Monthly Archives: July 2015

Physicality

Some interesting data points:

1) Over the weekend, I was involved in moving a household.  No paid movers were used; a bunch of us simply got together and moved one apartment to another; up and down stairs, one box or piece of furniture at a time.  In the middle of summer, and even on a relatively good day for the task, it still was a heavy use of muscle power, even with the use of a truck moving things from point A to point B.  Being in decent shape, this wasn’t a big issue, but still, the muscles of all were pretty tired at the end of the entire process.

2) My commute to my office, as mentioned before,  is generally via bicycle, unless big and/or delicate things need to be transported.  It is a four or five mile trip, depending on the route and any errands that have to be done.  It is good exercise, it is actually faster than driving, and parking the bicycle isn’t a hassle at all.

3) Recently, some work popped up that has me using a car two or three days a week, with my destination almost fifty miles away.  The car involved weighs a few thousand pounds, and gets in the 25-30 miles per gallon range.  Of course, the drive (generally without traffic), is effortless.   You put gas in the car, and go.  With gas costing in the $3 per gallon range, it only takes about $12 of fuel to do a trip of 100 miles total.

This fact should be mindboggling, but it generally goes unnoticed in our modern world.   $12 to move a few thousand pounds of metal, at 60+ miles per hour, 100 miles?   Yes, there are issues in that the car drives on a road, and there is infrastructure that makes this all possible.  But it is something that sticks with you (shortly, I’ll work up the energy numbers on all of this).   A few days of moving boxes and assorted household items, one at a time, each weighing ten to twenty pounds, is hard, manual labor.   To do this every day is probably not on our list of things to do.    My grandfather tilled his land (yes, in the old country) with farm animals and manual labor, and thought this was the way of the world, without complaint.

For me, the upshot is that we’ve gotten pretty used to machines in our daily lives, and that physicality is more for recreation (going to the gym, running or hiking for fun). Our food comes from far away via truck and basic transportation is mediated by more fossil fueled machines (rail, aircraft).   Whether JHK’s World Made  By Hand, or JMG’s Star’s Reach happens next year, next decade, or next century, physical labor for all of us is going to come back with a vengeance.  If there’s any upside to this, we all won’t need gym memberships, and we’ll all be in a lot better shape.

Questions for the few in the audience:

  • What physical things do you do every day, that are usually done by machines?
  • Do you go to the gym, even though you could be doing useful physical labor someplace else?
  • What will be the first “labor-saving” thing to go, as the Long Descent starts?
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Podcasts (other voices in your head)

While the Internet is still functioning (and your old MP3 player still works) there are some great things to listen to when having to use a car or public transportation, in this converging catastrophe world.  Podcasts are good, because many times, the podcaster isn’t just giving a lecture, but is in an actual conversation, with give and take, and generally a lot more nuance than the written word can be transmitted.

A short list of ones that address some of the issues in this blog and elsewhere in the Peak Everything blogosphere:

Radio Ecoshock – Alex Smith puts this podcast out, and like anyone being honest with themselves and their topic, brings a good variety of guests to his show.   For example, in one episode, he interviewed Guy McPherson, and his darker view of things, and in another, he brought in rebuttals.  Now, this doesn’t mean he’s going to give equal time to the Koch brothers, but he does ask real questions of his guests – the hallmark of honest truth seekers.

The Kunstler Cast – James Howard Kunstler is a busy guy, and these podcasts have been going on for quite a while, but have been a bit more intermittent these past few months (probably because of the fourth World Made By Hand novel in progress).  JHK is well known, and has interviewed a few of the other luminaries in the Peak Oil/Peak Resource movement.

You Are Not So Smart – The beauty of this podcast is that it brings up many of the logical fallacies that drive economic and social decisions; many of which we ignore (at our own peril).   It has been noted by many in the community of Peak Oil folk that some basic human issues have to be addressed (i.e. the various cognitive dissonances that blind us) and this podcast does a great deal of ameliorating the fallacies that cause us to make bad decisions personally, and as societies.   Sometimes the podcasts are a bit lightweight, but they do make some portions of economics interesting.

Featured Voices – This is a companion podcast to Chris Martenson’s website and blog.  Generally good stuff here, and of course, leaning toward’s Chris’ worldview.

Planet Money – This podcast is included, if only to get your blood pressure up.  As hip as NPR is, or tries to be, these folks do bring up some interesting ideas, but they don’t really touch upon the issues of Peak Oil, or any of the catastrophes that are coming our way.  Sometimes, they do bring up good guests and concepts (they have done some great episodes on behavioral economics), but their worldview does seem to be stuck in a business as usual mindset.  There are good elements of Planet Money, but I do wish they’d be a bit tougher on their guests and topics.

Citizen, not consumer

Words are important.  For some fancy schmancy folks, this extends to the way those words are put together (‘framing the narrative’).  For those of us in the science and engineering fields, we know this to be obviously true for our own areas of interest (the difference between pressure and stress, for example, for a mechanical engineer), but we may be less likely to think about the correct word in social situations.   One thing that can rub people the wrong way is to refer to a bunch of people (who may not all be men) as ‘guys’ (as in ‘Hey, guys, how are you?’), so referring them as ‘folks’ (‘Hey, folks, how are you?’) can get the same point across without ruffling feathers.  The list is long, but it doesn’t mean we have to be uber-politically correct all the time.   For me, simply asking goes a long way, and that takes a lot of heat off.

The use of the right words can also set the tone for whatever you are discussing, and with regard to our converging catastrophes involving the environment, economy, and energy, this is instrumental in attempting to make changes in people’s behaviors.  One of the best comments that I’ve ever read or heard regarding these discussions has been a seemingly obvious one – let’s start by substituting the word ‘consumer’ with ‘citizen’.    A fantastically simple thing, but when you hear people suggesting things like ‘consumers should have a choice’, and you replace ‘consumer’ with ‘citizen’, the back-and-forth on the topic under consideration takes on a whole new meaning.  Being a consumer means being a mindless drone who eats and pollutes, without any regard for the world.  Being a citizen means far more – it means rights and responsibilities; it means choices and sacrifice; it means freedom and obligations.

There are plenty of folks who have brought this up; my short commentary is one of many that you can find on the ‘net.   The most important thing – let’s all start bringing this up when we talk to our friends, families, and colleagues.   As citizens, it is our duty to ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

After democracy

Well, after the blowout celebrations of the Fourth Of July, and the extraordinary results from the Greek referendum (a resounding NO!), it might be time to think about what might happen in more detail (as someone in my world put it) “after democracy,” as mentioned in a previous post.   The key quote on this topic is this one:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

The source is in question, but the sentiment beautifully captures one of the core problem of democracy.   We have given the general populace a great power, but with very little real education or duties.    Another friend of mine added to this worldview by putting it this way – “The Founding Fathers gave us the Bill of Rights, but didn’t give us a Bill Of Responsibilities.”

Part of the problem with democracy (and freedom in general, as it is practiced now in America, without restraint), is that you seem to need a large resource base in order to allow people the actual “freedom” to do what they want to do.   Isaac Asimov, in his Bathroom Metaphor, captured this well.   Overpopulation, or, the reduction of carrying capacity for a fixed population seemingly dooms democracy.  It simply can’t be afforded, and things change, usually through violent means.  This has even been quantified – when people get hungry, they tend to get a bit rebellious, and that hastens the end of the democracy and the transition to a dictatorship.

However, if a society has had ‘democracy’ (or the illusion of it) for a long time, how will it react and adapt when it is no longer possible to allow people the freedom to do what they want?  There are other ways to run a society, of course; dictatorships and rule-by-the-rich seem to have existed over the centuries, so we could always return to those ways, as noted in the quote.   Will we continue to go in the cycle of democracy-dictatorship-monarchy?   In George Orwell’s 1984, this cycle was seemingly broken, by having advancement and power divorced from the hereditary, but the society he posited was still powered by fossil fuels.  His surveillance state (and ours) won’t exist if it doesn’t have the power or resources to run (as noted by the folks in Utah). That path could exist for a short while, but not forever.

So, where does this leave us?  As we transition from our current system, and as the ratio of resources to population decreases (via population growth and/or resource depletion), what might we expect?   People won’t forget participatory democracy overnight, but they just might, if things get tough.  People will rally around a dictator when things go bad, so the traditional cycle may continue, again and again.  Is there any way out?

It is difficult to think about alternatives to this, for we haven’t had this level of democracy (or this access to resources) ever in our world.   One slim option is that we retain some elements of democracy, but we adapt structures (similar to the feudal system) where there are more well-defined rights and more importantly, responsibilities for every member of society, no matter where they are.   Leaders can govern, and those further ‘down the food chain’ will have to do hard work, but everyone in society will have a stake in the system.   When leaders do not lead well, those directly under them can remove them; when workers who are healthy and fit don’t work, they don’t get paid/don’t eat.

This all seems a bit fantastical; the part that stumps me is a) how we make such a transition and b) how these rules get enforced.  In theory, our modern society has enforcement mechanisms, but as anyone with a brain can see, the people at the top who screw up do not bear the consequences of their actions, and we also have citizens who quite happily take advantage of the system when opportunities present themselves (i.e., why work when you can get benefits from the state?).  It may be that the main reason these enforcement mechanisms don’t work is that society has gotten too large; in smaller communities (villages, tribes, small towns, small companies), the personal connections that exist ensure that the few rules that do exist are followed.  In fact, rules can be drastically reduced in number, as informal mechanisms take their place.

A transition to ‘feudal democracy’ will be a pretty tricky business.

Questions (as always):

  • Is the cycle of democracy-dictatorship-monarchy truly a product of our industrial civilization and our fossil fuel bonanza?
  • If we achieve a more steady-state society, with steady-state economics, will we have steady-state social structures?
  • Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships; it is around 150, and it might be double that.  With laws, and other tricks, we might be able to create groups that work with ten times that number.   What is a feasible upper limit to the number of people in a working, stable, and healthy society?