Archive for July, 2010

There is an aphorism in poker that goes, if you look around the table and don’t know who the chump is, then it’s you. A similar sentiment makes movies about con men entertaining. These days, the likelihood of running into an actual con, scam, Ponzi scheme, fraud, ripoff, or swindle where you’re the chump or mark is pretty high. It’s not necessary to include all the so-called 419 scam e-mails emanating from Nigeria or the United Kingdom promising millions of funds to be transferred into your name or a foreign lottery you’ve just won. Scams are now built into banking and credit card fees, municipal codes, cell phone and utility service agreements, and many other aspects of everyday commerce in what is being called gotcha capitalism. It makes a person wonder whether honest business practices are becoming rare.

The brazenness of some scams is pretty breathtaking. The infamous example of Bernie Maddoff’s Ponzi hedge fund is probably an aberration in terms of both duration and the dollar amounts involved, but further scams that have emerged over the months since Maddoff’s fall are still pretty breathtaking. In March 2010, the Boston Bridal Show was revealed to be a sham only a few days before the event. The Washington Post also reported in March about the increase of food fraud. (We all know by now to be suspicious of anything consumable coming from China.) The following month, The Consumerist reported a Facebook scam that netted over 37,000 victims in one day. (The Consumerist is one of my regular blog reads precisely to keep up with the latest weirdness in the marketplace. A correspondent of mine reads regularly for the same reason, though it’s directed at rumor mongering and urban legends.) Many believe eBay has been ruined by scam artists. Even the Chicago Tribune recently identified common scams to beware. In fact, many websites track emerging scams and publish alerts (see here and here and here and here and here, for instance).

There have always been scoundrels only too happy to take advantage of witless rubes. It may be worth noting that the ease of communications and in some cases production now make it simple to take a machine-gun approach: fire at everyone and see what hits. As a result, as members of society, we’re now in the unfortunate position of having to be suspicious of every routine transaction of money or information; we have to fend off the con men and swindlers continuously. If a clearinghouse exists for brands and/or businesses that are not automatically and reflexively out to getcha, I would be interested in learning of it.

Guy McPherson throws down with readers/commenters on his blog:

The … primary topic of conversation, real and virtual, begins with “Okay, but what can I do?” As if I’ve ignored that particular question. “No, but I mean me. Here in Phoenix. With no money and no spare time.”

Sigh. If you’re unwilling to change, you’ll simply have to let change happen to you. And Bill Clinton was correct about this issue: People like change in general, but not in particular. Nobody who is unwilling to change is liable to appreciate the change headed their way …

I think the ongoing economic collapse is driven by declining energy supply at the world level: We passed the world peak of conventional crude oil in 2005. Considering the primacy of oil to the industrial economy and therefore to our way of living, it’s no surprise the industrial economy is unraveling. Fortunately, it’s taking disaster capitalism with it ….

The basic question McPherson keeps hammering is “what are you waiting for? You can get in front of change or wait for it to happen, but it’s gonna happen no matter what.” McPherson is on the radical leading edge in that he abandoned his career and relocated to a doomstead where he is sharing space, skills, and society with a few others of like mind and values. I admire him for that, but like others who read and comment on his blog, I haven’t made the leap myself. (That appears to be changing as McPherson is now offering consulting aid to those ready to move on.) For those of us convinced that collapse is already underway (and I am), what keeps us in the bosom of civilization? I’ll offer a few reasons, which from one perspective make utterly no sense but from another provide an understanding why doomers sit astride two worlds: still physically and financially tied to civilization but longing emotionally for escape off the grid.

Almost all of us in the West were born into a civilization not of our own making — the only one we’ve ever known. It’s relatively easy to repudiate civilization as hopelessly corrupt, unsustainable, omnicidal, and in its latest stages, batshit crazy. However, most people are still so dialed into the dominant culture that they think you a sociopath when broaching the subject. The trends are changing, and more people are waking up and speaking out, but their impact is still quite small. As a culture, we’re far more comfortable with greening up our habits, which doesn’t really address any of our fundamental problems.

In a bygone era, the romantic image of the rugged American individual — the woodsman, the trapper, the roustabout, the cowboy or range rider — offered the possibility of a partial escape to the wilderness (and eventual return to civilization to clean up). In the modern day, the image of the wilderness seeker runs more to unbalanced hermits scribbling manifestos (the Unabomber), social misfits (the kid depicted in Into the Wild), the even loopier weirdos (the guy depicted in Grizzly Man), and a variety of folks living in caves. Those who have walked away (though they tend to keep Internet access) are frequently regarded with considerable suspicion. Most of us also lack skills to live off the land, which poses a more immediate threat to survival than the house in the suburb or the condo in the city.

Leaving civilization behind inevitably entails an increase in physical labor and lack of creature comforts. Few people I know are willing to give up cable TV, much less the cornucopia of consumer goods in which we now luxuriate. In fact, we’re so soft we complain whenever the temperature varies beyond of a 10-degree band centered on 70 deg. C. Females in particular seem to be unwilling to give up the comforts of modern lifestyles, which might be due (in part) to a biological impulse to seek mates who are good providers.

If reports I read are correct, among the first things one experiences after leaving civilization is a deep, lasting depression. (This assumes one isn’t already grief-stricken over the state of the world.) Indeed, significant loss of society is practically a guarantee. In my network of family and friends, not one is yet willing to consider going with me with any seriousness, and I don’t see how I could go it alone. I’ve also wondered from time to time whether a website exists along the lines of doomer dating. If already paired with a mate, the revelation that it’s all unraveling and time to leave is probably grounds for divorce along the lines of suddenly finding Jesus. Finding a significant other who shares your values is difficult enough, but the stakes are raised considerably when they involve leaving behind nearly everything and everyone known in life thus far.

Lastly, one common expectation of how things are going to go is that once the grocery store shelves empty out and the lights go out permanently, a rule of force will begin, meaning that no one will respect property rights and will forcibly take whatever you may have to survive. Guns and ammo are selling like crazy, and I don’t think they’ll be used primarily for self-protection. If you manage to create a durable set of  living arrangements off the grid, I suspect that will prove too irresistible to some desperate refugee from civilization who failed to prepare.

All that said, I still long for a simpler rural life where I can disconnect from the rat race (which includes many of the things I love). My psychological readiness isn’t yet there, and perhaps I won’t get there in time, but the urgency is building.