January - February, 2008

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January 1, 2008. At the new year, people who predict big changes like to go into detail. The usual subtext is: "By telling a story about change, we will convince ourselves that there will indeed be change, and that this empty existence will not keep grinding along just the same." This year feels different, because big changes have begun. We no longer have to convince ourselves that the American economy will collapse, because we can see the early stages of collapse all around us. So I'm going to take another angle, and focus on what we don't know. (Also, I'm focusing on America.)

How much inflation will we get, and how fast? How quickly will we lose our ability to buy stuff from China, and as we stop buying it, what will happen to the Chinese economy and the giant Chinese import stores like Wal-Mart? How long will it take American manufacturers to fill the gap, and what parts of the gap will remain unfilled? Are there products that non-elites will never again be able to buy?

Where will the industrial system cut waste, and where will it continue to be wasteful? How long can airline prices remain ridiculously cheap? Will the toxic "foods" of industrial agribusiness finally become more expensive than fresh local produce? How expensive does food have to get before people plant gardens? How high does gas have to go before people actually drive less? How many vacant houses and middle-class homeless do we need before squatting becomes socially acceptable? More generally: how soon, and how smoothly, will economic pressures translate into long-needed adjustments to behavior?

Compared to all that stuff, the presidential election is easy to predict because, well, it's rigged. Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul represent the values of mainstream America, but mainstream America will not be permitted to know it, and certainly neither man will be permitted to serve as president. Paul will do better than Kucinich because Democratic voters have been trained to think bland right wing candidates are more electable, while Republican voters have been trained to go with their gut. The only question is whether Paul will do so well that the ruling gangs will have to kill him. I'm guessing they'll marginalize him with some hyped-up scandal, and in the general election, Giuliani will edge out Clinton. If either Edwards or Obama is permitted to get the nomination (and therefore the presidency), that's a very good sign that the elite are willing to compromise, and that the coming changes will not be as ugly as they could be.

I'm not worried about the police state, because central control is extremely inefficient, especially on a spiritual level. People who do what they feel like are more energetic, more adaptable, and much cheaper than people who have to be forced. The tighter any society gets, the weaker it gets, and the faster it breaks down. In the next year you'll read about a lot of repressive new laws, and the best response is: "How well can this be enforced, and what do I have to do to stay out of its way until it dies?" The best we can hope for from the big systems is that they will not fight too brutally against the better smaller systems that will grow through the cracks.

January 10. I'm gradually figuring out this Clinton thing. How is it that Mike Huckabee can get away with being a near-socialist, and Ron Paul can almost get away with aggressively opposing the war and the police state, but any Democrat who takes those positions is pushed to the fringe? It's because American politics is like an abusive family, and the Republicans are the abusive father, and the Democrats are the abused wife, and we're the kids, some of us broken and some of us still rebellious. The father can disobey his own rules, but the wife must obey them perfectly. Hillary Clinton, as a woman in this culture, has a lifetime of training in sensing just exactly what the biggest bully wants, and doing it. This is why so many Democrats support her even though they disagree with her on the issues and they find her uninspiring and they know Obama is more electable. On a subconscious level, they are resonating with her "expediency," her submission to the Abuser. When they say they support her for her "experience," they mean her experience in being broken, like them.

January 12. I'm totally on board with some of the most out-there "conspiracy theories," but I've never bought the Master Narrative, that the secret rulers are omnipotent, that whatever happened in the past or will happen in the future, it's exactly what 'they' planned. If you look at history, you don't see a master plan -- you see a mess! The plans of the most powerful people in the world repeatedly come to ruin. Enormous plot twists come out of nowhere. The only thing you can be sure of is that empires will fall and resistance movements will become the new dominators. Of course there are powerful insiders who want to build a green police state, steal even more resources, and smoothly manage everyone else for their own benefit. They will fail. History is like a wild horse that nobody can stay on top of for more than a few seconds. The awful truth is that no one is in control, not even the forces of evil.

Josiah comments:

It's kind of like someone who jumps from the (correct) assumption that top predators will kill smaller prey whenever they can to the (incorrect) assumption that top predators determine everything that happens in an ecosystem. Top predators will tend to win head-on confrontations, even during a forest fire or blizzard, but they are as tightly constrained within their structural niches as the smallest plants and herbivores. The difference seems to be that human elites consistently practice predation unsustainably, killing not only what they and their pack need to survive, but hyperaccumulating and destroying their resource base. They are reckless and over-exuberant, not all-powerful.

January 17. Sally writes:

I read this article on Facebook. Then I had this vision... It's after the oil has run out. We huddle, in ones, twos or groups, in our forlorn abodes. We shiver or we sweat, our stomachs growl with hunger. It's night and the only light comes from the ghostly glow of our computer screens, deliberately kept working to keep us lulled into submission by a virtual world that feeds without nourishing and allows us only the illusion of power but none of the reality.

Meanwhile, The Powers are hunkered down in bastions of wealth and opulence. They have commandeered all the best views, all the waterfronts. Their larders are filled with decades worth of feasts and their growing fields and gardens are well-protected by guards and fences. Sound far-fetched?

Actually, it sounds like the way the world is now, except we're not hungry or shivering. And it's precisely because the system can still buy us off with physical comfort that we continue to be submissive. When enough of us lose our incomes, our savings, our housing, our access to health care, then the domination system will no longer be able to control us by threatening to take that stuff away.

Last summer on the radio, I heard a Green Day cover of an old John Lennon song, "Working Class Hero". The chorus is "A working class hero is something to be," but I heard it as "A working class zero is something to fear." When the system can no longer buy us off and string us along, we become powerful and dangerous.

I love the internet, or I wouldn't be using it so much. The internet has the potential to be a powerful tool for bottom-up change. When tens of millions of people become willing to do massive coordinated actions that are practical and not merely symbolic, then the internet can allow us to self-organize in ways that revolutionaries of the past never dreamed of... but then, when the internet becomes more useful to revolutionaries than to advertisers, the elite will pull the plug! Or they'll try to. A lot of smart people have thought about how the internet could be killed, and the consensus is that the only realistic way is to take shovels to fiber optic lines. Every year the internet gets less vulnerable to electric blackouts, with advances in micro-solar and low-power machines and wireless reception and decentralized networks. You could always detonate a hydrogen bomb in the upper atmosphere to make an electromagnetic pulse that would fry most microchips within a thousand miles, but that's not really a tactical move, more like "If I'm going down, I'm taking you all with me."

January 19. The current scientific consensus is that dogs are domesticated wolves, but there is good evidence that they're not. Here's a great summary of the issue, Controversial origins of the domestic dog, and a PDF of a scientific paper, The Origin of the Dog Revisited:

Canis familiaris is a distinct species with its own independent history. Prior to domestication, it presumably existed as a relatively small, generalized canid that voluntarily adopted the commensal pariah niche still occupied by many dog populations today. This is supported by the morphological and molecular distinctiveness of domestic dogs, by the anatomy and behaviour of primitive domestic dog breeds, and by the archaeological and fossil record.

If this is true then the truly wild ancestors of modern domestic dogs are extinct... [This] is not unprecedented nor unusual: Dromedaries Camelus, for example, only exist in the wild today in feral form, and are otherwise entirely domesticated, and the wild ancestors of modern domestic horses and cattle are entirely extinct. In fact the eradication of the wild ancestors of a domestic form is thought by some to be one of the key historical events that occurs during the domestication process.

January 22. Last week I got this report from Nick, who works as an engineer at a coal power plant:

I am seeing first hand an electrical grid that is going to be tattering pretty hard the next few years. I see three big issues coming up fast.

1. Close to 70% of the utility workforce is set for retirement within five years. So much plant knowledge is internalized by the workforce and many changes to the systems have been made without proper records of it. Just like anything else the plants are suffering an entropic decay. The engineers that designed and understood all the various little systems of these places are gone.

2. 2009 EPA Clean Air Interstate Regulations have forced nearly all of the coal power plants to install scrubbers, baghouses and low Nox burners. This has been a massive investment roughly a quarter of a trillion dollars. 60% of our electric power comes from these aging 1970's vintage coal power plants. These retrofits increase auxillary power consumption by up to 10%, increase plant cycle complexity, increase maintenance costs and labor requirements, and perhaps most significantly they impact the the plants in unpredictable ways. For example our plant just installed low Nox burners. These burners changed our combustion process in ways the boiler was not designed for. As a result we will see reduced boiler tube lifespans. Boiler tubes are the arteries of the electrical system and they are already quite old since virtually no new plants have been built in the last 40 years. When I add it all up I expect to see increased unit failures.

3. In most areas demand is set to outstrip production by 2009-2012. Currently it is difficult to get a new coal plant licensed, and pretty much impossible to get a new nuclear plant licensed. So to meet this demand all the utilities are gambling with more natural gas turbines. Natural gas prices though are volatile and total natural gas supplies are are questionable.

When I add up the lack of utility labor, the cost and loss of reliability from emission equipment investment, and the dependency on natural gas I suspect two things: massive rate increases, and forced reduction in electrical consumption and perhaps rolling blackouts. If peak oil hits and we expect to shift to electric transportation it simply can't happen without a major reinvestment in generation plants and transmission systems.

One thing I know for certain is I want the heck out of this buisness before I am expected to fix the problems that are looming very close on the horizon.

Patricia adds:

My dad was one of those "scrubber" operators at a coal-fired electrical plant, until he retired about seven years ago. I'm certain he would add spectacular mismanagement and misallocation/abuse of "human resources" beginning back in the 90's to the list... which makes for VERY unhappy rank and file workers who eventually get so angry they no longer give a shit about the place, steal and slack off when possible, and quit or retire as soon as they can! So, I wouldn't expect any heroics from them when TSHTF.

This is the psychological angle that a lot of gearhead crashbloggers miss. I often see the argument, "Here's a new source of energy that will keep the system going forever," or conversely, "If we run out of energy, it's all over." I think the most important kind of energy cannot be numbered or measured. If people love what they're doing and feel inspired, they will work miracles. If they think it's bullshit and just go numbly through the motions, no amount of machine force can keep the system going.

January 25. Harper's article on George Bush's favorite painting and why he doesn't understand it. As you can see, it shows a guy who looks just like Bush charging on a horse with people running behind him. But according to Robert G.L. Waite's book The Psychopathic God, and this page about Hitler and Franz von Stuck, Hitler also loved a painting of a guy who looked like him charging on a horse with people running behind him! Here's the painting, The Wild Chase.

February 7. I've avoided writing about the damaged internet cables because I see too much certainty based on too little evidence. But I like this article, Submarine Cables, Subsidiaries and Subversion, because it offers four different possibilities. One that it doesn't mention, which I've seen elsewhere, is that this is a preparation for war. And Nathan suggests yet another theory by sending an excerpt from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon:

A balance of power has been struck between the people who own navies -- i.e., the people who have the ability to cut cables with impunity -- and the people who own and operate cables. Each side is afraid of what the other can do to it.

So this could be either a show of power, or an overt act of war, by certain governments in a conflict with certain businesses. What I like about this theory is that it reminds me of Fredy Perlman's distinction between two kinds of big system: the octopus and the worm. The worm is basically a strong military that can go around and smash things up. It's powerful, but slow and stupid. And the octopus is a network of commerce. It's smart, wealthy, and often decentralized, but it's physically weak. The Roman Empire was mostly a worm, and the Phoenicians were completely an octopus. Right now, every big military is a worm, and the internet is an octopus. The octopus always needs the consent of the worm to exist, but sometimes the worm doesn't need the octopus, and then the octopus is in trouble.

February 20. Why We Banned Legos Basically, some teachers at an incredibly enlightened school noticed that the kids were slipping into authoritarian patterns in their lego play, and led them through exercises until they understood how bad power relations can be built into systems, and how to build a new set of lego rules that led to cooperation and equality.

What I'm wondering is, where are our teachers? Doesn't it seem unfair that kids playing with pieces of plastic get guidance, and in this more real world, with so much more at stake, we are completely on our own to blunder through bad rules again and again for thousands of years, repeatedly focusing on the people at the top and not the system itself? What larger story can explain what we're doing in such a fucked up world? I really hope this all turns out to be a big simulation to show us the depths of our potential for evil, so we can avoid the same mistakes when the simulation ends and we go back to some more real world.

Also, I'm thinking about how well this fits the themes in my new essay: it's like we were playing with a very simple lego set where we had mostly mastered egalitarian systems, and then we got a much more complex lego set, and fell into bad systems. Now we either have to get rid of it, and go back to the simple lego set, or learn to work wisely with the complex set. I continue to think we're learning, but I'm not sure how fast, or how deeply.

February 24-25. So Ralph Nader has just announced that he will be running for president again. Of course he's much closer to me on the issues than Obama, but there's no way I'll support him this time, because the story is completely different. In 2000, Al Gore represented the Dinosaur Democrats and their strategy of playing not to lose -- run the most uninspiring and inoffensive candidate, position yourself a hair to the left of the Republicans, and count on people to vote for you out of duty, or out of fear of your opponent. And Nader represented the strategy of energizing the base.

It's easy to forget how little public passion was behind Gore in 2000, and how much was behind Nader. He was filling basketball arenas with people who stood up for his entire two hour speech. Howard Dean was riding the same wave in 2004, and I supported him even though he's way to the right of me on the issues. Now Obama is riding it, and Nader will not be taking votes from him, but from people who would otherwise stay home. I'm sure he'll be pointing out all of Obama's flaws on corporate and foreign policy issues, and he'll be right, but on a deeper level, he doesn't get it. Before we can change policy, we have to establish a pattern in our collective psyche of change coming from below. Millions of us have to get in a groove of being excited, acting, and making a difference. Once we have that energy structure, then policy change can follow.

A good metaphor here is horse and cart. Ralph Nader is out on the road trying to pull the cart by himself. Barack Obama is in the stable waking up the horse. Now, I'm not saying "the people" are just an instrument for politicans and intellectuals to manipulate for their own ends. My point is, the more the human energy structure of a society rises from the aliveness inside everyone, the better, and anything that anyone can do from any position, to feed that pattern, is good. Even the nicest tribes have chiefs, leaders who stand at the focus of attention, not to rule, but to inspire and guide anarchy in the best sense.

[2014 update: It's ironic that Obama stood for "hope", and his legacy is the death of hope, or the awakening of the people from the illusion that they can make a better world through national-level politics.]

February 25. Great bit from an Alan Moore interview in Steampunk magazine #3:

It seems to me that at this juncture of the 21st century we are more aware of ourselves -- we are more aware of our past -- than culture has ever been before. Because of the internet, because of our tremendous archives that we've accrued, the culture of the past is open to us. And as we look at it, we can see that it's a fabulous junkyard of ideas that may have been incredibly beautiful -- and may have had an awful lot of life left in them -- that have been discarded by the relentless forward rolling of culture and our insistence upon new things every day. I think that we're now in a position where we can look back at the wonderful, glorious remains of our previous cultures -- our previous mindsets -- and we can use elements from that treasure trove to actually craft things that are appropriate to our future.

February 27-28. This article, The Truth About Autism, makes a good argument for an idea that's been on the fringe for years: that autism is best viewed not as a condition to be cured, but as a valuable addition to the human potential. And this article, Government Concedes Vaccine-Autism Case, throws in a twist. It's possible that the condition caused by vaccinations is something else that is being misdiagnosed as autism. Andrew, whose son has autism, comments:

Autism is a big catchall. There are nine symptoms in the diagnostic criteria, and you only have to show five in order to get the diagnosis. So two people who have been labeled autistic might only share one symptom. What we're really dealing with is a class of something, and each thing in that class would have it's own causes, symptoms, and appropriate treatments. But the state of the art isn't good enough to notice the difference between all these things yet.

I think that autism is both a disorder and a valid different way of thinking. It's a disorder because it hampers everyday living. But it's a blessing as well because the different ways of thinking can show us new and interesting things. I think the greatest strength of community and caring for each other is that it allows those of use who are capable of everyday survival to care for those who aren't, but whose other skills can contribute to everyone's quality of life. This type of relationship between people is why humans succeed as a species.

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