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, for instance, is one such. All the analysis and attempts to predict in the world did not and could not predict the exact timing, the exact form of the attack and the form the reaction would take. (Who, amongst us, would have predicted that a pioneering nation proud of its primacy would have turned its over 300 million citizens into people willing to give up their hard-won freedoms in a quavering desire for “security”? There are many others on this planet that that would have been a reasonable prediction for: the American people weren’t likely candidates. Yet others — including those who have also suffered attacks — have kept calm and carried on far better.

Yet winding through history as well are long-term processes that unfold. Most of these, unfortunately, are processes of positive feedback: in other words, they produce imbalances that intensify over time. These are the processes that end in a “tipping point”, one where there is a jump into the chaotic from a domain of apparent simple and comprehensible order. While societal innovation — what Toynbee in his A Study of History called the reaction of a creative minority who separate themselves from the conditions at hand to reinvent the process (in the realm of growth, this is Quigley’s [The Evolution of Civilizations] “creation of a new economic engine”) — is one response to the breakdown of order at a tipping point, the far more common one has been the emergence of “The Man on Horseback”, the “Leader” who takes charge and establishes a new order.

We are rife with metaphors for this moment of tipping: the collapse of the camel when one more strand of straw is added to his load; the avalanche that starts when one more snowflake is added to the snow pack on a mountain side; the collapse of a dune when one more grain of sand or small pebble is blown onto it. We remember those who step up to seize control after the collapse as well. Most signal a second slide (think of the Roman Empire once Augustus seized control and became Imperator, of the French Revolution when Napoléon seized control, of the seizing of power in Russia by Lenin and his faction, or the election of Hitler in Weimar Germany): what appears to go well at first decays into terminal collapse.

All of our policies have been designed to add, gram by gram, to the weight the system carries. Positive feedback processes about social welfare, life extension, correcting “injuries of the past” and many others have been wound around our society. For those who have taken on the responsibility of maintaining order in the world (originally the French, then the British, now the Americans) each in turn has reached a point where they are trapped, unable to abandon any outpost of power without opening up another point of weakness and yet unable to afford the cost of maintaining those outposts — and meanwhile, as none have achieved global order (despite global presence) new weak points constantly get added to the mix. (What else is a Somali coast or South China Sea pirate?, to name but one class of case.)

But there are limits to everything. I do not know (and neither does anyone else, despite their claims to the contrary) where the tipping points are. We can at best know two types of things: taken this far previously, this happened; and by experience, the process in its field of conditions is about “here”. That “field of conditions” is relevant: the shift from money as metal to money as a symbol of metal to money as a symbol, tout court, to money as the velocity of debt that unfolded throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century is what has allowed us to be where we are today. At what point will the accumulated debt “grains of sand” collapse the dune and force the economy to reset at a much lower level of potential? We don’t know.

But we do know (by pattern recognition) that toward the end of a positive feedback process, just before it snaps (either under its own weight or via an external event) it grows rapidly — the exponential curve’s famous “hockey stick” moment.

Having destroyed much of the available investment capital in our society in the technology bubble (itself a creature of the transition to “money as velocity of debt”), and then followed that with attempts to continue to increase debt velocity in the face of the destruction of growth to pay off prior debts that led to the housing bubble (still unfolding, with a second US, UK and EU wave to come and a first major Canadian and Australian wave later this year?), we have now moved to the notion of government as the “spender of last resort”. But global demand for capital to buy the Treasury notes and bonds that, in turn, finance these deficits exceeds the available monies.

Will we see a series of dominos fall? (The domino theory, to return to the starting point of this little essay through history, was the rationale for Vietnam and Cambodia — as defining for the late 1960s and early 1970s as Iraq, Afghanistan [and likely Iran and Pakistan to come] are now — for years.) Or will there be a sudden collapse due to an external event that suddenly seizes all the debt markets and immobilizes them (as was Al Qaeda’s intention in 2001)?

Again, we don’t know — but we rest on the edge of a knife.

Meanwhile, the politics of our countries is rife with proposals for ever more deficit spending, ever more engineering of methods and results, and ever more ways to “set money aside” for a retirement no longer a part of employment (except for a select few) and thus dependent on highly liquid markets to extract wealth trapped in real estate or stocks, and the endless pumping up of growth. I would not be surprised that the next wave of change will either wipe out the tax status of retirement funds, or mandate that they be invested in the debt ponzi scheme now offered by our central banks and Treasuries worldwide, or both. Meanwhile our analogy to the hyperinflation of Weimar or the wiping out of assets in the transition from Czarist to Bolshevik Russia will be the traps that our mortgages, lines of credit and credit cards have become — all recourse instruments, and with escalating rates of interest to shield their rentier owners from a diminution in revenues — while taxes and fees accelerate upward, both to offset the overspending, and to pay for the “final programs” now being discussed by politicians anxious to buy one more vote.

We are, I fear, past the point of soft landings. A crash is coming, one it will be hard to rise from again. Governments will end up falling; much more of the world — including parts of it we consider “developed” — will become failed states or rigid dictatorships.

If this worries you, the time to act is now. Not next week, but now. We are but a few grains of sand away from the crisis.

Read Full Post »

What presumptions do you carry in your “natural faith” about the world — and which of these is likely to rise up and create a problem for you in the years ahead?

We all have a body of presumptions which we act upon without identifying and thinking about them. Indeed, this is hardly a bad thing: having to stop and work out the short- and long-term consequences of every individual act would find us, at bedtime, still metaphorically pulling on our clothes to leave in the morning, as Heidegger noted in Sein und Zeit.

Some of these presumptions are unprovable and are truly a matter of faith. (Lest you turn to the claims of rabid atheists that “the alternative is science”, I will merely point out to you that all Western science fails in two ways: first, it answers what, “all other things being created equal”, should be expected in situations of this type [not “what will happen in this particular case”, as Levantine/Islamic science tried to do] and that, second, our “scientific laws” and “established theorems” make operational statements that manipulate terms which we use, but do not fully understand — consider whether we have anything other than the name to understand when we say “Strange Quark”.) All of us operate this way. We do have an implicit obligation to update our presumptions in the face of new information, but the “perfection” of “complete” knowledge is beyond us.

There are also statements that act as presumptions which we have taken in which are “unanchored” but taken as truths. These may be the inherited pre-judgements, or prejudices, of others, and again the mix of home, school, friends and relatives are likely to see us, as young children, take one or more of these on. Again, we have an implicit obligation to examine these as we discover them — as with all matters of memory, we “remember” because we are stimulated, our minds not being a filing cabinet with a cataloguing system opening up whatever category of ideas we search for and pulling up all relevant “hits” in response — and to update or replace ones found to be lacking after that examination. (This is the point of Socrates’ injunction the unexamined life is not worth living, for this examination and updating was the living of the human life of theoria and informed praxis.)

Then, too, in our “natural faith”, are elements which are “detached” or “unhooked” from its other elements. This is how you can (for instance) have radical dichotomies in a person’s thought: in full favour of human liberty and freedom of action in all cases except for a pet passion, such as “banning gays from marriage”, for instance. We owe it to ourselves, once again, to either “connect” these, grounding them in a web of concepts and ideas properly worked into a systematic integration or to refine or replace those which cannot be so integrated when discovered.

Anything less indicates a desire to live not as a rational animal — the Aristotelian definition of the human — but as a rationalizing animal. That we will almost assuredly fall into rationalization due to our natural faith as it exists at any point in time does not remove the obligation to become rational when presented with the evidence of the need of same. (We should, in other words, live up to the possibilities of our nature, not default to a lowest common denominator and scrape by.)

There is little question, to anyone following the news, that a number of warning signs of probable and serious inflections of change lie in our near futures:

  • The demographic shift in the “developed” world means that the population bulge known as the “baby boom generation” approaches its “retirement” point, where those involved begins to want to sell assets — shares, bonds, real estate — in order to fund their elder years. Just as prices for financial assets rose due to this group bidding against itself as well as the generations that follow at the time of asset acquisition, so, too, the boomers will “bid against themselves” during the disposal, suppressing prices. Coupled with the poor state (in general) of pension funding where pensions apply, this implies a “new poor” just as …
  • The percentage of resources that come from sources easy to extract and process of all types, but especially in the area of liquid fuels, continues to decline, thereby reducing the energy returned (or resource returned) per unit of energy invested in the extraction and processing. Paradoxically, higher prices for resources do not spell a solution: economies are integrated systems where some parts’ price growth can make the products lose demand where other parts lack pricing power, or are actually declining. (We appear to be close to, if not at, this point now.) The hope is for technological breakthroughs and alternative sources, but …
  • Years of financial capitalism has put a premium on making “rents” from assets as opposed to developing them. The financial assets of a firm — its shares and bonds — benefitted from outsourcing knowledge and capabilities, locking in practices with lower labour costs overseas, while cutting investments in innovation, research, and development (relative to past years) and dealing with uncertainty by making structures and processes have less slack capacity and more rigidity in operations. This chronic underinvestment has not only hollowed out employment possibilities, but it also has led to the expectation that government should subsidize these activities (“innovation agendas”, “industrial policies”, etc.) in the national/provincial interest. Still …
  • Governments are bankrupt. The global debt collapse — which has only seen its first wave — is eating into government “revenues” through taxes and fees at the same time that demands upon programs has accelerated. “Stimulus” to avoid the deflation of a debt-based economy (which has at best “held the line”) has crowded out private activity, and global demand for capital to meet government deficits for the years ahead appears to be on the order of US$ 200 trillion for several years to come — or more than twice each year than the available capital pool. Waves of currency debasement and sovereign debt default will be required to wipe out this charge on the future, which will both show up as reduced or eliminated benefits and a lack of investment in the future and higher taxes, thus further impoverishing the economy. Add on top …
  • The usual round of “emergencies”, Haïti being only the most recent; …
  • The pre-existing commitments and demands already made, each of which has its interest groups to support it; …
  • The concerns about urban regional transport, community building infrastructure, reduction of carbon wastage in economic processes affecting the ecology, and hundreds of further issues; leading to …
  • An inability of politics to maintain its institutions in the face of ever-more-raucous demands, leading to Warlordism and Caesarism, all of which will further collapse the value of assets and reduce economic activity …
  • and all this without questions of climate change, shifting military power, rogue states and terrorists, demographic decline in various countries, a new round of the “wars of religion” and many other factors which are longer-term in nature and not being met.

I don’t know — and you don’t know, you only believe you know — how many of these will come to pass, on what timeframes, and what the cascade effects will be. I don’t know — and you don’t know, either, despite your beliefs — what to do about more than half of these and probably almost all of them. Yet all of us — those with the power to act, and those who vote, and those who just try to carry on quietly — will be living through decisions and their outcomes.

This suggests, to me, that if there was ever a time to examine to dig out as much of our own natural faith as possible and subject it to examination it is now, so that we, as much as practical, do decide with reason and do act with reasonable consequences in mind.

Alas, for most of us, there is a sheer denial of the need for that. Willfully, we often believe that “somehow”, “someone” will fix things, whether by technology, policy change, “taxing the resisters into submission” or forcing action upon people. We expect that the market will go up yet again, if only so that we can sell; that what we buy will turn a profit even when the long-term trend is against that; that we needn’t change our lives but yet the planet’s problems will be solved, etc.

Many more act unconsciously: knowing, for instance, that their city, province or nation is broke, they reflexively vote for more spending because “cake today” or “my passion satisfied” weighs larger than asking hard questions about “how” it will be done, “how” we will pay for it, and what the consequences are of these decisions. We vote for politicians because we “like the leader” or “am of this party”; we detest others because “we dislike the leader” or “am not of this party”, instead of shifting our support based on the specific, conscious, rational path to the future we are working toward.

We sacrifice ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours and friends, in short, for the comfort of not disturbing our pre-conceptions.

Where in the past this might have meant a year or two of hardship, and then resumed “progress”, the price tag the real world is likely to impose on those who insist on being rationalizing animals could be much, much higher. Affordable resource unavailability, for instance, can well show up as highly decreased food availability — and a corresponding reduction in numbers back to the carrying capacity of a planet operating at a much reduced rate of output. Unaffordable pharmaceuticals bring back the former norms of early death from chronic conditions. Will a debt-based economy built on endless consumption yields a dog-eat-dog destruction of individuals to maintain institutions one day longer, and will the lack of new employment opportunities financial capitalism created mean those thrown out into the street may never claw their way back?

Will it be your child who dies in this possible world to come? You get to decide. That’s the stakes you play with, when you decide to be unconscious or willful with your natural faith.

Read Full Post »

The Haitian earthquake and its aftermath has been much in the news these last few days. There’s been no shortage of calls for help — and a speedy response of aid workers and materiel has been forthcoming. (There’s also been the usual whinge that “it’s not enough” or “it’s not fast enough”, but this time, in general, there’s little to complain about on that front when you really look at the speed with which a meaningful response was able to be mounted for an unanticipated event.)

However, at the same time, I read a work of semi-speculative fiction by William Forstchen, Professor of Military History at Montreat College in North Carolina, entitled One Second After. The science in this work is grounded not only in his discipline, but in effects that have been known throughout most of the twentieth century, and which were first made popular knowledge during the 1980s in connection with former US President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.

What this book asks is: what happens, if the technology dies? I don’t want to spoil the book — this is a page-turner, and a cracking good story, one that brought me to tears several times as events unfolded for one character or another — but I’ll summarize it simply by saying that within a year without the technologies we know and depend on available the North American population has shrunk by 75-80% — or, to put it another way, in the forty-eight “continental” American states, the remaining fifty million have buried two hundred fifty million of their family members, neighbours and friends. All this, mind you, without losing a single city or town.

Over the past several years, in connection with research work I was doing on our energy profile, our approach to regional planning, our infrastructures and the warning signs in the economy that the dénouement of the dominance of financial capitalism (the degenerate form of industrial capitalism) was at hand, I have given much thought to how sustainable life in our cities, our suburbs, our exurbs and our independent rural villages and small towns would be. I have modelled population possibilities based on local availability of resources. The scenarios for “good places to live” that resulted from this, and an assessment of how urgently one would need to consider uprooting and moving if you didn’t already live in “a good place” for the future, ranged from an uplifting future to a set of grim options.

But nowhere as grim as Fortschen paints: and the surprise (which it ought not to have been!) is that the only speculative part in this entire work is would the triggering event take place. Everything else derives from “facts on the ground” that are right out in the open, waiting for us to see them: for them to be “present to us”, as Heidegger said in Sein und Zeit, rather than us looking at the world solely through the technological framework’s preference for “ready to use”.

I am kicking myself in part because I’ve read Dmitri Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse and listened to his Long Now Foundation lecture: his analysis of the last days of the former Soviet Union and the collapse of society in the former Soviet Republics pointed out many of the same problems Fortschen lays out — and Orlov further pointed out some of the “saving graces” in post-Communist society that a post-collapse American society wouldn’t have going for it as readily.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: we depend on almost everything that matters for life to be transported over longer distances than a person can walk, or a horse and cart can manage. That’s about 6 km (4 mi), in case you hadn’t thought about what that distance might be. (One of the items to look at is the distance between grain elevators on the Prairies, as these were built with the coming of the railways: farmers needed to hitch up the team of horses to a wagon/cart and ride to the elevator to sell their production, then return home, with nearly all the trip occurring during daylight hours. In October, that meant a round-trip time of about 10 hours. With unloading time — let’s assume the cart is loaded the day before, although in many cases trips had to be taken repeatedly to get the harvest to market — at the elevator, that meant a maximum of 3.5-4 miles’ travel one way. That’s why the elevators are spaced, regular as clockwork, at those distances. Similar placement occurred in the East, with dairy operations, although there the milk shed for the “milk run” on the rails were a little closer together, since it was necessary to employ more parallelism in labour to wrestle milk into refrigerated cars from icehouses to avoid spoilage, implying multiple trains/day and closer distances from farm to station.)

One in four people in North America requires chronic medication — pharmacies have, on average, a thirty-day supply of drugs. Your typical supermarket has two or three days’ worth of supplies of a product. Gasoline (petrol) in service station tanks or distribution centre tanks will spoil after a few months — paradoxically, it lasts longer in a usable form in the tank in an automobile — and so large scale supplies of refined products aren’t locally available.

The average distance from power source to point of consumption on the electrical grid today, in North America, is well over 400 km. As the East discovered in 2003, the system is also interlocked: there are only a handful of grids on the continent, and cascade failures (a few seconds’ time to collapse the entire grid, in 2003 three days’ around the clock work to restart it). Collapse base load and, even if parts and service people can rush to fix things, it takes time and deep coordination to restart semi-continental scale grids.

What One Second After awakened me to is the deep interdependence we have built between systems, all of which must work 99% of the time at least (and, in some cases, to five nines [99.999%] or better reliability.

The great failure of “continental scale” entities — whether this be the former Soviet Union, or the current Canada, United States, Australia, or China, and increasingly the European Union — is that the large scale “market” that emerges is an inducement to rationalizing activity across the scope of that entity. As a child, I remember routinely seeing something that I, living in Toronto, didn’t really resonate to: “Prices higher west of the Rockies”, in advertising. The reason, I later found out — especially after moving to the West Coast — is that the Pacific Coast and Intermountain regions of North America didn’t have the ease of transportation and energy flow over the mountains that the East and Prairies did. Local manufacturing, local companies, local markets persisted a generation longer in the West than elsewhere on the continent. That is, of course, long gone now.

What the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union found, as the system and then the country came apart, was that routine supplies of food, of power, of parts, etc. were disrupted. The USSR, in the name of “efficiency”, had mandated “country product mandates”. One plant produced all light bulbs, for instance, for a country spanning thirteen time zones. Another one produced all standard bolts. Yet another one processed all salted, tinned meats. Cascade failures in production began to occur even before the Gorbachev regime gave way to the independent republics. Once the borders went up, the economies collapsed further, as “rents” were charged to pay for the new governments and to “redress” grievances.

Fortschen doesn’t say it — it wouldn’t be essential to his story line — but we do exactly the same thing, and with one additional twist: for many items of daily use, we don’t even make them anymore. Industrial capitalism resolved itself to product mandate plants — Black & Decker or General Electric making all power tools here, all small electrical appliances there; all wiring harnesses made in one place for a variety of uses in the parts chains of manufacturers — to increase profits and “be more efficient”. (If you are building a modern factory, which is labour-shy but robot and numerically-controlled processor centric, this makes sense. Small plants with light levels of throughput can’t justify the technology on a economic basis.)

Financial capitalism took this one stage further. It encouraged companies to outsource, to handle their pollution or safety standard costs by working overseas where regulations permitted actions not allowed at home, all for a few cents per share extra earnings. In turn we, as consumers (rather than as citizens!) lusted after a few cents off the price of everything.

The collapse of the debt economy that is unfolding, energy security issues, high seas piracy, further strangling of transport with inept responses to terror worries while real terrorist issues are left to fester for lack of will to face reality, institutional breakdown leading to the rise of borders where none really exist, industrial agriculture’s products being behind many of our chronic illnesses — we have so many inter-tangled worries. No wonder John and Jane Average are more concerned with who will win on American Idol! Yet the prudent individual whose timespan is broader than their own immediate moment knows that lean years follow fat years.

Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger, when elected to the Papacy, was sending us all a message with his choice of name “Benedict”, for St-Benedict, in the face of the long dying of the Roman Empire in the West realized the need to preserve and protect something for the future and look beyond the needs of the day.

I do not know, of course, if that was his motivation (the speaker of that has known him for many, many years) but it would be a prudent response nonetheless.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book Home from Nowhere, talks about Ruckytucks Farm, located in the Hudson Valley near his home in Saratoga Springs, NY. The farm must be both organic and have local buyers: there is no market with the food chains for small producer outputs, and none for industrial agriculture’s products at a local price point versus the production of massive operations in California, México, Chile and the like. He wrote about it — as he assumed food would be the one problem society wouldn’t have in his part of the world in his novel World Made by Hand — to show that it would be possible to go back. Fortschen, on the other hand, points out that none of the expertise, none of the seed stock and none of the tools to go back are likely to be present if the jump into disruption is fast.

I keep reminding myself that Fortschen wrote a novel, but the reality is that the ability to do what he talks about isn’t futuristic at all. It is very real, very accessible and very possible today (as it has been for at least two decades now). I also keep reminding myself that even if Fortschen’s event does — mirabile dictu! not occur, our society’s systems are stretched to the breaking point. We, in our comfortable Western lives in North America, Western Europe or the Antipodes, may not have everything fall down around us as Haïtians in the Port-au-Prince area did this week, but our homes will be equally useless to most of us without power that comes reliability, fuels for transport that are always available … I think you get the picture.

I urge you, if you haven’t, to read Fortschen’s One Second After; Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse; Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, World Made by Hand and Home from Nowhere; Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead; and to then do the following:

Walk. Learn how a world made intensely local would work for you where you are now.

The time to start thinking about “what happens next” isn’t “one second after” — it’s years ahead of the need.

Read Full Post »

We live in a society — especially true in North America but generally true throughout the West — that puts a high premium on “the new thing”. This “technological framework” — and by this I mean our practices, processes, methods, etc. just as much as I do our gadgets, computer systems and the like — forms a horizon that limits many, if not close to all, of us into a set of presumptions that favour new developments, new tools and new inventions.

(Let me interrupt here: those who dramatically oppose such developments are not better. In many ways the proponent and the opponent depend on each other. They are as complementary as are yin and yang. The more interesting opponent is the one who can escape the framework once in it, not the one who reinforces it in their “opposition” to it.)

In his seminal essay, “Die Frage nach der Technik” (from 1947, and published first in 1954 in Vorträge und Aufsätze), Martin Heidegger explored the way our beings are formed by life inside this framework. As a horizon of interpretation, certain questions and types of formation are closed and excluded just as others are aided and abetted by it. Heidegger worried about the effect of this concentrated frame on our beings.

I’ve made my living for more than three and a half decades now from operating near the coalface of modern information technologies, and from the überbiegende Technik of management theory and practice. Beyond that, I’ve been an early adopter of many technologies, from usable (i.e. non-programmer-skill-based) computing to social networks and their offspring. These are not things and ways of acting that I’m purporting to give up, nor have I changed my belief structure to suggest that I’ve become a “technological ‘atheist'”. Rather, what has become clear is that older ways of doing things have not lost their utility in the face of the new — and that they may offer their own forms of beauty, truth and goodness that are harder to find deep in the technological milieu.

Take writing, for instance. Today I sit in front of the computer screen, typing the characters that make up this short piece into a window on a webpage. Highly modern, indeed — and easy to make changes in. I don’t, for a moment, think that we are unable to write well with such tools. Clearly those of us who care to write well can write well here. (Perhaps one might object to the vast sea of bad writing these tools and this medium bring forth, but the option to bypass these works remains with us, and it is only by making one’s bad writing better through ever-more writing and criticism that we improve, so bad writing’s prevalence does not worry me.)

Alas, this experience is missing some elements. When I pick up my fountain pen, and pull out a journal with acid-free paper, and go to begin to put my thoughts down, my internal dialogue is generally far more engaged in the task of writing than it is where cutting-and-pasting, backspacing and typing over, etc. are the norm. That one can stroke through material and rewrite it on the page in ink does not change the feeling that one ought to do a better job of forming the work, for the page shows everything from the ink splotch from lingering with the nib, to the obvious turns in direction kept in to avoid such edits, to edits themselves. There is an exposure on what feels a personal level — through these signs, through the evolution of one’s handwriting, to the style of handwriting one affects, and the use of the page space and colour of ink, for instance — that is less obvious in the computer-driven networked space. It is not that we can’t colour our digital “ink”, introduce our editing thoughts, etc. — but it is not the normal worry, and so there is a sense of distance.

Do I work on my handwriting, trying to form letters and words clearly? My handwritten work will show you this and allow you to infer it. Me, too! — instead of “multitasking” by attending to the open Twitter client, Skype chats, emails arriving, etc. while attempting to write a piece that says what I want to say and that’s worth reading by you, I am instead “multitasking” by attending to the potential beauty in physical form, to my change in this over time, etc.

None of this is exhaustive, of course — but worries about the beauty of the physical form, or the change in form produced over time are outside the technological frame. They are part of what can and is often lost.

Other ways of including these persist, of course. Choosing to style a well-known and oft-translated work such as “The Question Concerning Technology” by its original German title could be an insistence on the author’s form — a recognition that what ‘Technik’ means in German is more than what ‘Technology’ means in English — a preference for the German language — a desire to find reasons to use italicized text for its appearance — and more. So it is not that “the old” has beauty and “the new” does not, but the motifs do differ, and the easy recognition of the figure against the ground by the reader of inherent beauty, inner truth, expression of natural faith, objective goodness and subjective value may differ significantly.

In the newer online world, what matters — despite the ease of the author’s publishing his or her work! — is the reader. As was said in a Facebook comment on yesterday’s posting here, “I want all the comments assembled in one place”. (The author of that statement went on to conclude with the name of a newly-launched tool purporting to do just that: the search for a technology to “do more”.) Fair enough. I, too, would “like all the comments in one place” — but I do recognize that the answer is not necessarily to be found in a new technology, yet another place to go or thing to do in the course of a day.

For I also value the feel of the heavy pen in my hand — the feel of the ink flowing onto the page — and the slower pace involved (for I do type at a goodly speed), especially when attending to my handwriting so as to maintain its clarity and legibility and, dare I say, potential beauty — and think it good in an objective sense that it gives me the time to play with words in a different and (in my case) more fulfilling way than typing here does. In both cases, incidentally, I must have the bulk of the work in my mind before I begin: it remains a blank page whether on the screen or in a book until that has happened. So the “time” issue does not translate, for me (it may well for others), into “time enough to do a better job” — but the slower pace (as with “slow food”, walking rather than driving, etc.) allows much more of the world to “be present” and to presence itself to me in novel ways. That is worth my praise of older ways all in itself.

So I do not think technology and technique will be our saving grace, and not because we’ve left some problems too long (although we have). Rather it’s because, as Carroll Quigley ably pointed out in his The Evolution of Civilizations, of the six major axes of human endeavour he pointed out any of Man’s civilizations, at any point in their time, lives to emphasize some of these over others. It’s because, as Eric Voegelin, pointed out in his five volumes of Order and History, that we can lose the maximal differentiation of experience developed (in these axes) in de-emphasizing that axis and pushing another forward. This is what Heidegger was getting at.

I believe, in this twenty-first century, the technological framework has driven so hard in a few directions that we have lost much on the other axes — and I worry that our ahistorical way of looking at the world means that, should we want to “go back” and pick up some of these past axes of interest, we will not be able to without a long period of reconstruction and redevelopment, a (as Jane Jacobs argued in her last book) Dark Age Ahead. There are other times in history where this has happened before. It is worth worrying about.

If this worries you, consider trying a few older techniques for things. Become a craftsman at something. Pick up a nib-style pen and write. Fix, not replace, a small electrical appliance (don’t overlook buying an old one to see how tools from two generations ago were designed for repair, unlike many of today’s). In other words, try and move outside the realm of “the new”. You may shift your own horizons by doing so.

That, indeed, will make you better prepared for troubled times if they come. For the one truth about pushing any techniques too far is, in the words of Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Read Full Post »

No, that’s not an error in the title: the sickness in Canadian politics has created a dearth of same, despite the endless news and blog cycles fanning flames endlessly.

This dearth, malheursement, is precisely what members of the political and chattering classes, both ably abetted by the machinations of the media, desire. You might not, of course, see that immediately, given that we’re awash in political adverts, political programs, political news, political chatter, politics on Facebook and Twitter, and, indeed, talking about it here. But I hope, by the end of this piece, to have convinced you that all of the noise is a sound and fury signifying nothing, while real politics in this country is driven out.

That we should be talking of the lack of politics in Canada on this, Sir John A. Macdonald’s 195th birthday — a face known more for the ten dollar bill these days than any appreciation of his efforts in creating the Dominion of Canada and giving it a good and solid start in life — is appalling, but it is the situation we find ourselves in. Macdonald would not have been able to carry out his program of Confederation and westward and northward expansion, nor be the only Canadian Prime Minister to win six majority governments, with a sickness such as we suffer abroad in the land today. He would have been ground down long before accomplishing anything — and removed from the leadership of his Liberal-Conservative Party immediately after losing the 1874 election to Alexander Mackenzie as a “loser for life” — if today’s world ruled then.

It is not, of course, that the media were gentle and squeaky-clean in the period 1856-1891 — there was a degree of viciousness in public comment then that would do today proud. Macdonald was castigated constantly for public drunkenness, for the Pacific Scandal, for his policies and his clinging to power even as his health gave way. Yet his main political opponent, George Brown of the Clear Grit Party (precursor to the Liberals), had no difficulty in joining forces with Macdonald and Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier in creating Canada, and Liberal opposition to Macdonald’s policies whilst in office was based on the policies, not rumours of “secret agendas”, accusations to prove negatives, etc. (The Groucho Marx[ist] call of Liberal MPs to have the Harper Government “reveal the documents proving you didn’t allow the Afghans to torture their detainees” would have been anathema to Brown, Mackenzie, Blake and Laurier, all of whom had deep political differences with Macdonald — but did not start by assuming him to be “evil”, as is done routinely today.)

This “presumption of evil” has been infecting Canadian politics for a long time — most of my lifetime, in fact — but since Brian Mulroney was our Prime Minister has taken on an ever-more-strident tone, even as the “issues” being discussed have often been closer to farce than to real substance. Chrétien — who also shares the 11th of January with Macdonald as his natal day — made repeated attacks upon his opponents with rabid claims of “what they’re planning”. Martin, his successor, tried to divert public attention from court- and public enquiry-revealed outright misappropriation of public funds for party purposes with claims that his opponents would put Canadian troops in the streets were the Liberals not re-elected. The litany of “hidden agenda”, “secret plans”, “dictatorial”, etc. has never let up since.

The endless charge and counter-charge — and not for one moment do I forget that the so-called “brain trusts” of all our parties, even the unelected Greens are infected with “say anything”-ism in order to grab their thirty seconds soundbite on the television news! — has led to a political climate, in Ottawa and in our provincial capitals, where those in power are as dirty in their approach to their opponents as their opponents are toward them. This has become, pace Orwell’s 1984, an endless and unresolvable battle where the Oceania of the Conservatives is at war with the Eurasia of the Liberals and at peace with the Eastasia of the New Democrats, until suddenly the sides shift again and all the Ministries of Truth try to wipe the record of past accommodation and enmity clean. (The notion that partisanship stops at one’s boundaries, and that our provinces speak with one voice — as Macdonald, Cartier and Brown did for Canada as Fathers of Confederation — or that our nation speaks with one voice on the international stage, as was repeatedly not done in the past three years whenever a cheap shot at the Harper Government was in the offing! — has passed into history. So, too, the notion that the Members Opposite, from the perspective of whichever side of the House one sits on, are human beings is long gone.)

Add to this poisoned chalice the media — print, radio, television — and a blogging community that, regardless of position, judges the worth of readers’ comments and the fidelity of writers based on slavish adherence to “party lines”, bring to so-called “debate” and I am left amazed that anyone is left who actually cares about policy at all. (Our voter turnout numbers, on the other hand, suggest that that number has fallen significantly in the past two decades of playing “whack the mole” and “report the controversy and latest horse-race numbers”.)

Understand, if you will, that, regardless of your own political views, no matter how well-formed and thought through, the people running Canadian politics really don’t want you to do anything other than come out periodically to vote, to write cheques for party funds, and to do exactly what goes on today: scream at anyone who disagrees. This allows them — that small circle of politicians, advisors, senior civil servants, media personalities and “professional talking heads” — to play games with your country without your consent. What’s left of the country can then be strip-mined for advantage, leaving you, the citizen, only with the bill and endless regulations to follow.

In just a century and a half, we have thrown it all away. To the extent that you take part in the screaming and shouting, and to the extent that you purchase from the media, and to the extent that you’ve closed your mind to issues, facts, rational decision-making in favour of “brands” and a consumer’s choice alone, you are responsible.

This country — and pretty much all its provinces — are hanging by their fingernails at the top of a cliff, with jagged rocks upon which to be broken waiting below. Will you continue to stamp on the fingers? Or will you grow up and become the kind of citizen Macdonald and Co. could count on being the norm when they were country-building?

You see, you are next over the cliff, to hang on for dear life, after you make this lot fall.

Read Full Post »

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley’s Invictus captures, at least for my sensibilities, how much we have lost in Western societies since the nineteenth century. Written as the Victorian Age wound down to give way to the Edwardian — that last brilliant decade before the West’s headlong suicidal march into the slough of despond that was World War I — this short poem does not, for a moment, pretend that all is well. Indeed, in the human condition, it is seldom “all well”: it is the nature of our lives that they be filled with challenges, and it is indeed the rare man or woman who is not repeatedly bloodied, pained, treated ill, faced with tears and cause to fear and cruel twists of fate. Instead, what Henley lays forth is something that was very much of his time, and very much lost to ours: the sense that, although society could stand a great deal of “improvement”, the liberty to be the master of one’s fate and captain of one’s own soul thereby was worth far more than “relief” from the menace of the years could offer.

Oh we, we who cannot for a moment abide the thought that governments ought to insulate us from all worries, make all things well, keep us from concern and, indeed, subsidize not only our needs but our whims, have fallen deeply away from liberty indeed! We are no longer masters of our fate, but supplicants begging, in the style of Dickens’ Oliver, for the boon of a crust from one-time servants who in fact are in control of our futures. We are no longer captains of our soul, for the emotional distress of others must take precedence over the price of being the captain of our own selves: the speaking of truths, however painful to others.

Yet none of our “national security state”, nor our “welfare state”, nor even our “equity and redress state”, bring anything other than yet another fall into circumstance and, often, the Pit. In other words, we have sold our souls, once free, into slavery, for a pottage now increasingly denied so that others, with even greater senses of entitlement and demand, can take our thin gruel as their due.

I am moved to consider this, our fate as our nations unwind, our social fabric is tattered and our lives are laid waste by the eminently predictable outcomes of decades of getting something for nothing, oddly enough, by the public outcry over the prorogation of Parliament for all of twenty-five sitting days spread over seven weeks. What, pray (or should that be “prey”?) tell would happen were our Members of Parliament sit in the House that will go undone, with the opportunity lost forever?

If you said to me, “there goes our one chance to unwind our redistributionist, socialist ‘war of all against all’ state in favour of one of liberty and entrepreneurial opportunity” (and could establish that case) perhaps I might weep for the lack of the extra time in this Parliament’s life, but I doubt sincerely, judging by the comments I see on Twitter, Facebook groups, in blog comments and the like that that was what was intended. Indeed, it is rare even to find some further application of quasi-Marxist programming on offer. It is simply the lack of jawboning that is bemoaned.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

Never did I expect that I would take comfort in the words of former American President Ronald Reagan (for he presided over a massive expansion of government during his time in office; we cannot in good conscience say that he meant what he said), but there you are. They express our plight well.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we keep mismanaged private companies that employ lots of people in business” — oddly enough, the cars still don’t sell well, favourites amongst the manufacturers putting the jobs of those at the more successful plants at risk to those at the least successful, and despite all that the layoffs of the workers continue, while the bonuses and pay of the leaders grows.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we stimulate the economy” — oddly enough, we have created a biggerbubble in real estate and consumer debt than even the Americans managed; we have done so in far less time; we have less to fall back on when it bursts (and it will be burst by the governmental debt placement needs from deficits, like it or not) — and two generations of Canadians will be impoverished as a result.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we stop hatred from threatening people” — and the result is an ever-growing list of claimants to “hurt feelings” while the ability to speak to factual truths is now subject to prosecution in kangaroo courts where the rules of evidence are set aside.

When we look at the whole question of national unity, what do we find? Governments fighting with other governments — how anyone from Québec or Ontario can hold their hand out for Alberta’s money while castigating them as furiously as was done last month is beyond me, but, then, there is no sense of responsibility, or shame, in the minds of those “entitled”. The average person has very little animus; their “leaders” bear it all for them.

That this is true in the very House of the Canadian People on a daily basis, where the nation’s business is almost never discussed — but where the “charge of the day”, the “mud of the moment”, and the unbridled bending of national interest to personal and party gain is all that is delivered? We citizens are left begging for scraps of what was ours by right.

An examination of the budgets of any level of government shows that 20¢ at least out of every dollar collected in taxes is simply lost to the operation of the system. Keeping the funds in the hands of those who earned it — something Henley could assume in speaking of his ups-and-downs in life — would do far more to achieve wealth than any amount of redistribution.

So let me revise Reagan:

Our current crisis is a direct outgrowth of the fact that we are the problem. The Leviathan that is now our government is our creation, and as it destroys us all we can take pride in the fact that we are Moloch’s author and willing servant.

We are now in a race: for many of us, the system we have created will bring us down. Some few of us will survive it, as it crashes under its own weight.

And we shall drift unconsciously toward that civilizational dénouement, and wonder aloud who will save us as the rubble is beaten by yet more falling ruble of a bankrupt society that has also gone broke. The dead will not truly begin to pile, though, until we hand the rest of our souls over to the “One on Horseback” that most of us will cry out for, rather than reclaim our human heritage to be free.

Ignatieff, Layton, Harper … these are picayune matters compared to the times that lie ahead of us. Yet you can be sure it is that nonsense, and not anything of real import, that will remain front of mind and conversation, even as we collapse into a Second Dark Age.

Read Full Post »

Who amongst us seriously considers the possibility that our society might erupt into open rebellion of the people against the (no longer “their”) Government? Is this something — despite incendiary rhetoric demanding the removal of the politicians of the day in favour of the ones you personally hold in some measure of esteem — something you worry about?

Perhaps you should, if Iceland is anything to go by.

You see, the people of Iceland have decided enough is enough. Fortunately for civic peace, the President of Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, has come to agree with them. So the world’s oldest continuing democracy — continued through both the Norwegian and Danish monarchies — continues unabated. Rebellion, a real possibility, has been deferred.

What about elsewhere?

I recall sitting in an office in Connecticut in 1994, having recently started a new position. My office partner was a French citizen, firmly convinced that the Fifth Republic, established from the ashes of the Fourth in 1958 (and rocked by terror strikes from disaffected Army veterans in the early 1960s and street violence in 1968), was destined to fall. In other words, in a country as humane, successful and wealthy as France, he saw the collapse of the Government into anarchy and a period of having to be reformed as a probability, not merely a possibility, or a bad dream. (Did he support this? Not as far as I know — but one can look reality in the face and speak of what you see without having to support it.)

There is a very real question in my mind as to whether any of the continental scale countries — Canada, the United States, China, Australia, the Russian Federation, etc. — will see in 2030 as unified bodies. Mind, if I have to put on my futurist’s hat and assess probabilities, the most likely outcome is the fading away of central control. The map, in other words, will continue to be painted in these broad colours: it just won’t mean much in practice. Life will be lived much more locally: we will all, to take the seventeenth century Russian saying to heart, living by the proverb до Бога высоко, до Царя далеко (God is up high; the Tsar is far away), implying that both are irrelevant to daily affairs, and such loyalty as exists is merely lip-service.

But there is a small — and growing — probability that one or more of these countries will end in an eruption of violence. It is, after all, the norm in human existence. Only a very few countries — from this list, only Canada and Australia — that were born without violence (and even in these cases there was the on-going war with the autochthonous population, and wars between colonial powers, in Canada’s case, fought on Canadian soil). From the warlordism ended by the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China, to the Bolshevik Revolution and the violence of the shattering of the former Soviet Union in twentieth century history, violence is not that far in the past.

Then, there’s the United States, born as well in revolution (and, on a per capita basis, home of one of the top three most violent wars in human history in its Civil War). Today, most people who can cite the Declaration of Independence think of it as something condemned to history. The words, in other words, are not seen as a call to future bloody revolt.

But they are, for all that. Ask Thomas Jefferson, the Third American President (1801-1808), the man who said:

And what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.

Canadians often think themselves far beyond such violence, and perhaps on our own we are. We do, after all, have established provisions for provinces to leave Confederation, courtesy of the Clarity Act. Perhaps we could break our continental-scale state in a peaceful manner.

But we live next door to one whose origins suggest that blood may well be spilt — at which point the border will be meaningless.

No, the wise leader today would, as with Sigurðardóttir, remember that they serve the citizens, not the special interests — and forestall the torchlight parade and the demagoguery that can suddenly boil over into rebellion and revolution. It has, after all, happened before. It will, without doubt, happen again somewhere.

Remember, if you will, that the small beer stakes of the daily sound-bite on television and whether or not you like the Prime Minister of the day are meaningless when the bigger picture — and the bigger potential disasters — are considered.

Read Full Post »

Yes, yes, I know … the vast majority of people think that 1 January 2010 starts the decade of the 2010s. But it doesn’t: there was no year “0” in our calendar. So 2010 is the last tenth of the decade of the 2000s, regardless.

Often remembering little facts makes one seem pedantic and “out of touch”. So be it.

The decade of the 2000s will almost assuredly be seen in history (once we have a few centuries’ perspective) as the decade in which Western civilization slipped past its point of no return. On a long fall throughout the twentieth century, as the West endured two ruinous civil wars (World Wars I and II), and brought almost to the brink of collapse via the long Cold War, the West had maintained, up until this decade now starting its march toward completion, an ability to regenerate itself. I fear, now, that that opportunity has now slipped away, leaving us all with a long decline to, at best, manage, and, at worst, experience as a series of rapid collapses.

It’s not my intention to explore this topic today — we needn’t experience so much bad news on New Year’s Day (although this will be a recurring topic as January unfolds) — but simply to set the stage by examining what will make this up:

  1. The Decline of Politics: all throughout the West, politics has degenerated into “Party Games”. A corresponding decline in participation has followed. In almost every Western country, the actual majority faction is now “None of the Above”, split into its wings: “I Don’t Care About the News, Period”, “I Care About Issues but You Aren’t About That”, and “You Don’t Treat Me Seriously”. Let’s face it, Boxing Day Sales and American Idol and its ilk weigh far larger in the public consciousness than any concern for our civilization, our country or the direction of our lives.
  2. The End of Cheap Resources: between an endless series of “Not in My Backyard”, “You Can’t Do That on Our Ancestral Estates” and “My Heavens, Build That and the World Won’t Be Green” interventions and a three decades’ long mis-allocation of incentives we have built a trap for ourselves. Regardless of what resource we’re talking about, the mis-allocation of world efforts through cheap oil and gas meant that globally we’ve taken almost all the cheap and easy to extract resources. It’s not that there’s not lots left — but less and less at prices our economies work at. We could have used the past three decades to develop scalable and affordable alternatives — but we didn’t. We “partied” instead. This bill is now coming due, just as the end of expansion for the Roman Empire brought the bill of declining productivity through the loss of new slave labour to bear on bringing it down in Europe and Africa.
  3. Environmental Dislocations: no, this isn’t about anthropogenic global warming. It is about the end of an unusually benign period in global climate: a period that allowed us to expand global population beyond its safety margins and to occupy almost all of the most vulnerable habitable locations. It is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that the next glacial period of the three million year long Ice Age is upon us and that, as we go into it, we will have one more “warm period” with loss of sea level habitat and increased storminess from higher atmospheric humidity on the way (remember, continental glaciation starts when precipitation at high latitudes increases, depositing more snow over winters than can be melted in summer).
  4. Indebtedness in the Face of Low/No Growth: money as we know it is not a store of prior wealth (as our textbooks tend to say); it is mostly debt. Debt, in turn, requires service, and, to retire it, enough economic growth to pay the interest and principal. The debt blow-off of the past three decades (for true growth in the West stopped in the early 1970s) means that as the factors enumerated above continue to have their effect we will continue to languish in a debt trap. As it is in the interest of those who hold debt to “collect their rents” on the monies lent, more and more people will be ruined, and economically we will have continued unemployment and a growing class of the “newly impoverished”. This will make the maintenance of civil order much more difficult.

  5. The Collapse of Scale: As all of these factors continue to play out in the decades of the 2010s and 2020s, eventually institutions of large scale — first global, then continental, then regional — will fail. Most will, as per orthodox Marxist theory, wither away: they will still “be there” but will be irrelevant, ignored and hold as much real power as does Britain’s Admiral of the Cinque Ports and other mediaeval hangovers. Our lives will become much more local — and security will be a chimera in a world where surrendering freedom to a local warlord who can protect local fields and workplaces becomes the norm.

This is the world I see ahead. Nuisances such as continued “terror”, foreign wars, and the like — not to mention whether or not Parliament was prorogued — will be seen as just that, nuisances. Interest group leaders, lawyers, tax collectors and the like, on the other hand, might hang from local lamp posts. We have left things too late to do more than save the communities we live in.

But — as with Pandora’s Box, where the last thing to flutter out after all the pestilence and ill fortune was let loose was hope — we, too, have hope. It will be necessary to scrape away the barnacles of groupthink, managerial presumption and “all for the cause” thinking to exercise that hope. Some of us will. Most of us will continue to drift, expecting someone else to (a) think for us and (b) pay for it.

Don’t be one who drifts on the tides of history. You and yours depend on you exercising your innate human reason, freedom, ability to act.

Read Full Post »