What would you do in a deflationary economy? I mean what would your job be? Shockingly, given what I know of economics, unsustainability, the fallacy of infinite growth, I’ve never asked myself this question. I’ve been mulling these issues for at least the last 8 years and I’ve never thought to stop and ask that question: what would I do? What will I do? This becomes vitally important if you agree with Michael Ventura’s latest column as I do. 100%. If you know me, you know how seldomly I say I agree with anything 100%. I’ve even prevaricated on Ventura before. But not this time. This time he’s right there, dead in the middle of the mainstream of my own thought processes.
I think, I hope, or anti-hope as the case may be, that the events of the last two weeks in New Orleans point out that Chicken Little is dead. The sky does, in fact, fall. Is falling, at all times, all around us. Entire classes of thinking that were once off limits in general discussion because they represented “doomsday thinking” are, I think, back on the table. The globe is warming. The oil is running out. The American lifestyle is unsustainable. It’s gone right from unattainable (by most) to unsustainable (by any). I’m scared.
Something I was thinking about the other day, sort of in line with this, was how abstract my job is. Well, not my “job,” but the way I make money. What occurred to me is that I don’t work for people. I have contacts, of course, but there’s nothing I can do for another human being that justifies my wage. I can only work for giant corporations, the gianter the better. This only occurred to me because I noticed that I spend increasing amounts of time working for companies who work for companies who ultimately work for companies you’ve actually heard of, like Microsoft and Nokia. This kind of tertiary-consumer-of-consumers status (the biological equivalent of which would be if I could survive only by eating bald eagles fed solely on dolphin meat) crept up on me in such a way that I haven’t even bothered to put the fact that I’ve “worked for” Microsoft and Nokia (et. al.) on my resume. They don’t know I’ve worked for them, and I don’t feel like I’ve worked for them, but I can’t avoid the fact that I’ve materially contributed to these companies. There are products and events and web sites and emails out there that wouldn’t have existed in the form they did and do if I hadn’t been involved and yet would have existed in some way whether I was involved or not. And my point is, I can only work at that level of abstraction. My skills are only useful as a minor contributor to a huge endeavor. There’s no way an individual can use my skillsâ€”they’re too specialized. No one, personally, needs a .NET programmer. No one has an urgent need for a SQL query at home. The fact of the matter is, many of us, most of us, are in this same position. How many farmers do you personally know? How many direct-care workers? How many people for whom the supply chain of a good or service is one link long?
Putting this together with Ventura’s observation, you get a distinctly troubling picture. If the American experience is unsustainable, then it stands to reason that the more abstract, corporate-based, marketing-related aspects of it are even more so. Even in a best-case scenario, I’m left to contemplate my chances of being in a better seat as the plane goes down in flames. What I mean is that, cynically, I can look at my skill set and say, well, there will be someone exploiting the situation even as the whole house of cards comes down, and I just need to be relatively closer to them than I am to the people living in abandoned sports arenas. Even the devil needs databases. Even disasters require websites. If we really do hit $10/gallon for gas while trying desperately to cling to a global consumer economy (in this, by the way, “they” are the global and “we” are the consumer), then it’s conceivable that a bit-pushing lifestyle will continue to hold some advantage. I mean if worse really does come to worse I can probably sweat it out with a cable modem and a window air conditioner for a while. It probably doesn’t make sense to do anything radical, at least until we see if Austin gets consumed by the great equatorial desert or the descending Arctic glaciers. You never know, this could be the garden spot. Except not literally, because you can’t really grow anything edible here.
Which leads to the real problem: food. Everything else degrades relatively gracefully. I can stop driving, fill in the swimming pool, turn off the lights, cut the cable, stop buying new gadgets. But when $10/gallon gas leads to a $6 Wendy’s super-value menu, we’re all fucked. Man if you think the economy is going to suffer as the price of gas triples (you know, from the point now where it has already tripled), if you realize the price of everything goes up with the price of transportation and that this puts a devastating drag on our infinite-growth-dependent economy (and you’d be right in thinking these things), then wait until the price of food triples and then triples again. Even low-quality foods that are dirt cheap todayâ€”bread, rice, beans, beef, peas, tomatoesâ€”are trucked hundreds or thousands of miles from where they’re grown, processed or manufactured.
Plus, to grow food you need predictable weather. If you’ve got constant monster stormsâ€”be they coastal hurricanes or plains tornadoesâ€”how do you get through a growing season? How do you fish? Couple this with high transportation costs and you’ve got a literal recipe for disaster. Right now we’re an overweight nation. Very quickly we could become (just another) starving one.
I think what has just happened in New Orleans highlights just how close we are to total collapse at any moment. How quickly the American experience can devolve into a literally pedestrian quest for drinkable water and any food at all (not to mention all the “would be nice” things like clothing and diapers). We like to think of ourselves as having reached the pinnacle of civilization, the absolute opposite of hand-to-mouth, survival-based living. It takes almost nothing, less than 24-hours of bad weather apparently, to put a chunk of our citizenry into the worst conditions of inhumane suffering imaginable. See what happened right there? Pinnacle of civilization to worst imaginable. All it took was a storm. A storm that we not only saw coming days in advance but whose inevitability we recognized years in advance. And still this thing turned a corner of “the greatest country on earth” into the worst place on earth for the people left behind.
I think a lot of us looked at the recent Asian tsunami, at that level of suffering, and thought, “we’re so lucky; that could never happen here.” And even if it did, we have the resources to react instantly and prevent most of the human suffering and alleviate any that slips through the net. I think Katrina shows us we were wrong. We’re not prepared for local calamity, much less global catastrophe. And what’s almost worse is we’re willfully, intentionally, arrogantly unprepared. We see the need and ignore it. Ventura’s right: we are implicated. Worse, we’re complicit.
The problems of global warming and a petroleum-based economy are going to work themselves out exactly the way New Orleans’ neglected levees did: in conflagrations of catastrophic failure leading to societal collapse and human suffering. We scoffed at “perfect storm” (and Katrina wasn’t even that perfect, think of that) predictions the same way we scoff at global-warming, carbon-load, ice-age, acid-ocean, petroleum economy-collapse predictions. It’s all such a doomsday din, we almost can’t listen. We can’t fully consider the consequences because of what it would mean for our future and the next generation. It’s a weird sort of masochism. We can’t not consume the video and stories coming out of the Gulf region. Many of us are even driven to help in material and non-material ways. But what we can’t do is use it to learn any kind of lesson or ask any questions. We can’t bear to say, “what if?” In the face of total hell in the here and now, “what if” is still worse than what is. How can that be? Where does that fear come from? It’s pretty clear that Katrina (as a catastrophe, probably not as a weather event) could have been prevented, if only a fraction of the post-disaster thought and response effort had been put in up front. The same could be said about 9/11. The difference is that reaction is always perceived as 100% justifiable, even if it requires 10 times the effort. Planning, preparedness, forethoughtâ€”these are viewed as luxuries, gambles, controversies, line items to be negotiated and ultimately cut. No one could prove that a hurricane would one day wipe New Orleans off the map until it actually happened. Somehow that’s a justification for not preparing for it, and of definitely not facing up to how we’re probably making storms like this more likely and more devastating in the future.
I think this all goes back to a pervasive cocktail of anti-scientific fatalism and politico-economic management theory. There’s a prevailing view that says that disaster cannot be accurately predicted and therefore a high level of preparedness is unjustified. On an individual level this would be like asserting that since we never know exactly when or how we will die, we may proceed as if we will never die and therefore it’s okay not to prepare a last will and testament. As anyone who has experienced a probate can tell you, the results of this kind of thinking can be disastrous. As anyone who lived in the former city of New Orleans can tell you, this is exactly how our federal and state institutions behave. The results are even more literally disastrous.
So what? So here’s my advice: Instead of continuing to consume the news surrounding the aftermath of Katrina, instead of basking any longer in the human suffering, take a step back and consider what this event means. Clearly (or at least so far) this is a less politically-charged event than 9/11, so it might actually be possible to ask the tough questions. And I’m not even talking about the misdirection of resources that might have improved the levy situation. I’m not even talking about the fact people could and should have been evacuated. I’m talking bigger picture. I’m talking about asking why the veil of civilization turned out to be so woefully thin in this small city in the greatest nation in the world. I’m talking about asking what will happen if the price of gas (and food, because ultimately gas is food, it’s all one economy) triples and triples and triples again in our lifetimes. I’m talking about asking what will happen as the ambient average temperature of the temperate regions of our planet continues to rise by a degree a every few years, as the pH of our oceans continues to fall, as water levels rise and greenhouse gases mount. I’m talking about looking at New Orleans and asking, if we’re this fragile, if people and society and the planet are this unstable, right below the surface, where are we headed? And isn’t there something we can do about it? And if there is, don’t we have to? Because if we don’t, isn’t it going to “work itself out?” Just like the levees did? Just like 9/11 did? Are we really comfortable with just letting things work themselves out the way they seem to be lately?
I started out asking, what will I do after the shit comes down, after the collapse begins (it may look like more of an implosion when it gets in full swing). I’ve ended up asking, what will I do now, before the shit starts coming down full-time. These are questions we can ask, which I hope puts us in a slightly better position than other cultures that have historically faced collapse. Maybe that’s progress. If we do it.