Archive for May, 2010

Surfing around the web, it’s becoming commonplace to find blogger-photographers chronicling the ongoing collapse of industrial civilization, though few characterize their subjects that way. The ruins and wrecks of past civilizations have always held a strange fascination for us, whether they be Egyptian pyramids, the Moai statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Stonehenge, the Roman Colosseum, the Greek Acropolis, Machu Picchu, the lost Mayan cities, or any number of others scattered through time and across the globe. The poignancy of such sights is usually the absence of people in what appear to have been thriving, bustling hubs of human activity. The plethora of modern ruins have none of the mystery of ancient archeological sites but point instead to how short-lived many of our monuments truly are and how quickly they fall into ruin. Photographing them has become a fetish, and the aesthetic is developing into post-industrial chic.

None of the links I’ve provided over the past few years have come close to Modern Ruins for the number of click-throughs. However, it’s only one of many websites offering photography of ruins: see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. (This group doesn’t even include Flicker galleries.) No modern U.S. city can surpass Detroit, Michigan, for the sheer grandiosity of its decline and the number of sites devoted to it (see here and here and here and here and even a video here). For other examples of city-wide abandonment, pictures of Centralia, Pennsylvania (see here) and Chernobyl, Ukraine (see here) are worth a look. Two more lengthy treatments are given here on rural Japan and several bike trips across of North America, the second of which includes quite of few images and videos of the effects of heavy industry on the landscape.

Of course, many districts in many U.S. cities have the same bombed-out, abandoned look as Detroit in the wake of recent financial destruction and business collapses. While many techno-utopians and market fundamentalists believe we’re only suffering a temporary setback, doomers believe we’re seeing the early stresses of peak oil playing out. I’m in the second camp. That’s not to say that there won’t be further technological development and some temporary trend reversals, but the overall trend is almost undoubtedly more like J.H. Kunstler’s long emergency.

There is a line from J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan, “Oh, the cleverness of me,” that expresses Peter’s immature arrogance and inability to handle emotions, which in turn is expressed metaphorically by Peter’s refusal to accept the complexities inherent to growing up. Humanity is not dissimilar.

This came to mind in response to an article in the New York Times by John Tierney called “Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons,” which is ostensibly a book review but in truth is scarcely concealed worship and praise of the market god (more generally recognized as market fundamentalism). The book being pumped is The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. Ridley is grouped with other optimist writers, Julian Simon (The State of Humanity), Indur Goklany (The Improving State of the World), and Gregg Easterbrook (Sonic Boom), but not before being contrasted with unnamed pessimist strawmen dismissed at the outset by citing Arthur Herman and his book, The Idea of Decline in Western History. I haven’t read any of these books so can’t opine knowledgeably on them, but I will point to at least one other book, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which received a pretty thorough review here. My opinion is that forced optimism and irrational optimism represent fundamental disconnects from reality.

Back to Tierney’s review/prayer:

What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too. Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

“At some point,” Dr. Ridley writes, “after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.”

Ridley and Tierney are together saying that humans alone among the animals created economics and accordingly harnessed an immense power that enabled us to better compete for survival and dominance. Oh, the cleverness of us. Problem is, we were a bit too clever, which became our tragic flaw when coupled with our own refusal to grow up. See, economics as currently constituted is based on perpetual growth of a number of inputs, the principal ones being population, energy, and efficiency. For most of human history, those inputs were held in check, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, they took off and catalyzed each other. The trend lines all went nearly vertical for a while, but unless one foolishly believes resources (especially energy and habitat) are boundless, there are obvious, hard limits to growth. This relates to the population bottleneck.

Evidence continues to mount that we are incurring an ecological deficit not unlike our preposterous budget deficit. The inevitable defaults will leave us both fiscally and ecologically poor, with no way to function inside a fiat money system or an ecologically ruined world. Yes, the planet will recover over evolutionary time, but we live in a human timescale, and we’re going to have a huge die off and functional collapse of human institutions because we will have consumed in roughly two centuries the bulk of the resource on which our ballooned population, globalized economy, and entire civilization run: fossil fuels. Other civilizations have committed the same fundamental error, namely, consuming and ruining their own ecosystems. This will be the first time the civilizational collapse will be planetary.

I’m pleased to observe that a good portion of the comments on Tierney’s review say that the Tierney/Ridley thesis is risible on its face. But still, why do so many rely on economic analyses of geophysical processes? Economists can’t even be relied upon to figure out economics. Of course, if it were possible to defeat reality with the rhetoric of economics, we might indeed have a rosy future, but economics isn’t working so well for us at present, is it?

Breaking news today that the U.S. disclosed the size of its nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon said it had a total of 5,113 warheads in its nuclear stockpile at the end of September, down 84 percent from a peak of 31,225 in 1967. The arsenal stood at 22,217 warheads when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

These numbers can’t really come as a surprise to anyone with a couple firing synapses. The idea of deterrence through mutually assured destruction was insane from the outset of the Cold War (and its accompanying paranoia). But seriously, a peak of 31,225 warheads? Overkill much? Do that many targets even exist?

From a strategic perspective, considering we say we hope to never use them, I judge that about a dozen warheads ought to do the trick. It might have been necessary in 1967 to have more to ensure delivery at remote targets, but a nuclear submarine can do that handily today if we can merely wait a few days to position the sub before ending the world. Either way, once that genie is let back out of the bottle, all bets are off and every member of the nuclear club will let fly with theirs thinking that it will be millennia before the radioactive dust settles, at which point no one will know whom to blame (or remember the combatants). Even in the unlikely event no one else fires one off in retaliation or sheer recklessness, the fallout — nuclear and otherwise — of such an event will pretty much render the remainder of the arsenal useless. How many detonations does the U.S. get to add to its tally before we incur the wrath of god? Oh, never mind. We’re not really a god-fearing nation in the end.

On the bright side, we’re down 84% from the peak some 43 insane years ago. If we reduced to 12 warheads in all as I believe adequate, we would be down another 99.98% or so from our current number and still be just about as safe, which is to say, not very safe at all since the entire planet is armed to the teeth. That fact reveals, ironically, that tax dollars being spent on war defense do almost nothing to protect us anymore. We can kill and terrorize others (and make no mistake, that’s what we’ve been doing with our foreign escapades for decades), but we can’t secure ourselves no matter what the rhetoric might be.

Only a few new products make a strong enough impression on me to make me want to feature them with my approval or disapprobation. Perhaps you can guess which side of the divide this product falls on:

Although the Young Explorer is offered for sale (at an unnecessarily hefty price) to childcare facilities, its breathless sales pitch is really meant to strike fear in the hearts in foolish parents anxious that their child will fall behind at the start of life:

In this age of technology we think it is essential that children learn about computers as early as possible. This technology can enhance critical and cognitive thinking skills, problem-solving abilities and analytical thinking. Having child-appropriate computers and software in your facility shows parents that you understand the important role technology plays in providing an enriched learning environment for their child’s growth. It’s a hallmark way to set you apart from other childcare facilities.

The claim that computer technologies enhance “cognitive thinking skills” [sic] or anything else is specious at best. What it actually does it make children unwitting thralls to technology, not that most people recognize it since they, too, are only too willing to be slavering technophiles.

I caution my friends and acquaintances often about oversaturation with media, especially the electronic sort. I could go nuclear on this particular product, but I think instead I’ll just step away from my computer and this blog before I break something.