Archive for August, 2012

A long while back, toward the start of this blog — February 5, 2007, to be exact — I published one of my first posts here at The Spiral Staircase that transformed this site into a doomer blog (of sorts — I’m never listed on the usual roundup of doomer sites and writers (except way down the page here), which is undoubtedly a good thing). That post, called “Steamrollers,” adopts as its primary conceit the steamroller slowly but implacably rolling over its targets and grinding them into dust. (We humans are the targets, BTW.) I’ve never been able to sustain my focus on doom, so I’m not nearly as much a Cassandra figure as many other bloggers out there, but doom and industrial collapse are clearly among the themes of this blog. I thought it time to update that blog post, even though steamrollers bearing down on even then us have only progressed a little bit. But that was partly the point: they move slowly.

China (and India)

Chinese communism has been a bogeyman for many decades, but more recently, its hybrid capitalist economy threatened to overtake the U.S. economy. In the five years since blogging about China and India, their economies have revealed feet of clay not unlike our own, which may well be an endemic feature of late-stage capitalism even when newly adopted. My initial forecast about China and India, however, was about neither politics nor economics but about sheer population demographics. China’s birthrate for 2012 slowed to 12.31 while its population grew to 1.34 billion. It’s still a seemingly slow-moving danger, but as Al Bartlett’s talk on exponential growth demonstrates, the slowness belies its seriousness. India’s birthrate also slowed to 20.6 per 1000 while its population grew to 1.3 billion. Trends for both, however, remain undisturbed. (Data again courtesy of The World Factbook.) Merrily we roll along.

The Rise of Islam Christianity

Islam (or Islamofascism) became the newest faceless enemy post-9/11, but the truly threatening stuff was always fringe and has stayed decidedly so. (Don’t believe media hype about terrorism. That’s just cover for the American security/surveillance state, only slightly behind the British model.) However, if one steps outside the American perspective even momentarily, it’s easy to see that we Americans, whether behaving like a nation with the soul of a church or merely fighting the latest, greatest, global resource war, are a far greater threat to others than they are to us, and it’s gone mainstream. We have by far the largest military, backed by the full power of the state and a surprisingly compliant citizenry, and the willingness to use it preemptively. In contrast, fanatical Islamists are derided for living unshaven and unkempt in tents and caves. And what’s worse, in the U.S., the lunatics are running the asylum. For instance, we have a serious presidential contender with wacky, kooky Mormon beliefs (and who just selected as a running mate an Ayn Rand devotee, speaking of wacky and kooky). But it’s scarcely any better even with the more traditional Catholic Church, which has been mired in repeated and ongoing controversy since its inception but is now almost wholly invalidated over priest sex abuse and pederasty scandals and cover-ups, or for that matter, the mainline Protestant religions, which have veered toward an unmistakeably doctrinaire fundamentalism that knowingly and willingly makes victims of everyone. They are collectively called the Religious Right, and they’re pulling the levers of power. So on the world stage, we’re the weird ones, and violent to boot — a potentially catastrophic combination if the other countries of the world ever wise up and form an alliance against us.

Economic Collapse

When I blogged about economic collapse five years ago, the housing bubble hadn’t yet burst, and repeat criminal shenanigans in the financial industry hadn’t been brought to light. Well, history caught up quickly and we got steamrolled while the banks and bank executives that caused our woes got bailed out, which is to say, bankrolled. How’s them apples? Concern that the euro would replace the U.S. dollar as the benchmark currency or petrodollar has been replaced now that the euro is poised to fail — the first of a likely cascade failure. Meanwhile, foreclosures, bankruptcies, joblessness, and protracted economic malaise have signaled a new paradigm where the 1% feast and the 99% flail. This steamroller was a veritable speedster, but its work is not yet done. Look for further and worse economic dislocations as everything and everyone goes bankrupt at once and fiat currencies cease to retain meaning as mediums of trade. In truth, this may be the best thing for us: economic incentives to rape the earth will disappear. Of course, billions will be swept away as scarcity and starvation become commonplace, but maybe the earth will survive.

Global Mindshift

I warned that we stood to become mindless, ignorant fools. Welcome to Idiot America; we’re there now despite myriad talking heads filling the air (between their ears) with noise. The data on stupidity are simply too overwhelming to deny. But stupidity is only part of the story. An even stranger phenomenon is taking place, where people have in a sense stopped being human. The decline in empathy is worrisome, but my sense is that we’re transforming into something more like zombies: mindless, soulless straw men craving brains. BRAINS! (Um, we’re not geniuses; we’re just cannibals, preying on ourselves now.) Hal Smith at The Compulsive Explainer has a good grasp of this, but he admits it’s something almost no one has noticed and is so hard to get one’s head around that it may as well not even be happening. There’s a joke in there somewhere about the futility of sticking one’s head in the sand to deny something we can’t even conceptualize because we’re already too stupid.

(was Global Warming, now) Climate Change

This issue earned a new sobriquet, but it’s still an old, slow-moving story. Some small portion of the public caught on in advance of the media, but it’s filtering down now. Even Rolling Stone is publishing on climate change. (I thought Rolling Stone was a music industry magazine; who knew it would be trump the NY Times in terms of honesty and integrity?) Anyway, after record-setting temperatures in March 2012, a record-setting July 2012, and dust bowl conditions across the Midwest, more skeptics are willing to entertain the notion that water in the bathtub isn’t calm little wavelets anymore; it’s sloshing around creating havoc.

There are other steamrollers to consider, but this is an update, not a new blog post. Guy McPherson at Nature Bats Last points out that no matter how bad things get, the American public reacts with indifference. I can think of several deplorable reasons why so few are roused to act, but in a more charitable mood, I have to admit that what we do or don’t do doesn’t matter anymore. Our fate is already set. We’re just waiting for the steamrollers.

Watching highlights of the 2012 London Olympics reminds me that despite many organized team and individual sports being thoroughly commoditized (sponsorship deals and advertising gigs are inked notoriously fast these days) and therefore corrupted (cheaters and thugs abound when stakes are raised too high), the nature of sport makes the whole endeavor still worth doing. Who can insist on not being inspired by those who train and compete for the thrill of victory, most of whom nonetheless experience the agony of defeat more often than not? For those of us who fall short of being Olympic athletes or sponsored pros, the same holds true for many types of athletic and fitness endeavors. I struggle sometimes, however, to distinguish between those things worth doing at all and those only worth doing well. One way I’ve heard this described is the Achievement Model and the Participation Model.

The Achievement Model requires a level of skill or expertise to make an activity worth the bother. Most of us give up on complicated skills such as juggling or playing the piano long before acquiring the dexterity necessary to make it worthwhile. Goofing around with bean bags or keyboards just doesn’t provide enough reward; it’s meaningless without skill. Similarly, when an endeavor can only be practiced in tandem, such as with tennis, team sports, or music, the frustration of not being able to rely upon others with similarly matched skill levels is often too much to bear. For example, it takes time and sustained effort to learn to strike a tennis ball reliably, and in the initial stages, one spends far more time chasing balls than hitting them. When players are badly mismatched, interest drains out — especially for skilled players. Interest also drains out of goals lacking challenge or those too easily achieved.

The Participation Model succeeds on the mere execution of an activity without regard to skill level or achievement. One gets credit for simply showing up. Kids’ sports where adult organizers refuse to keep score may be a good example, albeit controversial. The participation model is also reputed to be why weekend warriors are ruining the marathon by walking too much of it. Yet those who show up without conditioning, fitness, and/or skills often do so guilelessly and perhaps even joyously, happy just to be participating on any level at all. (Are athletes who compete at the Olympics without realistic medal hopes in this category?) This is also arguably related to one of the so-called tragedies of democracy, where anyone with an opinion (no matter how aberrant or irrational) and the willingness to promulgate an agenda forcefully can hopelessly derail democratic processes.

In most of my endeavors, I subscribe to the Achievement Model. That’s what creates interest: acquiring skill and expertise and using that prowess to accomplish things, however arbitrary they may be. That also means that I’m forced to refuse participation in certain tandem endeavors when skill levels are mismatched. My frustrations mount too high and I find my own level of activity suffering. The biggest exception for me is the triathlon, which is especially well-equipped to accommodate average folks and has thus experienced a swell of popularity. Whereas I’m a superior swimmer (among triathletes), I’m only an average cyclist and am regrettably a really poor runner. Because the field of participants is stratified by age, one has a fighting chance competing with chronological peers, not just a small cohort of pros who blow everyone away. Further, whatever mediocrity my triathlon results may possess, they take nothing away from others’ achievements.

Finally, when a given endeavor has a wide range of skill levels, that endeavor may fall into different achievement/participation categories for different individuals. This accounts for the controversy about the marathon — a truly monumental undertaking — but much less so the neighborhood 5K foot race. I have conceptual struggles with music, however. It’s among to most natural things in the world to behave musically and seek outlets for musical performance. But ensemble music is a tandem process where strikingly divergent skill levels lead to all kinds of problems. Finding the right fit isn’t easy despite the plethora of music groups around. My suspicion is that despite many participants, there are still too few achievers to populate superior musical groups. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Update: I forgot to mention a third model of which I’m aware. It might variously be called the Winning Model, the Championship Model, or the Scorched Earth Model. I prefer the middle one. Under the Championshp Model, the only thing that matters is a first-place win, or in the spirit of the just-completed Olympics, a gold medal. Second- and third-place medals or runners-up trophies are for chumps. Nobody gets a ribbon just for showing up. And in pursuit of that unwavering goal, the worst kinds of assholerly are given easy refuge. Not many people are willing to ruin themselves under this model, and those who commit to the Championship Model yet remain outside the winner’s circle are truly ruined. But those who triumph and end up on top are championed despite their obviously distorted character, much as I argued in my post about winning dirty.