Monday 2013.04.01

It’s funny. As I started to think about writing this, I stopped, looked back, and found that almost exactly a year ago, I had written a note with nearly the same title. Maybe it’s because of spring. Maybe it’s more a simple matter of the fact that when you size it all up, we’re in pretty much the same circumstances as a year ago.

It’s hard to attribute the choice of topic to the onset of spring, because it’s not really kicking in here so far. It’s an odd beginning to spring, where, here in my region of the United States, spring hardly seems to be even trying to take hold as we reach the end of March, with some pretty rough weather over the winter over most of the US, whereas last year, winter barely happened. There are things happening that are beating us over the head with clues, but how well are we taking them onboard?

I sit and think about what to say under the topic heading of today, thinking about how much needs a major overhaul. More to the point, I’m thinking about how badly most people in my country are managing to avoid that thought, never mind moving forward.

Instead, we get all kinds of noisy bullshit and distractions, celebrity gossip infotainment, raging arguments about gay marriage as the big issue of our time, rabble rousing paranoid idiocy telling people Sharia Law is about to take over America and destroy freedom, and on and on it goes.

A couple of items were on my mind prompting things as I thought about what I needed to say here.

One was an article that should have grabbed headlines and been a top story in daily news broadcasts. But, then, for that matter, a recent online piece by Chris Hedges pretty much addresses the state of health of television news right now.

A New York Times article reports that the American Society of Civil Engineers has released their latest report evaluating the general state of infrastructure in the United States. Using a letter-grade ranking, like a school report card, they gave the state of things a D+. This is reported as an improvement, because according to the story, the last time, the report issued four years ago in 2009, the grade was a D.

Meanwhile, here we are now, ten years past the start of the second war episode in Iraq, the second of two wars sending the US military into Iraq, without being declared as a war by Congress. That was supposed to be an easy operation that would maybe last a couple of months, liberate Iraq, have us, the United States, hailed as liberators, and maybe even cost little to nothing in the final balance, paid for by Iraqi oil.

The war was over, in the strictest formal sense, within a couple of months. Then began the chaos and civil war conflict, with the US military in the middle of it for years.

The deception of our political leaders at the time is well known now, has been for years, and more comes to light as time passes. Added to this a few days ago was an article somebody pointed out online, Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil, on the CNN website, explaining really old news that’s still some brand new revelation to a lot of people.]

Of course all that happened as we also already had an entire separate war, in another place on the other side of the planet, in Afghanistan.

We’ve had more than a decade of this, although “combat operations” in Iraq are officially over, costing something like several trillion dollars, with several thousand US military service people killed, and much larger numbers wounded, many of them crippled and maimed and ruined for life.

The tragedy of cost to people’s lives that were lost, or ruined for life, is huge, while being told they were “defending our freedom”, even though they were essentially stuck into the middle of two different local civil wars on the other side of the world, and it wasn’t really about anybody’s freedom.

The financial costs to the nation are tricky to sort out. While this might be a slight oversimplification for the sake of brevity, it’s probably fair to summarize it by saying that, essentially, we haven’t paid the costs, as it was just piled up as debt. Instead of dealing with two long running and unnecessary wars on the other side of the planet by paying for them with some form of supplemental “war tax”, we had not one, but two tax cuts as a kind of political theater playing for cheap applause.

It’s not unreasonable or unrealistic to say what’s a common claim in some political factions now, that government just can’t afford to do many things. The bare basic bottom line reality is a whole giant messy batch of delusions and raw dishonesty about how and why that could be.

Consider the story of the big military hardware project of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I knew that had some big problems, but it’s way worse than I knew.

I’m starting to wear out the link, but President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about this, in his last speech to the nation before turning the White House over to JFK. He clearly warned the nation about squandering the wealth and resources of the nation in insane ambitions of being some kind of military empire. Yet, that’s exactly where we went, and here we are, 52 years later, with the problems Eisenhower warned us about.

There’s also the huge issue that seems to be completely avoided by nearly everyone chattering in the political realm or news media about the finances of our government, which is something around 2.5 trillion dollars “borrowed” by the US federal government from the accounts of the Social Security Administration, which was supposed to be kept separate entity from the rest of the federal government’s finances; our money.

The people yapping about needing to “reform” Social Security (when they basically mean to start destroying it) because they say it’s a load on the federal govenrment budget that can’t be sustained because of it’s financial problems never mention this 2.5 trillion missing from Social Security, and nobody seems to be asking what financial shape the SSA would be in if this missing money were where it belongs. People chattering about the size of the federal government debt never seem to acknowledge that 2.5 trillion dollars of the debt are actually this money owed back to the Social Security program, meaning us, everyone paying into Social Security (which, despite a lot of bullshit about it, is not “free stuff from the government”, it’s our money, collectively, we the people pay for this insurance program for ourselves.

The question of what has been done with that “borrowed” mass of money is carefully avoided. Think about that when you think about the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were largely not paid for, or the continuing program for the F-35 aircraft, at a cost something between $100 million and $250 million per plane, depending on the information you look at, that apparently doesn’t actually work.

There’s something that’s somewhere between deeply ironic and just grossly obscene in witnessing some of the rhetorical chattering and theater in US national politics about the constitution, and thinking about the actual constitution and what “the Founding Fathers” said. Right there in the preamble of the document, there are the words about “…to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity… “.

The people getting most righteous and rhetorical and hyperbolic about the constitution might do well to think about the massive amounts of money spent described as being for “defense and national security“, and deal with the questional relevance of much of it to actually provide for the common defense, and how much of it is about delusions of grandeur of being a worldwide military empire dominating the planet. Anybody attempting to honestly and responsibly address matters of government in terms of promoting the general welfare are likely, no, certain, to be attacked as “left wing radical socialists”.

It’s nearly impossible to talk in simple straightforward terms about the proper role of government in maintaining and protecting what we can cover under the broad term of “the public commons”, without being bombarded with that kind of raging nonsense.

However, I’m not here to write pages and pages about all the irresponsible mismanagement of our government by fools, madmen, and outright bandits. The main concern right here, as it involves all I just described, is in a pair of seriously problematic courses we’ve followed here in the United States of America, basically ever since the end of the second world war. Both involve a massively large scale misallocation of wealth of money and resources. Both have led us to pretty grimly serious circumstances and repercussions, and all of it is being avoided in what is hard to avoid describing as some kind of national mental illness of denial and delusions, in avoiding facing the idea that, over a course of decades, we’ve royally fucked up. We’ve really screwed the pooch.

One is in the way we’ve done exactly what President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about as he prepared to leave the White House at the end of his second term, 52 years ago, squandering the nation’s wealth on ambitions of worldwide military empire.

The other is in the decades long project of outward expansion of cities into suburban sprawl, which not only poured enormous amounts of money and resources, both in government and all the personal and business matters people throw under the heading of “private sector”, into an arrangement of places and systems that are unsustainable.

Both of those decades long large scale phenomena take us right back to this insane situation, where we can actually find people cheering about the improvement of a national infrastructure condition grade of a D+ from a D, while somehow avoiding the reality of facing the question of how this state of affairs could come to be.

The whole subject of infrastructure is not all entirely a federal government matter, of course. Much of it is a state or local matter. It still shares a common problem of people not wanting to pay for anything. On a local level, a great deal of the problems come down to the source issue of how we’ve dispersed and dissipated municipalities and communities in suburban sprawl, spreading resources thin, not just in construction, but in ongoing maintenance and repair.

In their book Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck do an extensive examination of the problems of the American suburban experiment.

One neatly illustrative concept they use to pretty much sum up one core problematic issue is the description of how decades of single use zoning laws and new suburban development has divided the areas involved into “pods”. It’s easy enough to see and understand, since an awfully large number of Americans live and work in areas exactly like what they describe. It might describe where you are right at this moment. The layout of things following single-use zoning laws and planning ends up with residential pods, commercial pods, industrial pods, separate isolated little islands, with the day to day routine of everyone living and working in these zones being to get in a petroleum burning vehicle and driving substantial distances.

In the book, they spell this out, complete with illustrative diagrams. They lay out an example showing how it’s nothing unusual to have a situation where somebody’s house can have a grocery store literally only one or two hundred feet away from the house, but, to actually get to the store, they must travel maybe a half mile or so, maybe a mile, by road, to get to the store, because of the way things are laid out, complete with obstacles inherent in the zoning laws and resulting physical arrangements.

Talking about this runs into weird conceptual problems of people unable to even grasp and accept what’s wrong with all this. For all but the oldest people in America alive today, the project of suburban arrangements is just regarded as normal and natural. A lot of people will look at you like you’re a madman if you even suggest that there’s a problem, and that we should have done things differently.

This stuff is how we’ve managed to blow through the one time large windfall of petroleum in the United States and reach the all time peak of oil production way back in 1970, into diminishing returns ever since, as we now devour roughly one quarter of the entire world’s daily crude oil extraction, while being somewhere around 5% of the world’s human population. People are generally not facing this, as I’ve been trying to get people to understand, and as I’ve also been talking about regularly, over the past year or two we’ve been seeing public attention instead dominated by an increasing frequency of writings and news chatter about the petroleum situation that I think is best described as aggressively delusional.

That causes big problems, often taking advantage of people not knowing what the term “peak oil” actually means. The barrage of nonsense flying around appears to be convincing many people who don’t know what the petroleum situation is that there’s some newly discovered endless cornucopia of oil, with the people writing and saying this delusional nonsense often citing a list of things that are presented as proof of their argument, that are actually clear evidence of how far we are into diminishing returns. I’ve read a few of these kinds of things over the past year or so that throw out phrases in the piece (or even put it in the title) like ” ‘peak oil’ is dead”, which is as absurd as saying something like the laws of thermodynamics have been repealed.

Even people who somewhat realistically grasp what our petroleum problem is, that we are into diminishing returns and hitting limits in petroleum are often given to simply thinking “well, then, we’ll just have to switch over to renewable alternative energy”, as if we can just change everything to run on something different, but continue everything of the status quo as is.

Very few people are pointing out the obvious basics, that to deal with things realistically as they are, as the universe actually works, we have to rearrange and redesign a huge amount of what we do and how we’re doing it to use less energy doing it. I’ve said this before, and it needs to be repeated, because of one basic problem. At this point, almost nobody in high visibility positions of leadership or news media is pointing this out to people and pressing people to get their heads around it, now. People would simply rather maintain the pretenses and delusions that one miracle or another will allow everything to run just as it is, endlessly.

If you chime in on the “energy issue” and tell people that possibly one of the best possible courses of action we could take to deal with our growing energy supply and consumption problems is to immediately scrap “single-use zoning” laws and regulations, I suspect most people would look at you like you were a madman. They can only think in terms of “what new sources of energy will just continue running everything as it is now?”, the same as what they’ve known over their lives, as things have been over the past decades of recent American history.

At the end of the day, we have to somehow make peace with the fact that the earth is not just a giant cookie jar that is going to give us everything we want. We have to moderate our demand for energy and everything else so that it’s commensurate with Earth’s ability to supply our wants and needs. – Richard Heinberg

There are people who understand the problems we have with the way places have been laid out over the course of the postwar subburban experiment here in America (and Canada), and how to correct at, under the general banner of “New Urbanism“. It’s unfortunate that some people react badly to anything with the suffix of “ism”, or “ist”, like it’s some new ideology.

It’s really a very simple and basic school of thought, grounded completely in reality. The New Urbanists are simply people thinking about how to proceed into the future about what we build and how we build it, how we arrange cities, the places where we live and work, by recalling and recovering all the knowledge of how to make places where people can function as they have through human history, with the exception of what we’ve done in the oil age. They understand making cities function well, and be places where live is worth living, without the need to jump in some petroleum fueled machine to carry us miles and miles to get to every little thing we do. It’s not a weird and complicated idea.

It’s not a weird or complicated idea, but it’s also not easy. There’s no magic wand that just fixes everything. So, it’s tough to get this across.

The suburban experiment of the United States (and Canada) over the past 60 years or so is simply not sustainable. Realistically, it’s now over, regardless of what remnants of twitching nervous energy there might be, like in residual subdivision development projects people are still trying to keep going because of the money they have sunk into them.

Reality itself is going to determine the course of things, regardless of whether anybody understands what’s happening, or likes it. I might not have the universe all figured out but this much I know.

It seems likely to me that, all things considered, that the changes that simply are going to happen, one way or another, are going to happen in some kind of assortment of ad hoc immediate-present responses. It might be most probable that what will end up happening, in a long, gradual, and somewhat improvisational way, is that people with at least some general practical sense of reality as it’s unfolding will take on projects of finding ways to retrofit suburbia. This is the general idea addressed in an article I read recently, Ellen Dunham-Jones on retrofitting suburbia.

This will probably be more or less the general kind of course ahead, as necessity forces different arrangements of places and how we do things, whether or not people actually understand the problems bringing the necessity front and center. It will probably end up in assorted ad hoc improvisations because of people not understanding, until the repercussions of diminishing returns in petroleum simply make it more and more problematic to have everything spread out. This is going to be an increasing problem at all levels, from getting around in daily life and work, and functioning locally, up to assumptions of easy cheap long distance travel, whether it’s personal, or transferring things around in conducting commerce, right up to notions of “globalization” as a permanent state of affairs.

We have some mighty problems, repercussions following massive misallocation of money and resources over more than a half century. We’ve done this in trying to dominate the entire planet with an American empire war machine, and a nonstop program (until recently, anyway) of outward suburban expansion. We’ve bankrupted government in America at all levels, not just the federal government, and this is a severe problem in maintaining the public commons and general welfare in all kinds of ways.

We have a pressing need to rearrange much of America, as the dysfunction of suburbia, when faced with no longer limitless and cheap petroleum fuel, is going to rapidly become more impossible to ignore.

The monumental mess of the insanity that’s been building for years in banking and finance, and broke into full on crisis a few years ago, continues just as bad as ever. It’s maybe worse than ever as none of the problems were really dealt with honestly and resolved, and this creates all kinds of paralyzing problems in the area of what we call capital. These kinds of problems affect everything, but in particular, this is one major reason why I think much of the rework we have to do will be oriented around the kind of improvised adaptation suggested by Ellen Dunham-Jones, more than a great coodinated conscious grand plan of American reconstruction.

The consequences and repercussions of all this are food for loads of books for present and future historians. There’s a good chance that future historians will look back on us, Americans living in this period of history, and not speak kindly of us, for many reasons. The phrase “what the hell was wrong with those fools?” will probably come up more than once, as people review and reflect on this time and place.

We have a lot that needs to be fundamentally overhauled on a large scale, if we wish to have a functional society, as the diminishing returns of petroleum get more pressing and limiting. This presents a giant batch of problems to work through, aggravated beyond belief by just the sheer bloody minded obtuse refusal of so many people to even get their heads around what the problems are.

We have a lot of work to do. We have to start by getting to grips with understanding it.

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