Posted by: Michael George Daniel | January 31, 2009

Infrastructure, Post Carbon Institute, The Last Roadtrip

A word being bandied about lately is infrastructure. The more liberal view of stimulus that will move us out of our so-called temporary recession/depression is that we must invest in putting people to work building infrastructure a la’ FDR’s New Deal.  The thinking behind this goes something like this: even though it will cost a lot of money, we are putting money into the system by paying for things that will last. So we’ll get the use of these things for a long time, while paying wages that will in turn be used to buy things, creating demand and lift in the economy. The money being used is actually created out of thin air, which is of course inflationary, but that is the price of avoiding a more devastating collapse of the economy in which, literally, the things that we need to survive, food, water, shelter, become scarce.

My reaction to this conversation is, as usual, akin to nausea that rises from knowledge of the shaky foundation upon which the infrastructure is proposed. To the extent that this infrastructure represents the rebuilding and expanding of our fossil-fuel based systems and institutions, we are throwing good money after bad. Actually, given the rapid depletion of resources, the Perfect Storm of Peak Everything, to borrow the words of Richard Heinberg at the Post Carbon Institute, there is no more good money. Good money implies it will be good for something, someday. Sadly, that is a questionable premise.

Below I borrow much more from Mr. Heinberg and his excellent blog and Muse Letter. But first, there is an important personal context underlying this blog, and all of my upcoming writing: In about a week, my wife, daughter and I will fly to San Diego to pick up a new old car – a 1983 Mercedes 300d that has been converted to run on vegetable oil. The surprise of 2009 for me was a minor accident in a snow storm that opened the door to identifying a different way of meeting our still perceived transportation needs. Given the reality of the gathering Perfect Storm, no car would have been the right response. However, the pressures and tension of so-called normal life still prevail even at this late date, so I opted for a much less expensive vehicle (than say a fancy new hybrid), and one that could take advantage of a more organic fuel source – vegetable oil or anything the resembles it.

The event was a catalyst for a whole new realm of creative thinking. The trip has morphed into an idea for a documentary. A Canon XL2 digital video camera is currently en route. A plethora of interview subjects began coming to my mind, as well as images of the western US and a chronicle of our family’s cross country drive – a first experience for our nine-year old and quite possibly, the last chance we’ll ever have to visit the incredible beauty of the American southwest.  And more so, reflecting thinking that has been going on now for a number years, my vision of this story includes an investigation into the connection between our individual and collective spiritual condition and the circumstances we have yet to face.

As I toss and turn in the early morning hours, a great deal of energy has bubbled up around these issues. The euphoria of the inauguration has passed and the cold reality that we face has come into even starker relief. As always, I rely on that which comes forth through inspiration for direction. In this case, it has been the Post Carbon Institute and their website. Much of the information there has been provided by Heinberg. He has crystallized, for me, the issues of peak oil, climate change, global carrying capacity and resource depletion, as well as offering a vision of the future that has positive characteristics. This we need desperately from which to gain energy for the work that must be done. I’m deeply grateful for the wisdom available through the writings offered by Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute.

Heinberg (RH) writes, “It’s not the end of the world—yet. There is still opportunity to manage economic collapse in such a way as to lay the groundwork for a recovery to low-flow sustainability. But not if we concentrate our efforts on denial, blame, or the propping up of old institutions and industries that have no chance of survival—all of which are the obsessions of our current leadership.” And thus my original idea for this blog, a comment on the disturbingly loose lips proclaiming ‘infrastructure’. From President Obama to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, the American people are still being subtly brainwashed that somehow our current system will ‘pull out’ of this. We need to stop doing this. Heinberg points to the so-called leaders and their continued economic drivel:

“An article on the Bloomberg website today suggests that Asia will have a “V-shape” recovery from the current economic crisis, rebounding in 2010. This is opposed to a “U-shape” recovery, which would presumably take a little longer.”

“May I suggest another alphabetic possibility? What if the “recovery,” not just in Asia, but globally, is shaped more like a big capital L?”

The Bloomberg article is literally laughable. Written by people that have gotten where they are by taking themselves so-very-seriously, and getting good at operating within a very bad system. Unfortunately, this is going to continue for sometime and these same people, because they are quite powerful inside of this system, are not going to give up their views or change easily. It is going to be messy.

“Everyone’s fears for the social system are ultimately personal: in the worst case, instead of getting up in the morning and finding our way within a functioning collective hive of organized activity, we might end up just milling around looking for something to eat. But with almost seven billion of us milling, we would be bumping into one another eying the same nuts and berries.” Richard Heinberg, The Post Carbon Institute

So the opportunity comes into focus a bit more: “Thus as fossil fuels deplete, as water becomes more scarce, and as climate changes, it is essential that we humans make a plan for how to simplify our society with minimal destruction of the planet and of one another. The project is made difficult by the fact that most of us are completely unaware that this is what we must do: we labor instead under the belief that our current problems can be solved with ever more complexity in the forms of technology (genetically modified crops and hybrid cars) and government bailouts for failing companies.”

“Globally, there are two problems whose potential consequences far outweigh most others: climate change and energy resource depletion. If we do nothing to dramatically curtail emissions of greenhouse gases soon, there is the substantial likelihood that we will set in motion the two self-reinforcing feedback loops mentioned previously – the melting of the north polar icecap, and the melting of tundra and permafrost releasing stored methane. These would, if set in motion, lead to an averaged global warming not just of a couple of degrees, but perhaps six or more degrees over the remainder of the century. And this in turn could make much of the world uninhabitable and make agriculture impracticable in many if not most places, and could result not only in the extinction of thousands or millions of other species but the deaths of hundreds of millions or billions of human beings.”

“In summary: We have used the plentiful, cheap energy from fossil fuels quite predictably to expand our power over nature and one another. Doing so has produced a laundry list of environmental and social problems. We have tried to address these one by one, but our efforts will be much more effective if directed at their common root – that is, if we end our dependence on fossil fuels.”

“The only choice remaining for policy makers is whether to shift all of our collective societal efforts toward building new infrastructure for the low-energy future, or to try vainly just to prop up the credit markets, losing what will probably be the last opportunity to salvage industrial economies.

The amount of time left for dithering—if indeed there still is any—can perhaps be measured in only months.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, most people simply do not believe that these ideas have much pertinence. Through a combination of cultural conditioning, psychological mechanisms of repression and denial, pharmaceutically-induced numbness and lack of experience – and thus wisdom with regard to these longer term trends, it is easier to dismiss the threat and the opportunity of this great turning. As a result, there is an equally powerful counter argument.

“But how can we know that the current economic crisis represents our ultimate encounter with ecological limits, and not merely a major case of the financial hiccups that have recurred frequently over the past couple of centuries? Might the global economy rebound for a few years, maybe even a decade or more, before really hitting the wall? In that case, wouldn’t a premature declaration of limit-hitting lead to further humiliation of ecological prophets by the mainstream media? Gloomy talk about an “L-shaped” non-recovery is likely to provoke tar-and-feathering in any case, simply because people who are already suffering economically want good news, not bad—and they especially do not want to hear the REALLY bad news that the era of cheap and easy abundance that they have been told is their birthright is gone forever.”

In fact, no matter what arena one finds himself, the reaction of people to these ideas ranges from a glazed over stare to a palpable disdain. “None of this is easy to contemplate. Nor can this information easily be discussed in polite company: the suggestion that we are at or near the peak of population and consumption levels for the entirety of human history and that it’s all downhill from here is not likely to win votes, lead to a better job, or even make for pleasant dinner banter. Most people turn off and tune out when the conversation moves in this direction; advertisers and news organizations take note and act accordingly. The result: a general, societal pattern of denial.”

So much of it is our capitalistic conditioning. We have been taught and rewarded to pursue money, not human experience. And we have thus put ourselves into an isolation tank of civilization that has produced the self-reinforcing dissociation that keeps us from hitting the brakes and turning the wheel as we careen toward a literal and figurative brick wall of change. We even create criteria of measurement to reinforce the illusion.

“Growth in GDP tells us that we should be feeling better about ourselves and our world – but it doesn’t take into account a wide range of other factors, including damage to the environment, wars, crime and imprisonment rates, and trends in education. Many economists and non-governmental organizations have criticized governmental reliance on GDP for this reason, and have instead promoted the use of a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which does take account of such factors. While a historical GDP chart for the U.S. shows general ongoing growth up to the present (GDP correlates closely with energy consumption), GPI calculations show a peak around 1980 followed by a slow decline. If we as a society are going to adjust agreeably to lower rates of energy flow – and less travel and transport – with minimal social disruption, we must begin paying more attention to the seeming intangibles of life and less to GDP and the apparent benefits of profligate energy use.”

But this isn’t just about the merits of the argument outlining the problem. We need to move on from there, and Heinberg recognizes this too. What lies ahead? How can we get coherent with these very real trends? Are there any positive aspects in the horrific scene from which we might draw life energy and will to work together toward a solution, any solution, even if it requires a vast revamping of everything we know (unless you go back far enough in history at which point there are useful lessons to be learned about connecting spirit with flesh and collaborating with one another as well as the whole of the web of life).

“Nevertheless, a decline in population, complexity, and consumption could, at least in theory, result in a stable society with characteristics that many people would find quite desirable. A reversion to the normal pattern of human existence, based on village life, extended families, and local production for local consumption – especially if it were augmented by a few of the frills of the late industrial period, such as global communications – could provide future generations will [sic] the kind of existence that many modern urbanites dream of wistfully.”

So Heinberg finds a way to sum up a potential source of inspiration from which we can draw. “We must focus on and use the intangibles that are not peaking (such as ingenuity and cooperation) to address the problems arising from our overuse of substances that are.” We should all feel deeply indebted for these words.

And these: “Thus, a conclusion of startling plainness presents itself: Our central survival task for the decades ahead, as individuals and as a species, must be to make a transition away from the use of fossil fuels – and to do this as peacefully, equitably, and intelligently as possible.”

And finally, Heinberg offers some insight into the psychological crux of the problem, an aspect that I find particularly interesting because it also is the doorway into seeing the current trends, and remedies, or at least outcomes whatever they might be, as having a spiritual component. How might we use spiritual energy to mitigate the pain and optimize the future?

“It is not just a matter of becoming intellectually and dispassionately convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change, peak oil, or any other specific problem. Rather, it entails an emotional, cultural, and political catharsis…waking up implies coming to the realization that the very fabric of modern life is woven from illusion – thousands of illusions, in fact.”

“Again, the awakening I am describing is an ongoing visceral as well as intellectual reassessment of every facet of life – food, work, entertainment, travel, politics, economics, and more. The experience is so all-encompassing that it defies linear description. And yet we must make the attempt to describe and express it; we must turn our multi-dimensional experience into narrative, because that is how we humans process and share our experiences of the world.”

Thus he gives me the gift of understanding just a little better my urge to tell a story, as best I can, about these things.

“The great transition of the 21st century will entail enormous adjustments on the part of every individual, family and community, and if those adjustments are to be made successfully, rational planning will be needed. Implications and strategies will have to be explored in nearly every area of human interest – agriculture, transportation, global war and peace, public health, resource management, and on and on. Books, research studies, television documentaries, an every other imaginable form of information transferal means will be required to convey needed information in each of these areas. Moreover, there is the need for more than explanatory materials; we will need citizen organizations that can turn policy into action, and artists to create cultural expressions that can help fire the collective imagination. Within this whirlwind of analysis, adjustment, creativity, and transformation, perhaps there is need and space for a book that simply tries to capture the overall spirit of the time into which we are headed, that ties the multifarious upwellings of cultural change to the science of global warming and peak oil in some hopefully surprising and entertaining ways, and that begins to address the psychological dimension of our global transition from industrial growth to contraction and sustainability.”

And so, in reading Mr. Heinberg’s excellent writing, and in creating this blogpost with some of his thoughts – I stumble upon an unexpected jolt of inspiration. In the right hand column is a link to just such a book as he describes, a book that I attempted to write over the last two years. It is an effort that has suffered recently from my own emotional blocks of self-perceived inadequacy, as well as the not-so-unexpected pressures of spreading myself thin enough to secure a modicum of income to help provide for my family. My wife is the hero in the story, continuing to work four, ten-hour days at the local gas utility to bring in a reliable income while I search and search for a response to all of the things written here – and try to make some money. I search for an expression that is adequate for our family right now, yet tells this story that literally emits from my soul – from a deep place of knowing that has been at odds with civilized life for so long it has caused all sorts of misunderstood emotional turmoil.

As Heinberg points out, our reaction to the implications of the future are achingly personal. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones, for their safety, health and comfort. But the answer, as always, is here, now. In understanding this, I take yet one more step closer to opening the flood gates of [coherent] expression; hopefully a story that resonates and contributes to the collective understanding of this journey with which we are engaged.

I encourage you to peruse the rough draft of  Abundance, The Journey Home through the link at the right under non-fiction. It is my vision of a book ‘that simply tries to capture the overall spirit of the time into which we are headed’.  There is, too, a new story idea: a documentary of the road trip upon which we are about to embark. I hope this trip, that you can read about in The Last Road Trip, might yet be an outlet for this story that burns in me, that Richard Heinberg has most recently helped crystallize just a bit more. A story that represents a simple, yet profound, response to what is here, now.

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