Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Heresy of Technological Choice

Among the interesting benefits of writing a blog like this, focusing as it does on the end of industrial civilization, are the opportunities it routinely affords for a glimpse at the stranger side of the collective thinking of our time. The last few weeks have been an unusually good source of that experience, as a result of one detail of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing in the posts here.

The detail in question is the system by which residents of my fictional Lakeland Republic choose how much infrastructure they want to have and, not incidentally, to pay for via their local tax revenues. It’s done on a county-by-county basis by majority vote. The more infrastructure you want, the higher your taxes are; the more infrastructure you can do without, the less of your income goes to the county to pay for it. There are five levels, called tiers, and each one has a notional date connected to it: thus tier five has the notional date of 1950, and corresponds to the infrastructure you’d expect to find in a county in the Midwestern states of the US in that year: countywide electrical, telephone, water, and sewer service; roads and related infrastructure throughout the county capable of handling heavy automobile use; and mass transit—specifically, streetcars—in the towns.

The other tiers have less infrastructure, and correspondingly lower taxes. Tier four has a notional date of 1920, tier three of 1890, tier two of 1860, and tier one of 1830. In each case, the infrastructure you’d find in such a county is roughly what you’d find in a midwestern American county in that year. With tier one, your county infrastructure consists of dirt roads and that’s about it. All the other functions of county government exist in tier one, tier five, and everything in between; there are courts, police, social welfare provisions for those who are unable to take care of themselves, and so forth—all the things you would expect to find in any midwestern county in the US at any point between 1830 and 1950. That’s the tier system:  one small detail of the imaginary future I’ve been sketching here.

Before we go on, I’d like my readers to stop and notice that the only things that are subject to the tier system are the elements of local infrastructure that are paid for by local tax revenues. If you live in a county that voted to adopt a certain tier level, that tells you what kind of  infrastructure will be funded by local tax revenues, and therefore what the tax bills are going to be like. That’s all it tells you. In particular, the tier system doesn’t apply to privately owned infrastructure—for example, railroads in the Lakeland Republic are privately owned, and so every county, whatever its tier, has train stations in any town where paying passengers and freight may be found in sufficient quantity to make it worth a railroad’s while to stop there.

The tier system also, and crucially, doesn’t determine what kind of technology the residents can use. If you live in a tier one county, you can use all the electrical appliances you can afford to buy, as long as you generate the electricity yourself. Some technologies that are completely dependent on public infrastructure aren’t going to work in a low tier county—for example, without paved roads, gas stations, huge government subsidies for petroleum production, military bases all over the Middle East, and a great deal more, cars aren’t much more than oversized paperweights—but that’s built into the technology in question, not any fault of the tier system. Furthermore, the tier system doesn’t determine social customs and mores.  If you live in a tier four county, for example, no law requires you to dress in a zoot suit or a flapper dress, drink bootleg liquor, and say things like “Hubba hubba” and “Twenty-three skidoo!” This may seem obvious, but trust me, it’s apparently far from obvious to a certain portion of my readers.

I can say this because, ever since the tier system first got mentioned in the narrative, I’ve fielded a steady stream of comments from people who wanted to object to the tier system because it forcibly deprives people of access to technology. I had one reader insist that the tier system would keep farmers in tier one counties from using plastic sheeting for hoop houses, for example, and another who compared the system to the arrangements in former Eastern Bloc nations, where the Communist Party imposed rigid restrictions on what technologies people could have. The mere facts that plastic sheeting for hoop houses isn’t infrastructure paid for by tax revenues, and that the tier system doesn’t impose rigid restrictions on anybody—on the contrary, it allows the voters in each county to choose for themselves how much infrastructure they’re going to pay for—somehow never found their way into the resulting diatribes.

What made all this even more fascinating to me is that no matter how often I addressed the points in question, and pointed out that the tier system just allows local voters to choose what infrastructure gets paid for their by tax money, a certain fraction of readers just kept rabbiting on endlessly along the same lines. It wasn’t that they were disagreeing with what I was saying. It’s that they were acting as though I had never said anything to address the subject at all, even when I addressed it to their faces, and nothing I or anyone else could say was able to break through their conviction that in imagining the tier system, I must be talking about some way to deprive people of technology by main force.

It was after the third or fourth round of comments along these lines, I think it was, that a sudden sense of deja vu reminded me that I’d seen this same sort of curiously detached paralogic before.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember how, some years ago, I pointed out in passing that the survival of the internet in the deindustrial age didn’t depend on whether there was some technically feasible way to run an internet in times of energy and resource limits, much less on how neat we think the internet is today. Rather, I suggested, its survival in the future would depend on whether it could make enough money to cover its operating and maintenance costs, and on whether it could successfully keep on outcompeting less complex and expensive ways of providing the same services to its users. That post got a flurry of responses from the geekoisie, all of whom wanted to talk exclusively about whether there was some technically feasible way to run the internet in a deindustrial world, and oh, yes, how incredibly neat the internet supposedly is.

What’s more, when I pointed out that they weren’t discussing the issues I had raised, they didn’t argue with me or try to make an opposing case.  They just kept on talking more and more loudly about the  technical feasibility of various gimmicks for a deindustrial internet, and by the way, did we mention yet how unbelievably neat the internet is? It was frankly rather weird, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  It felt at times as though I’d somehow managed to hit the off switch on a dozen or so intellects, leaving their empty husks to lurch mindlessly through a series of animatronic talking points with all the persistence and irrelevance of broken records.

It took a while for me to realize that the people who were engaged in this bizarre sort of nonresponse understood perfectly well what I was talking about. They knew at least as well as I did that the internet is the most gargantuan technostructure in the history of our species, a vast, sprawling, unimaginably costly, and hopelessly unsustainable energy- and resource-devouring behemoth that survives only because a significant fraction of the world’s total economic activity goes directly and indirectly toward its upkeep. They knew about the slave-worked open pit mines, the vast grim factories run by sweatshop labor, and the countless belching smokestacks that feed its ravenous appetite for hardware and power; they also know about the constellations of data centers scattered across the world that keep it running, each of which uses as much energy as a small city, and each of which has to have one semi-truck after another pull up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallets of brand new hard drives and other hardware, in order to replace those that will burn out the next day.

They knew all this, and they knew, or at least suspected, just how little of it will be viable in a future of harsh energy and resource constraints.  They simply didn’t want to think about that, much less talk about it, and so they babbled endlessly about other things in a frantic attempt to drown out a subject they couldn’t bear to hear discussed openly.

I’m pretty sure that this is what’s going on in the present case, too, and an interesting set of news stories from earlier this year points up the unspoken logic behind it.

Port Townsend is a pleasant little town in Washington State, perched on a bluff above the western shores of Puget Sound. Due to the vagaries of the regional economy, it basically got bypassed by the twentieth century, and much of the housing stock dates from the Victorian era. It so happens that one couple who live there find Victorian technology, clothing, and personal habits more to their taste than the current fashions in these things, and they live, as thoroughly as they can, a Victorian lifestyle. The wife of the couple, Sarah Chrisman, recently wrote a book about her experiences, and got her canonical fifteen minutes of fame on the internet and the media as a result.

You might think, dear reader, that the people of Port Townsend would treat this as merely a harmless eccentricity, or even find it pleasantly amusing to have a couple in Victorian cycling clothes riding their penny-farthing bicycles on the city streets. To some extent, you’d be right, but it’s the exceptions that I want to discuss here. Ever since they adopted their Victorian lifestyle, the Chrismans have been on the receiving end of constant harassment by people who find their presence in the community intolerable. The shouted insults, the in-your-face confrontations, the death threats—they’ve seen it all. What’s more, the appearance of Sarah Chrisman’s book and various online articles related to it fielded, in response, an impressive flurry of spluttering online denunciations, which insisted among other things that the fact that she prefers to wear long skirts and corsets somehow makes her personally responsible for all the sins that have ever been imputed to the Victorian era.

Why? Why the fury, the brutality, and the frankly irrational denunciations directed at a couple whose lifestyle choices have got to count well up there among the world’s most harmless hobbies?

The reason’s actually very simple. Sarah Chrisman and her husband have transgressed one of the modern world’s most rigidly enforced taboos. They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice.

You’re not supposed to say that in today’s world. You’re not even supposed to think it. You’re allowed, at most, to talk nostalgically about how much more pleasant it must have been not to be constantly harassed and annoyed by the current round of officially prescribed technologies, and squashed into the Procrustean bed of the narrow range of acceptable lifestyles that go with them. Even that’s risky in many circles these days, and risks fielding a diatribe from somebody who just has to tell you, at great length and with obvious irritation, all about the horrible things you’d supposedly suffer if you didn’t have the current round of officially prescribed technologies constantly harassing and annoying you.

The nostalgia in question doesn’t have to be oriented toward the past. I long ago lost track of the number of people I’ve heard talk nostalgically about what I tend to call the Ecotopian future, the default vision of a green tomorrow that infests most minds on the leftward end of things. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last forty years, you already know every detail of the Ecotopian future.  It’s the place where wind turbines and solar panels power everything, everyone commutes by bicycle from their earth-sheltered suburban homes to their LEED-certified urban workplaces, everything is recycled, and social problems have all been solved because everybody, without exception, has come to embrace the ideas and attitudes currently found among upper-middle-class San Francisco liberals.

It’s far from rare, at sustainability-oriented events, to hear well-to-do attendees waxing rhapsodically about how great life will be when the Ecotopian future arrives. If you encounter someone engaging in that sort of nostalgic exercise, and are minded to be cruel, ask the person who’s doing it whether he (it’s usually a man) bicycles to work, and if not, why not. Odds are you’ll get to hear any number of frantic excuses to explain why the lifestyle that everyone’s going to love in the Ecotopian future is one that he can’t possibly embrace today. If you want a look behind the excuses and evasions, ask him how he got to the sustainability-oriented event you’re attending. Odds are that he drove his SUV, in which there were no other passengers, and if you press him about that you can expect to see the dark heart of privilege and rage that underlies his enthusiastic praise of an imaginary lifestyle that he would never, not even for a moment, dream of adopting himself.

I wish I were joking about the rage. It so happens that I don’t have a car, a television, or a cell phone, and I have zero interest in ever having any of these things. My defection from the officially prescribed technologies and the lifestyles that go with them isn’t as immediately obvious as Sarah Chrisman’s, so I don’t take as much day to day harassment as she does. Still, it happens from time to time that somebody wants to know if I’ve seen this or that television program, and in the conversations that unfold from such questions it sometimes comes out that I don’t have a television at all.

Where I now live, in an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, that revelation rarely gets a hostile response, and it’s fairly common for someone else to say, “Good for you,” or something like that. A lot of people here are very poor, and thus have a certain detachment from technologies and lifestyles they know perfectly well they will never be able to afford. Back when I lived in prosperous Left Coast towns, on the other hand, mentioning that I didn’t own a television routinely meant that I’d get to hear a long and patronizing disquisition about how I really ought to run out and buy a TV so I could watch this or that or the other really really wonderful program, in the absence of which my life must be intolerably barren and incomplete.

Any lack of enthusiasm for that sort of disquisition very reliably brought out a variety of furiously angry responses that had precisely nothing to do with the issue at hand, which is that I simply don’t enjoy the activity of watching television. Oh, and it’s not the programming I find unenjoyable—it’s the technology itself; I get bored very quickly with the process of watching little colored images jerking about on a glass screen, no matter what the images happen to be. That’s another taboo, by the way. It’s acceptable in today’s America to grumble about what’s on television, but the technology itself is sacrosanct; you’re not allowed to criticize it, much less to talk about the biases, agendas, and simple annoyances hardwired into television as a technological system. If you try to bring any of that up, people will insist that you’re criticizing the programming; if you correct them, they’ll ignore the correction and keep on talking as though the programs on TV are the only thing under discussion.

A similar issue drives the bizarre paralogic surrounding the nonresponses to the tier system discussed above. The core premises behind the tier system in my narrative are, first, that people can choose the technological infrastructure they have, and have to pay for—and second, that some of them, when they consider the costs and benefits involved, might reasonably decide that an infrastructure of dirt roads and a landscape of self-sufficient farms and small towns is the best option. To a great many people today, that’s heresy of the most unthinkable sort.  The easiest way to deal with the heresy in question, for those who aren’t interested in thinking about it, is to pretend that nothing so shocking has been suggested at all, and force the discussion into some less threatening form as quickly as possible. Redefining it in ways that erase the unbearable idea that technologies can be chosen freely, and just as freely rejected, is quite probably the easiest way to do that.

I’d encourage those of my readers who aren’t blinded by the terror of intellectual heresy to think, and think hard, about the taboo against technological choice—the insistence that you cannot, may not, and must not make your own choices when it comes to whatever the latest technological fad happens to be, but must do as you’re told and accept whatever technology the consumer society hands you, no matter how dysfunctional, harmful, or boring it turns out to be. That taboo is very deeply ingrained, far more potent than the handful of relatively weak taboos our society still applies to such things as sexuality, and most of the people you know obey it so unthinkingly that they never even notice how it shapes their behavior. You may not notice how it shapes your behavior, for that matter; the best way to find out is to pick a technology that annoys, harms, or bores you, but that you use anyway, and get rid of it.

Those who take that unthinkable step, and embrace the heresy of technological choice, are part of the wave of the future. In a world of declining resource availability, unraveling economic systems, and destabilizing environments, Sarah Chrisman and the many other people who make similar choices—there are quite a few of them these days, and more of them with each year that passes—are making a wise choice. By taking up technologies and lifeways from less extravagant eras, they’re decreasing their environmental footprints and their vulnerability to faltering global technostructures, and they’re also contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.

The heresy of technological choice is a door. Beyond it lies an unexplored landscape of possibilities for the future—possibilities that very few people have even begun to imagine yet. My Retrotopia narrative is meant to glance over a very small part of that landscape. If some of the terrain it’s examined so far has been threatening enough to send some of its readers fleeing into a familiar sort of paralogic, then I’m confident that it’s doing the job I hoped it would do.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Retrotopia: A Visit to the Capitol

This is the ninth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finally has his interview with the President of the Lakeland Republic, asks some hard questions, and prepares for a trip into unexpected territory.

Finch flagged down a cab as soon as we got out onto the sidewalk, and within a minute or two we were rolling through downtown at however many miles an hour a horse makes at a steady trot. Before too many more minutes had gone by, we were out from among the big downtown buildings, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol appeared on the skyline. Finch was in high spirits, talking about the compromise Meeker had brokered with the Restos, but I was too keyed up to pay much attention. A day and a half in the Lakeland Republic had answered a few of my questions and raised a good many more that I hadn’t expected to ask at all, and the meeting ahead would probably determine whether I’d be able to get the answers that mattered.

The cab finally rolled to a halt, and the cabbie climbed down from his perch up front and opened the door for us. I’d been so deep in my own thoughts for the last few blocks that I hadn’t noticed where we’d ended up, and I was startled to see the main entrance to the Capitol in front of me. I turned to Finch. “Here, rather than the President’s mansion?”

The intern gave me a blank look. “You mean like the old White House? We don’t have one of those. President Meeker has a house in town, just like any other politician.” I must have looked startled, because he went on earnestly:  “We dumped the whole imperial-executive thing after Partition. I’m surprised so many of the other republics kept it, after everything that happened.”

I nodded noncommittally as we walked up to the main entrance, climbed the stair, and went in. There were a couple of uniformed guards inside the outer doors, the first I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, but they simply nodded a greeting to the two of us as we walked by.

We pushed open the inner doors and went into the rotunda. There was a temporary ceiling about forty feet overhead, and someone had taken the trouble to paint on it a trompe l’oeil view of the way the dome would look from beneath. In the middle of the floor was a block of marble maybe three feet on a side; I could barely see it because a dozen or so people were standing around it.  One of them, a stout and freckled blonde woman in a pale blue gingham dress, was saying something in a loud clear voice as we came through the doors:

“ solemnly swear that, should I be elected to any official position, I will faithfully execute the laws of the Lakeland Republic regardless of my personal beliefs, and should I be unable to do so in good conscience, I will immediately resign my office, so help me my Lord and Savior Jesus.” Three sudden blue-white flashes told of photos being taken, a little patter of applause echoed off the temporary ceiling, and then some of the people present got to work signing papers on the marble cube.

Finch led me around the group to a door on the far side of the rotunda. “What was that about?” I asked him with a motion of my head toward the group around the cube.

“A candidate,” he explained as we went through the doors. “Probably running for some township or county office.  A lot of them like to do the ceremony here at the Capitol and get the pictures in their local papers. You can’t run for any elected position here unless you take that oath first—well, with or without the Jesus bit, or whatever else you prefer in place of it. There was a lot of trouble before the Second Civil War with people in government insisting that their personal beliefs trumped the duties of their office—”

“I’ve read about it.”

“So that went into our constitution. Break the oath and you do jail time for perjury.”

I took that in as we went down a corridor. On the far end was what looked like an ordinary front office with a young man perched behind a desk. “Hi, Gabe,” Finch said. 

“Hi, Mike.  This is Mr. Carr?”

“Yes. Mr. Carr, this is Gabriel Menendez, the President’s assistant secretary.”

We shook hands, and Menendez picked up a phone on his desk and asked, “Cheryl, is the boss free? Mr. Carr’s here.” A pause, then:  “Yes. I’ll send him right in.” He put down the phone and waved us to the door at the far end of the room. “He’ll see you now.”

We shed coats and hats at the coatrack on one side of the office, and went through the door. On the other side was another corridor, and beyond that was a circular room with doors opening off it in various directions. Off to the left an ornate spiral stair swept up and down to whatever was on the floors above and below.  To the right was another desk; the woman sitting at it nodded greetings to us and gestured to the central door. I followed Finch as he walked to the door, opened it, and said, “Mr. President? Mr. Carr.”

Isaiah Meeker, President of the Lakeland Republic, was standing at the far side of the room, looking out the window over the Toledo streetscape below.  He turned and came toward us as soon as Finch spoke. He looked older than the pictures I’d seen, the close-trimmed hair and iconic short beard almost white against the dark brown of his face. “Mr. Carr,” he said as we shook hands. “Pleased to meet you. I hope you haven’t been completely at loose ends this last day or so.” He gestured toward the side of the room. “Please have a seat.”

It wasn’t until I turned the direction he’d indicated that I realized there were more than the three of us in the room. A circle of chairs surrounded a low table there.  Melissa Berger and Fred Vanich, whom I’d met in the Toledo train station, were already  seated there, and so were two other people I didn’t know. “Stuart Macallan from the State Department,” Meeker said, making introductions. “Jaya Patel, from Commerce. Of course you’ve already met Melissa and Fred.”

Hands got shaken and I took a seat. Macallan was the assistant secretary of state for North American affairs, I knew, and Patel had an equivalent position on the trade end of things. “I apologize for the delay,” Meeker went on. “I imagine you know how it goes, though.”

“Of course.”

“And you seem to have put the time to good use—at least for our garment industry.”

That got a general chuckle, which I joined. “When in Rome,” I said. “I take it that’s not one of the things visitors usually do, though; Mr. Finch here looked right past me this morning.”

Finch reddened. “It really does vary,” Patel said. “Some of the diplomats and business executives we’ve worked with have taken to buying all their clothes here—we’ve even fielded inquiries about exporting garments for sale abroad. Still, most of our visitors seem to prefer their bioplastic.” Her fractional shrug showed, politely but eloquently, what she thought of that.

“To each their own,” said the President. “But you’ve had the chance to see a little of Toledo, and find out a few of the ways we do things here. I’d be interested to know your first reactions.”

I considered that, decided that a certain degree of frankness wasn’t out of place. “In some ways, impressed,” I said, “and in some ways disquieted. You certainly seem to have come through the embargo years in better shape than I expected—though I’m curious about how things will go now that the borders are open.”

“That’s been a matter of some concern here as well,” Meeker allowed. “That said, so far things seem to be going smoothly.”

Macallan paused just long enough to make sure his boss wasn’t going to say more, and then cleared his throat and spoke. “One of the things we hope might come out of your visit is a better relationship with the Atlantic Republic. I’m sure you know how fraught things were with Barfield and his people. If Ms. Montrose is willing to see things ratchet down to a more normal level, we’re ready to meet her halfway—potentially more than halfway.”

“That was quite an upset she pulled off in the election,” Meeker observed. “I hope you’ll pass on my personal congratulations.”

“I’ll gladly do that,” I said to the President, and then to Macallan:  “It’s certainly possible. I don’t happen to know her thoughts on that, but a lot of people on our side of the border are interested in seeing things change, and she’s got a stronger mandate than any president we’ve had since Partition. Still—” I shrugged. “We’ll have to see what happens after the inauguration.”

“Of course,” Macallan said.

“One thing we’d be particularly interested in seeing,” said Patel, “is a widening of the opportunities for trade. Obviously that’s going to be delicate—it’s a core policy of ours that the Republic has to be able to meet its essential needs from within its own borders, and I know that stance isn’t exactly popular in  global-trade circles. We’re not interested in global trade, but there are things your country produces that we’d like to be able to buy, and things we produce that you might like to buy in exchange.”

“Again,” I said, “we’ll have to see what happens—but I don’t know of any reason why that wouldn’t be a possibility.”

She nodded, and a brief silence passed. Vanich’s featureless voice broke it. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “you mentioned that you found some of the ways we do things here disquieting. I think we’d all be interested in hearing more about that, if you’re willing.”

Startled, I glanced across the table at him, but his face was as impenetrable as it had been the first time I’d seen him. I looked at the President, who seemed amused, and then nodded. “If you like,” I said. “At first it was mostly the—” I floundered for a term. “—deliberately retro, I suppose, quality of so much of what I’ve seen: the clothing, the technology, the architecture, all of it. I have to assume that that’s an intentional choice, connected to whatever’s inspired your Resto parties in politics.”

Meeker nodded. “Very much so.”

“But that’s not actually the thing I find most disquieting. What has me scratching my head is that your republic seems to have gone out of its way to ignore every single scrap of advice you must have gotten from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the other global financial institutions—in fact, from the entire economics profession—and despite that, you’ve apparently thrived.”

Meeker’s face broke into a broad smile. “Excellent,” he said. “Excellent. I’ll offer just one correction: we haven’t succeeded as well as we have despite ignoring the economic advice of the World Bank and so forth. We’ve done so precisely because we’ve ignored their advice.”

I gave him a long wary look, but his smile didn’t waver.

“Mr. Carr,” Melanie Berger said then, “Since the end of the embargo we’ve been approached four times by the World Bank and the IMF. I’ve been involved in the discussions that followed. Each time, their economists have made long speeches about how the way we do things is hopelessly inefficient, and how we’ve got to follow their advice and become more efficient. Each time, I’ve asked them to answer a simple question: ‘more efficient for what output in terms of what input?’ Not one of them has ever been able, or willing, to give me a straight answer.”

“I had a lecture on that subject yesterday from a bank officer,” I told her.

Her eyebrows went up, and then she smiled. “Not surprising. It’s something most people here know about, if they know anything at all about money.”

I nodded, taking that in. “So what you’re suggesting,” I said, as much to Meeker as to her, “is that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about economics.”

“Not quite,” said the President. “It’s just that our history has forced us to look at things in a somewhat different light, and prioritize different things.”

It was a graceful answer, and I nodded. “The question that comes to mind at this point,” he went on, “is whether there’s anything else you’d like to see, now that you know a little more about our republic.”

“As it happens, yes,” I said. “There is.”

He motioned me to go on.

“When I drew up the list we sent to your people right after the election, I didn’t know about the tier system, and I’ve got some serious questions about what things are like at the bottom rung of that ladder. I’ve read a little bit about the system, but I’m frankly skeptical that anybody in this day and age would voluntarily choose to live in the conditions of 1830.”

“That’s actually a common misconception,” Jaya Patel said, with the same you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen more than once since my arrival. “The only thing the tier system determines is what infrastructure and services gets paid for out of tax revenues.”

“I saw a fair number of horsedrawn wagons on the train ride here,” I pointed out. “That’s not a matter of infrastructure.”

“Actually, it is,” she said. “Without a road system built to stand up to auto traffic, cars and trucks aren’t as efficient as wagons—” Her smile suddenly broadened. “—in terms of the total cost of haulage. That doesn’t keep people in tier one counties from having whatever personal technologies they want to have, and are willing and able to pay for.”

“Got it,” I said. “I’d still like to see how it works out in practice.”

“That’s easy enough,” the President said. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” I said, “though I know this may be further than you’re willing to go. I’d like to see something of your military.”

The room got very quiet. “I’d be interested,” Meeker said, “in knowing why.”

I nodded. “It seems to me that whatever you’ve achieved by this retro policy of yours comes at the cost of some frightful vulnerabilities. Ms. Berger told me a little about the war with the Confederacy and Brazil, and of course I knew a certain amount about that in advance. Obviously you won that round—but we both know that the Confederacy wasn’t in the best of shape in ‘49, and I really wonder about your ability to stand up to a modern high-tech military.”

“Like the Atlantic Republic’s?” Meeker asked, with a raised eyebrow.

I responded with a derisive snort. “With all due respect, I’m sure you know better than that. I’m thinking about what would happen if we ended up with a war zone or a failed state on our western borders.”

“Fair enough,” he said after a moment, “and I think we can satisfy you about that.”

“I’d like to suggest something,” Berger said to the President. “Defiance County is first tier.”

He glanced at her. “You’re thinking Hicksville?”


“We’ll have to find someone.”

“Tom Pappas comes to mind,” she said.

The President’s face took on a slightly glazed expression, and then he laughed. “Yes, I think Tom will do. Thank you, Melanie.” He turned to me. “Have you made any plans for tomorrow?”

“Not yet.”

“Good. The day after tomorror, there’s a—military exercise, I think you would call it—in a first tier county a couple of hours from here by train. If you’re willing, I can have my staff make the arrangements for you to go there tomorrow, have a look around, stay the night, see how our military does things the next day, and then come back. Is that workable?”

“I’d welcome that,” I told him, wondering what I’d just gotten myself into.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Retrotopia: Inflows and Outputs

This is the eighth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits a city power plant that runs on an unexpected fuel source and a stock market subject to even less familiar rules...

By the time Michael Finch and I left the streetcar plant it was pushing eleven. “Where next?” I asked.

“We’re about four blocks from one of the municipal power plants,” the intern said. “I called ahead and arranged for a tour—that’ll take about an hour, and should still give us plenty of time for lunch. Ms. Berger said you’d  want a look at our electrical infrastructure.”

I nodded. “ Please. Electricity’s an ongoing problem back home.”

“It hasn’t always been that easy here, either,” Finch admitted. “Would you like to take a cab, or—”

“Four blocks? No, that’s walking distance.” From his expression, I gathered that wasn’t always the case with visitors from outside, but he brightened and led the way east toward the Maumee River. North of us I could see bridges arching across the river, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol rising up white above the brown and gray rooftops.

The power plant was another big brick building like the streetcar factory, and I looked in vain for smokestacks. Finch led me in through the office entrance, a double door in an ornate archway, and introduced us to the receptionist inside. A few moments later we were shown into the office of the plant manager, a stocky brown-skinned man with gray hair who came over to shake my hand.

“Jim Singletary,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. I don’t imagine you have anything like our facility over in the Atlantic Republic, so if there’s anything you want to know, just ask, okay?”

I assured him I would, and he led us out of the office. The corridor outside went straight back into the heart of the plant; at its far end, we went through a door onto a glassed-in balcony overlooking a big open room where six massive and complex machines rose up from a concrete floor.

“Down on the floor, you couldn’t hear a thing but the turbines,” he said. “That’s the business end of the plant—six combined cycle gas turbines driving our generators. We get almost sixty per cent efficiency in terms of electrical generation, more than that when you factor in the heat recycling to the facility. You know how a combined cycle turbine works?”

“More or less—you put the gases from the turbine through a heat exchanger, and use that to run a steam turbine off the leftover heat, don’t you?”

“Exactly. What comes out of the heat exchangers runs around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than enough to do something with. Here, a lot of it goes to heat the fermentation tanks.”

I wondered what he meant by that, but it didn’t take long to find out. Singletary led us along the balcony to another set of doors, and through them into another glassed-in balcony overlooking a double row of what looked a little like the top ends of a row of gargantuan pressure cookers.

“The fermentation tanks,” he said. “Feedstock goes in, methane and slurry come out. At any given time, eighteen tanks are in operation and the other six are being loaded or unloaded. This way, please.”

The balcony ended at another door, and a corridor led to the left. At its end was a balcony, this time open to the outside air. Below was the Maumee River, and a line of big blocky riverboats tied up along a quay. The one closest to us was having something unloaded from it through a big pipe.

“And there’s the feedstock that makes the whole thing work,” said Singletary. “I don’t recommend going down to the quayside—it’s pretty ripe.”

“What’s the feedstock?” I asked, even though I’d begun to guess the answer.

“Manure,” he said. “Cow, horse, sheep, human—you name it. We buy manure from an eight county region to supplement what gets produced here in Toledo.” I gave him a startled look, and he grinned. “Yep. If you’ve used the toilet since you got here, you’ve contributed to Toledo’s electricity supply.”

I laughed, and he went on. “We use a three-stage fermentation process to extract nearly seventy per cent of the carbon from the feedstock while the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium stay in the sludge. By the time it’s finished in the tanks it’s sterile enough you could rub it on an open wound. We use heat output from the turbines to dry it, and ship it back to farmers as fertilizer. So everyone’s happy.”

We went back to his office and I got a rundown on the economics of the plant. “How close do you get to breaking even, between feedstock costs and fertilizer sales?” I asked.

“Not as close as I’d like,” Singletary admitted. “Ever since the Maumee and Ohio canal got reopened, the farmers south of us can sell their feedstock to Dayton or Springfield—Lima’s tier three so it’s not in the market. North of us we’ve got Detroit and Ann Arbor to bid against; east there’s Cleveland, and the canal system west of the Maumee is still being rebuilt, so that’s out of the picture at the moment.”

“You depend on canals that much?”

“We can’t afford not to. Back in the early days, we used to ship in some feedstock by rail, but the costs are just too high these days. For any kind of bulk cargo, if you don’t have to worry about speed, canal shipping’s really the way to go.”

I asked a few more questions, and then we all shook hands and Finch and I headed out into the crisp fall air. “Interested in lunch?” he asked me; we discussed restaurants while waiting for the streetcar, and then rode it north into downtown. A bar and grill around the corner from the streetcar stop where we got off served up a very passable BLT sandwich, and then we wove our way through crowded sidewalks to the big stone building that housed the Toledo Stock Market.

“Vinny Patzek,” said the young man with black slicked-back hair who greeted us in a crowded office not far from the trading floor. “Pleased to meet you.” He had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, and looked like he spent a lot of his time running flat out from one corner of the building to another. “Any chance you know something about stock markets, Mr. Carr?”

“Actually, yes—I did two years on the NYSE floor before they moved it to Albany,” I said.

His face lit up. “Sweet. Okay, this is gonna be a lot less confusing to you than it is to most of the people we see here from outside. It’s not quite the same as what you’re used to, but the differences are mostly the technology, not the underlying setup. Come on.”

“I’ll leave you with Mr. Patzek for now,” Finch told me. “I promised Ms. Berger I’d check in after lunch and see how things are going at the Capitol.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and he left through one door while Patzek herded me out through another, down a corridor, and onto the trading floor of the stock exchange.

All things considered, it wasn’t much quieter than the turbine room of the power plant, but since I’d worked on a trading floor the noise and bustle actually meant something to me. There was a reader board, a big one, covering most of the far wall; it was mechanical, not digital, and flipped black or eye-burning yellow in little rectangular patches to spell out the latest prices. There were trading posts scattered across the floor, where specialists handled the buying and selling of shares. There were floor traders and floor brokers, enough of them to make the floor look crowded, and the featureless roar  made up of hundreds of voices shouting bids and offers.

“You probably still use computers in New York, right?” Patzek said in something that wasn’t quite a yell. “Here it’s all old-fashioned open outcry, with the same kind of hand signals you’d see in the Chi-town commodity pits. Lemme show you. All we need is an order.”

“I’ll take one share of Mikkelson Manufacturing,” I said.

He grinned. “You’re on.”

“You get a lot of small orders like that?”

“All the time. You get little old ladies, working guys, you name it, who save up the cash to buy a share or two once a month, that sort of thing, and come on down here to buy it in person.” He looked up at the reader board. “Mikkelson’s MIK—see it? Seventy-two even a share. Let’s go.”

We plunged into the crowd, and I managed to follow Patzek through the middle of it to one of the trading posts, where the traders and brokers looked even busier than they were elsewhere on the floor. Right in the middle of it, the yelling was loud enough I couldn’t make out a single word, just Patzek gesturing with a closed hand and then a raised index finger and shouting something that didn’t sound much like Mikkelson Industries. It only took about a minute, though, for the market to do what markets are supposed to do, and Patzek came out of the scrum with a big grin and an order written up on a pad of paper he’d extracted from one of his vest pockets.

“We’re good,” he said. “Seventy-two and a quarter—it’s pretty lively. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t hit seventy-five by closing. Let’s settle up back at the office; they’ll be sending the certificate there.”

We went back the way we’d came. The office, busy as it was, seemed almost unnervingly quiet after the roar of the trading floor. “So that’s how it’s done,” said Patzek. “A little different, I bet.”

“Not as much as it used to be,” I said. “When I first got on the NYSE floor, there were only a couple of dozen floor traders left, and it was as quiet as a library most days. With the satellite situation and some of the other problems lately, a lot of brokerages are putting trades back on the floor again. But of course it’s still done with handheld computers, not the sort of thing you’ve got in there.”

Patzek nodded. “The way I heard it, there were handhelds on the floor in the early days after Partition, but the first time the outside tried regime change here they hacked the system and crashed it, and the exchange just let it drop. Computers are just too easy to hack. Floor traders? Not so much.”

“I bet,” I said, laughing.

I wrote a check for the price of the share, then, and filled out a couple of forms covering my side of the transaction. When I got to the form for dividend payouts, though, I looked up at Patzek. “I’ll have to make some arrangements back home before I can finish this.” He nodded, and I went on. “What kind of dividends does Mikkelson pay these days?”

“Five, maybe six percent a year. Not bad, especially since it’s tax free.”

That startled me. “Mikkelson, or dividends in general?”

“Dividends in general. They count as earned income, like wages, salaries, royalties, that sort of thing. Most other investments, you’re gonna pay tax, and if you sell that share and make a profit on it, that’s speculative income and you’re gonna get whacked.”

“So earned income is tax free, but investment income isn’t.”

“Yeah—again, except for dividends.”

I remembered what Elaine Chu had said about taxes back at the Mikkelson plant. “So you tax what you want to discourage, not what you want to encourage.”

“Heck if I know,” said Patzek. “You’ll have to ask the politicians about that.”

A moment later a messenger came in through the door we’d used, plopped a manila folder on one of the desks, and ducked back out. Half a dozen people converged on the folder; Patzek waited his turn, and came back with a sheet of stiff paper printed in ornate script.

“Here you go,” he said. “One share of Mikkelson Manufacturing. Congratulations—you’re now a limited partner with Janice Mikkelson.”

I gave him a startled look, then glanced at the certificate. I’d read about printed stock certificates, but never actually handled one, so it took me a moment to sort through the fancy printing and read the line that mattered. Sure enough, it read MIKKELSON MANUFACTURING LLP.

“Limited liability partnership,” I guessed. “So it’s not a corporation?”

“Nah, it’s a little different here. Back in the day—and we’re talking before the First Civil War, forget about the Second—corporations had to be chartered by the legislature, for some fixed number of years, and only for some kind of public benefit, not just because somebody wanted to make a few bucks. After all the problems the old Union had with corporations claiming to be people and all that, we up and drew a line under that, and went back to the original laws. Here, if a business wants to sell stock, it becomes a limited liability partnership. The limited partners are only on the hook to the value of their stock holdings, but the managing partner or partners—their butts are on the line. If Mikkelson Manufacturing ever goes bust, Mikkelson can kiss her mansion goodbye, and if the company breaks the law, she’s the one who goes to jail.”

I took that in. “Does that actually happen?”

“Not so much any more. Back when I was a kid, there were some really juicy cases, and yeah, some really rich people lost their shirts and landed behind bars. These days, you’re in business, you watch the laws as closely as you watch the bottom line—there’s too many people in politics who’d be happy to buy their constituents a new streetcar line with the proceeds from a court case.”

That didn’t sound much like the politics I was used to back home. I was still processing it when the other door came open and Michael Finch came in. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “I just talked to Ms. Berger. They got everything settled around lunchtime. If you’re ready, the President will be happy to see you this afternoon.”

I glanced at Patzek who grinned and made a scooting motion with one hand. We shook hands and said the usual, and I followed Finch out the door.

Those of my readers who are fans of deindustrial fiction will be interested to hear that Founders House, the publisher of my novel Star’s Reach and the four After Oil anthologies, has a new peak oil SF novel just out, Dark Peak by George R Fehling. It’s a crisp and highly readable thriller set a generation or two after industrial civilization unravels—worth a look.

More generally, interest in deindustrial SF seems to be picking up; those of us who have been writing and reading fiction along those lines for a while may just have gotten in on the ground floor of a new genre. In a conversation a little while back with Founders House veep Shaun Kilgore, he mentioned that his firm has decided to branch out into Young Adult fiction with a deindustrial slant. Any of my readers who are interested in writing something along these lines should contact Founders House via their submissions page.

Along similar lines, I’m pleased to report that my tentative suggestion of an anthology of original short stories set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach is on its way to reality—or, more precisely, will make that transition with your help. I’ve set up a new website,  http://merigaproject.blogspot.comto coordinate the project and help writers work out the details of their stories. I’d encourage everyone who’s contributed stories to the three Space Bats Challenges hosted by this blog to check it out, and consider contributing to the anthology.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Patience of the Sea

I've commented here more than once that these essays draw their inspiration from quite a variety of sources. This week’s post is no exception to that rule. What kickstarted the train of thought that brought it into being was a walk along the seashore last weekend at Ocean City, Maryland, watching the waves roll in and thinking about the imminent death of a good friend.

East coast ocean resorts aren’t exactly a common destination for vacations in October, but then I wasn’t there for a vacation. I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason; it so happens that three organizations that supervise certain of the higher degrees of Masonry in Maryland took advantage of cheap off-season hotel rates to hold their annual meetings in Ocean City last weekend. Those readers who like to think of Masonry as a vast conspiracy of devil-worshipping space lizards, or whatever the Masonophobic paranoia du jour happens to be these days, would have been heartily disappointed by the weekend’s proceedings: a few dozen guys in off-the-rack business suits or cheap tuxedos, most of them small businessmen, skilled tradesmen, or retirees, donning the ornate regalia of an earlier time and discussing such exotic and conspiratorial topics as liability insurance for local lodges.

That said, a very modest sort of history was made at this year’s session of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Maryland—as the name suggests, that’s the outfit that supervises the local bodies that confer the degrees of Royal Master and Select Master on qualified Master Masons in this state. More precisely, it’s one of two such bodies in Maryland. Back in the eighteenth century, Masonry in the United States split into two segregated branches, one for white and Native American Masons, the other for African-American Masons. Late in the twentieth century, as most other segregated institutions in American life dropped the color bar, the two branches of Masonry began a rapprochement as well.

Merger was never an option, and not for the reason you’re thinking.  Both branches of Masonry in the US are proud organizations with their own traditions and customs, not to mention a deeply ingrained habit of prickly independence, and neither was interested in surrendering its own heritage, identity, and autonomy in a merger. Thus what happened was simply that both sides opened their doors to men of any skin color or ethnic background, formally recognized each other’s validity, and worked out the details involved in welcoming each other’s initiates as visiting brethren. Masonry being what it is, all this proceeded at a glacial pace, and since each state Grand Lodge makes its own rules, the glaciers moved at different speeds in different parts of the country.

A couple of years ago, the first time I was qualified to attend the state sessions of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, I voted on the final stage in the movement of one particular glacierette, the establishment of full recognition and visitation between the two Maryland Grand Councils. My vote didn’t greatly matter, all things considered—the resolution was approved unanimously—but I was still happy to be able to cast it. I was equally happy, at this year’s grand sessions, to see the Most Illustrious Grand Master of the historically African-American Grand Council welcomed to the other Grand Council’s meeting with the traditional honors, invited to the East to address the brethren, and given a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Of such small steps is history composed.

When somebody gets around to writing the definitive account of how the two branches of US Masonry healed the old division, this weekend’s session will merit something between a footnote and a sentence if it gets mentioned at all. I seriously doubt the historian will even notice that one of the attendees came a day early, stayed a day late, enjoyed the quiet pleasures that an uncluttered seashore and a half-empty resort town have to offer, and figured out a detail or two about the trajectory of industrial civilization while walking along the beach on a cloudy afternoon, as a stiff breeze blew spray off the long gray rollers coming in from the North Atlantic.

All in all, it was a propitious place for such reflections. America just now, after all, has more than a little in common with an October day in Ocean City. Look around at the gaudy attractions that used to attract so much attention from adoring crowds, and you’ll see many of the same things I saw along the boardwalk that day. The space program? It’s boarded up for the duration like any other amusement park in the off season, though the plywood’s plastered with equally garish posters announcing coming attractions off somewhere in the indefinite future. The American Dream? The lights are shining on the upper floors and big flashing neon signs say “OPEN FOR BUSINESS,” but all the ground floor entrances are padlocked shut and nobody can get in.

The consumer products that fill the same pacifying function in American society as cheap trinkets for the kids at a seaside resort are still for sale here and there, though many of the shops are already closed and shuttered.  The shelves of those that are still open are looking decidedly bare, and what’s left has that oddly mournful quality that shoddy plastic gewgaws always get when they’ve been left on display too long. The one difference that stands out is that Ocean City in late October is mostly deserted, while the crowds are still here in today’s America, milling around aimlessly in front of locked doors and lightless windows, while the sky darkens with oncoming weather and the sea murmurs and waits.

But that wasn’t the thing that sparked this week’s reflections. The thing that sparked this week’s reflections was a stray question that came to mind when I abandoned the boardwalk to the handful of visitors who were strolling along it, and crossed the sand to the edge of the surf, thinking as I walked about the friend I mentioned earlier, who was lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the continent while his body slowly and implacably shut down. The boardwalk, the tourist attractions, and the hulking Babylonian glass-and-concrete masses of big hotels and condominiums stood on one side of me, while on the other, the cold gray sea surged and splashed and the terns danced past on the wind. The question in my mind was this: in a thousand years, which of these things will still be around?

That’s a surprisingly edgy question these days, and to make sense of that, I’d like to jump to the seemingly unrelated subject of an article that appeared a little while ago in the glossy environmental magazine Orion.

The article was titled “Peak Oil Fantasy,” and it was written by Charles Mann, who made a modest splash a little while back with a couple of mildly controversial popular histories of the New World before and after Europeans got there. Those of my readers who have been keeping track of the mainstream media’s ongoing denunciations of peak oil will find it wearily familiar. It brandished the usual set of carefully cherrypicked predictions about the future of petroleum production that didn’t happen to pan out, claimed on that basis that peak oil can’t happen at all because it hasn’t happened yet, leapt from there to the insistence that our very finite planet must somehow contain a limitless amount of petroleum, and wound up blustering that everybody ought to get with the program, “cast away the narrative of scarcity,” and just shut up about peak oil.

Mann’s article was a little more disingenuous than the run of the mill anti-peak-oil rant—it takes a certain amount of nerve to talk at length about M. King Hubbert, for example, without once mentioning the fact that he successfully predicted the peaking of US petroleum production in 1970, using the same equations that successfully predicted the peaking of world conventional petroleum production in 2005 and are being used to track the rise and fall of shale oil and other unconventional oil sources right now. Other than that, there’s nothing novel about “Peak Oil Fantasy,” as all but identical articles using the same talking points and rhetoric have appeared regularly for years now in The Wall Street Journal and other pro-industry, pave-the-planet publications. The only oddity is that a screed of this overfamiliar kind found its way into a magazine that claims to be all about environmental protection.

Even that isn’t as novel as I would wish. Ever since The Archdruid Report began publication, just short of a decade ago, I’ve been fielding emails and letters, by turns spluttering, coaxing, and patronizing, urging me to stop talking about peak oil, the limits to growth, and the ongoing decline and approaching fall of industrial society, and start talking instead about climate change, overpopulation, capitalism, or what have you. No few of these have come from people who call themselves environmentalists, and tolerably often they reference this or that environmental issue in trying to make their case.

The interesting thing about this ongoing stream of commentary is that I’ve actually discussed climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism at some length in these essays. When I point this out, I tend to get either a great deal of hemming and hawing, or the kind of sudden silence that lets you hear the surf from miles away. Clearly what I have to say about climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism isn’t what these readers are looking for, and just as clearly they’re not comfortable talking about the reasons why what I have to say isn’t what they’re looking for.

What interests me is that in the case of climate change, at least, there are aspects of that phenomenon that get the same response. If you ever want to reduce a room full of affluent liberal climate change activists to uncomfortable silence, for example, mention that the southern half of the state of Florida is going to turn into uninhabitable salt marsh in the next few decades no matter what anybody does. You can get the same response if you mention that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is so far advanced at this point that no human action can stop the drowning of every coastal city on the planet—and don’t you dare mention the extensive and growing body of research that shows that the collapse of  major ice sheets doesn’t happen at a rate of a few inches of sea level rise per century, but includes sudden “marine transgressions” of many feet at a time instead.

This discomfort is all the more interesting because these same things were being loudly predicted not much more than a decade ago by affluent liberal climate change activists. As long as they were threats located off somewhere in the indefinite future, they were eagerly used as verbal ammunition, but each of them vanished from the rhetoric as soon as it stopped being a threat and turned into a reality. I noted in an essay some years back the way that methane boiling out of the Arctic Ocean, which was described in ghoulish detail over and over again as the climate change ΓΌber-threat, suddenly got dropped like a anthropogenically heated rock by climate change activists the moment it began to happen.

It’s still happening. As Arctic temperatures soar, rivers of meltwater are sluicing across the Greenland ice cap and cascading into the surrounding oceans, and the ice cap itself, in the words of one climate scientist cited in the article just linked, is as full of holes as Swiss cheese due to meltwater streaming through its innards. While climate change activists insist ever more loudly that we can still fix everything if only the right things happen in the next five years—okay, ten—well, make that fifteen—the cold gray seas off Greenland aren’t listening. The only voices that matter to them come from the roar of waterfalls off the waning ice cap, the hiss of methane bubbles rising from the shallows, and the hushed whispers of temperature and salinity in the dark waters below.

Glaciologists and marine hydrologists know this, and so do a significant number of climate scientists. It’s the would-be mass movement around climate change that has done its level best to pretend that the only irreversible tipping points are still somewhere in the future. They’re not alone in that; for a good many decades now, the entire environmental movement has been stuck in a broken-record rut, saying over and over again that we still have five years to fix the biosphere. Those of my readers who doubt this might want to pick up the twenty-year and thirty-year updates to The Limits to Growth and compare what they have to say about how long the world has to stave off catastrophe.

That is to say, the environmental movement these days has become a prisoner of the same delusion of human omnipotence that shapes so much of contemporary culture.

That’s the context in which Charles Mann’s denunciation of the peak oil heresy needs to be taken. To be acceptable in today’s mainstream environmental scene, a cause has to be stated in terms that feed the fantasy just named. Climate change is a perfect fit, since it starts from an affirmation of human power—“Look at us! We’re so almighty that we can wreck the climate of the whole planet!” —and goes on to insist that all we have to do is turn our limitless might to fixing the climate instead. The campaigns to save this or that species of big cute animal draw their force from the same emotions—“We’re so powerful that we can wipe out the elephants, but let’s keep some around for our own greater glory!” Here again, though, once some bit of ecological damagecan no longer be fixed, everyone finds something else to talk about, because that data point doesn’t feed the same fantasy.

Peak oil is unacceptable to the environmental establishment, in turn, because there’s no way to spin it as a story of human omnipotence. If you understand what the peak oil narrative is saying, you realize that the power we human beings currently claim to have isn’t actually ours; we simply stole the carbon the planet had stashed in its underground cookie jar and used it to go on a three-century-long joyride, which is almost over. The “narrative of scarcity” Mann denounced so heatedly is, after all, the simple reality of life on a finite planet.  We had the leisure to pretend otherwise for a very brief interval, and now that interval is coming to an end. There’s no melodrama in that, no opportunity for striking grand poses on which our own admiring gaze can rest, just the awkward reality of coming to terms with the fact that we’ve made many stupid decisions and now have to deal with the consequences thereof.

This is why the one alternative to saving the world that everyone in the mainstream environmental scene is willing to talk about is the prospect of imminent universal dieoff.  Near-term human extinction, the apocalypse du jour ever since December 21, 2012 passed by without incident, takes its popularity from the same fantasy of omnipotence—if we human beings are the biggest and baddest thing in the cosmos, after all, what’s the ultimate display of our power? Why, destroying ourselves, of course!

There’s a bubbling cauldron of unspoken motives behind the widespread popularity of this delusion of omnipotence, but I suspect that a large part of it comes from an unsuspected source. The generations that came of age after the Second World War faced, from their earliest days, a profoundly unsettling experience that very few of their elders ever had, and then usually in adulthood. In place of comfortable religious narratives that placed the origin of the universe a short time in the past, and its end an even shorter time in the future, they grew up with what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould usefully termed “deep time”—the vision of a past and a future on time scales the human mind has never evolved the capacity to grasp, in which all of human history is less than an eyeblink, and you and I, dear reader, no matter what we do, won’t even merit the smallest of footnotes in the story of life on this planet.

Growing up on the heels of the baby boom, I experienced all this myself. I read the Life Nature Library about as soon as I could read anything at all; by age six or so I had my favorite dinosaurs, and a little later on succumbed to the beauty of trilobites and the vast slow dances of geology.  By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power. The gospel of “you can have whatever you desire” that Barbara Ehrenreich anatomized so pitilessly in her book Bright-Sided found no answering chord in my psyche, and so it never bothered me in the least to think that a hundred million years from now, some intelligent critter of a species not yet spawned might gaze in delight at my fossilized skull, and rub its mandibles together to produce some equivalent of “Ooh, look at that!”

I’m far from the only one these days who sees the unhuman vastness of nature as something to celebrate, rather than something to fear and, at least in imagination, to try to overcome through overblown fantasies of human importance. Still, it’s a minority view as yet, and to judge by the points made earlier in this essay, it seems underrepresented in the mainstream of today’s environmental movement. The fixation on narratives that assign the sole active role to humanity and a purely passive role to nature is, I’ve come to think, a reaction to the collision between two potent cultural forces in contemporary life—the widely promulgated fantasy of infinite entitlement, on the one hand, and on the other, the dawning recognition of our species’ really quite modest, and very sharply limited, place in the scheme of things.

The conflict between these factors is becoming increasingly hard to avoid, and drives increasingly erratic behaviors, as the years pass. The first and largest generation to follow the Second World War in the developed world is nearing the one limit that affects each of us most personally. Thus it’s probably not an accident that 2030—the currently fashionable date by which humans are all supposed to be extinct—is right around the date when the average baby boomer’s statistical lifespan will run out. To my mind, the attempt to avoid that face-first encounter with limits does a lot to explain why so many boomers bailed into evangelical Protestant fundamentalism in the 1980s, with its promise that Christ would show up any day now and spare them the necessity of dying. It explains equally well why the 2012 hysteria, which made similar claims, attracted so much wasted breath in its day—and why so few people these days are able to come to terms with the reality of scarcity, of limits, and of the end of the industrial age and all its wildly overblown fantasies of self-importance.

The friend of mine who was dying as I walked the Ocean City beach last weekend was born in 1949, in the midst of the baby boom, but somehow he managed to avoid those antics and the obsessions that drove them. As a Druid among other things—he was one of the very few people I’ve known well who received more initiations than I have—he understood that death is not the opposite of life but the completion of it. When he collapsed at work a few weeks ago and was rushed to the hospital, his friends and fellow initiates in the Puget Sound area took up a steady vigil at his bedside, and kept those of us out of the region informed. The appropriate ceremonies prepared him for his passing, and another set of ceremonies are helping the living cope with his departure.

A thousand years from now, in all probability, nobody will remember how Corby Ingold lived and died, any more than they will remember the 2015 annual sessions of the Maryland Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, or this blog, or its author. A thousand years from now, for that matter, fossil fuels will be a dim memory, and so will the Greenland ice cap, the Florida peninsula, and a great deal more. It’s just possible, though very unlikely, that human beings will be among those dim memories—we rank with cockroaches and rats among Nature’s supreme generalists, and like them are remarkably hard to exterminate. Whether or not human beings are there to witness it, though, waves like the ones that rolled onto the beach at Ocean City will be rolling over the sunken ruins of Ocean City hotels, just as they rolled above the mudflats where trilobites scurried six hundred million years ago, and as they will roll onto whatever shores rise up when the continents we now inhabit have long since vanished forever.

The sea is patient.  It has outlived countless species and will outlive countless more, ours among them. Among the things it might be able to teach us, on the off chance that we’re willing to learn, is that the life of a species, like that of an individual, is completed by death, not erased by it, and that its value is measured by the beauty and wisdom it experiences and creates, not by the crasser measurements of brute force and brute endurance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Retrotopia: A Question of Subsidies

This is the seventh installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits a streetcar factory, asks some hard questions about the use of human labor in place of machines, and gets some answers he doesn’t expect...

The phone rang at 8 am sharp, a shrill mechanical sound that made me wonder if there was actually a bell inside the thing. I put down the Toledo Blade and got it on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Mr. Carr? This is Melanie Berger. I’ve got—well, not exactly good news, but it could be worse.”

I laughed. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s up?”

“We’ve managed to get everyone to sit down and work out a compromise, but the President’s got to be involved in that. With any luck this whole business will be out of the way by this afternoon, and he’ll be able to meet with you this evening, if that’s acceptable.”

“That’ll be fine,” I said.

“Good. In the meantime, we thought you might want to make some of the visits we discussed with your boss earlier. If that works for you—”

“It does.”

“Can you handle being shown around by an intern? He’s a bit of a wooly lamb, but well-informed.” I indicated that that would be fine, and she went on. “His name’s Michael Finch. I can have him meet you at the Capitol Hotel lobby whenever you like.”

“Would half an hour from now be too soon?”

“Not at all. I’ll let him know.”

We said the usual polite things, and I hung up. Twenty-five minutes later I was down in the lobby, and right on time a young man in a trenchcoat and a fedora came through the doors. I could see why Berger had called him a wooly lamb; he had blond curly hair and the kind of permanently startled expression you find most often in interns, ingenues, and axe murderers. He looked around blankly even though I was standing in plain sight.

“Mr. Finch?” I said, crossing the lobby toward him. “I’m Peter Carr.”

His expression went even more startled than usual for a moment, and then he grinned. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Carr.  You surprised me—I was expecting to see someone dressed in that plastic stuff.”

“I’m not fond of being stared at,” I said with a shrug.

He nodded, as though that explained everything. “Ms. Berger told me you wanted to visit some of our industrial plants and the Toledo stock market. Unless you have something already lined up, we can head down to the Mikkelson factory first and go from there. We could take a cab if you like, or just catch the streetcar—the Green line goes within a block of the plant. Whatever you like.”

I considered that, decided that a good close look at Lakeland public transit was in order. “Let’s catch the streetcar.”

“Sure thing.”

We left the lobby, and I followed Finch’s lead along the sidewalk to the right. The morning was crisp and bright, with an edge of frost, and plenty of people were walking to work. A fair number of horsedrawn cabs rolled by, along with a very few automobiles. I thought about that as we walked. Toledo’s tier had a base date of 1950, or so the barber told me the day before, but I didn’t think that cars were anything like so scarce on American streets in that year.

We turned right and came to the streetcar stop, where a dozen people were already waiting. I turned to Finch. “The Mikkelson factory. What do they make?”

For answer he pointed up the street. Two blocks up,  the front end of a streetcar was coming into sight as it rounded the corner. “Rolling stock for streetcar lines. We’ve got three big streetcar manufacturers in the Republic, but Mikkelson’s the biggest. The Toledo system runs their cars exclusively.”

The streetcar finished the turn, sped up, and rolled to a stop in front of us. Strictly speaking, I suppose I should say “streetcars,” since there were four cars linked together, all of them painted forest green and yellow with brass trim. We lined up with the others, climbed aboard when our turn came, and Finch pushed a couple of bills down into the fare box and got a couple of paper slips—“day passes,” he explained—from the conductor. There were still seats available, and I settled into the window seat as the conductor rang a bell, ding-di-ding-di-ding, and the streetcar hummed into motion.

It was an interesting ride, in an odd way. I travel a lot, like most people in my line of work, and I’ve ridden top-of-the-line automated light rail systems in New Beijing and Brasilia. I could tell at a glance that the streetcar I was on cost a small fraction of the money that went into those high-end systems, but the ride was just as comfortable and nearly as fast. There were two employees of the streetcar system on board, a driver and a conductor, and I wondered how much of the labor cost was offset by the lower price of the hardware.

The streetscape rolled past. We got out of the retail district near my hotel and into a residential district, with a mix of apartment buildings and row houses and a scattering of other buildings: an elementary school with a playground outside, a public library, two churches, a couple of other religious buildings of various kinds, and then a big square building with a symbol above the door I recognized at once. I turned to Finch. “I wondered whether there were Atheist Assemblies here.”

“Oh, yes. Are you an Atheist, Mr. Carr?”

I didn’t see any reason to temporize. “Yes.”

“Wonderful! So am I. If you’re free this coming Sunday, you’d be more than welcome at the Capitol Assembly—that’s this one here.” He motioned at the building we were passing.

“I’ll certainly consider it,” I said, and he beamed.

By the time we got to the factory the streetcar was crammed to the bursting point, mostly with people who looked like office staff, and the sidewalks were full of men and women heading toward the factory gates for the day shift. We got off with almost everyone else, and I followed Finch down another sidewalk to the front entrance of the business office, a sturdy-looking two-story structure with MIKKELSON MANUFACTURING in big letters above the second story windows and in gold paint on the glass of the front door.

The receptionist was already on duty, and picked up a telephone to announce us. A few minutes later a middle-aged woman in a dark suit came out to shake our hands. “Mr. Carr, pleased to meet you. I’m Elaine Chu. So you’d like to see our factory?”

A few minutes later we’d exchanged our hats, coats and jackets for safety helmets and loose coveralls of tough gray cloth. “Just under half the streetcars manufactured in the Lakeland Republic are made right here,” Chu explained as we walked down a long corridor. “We’ve also got plants in Louisville and Rockford, but those supply the railroad industry—Rockford makes locomotives and Louisville’s our plant for rolling stock. Every Mikkelson streetcar comes from this plant.”

We passed through double doors onto the shop floor. I was expecting a roar of machine noise, but there weren’t a lot of machines, just workers in the same gray coveralls we were wearing, picking up what looked like hand tools and getting to work. There were streetcar tracks running down the middle of the shop floor, and I watched as a team of workers bolted two wheels, an axle, and a gear together and sent it rolling down the track to the next team. Metal parts clanged and clattered, voices echoed off the metal girders that held up the roof, and now and then some part got pulled from the line and chucked into a big cart on its own set of tracks.

“Quality control,” Chu said. “Each team checks each part or assembly as it comes down the line, and anything that’s not up to spec gets pulled and either disassembled or recycled. That’s one of the reasons we have so large a share of the market. Our streetcars average twenty per cent less downtime for repairs than anybody else’s.”

We followed the wheel assemblies down the shop floor from the team that assembled them into four-wheel bogies, through the teams that built a chassis with electric motors and wiring atop each pair of bogies, to the point where the body was hauled in on a heavily-built overhead suspension track and bolted onto the chassis. From there we went back up another long corridor to the assembly line that built the bodies. It was all a hum of activity, with dozens of tools I didn’t recognize at all, but every part of it was powered by human muscle and worked by human hands.

I think we’d been there for about two hours when we got to the end of the line, and watched a brand new Mikkelson streetcar get hooked up to overhead power lines, tested one last time, and driven away on tracks to the siding where it would be loaded aboard a train and shipped to its destination—Sault Ste. Marie, Chu explained, which was expanding its streetcar system now that the borders were open and trade with Upper Canada had the local economy booming. “So that’s the line from beginning to end,” she said. “If you’d like to come this way?”

We went back into the business office, shed helmets and coveralls, and proceeded to her office. “I’m sure you have plenty of questions,” she said.

“One in particular,” I replied. “The lack of automation. Nearly everything you do with human labor gets done in other industrial countries by machines. I’m curious as to how that works—economically as well as practically—and whether it’s a matter of government mandates or of something else.”

I gathered from her expression that she was used to the question. “Do you have a background in business, Mr. Carr?”

I nodded, and she went on. “In the Atlantic Republic, if I understand correctly—and please let me know if I’m wrong—when a company spends money to buy machines, those count as assets; that’s how they appear on the books, and there are tax benefits from depreciation and so on. When a company spends the same money to do the same task by hiring employees, they don’t count as assets, and you don’t get any of the same benefits. Is that correct?”

I nodded again.

“On the other hand, if a company hires employees, it has to spend much more than the cost of wages or salaries. It has to pay into the public social security system, public health care, unemployment, and so on and so forth, for each person it hires. If the company buys machines instead, it doesn’t have to pay any of those things for each machine. Nor is there any kind of tax to cover the cost to society of replacing the jobs that went away because of automation, or to pay for any increased generating capacity the electrical grid might need to power the machines, or what have you. Is that also correct?”

“Essentially, yes,” I said.

“So, in other words, the tax codes subsidize automation and penalize employment. You probably were taught in business school that automation is more economical than hiring people. Did anyone mention all the ways that public policy contributes to making one more economical than the other?”

“No,” I admitted. “I suppose you do things differently here.”

“Very much so,” she said with a crisp nod. “To begin with, if we hire somebody to do a job, the only cost to Mikkelson Manufacturing is the wages or salary, and any money we put into training counts as a credit against other taxes, since that helps give society in general a better trained work force. Social security, health care, the rest of it, all of that comes out of other taxes—it’s not funded by penalizing  employers for hiring people.”

“And if you automate?”

“Then the costs really start piling up. First off, there’s a tax on automation to pay the cost to society of coping with an increase in unemployment. Then there’s the cost of machinery, which is considerable, and then there’s the natural-resource taxes—if it comes out of the ground or goes into the air or water, it’s taxed, and not lightly, either. Then there’s the price of energy. Electricity’s not cheap here; the Lakeland Republic has only a modest supply of renewable energy, all things considered, and it hasn’t got any fossil fuels to speak of, so the only kind of energy that’s cheap is the kind that comes from muscles.” She shook her head. “If we tried to automate our assembly line, the additional costs would break us. It’s a competitive business, and the other two big firms would eat us alive.”

“I suppose you can’t just import manufactured products from abroad.”

“No, the natural-resource taxes apply no matter what the point of origin is. You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of cars on the streets here.”

“I did notice that,” I said.

“Fossil fuels here don’t get the government subsidies here they get almost everywhere else, and there’s the natural-resource taxes on top of that, for the fuel that’s burnt and the air that’s polluted. You can have a car if you want one, but you’ll pay plenty for the privilege, and you’ll pay even more for the fuel if you want to drive it.” 

I nodded; it all made a weird sort of sense, especially when I thought back to some of the other things I’d heard earlier. “So nobody’s technology gets a subsidy,” I said.

“Exactly. Here in the Lakeland Republic, we’re short on quite a few resources, but one thing there’s no shortage of is people who are willing to put in an honest day’s work for an honest wage. So we use the resource we’ve got in abundance, rather than becoming dependent on things we don’t have.”

“And would have to import from abroad.”

“Exactly. As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Carr, that involves considerable risks.”

I wondered if she had any idea just how acutely I was aware of those. I put a bland expression on my face and nodded. “So I’ve heard,” I said.