the future of scale

Tuesday 2013.03.19

The last time out here, I was talking about scale. Ever since I wrote that, I’ve thought that it probably needs much more said about it. One reason is because of the potential for misunderstanding and distraction. I think it’s a problem, only because if you say anything about scaling anything down, people have been so bombarded, for so long, with lingo about “downsizing”, maybe with bad direct personal consequences to their own lives, that it seriously disrupts people’s thinking.

Talk about anything at all in terms of scaling back anything, and it’s likely to run straight into all kinds of reflex reactions. People become conditioned by years of corporate business management actions in tossing large numbers of people overboard, announcing “cost cutting initiatives” or something like that, tossing out people they had been paying to get work done, while telling the remaining people that they’re expected to do all the work they have been doing, only more, plus covering the work from the newly ejected coworkers, and do it all for less money from now on.

Considering the fact that this stuff has been so common, so pervasive, for so long, it’s very easy to understand how any mention of any thought of reducing size and scale of things pulls people into previous thinking and sets of assumptions, like some natural force, like magnetic fields or gravity sucking them in.


That isn’t the only domain where any discussion of scale and size runs into problems in the assumptions and preconceptions banging around people’s heads. Anybody paying any attention to the running circus of American politics has been hearing all kinds of noise for years about defining everything relating to issues of governance in terms of “bigger government versus smaller government” and “more government versus less government”. This stuff almost invariably comes from political critters who have “R” attached to their name and title, selling people a blatant scam that takes some form of saying “see, those guys, over there, the Other Side, they want bigger government, more government, which means less freedom and liberty, but we want smaller government, less government, which means more freedom and liberty“.

One big obvious problem about that is that this kind of simplistic posing completely diverts things from sensible regard for questions of proper government. In a representative democratic republic that is supposed to be functioning by the will of the people, by the direction of the people, for the benefit of the people, acting in their interests, and otherwise leaving them alone, the questions are supposed to be about government functioning suitably and properly. Reducing questions of government to “bigger or smaller?” “more or less?” is a diversionary game for fools getting people off the important items to deal with about their government.

More to the point, a realistic survey of the people barking that “smaller government, less government” kind of cheap slogan finds that very few of them really want smaller government, less government. They just want less government acting in the interests of the people in general and protecting the public commons. It turns out that many, if not most of them, actually want plenty of government, just the stuff that goes well for them, and makes everybody else live the way they want.


As I write, it’s the middle of March 2013, and among the things happening now is the annual convention of madness of what’s usually referred to by its acronym CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. One indicator of the nature and quality of that gathering came when I switched on C-Span and came in on the middle of a speech to this crowd from Donald Trump. I didn’t stick around for much of that.

I did hear enough to hear Trump pontificate about a regular featured piece of wishful thinking delusion, the story that says the United States has a boundless cornucopia of hydrocarbon fuel resources right beneath our very own All-American feet, if only mean ol’ big government would let us have them. That kind of thing goes over very well, in the American political cult that gathers each year at CPAC. That kind of thing is received with great enthusiasm in an insular group of people who seem to all cling to each other in a kind of club of mutually reinforcing alternate reality, that seems to satisfy them by being simpler than actual reality, and a version they just like better, because it tells them that the universe revolves around them.

I haven’t really followed the ongoing circus there. I have flipped on C-Span, from time to time, and caught short excerpts. I run out of patience with the whole farce. So, I can only speculate that the audience was treated to a lot of jingoistic sabre rattling and rabble rousing that I didn’t witness. If somebody thinks that sounds rudely presumptuous, I’m just going by years, decades, of observation of political subcultures of America. You could transplant the same general crowd, probably many of the very same people, back about 45 years and find them barking about Red Menace and how “national security and defending freedom” required more and more political adventures in Vietnam, and elsewhere all around the planet.

I’m guessing that a lot of chatter from the podium probably involved Iran, North Korea, and anyplace else in the world where some nutcases looking like trouble provide perpetual fuel for people playing this game. It’s been around for decades; telling Americans that we have to be expecting worldwide war every second, and perpetually putting more and more money into funding of military hardware; while continually reducing taxes to pay for any of it.

What I did hear was one speaker, a relatively younger US senator regarded by Republicans as a star of the party, tell the audience that China was the big threat. The point is that this is a basic, pervasive, fundamental core of the political subculture represented by this event. It’s nearly unquestionable dogma that for “national security”, or “defending our freedom”, or whatever the rhetorical phrasing happens to be, that the general rule of thumb for the US military and its funding must be always more, more, more, with broader geographical expansion and more expensive hardware.

Some woman speaker (whose name I already forgot before I turned it off), said one thing, exactly one, in the bit I caught, which tells you about how long I stuck with her. She asked the crowd how many of them thought that Islam was a serious threat to the United States. I’m not sure about my memory, she might have actually said “the biggest threat”. She asked for a show of hands, and a large majority of the crowd raised hands.

In more coverage of the CPAC event, there was Sarah Palin, the former Alaskan governor who walked away from the job before the end of her term, to seek more attention on a national level. It met the standard of Mrs. Palin, the kind of stuff perfectly described by somebody a few years ago as a “word salad”.

Another current US senator appeared, Ted Cruz, another grotesque character making a place for himself in American politics and governance who doesn’t just manage to make the word “asshole” appear in mind every time he appears. He reminds me, to a really startling and disturbing degree, of another US senator from the past, Joseph McCarthy. It suddenly dawned on me one day that there’s even some vague physical appearance element to this goon that reminded me of old film of McCarthy in action.

It was a horror show.

Now, at this point, I must point out something that many people would be pointing out to me at this point in a face to face conversation. There are people, who put themselves in the “conservative” camp of present era American politics, who are actually raising issues about the long running state of perpetual worldwide war status of the United States military, and trying to pull their group into a more sensible position regarding the US military, actually bringing things back to a status and mode of operation where the US military has a mission of protecting the nation, not being some kind of worldwide imperial police force of an American empire. Some refer to this squabble as a schism, which might be a fair way to state it, but just the fact that this is an issue of major contention says a lot.

I really truly hate spending even this much time and space and thought on the political circus, a world that just seems more and more detached from reality with passing time. It’s old and stale and tedious and frustrating to talk about it. It’s a constant perpetual battle of petty squabbling that dances around much of any acknowledgement of the state of reality around us now, making the realm of American politics and governance as much of an absurd dance of pretense and delusions as most of corporate business management, and banking and finance, and damned near any realm of human activities and institutions now.


A few weeks ago, writer James Kunstler wrote an installment of his regular Monday blog, titled Scale Implosion. I’m sure I’ve already pointed to it in a previous note. It’s a very concise and succinct little piece, considering the subject matter. The thing that really struck me is that, really, when you get right down to basics, the title of that short essay really told the whole story in one neat little macro bite. All the rest is just explaining.

One thing that ended up being a fairly strange little side diversion from that is what happened then. It was reproduced on a batch of other websites, which is generally a good thing in terms of spreading the word and bringing attention to that piece, and all the rest of the stuff Kunstler is writing. Where it got a little weird, maybe much more than a little, is when, for some reason nobody explains to me, in at least a couple of places on the web, the title was changed by some website editor to “The Era of Giant Chain Stores Is Over — And They’ve Ruined America“.

That wasn’t really such a terrible title, depending on how you look at it, because it did actually convey part of the idea, but, then, for one thing, that wasn’t the title the writer gave it. It didn’t seem to occur to somebody that there might be a good reason why the writer titled an essay as they did, that it really meant something important.

There was an unfortunate result to this. The problem this caused is that at least some people appeared to be diverted into a particular mode of thinking about the stuff at hand a bit differently than what Kunstler intended. At least some people got going on some train of thought that this was all about trying to say that local Mom and Pop private independent retail shops were going to rise up and slay the mighty Goliath of Big-Box corporate chain retail. This kind of thought really misses the whole point Kunstler was trying to get across.

As I wrote, in a post in a web forum thread, trying to clarify the point here:

It’s like there’s this idea that the whole essence of that piece is that big chain retail corporations are going to collapse and evaporate; and then, instead of people hopping in the SUV and driving 10 miles to the cinderblock and sheetmetal shopping center to Big Box Inc. to buy a $20 hairdrier from China, they’ll hop in the SUV and drive 10 miles to the cinderblock and sheetmetal shopping center to Mom and Pop Local Stuff Shoppe to buy a $20 hairdrier from China.

That’s completely missing the whole larger picture here.

It’s not about a question of whether the store in slot 5 of Shady Oak Shopping Plaza will be owned and managed by Big Box Inc. or it will be owned and managed by Bill and Barb from down the street.

The point Kunstler was trying to get across was not that small local independent retail was going to rise up and slay Goliath, as I already said. It was that the phenomenon of giant mass scale corporate owned and operated chain store commerce, with everything about it, including 10,000 mile supply chains circling the planet, is headed for serious problems.

The trouble for all of us, going forward, is the extent that all that kind of operation that has become such a dominant status quo in America over recent decades has, along the way, massively disrupted and completely destroyed all sorts of ways of doing things, doing commerce, on a local and regional and even national level. When things get more problematic, what we will all be finding, here in 21st century America, is how much that used to be in place and functioning on an ongoing practical level has been wiped out, and we are going to have a major project on our hands in day to day functioning when the Big Box corporate retail operations contract and implode.

It’s amazingly hard to get this across to most Americans, even the fairly bright ones. I know that I read some online discussion commentary that, summed up, essentially just did some kind of restatement of the obvious about the various factors that made the big corporate big box chains become so dominant and cause the negative effects they have. The point is being missed, and it’s easy enough to understand what’s happening in that kind of thing. People are just simply glued firmly to ideas of how things are, how things work, based on their experience of their lifetime and their circumstances, as status quo, and anything that arises is viewed in that context. Basically, there’s an idea of status quo, this is how it has been, this is how it seems to be now (at least in their scope of view), therefore, that’s just how it will be.

It’s an old story in human history, unfortunately, that people get locked into that, they figure that status quo is now, and so it will be, and then, it isn’t. Things changed. And then people are startled and shocked and baffled, asking “what happened?”, even if there were people around who saw the changes coming, and told anybody who would listen all about it.

We’ve got a double hit of problems ahead, from the problems of so many things, so many kinds of systems and arrangements, being so oversized, overdone, overblown, overextended, that just are not sustainable, and the compounding problem that so many people are mentally attached to status quo notions of things they’re familiar with as being the norm, and the belief that, since that’s normal, that’s just how things are and will always be.

From the long running expansive jingoism of worldwide military empire, to manufacturing and retail commerce involving mass scale and supply lines from the other side of the world, to things like suburban sprawl over large areas and large scale industrialized corporate owned farming, we have a load of problems of scale.

I just paused to peek in on what’s happening on CNBC, and in there among other things that are important to note, there was yet another episode of somebody whose business, unsurprisingly, revolves around the enterprise of extracting hydrocarbon deposits from the Earth, chatting up happy notions of “energy independence”, including a text banner across the bottom of the screen announcing to the audience that the topic was “THE PATH TO ENERGY INDEPENDENCE”.

The president is on his own plan, of a sort, as recently reported in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. This sounds nice, up to a point, and just throws up another example of a kind of avoidance of reality that’s just a different kind of problem from the delusions so popular among so many people right now, found in all the propaganda telling people who don’t know any better, or just desperately want to believe, that we have some kind of new and boundless miracles in hydrocarbon deposits.

What’s missing in virtually anything you find getting the attention of the general public is anything even breathing the slightest hint that the right path in dealing with our “energy issues” is facing the fact that we’re in a society built up to operate on gluttony, and this is coming to a phase where this isn’t possible to continue as it is. People would rather deal with fantasies.

Political players do well telling people different fantasies, for different audiences, such as the example I pointed out earlier. The dog and pony show acts are familiar. Tell people that they can just keep driving their pickup trucks that rarely or never haul anything and sport utility vehicles that are rarely used for either sport or utility, maybe driving them 50 to 100 miles a day, because we have endless petroleum right under our feet, if only they vote for you and put you in power, not those other guys keeping your endless cheap oil from you. Tell them that there’s no problem, because we’ll just develop “renewables” and green energy and swap.

Most people don’t want to hear about the actual reality of petroleum, and the other forms of underground hydrocarbons. Most people don’t want to hear that we need to very seriously and quickly get on with figuring out all practical means of deriving energy from processes that don’t involve consuming finite resources, and that we’re decades behind on that, and that even with getting our act together in that work, none of that is going to simply substitute for the kind of energy quantities and return on investment of money and energy that we got from the windfall of hydrocarbons from ancient long term geological events.

They just don’t want to hear that we need to completely rethink and rework everything that currently depends on cheap transportation over long distances, and get back to local and regional scales of doing things, right down to basics of growing our food close to home.

We’ve designed and built ourselves into a dilemma, of arranging and building places and how we do things so that it all consumed massive amounts of the finite resource of petroleum necessary for it all to work. As somebody else recently wrote, instead of all the silly games of avoidance and shared delusions, shouldn’t we stop fooling ourselves and ask: what should we be doing differently?

The one thing that comes up as actually realistic is dealing with readjusting much of our sense of scale in terms of physical distances, as humans have done all the way up to the Oil Age. In much of the world, it’s the way people always have done, right up to now.

I’ve encountered people saying that it would be just a great idea for improved business fortunes for American car manufacturers to build and sell new cars and trucks to hundreds of millions of new customer motorists in China and India who have never owned and driven motor vehicles before. To some people, this seems like a wonderful idea that’s dead obvious, a new era of big expansive growth and fortune for the American manufacturers (even while one of the “Big Three” is actually owned by the Italians as a subsidiary of Fiat now). In the reality of the present and future petroleum circumstances, this is worse than a bad idea, it’s just full on batshit insane.

In China, which we should remember is a nation with the population of the United States plus about a billion more people, it used to be that whenever you saw anything on film or video from China, you saw city streets filled with huge masses of people moving around on bicycles. Now, that shows streets and roads absolutely jammed with cars and trucks, with an unbelievable permanent thick mass of smog wrapping everything in sight.

With a population now a little over 300 million people, for some time now the United States has been devouring roughly a quarter of the daily output of petroleum from the Earth. Now, imagine India, with a population of about 1.2 billion people, and China, with about 1.3 billion people, going full on into a nationwide program of being like us, spreading everything out in mass-scale suburban expansion and everybody going everywhere for every little task, purpose, and general activity in their own personal individual petroleum fueled vehicles.

How can people not grasp this? That’s a tough question. I can offer up my own guess to at least explain a little part of it, which is that hardly anyone in the US today actually has a clue about what reality is in the domain of petroleum, and hydrocarbon deposits in general. That’s one of the absolutely fundamental problems we have, and I’ve been hammering on that enough. No. That’s not right. It apparently isn’t enough.

I’m fairly sure that I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, if nothing else as an update as of mid March 2013. I still, at this point, have never, ever, ever, found myself personally in face to face conversation with so much as one single person who had any idea of the situation regarding oil in any terms of concrete reality, actual fact, and basic concepts. I’m not kidding. Not ONE. And I know some pretty bright people. Like I said, I’m pretty sure I’ve said this same thing before, but nothing has changed there.

Raise the subject and try to explain even the very short thumbnail sketch quick version of some basic facts and concepts, and you’re almost guaranteed to have an experience much like I’ve found repeated pretty much every time. First, you can’t even get through the shortest version without being interrupted by the person you’re talking to, as they launch into some assorted random cliches and platitudes that are just plain fucking nonsense, but is lodged in their head because it’s some stuff they heard or read, from either some random acquaintances or some writer in a periodical publication or on the web, who just don’t know what they’re talking about, or, in some more highly publically visible cases, of somebody writing, or some political character, should know what they’re talking about, but are propagating fiction.

I should mention that this is not something I constantly pontificate about with everyone I encounter. In fact, I don’t talk about it much in face to face encounters with people, just because it’s so predictable, and I know that it’s more likely than not that nothing will get past the assortment of nonsense and fiction and preconceptions they have in mind, or that they just don’t even want to think about it, because it’s such a downer, dude. The particular kind of political spells holding people captive are only side items, usually. All that often means is a difference between some interrupting chatter that says “oh, we’ve got plenty of oil, it’s just a matter of… blah, blah, blah blah, blah..” versus “yes, we need to get off fossil fuels and on to green energy and renewables, that we could do already, if only blah, blah blah, blah…“.

All that just takes it all back to the same very general problems of having a large set of interconnected problems of scale, excessive size and scale, with the kind of repeating difficulties of getting past people’s notions of anything and everything to explain or fix something except facing the basic underlying and overriding problems of excessive size and scale.








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