Basic Maintenance

Posted: September 25, 2009 in Debate, Economics, Environment, Industrial Collapse

While traveling recently in the Southwest, I made a startling realization, more like a reminder than a discovery. When traveling, one’s usual feeding and grooming routines are interrupted, and if one lacks access to kitchens and showers, one is forced to improvise and/or forgo some of the basic maintenance we perform daily, almost automatically and without much circumspection. The reminder is often expressed after a nice, warm shower and a decent meal, whereupon one begins to “feel human” again. Of course, the natural world is indifferent to whether humans are fed, clothed, housed, and after that, cleaned up, powdered and pampered, and entertained in the myriad ways that we now take for granted as being civilized. The utter indifference of the natural world to the considerable energies spent on such basic maintenance is often interpreted as hostility, especially in a difficult clime like the Southwest, where plants and animals have evolved some fairly elaborate and effective means of survival where the heat of the sun and the lack of water make men blanche. Some of those means survive beyond death, as I discovered when I was occupied clearing away a dead cactus and ended up covered in burrs, bloodied pinpricks, and scratches. Once upon a time, humans had also adapted to that environment, but those cultures are now gone.

Our civilized ways have moved beyond most conscious thought as technologies have arisen to make civilized prerogatives largely invisible. For instance, we live and sleep in warmth (or in hot summers and southerly locations, relative cool), drink from the tap, take hot showers, and power our many devices via wall plugs. We telephone the utility companies to activate services. Automatic timers and thermostats regulate such devices for us, removing them further from our day-to-day awareness except for bill paying. Very few of us have experience with hauling water or applying our labor to turning a grindstone or digging a pit for an outhouse. But if predictions of many awaiting the imminent collapse of industrial civilization come true — which predictions range from as close in as 20 years to as far off as 150 years — we are assured that those still here on the other side of the collapse (a far smaller population than now exists) will be less familiar with the relative ease we now experience in the First World as “civilized people” and will become far more familiar with a bleak austerity where practical skills confer more power than does pushing electrons around a computer screen or network. Whether society declines gradually to such a state or hits a figurative wall where everything falls apart at once is still the subject of considerable debate in some circles, but the eventuality is scarcely worth questioning anymore. The short-sightedness of human nature and the ineffectiveness of our leadership and institutions have already carried us beyond the tipping point, whether or not we have the courage to accept it, so no hope for a technological fix or a last-minute turnaround are reasonable to a rational observer of the direction history is taking us.

The newly emerging primal fear is that those in the halls of power when the crunch comes, who may be among the most “civilized” among us, will mount a last-ditch though futile effort to preserve those structures that have performed the basic maintenance to which we’ve all become accustomed. The power elite have the most invested in industrial civilization. The masses will cling to an unsustainable past, too, until it becomes clear that, like the disproportionate amount of wealth (nearly half) controlled by the top ten percent of earners, provision of basic services is no longer their right or preserve. Severe dislocations and deprivations like those experienced post-Katrina will be the norm, except for those who retreat to well-prepared and -armed enclaves, abandoning the masses to their lot even more fully and abjectly than today.

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