The 21st Century

Wednesday 2010.10.20

Roughly speaking, the decade of the sixties was my childhood. (The crowd breaks into shouts of “old fart! old fart!”.)

That was a fairly interesting period of time to be growing up, in retrospect. There was a lot going on, to put it mildly. Of course, whenever you grew up, there will always be the fact that the perception of periods of time shifts with age. If you’re, say, 12 years old and look back, a decade or so of time seems to be a giant epoch, because, at that point, it’s pretty much your whole lifetime so far. Get into middle age, and a decade is still definitely quite a chunk of time in human perspective, but doesn’t seem nearly as epic. Not at all.

Looking back, now, it really is amazing to see everything that happened over that particular decade, and reflect on how things were influences. One obvious area was the course of NASA and spaceflight. The very early days of NASA as an organization, the Mercury program through Gemini through the Apollo program up through the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of 1969. Impressive and inspiring stuff. That was just one area of things going on over the course of the decade.

I have memories of spending Sundays with the rest of the family at the home of my maternal grandparents back then. Good memories. There were a couple of things that were notable, looking back. One quirk of fate was that on that side of the family, all gathered at my grandparent’s house on Sundays when I was a child, of the grandchildren, I was the only boy. The result was that most of the time, I was pretty much on my own as my sister and cousins went on about whatever they were doing and the adults sat and chattered. It helped shape me as a quiet kid who spent a lot of time sitting alone reading, which was just fine with me. At my grandparent’s house, I had their magazine subscriptions to Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Life and Look. The first two of those were due to my grandfather being a guy interested in a range of technical things, he was an influence on the young me, and with this stuff piled around and nothing much else to do, I soaked it up. Add to all of the above, finding myself watching a television show that seems to have been lost in the past among other things, but caught my attention and held it, back then. The show was The Twenty-First Century, hosted by Walter Cronkite.

I loved that show!

That was just absolutely fascinating stuff to me. While my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles chattered about whatever and my sister and girl cousins did whatever they did, I was just soaking this stuff up and marveling at it all. The 21st century was over three decades away at that point, which, again, was seen from the perspective of time in the context of the lifetime of a young boy. It fired up my mind, what things could be happening when the year 2000 rolled by, and we went into the distant future of the 21st century?

Now here we are. We’re a decade into it. So, now, where are we ten years into the 21st century, and what’s the future view? There’s a bit of a large question to consider in a little chunk of the written word we’ve come to call “a blog”. A moment to stop and address myself for a second. Let’s not get too carried away, shall we?

Right here, I guess, we have a real live artifact of the early 21st century. Back in the mid nineties when the worldwide interconnection of computers known as the internet began carrying the masses of data called the World Wide Web, I had a thought. The best thing about the web, it occurred to me, was that now, anybody could publish. The worst thing about the web was that, now, anybody could publish. Your classic mixed bag. Maybe that’s the most significant item in a subject like this. Big bold predictions of the future might not always be great about seeing the mixed bag of anything ahead. All kinds of unintended results and consequences can appear and continue while some observers step back and look things over and say something along the lines of “well, now, we didn’t know that was gonna happen!”. There are many long books to be written about a long list of topics following that theme.

“Visions of the future” forecasts tend to try to predict how assorted technologies will develop (tricky enough as it is) and then base projections on what they think will proceed to happen handing over the brilliant new technology to enlightened geniuses, but not always so clear about considering future results when the stuff is in the hands of morons and lunatics and assorted hucksters.

In the book The Ghost in The Machine, writer Arthur Koestler took a brilliant and valuable look into humanity and gave anyone paying attention a cautionary warning. For the most part, as I recall (I should read this again, it’s been years), he was addressing the human race and the scary problems of having nuclear weapons. There’s a broader theme, though, and it applies broadly. In short form, this is that the human race can be clever enough to create amazingly advanced technology, but not advanced enough and in sufficient self conscious control to be trusted with the results of their own cleverness, or even to direct that properly and wisely. Clever enough to create things, but shortsighted and even horrendously stupid when it comes to directing that cleverness in terms of what to create and develop and what to do with it. Humans. We can take amazing abilities, and the resources of the Earth, and just fuck it all up.

In the context of the time and events at hand, Koestler was seriously concerned with the madness of nuclear weapons and the ongoing delicate standoff of the Cold War. That subject has changed pretty significantly since the sixties. It ought to be kept in mind that the problems there have not actually just gone away. For decades after the end of World War Two, there was this constant overall theme hanging over the entire planet of the delicate standoff and perpetual showdown of The Big Guns of the USSR on one side and the USA and the NATO countries on the other, with an insane quantity of bombs each capable of wiping a large city out of existence in one big boom. With the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, basically a generation ago at this point in time, that changed, but even with the recognition of the madness by saner minds who worked to rein this lunacy in, that problem has not gone away. In a way, while it gets nothing like the attention it did in the decades of the Cold War, it’s worse, with the introduction of a new level of chaos. What was the USSR broke up back into Russia and the peripheral countries that had been absorbed into the Soviet Union, with all of them a bit out of control.

Aside the matter of all those nuclear bombs still sitting around the world, we have the lingering matter of those decades. It’s clear to anybody who is even conscious that the United States government has some serious financial problems. It’s an indication of the kind of political dysfunction we have to look at that situation and look at the money that has been shoveled into military spending ever since the end of World War Two. If anybody suggests that everybody should pay a fair share of taxes, and the government should play a role in generally helping to maintain the health and general welfare of the people, they’re called “socialists” and a large noisy faction goes into hysterics. If anybody looks at things as they are now, and suggests that everybody should pay their share of taxes, and perhaps we should scale back military spending and operations to just maintaining the defense of the United States, and not covering the entire planet with US military as some sort of worldwide military empire dominance, people freak out.

Turn on Fox News and wait a while, and it probably won’t take long before you’re going to hear what’s presented these days as the “conservative” party line. It basically goes like this: cut taxes, reduce the deficits and debt, and some variation of phrasing of “strengthen national security” or “defense”. Which in actual practice always seems to mean that anything going into military spending and operations is good, reducing or eliminating anything under the Department of Defense is “weakening America” and somehow handing over the country to the bogeyman of the time.

I can’t believe that anyone can take people like this seriously, at all, never mind considering them to responsible positions of public office. Looking at this particular graph puts things into the domain of reality in incredibly simple form. One really easy and simple test is to check if somebody calls themselves a “conservative”; if they regard themselves as “conservative” and hold Ronald Reagan as their model ideal of “fiscal conservatism”, it’s a simple and straightforward conclusion. They’re completely full of shit. They either don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, or they’re just plain deceptive. If somebody talks about “fiscally conservative government” and refers to, say, Dwight Eisenhower, serious discussion may be possible. They might actually know what they’re talking about. Look at the graph cited above.

Keep in mind one thought as you contemplate. In Ike’s era, people with large amounts of money paid large amounts of taxes.

It’s worth a look to refer back to Eisenhower’s farewell address to the people of the United States at the end of his last term as President and review his warnings about the “military-industrial complex”. It’s a good reality check to include a glance at him compared to Reagan. I’ve always thought there was a stark indicator of the general picture of how far off the rails and into delusion Ronald Reagan took the United States regarding matters of the military and defense, looking at the two men during World War Two. Dwight Eisenhower was General Eisenhower, leading the US Army in Europe, literally charged with the responsibility of pulling the world’s collective asses out of the fire started by Nazi Germany. Ronald Reagan during World War Two? He was an actor making movies as his part of “the war effort”.

I thought then, and still think today, even more so, that at some profound, deep, level, large portions of the population of the United States became disconnected from reality with the election of Ronald Reagan as president. I, personally, don’t think it’s total random chance coincidence that the eighties, and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, saw major damage to large chunks of American business that we’re dealing with today, even as people thought of much of that time as some sort of economic boom era, because somebody was making piles of money, even though much of that became much more about financial maneuvering than value coming from good, useful, work. Read the book “The Quants” by Scott Patterson for a really good view of what happened to the world of finance and investment. At some point in the Reagan era (and you could make a case to support the idea that everything since 1981, in terms of the American economy and many other things, could be considered “the Reagan era”) things changed. The idea of trading value for value, doing useful, good, work, making things, repairing things, faded and was aggressively shoved aside for abstract games in statistical math in “finance” and endless construction of crappy new buildings for housing and commerce, spread further and further apart (and getting shittier and shittier over time), whether they were really needed or not.

Look around. See the repercussions.

There is going to be a lot of rebuilding and overhaul needed in the coming years to recover from all that.

One huge item that seems to completely escape notice on a general public level is the relationship of the economy in the eighties and the flow of oil from wells in the North Sea between the UK and Norway. Look at this some time.

I’ve been over this before, as you know if you read my rambling here in my little corner of the World o’ WordPress. The all time peak of US oil production came and went around 1970-1971. That’s it. Since then, oil production in the United States has been declining. All the chants of “drill, baby, drill!” will not change that. When the Alaskan pipeline came online, there was a period of a few years when the slope of the graph went positive again, then cresting, and then Alaskan regional production peaked and went into decline (again, see Hubbert’s Peak, that’s how it works), but even the peak of oil flowing from Alaska never brought the level of US oil production anywhere near back to the 1970 peak. Looking around at the available data and what’s said by people who know the subject, it’s very possible that we’re in a “wobbly plateau” phase, possibly the all time worldwide peak of oil production. The graphed data shows that we hit the maximum so far around 2005, then wobbling around that level. This might be it. If it is, it means that from here on, whatever anybody does, wherever anybody plants an oil drilling rig, oil production rates for the planet Earth worldwide will decline. Less oil next year than this year. Less oil the year after that.

Economics based on the idea of perpetual, constant, magical “growth” and expansion of everything will be changing severely. All that became “normal” with the phenomenon of steadily increasing energy supplies, basically, petroleum.

Over much of the 20th century, until the US peaked in 1970, we Americans just couldn’t come up with enough ways to use up the stuff. We even exported a lot of what we had. Then, in 1970, there was, shall we say, a drastic change, when suddenly we couldn’t keep up with our own demand for oil, and had to start buying more elsewhere. In 1973, that turned problematic. That was a Large Clue.

It’s risky business to predict the future. I’m just a guy hammering away on a blog on the interknots, right? But it’s not hard to understand some broad general things if you pay attention.

The 21st century is going to have to be more and more regional and local. The idea of “globalization” depends entirely on a lack of international problems getting in the way and on more or less unlimited and relatively cheap oil to fuel large scale and long distance transportation of freight. Widespread suburban sprawl depends on people having unrestricted access to relatively cheap fuel for motor vehicle transportation, especially since the very idea of efficient public mass transportation seems to be regarded by the American public in general as either some sort of commie conspiracy, the domain of “losers” who don’t have their own lumbering SUV or pickup truck, or at least a car, or both. A 30 mile commute will be a different matter in ten or twenty years. Maybe in five years.

Places where people think that the local Wal-Mart full of cheap crap from China is the center of commerce and all things needed in life are going to find themselves surprised when problems develop with the operating mode of having everything made 12000 miles away and shipped across the Pacific and shuffled across North America in trucks. When Wal-Mart implodes and the local store disappears, they realize that as they all flocked to Wal-Mart to save a few bucks on this, that, and the other thing, local businesses, and companies within closer range, like, at least on the same continent, were being destroyed by this. Many of them won’t even realize what happened.

The 21st century is going to be about rebuilding, in many ways, I’m pretty sure. It’s either that, or we’re doomed. Utterly, truly, fucked.

I say, let’s opt for the rebuilding, shall we?

This doesn’t mean trying to restore to some recent state when we thought everything was going pretty well, because that isn’t happening. In other words, for one thing, we can’t just wave a magic wand and reset to some past time and condition when we had all the natural resources we could imagine using, and then some. We blew that already. All we can do is wake up as soon as possible and get our minds on making the best of what we have left, and this most certainly does not mean figuring out how to burn through what’s left even faster.

Local business, local farming for food supply (not food shipped hundreds or thousands of miles), close communities, where there are real communities, where people know each other and help each other, people making and maintaining and repairing useful things, economics based on value exchanged for value, not interlocking complex systems of debt and theoretical money; these are needed. We need places where people can live and work and get themselves around to do what they need to do without miles and miles of travel every day burning up fuel, where people can actually walk to do much of what they do, places where the site of somebody walking or riding a bicycle isn’t regarded as some kind of freakish sight, leading observers to speculate that this odd occurrence must be a sign that the person in question is destitute, or maybe they’ve lost their driver’s license because of a DUI conviction or something.

Looking back again at those old forecasts and musings about the future of the 21st century, it occurs to me that there were plenty of ideas and thoughts about how homes and other buildings would be designed and built and used in ways that made better, more efficient use of natural resources, using less of them, and producing less waste. Look around you. It’s as if nobody picked up a clue. In fact, the reality is not that nobody got the idea about any of that kind of stuff. It’s that most people just ignored it, regarded it as all some exotic flights of fantasy. Instead, the usual modus operandi is throwing up shitboxes as cheaply as possible using whatever materials and methods are the simplest and cheapest according to the usual practices of the moment, with mostly cheesy results, creating more and more buildings to live in or do business in, ignoring intelligent design regarding things like site conditions, sunlight, natural ventilation, and so on, and making it all dependent on pumping in endless amounts of energy to keep the interiors warm or cool and lit.

Looking at the general subject of what we do, and how we do it, and energy resources and their use, the topic of motor vehicles and petroleum is obviously major, but there’s a whole epic involving buildings. The whole matter of energy consumption and transportation has to revolve about where we build stuff and the constant trend for decades to spread everything out more and more. What we build is just as major. It feels a little presumptuous to move into some sort of a mode of playing architecture critic or something, but looking around, a lot of things seem pretty apparent to me. Even worse, it’s apparent that the “normal” status quo in this department is for people to be oblivious to the things that seem so obvious. Even things that probably seem trivial and petty to the average sampling of American humanity are astounding when you stop and actually look at them and think about them just a little. The problem is about how many people actually look at them and think about it. What we build certainly relates to what we do and how we go about things.

This is stuff that’s addressed very well and discussed in detail in the books The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler, and Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. Read them.

Say what you like about it being easy to be a critic. Looking around here in the United States, it’s hard to shake an overwhelming impression. It’s unbelievably hard to find anything built in this country within, I don’t know, the last 20, 30, maybe 40 years, or more, that is not just absolute shit. Really. And this might startle some people, or even strike somebody as being just obnoxiously critical and opinionated, simply because, I think, people have so thoroughly shifted their idea of what’s normal and good in this department that shitty and stupid and shabby seems “good” and “normal”. This isn’t about aesthetics, either, although it’s hard to ignore that, not that this is a big focus of my attention. I’m a simple and straightforward guy in a lot of ways. I’m a fan of simple, clean, functional. You won’t find me watching cable television network shows about interior decorating or something. That’s kind of the point. I can’t help but notice how much of recent and contemporary building, of any kind, seems to be basically shit, but with all kinds of really cheap, cheesy, tacky gestures toward ornament and “flair”, or whatever you would call it, slapped on, that don’t make anything look nicer or more appealing in my mind. To me, it just attracts more attention to the negative; “look at me! See what a cheesy piece of shit this is!”. But that’s a whole subject of its own, not important here.

What is important is looking at more practical, realistic matters of function, of buildings as places for humans to live and work. There are many, many places in the United States, homes and businesses, where things like natural light and ventilation seem to have hardly been given any thought. It’s easy to find people with some suburban McMansion house built in recent years who have never actually opened the windows in the place to let fresh air flow through. Depending on the climate of the location, they either have a central heating unit running to keep the place warm in cold weather, or beefy high powered central air conditioning cranking away to cool the place when it’s on the warm side outdoors, or in periods in between the hot and cold weather, the central climate control machinery is off. The place will just feel stale and stagnant, and if it’s relatively new, you’ll probably find the subtle aroma of an assorted brew of toxic chemical fumes out gassing from whatever sorts of syntho-stuff materials are in the building as part of the current status quo of suburban cookie cutter house construction. One of the ironies of contemporary American life is that these days it’s common for people to have “no smoking in the house!” rules in case somebody should have an urge to light some tobacco in their fine all-American domicile. That’s understandable if somebody doesn’t care for having a cloud of tobacco smoke in the air when they want none of that, the irony is that it probably never occurs to them that this is more of an issue because the place is sealed up so damned tight and has virtually no ventilation and flow of fresh air through the building, and all the while, they’ll seem perfectly content to be soaking themselves in whatever mystery toxic fumes are emanating from the previously mentioned building materials.

In this sort of world, the absolutely normal, standard practice, status quo of late 20th century and early 21st century American building design and construction, is the sealed box consuming large amounts of energy for everyday life; heating, cooling, lighting. If you encounter something along the lines of being more “modern”, or even using the term “green” loosely, as a sales buzzword, it will probably be about things like higher value wall insulation, windows that seal up tighter and insulate like never before, or some mild effort at higher efficiency in various appliances. Whether they’re burning natural gas or sucking up massive amounts of electrical power (generated miles away by, in most places, burning astronomical amounts of fuel), it’s all based on these things. Consume, consumer!

Here’s something that struck me as a sign of things, years ago. One upon a time, pretty much until very, very recently in human history, there was a normal way of doing something that’s a simple chore of life. Drying laundry after washing your stuff. It was simple. Hang the laundry on lines strung across an open area exposed to sunlight and, hopefully, a nice flow of air, and let those things dissipate the moisture. Look around. How often do you see fresh laundry hanging on a clothesline drying in the sun and air? In many places, doing this might get you the same sort of baffled stares as somebody actually walking to get somewhere, or riding a bike, rather than rolling down a road in a jumbo SUV with a cell phone pressed to the side of your head. Hanging clothes on a clothesline? What are you, some kind of low life freak? In some places, as I understand it, you might find yourself in some suburban McMansion subdivision development where signing an agreement to buy a house in their fine shiny new housing zone obligates you to obey the laws of some private “homeowners association”, where such bizarre behavior as allowing freshly washed laundry to be dried naturally by sun and air is forbidden and might even subject you (with your consent, because you signed the damned paper) to some sort of penalty. Something like this is regarded as bizarre sociopathic behavior or something. Why, that’s just not done here, my dear boy!

Extra irony points if the neighbors raising hell about such socially aberrant behavior are especially noisy about proclamations about “freedom” and “liberty” in America and point out their True American Patriot status by having a bumper sticker on the SUV that says “support our troops!”.

Maybe the bottom line point is that there is this literally insane attachment, running through so much of what happens today, to the idea of consumption, that normal desirable life, that a healthy economic condition, means consuming stuff.

Maybe this is the most simplified overall issue to deal with, and changing that might be the biggest theme of the 21st century. Figuring out how to live well and not devouring the entire planet like locusts before the end of it.

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