Work To Do

Monday 2011.08.01

Just recently, I became aware of a new piece of bad news for an acquaintance. A newspaper for a small city in the region had reduced her, an excellent, extraordinarily talented, photojournalist, to part time working status. This followed previous reductions in the photography staff of this paper. This might seem insignificant for anyone other than her, but it begs questions about the bigger picture, beyond the problems of one individual and their life and work.

The obvious problem I’ve been having, writing here, in tackling subjects that concern me, is limiting the scope. It’s a problem of too many interconnected, interrelated, interacting things. In this case, of Kim the photog, it hauls me straight into a larger issue than the problems of one person. The general question is simple enough. What do we value?

In the lingo of unemployment compensation systems, the acceptable state of being unemployed through no fault of the unemployed person is to have been gainfully employed and now be unemployed for a reason of “lack of work”. There are loads of people in the present moment United States in this position. A more realistic view of this situation is not really that there is a lack of work needing to be done, it’s much more a matter of a lack of sense of the value of people who can do the work that actually does need to be done, a willingness to pay people for their work.

There is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done. The United States of America circa 2011 is a place with a massive “to do” list.

We make far fewer things today in the U.S. thanks to the whole practice of globalization, offshore outsourcing, whatever term you want to use. Along with that has come the deterioration of maintenance and repair in many areas.

It’s not just a matter of decimating the whole enterprise of making things in this country, but also the decline of the activities of maintaining and repairing things, because of the trend toward an idea that can be expressed something like “well, what’s the point of that, if it goes belly up, just trash it and buy a newer, cheaper one”. Look around where you live and see how many electronics repair shops you find, for example. We have a situation where people think of it as normal to go buy cheap crap from China or somewhere else around southeast Asia or somewhere on the other side of the Pacific, shipped 10,000 miles to get to some local corporate chain discount barn. If it malfunctions, just toss it in a landfill and buy another one.

Any criticism of this condition is likely to draw some kind of response that says this is good, no, great for “consumers” because “stuff is so cheap so consumers’ money goes further”. The “make it in China, sell it at Wal Mart” economy. This does not have a good future. When the cheap stuff from China and elsewhere around the Pacific Rim stops flowing, then what?

Sit for a moment and put yourself into a little exercise. Imagine that you are able to somehow connect, through some time travel magic, to people from the distant past, say a couple of centuries ago. You’re able to show them the current state of things, in particular, including the situation I’m talking about, all the stuff under the general heading of “globalization” and “outsourcing”.

Try to imagine for yourself how these people would react, when you show and tell them all about the phenomena and practices of abandoning, virtually destroying, large portions of productive activity in making things, and in turn also maintaining and repairing things, in favor of having things made in assorted sweatshop labor operations 10,000 miles away across the Pacific Ocean. You would need to explain to them that in the present time, we had very different means of transportation, including gigantic ships made of metal with motive power of their own using technology unknown to them. But even with that explained, there’s little doubt in my mind that any of these time traveler guests from the distant past with fully functioning minds would think this was severe foolishness, or even severe madness and idiocy, especially after you explained the general concept of petroleum fuelled engines driving the giant ships, and followed this with a thorough rundown of the present day situation with petroleum.

They would most likely think we have all just completely lost our fucking minds. I could not argue with this. We live in a nation that, taking stock of things as of the end of the first decade of the 21st century, has spent the recent decades completely sabotaging itself, and then, as the repercussions hit, staggering around in sheer stupid deluded confusion wondering what the hell happened to “The Economy”.

This is not just about “The Economy” in pure monetary terms, it’s about how we actually function, or not.

International trade and commerce is not a recent phenomenon, and I don’t think it will be going away. But some things are clear. Over the course of the oil age and the advent and increase of motorized transportation, fueled by relatively cheap, relatively easy to get, seemingly unlimited, high quality petroleum, especially since the end of World War Two, an idea has taken hold more and more, until virtually taken for granted; that distance is trivial. When the oil is not cheap, and much harder and more expensive to get (expensive in terms of both money, and energy inputs for energy returns), and lower quality, this is going to change more and more as a function of all these factors. Distance will not be trivial, just as has been the case for most of human history.

This bears constant repetition; life is going to get much more local.

This isn’t just about manufacturing. There’s the whole exercise of growing food and getting it to people. That activity in the present day United States has become an enterprise that has altered to depend heavily on cheap and essentially unlimited petroleum and natural gas, not just to do farming, but to transport the end product. As finite resources are depleted more and more, we are going to be facing the reality of how the way things are done have changed over recent decades to really shoot ourselves in the foot and create serious problems. As James Kunstler likes to put it, often, the age of “the 3000 mile Caesar Salad” is going to come to an end, and we had better be prepared for this alteration in how things are done.

Some observations.

In the area where I grew up, there was a stretch of a local road, within the city limits, where a row of houses over about a mile or so were built along the road, each on a plot of land that was something like three or four acres. People had these functioning as small farms. Out front, next to the house, along the road, they would have a small produce stand, selling what they grew at the appropriate times of the year. When I was a kid I remember my parents going to these little produce stands to get stuff.

A few decades ago a large chunk of this was wiped out when somebody bought up a batch of these places, laid out a subdivision, and built about a hundred shitty typical suburban subdivision houses. In much more recent years, the last of that batch of little mini-farms selling their own produce out front were bought up and bulldozed into oblivion and replaced by a new large corporate chain supermarket and an adjacent gas station and small strip row retail shopping area (which is now, some years later, only partially occupied). It’s a fairly important mental exercise to contemplate the geographical origins of everything sold in the big corporate chain uber-supermarket. You can guess that most of what food is sold inside comes from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away, all hauled long distances by diesel fuelled trucks.

I’ve lived almost all of my life in the vicinity of the Great Lakes, a collection of what are basically large inland freshwater seas. One of the more unbelievable observations of my life, in recent years, is seeing people frequently going to the local uber market supermarket for groceries, and buying a kind of crappy whitefish, sold in frozen packages, wrapped in plastic in some industrial food processing and packaging process, that comes from China; something like 12000 miles away, the complete opposite side of the planet. It’s much harder to find people getting and eating fish from the Great Lakes, even though one of these bodies of water is a few miles away from their kitchen. The staggering insanity of this whole situation should be obvious to anybody functioning above the level of an imbecile, yet, all of this seems to be accepted as normal. “Normal” life for a lot of Americans revolves around food that comes from no place anywhere near where they live.

In my area, an ongoing American phenomenon has been carrying on in recent years, not unique in the present era United States.

Far from the local city center, portions of what has been perfectly good farmland are sold off to developers, who proceed to divide it up into house lots or sections of typical suburban style subdivisions. This isn’t unique to one area, of course. This seems to be found all across the country. The suburban sprawl spreads further out, eating up farmland, and increasing distances driven by the people occupying these places in petroleum fueled vehicles. The sprawl and the further separation of things by “single use” zoning laws eats up vast amounts of the finite resource of petroleum, by making the daily activities of living dependent on driving many miles for everything.

The fundamental spiraling trap: this arrangement becomes more and more dependent on the very resource it consumes faster and faster the more dependent this system becomes on that resource. Magnify substantially when the people travelling here, there, and everywhere based in these places are doing so in some behemoth truck as their “car”, a pickup truck or SUV (regardless of whether or not they are actually hauling anything other than their own solo individual ass). How can this continue? It can’t. The only question is, how long before it crashes?

In the meantime, a good look at the city of Detroit is a serious prompt to wake up. See the ruins of Detroit. It’s pretty grim. There’s nothing subtle about this. You can find all sorts of commentary about the decline of Detroit, and that’s nothing new. Most of it revolves around things about “the decline of American auto industry” or “the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt”. But the American Big Three auto manufacturers are still around, and, whatever their troubles in recent history, still very definitely big business. The most obvious point is that Detroit went into serious decline when the Big Three were still going strong. The big picture issue is more the abandonment of the actual city of Detroit. Look around the area of Detroit. The actual city of Detroit is amid an array of satellite cities and towns and assorted examples of suburbia, while the city rots at the core. It’s not the only place like this.

Making a to-do list of work needed to be done here in the United States, there is a basic, really fundamental thing staring us in the face that needs attention, now, because it needed attention decades ago and we’re way behind. It astounds me how few people see it and address it. You can find all sorts of chatter about “energy”, as a broad vague abstraction, of the kinds I’ve been talking about previously in past notes. There’s the crowd convinced that we could have as much oil as we want, if only some sort of political obstacles are eliminated and/or we’re more clever about it. Then there is the crowd convinced that we can just swap in some magic “plug ‘n play” substitutes of “green, renewable energy sources”, and we can continue everything as we have been over recent decades.

Neither of these camps addresses one of the most obvious issues and tasks to get a grip on; the sheer overwhelming drain of fuel resources caused by a world of arrangements of activities where most of life revolves around transport over long distances using motor vehicles.

There’s also the issue to consider of how much the stuff commonly referred to as “fossil fuels”, specifically petroleum and natural gas, has become a central item in modern farming. Trying to look at an overwhelming array of Big Picture stuff as I have been, something has struck me, repeatedly, as an obvious problem, the tendency of most people to narrow things to a view of isolated little boxes and taking a lot of things as given, assumed. To phrase it one way, there isn’t enough of what you might call working the whole equation, looking at things in terms of whole large systems, with interactions and dependencies of different systems. When you come to the subject of feeding people, there doesn’t really seem to be much awareness and acknowledgement of how much input there is from petroleum and natural gas.

It’s easily apparent to anybody really looking at it that contemporary farming in the United States is much different from what it has been up until fairly recent history. It occurs to me that if the subject of organic farming comes up, most people will probably not see the larger picture, and have some slightly mistaken conceptions of what it’s all about. In most people’s minds, I think, it generally seems to revolve around the idea of organic farming being about producing food that’s more natural, wholesome, healthy, by not having assorted human chemical engineering manipulations involved. That’s reasonable and valid and not incorrect, but it doesn’t seem to me that many people really wrap their heads around a broader idea here. The broader idea being that it’s about growing food by natural processes, dealing with the ways the Earth works.

I think there is a pretty gross overall general lack of respect for farmers, and the vocation of farming, and the knowledge and skills involved. This is not too surprising in a time and place where a random poll of people asked “how do you get your food?” will likely produce quite a number of answers that go something like “well, I get in the car and drive to the Super Mega Mart”.

It seems to be the norm now, rather than an exception, that traditional farming knowledge and methods, accumulated by generations of farmers throughout human civilization, based on how the Earth really works, are replaced by a sort of corporate managed factory farm concept. Old understanding and practices understood and respecting how crops and the soil work, developing practices like rotation of crops, letting fields alternate in being left alone for some growing seasons to rebound, replenishing nutrients in the soil by natural decomposition, not sucking the soil lifeless, growing different crops in different growing seasons. Much of these kinds of practices, in a world dominated by corporate managers and accountants, and ideas of “production and cost efficiency”, are rejected in favor of monocropping and maximum utilization of every bit of land all the time, like, e.g., a bazillion acre farm covered on every available square foot every year by corn, or whatever the crop is, year after year with no break.

This works only in certain conditions, provided that limitless and cheap resources are available derived from the finite fuel sources of petroleum and natural gas to provide artificial chemical inputs as fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. You don’t have to be a farmer to know what any farmer knows; that relentlessly growing the same crop in the same soil year after year depletes the soil, wrecks the processes of nature, eventually turning the soil into dead raw dirt that can only act as a sort of sponge to soak up chemicals and hold roots in place. This is the general contemporary scenario of American industrialized corporate farming.

There’s a book for somebody to write. You can do a bit of reading of your own and find things spelled out in a little more detail.

Looking at the subject of our to-do list of work needed, a lot of the same things keep popping up. The farming subject includes right at its core one serious recurring problem: the severe lack of awareness of how much dependence there is in all sorts of contemporary life on finite fuel resources, and how much we waste and misuse these resources. On a broader level, there’s the kind of politically based madness that I keep talking about (because it really can’t be repeated often enough until there’s some wide scale consensus awakening). Opposing teams of political dodgeball with one side, the “drill, baby, drill!” crowd who insist there’s plenty of oil beneath the surface of the United States, the only problem being some sort of political obstacles; the other side, the bunch who seem to assume that everything about the status quo will continue to roll along, if we just develop “green renewable energy” and magically swap replacing the stuff we call fossil fuels. Neither of these positions is operating in the realm of reality.

Examining the matter of what’s on our large scale to-do list of work waiting, the broad area of farming, food, and biofuels needs some careful, realistic, rational thought. The question of what we need to do, by necessity, includes being very careful and conscious about what we should not do, being very cautious about wasting time, energy, attention, money, and material resources, if we do what we should not do.

“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it.” —Upton Sinclair

It doesn’t revolve around “getting credit flowing again” and “getting consumers to resume consuming”. It’s not about carrying on the same sort of carnie game maneuvers that have pretty effectively blown up the American (and world) economy.

Here I sit, again, thinking to myself about where to start, on a whole mountainous pile of possible subject material, that’s better addressed by other people in very long books. If you dig up some such books by people, I think the trick, there, is sorting out who might be writing from an honest, objective, perspective on reality, and who might be writing from a position of status quo “conventional wisdom” of economic theory and business practices. The two are getting more and more separated. Anybody in the U.S. today with a television and cable or satellite TV service (which seem to be regarded as necessities of life) can turn on CNBC or find assorted other “business news” and witness the daily shared hallucination. People in suits chattering, endless arrays of graphics bombarding the viewer, probably multiple little panes crammed on to the screen at every instant, and, always, constantly, it’s all about the transactions.

Whether you subject yourself to the obnoxious clown act of Jim Cramer on his daily show on CNBC (a whole story of its own, fascinating, in a bizarre kind of way) or more supposedly serious people, you get soaked, just saturated, in the same general stuff. It’s mostly revolving all around the same general stuff: just keep those transactions churning away, back and forth, around and around, and if you’re clever enough and fast enough, you, too, can make yourself wealthy by shaving slices of profits from all those transactions.

You can get a sense of how prevalent the sense of shared consensual hallucination or delusion is, by looking around and seeing for yourself how many people around you, or witnessed in whatever forms of media, seem to base their entire view of “how the economy is doing” according to whatever the daily magic number is of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

That name itself is something to note, when you consider the reality that the “industrial” part of the name isn’t really so relevant in the thing itself. I mean, take a quick look and see what the Dow Jones Industrial Average actually is. Take a look at the list of corporate entities examined to derive the magic number. It says something about the current state of the American economy that Bank Of America, Wal Mart, and the Disney Corporation are categorized as “industry” and the stock prices of these entities is the most common gauge to assess economic health. For many people, apparently, regardless of how dysfunctional the economic situation is for the United States, everything is all about this. “The Dow is up! It’s all good!”. “The Dow is down! Woe is us!”.

For a long time now, I’ve been observing the world around me, and seeing more and more of a disconnect between what strikes me as a set of two different domains in “the economy”. I think it’s fair, and simply realistic, to look at the economy of the US as having been pushed into a very unnatural and ultimately destructive split; the “real economy” and a contrived and convoluted illusion economy.

We have the “real” economy of activities dealing with the day to day and longer term realities of human existence; people doing good useful work doing what needs to be done, along with things that might not be absolutely necessary, but making life better in some way, you would hope, trading work and material goods, generally trading value for value for the mutual benefit of the parties involved. In recent decades here in the US, especially since the beginning of the Reagan presidency (not mere coincidence), more and more of people’s ideas about what falls under the heading of “the economy” has turned, gradually and steadily, into a whole world of its own. This is economics and commerce as a kind of large scale game, that has become, it seems to me, more and more detached from the “real” economy, almost a thing unto itself.

I think people often forget that children’s stories are not all about being a means of keeping some kids entertained for a while. At best, ideally, they are a way to simply and briefly impart some basic principle, some awareness of life that needs to be; in short, a Morality Tale. Everyone, I hope, knows the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. What I’m talking about, in essence, is the distortion of ideas of work and value and trade and commerce that is more than a little like The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Reality has been, to a really scary extent, replaced in people’s minds by some sort of shared consensus hallucination of how this stuff is supposed to be. I’ve said this before; you can turn on a television and get a large dose of this stuff on CNBC or other assorted “business news” programming, an overwhelming stream of it, bombarding you with streaming information on market updates, tickers, news blurbs, all flashing and scrolling before your eyes, usually multiple things at once. In short form; again, in essence that whole subculture world is all about the transactions. You can let hours of this stuff soak into your mind, endless chatter, screen graphics bombarding your senses, and in all the array of stuff, about all sorts of business entities (almost all corporations with publically traded stock shares, by the nature of the beast in this whole circus), and get very little in terms of the actual work done. It’s all about The Numbers.

Once upon a time, almost an anachronism now, business management tended to have a certain sort of character. Generally, at the top of the enterprise you had somebody running the operation who either founded the business, themselves, and built it up to whatever the present company was, or maybe they were people who had gone to work for this particular business and worked their way up through the ranks, getting some form of business education along the way. In either case, you tended to have somebody at the top and running things who understood, thoroughly, fundamentally, the work of that particular business entity.

As I’ve observed things, I started to notice, back in the eighties, what appeared to me to be a growing trend of these kinds of people, in large companies that had grown and turned into large publically traded corporations, being displaced by a new class of character.

These were the sort of characters you might call “professional executives”, the sort who had some sort of business degree, no background in the kind of work that the company they managed presumably was all about, and viewed management of any business as being the same as managing any other business. You can often recognize the type by their chatter loaded with assorted lingo, such as talking about “the brand“, where a particular brand name is, in their minds, all about the name itself, coupled with a suitable PR and advertising effort. They’re detached from understanding anything about the name having any value because of past history of that name, being attached to an operation and the people involved in doing good work, making something of good value, doing this in particularly effective manner, resulting in, to put it simply, good stuff that people appreciated as good value for their money. All sorts of well known brand names in American business ceased, long ago, to have any fucking remote relationship to what made that name important and gave it meaning.

Look around and judge results for yourself.

You find all that bound up thoroughly with the concept of “globalization” and “outsourcing”. In the minds of people who think of “the brand” as all, it doesn’t really matter what they make and where and how it’s made. In this world, as long as it has the magic powers of the name of The Brand and an ad campaign, you’re golden. If you can get the stuff made on the other side of the planet by people working for near nothing when translated into your currency and have the name slapped on, great, and so what if it has to be shipped 10,000 miles; the profit margins make the professional corporate manager types and accountants happy even with that cost. That is, when oil is cheap and the parade of diesel powered ocean freighters carries on while keeping those margins up. Guess what is going to happen when oil becomes an expensive and difficult problem? In case you haven’t been reading me, and are not aware of this already from paying attention elsewhere, this is going to become a major problem, soon, not some far off time down the road.

Some time ago I was seeing some commercial on television now and then. I can’t remember what this thing was peddling to save my life. Here’s the story. We see some guy who is, apparently, some sort of corporate management character. The narrator tells of corporate manager man contemplating his company’s product, olives sold in jars. He has a sudden flash; hey, we could put one less olive in each jar, still in the same size jar and sold for the same price, of course. No one will notice, and multiply the cut of cost of that one olive per jar over a bazillion jars of olives sold, and the bottom line net profits on their olive sales will be loads more money! Genius! This was presented as something that was supposed to be an example of shining brilliance and “innovation” in business management.

It’s a thing that seems like it just has to be a joke, but, anybody with much of any kind of experience in dealing with modern American corporate business management knows all too well that it isn’t. This is for real.

Put one less olive in the jar, and multiply the “cost savings” across millions of jars, and figure that nobody will notice and collect your bonus for “innovating cost cutting”. Shut down manufacturing operations of the old, well established, respected company built by preceding decades of good work making good, quality, functioning things giving good value for customer money, and shuffle it off to someplace on the other side of the world to be make by people working for nearly nothing in shit conditions, just slapping the brand name on the crap. Figure nobody will notice that the products of Brand X have turned into trash, and “the brand” will carry on coaxing money out of people’s pockets. The “innovation” of what we call globalization. Even shipping the crap from the other side of the planet, the bean counters deduce that their profit margins will still be larger. All this is completely dependent on a pair of major conditions; trouble free international circumstances, and effectively unlimited and very cheap petroleum fuel to power the flotilla of ocean going freighters.

Despite the problems inherent in this, and all the obvious repercussions, you can find plenty of people who will argue adamantly about how wonderful and beneficial it all is, because they’re in some position where they’re expected to believe it. In some circles, certainly in most corporate management, to say otherwise is just not done. I think a few people are going to feel awfully silly in the not too distant future.

“Why, after a certain point, does bigness spell trouble? For one thing, useful feedback diminishes as scale expands- you’re too far away from reality” – Bill McKibben

We are, now, despite the clear lack of people facing it, in the time where petroleum is looking like almost certain to be into wobbly-plateau peak territory, on a worldwide basis. I’ve talked about it plenty, you can find links here under “energy” for detailed reading, no need to recount the details again now. It’s not some possible problem some time in some indefinite distant future, it’s present.

Among other things, we have had a clue from this for some time, that it would be a very good idea, indeed, to get ourselves back in the business of making things in our own land, and getting a little more back on the ball in maintaining and repairing things, instead of steady one way streams of stuff ending in landfills.

Back to repeat the point: many things in the current way things are done have grown around the idea and assumption that distance is trivial, and this illusion has only been possible to maintain during the era of effectively unlimited, and cheap, petroleum fuel.

Another note about manufacturing, and international trade. Going the other direction, there are still things made here in the U.S., and of course, probably the obvious largest scale area is automotive manufacturing. I encountered something a while back that made a big impact. It was pretty startling.

In an online discussion forum, in a thread discussing, what, I can’t remember, somebody made a comment. Regarding the U.S. auto manufacturing industry, the comment was to suggest that given the ongoing changes in China, as China charges as maximum speed toward trying to be more like the United States has been, the American car manufacturers could do very well for themselves in boosting business by selling cars and trucks in China, to an ever expanding mass of people (in a country with a billion people more than the population of the United States) who are seeking to buy cars, who have never previously owned and driven them.

This was from a guy who I don’t know personally but have known via online discussions over a period of years now enough to know that this is a fairly well informed, intelligent, and thinking character. He’s not a dipshit. This is the scary part. It’s kind of an indicator of things. There is so little attention paid, so little public awareness, of the present oil situation, that this could seem like an absolutely stellar, great, idea. Sure, sell millions and millions of new American made cars and trucks to the Chinese. Alright, now, then, how exactly are they going to power these shiny new beasts?

Let’s get back to farming and food. The idea that distance doesn’t matter, and the relationship of this idea to available fuel, comes in, but that’s not all there is to think about.

Writer James Howard Kunstler often talks about this using the metaphor of “the 3000 mile Caesar salad”, as decades of cheap and basically unlimited petroleum fuel have made people grow more and more accustomed to the idea that we no longer need to concern ourselves with growing food close to where we live. Recall the disappeared small farms and produce stands that used to exist in the city not far from where I grew up, now gone, replaced partially by a housing development subdivision, and then finally, a few years ago, its last bits wiped out by a new large supermarket chain grocery store. I have to wonder how many of the people going to that store for their food give any thought to how much distance their food had to travel to get to them. I’m sure that there is some thought, in some people, at least sometimes, simply because of seeing things on labels. But I doubt that many people really see the distances involved as an issue.

There is the matter of all the oil burned to transport the food travelling hundreds, or thousands of miles, like the case of that Chinese fish travelling 10,000 miles or more to get to a grocery store a few miles from one of the Great Lakes. There’s also the fuel burned by assorted machinery of modern farming. Modern farming uses loads of chemical assistance derived from petroleum and natural gas, for pesticides and herbicides and fertilizer.

I recall another television commercial, more recent, this one being a general promotion of ethanol fuel. The scene is some plaza in the middle of some unknown downtown area. People randomly cross back and forth through the area, all appearing to ignore the featured human, who stands there delivering a little soliloquy, wearing typical farm work garb. He’s rambling away, and says something like, “all I need is a little rain, and a little sunshine, and I can grow America’s food and plenty of clean burning ethanol”. I’m not a farmer, but I do know that it takes a hell of a lot more than a little sun and a little rain.

There are a few problems with ethanol, or fuels derived from “biomass” in the form of waste materials from farmed plants. The most obvious is that every bit of farmland devoted to growing crops to be turned into fuel is farmland not growing crops for food. We can’t afford to be doing that. We need food. The twist in people talking about how much better we are at producing food in modern farming is that it comes at the expense of large amounts of chemicals derived from finite fuel sources being spread over the fields. Growing crops to be turned into fuel gets right back into the same thing that has to be examined, in full, in terms of energy return on energy invested (EROEI or EROI), working the whole equation of everything involved, a full accounting. The reality of ethanol, and other biofuels, includes whatever finite fuel resources actually being fed into the process to generate the end product. Even in the idea of recycling “waste” plant material from plant harvesting into biofuel means that we’re not taking plant material and plowing it back into the soil to decompose and naturally feed the soil; this, of course, then means that to have the soil able to nourish plant growth, you’re back into artificially feeding the soil, using chemicals derived from finite fuel resources.

These are the problems with a lot of the currently fashionable but superficially considered ideas about “renewables” as replacements for the finite resources we use as fuel. The reality is that it ends up making far better sense to use the stuff as fuels to begin with rather than trying to use them to create an illusion of infinitely replentished “renewables”.

You could do a little reading on your own on modern agriculture.

The evening before typing this paragraph, I happened to catch an appearance somewhere by United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack being shown on C-Span. I only caught part of this show. At the point I came in, he was answering questions submitted to him by some host or moderator. To summarize loosely, at some point he addressed a question about “the one single thing you would consider as the most mistaken idea about farming” (or something to that effect, anyway, I don’t have a transcript). He talked for a few minutes addressing this one.

The basic gist of it was saying that he thought the biggest mistaken idea was the failure or unwillingness of farming in other places in the world (the phrase “developing nations” might have been used) to “embrace technology”. This is a pretty broad and general thing, but, basically, “technology” here means machinery fueled by petroleum, chemicals derived from finite resources of “fossil fuels”, and other touches like genetically tweaked seed. I didn’t hear him say anything about petroleum depletion and other natural resources, or gradual depletion and destruction of soil by modern technology farming practices like we do it here. It isn’t hard to understand. This is just the kind of status quo conventional wisdom of the times; increasing demand for food as the world population grows steadily, in the past decades what some people call “the green revolution” has increased farm production by means of the above things, so, therefor, all the world should do these things, and then there will be plenty of food for all, around the world. That’s the thinking.

It looks like another example of thinking that a set of ways of doing things is not only good, but the unquestionably best way of doing things, based on some results that certainly appear to be a major improvement, in a limited view. Longer term consequences and effects are ignored, and the foundation of the modern, improved, way is laid on assumptions of unlimited, perpetual, endless resources to use to improve things.

The word “sustainable” isn’t some lingo to use as part of empty, shallow slogans. The word means something. It means that something can be sustained, this thing can continue.

In the to-do list, we have to get realistic about this in facing the idea that we simply have to be much, much, more careful and efficient and conserve what “fossil fuel” resources are left, rather than blowing smoke up our asses about pulling miracles out of some collection of hats, that are illusory, that will somehow allow us to just carry on everything exactly as we have been in recent decades of finite hydrocarbon fuel gluttony.

We need to get back to farming being done using the natural processes of the Earth, the way the Earth actually works, sustainably, done by people who understand the knowledge of these things accumulated over centuries, to grow food, not fuel, and do it regionally, locally, not requiring long distance transport to get it to the people who need it.


After checking out the Ruins of Detroit site, take a look at this article by “Suburban Nation” co-author Jeff Speck. In the reader comments following the article and slideshow, I found this interesting comment from reader David Rozgonyi:

This slideshow brought back a lot of the reasons I moved away from the states and settled in Europe a few years back.

Here, from my front door, and accessed via pleasant, safe, mostly pedestrian streets, I can find within a 1000 foot radius: five or six grocers, two green grocers, two small hardware stores, a hundred clothes shops, a movie theater, a proper theater, about two hundred restaurants and bars, several doctors, dentists and five or six opthamologists, four antique stores, a couple of hotels, two hostels, a mosque, a synagogue, several churches, a ton of banks, four or five book stores, plus a huge mall (on the outskirts of the old town) with everything that entails. I mean, you name it, I can walk to it in ten minutes or less. And in between all of this, above it, around it, are peoples’ houses and apartments. The only time I drive is when I get out of town to go traveling, and even that’s on a motorbike, and unnecessary; the train and bus systems, I’m sure you know, are comprehensive.

I’m headed back to the states in a few weeks for a long visit. Each time I go back, the culture shock of sitting in a car for significant amounts of time to do the smallest task or errand is, well, pretty shocking.

That covers quite a lot.

This is into some repeating territory, again, I’ve written about some of this before. There is, of course, some considerable variety among American cities. You just can’t be too general about them, as if they’re all the same. But there is a kind of common story to American cities in general, with some exceptions. Cities in the U.S., mostly since the end of World War II, have tended to follow some broadly similar trends of outward development, suburban sprawl, all thoroughly based on petroleum fueled motor vehicle transportation. Cities not following this kind of path have been definitely exceptions rather than the norm. The result in a lot of places is the large scale neglect or outright abandonment of the centers of the cities, what was the core and hub of the activity of life and commerce.

There are loads of things to say that have been covered very well, very thoroughly, in books I’ve recommended before; The Geography of Nowhere, Hom From Nowhere, and The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler, and Suburban Nation, by Duany, Plater-Zytek, and Speck. I can’t recommend these books highly enough for anybody who is interested in a future worth living in the United States (Canada, too).

Being critical of suburban sprawl, suburbia as a way of arranging things, and things like single-use zoning laws that go with it, is not some sort of lifestyle matter. It’s not a question of fashion and taste in architecture or some petty nonsense. This stuff is about wanting to live in a society that is able to function. You can look at cities in Europe, places that grew and developed long before the automobile came into existence, that have a form and arrangement where individual personal motor vehicle transportation can be used as an option, not a necessity, because the places work that way. You can find some American cities where the same sort of history shaped them, that retained the same general character even after the automobile (e.g., New York City).

On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of American cities either existed in a functionally different form once, and were transformed thoroughly to revolve around motor vehicles once they came on the scene. That, or they were small and less significant places before the automobile and grew up almost completely based around motor vehicles and travel over long distances, as an inherent basis of their layout and character (or lack of character). These are the places in serious deep shit heading into the future, starting right now (the present, not some indefinite “our grandchildren will have to deal with this” era), and too few people seem to get it.

I am, again, repeating some things because they need repetition. I happen to really like automobiles. I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a kid. The way things have mutated in the United States in warping the concepts of city and rural and making vast areas that are not quite either, many things have happened that are not so good. I’ve been over this kind of thing before, and, again, this stuff has been covered extremely well in the books I recommended; it’s god to review in this context of figuring out our to-do list.

The good scenario with cars, the way I definitely think it should be, the way it has developed in much of Europe; having an automobile is a great addition to human life for many, but not needed for all, maybe not even desired by many. Automobile drivers are “all volunteers”, to put it one way. Going about the daily activities of life for people in cities can be done with relatively little problem by simply walking, sometimes on bicycles, and when those things aren’t enough, efficient and capable public mass transportation to get people around. Cars and trucks can then be just for special trips now and then for various purposes and reasons. You can use yours when you need to make a trip and haul some things. You can go out of town now and then. Maybe you might even enjoy a drive now and then just for the enjoyment of it. When you are on the road driving, the roads are mostly occupied by other “volunteers”.

For them, and for the assorted working vehicles that are out there by necessity, none of the vehicles are larger and heavier than they actually need to be to do the task at hand, whether that’s carrying one or two humans and occasional bits of personal cargo, local freight, or working vehicles carrying assorted tools, parts, equipment, and sundries from home base to job to job. Large freight hauling trucks are just local operation, with a functioning rail system hauling things between cities.

The bad scenario I’ve already touched on. Cities that have expanded and sprawled outward, often eating up former good farmland to replace it with seas of single use subdivisions and retail shopping zones surrounded by acres of asphalt to serve the cars, with no signs of people walking anywhere except to and from the parked cars, mainly because with the distances and involved and the physical arrangements, walking from place to place is considered seriously impractical, and, often, just plain insanely dangerous. Everywhere, doing just about anything in daily life is more likely than not going to require personal automotive transportation covering journeys of many miles, often dozens of miles per day, even with nothing particularly out of the ordinary on the agenda. In many places, there is such an expansive, scattered region of territory, strung together as a broad metropolitan region, that “commutes” are just completely insane. To put the cherry on this mad, dysfunctional, doomed cake, put the bazillions of long distance commuters in behemoth large heavy light trucks of the SUV, van, and pickup truck kinds. This is how we get a nation with somewhere around 5% of the world’s population devouring around one quarter of the world’s oil production day in, day out.

All this is a large subject of its own, but the point of the matter now is what we find ourselves with in cities all across the US, in a pair of major issues; cities that have spread out to be completely dependent on cheap and unlimited petroleum fuel, disasterously dysfunctional without it, and cities that, in that process, have often left the city centers, and often in gigantic expanses around them, as abandoned wastelands.

In a time and place where “new housing starts” are regarded as an indicator of economic health, a lot of work needs to be done, getting away, right now, from this idea of perpetual and continuous outward expansion of construction of new buildings in ever expanding concentric rings, with all the local infrastructure being forced to follow it all further outward.

The word infrastructure pops up a lot these days. The reason is simple enough. Maintenance is a serious problem. Recently, there has been a television series that consists of a guy going around and inspecting things and examining the truly wretched condition of things; bridges, roads, systems. This is a sad and very odd state of affairs for a place where people practically hurt themselves in patting ourselves on the back calling the country “the most prosperous nation on Earth”.

There are all kinds of running arguments raging now about what government should or should not do. It’s not all quite completely rational and realistic. Very little of it is completely rational and realistic. We don’t need to be doing expansions of extra lanes and new interchanges on stretches of the interstate highway system, for example. The people bitching fiercely about Big Gummint Spending seem to almost invariably overlook the urgent need to address maintenance and repair or outright replacement and rebuilding of what already exists. That naturally leads into an entire rather broad and serious subject of its own; what seems to be a unique, and likely terribly tragic in the long run, American characteristic. That is, a kind of general tendency, a practice and philosophy, of designing and building things to only hold up and last for a relatively short time (a transitory blip in historical terms), with an idea that after a few years, a few decades, we’ll just scrap it and do it over with a shiny new replacement. Now, we have a pretty damned mammoth situation staring us in the face. We have a country filled, across the breadth of the North American continent, with stuff that’s falling apart and disintegrating.

Recent events included new Ohio Governor John Kasich campaigning for the office including a promise to reject federal government funds for high-speed rail development across the state of Ohio, which he followed up when he won the election and took office. No Big Gummint Spending money for the state of Ohio, says the new gov. That is, at least not for new railroad works in the form of high speed train systems; but he would be happy to take the same money if it would be allowed to put that money into new highway projects. That, thinks the new governor of the Republican Party kind, is sensible use of money. He was quoted (no kidding here) as saying that the whole idea was all about “train cult people” (my emphasis there).

There are, of course, already high speed trains running, and they have existed and functioned for years now, in Japan and in Europe. It’s pretty safe to say that there are big differences in attitudes and priorities, comparing those places and the United States. One difference is in the political realm and how things are addressed in terms of what government does and what private business does. Another, probably more significant difference, is in an ongoing attitude of Americans about full out petroleum gluttony as the way of doing all things. Trains? Mass public transportation? No! Cars! Trucks! Big jet airliners! Massive road systems and gigantic airports! That’s what we want!

Everything revolves around devouring petroleum, as if this is just the way things are supposed to work, and, it’s assumed, always will. Attitudes continue that were probably mostly formed after World War II over the fifties and sixties, when oil resources in the US were regarded almost as if the stuff was limitless and infinite, and prosperous good times were to be had by just sucking up that stuff as fast as possible and burning it in mass quantities every way we could think of, with the addition of thinking up (and following through) every way chemical engineering could conceive to use oil to make new chemical products. For transportation, have not just a car for every family, but a car for every person in the household old enough to drive. For long distances, commercial passenger aviation using larger and larger jet airliners burning mass quantities of petroleum jet fuel, the “jet set” for everybody.

Blowing through the oil at the kind of rate that became standard operating procedure, the United States hit its peak of oil production in 1970-1971 and went into decline, but, incredibly, hardly anyone in the country seems to have taken notice of this information, even though it has now been forty years since the US peak, and enough time and data has passed by, by the time we got into the late seventies, to observe and note that the peak had been passed. This is why I hammer on the point repeatedly.

Passenger rail travel is considered, almost universally, in the United States in the early 21st century, to be some kind of obsolete quaint anachronism. Countering the rise of more and more widely used airline travel, commercial passenger rail travel basically ceased in the form it had been known and replaced by the Amtrak system. It’s worth noting that people who look at Amtrak and criticize it for being “government subsidy” never seem to consider the decades of government subsidy of motor vehicle roadway travel in the US federal highway system.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill

I heard something really great, just perfect, from somebody in the PBS video documentary series “design e2 (the economies of being environmentally conscious)”, talking about addressing all the assorted issues and parameters and challenges of designing and building places for human occupation. The comment was: that people often look at things and they expect or want some single simple “big answer” solution, and there isn’t some simple single macroscopic Big Answer to be neatly summarized in some short little sound bite sized idea that can be turned into a slogan, the answers are a million little answers dealing with an array of specifics.

“I look for what needs to be done. After all, that’s how the universe designs itself.” – Richard Buckminster Fuller

We have overwhelming piles of work to do.

The things begging to be addressed are, are we all going to clear our heads of endless loads of bullshit and get a grip on what’s actually happening, what has actually happened, and where we’re heading, and then, are people willing to pay for the work?




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