the rebuild

Monday 2012.03.19

A week or two ago I came in on the middle of a documentary program on PBS about the Amish, part of their ongoing series American Experience. As things proceed now, with all the assorted complexity and often pervasive craziness around us, a lot of things these days prompt extended observation and reflection about a whole assortment of topics.

The Amish are certainly an interesting group. Among many other things you can think and say about them, looking at the Amish society prompts examination and disposal of a particular bit of nonsense pushed aggressively recently, an idea that there is some kind of singular monoculture of what is American.

A particularly noisy faction of Americans, of the sort who are pretty much a full out aggressive revival of The John Birch Society, would like everyone to believe that there’s some homogenous singular body of what they think qualifies as being “Real American”, when one of the most fundamental characteristics of the United States of America is that there isn’t any kind of singular homogenous monoculture. The place is inherently a mixed bag of cultures, from all around the world in origins, and widely varied around the country even as various cultures have integrated into America.

All that is somewhat a side item. The main focus here in my mind at the moment is not so much about how the Amish culture fits in the variety of American culture, or more accurately, how they have maintained a separation. The main theme is how they actually live in that culture.

The most obvious characteristic of the Amish is their way of living in relation to technology, specifically, how they avoid and reject most of what we think of as modern technology as it has developed since the era of the Industrial Revolution. For a lot of people, the Amish culture is a reference as some sort of joke. You know, somebody perceived by friends, family, colleagues, or somebody to be not quite fully in tune and up to speed and involved in some particular technological area hears “what are you, Amish or something?”.

I’m not so sure anymore that this is such a joke. Personally, I have to make this clear at the start, I don’t want to live just like the Amish, myself. For one thing, I like living in a technological era. I’ve been very interested in assorted technology since childhood, and as my life has gone along I became directly involved in technology through the latter part of my youth and through my adult life.

On the other hand, as time as passed, I’ve seen an array of problems related to technology and how humans deal with it, and the concern with this has accelerated more and more over time, really ramping up in recent years.

The trouble is, right now, in so many ways, it’s pretty difficult to even talk about these things. We’re deep into a time of a whole rancid pile of noisy confusion where just about anything you say is damned near guaranteed to be grossly misunderstood by whole herds of people, with quite a few of them leaping into some kind of fiercely obnoxious chattering commentary about some matter before they even understand the subject or issue at hand. Plus, we’re in a time and place where anything more than a few paragraphs, maybe even a couple of sentences, will get somebody making comments about being “long winded”.

If you think I’m “long winded” in my little chunks of writing here in this space, this might be you. Just to make things worse, I think sometimes I might be guilty of over explaining some things just a tad, occasionally, because of the awareness lurking in the back of my mind of how often people go tearing off on some kind of premature jumping to conclusions about the subject at hand, for God only knows what reasons. I suspect a combination of some sort of epidemic attention span problems and a sea of confused misinformation swamping people constantly, which leads into a whole messy subject of comtemporary communication technology and how badly things have gone off the rails in this department.

For more than a generation now, we’ve been hearing all about the wonders of modern electronic communications and data processing in promotions of “The Information Age”. I don’t think the Amish care much.

I’m not thinking about all that as the main item here. There were other things that came to mind when I saw this documentary. I’m not particularly bothered about whether the Amish have a nice website and internet connections to personal computers and the latest mobile phones and digital tablets.

It made me think about how they live and do things, and how it relates to the rest of us. They live with a philosophy where a central tenet is living in harmony with their fellow humans and the Earth. I don’t think these people see “nature” or “the environment” as some sort of compartmentalized separate thing from their existence, they are part of it, as humans always have been in reality, but have forgotten in much of modern technological industrial society. They don’t look at the Earth as just a large source of endless raw materials to consume as quickly as possible and they don’t poison the place along the way.

Among other things, they probably are not terribly concerned about underground deposits of fossil fuel hydrocarbons, because those things are not part of their lives. They know how to live without them, because they do live without them, and always have. We might need to learn, or relearn, a few things from the Amish a lot sooner than most people might think.

It was interesting to hear people talking about the Amish and how they live, and take notice of some things about that life.

They have actual tightly integrated functional localized communities, with local businesses that function and continue on, not driven into extinction because of some corporate chain store out on some chunk of perfectly good farmland a couple miles out of town, where all the locals drive in their petroleum fueled vehicles to buy crap made 10,000 miles away and shipped to the store via a diesel fueled supply chain of ocean freighters and trucks pulling 53 foot trailers.

They haven’t forgotten how to live being functional locally, because that’s the only way they’ve ever lived.

I doubt that any of them look at people who care about living in harmony with the Earth, conserving natural resources, and generally not wrecking the place, and refer to these people as “eco terrorists” or “enviromental extremists and radicals” and saying they’re “killing jobs and prosperity”. Words like “green” and “sustainable” are not part of their lingo, some superficial fashion item, even as this is how they actually live.

As we move along here, I don’t want to live just like the Amish, but we might want to learn a few things from some of how they live.


All this is more relevant as time passes. As I’ve been saying here, the majority of people here in the United States are either terribly ignorant about the state of things in petroleum and other finite hydrocarbon resources, or badly confused and misinformed about the matter, such as the recent burst of noisy confusion I’ve talked about in which people have looked at recent statistics about commerce in imports compared to exports of petroleum refined products and somehow come up with the completely fictional idea that the United States has become an “oil exporter”.

As a severe contrast to the Amish, suddenly there has been a burst of television shows, at least a couple different series on a pair of cable networks, about “doomsday preppers”. There, we see people who seem to think that preparation for what appear to be a variety pack of disaster scenarios or complete collapse requires that they build armed isolated compounds for their own family or small group, stocked with containers of water and assorted canned or dried or preserved foods for some number of months, with armories of guns and ammo and other various weapons and paramilitary defenses. Do these people really see this as the way they plan to continue ongoing life and human civilization?

I’m hesitant to ridicule these people, which is easy to do the way some people will, in different ways, mock and generally make dumb fun of the Amish society, but there is a lot to learn from examination of the “doom prepper” people in negative form, about how much of the tangled batch of problems we face involve kind of missing the point in every way imaginable and then generally going a little nuts about it. I’m thinking this is another entire large subject of its own, but one thought I have is that what we’re looking at here is probably a good example of how many people react to difficult and complicated times by snapping into some sort of simplistic dualism, picking one of two. One form of that simplistic dualism could be laid out in terms of people either holding themselves in a category you might label as the “it’s all good!” group, contrasted by the “doom!” bunch, and both of them operating more in some sort of reality distortion mode that they think works, and really just avoids realistically dealing with things as they are.

Just to narrow things down and pick an item, let’s look at this. Consider water. I know that at some point, I’ve mentioned the idea of how many people, if asked the question “where does your food come from?”, might answer “well, the grocery store, of course!”, and never really think about it beyond that. Change the focus to water, and I don’t think it’s overstating the case to think that for most Americans, in their minds water is something that flows out of the plumbing in a building coming from the local municipal water system. At least, that’s probably true for people in cities or out in suburban areas, even out in what some call “exurbia”, extreme outlying suburban developments. People in actual rural territory still know and deal with water wells on their property for a water source, but that is a fairly small portion of the American population.

Looking at the “doomsday prepper” new TV stars, it does seem that a fairly normal attitude replaces water coming from the plumbing and local water system with “water comes from my private stock of water containers”.

In the area where I grew up, there is a nearby river, which flows into one of the Great Lakes. I’ve mentioned this before, and it comes up again. I was around there a while back, actually right near the old neighborhood and house where I lived the first seven years of my childhood, and noticed a sign along the road bordering the river. This sign, one of a string of these, warned people that the river was so toxic from decades of heavy pollution that it was plain simple poison; don’t drink water from this river, don’t eat fish from this water, you probably should not even get in the water and swim in it.

This is a pretty profound point here, and in case it’s not obvious, this isn’t about one particular river that’s especially relevant to the story of my life. The issue here is almost ubiquitous, of waterways in our land, rivers, streams, creeks, and out into lakes, being poisoned. In many places, we have all these types of bodies of water in such a toxic ruined condition that actually living naturally and obtaining water from these sources, or eating fish from that water, is, in many places, has become just assumed as a matter of course to be mad folly, the water long ago having been abandoned as a toxic liquid waste dump. In very recent times, now even well groundwater is becoming a disaster as we go insane with “fracking” practices to continue extracting underground hydrocarbons to continue business as we have come to regard as usual, at any cost. People are finding that their well water has suddenly become toxic, even flammable, as hellish toxic brews of chemicals are pumped into the Earth.

The subject of food gets into an area of discussion with some very broad general similarities, in how detached from reality so much of the thinking in our culture has become.

I’ve already written a lot about the need to address the problem repercussions of devouring resources aggressively over the past century, as have other people who helped make me more aware of this, and many things are clear.

We need to get much more local in doing most of what we do, as life was before we started assuming that hydrocarbon fuels were going to be cheap and endless, to be used for virtually everything in some way. That includes growing and distributing food, making good useful purposeful things and reviving the crafts and practices of maintaining and repairing them. All this is not only about the problems of decline in finite resources, but in functional economies.

I refer you to a couple of good essays, The Idea of a Local Economy – Wendell Berry, in Orion Magazine, and Back to the Future – James Howard Kunstler, also in Orion Magazine. These guys lay it out as well as I can, probably much better.

I’ve also written about a lot of this before, in Work To Do. We have an economic wreck on our hands, even as we have an enormous amount of difficult work to be done, and I have a hard time understanding how so many people have such a hard time understanding so much of the situation. Over recent years we’ve destroyed local businesses and economic systems with large corporate box retail chain stores, with the destruction to functionally integrated cities, as suburban sprawl has massively increased petroleum consumption in the process, as we’ve become more and more dependent on a declining finite resource, and the race to the economic bottom of the corporate retail world has helped destroy manufacturing in this country. That has also made function and commerce more and more dependent on massive consumption of petroleum.

Add into the picture what has happened to the climate as we pollute the planet. As I write, we, here in the area where I live in the Great Lakes region, we’ve been having about a week so far of temperatures in the 70F and up range, in the last couple weeks of what is technically still winter, with grass starting to grow and plants and trees budding, while, in the meantime, in the desert of Arizona, a large snowstorm has knocked things sideways.

Clues are clubbing us over the head trying to get our attention.

On top of that, the economic madness in the areas of banking and finance and assorted trading markets continue to go bouncing through the same madness, even with all the clues of what that has done, in all the ways in which the idea of business and commerce and investement have digressed from the fundamental concept of people doing good work doing useful things and making and maintaining useful things and gone into an emphemeral world of madness where everything seems to be just about making transactions that supposedly “create wealth” while really doing nothing.

Just a couple of days ago I caught part of a program on C-Span where former Federal Reserve Bank head Paul Volker, seemingly one of the few relatively sane characters in that world, was a guest onstage somewhere speaking and answering questions. Someone in the audience asked a question I forget about “financial innovation”, and, thank God, Volker answered, very simply, as a sort of rare voice of reason, saying, basically, enough already with “financial innovation”, we’ve had a disaster, a complete economic trainwreck, from assorted tricks of what people have called “financial innovation”. I agree.

I turned on a television a day or two ago and watched as much as I could stand of a program on CNBC, where the games of finance and market trading roll on as if nobody understands that we have serious fundamental problems with these games. The program appeared to be an entire show, complete with a panel of people, chattering endlessly about all sorts of statistical fun and analysis of currency trading, perhaps the ultimate mad game of gathering money while doing absolutely nothing useful.

Enough of that lunacy.

We do have a giant load of work to do, rebuilding a lot of activities and enterprises doing things we need for life and life worth living and actually making things better, in line with the realities of the resources of the planet and repercussions to life on the planet.

There is just so much of usefulness and value in America that has been tossed in the scrap heap, even as we’ve squandered resources and money in serious misallocation and waste. A short glimpse of some of this can be found by taking a tour of a New York small town with James Howard Kunstler. There are many places like this in early 21st century America.

We have a lot corrective work to do, and the current state of things in political lunacy and mendacity, oblivion or apathy in the matter of resources, and the health of the planet in general, along with the determination to maintain the deluded games of finance that drove us into the ground, are not helping.

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