in plain sight

I was doing some reading and encountered an interesting phrase, as somebody wrote “Awareness isn’t nirvana. It’s hell.“.

[Side note; the same piece of writing mentioned something worth noting, the writer offering “my contemporary definition of waste: a busload of economists goes over a cliff with an empty seat”.]

Everyone is familiar with the old classic “ignorance is bliss”. That, unfortunately, actually seems to be forming a basic philosophy for day to day life for some people, and, the truth is, as much as it might seem to be to some people, ignorance is not bliss. Especially in the time and place we find ourselves in, in early 21st century America, ignorance is not bliss, it’s serious trouble.

 

It would be a useful thing for every American alive today to stop everything, and spend a few minutes to read the inaugural address to the nation from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the occasion of his inauguration as President of the United States, almost exactly 80 years ago. This was a speech that is at least known in some small form by any American with even the most vague knowledge of American history, because of the one short excerpt that’s famous as a sound-bite snippet, that itself is an excerpt from one sentence, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”.

The context was FDR starting his long run as president, when the United States was almost three and a half years into the economic trainwreck we know as The Great Depression. Things over in Europe were looking more and more troubling, as Hitler in Germany had joined Franco, in Spain, and Mussolini in Italy, in pushing Europe into fascism, and the European continent in general had big troubles of their own.

The worst of the European trouble that would drag the United States into their mess on the other side of the Atlantic, was still some time off at that point. It would be six and a half years later that the German military went blasting into Poland and started the hell of World War Two, and almost nine years before a surprise appearance of Japanese Zeros over a quiet Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor would drag the US into what then became truly a world war. Roosevelt had plenty on his hands to deal with as it was, that day in March 1933, taking over one hell of a mess from Herbert Hoover.

The key point is, he dealt with it. There was no magic wand, and things didn’t suddenly all turn wonderful and perfectly resolved and fixed up just the way every single person could wish. The country also didn’t turn into a totalitarian dictatorship of either the communist or fascist variety. That was no small matter, considering the madness that was taking hold in Europe, where trouble and problems led to even bigger problems, with large numbers of people reacting to the troubles on hand by splitting up into groups losing their minds in different ways, embracing ideas of either fascism or communism. Reasonable and rational people trying to live life and deal with things sensibly found themselves overrun by conflicts between two opposing camps of angry lunatics.

There was no magic fix that made everything wonderful and brought fresh “growth” and prosperity for all. It did, at least, stabilize a mad and chaotic situation. Among other things, probably most important of all at the time, FDR brought a bit of sanity and adult supervision to the world of banking and finance and “the markets” that had gone completely insane over the decade of the Roaring Twenties, and crashed the entire economy of the United States of America, with ripple or domino effects elsewhere in the world.

We’re in a different period now, with substantial differences compared to where things were in early 1933, but with some profound similarities to the period of an extended run of bubble madness in banking and finance and “the markets” in the Twenties, that imploded on a severe and massive scale.

As we sit, here, now, no one is dealing with things anything like FDR did. The general response to circumstances has been to not only continue to leave the lunatics in charge of the asylum, but to offer all possible assistance and outright gifts to them while asking how else we might serve them, in some bizarre fog of delusional thinking that seems to hold the notion that this is the road to “economic recovery”.

The surreal absurdities that just keep coming include the naming of a new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission who, not surprisingly, is yet another member of the revolving door club between Wall Street banksters and the entities of government who are, supposedly, charged with the task of keeping some sense of sanity and order and honesty in place in banking and finance and the assorted trading markets. Another of this kind of character has been the Secretary of the Treasury of the US government over the past four years (Geitner), and now another of the same general cast of characters (Jack Lew) named to be his replacement for the next four.

We have this with Barack Obama as president, and if candidate Willard Romney had been elected president in the November 2012 election, this situation would have been the same or much worse.

The whole stinking ugly of Wall Street plutocracy taking over our government is not a new or secret story, which makes it all so much more obscene. It’s a messy subject of its own to figure out how much of it is a kind of bankster coup d’état, and how much of the situation is genuine madness and sheer stupidity, with people in authority in some mental process something like “we clearly need more foxes in charge of the henhouses, because those guys really understand this stuff“. I note that Matt Taibbi had used that very metaphor in writing about the appointment of Mary Jo White as new head of the SEC.

 

I wish that every American alive would sit back and read the text of Roosevelt’s inaugural speech. It shows a man taking the office of the presidency with a full grip on the reality of the circumstances, addressing a nation with a stark awareness of the circumstances, facing them squarely and candidly. It was a new president ready to deal with sorting out the mess and becoming a functional nation again, and not interested in indulging the bankers and brokers who had fucked up everything so thoroughly.

There are significant differences between the circumstances of the United States of 1933 and the United States of 2013, and that can’t be ignored; although that raises just one of the profound differences. From political leadership in government, to business leadership, to the general population, we have an extraordinary amount of trouble in people steadfastly ignoring things that can’t be ignored, sitting in plain sight.

 

One major difference is that, unlike the broad economic crash of 1929, that featured the crash of the US stock market, today, we have a stock market that, as I write, continues to virtually wet itself in excitement over the magic number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average hovering at record setting level. The thrashing buzz of the games of transactions on Wall Street seems to now act on its own as a game unto itself, almost completely detached from reality.

For several years now, part of the response of officialdom has been for the Federal Reserve Bank to make money available at virtually zero interest, with ideas being promoted that this will “get credit flowing again”, and “stimulate the economy” and “get economic growth going again”. As it appears to have actually worked, all this seems to have done is create more massive piles of debt and feed large amounts of what the banksters and traders see as effectively “free money”, in terms of not costing them interest, to feed into ever increasing casino games. That comes along with the games of turning around and making loans that might charge interest that, in a sane society, would fully qualify as usury, e.g., credit card interest rates.

The idea of “capital” and “investment” as feeding useful work getting done and things of useful material value seems to have been lost, tossed aside in favor of the money-changer casino games. In the meantime, a large portion of the American population wonders how it can manage to make a living, and things are falling apart and malfunctioning everywhere.

Another major difference was that in that troubled time 80 years ago, the people of the United States were generally referred to as people, sometimes as citizens, and not as “consumers“, never mind being almost universally referred to as “consumers”. Americans were not continually bombarded with the idea that their fundamental role and purpose in living was to consume.

In 1933, the United States government had not been on a program of spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on every conceivable expensive bit of military hardware and covering the entire planet with ambitions of being a worldwide ruling military empire, for decades, over a period as long as a full human lifetime.

The country had not spent decades pouring an enormous amount of the wealth and resources of the nation into the expansive spread of suburban sprawl, first to build it, and then to maintain it and operate in it, consuming the nation’s windfall of petroleum in the process.

That brings us to another difference between what Roosevelt and the nation were facing, and the circumstances we find ourselves in now. Roosevelt said, “Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.“. Now, eighty years later, we have managed to devour much of the natural resources of the North American continent. Even worse, it’s astonishingly hard to get people to even understand and acknowledge how badly we’ve stripped the place and squandered those resources. It’s not random coincidence that this is a situation we’re in after decades of being hammered with being told they’re consumers, and life is about consuming.

There’s a thought for you. One thing about American life in 1933 is that they knew that things were serious, and people didn’t maintain at all costs a nonstop quest to fill their homes and lives with pointless shit they didn’t need. People in the United States actually made virtually everything we bought and used, and what they bought, they maintained and repaired and kept. It was a much different thing than the contemporary chain of Chinese sweatshop factory, to diesel powered freighter crossing the Pacific, to a series of diesel powered trucks, to local Wal Mart or other corporate chain discount barn, to suburban tract house, to landfill.

People in that era also couldn’t isolate themselves in some bubble of distractions of unreality in video games and dozens of channels of idiotic television and Facebook and YouTube and perpetually playing with their mobile phones, substituting for actual human interaction and community in real neighborhoods where people constantly encountered each other and talked to each other and did things together.

 

We’re in a different time than 1933, but now, 80 years later, we are into what Strauss and Howe would describe in their book The Fourth Turning as a Crisis period, a Fourth Turning in their terms describing historical cycles of US history. The running question is, how many people are just ignoring it, or trying to pretend everything is something different than what it is, because they think that’s easier, or problems will just cease to exist if we do that, or somebody else will fix everything and make every wish come true while we jack around with our mobile phones and watch American Idol?

Dmitri Orlov wrote a really interesting piece a couple of weeks ago, that’s good for some perspective. It’s an interesting and useful observation on short term thinking versus thinking things through that work over the long haul. Read that, and take careful notice of his descriptions of St. Petersburg and how buildings are designed and built, and how they’re kept warm, how they function. As corrupt and dysfunctional as Russia appears to be, they actually manage to do some basic important things in functional ways that make sense. It’s worth noting what Orlov says about how, while the average Russian can’t go to some discount barn retail emporium and load themselves up with cheap gadgets and trinkets, education is a fairly low cost deal.

What I find especially important is not just what Orlov describes, and how different is to how things have been done and how things work here in the US, but realizing the kind of attitude problems that would get in the way of so many Americans even getting a clue or two from all that.

 

We have fairly severe problems, that the majority of the country won’t even acknowledge, in the result of decades of suburban expansion leaving us with most of the nation set up in a way that can only work with unlimited and cheap petroleum fuel. We’re now deep into the diminishing returns phase of petroleum, worldwide, four decades after our squandering of our petroleum resources brought the US to the peak of Hubbert’s curve and into the decline of depletion. Added to that, incidentally, we also built a lot of it to use natural gas for heat and other purposes, another finite hydrocarbon also into diminishing returns of depletion.

The insane mess of banking and finance means that capital, funding for needed work, is tied up in that whole snarled and paralyzed mess. This makes for some major problems in terms of how we can rebuild our cities and make new arrangements of how we live, do commerce, and generally function, to deal with that reality.

Added to that, the costs of the suburban arrangements are a gigantic load of what people call “sunk costs”, to maintain it all, including all the spread out municipal supports and infrastructure. Added to that, of course, is the increasing costs of just getting around in all that we’ve spread out so much, from the increases in cost of what will only be more expansive petroleum from here on out. That is, except for a case where economic effects of people unable to pay the costs brings things to a crawl, and demand collapse collapses petroleum prices.

Most people respond to any whiff of this with all the absurd, irrational, and basically emotional responses I’ve talked about before so often. The just wig out. It’s exactly the stuff that James Kunstler nailed perfectly with a line about how when societies get highly stressed, delusional thinking increases, and we’re there, now.

They either respond with fantasies detached from reality that say that, somehow, we just have never ending abundance in hydrocarbons, or a different kind of thing, present in a lot of wishful thinking and fantasies, acting like people who had collected some massive windfall in a lottery jackpot, and now, having pissed most of it away, thinking that they’ll just magically collect another lottery jackpot and keep going as they have been.

The different kind of wishful thinking holds irrational beliefs, without ever thinking anything through, doing the math, or even researching the basic facts, that we’ll just replace fossil fuel hydrocarbons with assorted “green energy” and renewables. Presto, change, substitute and on we go. No, we’re not, not the way some people think.

For a nation that seems to be full of images of ourselves as world leaders in technology, and generally more advanced than the rest of the world, we’re way behind in developing ways to power things that are not depending on finite geological deposits that we knew long ago were finite. We need to be getting on that kind of work as a full top priority national project. We also must get our heads around the simple fact that no combination of any of those kinds of things will power everything we’re doing the way we’ve been doing it on the scale we’ve been doing it.

Simply put, we need to be making arrangements accordingly, and few people are even understanding this. There’s no public consensus about it, nothing substantial happening on this project that’s so urgent. It’s just almost unbelievable to watch all the squabbling about whether projects to power things by means other than burning what’s left of the underground hydrocarbon deposits windfall are important. How can this even be up for debate?

The worse thing is that the thing that’s even more important is almost completely ignored, beyond the need to be devoting as much work and money as possible to working on ways to power things without finite resources. We also need to get heads straight as soon as possible on something that should have been obvious decades ago. This is that nothing else we simply replace the fossil-fuel hydrocarbons and provide the sheer quantity of energy and the kinds of returns on investment that these fuels have provided over the past century and a half or so, in terms of both financial returns on investment, and energy returns on energy invested.

 

This comes down to a very simple summary of an incredibly complex problem here. We have to scale back all kinds of things about everything that has come to depend on unlimited amounts of cheap hydrocarbons. And unfortunately, even that probably needs to be made clear, as so much can get lost in the swirl of noise around us. Saying what I just said probably makes a lot of people think instantly in terms of what we’ve all become too accustomed to, of notions of “downsizing” that mean “toss overboard people working in return for pay to cut costs”.

That isn’t what “scale back” means. Mostly, it’s about the sheer scale of things in terms of distances, a factor that people became less and less concerned about as passing years and decades made people more comfortable in illusions that petroleum was effectively endless (“effectively” essentially meaning “not a problem in my lifetime”) and that cheap unlimited petroleum for transportation machinery fuel meant distance was not the issue it had been though all of human history previous to the oil age.

It means getting back to operating in many things more locally, and regionally. It also means that the vast expanses of suburban expansion over the past 60 years or so are going to become more and more dysfunctional because of petroleum problems, and we have a major overhaul ahead of us.

I’ve already said this. It bears repeating, especially since I still see no signs of general public consensus in understanding any of this.

Even if the self aggrandizing collection of fools, pretenders, and madmen dominating national government understood this, in terms of government action, we have the consequences of the decades of trying to be a worldwide military empire and the insane amounts of money and resources squandered in that.

All of this is staring us in the face.

The absolute necessity that’s required before everything else is for people to start standing up and telling the truth to the nation about reality, as it is.

As we sit now in the early month of a second term of Barack Obama as President, it’s looking more and more like he might be heading for a future historical view of being another Herbert Hoover. There’s not a lot I see to celebrate in his reelection as president, only a sense that it could have been so much worse, had Willard Romney won the election, a possibility that’s still horrific to contemplate even now that it has passed.

There’s a very good piece on the Post Carbon Institute site, about why assumptions matter. It quotes a report online called The Perfect Storm: energy, finance and the end of growth, with this text:

“Fundamentally, what had happened here was that skilled, well-paid jobs had been exported, consumption had increased, and ever-greater quantities of debt had been used to fill the gap. This was, by any definition, unsustainable. Talk of Western economies modernising themselves by moving from production into services contained far more waffle than logic – Western consumers sold each other ever greater numbers of hair-cuts, ever greater quantities of fast food and ever more zero-sum financial services whilst depending more and more on imported goods and, critically, on the debts used to buy them. Corporate executives prospered, as did the gateholders of the debt economy, whilst the vast majority saw their real wages decline and their indebtedness spiral”.

That pretty concisely summarizes quite a lot about where we are now. It also leaves out a hell of a lot.

We have too many people operating on too many assumptions that are seriously flawed, and unable to let go of them.

 

 

 

 

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