Archive for July, 2007

Living Among Refuse

Posted: July 26, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture

My perspective about the excessive level of consumption we’ve established in the modern world, especially in the West, has typically been informed by collateral issues including unsustainability, demographics gone mad, ecological destruction, commodity culture, advertising (programming, actually), and the sheer absurdity of manufacturing, buying, and consuming so much stuff, much of which we don’t need. All of these things come at a not-so-hidden cost, naturally, even while our style of consumption seems to make our lives happier and more comfortable. (I say “seems” because it’s not entirely clear or agreed upon that plenitude equates to physical, spiritual, or psychic wellbeing, either as individuals or as societies.)

I recently caught wind of a few details surrounding a further issue that threatens to overwhelm us: what to do with all the refuse we create. The “dump” or regional landfill is by now so well-established in our thinking that it hardly bears comment. Still, that’s the subject of a documentary movie called Trashed. I haven’t seen the film so can’t comment knowledgeably, but I can discern its message from viewing the trailer.

I’m really more intrigued by some of the perhaps less obvious instances of the impact and scale of our material and manufacturing processes. For instance, many of us have seen pictures of the airplane graveyard outside Tucson, Arizona, known as The Boneyard:


This image (if my research is correct) dates from 1994, when the U.S. military lined up acres of decommissioned warplanes (bombers) from the Vietnam War era to demonstrate compliance with the SALT II Treaty to Russian satellites. Those particular planes have by now been chopped up, recycled, and repurposed as, among other things, soda cans.

Another startling example is the Staten Island Ship Graveyard:



Posted: July 22, 2007 in Idealism

We humans love efficiency: maximum output in the minimum time. In economics, that translates into fortunes made (and lost) overnight and considerable volatility. It also translates into a culture of change. Rapid change, actually. The world of 1880 looked substantially like the world of 1900, whereas the world of 1980 changed significantly in the years leading to 2000. Technology is driving the rate of change, and predictions are that change will continue to accelerate at an exponential rate. So there is a significant possibility that by 2050, say, we’ll hardly even recognize how the world was in 2007. Even now, most of us can hardly conceive of (or remember) the world before the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Political, economic, and cultural choices tend reflexively toward optimal efficiency. It’s natural to want the quick fix, the fast track, and the easy route to success or achieving objectives. Like the turtles in Finding Nemo that use fast-moving ocean currents to speed their migration, we look for any sort of slipstream to provide efficiency.

Take, for instance, what some call the population time bomb. Humans existed for centuries, nay millennia, at well under 1 billion in population. However, in the past few centuries alone, we’ve learned how to better exploit (read: exploit more efficiently) our ecological niche and have entered a reproductive slipstream. We’ve just recently passed the knee of the curve and are now poised to overpopulate the planet, leading to our eventual destruction.


Uneven patterns of consumption and economic activity pose serious problems in terms of ecology and social justice, but they pale besides the problems we can expect to face by the end of the century. How to provide for the physical needs of a population that climbs above 15 or 20 billion may well prove to be an insurmountable task that improved efficiencies cannot accomplish. Coupled with ecological, economic, and social collapses many scientists, economists, and social theorists predict (which will largely result from reckless human activity and unmanageable scale not just in population), it’s probably more accurate to predict a new dark ages than the sort of technological utopia science fiction often depicts.

The general public is beginning to get an inkling of the difficulties we are likely to face and have been starting to ask political leaders how they will address our problems and prepare for our future. Unfortunately for all of us, our political thinking and processes are still centered on the electoral cycle, which have little hope of adopting a view longer than the next administration (4 or 8 years) or the next congressional plurality. So after a fashion, we’re trapped in the slipstream, the superhighway to the future of our own making, and our only politically possible and socially feasible response is to ride the wave until we hit the wall.

Battle Scars

Posted: July 19, 2007 in Health

I’m breaking one of my self-imposed rules: no writing about myself (in a chatty tone, no less). This entry and the two before it are about me, which break from my usual focus away from myself. So sue me.

I’ve never been a fat slob and fully put away my athletic gear like lots of middle-aged guys. All my former tennis partners have fallen away (like my bridge partners) and the frequency of workouts has undoubtedly waxed and waned over time, but I’ve kept at it. I have biked to work off and on for years, but my main thing has always been swimming, which has helped me to maintain my sanity by periodically getting me out of my head and back into my body. Last year, I took on a new challenge: the triathlon. Although I only did the sprint distance, and none too competitively, folks gave me a lot of encouragement and credit for being out there on the course in my middle 40s. I’m signed up again this year. (more…)

Thinking Blogger Award

Posted: July 19, 2007 in Blogosphere

I was tagged recently by a blogger friend (as in “tag, you’re it”) with the so-called Thinking Blog meme. The source of this meme is here. I presume that if you’re reading this blog regularly and aren’t merely surfing by then you know what a meme is, so I won’t bore you with theory. Here’s the image associated with the Thinking Blog meme:

thinking blog

Not to be a spoilsport, but there’s a fundamental flaw with the meme, which is basically that its purpose is to proliferate. Since the originator asked everyone who got tagged to tag five more in turn, the proliferation progresses to the point where nearly everyone with any network of connectivity gets tagged at some point. The launch was February 11, 2007, and I’m already too late to the party for this nod to hold much charm for me (notwithstanding the tiny little blog backwater I occupy).

So I’ve linked back to the source and to the level just before me, but I won’t send the meme out again by tagging anyone else. Simply look at my blogroll to see whom I authorize.

Ten Things to Do

Posted: July 17, 2007 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

A friend of mine reactivated her mostly dormant blog and put up a list of 20 things to do within the next year. I thought it was an interesting idea but might be too many things. Strangely, though, none of the things on the list seem especially grand, challenging, or difficult. But they got me thinking about what sorts of things ought to go on my own shorter list of things.

The typical New Year’s Resolution is to forswear something bad one does, such as smoking or drinking, which would be in the Personal Improvement category. The New Experiences category is obvious and might include things like visit a new place or learn a new recipe. The Year Round category is probably the hardest and has ongoing things such as eating healthily or reading regularly (instead of watching TV). Almost all the categories I can think of slant toward novelty or self-improvement, so I began to wonder about worthwhile things to do that aren’t so grasping or freighted with moral charge. Aren’t there worthy goals and challenges that are simply about being human and at ease with oneself and the world? It’s curiously difficult to come up with many things that aren’t too wrapped up with some form of self-improvement or straining to improve others around us.

So I decided to make my own short list of things to do within the next year. I want at least one wholly unattainable goal, and several that aren’t treacle (making me a better person). A couple might even be subject to amendment in the course of a year. If I’m still at the blogger’s desk in a year, perhaps I’ll remember to check in a see what I’ve accomplished from my list.

  1. Forgo a night’s sleep.
  2. Host a dinner party.
  3. Learn jazz improvisation.
  4. Go camping in a tent.
  5. Take a vacation where I did mostly nothing.
  6. Somehow deal with the apparent inevitability of human self-destruction.
  7. Demonstrate more overt affection toward family and friends.
  8. Participate in some meaningful political action.
  9. Relearn the French I’ve forgotten since high school with the aim of becoming fluent.
  10. Increase the distance I can run at a stretch without walking (now only about 1.5 miles).

Resumption of Hostilities

Posted: July 16, 2007 in Politics

I’m approaching the end of Curtis O. White’s book, The Middle Mind. Lots of good ideas in there. This bit from page 178 struck me:

“… if there is to be a global culture — and telecommunications and digital technology have made that appear inevitable (if also inevitably unequal) — that culture will be understood, rationalized, and administered in keeping with, in faith with, the ‘trust’ we have in Western institutions. We simply do not know how to ‘trust’ under other circumstances. It is a nearly imponderable dilemma; it is a religious dilemma, and a dilemma of spirit. How do we interact fairly with other people who do not share our faith in Western institutions? Unhappily, some perceive only one adequate response to it: the imposition of Western paradigms.”

White goes on to say that our current struggle with Islam is really the resumption of a 1000-year struggle that was temporarily forgotten while we were preoccupied in the 20th century with communism. But we’ve returned to the ancient feud, at once reminiscent of the Crusades, except that instead of being motivated and protected by the “divine puissance” of Christian faith and virtue, this resumption of hostilities is defined to a greater degree as an administration action — taming (and exterminating) the brutes — and our troops are protected by our technological superiority and the troops’ own “Nintendo-hardened reflexes.”

All of this is of course a lens through which to filter very broad historical trends. I’m very intrigued by the idea and impressed with White’s framing and ability to coin especially apt phrases. There’s not a lot for me to develop, as he does a pretty good job stating his case.

Addition to Blogroll

Posted: July 5, 2007 in Blogroll

The Spiral Staircase has a radically short blogroll by blogging standards. Several reasons inform that fact. Political and pop culture blogs are too many and too ubiquitous to enhance the focus of this blog. Even more significantly, many bloggers simply don’t write well enough for me to endorse (a significant consideration of mine). So if a blog is listed at The Spiral Staircase, it must be a worthwhile supplement for those who read what I have to say about the culture. Also, I’m completely disinterested in link swapping as a means of driving hits, so the sites to which I link typically don’t link back to me.

With all that in mind, I added a new blog to the blogroll: Chronically Pissed, which has the provocative tagline “a debilitatingly angry, atheistic liberal vents his rage in totally fucking inappropriate ways.” The author apparently has periods of high activity and low activity, which should be no surprise if the posts track current events. What I’ve read has resonated with me, though his posts are considerably different than the way I would put things. One has to be especially impressed with someone willing to be so upfront about the truth of things.

If I were to allow myself the full range and emotional freight of the anger expressed at Chronically Pissed, I’m sure I’d tip over the ragged edge. However, experiencing vicariously the onslaught of those diatribes is strangely liberating, especially considering the despair any thinking person inevitably feels over the apparent apathy of the wider public toward things so obviously and wildly askew on so many fronts. The next 18 months or promise to offer plenty more fodder for being chronically and acutely pissed. I’ll be curious (and no doubt angered) to see what develops.

Aged Institutions

Posted: July 2, 2007 in Culture, Idealism

There ought to be an expiration date on some institutions. The life cycles of many of our current institutions have been extended well beyond their effectiveness date and they frankly need to be scrapped and created anew. Examples include public education, corporations, the electoral process, perhaps even capitalism.

Calls to scrap public education began back in the 1960s, not really very long after its establishment. It had become clear even then, at least to a few, that education was quickly devolving into a barely functioning bureaucracy. It’s been nothing but a long, sustained slide since then, and repeated initiatives and attempts to cure the patient have done little but to put it on chronic life support. The growing home school movement is a good indication that many folks have no faith in the classroom anymore and can frankly educate their children better and cheaper on their own.

Corporations fare not so much better. Many of the great 20th-century corporations no longer exist, having long since been bought, merged, liquidated, and/or bankrupted out of existence. The airlines make a good case in point. Even those that survived into the 21st century typically creak under their own weight and history. For instance, IBM, Xerox, GM, and Kodak all putter along benignly, restructuring themselves periodically but not really innovating or leading their markets. Younger upstarts have usurped the oldsters.

Perhaps the most egregious case is the electoral process. No one paying attention really believes anymore that the choices offered by the time all the fundraising, primaries, and politicking come to a close amount to anything other than a choice between the lesser of (merely) two evils. Little wonder there is such voter apathy. Breakout candidates in recent presidential elections (Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Steve Forbes, Ralph Nader) suggested for a while some possibility of change, or at least a viable alternative, but they were all dead upon arrival. A vote for change was tactically a throwaway vote.

Even capitalism shows considerable signs of wear and tear. As an economic system, the promise has always been that, for all its faults, capitalism is better than any of the alternatives. In its current mature state, however, capitalism fails to provide its benefits broadly enough, is vulnerable to venal manipulation by the power elite, and is similarly threatened by the great headless beast of globalism soon to consume us all in a stateless, leaderless scramble for whatever is left after capitalist excesses chew up and spit out the ecosystem.

In each case (further examples could go on and on), there existed a sweet spot toward late middle age and moderate size when each institution was at its height of power and prestige. Once beyond that crest, however, inertia begins to set in, size bogs things down, and operating parameters end up distilled into a few rhetorical flourishes unable to adapt or change. Even the replacement of a leader (president, principal, CEO, whatever) typically does little but churn already stale water.

What would it be like if all institutions planned for their own obsolescence? The trick would be to time the transition to the next thing or indeed to leave the stage and wait for the next player to appear, not knowing who or what. But alas, while institutions may still adapt and change in small measure, we should recognize by now that many have outlived their usefulness yet refuse to cede their existence to younger rivals. Their final, aging desire is inevitably to persist, failing to serve their original missions well if at all.