Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society

James Howard Kunstler is a leading writer on the topic of peak oil the problems it poses for American suburbia. Deeply concerned about the future of our petroleum dependent society, Kunstler believes we must take radical steps to avoid the total meltdown of modern society in the face looming oil and gas shortages. For background on this topic, read Kunstler's essay, "Finding Hope in a Post-Oil Society", which I posted on the Cyborg Democracy blog on January 3rd:
Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being "Mister Gloom'n'doom," or for "not offering any solutions" to our looming energy crisis. So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here are my suggestions:

1. Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed "greens" and political "progressives" are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymax™ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.

2. We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

3. We have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami ...) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components -- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

4. We have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.

5. We have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and kill local economies) -- they are going down. WalMart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They will not be able to run the "warehouses-on-wheels" of 18-wheel tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil. The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain stores systematically destroyed (with the public's acquiescence) will have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned "middlemen"). Don't be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a penchant for retail trade and don't want to work for a big predatory corporation? There's lots to do here in the realm of small, local business. Quit carping and get busy.

6. We will have to make things again in America. However, we are going to make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th century. The factories from America's heyday of manufacturing (1900 - 1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have already been demolished. We're going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don't know yet how we're going to make anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their minds and muscles into.

7. The age of canned entertainment is coming to and end. It was fun for a while. We liked "Citizen Kane" and the Beatles. But we're going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We'll need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).

8. We'll have to reorganize the education system.
The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won't be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage -- and, in any case, will probably out-perform today's average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

9. We have to reorganize the medical system. The current skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called "doctoring." Medical training may also have to change as the big universities run into trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let's hope that we don't slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the unsqueamish.

10. Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail -- everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

So, that's the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Report spurs backing for global body on warming

From World Science: "Fear of run­away glob­al warm­ing pushed more than 40 coun­tries to line up Sat­ur­day be­hind France’s bid for a new en­vi­ron­men­tal body that could sin­gle out—and per­haps po­lice—na­tions that abuse the Earth.

"It is our re­spon­si­bil­ty. The fu­ture of hu­man­i­ty de­mands it," French Pres­ident Jacques Chi­rac said in an ap­peal to put the en­vi­ronment at the top of the world’s agen­da.

He spoke at a con­fer­ence in Paris a day af­ter the re­lease of a grim land­mark re­port from the world’s lead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials that said glob­al warm­ing is so se­vere that it will “con­tinue for cen­turies” and that hu­mans are to blame.

The Intergovernmen­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change re­port sparked calls for fast, pla­net-wide ac­tion. But not eve­ry­one at Chi­rac’s con­fer­ence wel­comed the idea of a body that would de­fine and pos­si­bly en­force en­vi­ron­men­tal rules.

Key world pol­luters—in­cluding the Unit­ed States, Chi­na and In­di­a—steered clear, while Eu­ro­peans em­braced it. A to­tal of 46 coun­tries agreed to pur­sue plans for the new or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Form­er Vi­ce Pres­ident Al Gore, whose doc­u­men­ta­ry on the per­ils of glob­al warm­ing has scored two Os­car nom­i­na­tions, cheered Chi­rac’s ef­forts. Fri­day’s re­port was "yet an­oth­er warn­ing about the dan­gers we face. We must act, and act swift­ly," Gore said in recorded re­marks shown at the con­fer­ence. "We are at a tip­ping point."

The 21-page re­port said man-made emis­sions of heat-trapping "green­house gas­es" are to blame for few­er cold days, hot­ter nights, heat waves, floods and heavy rains, droughts and strong­er storms, particularly in the At­lan­tic Ocean.

The re­port found if noth­ing is done to change cur­rent emis­sions pat­terns of green­house gas­es, glob­al tem­per­a­tures could in­crease as much as 11 de­grees Fahr­en­heit by 2100. But if the world does get green­house gas emis­sions un­der con­trol—some­thi sci­en­tists say they hope can be done—the best es­ti­mate is about 3 de­grees Fahr­en­heit.

Sea lev­els are pro­jected to rise 7 to 23 inches by the end of the cen­tu­ry, the re­port said. By 2100, if noth­ing is done to curb emis­sions, the melt­ing of Green­land’s ice sheet would be in­ev­i­ta­ble and the world’s seas would even­tu­al­ly rise by more than 20 feet, said Aus­tral­ian sci­ent­ist Na­than­iel Bind­off, a co-author.

Au­thors of the re­port called it con­serv­a­tive: It used on­ly peer-reviewed pub­lished sci­ence and was edited by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of 113 gov­ern­ments who had to agree to eve­ry word. It was a snap­shot of where the world is with glob­al warm­ing and where it is head­ing, but does not tell gov­ern­ments what to do.

The pan­el, cre­at­ed by the Unit­ed Na­tions in 1988, re­leases its as­sess­ments eve­ry five or six years, though sci­en­tists have been ob­serv­ing as­pects of cli­mate change since as far back as the 1960s. The re­ports are re­leased in phases—Fri­day’s re­port was the first of four this year."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Rise of Christian Fascism and Its Threat to American Democracy

According to Chris Hedges, we must attend to growing social and economic inequities in order to stop the most dangerous mass movement in American history -- or face a future of fascism under the guise of Christian values. From his AlterNet article:
"Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, told his students that when we were his age -- he was then close to 80 -- we would all be fighting the "Christian fascists."

The warning, given 25 years ago, came at the moment Pat Robertson and other radio and television evangelists began speaking about a new political religion that would direct its efforts toward taking control of all institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government. Its stated goal was to use the United States to create a global Christian empire. This call for fundamentalists and evangelicals to take political power was a radical and ominous mutation of traditional Christianity. It was hard, at the time, to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously, especially given the buffoonish quality of those who expounded it. But Adams warned us against the blindness caused by intellectual snobbery. The Nazis, he said, were not going to return with swastikas and brown shirts. Their ideological inheritors had found a mask for fascism in the pages of the Bible."
Not surprisingly, Hedge's apocalypse reminded me of the near-future setting of Hugo- and Nebula-wining Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's novel Mindscan — a socially liberal Canada that provides a haven from fundamentalist Christian-controlled America — which I almost found as equally compelling as a plot offering plenty of philosophical speculation on the ethics of biotechnology and the nature of consciousness.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Commodity Reification and Transhumanism

James Hughes [Primary Cyborg, Social Movement-Construct Leader Class] says in an outdated intercepted listserve e-mail transmission:

For me "alienation" is a fundamental condition of symbolic consciousness, probably the only thing I agree with Zerzan on. Overcoming alienation is a spiritual, and hopefully technospiritual, goal, not something that can be accomplished by replacing market exchange with deliberative allocation of labor and stuff.

"Commodification," as a particular way of relating to things and people, is a specific feature of rational calculation in societies with exchange, but here I tend toward Marx's enthusiasm for commodification as a process of demystification of social relations rather than the romantic notion that commodification should be resisted.

Our [Phantom Cybernetic Construct Uplink] response:

Let’s not talk commodification, but the train of thought begun by Marx and later Marxists called ‘commodity reification,’ or the process by which concrete social relations begin to become abstractions. The first example of this was, of course, “labor,” followed by “capital,” and now in late capitalism the examples are endless. Thus, the human body itself becomes commodity in the sense that it is reified: made to represent something abstract, a consumable abstraction. The problem with this is that all these abstractions begin to mean the same thing, just as the value of all labor is equivalent.

Thus a battered wife (James’s example of rational commodification) choosing to leave her husband would probably have somehow broken out of the reification process, for otherwise she would see him as an abstract representative of truth/comfort, etc: whatever the dominant meanings for husband are. Or she might not leave him because all men signify the same value: a provider, an economy of desire, etc. And we all know the case studies/research/lived experiences that tell us that many people choose their own oppression, or as Deleuze and Guattari would say, desire it. Thus, under capitalism the battered-wife subject is more likely to choose another oppressive relationship than to choose a healthy one.

On the other hand, we accept your previous critique of our assertion that: “Under capitalism, we are not cyborgs, but desiring machines whose only purpose is the production of surplus value and the consumption of this production of surplus value by other machines, fragmenting us into less-than-human commodity-machines ourselves whose entire identity exists to serve those in power: the capitalist technocrats.” We admit this implied an Althusserian totality.

Thus we resignify: under capitalism we are aggregates of desiring machines: genitals, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc., that are written by the ‘social machine’ known as capitalism, but it is possible to disrupt this inscription through cybernetic control systems which rewrite our bodies to not desire our own oppression at the hands of our reified desire-systems. Like Buddha-nature under Zen ideology, however, this technology is available to everyone, but few will choose to utilize it, as it is easier to give in to the reification process and become just another desiring-machine.

But make no mistake: we do want to posit capitalism as destructive to all life, social systems, and ways of being. By reifying us down to the sub-conscious level (Deleuze and Guattari would say the molecular level) we become incorporated into the exploitative process of capitalism, incurring sociokarmic baggage along the way. We do not understand why you would resist this hypothesis, because we think that a transhuman democracy would necessarily entail a more equal sharing of resources, which would necessarily entail a rewriting of current desiring-production modalities, so as to provide for more equitable desire-needs-wants ratios among all citizens.

This is, also, a highly irrational process, we would like to point out, as rationality necessarily entails sign systems which tend to favor those in power. It makes rational sense, for example, to exploit your neighbor’s resources for your own benefit, but not intuitive sense, if within the hungry shell there is a ghost in the known as Buddha-nature or some other karmic construct that leads us towards compassionate behavior. Even if there isn’t, Deleuze and Guattari would say: there is always desire driving us, and the blockage of this desire is what causes suffering. Yes there will always be blockage, but not to the extremes found under late capitalism where the desire of the minorities continually overrules the desire of the majority.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Deadly Nature of "Non-Lethal" Weapons

From an AlterNet article by Silja J.A. Talvi of In These Times:

""Non-lethal" is still the operative term with all of these new weapons, but civilian experience with Taser stun guns shows that "non-lethal" means "usually not lethal." Since 2001, roughly 200 people have died after being stunned with Tasers. Taser International, Inc., attributes all of the deaths to other causes, including acute intoxication and "excited delirium." The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation to review some of those deaths.

The rapid evolution of electricity-based weaponry raises concerns for abuse by governments and law enforcement agencies that have already demonstrated a propensity to use electrical shock weaponry as a form of torture.

During a March 2005 debate with Taser CEO Rick Smith, Amnesty International USA's William Schulz pointed out that "stun technology in general is one of the most widely used instruments of torture around the world."

Human rights advocates everywhere should bear that in mind. The new wave of shock technology isn't just around the corner--it's already here."