Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Message from a starship

Today, we present another interlude of romantic diversion in between tidings of the apocalypse.

 V'Ger! The launch of Voyager 1

NASA's Voyager 1 probe is approaching the edge of interstellar space. In particular, NASA believes the spacecraft, launched in the Age of Disco on September 5, 1977, is almost past the immense sphere of our sun's solar wind. The sun constantly emits an outward-rushing stream of electrically charged particles, which scientists have dubbed "the solar wind."

Certain readings now being transmitted from Voyager 1 indicate the craft is nearing the point where the solar wind stops. See the press release from NASA for the nitty-gritty details. NASA is trying to refine its calculations of when the probe will actually depart from the solar wind's boundary. As of today, scientists expect that to happen in about four years. When it does, the radio telemetry from Voyager will provide confirmation. Assuming, of course, that the radio equipment is still working by then.

If it is, then Earth-based listeners will receive the first human radio signals ever transmitted from truly interstellar space, beyond the sun's farthest reach. In its own way, it will be an achievement equally as impressive as the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

It will be another entry in the annals of spiritually significant human achievements from the era of fossil fuels. The industrial development made possible by those fuels enabled us to see our planet from outside, and send explorers, both human and machine, to other bodies across the ocean of space.

Those same fuels will, inevitably, bring an end to the current industrial age, together with all the economic and social institutions that it made possible. Whatever rises in the future to replace this way of life will have to find better ways of living within ecological limits, on drastically reduced supplies of energy. But those future societies will be able to do so with pictures and memories from the edge of forever. For whatever that may be worth. A lot, I would say. The experience of eternity is one of the things that redeems mortal human existence.

One of my regular readers expects that our distant descendants of the new ecological age will have a sufficient resource base and technological infrastructure to resume human exploration of the stars. I hope he is right, for many reasons. Not the least of which is the necessity of finding a new home for the human race before some cosmic catastrophe wipes out the Earth.

But also, I invoke a principle once cited by a friend of mine, when he was arguing in favor of spending money to send human beings to Mars. Asked for a good reason to do it, my friend mentioned other, minor reasons, before getting to the most crucial principle. He spoke of technological spin offs, the need for interplanetary colonization to ensure human survival, the superiority of human explorers over machines in searching for extraterrestrial life, the availability of affordable technology for the trip, and so on.

But his main reason? Because it's cool, he said. Adding, helpfully: so fuck off.

May the enterprise continue.

* * * * *

Postscript: Pioneer 10 is further out into space than Voyager 1, I think, but I don't think it transmitted any signals from beyond the solar wind. Need to check that.

And a star to steer her by: Voyager 1 in flight

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 2: There must not be blood. An American city confronts peak oil, July 2015

Duke City
Saturday, July 4, 2015
9:15 p.m. MDT

Compiled from staff and volunteer reports.

1: Downtown Albuquerque, July 4, 2015

22 people are known dead and at least 200 believed wounded in Albuquerque in the last 24 hours, as protesters engage in running street battles with Albuquerque police and elements of the New Mexico National Guard.Casualty estimates come from sources at Albuquerque area hospitals.

All of the dead and injured reported so far are civilians. State government sources have not released casualty figures among police and National Guard forces. Eyewitnesses claim multiple instances of police or Guard personnel being hit by gunfire from street protesters.

Sympathy street demonstrations have broken out in Santa Fe and Las Cruces, although so far the demonstrations there have been peaceful.

New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez has declared a state of emergency in Albuquerque, effectively placing the city under martial law. By the governor's order, a 24 hour curfew went into effect in Albuquerque at 4:00 p.m. today. Persons other than police, military, or emergency services personnel found to be present outdoors will be fired upon. The Speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, Democrat Raymond Lujan of Grants, has vowed to challenge the governor's emergency declaration in court.

Governor Martinez refused to comment on reports that she has asked U.S. President Mitch Daniels to deploy regular army troops to the state. Pentagon sources have suggested in recent months that ongoing combat operations in Mexico, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Venezuela would leave little manpower for suppressing domestic disturbances in the continental United States.

The violence in Albuquerque began yesterday, with a clash between protesters and police at a local supermarket that left five demonstrators dead. The protest was called by community leaders in response to the mounting food crisis in the city.

Street battles in the ensuing 24 hours suggest more than anger toward the police. Signs and slogans among protesters have denounced food shortages and high prices, also accusing local supermarket chains of cronyism in food distribution.

More than a dozen supermarkets were reportedly damaged in today's fighting. The South Valley Albertsen's store where the street battles began yesterday has burned to the ground. Fire department personnel trying to respond at the scene were met with automatic weapons fire from surrounding buildings.  

Gunfire from police during the day's violence was repeatedly met in kind by local residents. Protesters used automatic weapons, Molotov cocktails, and rocks to inflict a so-far unknown number of casualties on police and National Guard forces throughout the city.

 2: New West National Bank, near Coors and Central

One report claimed that an improvised explosive device (IED) destroyed a police patrol car in the South Valley, but the report remains unverified.

A source with an Albuquerque activist organization, speaking only under a guarantee of anonymity, claimed that the violence could soon escalate dramatically. According to this source, meetings of key community members at secret locations spent the day debating a coordinated response to the violence. The meetings apparently failed to reach a consensus.

However, one group favored escalating the so far piecemeal armed attacks on police and Guard units into an all-out armed insurgency. Members of this group include several veterans of the U.S. military, with combat experience in wars spanning the last fourteen years.

One veteran is said to favor massively destructive guerrilla style attacks. These attacks would use car bombs and other techniques faced by American forces in the ongoing global U.S. war to suppress Islamic insurgents and other "assymetric" opposition.

Other activists have reportedly gone so far as proposing an alliance with the city's gangs and drug cartels. 

A larger group, according to the source in Albuquerque's increasingly underground activist community, favors a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Under their proposal, the Archbishop of Santa Fe and other religious leaders would mediate an end to the confrontation. Albuquerque residents would pledge to abandon violence, while state and city authorities would accept formal, face-to-face talks with community leaders to address the ongoing food shortage and economic crisis.

 3: Central Avenue, downtown

The source who described this proposal emphasized the growing desperation of many ordinary citizens. "We've got unemployment over twenty percent. A lot of people are running out of food, and they've got sick family members who can't get care because they got no insurance. And the government is cutting people off from all kinds of help. Medicaid, unemployment, welfare. They're closing the schools. They say there's no water rationing but the utility is cutting people off anyway. And it's a hundred fucking degrees every day. Everybody's tired of it. Something's got to give. When people are desperate they can do anything."

The source who made these remarks self-identifies as a supporter of the peace proposal being discussed by activists. The source agreed to speak about the proposal, and the more violent responses under consideration, in order to head off a worsening of the current situation.

"But the government's got to give, too," the source emphasized. "They can't keep doing this shit to people. They've got to talk to us, about ways to start helping people. Organizing neighborhoods to start living a different kind of life. Because the old days, they aren't coming back. Wal-mart and partying on payday and going to the mall. That's done. The government's got to start helping people deal with that."

The source wouldn't offer a precise prediction of what will happen next. Nor would the source speculate on how the debate in Albuquerque's underground will go. The activist only repeated the need for action amidst growing economic collapse. "If this keeps up," said the activist, "things are going to get bad. We won't be a community no more. We'll be the resistance."

* * * * *

Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons:




UK company says the Second Age of Sail begins in 2012

British wind power company B9 Energy plans to begin manufacturing the first sail-driven cargo vessels of the energy descent era in the year the Mayan calendar turns -- 2012, the 14th b'ak'tun, marking 5,523 years since the creation of the world.

The new commercial sailing ships will be 60% wind driven, aided by an engine run on bio-fuels or liquid natural gas. So, it's not one hundred percent sail, but it's a start. The ships will carry 9,000 tons of cargo, which is about five times more than the biggest merchant vessels plying the oceans in the era of the Yankee clipper. You can read about the new ships here and here.

They will look like this:

B9 Energy's clipper ship

Not terribly elegant by the standards of the tall ships in the days of old. But it's a start. Dreams and plans are afoot for many more such vessels. Low Tech Magazine has one article describing them, as does Peak Oil blogger Dmitri Orlov.

With oil production peaking and the other fossil fuels certain to eventually follow, the return of sailing fleets in some form seems inevitable to me. Human societies five hundred years from now will trade across the ocean with ships driven by wind, by solar steam power, by biofuels, and all of the above at the same time, I'm sure. With the shift in the Earth's climate, the home ports for many of the great ships of the future will lie on the shores of northern Canada, Siberia, and Antarctica.White wilderness turned green, with cities and harbors and stories.

Just thinking about it gives me hope, for some dumb reason. Probably because I'm a shameless, hopeless goddamn romantic when it comes to sailing ships. As a kid, one of the first books I ever read was about John Paul Jones standing on the ruined deck of U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, refusing to surrender to HMS Serapis. I used to read about American kids in the first few decades of the old Republic, running off to the docks of Boston or New York to join up with a merchant ship or the indomitable frigates of the American navy. I somehow missed the parts about "rum, sodomy, and the lash." Or told myself that only the British Navy was like that. Uh huh.

 U.S.S. Constitution in Boston harbor, October 2010

Whatever the realities, I grew up dreaming of a romantic life aboard ships like Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution, launched on October 21, 1797. She fought the French, the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, and the British, never lost a battle, and was never decommissioned, either. Constitution remains in active service today, 213 years later. 

With any luck, this humble relic of the first Age of Sail will be around for the second. There may not be a United States five hundred years from now, but I hope Constitution is still afloat. 700 years after first touching the water. Maybe the descendants of today's Americans will sail her across the Arctic to countries yet to be born. I hope it's a goodwill tour.

There are days when the future doesn't seem so bad.

* * * * *

Sea Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

                                          John Masefield, 1916

Friday, December 10, 2010

They say Albuquerque is dying: an American city confronts peak oil, July 2015

Duke City 
Friday, July 3, 2015
11:55 p.m. MDT

Albuquerque police opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators outside a supermarket early this evening, killing five people and wounding at least 11 others, according to police and hospital sources.

Incidents of rioting, vandalism, and arson have erupted throughout the city following the shootings at the supermarket. At least two police officers are known dead in the city-wide violence and four others wounded, according to a police spokesman. The number of dead and injured among civilians in the hours after the supermarket clash remains unknown, but numerous eyewitness reports say police have used deadly force repeatedly throughout the evening.

Today's outbreak of mass violence was believed to be the worst civil disorder in the state since New Mexico was occupied by U.S. military forces during the Mexican War of 1846-48.

Numerous, extensive fires have been reported throughout the Albuquerque metro area, affecting commercial and residential buildings as well as vehicles. The glow from the fires was visible as far away as Los Alamos, fifty miles to the north. 

1: Downtown Albuquerque, July 3, 2015

At 10:00 p.m. this evening, Albuquerque Mayor Darren White issued a directive establishing a near-total dusk-to-dawn curfew throughout the city, effective immediately. In a written statement, the mayor officially authorized police to use deadly force at their discretion to enforce the curfew. Police and emergency services personnel are exempted from the curfew. The mayor's office and police have ordered all other city residents to stay in their homes or businesses for the duration of the curfew.

The mayor has reportedly asked New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez for National Guard assistance. Information to that effect comes from sources with the City Council who asked to remain anonymous. Eyewitness accounts of troop carriers moving south on Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque could not be immediately confirmed.

The demonstration and shootings which triggered violence across the city took place at the Albertsen's supermarket on Isleta Blvd SW. At about 6:00 p.m., several hundred local residents began to gather in the parking lot outside the store. South Valley community groups had called for the demonstration the previous day, in response to accusations of hoarding, price gouging, and favoritism against the store's corporate management. The crowd size soon swelled to 2,000 or more, according to eyewitnesses.

Police appeared on the scene at about 7:00 p.m. At least two dozen patrol cars and several SWAT teams were reported gathering on the fringes of the demonstration. Two police helicopters patrolled the airspace in the neighborhood as police ordered the protesters to disperse via loudspeaker. The police warnings came at about 7:15 p.m. The sound of gunshots was heard soon thereafter, according to eyewitnesses. Police and community leaders each accused the other of firing first.

Organizers of the Albertsen's protest say police opened fire indiscriminately, without provocation, pouring dozens of rounds of live fire into a dense crowd of demonstrators. "They just started shooting at anything," said Albert Romero, President of the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.  "There was no cause for it, none at all," Romero said, his voice breaking. "These were peaceful people going hungry. What the hell are we supposed to do?"

Deputy Police Chief Joseph Vigil said in a statement to media that police were fired upon by gunmen within the crowd and "used legitimate, appropriate force to defend themselves and stabilize the situation."

Emergency room personnel at University of New Mexico Hospital confirmed five deaths by gunshot wound among victims treated at that facility. Eleven other victims of the Albertsen's violence were treated for various injuries. Four of these are said to be in critical condition. Officials at university hospital and other medical centers reported scores of additional victims as violence spread across the city. Health care providers say precise numbers of dead and wounded are impossible to estimate, owing to "the fluidity of the situation," as one hospital administrator put it. 

2: Barelas neighborhood, Albuquerque, July 3, 2015

Tonight's riot at the Albertsen's supermarket, and subsequent violence, comes amidst an acute worsening of the national economic crisis in recent weeks. Local food prices have spiked dramatically, as they have across the nation. Economists blame poor agricultural output in much of the world and the latest explosion in global oil prices. After declining to $110 per barrel late last year, oil closed today at an average price of $272 on global commodity exchanges. Gas at the pump in Albuquerque hit a new record this week, according to the American Automobile Association, averaging $9.61 per gallon.

A seemingly endless litany of national economic woes has worsened the picture. Relentlessly increasing unemployment has fueled an eruption of mass poverty unseen in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The nation's official unemployment rate stands at 19.7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the New Mexico jobless rate reported at 22.3%. Meanwhile, draconian fiscal austerity at the local and national level has cut social services such as food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment relief.

The crisis has exacted a grim toll in Albuquerque and around the state. Food shortages, once unthinkable, have become a fact of American life in the last year. Skyrocketing oil prices have driven up costs for fertilizers, pesticides, tractor fuel, and other petroleum-based essentials of industrial farming. Soaring transportation costs have bankrupted trucking companies and kept food from reaching supermarket shelves in sufficient quantity to keep up with demand.

Meanwhile, New Mexico's drought emergency enters its twenty fifth consecutive month. Governor Martinez has repeatedly urged voluntary residential and commercial water conservation measures, to little apparent affect. Today's high temperature of 111 degrees Fahrenheit marked the eleventh time in the last thirteen days that the temperature has broken the century mark.

So far, authorities in Washington have warned state governments to expect little in the way of federal assistance. President Mitch Daniels says other national needs must take priority, including the ongoing U.S. budget crisis and military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Vice President Mike Huckabee, speaking at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque last week, promised that essential national security facilities in New Mexico would remain untouched by the nation's fiscal emergency.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has called on the Daniels administration to institute food rationing and subsidies for the middle and working classes. So far, White House officials remain cool to any such move toward what a National Economic Council staffer called "failed big government policies our nation can ill afford in the present situation."

Albuquerque citizens have reacted with growing anger and frustration to food shortages at local stores. Albertsen's, in particular, has faced accusations of favoritism. Community activists say the supermarket chain continues to sell food at bulk discounts, directly from wholesale distribution centers, to corporations, government officials, and wealthy individuals. "It's outrageous and it's immoral," said Miranda Begay, a neighborhood coordinator for the Albuquerque Transition Network. Referring to Albertsen's management, Begay declared, "We've got families on the verge of starvation everywhere in this city and they're selling food at cost to people who have everything they could ever want."

Albertsen's representatives have denied those charges. They say the ongoing shortage of food staples results purely from high fuel prices and global market conditions in recent months.

An investigation by Duke City, published in a series of reports in April and May this year, documented at least five apparent instances of bulk discount sales to corporate customers by Albertsen's employees.

Mayor Darren White's office has indicated that maintaining order will be his top priority in responding to the economic emergency. "People have to know that the government's going to keep the peace," he told worshipers last Sunday at New Hope Evangelical Church in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. "Without law there can be no liberty," the mayor declared. "And liberty is one thing we're going to keep in this hour of our country's greatest peril."

Community activists have taken a different tack, emphasizing grassroots engagement for social justice as the key to a prosperous future. Environmental, labor, and religious groups have organized an array of grassroots, non-governmental efforts for economic relief over the last three years. Governments at the city, state, and national level face bankruptcy, but local initiatives have tried their best to fill what seems a growing gap between public resources and public needs.

Albuquerque Transition Network's Melissa Begay tried to sound a note of hope about the future. "There's so much good that we could do," she said, as television coverage of this evening's violence unfolded in her Barelas area home. At an an impromptu meeting with fellow activists in her living room, Begay said, "Neighborhoods are starting to come together, to help each other. We've got teams of master gardeners teaching the basics of urban farming. We've got teachers passing on real trades and real skills that people are going to need to take care of their families. Carpentry, mechanics, you name it. We can do so much. The city could help, if they wanted to. They should be helping us instead of killing us."

Others in the community reacted to tonight's events with disbelief and despair. Only blocks away from the meeting of activists at the home of Melissa Begay, a bleeding man comforted his two children while their family-owned hardware store burned nearby. The man, who asked not to be named, said he'd been wounded by gunfire from Albuquerque police. A bloody wound to his shoulder had been patched with a makeshift bandage.

"I never seen the like," he said. "Never here, anything like this. I fought in Waziristan for this country," he said, referring to service in the Pakistan war with the United States Army. "I thought this kind of stuff only happened in other places."

Where does he think we go from here?

The man paused, watching the fire burning across the street. "They say this is the end times, you know? That maybe this is it. They say Albuquerque is dying. And the world too, you know? But if this is the way it's going to be, then maybe I don't want it all to go on, right? Maybe it's all better to just let it go."

* * * * * *

Public domain photos from Wikimedia Commons:



Friday, November 19, 2010

From the science journal Nature: prepare for Peak Coal

Whatever their other differences, both eco-activists and mega-energy corporations have long agreed that the Earth's vast underground reserves of coal would fuel human industry for centuries into the future. But, according to an opinion piece in the world's leading scientific journal, Nature, those vast reserves may be depleting much more quickly than conventional opinion would have it.

The article, written by peak oil activists Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, argues that projections of virtually limitless coal reserves are based on extremely dubious, often antiquated survey data. The optimistic coal projections, according to the authors, also make implausible assumptions about future demand for coal around the world. And the projections also neglect the costs of coal-related infrastructure. The authors' conclusion: the world could face a peak in global coal production as soon as 2020.

The article is by subscription only, but here's the link

Heinberg and Fridley include an interesting little factoid in their piece. While coal production in the United States, "the Saudi Arabia of coal," continues to increase, the authors contend that actual U.S. energy output from coal peaked in 1998. This is because the production of high-quality, high-energy U.S. coal has started to decline; the increase in overall production since 1998 has been accomplished by increased output of low-energy, harder-to-reach deposits. The citations in the Nature article don't cite a source for this data (it's an essay, not a peer reviewed research article), but a 2007 article by Heinberg does.

Heinberg and Fridley concede all the usual academic caveats about uncertainty in data and methods, caution when forecasting, and so on. Their 2020 guess for the onset of peak coal is, they would acknowledge, just a guess. But they argue that the uncertainty in coal deposit data are reason for more concern, not less. Rosy production forecasts may be rooted in nothingness. It's plausible, Heinberg and Fridley suggest, that peak coal is coming in our lifetime, sooner rather than later, instead of centuries from now.

If that's true, then the energy crunch facing industrial society will be even greater than peak oil activists have imagined. Oil and coal will begin to run short at the same time, thereby further taxing already inadequate alternative energy sources. The resulting economic shock waves will be even more cataclysmic for those of us alive in the age of decline.

The good news is that greenhouse gas emissions will fall drastically at some point, thanks to peak oil and coal -- although positive feedback loops from Arctic methane emissions, carbon sink destruction, and so on may well continue to drive global warming anyway.

The only unadulterated good news is that at some point, a collapsed economy will forever destroy the mind-numbing horror that is the holiday shopping season. No lump of coal in your stocking for you, little children of 2090. No electricity for your house, either. All the trees have been cut down, so no more firewood. No gasoline for the rotting ancient hulk of a car sitting in the driveway amidst the decaying slum of Exerbutopia. And the temperature outside your crumbling old McMansion in the American Midwest is 75 degrees Fahrenheit on the December birthday of our Lord and Savior. Who never came, but dispatched his followers, around about 2016 or so, to run the Dominion in the sweltering poverty ridden hell hole that is the former United States.

I do hope I'm wrong about all of that.

Back to killing Nazi zombies for JFK. I love my country. God help me, I do love it so.

Zombie killers of the Cold War: JFK and company in Call of Duty: Black Ops

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From the great ocean of forever, looking home

Photo by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, taken aboard the International Space Station. Click for a larger image.

A day in the life, September 2010.  More photos from that particular expedition to Earth orbit here.

In the time our civilization had, we did some things right.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mega-drought in the 2030s: some geopolitical implications

From a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a map of expected drought conditions across the planet, 2030-2039. The map assumes a moderate level of greenhouse gas emissions, per climate models used in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Click on the image below for full resolution.

A drought index of -4 is considered extreme. More on the study from Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress.

Some notes:

1) Much of the U.S. is under extreme drought conditions.

2) Much of Canada is not.

I expect that the United States will annex all of Canada by 2050. I'm not joking. We will need Canada's farm land, and its food, as well as the more temperate conditions.

Given the level of economic distress implied by the above map, and by peak oil, importing Canadian food will not be enough. The U.S. government and a desperate U.S. population will want direct control over Canada's food supply. Millions of impoverished, heat-stricken Americans will also want free access to temperate Canadian lands. Canadian immigration restrictions won't allow that, so the U.S. government will undoubtedly remove those restrictions, by removing Canada's existence as an independent nation-state. The only question is whether Canadian territory will be incorporated directly into the Union as new states or instead be administered as a conquered area under emergency rule.

The U.S. military of the 2020s and 30s won't be the same global colossus we see today, given the decline in energy supplies. But I expect it will continue to exist, with numbers and cohesion sufficient to take Canada. And also strength enough to lock out millions of refugees fleeing the extreme drought zones of Mexico and Central America. The people of those countries will be forcibly confined in their uninhabitable homelands, I expect, by the military forces of the United States. U.S. military power will serve the same function as Stalin's armies in the 1930s, which enforced deliberate, genocidal starvation in the Ukraine.

Looking at the map above, it's easy enough to project the same grim events in other parts of the world. In the age of energy decline and climate disintegration, politics and international relations will depend crucially on the ability to wield effective military force. I don't like that conclusion, but I don't really see any way to escape from it.

If I'm wrong about this, though, then somebody would have to come up with a different, more persuasive scenario covering, for example, U.S.-Canadian relations in the 2030s. Given that the levels of drought on the above map are a near certainty, how might the geopolitics of North America evolve in a relatively benign way? Hundreds of millions of Americans suddenly deciding to live with a lot less water doesn't seem likely. Nor does a drought-stricken United States seem likely to open its borders to the virtually inevitable waves of refugees from the south. Nor does a United States suffering from drought unprecedented in modern history seem likely to settle for some clunky, European Union style of peaceful integration with its bountiful, temperate neighbor to the north.

No. The age of climate and energy collapse will be the age of war. And government of the warlords, by the warlords, and for the warlords.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The awful grace of undead God: AMC's "The Walking Dead"

I've never been a fan of zombie apocalypse cinema. Ever since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Hollywood has manufactured a coffin-load of films in which zombies take over the world and a few desperate humans have to hold the undead hordes away. Most often by blowing their heads to pulp. That's the kryptonite of zombies. It always seemed to me that there's not a lot of room in such motifs for interesting end of the world storytelling.

Turns out, as so often happens, I was wrong. Last week marked the premiere of the limited run television series The Walking Dead, on AMC. It tells the story of a sheriff's deputy in central Georgia, shot in the line of duty. He wakes up from his coma in an empty hospital, trashed by some unknown catastrophe. In one hallway he finds an eviscerated corpse. After that, things do not go well.

I never liked zombie cinema and now The Walking Dead won't go away from my head. One friend of mine who is, in fact, a devotee of le filme de unmorte didn't like this new zombie epic. Too many "last man on Earth" cliches, he said. Maybe. I guess I've let my critical faculties succumb to rigor mortis. I thought the story and the images were haunting -- in the sense that they evoked fear, and also beauty. It's a rare mix for any story to pull off.

An example, to illustrate. My expectation, based on admittedly limited experience, is for a zombie film to take place in the fearful blackness of night. Almost all of The Walking Dead unfolds in the light of day. And yet it still manages to terrify. Not just from grisly scenes of mutilation and death, which it has in abundance. The terror comes no less from the spectral imagery of our familiar world now empty of life, filled with the palpable menace of unseen, unholy atrocities lurking in the silent houses, the abandoned tanks and helicopters of an annihilated army, the dead skyscrapers. Sometimes the scenery of the aftermath is idyllic. Trees swaying to the wind on a summer day, farmhouses watching over the fields. But you know something terrible has happened, and the worst is coming. Haunting. Yes, any end-of-the-world movie will have such imagery. I didn't care.

To me, horror is a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The best of those tales give us a sense of the transcendent. Of connection to the larger forces, unknowable, that breathe animating fire into the heart of creation, into the souls of beings who walk within it. I found this link to the ineffable in a strange little story of a sheriff's deputy in the deep, dead South.

One scene, perhaps, can illustrate why. A survivor of the plague that turned dead human beings into devouring predators mourns the loss of his wife, who fell to the plague. The body that used to be her comes walking, sometimes, past the house where he hides with his son. He knows that "the walkers," as they are called, can only be put down by a sufficiently violent trauma to the head. So the mourning father decides, once more, to try to put down the walking parody of his wife.

Meanwhile, in an empty city park at that same moment, the sheriff's deputy goes in search of a walker he encountered earlier but left alone. This walker had been chopped in half. When last he saw it, the disembodied torso was crawling slowly across the ground, gurgling and moaning, looking for its food. Living flesh. The deputy follows the thing's trail of muck across the green grass. In the light of the sun.

This is the scene that results. It isn't for the squeamish. While not as grotesque as some scenes in the show, it contains grisly images and moments of brutally intense violence. It's also beautiful. Life is like that. 

As a friend put it today: even at the fall of a civilization, there will be stories. And moments of beauty, hints of something more, passing in tears and sunlight and blood.

Friday, August 13, 2010

GUEST POST: on social collapse and the Christian Right

Kir'Shara here (nobody has yet asked me what the hell that name means, oddly enough), with a brief introduction to today's post by a guest. The essay you are about to read was digitally penned by one of our regular readers and a friend of mine, who goes by the online moniker of Reave.

I'll have some concluding thoughts after his essay. For now, I will say only that I hope everything he and I write about on this topic turns out to be entirely unnecessary. I hope everything will be okay. Unfortunately, every great philosophical and spiritual tradition of the human species says it won't be, because that's not how human life works. Things change, and fall apart. Only the details are in doubt. All we can do is consider the possibilities and prepare.

And realize, as a friend once put it to me, that in the end, the only true power we have over the world is the power to be in it.

* * * * *

From Reave:

I probably ought not listen to talk radio in the Midwest. Well, anywhere except on the coasts, for that matter. Hearing conservative Christian talk radio is a lot different than hearing ABOUT it; in certain parts of the country, mostly the sparsely populated bits, it truly is ubiquitous. Like, pretty much every FM station north of 100.3, which is usually a pop station and the last fortress of sane radio before one enters the crazy. That's a LOT of people saying the same shit, you know?

Anyway, there was a consistent theme I heard on a number of Christian talk shows today. Anyone who's paying any attention at all knows that Fundamentalist Christianity is throwing a serious temper tantrum these days, in the form of a persecution complex. Bill O'Reilly's war on Christmas, the skirmishes over a giant cross war memorial in Utah, the continuing attempts in Texas to get the Ten Commandments bolted to courthouse doors, all are the hilarious attempts of an entrenched and powerful social majority to assume the mantle of the opressed to score points. "Christianity is under siege," they say, and I always mutter "if only." When I see "In Vishnu We Trust" on a dollar bill, or hear Thor invoked on the loud speaker before a high school football game, we'll talk. Hell, I'm willing to swing by the water cooler and listen to you rant if we can just get "under God" struck from the Pledge of Allegiance. But I digress.

Like I said, this isn't news. But what I hadn't directly experienced before today is that the blatant and cynical maneuvering of highly placed evangelical PR gurus is having a sinister effect on the poor ignorant bastards who actually believe them. This show I tuned into today was going on about the degradation of American morals, etc, and the need to preserve knowledge and home-school children, blah, blah. The host was talking about preserving books (properly Christian ones, of course, stockpiling Bibles and such), and I realized that she was talking about preparing for a collapse in civil order. If you are reading this blog, you may be making the same sorts of plans yourself; a lot of us are expecting a collapse as well. But when she took callers, people started talking about Revelations, and the Antichrist and such, and at one point one caller said "I really believe that soon I may die for saying 'I believe in my Lord, Jesus Christ.' And I am ready for that day." My first reaction was to roll my eyes and shout at the radio "are you fucking SERIOUS?" The implication here is that this guy thinks Christians are going to be herded into camps or  something, which is fucking ridiculous. It's like imagining a Nazi Germany where the Jews came to power and started exterminating the Germans. Wait, what? *blink*

As I was laughing, though, it sank in. Yes, WHAT the guy said was laughable to the point of peeing myself, but the WAY he said it was chilling. This guy BELIEVED it. Somewhere out here in Wisconsin there is a man who honestly expects Obama's death squad to arrive at his door, any day now, and carry all of the Christians in the upper Midwest off to death camps. And he wasn't alone; many callers shared the same thoughts. I could hear a deadly mixture of fear and conviction in their voices. We're talking about a great mass of superstitious people prepared to die in a religious war that nobody is interested in having, except them. And THAT is some seriously scary shit. Because all that is holding these people in check is the continued presence of a relatively strong government that, for all of its many, many failings, has done a reasonable job of keeping religiously and ethnically motivated mass murder to a minimum over the past thirty or forty years.

But one of the things we have to be prepared for in the coming years of Long Descent, is the degradation and weakness, if not complete dissolution, of a powerful central government in this country. I won't go into all of the details here, but suffice to say that the United States, more than any other country, is going to face great difficulty maintaining national unity in the face of peak oil and climate change. Even if it does maintain a nominal national identity, it will most likely resemble the federal government of the early 19th century, that had precious little direct influence over regional or state law and living.

In other words, if you live in a part of the country where a large number of Christian nutjobs are gearing up for fucking Armageddon, you're sitting on a powder keg that is going to start going off right when those most likely to stop it, Federal authorities, start being awfully scarce.  When the national trade and communications infrastructure is fraying and collapsing, these folks are gonna look for someone to blame, and find the same people they blame for everything from shitty music to food recalls now; racial and religious minorities, queer folk of every gender and orientation, scientists, "communists", uppity women, you name it. And there will be NO BARRIER to them seeking retribution. When there is no more FBI to investigate hate crimes, and precious little in the way of even State law enforcement, lynchings are going to be in vogue again. We might even get exotic and find burning at the stake coming back into fashion for the feminists and witches.

I know this is not a pretty picture, and no one wants to think that their country is that close to exploding into sectarian violence, but make no mistake; when a strong religious majority with eliminationist tendencies whips itself into a siege-mentality froth, and tops it all off with the seeming fulfillment of their end of the world myths and the collapse of any kind of mitigating central authority, BAD SHIT HAPPENS. The witch burning hysteria in dark ages Europe came from precisely this sort of thing; ethnically and religiously motivated wars going on overseas, coupled with domestic disaster (plague, in their case) led to the systematic extermination of everyone who didn't convert to Christianity fast enough. Imagine witch hunters in pickup trucks carrying shotguns. I'm not kidding.

Like other posts here about the Long Descent, I am not presenting problems to get off on the horror of it all, but to talk about solutions. A consistent theme on this blog has been community, and the essential role it will play in the survival strategies of each and every one of us. Some people would respond to the issue I've just laid out with classic survivalist porn: get yourself a compound and a lotta guns, and hold the Bible-wielding psychopaths off with concentrated firepower! Which, on top of being a bit blood thirsty for my taste, would never work; if you come to the attention to the community at large as an enemy, they outnumber you, and they will dig you out. The way to deal with this problem, as with so many others, is planning ahead.

Consider your community. What's on the radio? Are there an awful lot of confrontational, religiously oriented billboards around? Are there a lot of churches, and more importantly, do those churches have fire-and-brimstone pastors, as opposed to peace and understanding types? Even if you aren't Christian, or are the wrong brand of Christian, it nonetheless makes sense to take the pulse of the local Christian community. Are they aggressive? Angry? Threatened? Is there a lot of incensed letter writing in local newspapers about the library allowing such-and-such a book on the shelves? Are there a lot of confederate flag bumper stickers paired with occupied gun racks? All of these are clues that you live in a community that may become quite unwelcoming to someone who isn't one of their own. Basically, do you live someplace where you could stand on a soapbox in the middle of the town square and kiss your same sex partner, or pray openly to a pagan deity, and feel safe? If not, how much MORE unsafe will you feel when the shit hits the fan?

A lot of us are considering moving to places better suited to riding out the coming storm. If you are so planning, don't neglect this aspect; it will gain you very little to escape a city and set yourself up on the perfect off-the-grid organic farm with your hippie commune if you run afoul of the local sheriff who doesn't take kindly to fairies and queers. Keeping your head down might not always work; I grew up in a town where everyone knew what church everyone else attended, and if there's a face around town that never shows up in a pew, they'll figure it out faster than you would believe possible. One could always ostensibly convert, of course; many pagans and Jews avoided fire and sword that way more than once in Europe's history. My point is, consider the overall social milieu in which you find yourself, and ask yourself if you are surrounded by people on whom you will feel comfortable depending when society hits the rocks. If not, find some, because as we've said many times before, a solid community is worth more than a hundred years' worth of dehydrated food!

Some people will not have the option to relocate, for practical and emotional reasons. This will make things difficult, just as somebody who cannot bring themselves to leave the city of Las Vegas is going to have a rough time of it when the water turns off. If you find yourself in an inherently unfriendly community, and cannot leave, your best defense is to GET INVOLVED. Introduce yourself to your immediate neighbors, if you have not already. Take advantage of every social opportunity that you can; even in the heart of the Bible Belt, there are more or less secular activities like barrel races, rodeos, barbecues, 4H fairs, and the like. Make yourself visible and liked, make friends. So if the worst comes to pass, and mob rule becomes an issue, having as many friends as possible in that mob is the best route to safety. Mob violence and anger is directed at the faceless "other;" people are far, far less likely to participate in or condone violence towards people they know and like, personally. Even during the worst of the Inquisition in Dark Ages Europe, it was people who were not only different but profoundly socially isolated that were at the greatest risk; old widows, unintergrated immigrants, and the like. Because as frustrating and ignorant as they can be, individual people are generally decent enough. It is when they are piled into large, angry groups that problems arise. Make yourself known to the mob, BEFORE the trouble starts, and you may even be able to exert an ameliorating influence on it. Now is your best chance to inject a bit of diversity and tolerance into your community, using yourself as the vector. It's not an easy row to hoe (as the only openly non-Christian kid who went to my small town high school, I know from whence I speak!), but none of this is going to be easy, for any of us.

Basically, I'm arguing that we are coming up on a time when the world will again shrink, and those closest to you geographically will have the most significant impact on your daily life. It is CRUCIAL to bear this fact in mind, and be certain that you live in a community where you are safe, either through general accord between your lifestyle/beliefs and that of the community, or by forging strong personal bonds with those around you. Neglect both, and you may find yourself isolated at the worst possible time.

* * * * *

An afterward, by Kir'Shara:

In this blog and other places I have always written about American conservative Christians as if they are something Other. I write of "them," out there. When in fact, it might be you. If you, reading this, are a conservative, evangelical Christian, you believe that Christ will return soon to Rapture the faithful; that Satan inflicts evil through his mortal agents on Earth; that God calls upon you to resist such agents with all your might. To you, I'm one of those agents, because I don't believe in the things that you do.

But we both believe our generation will see the ending of this world. For me the end will happen because our oil is running short and global warming is setting the world on fire. I know you see global warming, especially, as a hoax invented by liberals to end the American way of life. Maybe my words come from the Devil, but tell me: why couldn't global warming, and peak oil, be the fire promised by God after he sent the flood (II Peter 3:6-7)?

Would you really hurt me or people I love because we live differently than you? I hope that you wouldn't. Like you, although for different reasons, I believe the end is coming. If you are right, and Christ returns to take you with Him to the sky, I will be left here to face the fire. Until then, why don't we talk?

And after you are gone in Rapture, I will remember.

* * * * *

My friend Reave explores a topic which, so far as I can tell, doesn't get a lot of attention in the peak oil and energy descent community. Folks involved with those issues devote much time and energy to preparing for the massive upheavals that energy depletion and ecological disintegration will bring to our society. In my experience, writing on such disruption avoids dealing -- except simplistically or in passing -- with one of the most plausible, and frightening possibilities of the coming era. And that is: the potential for direct, organized, political and religious violence in the United States, experienced in our own individual lives. I'm not talking about crime, or the looting and panic that can happen in the aftermath of a disaster. I'm talking about people coming to kill you because of what you believe or who you are. I fear it, and I know that many conservative Christians do as well.

It is an undeniable truth that such things are profoundly more likely to happen when a once stable society begins to fall apart. It is a central premise of this blog that the stable, prosperous United States all of us, right or left, have come to think of as normal is about to be destroyed. Preparation for that time will demand more than seeking new practices for a harsher world, in food, shelter, transportation, and health. We will have to face the potential for violence against people we love.
I have a Buddhist friend who thinks my fears of systematic political and religious violence in America are unfounded. Remember, she said, after the 2004 election, when you thought we were all going to be taken away in box cars? That did not happen. But, I would argue, 2004 was just one step in a larger process, dating back decades: the gathering of atmospheric conditions for a storm -- for the unthinkable to become possible. The Manichean conservative fury driving the campaign of 2004 has been building, like many political storms in many countries, toward culmination. Perhaps my conservative reader would find this conclusion unfair; but on the website of an evangelical church in my city, I see these words: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." To someone on the right, perhaps this signifies mercy. To me, it sounds like a threat. 

Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who track right wing movements in the United States, have amassed quantitative evidence of violent rhetoric and preparation on the American right. Isolated acts of violence against liberals, Muslims, and gays are increasing. Indeed, gay people, non-Christians, and racial minorities have lived with the threat and reality of political violence for their entire lives, in a prosperous and stable society. We know this. We know from history what happens when social disintegration and political extremism come together, like matter and anti-matter. And we know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the disintegration is coming. We know that climate change and peak oil will hammer human societies with unprecedented force. Because they manifest in the physical, quantitative data that technological society, above all else, is best equipped to gather and comprehend.
A reader, whether left, right, or other, might think I want all of us lefties to start stockpiling ammo and guns. I actually think finding peaceful alternatives will be vital for the future of this country.  Reave's essay moved me to begin reading the sermons of Martin Luther King and the essays of the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. These two messengers of peace write, in contrasting but synchronous ways, of non-violence as a practical strategy for living. Not as woolly-headed self-help cliches, not as delusional, escapist fantasy, but as mercilessly pragmatic lessons from two lives tempered by agony and doubt.

Along with other lessons from our history, we will need such wisdom in the history yet to be.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Local currency: getting things done when things fall apart

When the established institutions won't help you, you go around them. You seek help from the people you know. Because there's no other choice. Economic collapse isn't the only time this is true. It's just life.

* * * * * 

In the late 1980s, Frank Tortoriello had a problem. His world wasn't falling apart, but he faced a real problem none the less. He ran a deli in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He wanted to move his business to a larger location, and to do that, he needed $4,500. So he did what you're supposed to do. He applied to the local bank for a loan. They said no. Normally, that would have been the end of it. The other banks would probably say no as well. Maybe Mr. Tortoriello could have turned to family members for a helping hand.

He decided to do something else. Something I never would have thought of in that situation. He printed his own money.

I'm not kidding.

I am, however, oversimplifying. Frank Tortoriello had his new location all picked out and ready to go. He just needed money for the move. So, he issued "Deli Dollars" to pay for it. He issued notes -- printed slips of paper just like currency -- with a face value of ten dollars. But they weren't dollars, because that would have gotten Frank thrown into the rape dungeon archipelago of the U.S. prison system. Instead, his Deli Dollars were designed by a local artist, emblazoned with the image of Frank and his deli staff being carried by town citizens to the new deli location, cooking all the way. Frank signed each note himself to prevent counterfeiting. He planned to distribute them to his customers; each ten dollar note would be redeemable in ten dollars worth of products at the deli's new location when that location opened. Here's the brilliant part. Frank sold these notes over a 30 day period to his customers, for eight U.S. dollars each. In other words, he gave his customers in Great Barrington, Massachusetts a 20 percent discount on deli products, to be applied once his new location opened.

In the 30 day sale of Deli Dollars, Frank raised $5,000 in U.S. currency. Customers bought his notes happily, because of his local reputation for being an insanely hard worker. And a good man. His neighbors knew that the deli would rise again and they'd get to redeem their Deli Dollars in deli food a few months hence. During the sale of Frank's temporary local currency, the town went nuts with excitement. How could it not? What he was doing was so inherently cool, people couldn't help being excited. They won't give me a bank loan? Fine! The hell with 'em! I'll make my own money! Hah! As it turned out, the bankers who had turned down Frank's original loan request were among those who bought his Deli Dollars. Sometimes, justice does indeed triumph. Not by force, but by the ridiculous, Field of Dreams-y power of hope. And of Cool.

Frank successfully moved to his new deli location. And he paid back all of the citizens who had loaned him money. As one description of Frank's endeavor put it: "Frank repaid the loan, not in hard-to-come-by federal notes but in cheese-on-rye sandwiches."

Frank Tortoriello's Deli Dollar note

* * * * * 

My tendency as a writer is to ramble on about sweeping global events, pondering gigantically large physical and social trends. It all points toward the big picture getting very dark. But again and again, I keep asking myself the question once posed to me by a friend: even if you're right, what the hell am I supposed to do about it? 

What are we, as individuals, supposed to do? What can we realistically accomplish, not only on our own but with the help of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, churchgoers, local business owners? These are the people who matter most in our lives. They aren't headlines or video images from far away. They are people with names we know, faces we see every day.

As I write for this blog, I find a theme emerging in my thinking: we can't rely on established power structures to help us get through mounting economic and ecological stress. By "established power structures" I mean: governments at all levels; the two major political parties; large corporations and financial giants. These entities should all be regarded, I'm coming to believe, as obstacles and adversaries first, helpful instruments in everyday life second. We should begin looking for local alternatives to them, for services and resources we've long obtained from huge national and international institutions like Wal-Mart, Bank of America, the federally-funded state highway department, and the political parties that run the whole mess (mostly according to the dictates of corporate campaign donations).

We will continue dealing with all of these entities, because in many cases we have no choice. If you really need to help yourself or your loved ones by getting a much-needed cheap electric gizmo at Megalo-Mart, or standing in line at a Big Government office to sign up for unemployment checks and food stamps, go for it. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that the institutions pulling the strings on those services have our best interests at heart. Neither should we expect big box stores and government programs to continue forever. In all likelihood, economic and ecological stress will worsen within a decade, and perhaps much sooner, to collapse on an epic scale (even more epic, I mean, than what we see today). As the collapse unfolds, big institutions dominating the U.S political, legal, and economic system will have little interest in helping what used to be the middle class, which by then will be reduced to vast legions of the unemployed, debt-ridden, poverty-stricken, sickness-addled, and homeless. Government and big business will not help them. And remember: "them" will be us.

Or so the signs indicate to me. Perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe, as conditions worsen, the U.S. economic and political elite will rediscover social conscience and activist government in the service of economic equality and opportunity. It's happened before. The cruel robber baron capitalism of the late nineteenth century eventually yielded to technocratic progressivism and the New Deal, both sterling twentieth century examples of capitalism saving itself. I'm betting this will not happen today. Corporate funded Democrats are planning to dismantle Medicare and Social Security while allowing basic public services, like bridges, roads, schools, libraries, electric power stations, and public health facilities to rot. This happens in large part because Democrats rig the economic game to favor their corporate benefactors, while waging a metaphysically expensive global war that yields precisely zero material benefit to American society, except for those with jobs or investments in the military-industrial complex. Republicans follow the same policies even more ruthlessly, fueling merciless economics and perpetual war with the fires of race hatred and religious extremism.

Maybe these two parties and their gigantic, system-spanning institutions left over from prosperity will turn out to be helpful in the coming era of collapse. More likely, though, we'll be on our own.

Like Frank Tortoriello and his deli in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, back in the day. 

* * * * *

Today, Great Barrington is home to a thriving local currency, the BerkShare, which far surpasses Frank's humble Deli Dollars in scope and ambition. Berkshares are real money. They are printed locally, on wallet-sized paper notes, in face values up to 50 dollars. More than 365 local businesses accept them as legal tender for goods and services. More than two million dollars worth of BerkShares circulate in the community. They are redeemable in U.S. dollars at 13 local bank locations, at an exchange rate of one BerkShare equal to ninety five cents in federal currency. This last point is what makes BerkShares -- or any local currency -- perfectly legal. In the 1970s, the U.S. Treasury Department was asked about the legality of an experimental local currency begun by a New Hamsphire economist. Said a Treasury bureaucrat: ""We don't care if he issues pine cones, as long as it is exchangeable for dollars so that transactions can be recorded for tax purposes."

Since Berkshares are redeemable only in the Great Barrington area, they promote local spending and local jobs. Experience and empirical evidence suggest that local businesses promote healthy local economies, much more so than giant Megalo-Mart box stores and national chains. This article in Time magazine provides a good overview of how the process works. Local businesses keep money in the community, where it can provide for the community's real needs. Spending money at Megalo-Mart, by contrast, goes mostly for the well-being of distant owners of a vast corporate behemoth. And they, it is well documented, have spent many a decade trying to strangle local businesses around America. To a large extent, they succeeded. But don't worry, what goes around comes around, at least in this case. In a few years, crippling oil prices will strangle global supply chains and just-in-time delivery. Brachiosaurus-sized box stores will not be quite so feasible to operate under those circumstances. Local businesses will have to step into the void left by their extinction. Local currencies can help them do it. 

We're going to need such creative, unconventional, local responses as the larger economy disintegrates. They are possible, and they are already underway. Time to pick up the pace, though. The hour is getting late.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Future Histories Past

It won't be immediately obvious how this post relates to climate change and peak oil, but bear with me. While plodding through mindless paperwork today at my job, I noticed that tomorrow is August 4. That date struck the random chord of a childhood memory. That memory is of a war that never happened, which began -- in a universe that might have been -- on August 4.

The war in question was described in a certain book that scared the holy bejeebers out of me when I read it around age 11 (circa 1980):

This book, published in 1978, was written as if it were a non-fiction account, looking back from the year 1987 on a (mostly) conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. You probably don't remember the Warsaw Pact. It was an alliance of East European countries dominated by the now-deceased Soviet Union during the Cold War. For decades the Warsaw Pact massed armored divisions of the USSR and its satellites along multiple European frontiers with their adversaries, which were the United States and its West European allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I grew up in a time when a war between the two European alliances seemed very plausible. I had nightmares about it. In the book whose cover appears above, the nightmare comes true.

Much of this blog is about imagining a possible future, by exploring a history that has yet to happen. Future history, for me, is rooted in events that we can see, because they're happening now. For as long as I can remember, I've loved losing myself in imaginary futures. In worlds that might be, history still to come.

Some of the worlds I imagined when I was younger frightened me. Yet I couldn't tear myself out of them. Terrifying though it was, I devoured General Sir John Hackett's story of global war in a hypothetical 1985. For young me in the year 1980 or so, five years hence seemed infinitely far away. Yet in a way, I lived in that imaginary future as much as I did the present. If not more. I spent hours reading books about World War III, or playing board games that tried to simulate it. On many a Saturday afternoon, my friends and I took command of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, pushing little cardboard pieces representing armored divisions across a map grid of Western Europe, resolving bloodless battles with the non-thunderous clatter of rolling plastic dice. We blew up the world many times over, while gorging ourselves on Doritos and Coke.

 NATO defends West Germany, in the 1983 game NATO: The Next War in Europe
(image from Board Game Geek)

Fortunately, I found at least equal pleasure in visions of a future that was somewhat less ghastly. When brighter fancies possessed me, I imagined adventures on alien worlds, far out in the great galactic dark. There, humanity had ended war and injustice among its peoples, turning instead to battling adversity together, out among the stars. I can thank Star Trek for visions like that. In my fantasies of Trekian interstellar adventure, I charted new solar systems and saved humanity from extinction by fearsome aliens, escaping with only a bloody lip and a torn shirt.

I'm not sure what the point of this post is, other than to notice in my psyche a lifelong fascination with things yet to be. And preferring them, whether interplanetary romance or apocalyptic nightmare, to the mundane world of the everyday. When I was a kid, I fought World War III to avoid mowing the lawn. Today, reading about peak oil and climate change seem preferable to time spent on the job. Which, I think, is possibly quite weird.

Tomorrow marks the twenty fifth anniversary of General Sir John Hackett's Third World War that never was. Sounds like a reason to party, does it not?

A post-script follows, detailing how Mr. Hackett's war turned out. Because maybe you want to know.

* * * * *

The Third World War: August 1985
By General Sir John Winthrop Hackett, British Army of the Rhine. Et al.

The end of the Cold War begins with several months of tension in Central Europe. In this scenario, the Soviet leadership is portrayed as extremely nervous about increases in US defense spending by second term President Jimmy Carter. Carter's successor, elected in 1984, continues the rearmament policy. Meanwhile, Moscow confronts a Communist Yugoslav government that has too long challenged Soviet supremacy in the international socialist movement. With its military superiority in Europe waning, the Kremlin decides to move from a position of strength while it still can. Soviet divisions roll into Yugoslavia in early July, 1985. 

Unfortunately, Soviet leaders have miscalculated. The Americans respond by frantically deploying a battalion of United States Marines into Yugoslavia, as a signal to Moscow that its invasion will not be tolerated. The Americans intend this move as a deterrent, not a prelude to war. But within hours the Marines find themselves engaged in full-scale combat against an onrushing typhoon of Soviet armor. Dramatic news footage is beamed around the world, showing United States forces blowing Soviet tanks to fiery molten chunks. The images are, in more ways than one, explosive. The Warsaw Pact countries begin a full military mobilization, and NATO responds in kind. In ports along the American east coast, U.S. Navy convoys start loading munitions and troops. The United States Air Force initiates a round the clock airlift of men and materiel to Western Europe.

It's the guns of August, one more time. The Soviet leadership decides to go for broke. Warsaw Pact forces smash across the inter-German border (between East Germany and West) in the pre-dawn hours of August 4, 1985. For two weeks, they drive NATO ground forces back, overrunning the north German plain, pushing into the Netherlands, and threatening to break the back of a frayed Western alliance. General Hackett's book serves up harrowing descriptions of West German cities being bombed, chaotic hordes of refugees fleeing before advancing Soviet troops, and the cities of Western Europe in flames.

But NATO armies hold, aided by France's decision to intervene in the war in full force. The Soviet offensive stalls, and NATO launches a counter-attack in the northern sector of the German front. British and West German forces make headway, reinforced by the rapid influx of fresh U.S. and French troops, forcing their Soviet adversaries back to regroup and dig in. The men in the Kremlin grow nervous. Their aura of invincibility has been pierced. The momentum of the war is shifting. The fragile puppet regimes of Moscow's East European satellites might, they fear, begin to unravel. Something will have to be done.

To change the geopolitical dynamic and lay the groundwork for a series of ultimatums against the West, the Soviet Union launches a strategic nuclear missile strike on the city of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom. The goal of the attack is to intimidate NATO and create a crisis of morale in Western militaries and populations, by raising the specter of Armageddon. Birmingham is annihilated in a sea of fire. The result, again, is not what the Soviets intended. An American retaliatory strike incinerates Minsk, in the Soviet republic of Byelorussia (today the independent country of Belarus).

And that leads to the end-game. Crowds begin to gather on the streets of East European cities, demonstrating against the war. And their governments. And their Soviet occupiers. Soviet troops in West Germany begin talking amongst themselves, glaring sullenly at their KGB enforcers. Some Soviet units on the German front roll to a stop, their guns going silent. Rumors begin to spread in the Soviet ranks of desertions, mutinies. The crowds in East European capitals multiply, sensing weakness, becoming an ocean of humanity, their chants thundering in the night. The phenomenon spreads within hours to the cities of the Soviet Union itself. In the streets of Kiev and Leningrad and elsewhere, gigantic teaming seas of human beings gather. They have glimpsed the end of the world and decided they will not let it happen and the time has come to pull their country back from the brink. The armed forces of the Soviet Union make no move to stop them. The officers and men sit and watch. Or they join the crowds.

The nations of the Warsaw Pact and the homeland of their Soviet masters are engulfed by the tide. What happened in 1789 and 1848 and 1871 and 1956 and 1968 is happening again. Whole populations in the streets, armies cowering as the storm gathers force. Revolution. How such a tumult will turn out isn't always clear. Except for 1789, the earlier revolutions ended in defeat when the ancien regime recovered, rallying its armies to cleanse the streets in blood. But in the revolution of 1985, the armies themselves see visions of  how their war will end -- in fires out of Hell, unleashed by the men who watch them every year from atop Lenin's tomb. And so the armies go home. Revolution wins the day. In the plains of Germany and around the world, guns go silent.

The Third World War ends with a cease-fire on August 20, 1985. The official dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics follow soon after that.

And the future awaits.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The future oughta be in pictures

We can't predict exactly what will happen during a given year in the future. Like, for example, 2050. Will I be alive then? Don't know. If I am, I'll be 82. Don't know where I'll be living, who my friends will be, what kind of clothes will be in fashion, whether or not I'll have full control of my bodily functions.

I do know that I'll probably use a lot less water than I do now. The Natural Resources Defense Council just released a study estimating that one third of all counties in the United States will be at "high or extreme risk" of water shortages and drought in the year 2050. Thanks to climate change, the report notes.

The map of affected counties looks like this:

The counties colored red are the ones that face the biggest risk of running out of water. More information on the NRDC report is here and here.

The forecasts in the report assume that demand for water (by homes, businesses, agriculture) continues to rise at current rates through 2050. I think it's safe to say that, at some point, the demand will be forced down, as useless uses of water are phased out. Like golf courses and lawns. The cause will be not only climate change but also the permanent, never-ending economic implosion enforced by energy descent. In a collapsing economy and super-heating world, we won't be able to afford water-guzzling luxuries like desert putting greens. Or Las Vegas casinos surrounded by giant moats.

Yet we continue throwing water away none the less, despite absolutely certain evidence of the coming shortages. Here's a scene from the courtyard outside my workplace:

A fountain vomits water into the open air on a 91 degree Albuquerque day in July. I might be missing something, but this use of water strikes me as monumentally dumb. The rate at which that water evaporates on a hot summer day  is, from what I understand, rather considerable. I'm not terribly knowledgeable on Albuquerque's hydrologic cycle, but it seems like much of the evaporated water will end up someplace other than New Mexico. The water that disappears into the air, as seen in the diagram below, eventually travels far from the Gushing Monument of Dumb, lurking just outside my office.

Maybe I'll check with the authorities in charge of that fountain, to ask them how much water it loses per day to evaporation. Maybe I'll also ask whether such water use is a good idea. Just to see the reaction I get. I expect that any proposal to get rid of the fountain, in favor of a more water friendly xeriscape decoration, will not get a friendly reception. It's a little like dealing with a lung cancer patient who still smokes three packs a day.

The future will always be unknown. But not completely unknowable. Pictures from the present can tell us a lot. Sooner or later, we'll have to start paying attention.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shadows out of time

I'm currently reading Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, a book by the great French historian Fernand Braudel. He wrote about the humble daily necessities of life in the centuries and millennia before the industrial revolution. Life back then centered on the absolute basics: food, housing, tools, and clothing, as well as the social practices surrounding them, like law and religion. In pre-industrial days such fundamental realities changed very slowly if at all, on time scales dwarfing a human life. Generations, centuries, millennia. The daily and seasonal routines defined human existence, placing strict limits on the possibilities of human enterprise, whether pursued by peasant or monarch or priest.

Unlike other historians of his time, Fernand Braudel didn't see history as the outcome of choices made by rulers. The people at the top of human societies started wars and rebellions; diverted the production of food and material by commoners for their own ends; preserved dynasties and struggled for political power. But everything the rulers did, Braudel maintained, was entirely constrained and channeled by the physical and cultural limits of limited resources and technology. These, in turn, were the domain not of war councils but of methodical, deliberate centuries of common labor, which made the fabric of everyday life.

Today, "history" is for most people a boring, forgotten subject from the childhood purgatory of decrepit public schools. Or, it's an electronic diversion piped into the home via cable television, filled with lurid, facile documentaries about wars and royal debauchery. History needs to be more than that. A way to prepare for what's coming. In the age of peak oil and extreme climate change, we will find a vital resource in scholars like Fernand Braudel, who devoted their lives to understanding what human societies were like in the days before hydrocarbon fuel. Those days spanned almost the entire past existence of humanity, dating back to the lost legendary times before the written word. When human beings wandered a pristine immensity of plains, forests and mountains, teeming with animals in the billions. Places ruled by birds and beasts and fish, vast beyond imagining beneath the vaults of heaven, untouched by cities and their reach.

Thousands of years have passed since those ages. Two great transformations of human life have happened in that time: the invention of agriculture, about 13,000 years ago, and the creation of cities, about 5,000 years ago. Further changes happened in the age of cities, as human beings improved their methods of building structures, producing food, exploiting animals, waging war, and so on. But all the changes took place over hundreds of years. An ordinary person typically lived only to age 40 or so, before being killed by accident, disease, or starvation. From the perspective of that lifetime, the routines of everyday life appeared to change not at all. The routines were like the mountains: apparently timeless, even though subtly shifting and changing their shape over huge lengths of time, at a rate too slow to see.

In the knowledge of those times we of the present will find practices and devices, from spinning wheels to ox-drawn plows, that need to be resurrected for the future beyond fossil fuels, which will be the remaining ages of humanity's time on Earth. Our past will also yield lessons to be learned and warnings to be heeded, of the catastrophes so common in the first age of age scarcity (ca. 200,000 B.C. to A.D. 1800).

The book I'm reading by Fernand Braudel describes two of the commonplace disasters: pestilence and famine. In the pre-industrial era, the threat of disease and starvation hung forever over every human life. One or two bad harvests could mean early death for whole communities. Monarchs may have hoarded excess food, but if crops failed the ruler still had to face rebellion by desperate subjects. And rulers had no more immunity to microbial slaughter than anyone else.

In the previous world of scarce energy, human communities lacked the means to protect against famine and pestilence. They were without industrial abundance but also without knowledge. Our descendants will once again exist without material abundance built on surplus energy. But they may, if all goes well, possess our scientific knowledge, of soil, plants, pests, fertilizers, and other facets of agriculture. The societies of coming centuries will also have, if all goes well, access to our knowledge of bacteria, viruses, nutrition, physiology, and the many other components of human health. Our descendants won't be able to build and operate huge mechanized farm machines or giant MRI devices, but they will know far more than our pre-industrial ancestors about the way the physical world actually works. Or so we can hope. In the best case scenario for the human future, ecotechnic civilizations will be inhabited by healthy, well-fed citizens, existing in low-energy, low-consumption, ecologically rooted settlements.

I'm going to try, in my upcoming description of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the twenty second century, to describe what the tentative foreshadowing of such a society might be like. We may not get there, but we have to try. Because of what's at stake, and what the future will look like if we fail.

We can behold that future in the most horrifying episodes of our pre-industrial past. Fernand Braudel tells of one such cataclysm, the Deccan Famine of 1630 in India. Unknown thousands upon thousands of people starved to death in the cities and countryside of the subcontinent. Perhaps millions. Braudel quotes a Dutch explorer who visited India during the famine:

People wandered hither and thither, helpless, having abandoned their towns or villages. Their condition could be recognized immediately: sunken eyes, wan faces, lips flecked with foam, lower jaw projecting, bones protruding through skin, stomach hanging like an empty sack, some of them howling with hunger, begging alms.

Braudel then writes in his own voice, "The customary dramas ensued: wives and children abandoned, children sold by parents, who either abandoned them or sold themselves in order to survive, collective suicides... Then came the stage when the starving split open the stomachs of the dead or dying to 'eat their entrails.' "

Braudel concludes with the words of the Dutch merchant who beheld these things:

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people died, to the point when the country was entirely covered with corpses which stayed unburied, and such a stink arose that the air was filled with it and pestilential. 

The future will not be utopia. But it must not be hell. From the Mars novels of Kim Stanley Robinson: shikata ga nai. There is no choice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The music of the ghosts

The civilization of ancient Rome lasted about a thousand years, from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD (in the lands around Greece an offshoot successor state lasted until 1453). From its beginnings as a tiny village in Italy, Rome came to rule the entire Mediterranean world. A map of Rome's empire in AD 117, when the march of the legions reached its farthest point, looks like this:

Across the immensity of that territory the Romans built cities, towns, roads, and farms. In their thousands upon thousands of settlements, built up over centuries of conquest, the Romans constructed not only their famous arenas, roads and aqueducts, but also villas, baths, sewers, temples, forums, amphitheaters, granaries, harbors, ships, mines and a myriad of the other complex edifices that make up the infrastructure of a thriving, economically vibrant, militarily powerful society. From that society, much remains. We have Roman poetry, drama, literature, history, and philosophy. We have the Latin language. We have sculpture and painting, and the heritage of Roman achievements in law, government, architecture, engineering, and war.

In AD 117, people with Roman citizenship occupied three thousand miles of land from the North Sea to the river valleys of Mesopotamia. No doubt it was unthinkable to the Romans that such a massive, monumental presence as Roman power would one day disintegrate. No one could imagine the day when people who thought of themselves as Roman disappeared from the face of the Earth. But that's what happened. Four hundred years after Roman rule reached its greatest extent, it was a memory.

The enormous physical and cultural scale of Roman civilization meant that at least some of it would survive that civilization's death. And much of it did, from the roads and buildings to the works of literature and art. Among the items salvaged from the wreckage were musical instruments. We know the Romans played music, that it was an important part of their customs and rituals.

But of all the things Rome built and did, all the vast stores of relics that survived the fall, we only have a single 25 second fragment of Roman music. That's all that remains of the songs and melodies played in houses and streets across the immensity of the Roman world for hundreds upon hundreds of years. The surviving fragment of music was composed by the musician Flaccus for the performance of a play by the dramatist known as Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, circa 195 to 159 BC).

This music has been performed by a Spanish ensemble called Atrium Musicae de Madrid. The fragment is entitled "Terencio. Hecyra 861." You can listen to part of it at the Amazon listing for an album by the group.

Rome left much, but its music has been lost. All of it, save one tiny little scrap. For all time.

I can't help thinking of this as a catastrophe. I read about the fragment from Flaccus in the most recent book by John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. Greer mentions the 25-second musical remnant in order to illustrate how easily a priceless cultural heritage can be lost. The Romans didn't imagine their society going away, so they took no special steps to preserve their culture. Some of it survived anyway, because it took durable physical form, like the aqueducts. Some of the less durable items, like the literature, survived because they were methodically copied by medieval monks. But the Romans seem not to have written down their music. So all of it was lost.

Greer cautions that the same thing could happen to our culture in the decades and centuries ahead. Our books and periodicals are printed on paper that in a few decades will crumble to dust. Our digitized knowledge rests in computers that depend on a growing, fossil-fueled economy, for maintenance, parts, and electricity. Even with these things, hard drives don't last forever. In the coming age of depletion and decline, they will last even less. Our main means of storing information, including music, are paper, electrons, and silicon. Soon, Greer maintains, their economic and technological support system will begin to disappear. We have to start planning now, he says, for alternatives, in hopes of saving what we can.

Or our music could be as dead as the silent music of Rome.

* * * * * *

Anthropologists, historians, and other researchers can't conjure Roman music back into being. But they have managed to rebuild Roman musical instruments, from the records that survived. The researchers make informed guesses about the sort of music those instruments, catering to Roman tastes, might have made.

And then they ask musicians to play the results. Here's one of them. The echo of music played by ghosts, from a world that was lost.