The title of today’s note is borrowed from the new book from James Howard Kunstler. Part of the reason for this is just to take a moment to recommend the book. I just read it in the past few days. It’s excellent, and it covers material you need to understand. You do. Believe me. And, then, it fits with today’s items.
I was actually, initially, going to title today’s chunk of words lifting a phrase from the last chapter of the book, a systematic failure to understand reality. Without this ever being the intention here (the name of my little blog is itself kind of a silly reference to the fact that it would probably tend to be a fairly scattered assortment of topics), that has, when I step back from it and look, kind of ended up being a regular theme. Looking around at the world I inhabit, here and now, in the United States a decade or so into the 21st century, and seeing things.
Among other things Kunstler mentions refers a bit to Joseph Tainter, talking about problems of overinvestment in excessive complexity with diminishing returns. Yeah, that’s pretty much the boat we’re in. It’s a tricky spot.
The worst part? Well, maybe I should back that up a bit first. Let’s start with, the tricky spot, what’s worse is what a minority of people even seem to be thinking about all of it as things are. What’s worst is how many people seem absolutely determined to not see and understand things as they are. What looks like the most common sort of sense of public consensus, about a lot of things, is something you can summarize as “let’s pretend“.
We’re not talking about playtime here. This is serious stuff.
I’ve written loads of pages here about assorted manifestations of this kind of thing, of course. It’s all over the place. And I keep coming back to the general theme, different specifics, as things just keep popping up, every day.
Sometimes it gets really ugly. Hang on. I should say, it’s a steady flood of ugly, and sometimes, something comes along with a new low, like reading about the sort of aggravation faced by scientists trying to get people to understand what we’re doing to the only planet we have. Unreal. I can’t say “unbelievable”, because that wouldn’t be right at all. At this stage, it’s easy to believe.
As a contrast, but just about as bad, just different, up pops the news that bow-tie maven and commentator George Will sat in front of TV cameras and added his bit about the freakish weather so far this summer (including the wildfires). According to George? It’s just summer! It’s hot! Summer gets hot! What’s the big deal? So sayeth George.
Previously, I pointed readers to a new article by Richard Heinberg discussing the determined ignorance of the petroleum situation under the name “Peak Denial“. He addresses the problem well. Go read.
Piling on the torrent of shitstorm ugliness of the banking and financial world trainwreck, clusterfuck, FUBAR, whatever you want to call it, comes new news item showing up on the Jesse’s Café Americain blog, spotted via Reuters, US Futures Brokerage Accounts Frozen – Hundreds of Millions In Customer Money Missing.
Writing here, in the humble little medium of ye olde weblog form, I can probably seem a little scattered and jump around between subjects and particular items a lot, and the reasons for that are easy enough to understand, or at least I would hope so. News keeps rolling in daily, among a batch of large subjects; of energy resources and our consumption, or resources in general, really, what we’re doing to the planet, the great collected mass of human activity we collectively call “the economy”, the circus of politics, and they all tie together. I’ve referred to the idea of “The Three E” of Energy, Economy, and Earth as Big Subjects of our time, and I’ve been thoroughly convinced for quite a while now that not only do we have a bunch of really serious problems and difficulties to address in all of them, and all tied together, but we have the kind of bigger issue, what might be fair to call a kind of “meta-problem” hanging over all of it. The overall meta-problem is about too many people just not operating in terms of reality.
Talking in these terms can certainly strike some people as being a little melodramatic, or rhetorical, exaggerated, or fitting any number of words that people might use in the course of thinking that talking about this kind of thing is “negative” or “extreme”, while they really miss getting a handle on it. I think more and more that the bigger possible problem is understating the case. But talk about subjects that are both very large scale in scope and problematic at the same time, and I don’t think it’s presumptuous at all to say that the majority of people will just ignore it or effectively shut down as a response. Either that, or they laugh it off as some sort of collection of nonsense from crackpots.
Dmitri Orlov just wrote a new piece on his blog titled Peak Oil Oppositional Disorder: Neurosis or Psychosis?, and it’s timely, and really a perfect companion to be read with Heinberg’s item about “Peak Denial” (and naturally enough, Orlov refers to that essay).
Then, right along with that, within a day or three or something, another piece of writing appears on the web, a really, really great article on the CNN site, titled Is optimism really good for you?. When I came across this and read it, I just thought, “this is perfect, thank you, this is exactly right on target, this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been trying to say to people“. I sit here thinking that I should quote sections of the article because they just nail something so perfectly, and then think, no, why do that? Too many people are a little too caught up in notions that everything can be summarized in a paragraph or sentence or even a nifty phrase. Just go read the thing in its entirety. Please.
The trio of essays I’ve referred to above really cover a lot.
I think back about things I’ve written about here in my corner of the web, and conversations I’ve had, observations of conversations and comments elsewhere, reading items of various kinds or in person conversation among people, and it’s impossible to avoid noticing a recurring phenomenon. Too often, presented with some important and relevant facts, or a general explanation of an important concept that needs to be understood, it just doesn’t seem to get through. It makes me think of metaphors like salmon trying to get up a raging downhill run mountain stream rapids, addressing brick walls, et cetera.
The most disturbing element of this general kind of thing is that sometimes it’s not a case where the people in question can’t understand, although there is often that problem, too. It’s a case where, from available evidence, somebody should, quite clearly, be smart enough to understand the material at hand, some set of facts and concepts, but it’s clearly not appearing to register. At some point, you have to think that they just don’t want to understand. They’re maybe even fiercely determined to not comprehend and understand. I’ve described examples of this before.
An article that came up in the New York Times about a week ago about car sales statistics for the month of June (2012) was interesting. The basic story is that car sales among all the manufacturers mentioned were much better for June 2012 than June 2011. That sounds good for the car manufacturers, so, on the face of it, sounds like pretty good news, right? The twist here is found in the article, starting with the story headline featuring the mention of “lower gas prices” right at the start, and going on to suggest that unexpected lower gasoline prices in June sent people off to buy pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Things like this make me think the same thought I’ve been thinking for years; how can people still not get this? Retail prices of gasoline in the US have been volatile, bouncing up and down for years now, and yet, observing people around me, keeping watch on news reports, the same stupid story plays out, over and over. A big shift in price of gasoline happens, and people are surprised, every time, with the, let’s say, quality of the surprise of happy or unpleasant depending on whether the price dropped or rose, but none the less, it’s still a surprise to so many people. Over and over again this happens.
Note that I’m not even talking about a lack of understanding why retail pump gasoline prices bounce up and down. That’s a whole subject of its own. Right now, I’m just talking about people acting as if it’s a surprise every time, as if they’re completely oblivious to the fact that they do bounce up and down, and this has been a regular phenomenon, or at least let’s say regular in its irregularity, for years.
I have to wonder, how long will that continue? Prices go down, people think, oh happy happy, run out and buy some behemoth truck for personal transportation, prices go back up, freak out and shriek in outrage.
I’ve been writing about the petroleum situation regularly, so I won’t rehash it all here. That story certainly isn’t finished. The saga of changes is only starting in earnest, really. But what’s important right now is that we develop a general public consensus of understanding of reality about it. That doesn’t seem to be happening. As I’ve also written repeatedly, how people are confused and grossly misled about the subject is an entire subject of its own, and considering the circumstances, this is just completely outrageous.
In 2005 the study that is generally referred to as the Hirsch report (which you can read yourself) was submitted to the US Department of Energy. It was basically buried. It’s not some sort of secret, but generally the document, its very existence, and what it contains, is virtually unknown to the public, only known by people who bother to look into this subject for themselves, and gradually manage to sort out who knows what they’re talking about, and, understanding the urgency and importance, tell people.
I quote from the report’s introduction:
“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”
Read that last sentence again. Then note that since around 2005 or so, the year of that report, we have seen total worldwide production rates for crude oil stuck in what people call a “wobbly plateau” or “bumpy plateau”, oscillating up and down in a range around 72 to 74 million barrels per day or so, as has been predicted by people like Colin Campbell as how things would go when we reached the limits of production rates, the “peak” of Hubbert’s curve, prelude to the diminishing returns downside decline of production.
It’s not a secret, but you aren’t hearing about it on the news, at least I’ve never come across anything about it. Our Congressional representatives aren’t telling people, and neither of the two most recent presidents are telling the American people about it.
Instead, we get all the assorted varieties of bullshit you read and hear about what’s presented to the public as “energy policy debate”. It’s a ridiculous dog and pony show with lots of sound and fury indicating nothing. You get the sports games contests of “both sides of the aisle” that are presented as being a binary pair of choices between Team A or Team B, in a contest to get people to pick an either/or selection between different options of reality evasion and wishful thinking and theatrical bullshit. The noise and nonsense tends to usually be about “energy prices for consumers” or an assortment of other bits of nonsense and cliches and platitudes that really address nothing substantial and important and necessary. It’s all about “pick me, pick my team, and everything will be just grand”.
I’ve talked before about how, as president, Jimmy Carter actually had what a large number of Americans regarded as the unmitigated gall to tell people a little bit of truth about the reality of finite fuel resources and our consumption of the stuff, and he was tossed overboard by people who decided they preferred to replace an objective grip on reality with a happy delusional fantasy offered up by a career mediocre actor, Ronald Reagan. When it comes to “energy issues”, as well as many other subjects, nothing has really changed much in this over the three decades since. People would rather argue over who has the right magic wand to wave that will make everything just the way they wish, regardless of actual reality.
This shit would be pure comedy if it were not serious to the point of being grim.
But, then, you get similar kinds of absurdities in the political circus about “the economy”, along with just about any other serious subject. The chatter about the state of economic matters is just an onslaught, and from where I sit, most of it is confused bullshit. Among some parties responsible, there’s no way I can believe that they aren’t fully aware it’s bullshit.
Large numbers of people ask, mystified and often frustrated, what’s wrong with the economy? Well, let’s review.
In the eighties we saw the rise of a new batch of characters whose ideas of doing business involved things like leveraged buyouts, including financing with junk bonds, taking over companies, sometimes in hostile takeovers, and stripping them of anything of value, and tossing away some shell of what was left (including people working for the company, maybe for decades in some cases, investing whole working lives). Much of this ended with nothing left but an empty brand name and logo, trademarks, maybe some patents and designs and so on, sold off to be reused by some other corporation that had no involvement in building that company, as a brand name that no longer meant anything, pretending to have some relation to what people saw as value in that business name.
Along the way down this path, a wave of corporate managers saw globalization as the way, tossing away chunks of not some newly taken over company, but their own, thinking that this was “cost cutting efficiency”, if they cut costs by having things made by near slave wage workers on the other side of the planet or somewhere, they would be able to sell more stuff by having cheaper sale prices and at the same time have steady or even much greater profit margins, even shipping things across the planet.
In the process, here in the US, all sorts of working activity making things was scrapped and abandoned, which of course scrapped and abandoned people, and in the process, all sorts of activity in maintaining and repairing things went out, as things shifted from making and buying good things and keeping them working to buying cheap crap that failed in a few years, and just tossing the broken crap out, just buying more cheap crap to replace it, over and over, because it was cheap, maybe cheaper than repairing some good piece of the past, and for that matter, because of all this, much of it could not be repaired. There was now no money in that for people to make a living, so many things weren’t even designed to be able to be repaired, and no parts were available.
Along with all sorts of repair business and other things tossed out, retail commerce became more and more scattered collections of discount barn national corporate chains housed in suburban cinder block crap buildings, much of it about selling the cheap crap made not by people around there or anywhere in the country. This steadily drove local businesses, and local businesses owned and staffed by people who really knew their business, and cared about their business (whether they owned it or were employed by it), into struggle or extinction. That, among other things, meant batches of bland shitty uniform corporate barns where money went in, and other than pittances of pathetic wages to clerks and other staff, who didn’t give a shit because they were paid shit and treated like shit, and a maybe a humble to pathetic salary for a store manager who had no authority, the money left that community and went off to “corporate”, some corporate chain headquarters. There, people completely out of touch with any given local community, and maybe out of touch with much of what really matters in their kind of business, made all decisions and made the money. For the community, there were a batch of stores that drove local business into the dirt and just acted as a money sink to suck money out of the area never to return.
People spewed hype about “shifting to a service economy”, and later “the information economy”, and in reality what we found ourselves with were a couple of main themes. Building more and more suburban sprawl (including malls and loads of strip shopping centers housing all the kinds of stuff just described), and making games of banking and finance and assorted trading markets things unto themselves. These, either playing games involving the sprawl build out, or just playing all kinds of games in making transactions or in “financial innovations” that were somehow supposed to “create wealth” out of nothing, somehow more and more disconnected from ideas of finance and trading as supports for useful productive activity.
Anybody paying attention with a grain of brains and any sense of reality can get a whiff of what has happened in all the sort of banking and finance games of something for nothing. It’s becoming more and more unavoidable to see what all that really was and is, just loads of smoke and mirrors and even full out swindles. All the delusions of what were supposedly brilliant “innovation in finance” and market games have played out to show themselves as least partially as what they really were. Saying that requires some qualification, though, as even as I say that, it’s clear that much of it still isn’t revealed, exactly. It’s apparent at this point that there is so much insanely convoluted and obscured complexity, that it might be better to say that much of it still isn’t really revealed, and often maybe never will be sorted out, and that is what is actually becoming visible and apparent.
Now, people seriously are baffled, they seriously don’t know, what’s wrong with the economy?
And I’m here to tell anybody who hasn’t figured this out, the project of perpetual outward suburban sprawl building is done. That is over. Done. The End.
I don’t mean “for now”. I mean, done.
There’s no doubt in my mind about that. There are, naturally, in the circumstances I’m talking about here of a systematic failure to understand reality, going to be people who say, oh, no, that’s silly, that’s all wrong, and probably begin yammering about how that will carry on as it was once “recovery” kicks in and this and that and the other thing. These are the people who, odds are, have all kinds of notions of some things just being perpetual and a natural way of things that will always be, indefinitely, and there are no limits to finite resources, and “climate change is an anti-business hoax”, and so on.
All of the above is, of course, by necessity, pretty oversimplified. We’re talking about a whole complex batch of things that brighter minds than I would have a hard time comprehensively covering in a whole shelf full of thick books. But that gets the general gist of things.
What needs to happen is a whole large massive subject composed of many subtopics, and I don’t have a great grand master plan all figured out. But some things are apparent, in general.
Among other things, as I’ve pointed out before, the diminishing returns of finite hydrocarbon fuel resources will dictate a great deal, and changes will not be optional. Transportation, and all that affects, whether in personal living (like, where we live, where we work and do commerce), or everything in commerce, doing business, just functioning, will change, inevitably, and the sooner we get to grips with this and figuring out new arrangements, the better.
I’ve written about all this before, as have other people who have written much more, such as James Kunstler in his earlier book (2005) The Long Emergency, which is a book to read first, then follow with his new book Too Much Magic. The Hirsch report addresses a great deal.
We’re going to get much more local and regional, by necessity. “Globalization” as a business practice might still be in play, still just killing all sorts of business and work and functional life in America right now, but it is going to die. We had better get our shit together and relearn how to do a lot of things locally, or at most, much closer to where we are, whether it’s growing food to live, making things, repairing things, everything.
But we still have the problem that hangs over it all and chokes us. A systematic failure to understand reality.
“Sometimes when faced with problems that are confusing and troubling it is easier to think what someone tells you to think, particularly something that touches a deep and dark nerve in your nature, rather than carry the burden and ambiguity of struggling with the facts and thinking for yourself. Repeating a party line is a shorthand way of avoiding real thought. And the predators are always there to take advantage of it. They welcome trouble and often foment crisis in order to advance their agendas.
Anyone can be misled by a clever person, and no one likes to readily admit that they have been had. It is a sign of character and maturity to realize this, and admit you were deceived, and to demand change and reform. But some people cannot do this, even when the facts of the deception are revealed. It seems as though the more incorrect that the truth shows them to be, the louder and more strident they become in shouting down and denying the reality of the situation. And anyone who denies their perspective becomes ‘the other,’ someone to be feared and hated, shunned and eliminated, one way or the other.”
Although competition and even tribalism are a natural and sometimes surprising force in many aspects of society, as anyone who has attended grammar school athletics can attest, they become difficult and counter-productive in their excess. The more extremely held the views, left or right, the more ardent the self-deception and loss of individual identity. Because at the extremes, it is no longer about justice, but about the objectification and irrelevance of the individual, and the dehumanization and demonization of ‘the other.’
For whatever reason, extremists cannot easily let go of the lie, because it seems to give them a substance which they fear they cannot provide for themselves, because they cannot bear the uncertainty and loss of purpose. Their very identity becomes intermingled with the lie. This is the essence of the cult, and the stuff of demagogues, and the phenomenon of mass suicides and self-destruction when the lies come to an end: the bunker mentality.”
-from Jesse’s Café Americain blog