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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fast Train Revisited: What’s a Doomer Chick to Do?

Oh you’ve been on a fast train

And its going off the rails.

And you can’t come back, can’t come back again.

And you start breaking down, in the pouring rain

Oh, you’ve been on a fast train.

….Got to go on the land.

Stuck in no-man’s land.

Ain’t nobody on your way back.

Ain’t nobody going to lend you a helping hand.

And you start breaking down

And you falling to the sound

You are hearing a fast train. - Van Morrison, sung by the incomparable Solomon Burke

Despite the fact that there are plenty of people out there who view me as wildly apocalyptic, I don’t actually consider myself a doomer. My own feeling is that while radical restructuring awaits us, our future probably won’t look much like _The Road_. I have argued that what we face due to peak energy, climate change and our financial crisis can best be described as “ordinary human poverty” - and we can do much to mediate our experience, that we can experience either an ordinary, survivable poverty or one that becomes pathological, based on our own choices.

On the other hand, compared to the mainstream culture, which tells us endlessly that things will stay the same or get better always, I am, of course, your friendly neighborhood Apocalyptic Dominatrix of Doom. That’s me, cracking the whip over my readers to get their gardens going, food storage in order, learn to darn socks and fix their own roofs, etc… Carolyn Baker was kind enough to mention me as a notable Dystopian chick in her well deserved rebuke to the New Yorker. So even though I often spend time observing “well, I don’t really think that we’re literally going to see TEOTWAWKI” I suppose I qualify as one of Cassandra’s descendents.

A while back, I wrote my doomiest post to date, when I sat down to compose a section of _A Nation of Farmers_ that described the changes in food and energy issues as of last April. I was so shocked at what the aggregate shift in our reality looked like put down on paper that I posted it as “We regret to inform you…”and I argued that we are, in fact, in the midst of a fast crash of our society. I wrote then,

When climate change and peak oil thinkers run out of other things to worry about, there’s always the endless, inevitable debates about whether we are facing a “fast crash” or a “slow grind.” And I admit, I’m worried about my fellow environmentalists - because I think they are about to lose their favorite distraction. When no one was looking, we got an answer. Fast crash wins. And we’re in it now.

Wait a minute, you argue - that’s not right. If we were in a fast crash we’d be well on our way to living in a Kunstler novel. But we’ve still got cars, we’ve got food, things are slowing down, but at worst this looks like a slow grind - but the crazy lady at the blog is saying fast crash?!?!?

Before you argue with me (and you are both welcome and encouraged to), I’d like to post something a bit out of my usual style - it is simply a description of what has happened with food and energy in the last year - that’s all it is. Then tell me what you think - because it wasn’t until I began to write this introduction to the present food situation that I suddenly was struck by the fact that even a fast crash doesn’t always look fast when you live it - new normals arise and it turns out we assimilate faster than we panic.

So here we are - the “We regret to inform you that what you have imagined to be “civilization” is now falling apart” post. See if it strikes you the way it struck me.”

Although the major issues have changed somewhat - the collapse in energy prices has meant that now people can’t pay for heat because they don’t have a job, rather than because of the high price of energy, and the economic crisis has mostly numbed us to the growth of hunger in the poor world - I don’t see anything to suggest that we are not still in a rapidly accellerating crisis. The only thing is that even at my most apocalyptic, I would never have guessed how fast - and I think that that’s probably true of most “doomers.”

But I’m starting to feel like I ought to give back the quirt, the cat o’nine tails and that funky leather corset personally bestowed upon me by Richard Heinberg and Pat Murphy when I was inducted into the Ancient Order of Apocalyptic Prophets (you should have seen what they were wearing - I’m sworn to secrecy, but it was very fetching!) You see, I’m starting to feel I can’t compete with reality - any actual attention to events as they unfold points up the fact that my own doomiest imaginings are being wildly exceeded.

Let’s see - California is broke, functionally insolvent, and has stopped paying for just about everything, including its state police. Remember how often they trumpted that they were the 6th largest economy in the world - well, that’s kinda like saying the UK is insolvent…oh, and that actually might be not so far from the truth too, since they just had to nationalize their banking system. We’ve lost at least 300,000 jobs in two weeks. The New York Times may be out of business by spring. While neither rain nor sleet nor hail will keep the postal service from its appointed rounds, money probably will, and they are talking about cutting out Saturday deliveries. Homelessness and hunger are rapidly on the rise, as are suicide and murder suicide.

There’s rioting in Russia, China, Greece, and massive worker demonstrations in France and Britain. Australia is seeing record high temperatures, while many of the rest of us struggle with record lows. California’s drought may be the worst in a century. And the already hungry are among the deepest sufferers of the food crisis. The New York Times, Fortune Magazine, Bloomberg - they are all starting to use words like “Biblical proportions” “Deep Depression” “Apocalypse.” It is getting hard to compete with the mainstream doomers.

We’ve been “fixing” the problem - which is a big part of the problem - think of the word “fix” here as in “the fix is in.” We’ve just spent 8 trillion dollars bailing out the banks - more than all the wars in US history, the Louisiana purchase and the space program combined. And what did we get for it? Bank of America and Citi are still teetering, the jobs are still being flushed daily. The estimate is half a million a month - every month.

And people aren’t really very angry yet. They should be - think about what 8 trilliion dollars could actually have bought us, had anyone cared as much about the people as they do about the banks, and about the wealth of the fortunate. At some point people will realize that it isn’t going to work - and their anger will be frightening - and just. The New Hampshire state legislature is currently debating legislation that would assert that if the US implements martial law or abrogates the Constitution, it will effectively dissolve the Union. While one wonders where they were the last eight years, this is being taken quite seriously, and it would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Eight trillion could have paid for free health care for every American, cradle to grave for a century. Eight trillion was sufficient to cover the cost of almost all the mortgage debt - every American could have been given their house and the “foreclosure crisis” ended instantly. Eight trillion was enough to build renewable energy infrastructure that could have softened the crisis, to reinsulate our houses, to provide basic food and health care to the world’s poor. The same eight trillion we were told we didn’t have when it was needed by those who wanted educations, basic medical care, decent shelter, a home, hope, a decent life, we had a plenty for the banks and the wealthiest people in the world.

A number of energy and environmental advocates don’t seem to grasp that the 8 trillion figure - and the monies spent by other nations - aren’t proof that we can build a renewable infrastructure or address peak oil if we really want to - instead, they are what we are doing *instead.* Yes, nations can print money, but in order to inflate our currency, we’d have to disentangle ourselves quite violently from the other nations with which we are economically intertwined, and that would have its price too. That is, our ability to keep bailing is limited - and the 8 trillion now buried in bank vaults and flushed down the toilet is money we don’t have for future adaptations. Think about it - we’re debating 3/4 of a trillion dollars for all the American people combined (and some of that will also make its ways into the coffers of the bank) - while we’ve already spent almost 9 times that much on the banks. 300 million Americans get 1/8 or less what the banks get. What does that say about us? And what does it say about the ability and willingness to mobilize funds for things that actually protect human lives?

So what’s a doomer chick to do but throw in the towel and her spiked mitts and admit she’s beat? I can’t out-doom the Wall Street Journal - Wall Street invented our doom, and who better to describe it. The old button ”I eat stranger things than this with my breakfast cereal” is increasingly true - me and my gardens and my ordinary human poverty are just plain dull.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to stop writing. But like Dmitry Orlov (who did threaten to stop writing, which would have been a tragedy), I’m getting out of the apocalyptic prophetess of doom job. Like Orlov, I’m now an observer - hardly impartial, but there’s no point predicting the future when we’re living it, and when the song of the apocalypse becomes the universal chorus.



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