Peter Van Buren has a new book out and is flogging it at TomDispatch. He’s a good enough writer, so I have no objection to the promotional aspect of disseminating his own work. But as I read his article describing an America gone to seed, I realized that for all his writerly skill, he misses the point. As a former State Dept. administrator (charged with assisting Iraqi reconstruction) turned whistle-blower, Van Buren is clearly outside the mainstream media and somewhat outside mainstream opinion, yet he appears to be well within the dominant paradigm. His new spin on regime change takes as implicit all the teachings of economics and politics as systems ideally suited to engineering an equitable social contract where everyone benefits. But as cycles of history have shown, those systems are even more prone to manipulation by a power elite who care little about people they pretend to serve. Whether that carelessness is learned or ingrained in the kleptocracy plutocracy is open to debate.

Van Buren’s article offers a few interesting tidbits, including a couple neologisms (I’m always on the lookout for new coin):

dirt shadow = the faint but legible image left behind an uninstalled sign on the exterior of a closed storefront or building

street gravy = the dirt and grunge that collects over time on a homeless person

Neither is too picaresque. The second is obviously a (sad because it’s too hip) euphemism, since gravy suggests richness whereas the actuality is downright unpleasant. As Van Buren surveys, similar unpleasantness is currently experienced all across America in towns and niche economies that have imploded. Interestingly, his counterexample is a U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune located in North Carolina, that functions as a gated community with the added irony that it is supported by public funds. Van Buren also notes that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, an average active-duty service member receives a benefits and pay compensation package estimated to be worth $99,000, some 60 percent of it in noncash compensation.

If there is a cause why our regime is in disarray, however, Van Buren busies himself with standard economic and political (one might even say military-industrial) explanations, demonstrating an inability to frame the decline of empire as the beginning of an epochal shift away from plentiful energy resources, famously termed The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. (We ought to resurrect that phrase.) Other frames of reference are certainly not without their impacts, but the inability to connect all the dots to see the underlying cause is commonplace in the mainstream.

In contrast, consider this passage from Harvesting the Biosphere by Vaclav Smil:

There are two simple explanations why food production in traditional agricultural societies — despite its relatively high need for claiming new arable land — had a limited impact on natural ecosystems: very low population growth rates and very slow improvements in prevailing diets. Population growth rates averaged no more than 0.05% during the antiquity and they reached maxima of just 0.07% in medieval Eurasia — resulting in very slow expansion of premodern societies: it took Europe nearly 1,500 years to double the population it had when Rome became an empire, and Asian doubling was only a bit faster, from the time of China’s Han dynasty to the late Ming period. [pp. 118–119]

Smil goes on to provide exhaustive detail, much of it measurement (with acknowledged ranges of error), showing how modern mechanisms and energy exploitation have enabled rapid population growth. Although population has (apparently) not yet peaked, we are already sliding back down the energy gradient we climbed over the past 250 years and will soon enough face widespread food shortages (among other things) as productivity plummets due to diminishing energy inputs and accumulated environmental destruction (including climate change). Economics and politics do not possess solutions to that prospect. That’s the real dirt in the historical narrative, which remains largely uncovered (unreported) by paradigmatic thinking.

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Comments
  1. PMB says:

    Just wanted you to know that although I’ve occasionally come to the Spiral Staircase (love the name as it reminds me of the Karen Armstrong book as well as the Edward Dymtrek film) in the last week I’ve actually been making my way through your archives from the beginning.

    Somehow because of you (couldn’t tell how though) I wound up at Mythodrome, Paula’s site enabling me to renew an old relationship.

    For a person with some slight level of OCD (apparent in my comic book collecting) it’s always an experience of following the way a series develops over time. It’s been an interesting journey to see how in majority of instances our roads ran parallel. I’m only at the start of 2008 at this point. I’ll be curious to see how long many of the early commentators lasted on this journey.

    Regarding Peter Van Buren. I’ve been reading that piece and found the same weakness in his not completely understanding the system and the role of energy, but then ago few do. Well there is always those colonies in space we can look forward to.

    A trip to the dentist yesterday reminded me how disconnected I am from the world. I gently raised the topic of Climate Change to the receptionist making sure to state that I’m not affiliated with any political party. She’s an arch conservative, earning a living for 5 and not succeeding very well, whose disabled husband receives Medicaid. That’s okay with her as it’s not Medicaid. Roll eyeballs please. I said that a true conservative wouldn’t accept any aid from the government and stand on their own two feet purchasing private health care (I wasn’t really serious, just trying to be funny). She was taken aback.

    Well, she doesn’t believe in Climate Change. She believes the Earth is cleansing itself. Drum roll please. She said the earth was trying to get rid of us. I told her not to worry as Natures always bats last, only I was curious where did she see her children in this great cleansing. She didn’t respond.

    A bit off topic, but this is the view from those rapidly approaching he pavement so i thought it added some to the Van Buren piece.

    Silly me, got into a conversation at the coffee shop with waitress today. Also raised the topic of climate change when she mentioned train derailment. We were talking about two different ones although I knew about both. She was referring to the “F” train on Friday morning from Queens while I was referring to the one in Virginia containing the oil (she hadn’t heard about that one). It’s so interesting to see where people are focused, and it’s not where I am, usually close to home in their own backyards.

    I don’t think even if another Sandy hits NYC would it make anyone more aware in the end..

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. The backblog is getting rather large, considering I’ve kept at this for eight years now. No doubt you’ve uncovered my themes and preoccupations.

      Raising the climate change issue with strangers is not a measure of your disconnectedness from the world but theirs (when they deny or disbelieve for any number of reasons). But what do you expect, really? It’s not an easy issue to understand or to face, with its awful implications.

  2. Brian says:

    I like the neologism “dirt shadow” the best. As a kid we went on an annual two week vacation every August. Settling into the car for a two day drive to somewhere, Mom would hand each kid a handwritten list of 100 items. The goal was to spot them before we arrived at our destination. Two crows on a telephone wire, a Wyoming license plate, etc. etc. A contemporary list would be: Circuit City dirt shadow, Linen and Things dirt shadow, spotted, spotted! How much fun can we have as it unravels!

    As for the larger question of food production touched on near the end of your post, nothing but doom and gloom I fear. The perfect storm of population, climate change and peak resources, as you often mention, don’t provide much room to maneuver. I’m often stunned when reading articles or books that miss, what seems to me, some fairly obvious connections.

    I’ll look for “Harvesting the Biosphere”. I’d suggest, in return, “Dirt: the erosion of civilizations” by David R. Montgomery.

  3. Clem says:

    Can I persuade you to be a bit more specific than “soon enough” on your forecast of food shortages? We have at some times and in some locations already seen food shortages in human history. But at this point in time we have the food on hand. Hunger and food insecurity are connected to poverty rather than humanity’s ability to produce food.

    There are lots of ugly signs around us, and you’ve made a good case for the potential direness that may be waiting for us down the road. But I don’t see massive food shortages on the nearby horizon (by nearby I mean one average human lifetime – or lets say 75 years). I can see occasional food supply interruptions – in some locations (not globally), and with these I can also imagine the relative cost of food will increase. To be specific – right now an American spends on the order of 10% of her income on food (obviously the poor spend a far higher percentage) – and for many of the reasons you’ve put forth I can see that percentage climb… perhaps double in the next 50 years. I will also allow that I’m not assuming a similar diet being purchased today and in 50 years time. There may well be less meat in that future. But mass starvation does not seem imminent to me.

    Oh, I would like to second Brian’s notion that “Harvesting the Biosphere” is a good suggestion… and from this chair may I suggest “40 Chances” by Howard Buffet.

    Warm regards.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment, which appears to be your first. Answers might be obtainable from my backblog, but I’ll respond here anyway.

      A human lifetime of 75 (or even 50) years is a rather long time horizon considering the rather voluminous indicators lined up against us like dominoes waiting to fall. I can’t imagine those years unfolding calmly, with continuity enough to keep business as usual (BAU) going. My phrase “soon enough” was purposely vague, since everyone who has put a specific date on when the sky would fall has been made to look foolish when the apocalypse didn’t arrive on time. “Soon enough” captures, too, that whenever the eventuality manifests, it won’t be desirable.

      In the post above, I mentioned diminishing energy inputs and accumulated environmental destruction as reasons why food shortages are in the offing. Although not widely accepted, we most likely peaked in terms of energy production around 10 years ago. The stuff we’re obtaining now is more exotic and has far lower EROI than, say, 50 years ago (less than a human lifetime). When EROI drops close enough to zero, the fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization that are currently driving growing, harvesting, and distributing food will be withdrawn and store shelves will empty. When exactly, I dunno, but within 10-15 years seems to me pretty likely. But what’s happening right now in the biosphere looks like a more looming threat.

      We live on a water world, even though we’re land mammals. Accordingly, the entire food web is based on water and marine life. However, the oceans are slowly acidifying and marine life is dying. It’s not as simple as saying “we won’t eat fish then.” What’s happening on land is equally alarming: desertification in the American southwest, large die-offs of insects (e.g., bees), bats, and birds, herds of large mammals being sold off and slaughtered or starving for lack of water and food sources, and dying trees (from insect and fungus infestations normally kept under control by winter freezes or internal rot from absorption of industrial pollution). Even slightly warmer temperatures (trends point even higher) have allowed migrations of some invasive species northward into breadbasket regions. For instance, the Cavendish banana (the type found in groceries) is likely to be wiped out like the American chestnut tree was (due to fungal infection). Etcetera, etcetera. This also says nothing about geopolitical disruptions (such as the Ukraine and MENA) that could lead to major food losses if/when war breaks out. I also suspect drought, topsoil losses, and ionizing radiation from the two big nuclear disasters already experienced (assuming no additional ones — wanna bet on that?) threaten the availability not just of nutritive food (good-looking but empty foodstuffs are now everywhere — thanks Monsanto!) but the ability to grow anything at all. Add all that up and the food web disintegrates, which is what is being called the Sixth Extinction, now underway.

      Lastly, population and pollution are still growing, especially in places like India and China, both of which appear to be willing to convert their land bases into sacrifice zones to emulate the lifestyles promoted in the media (typically, upper-middle and upper class Americans) in all their vacuity. Thus, incentives and pressures to convert more and more of the biosphere into human flab and waste have not yet peaked. When will it be finally reported that Japan killed itself demographically, economically, and culturally? Or that China effectively killed itself by polluting its countryside — water, land, and air? When will the diaspora from innundated coastal regions begin? I dunno. But the history is unfolding right now, and I simply don’t see an exit strategy that allows any of us to stay (over)fed beyond another decade or so.

  4. Clem says:

    You very accurately acknowledge that to this point everyone fixing a date (that has come to pass) for the sky falling has been wrong. Kudos. Have you ever wondered why that is?

    You then mention the ‘entire’ food chain is based on water and marine life. I disagree – in particular with the ‘marine life’ half of that. I’m not discounting the real and very significant value of marine life. But I am saying that by your suggesting ‘entire food web’ you’ve exaggerated – and unnecessarily. Equally exaggerated is your mention of bees as an example of ‘large die offs of insects’. While it is true that honey bees have had a pretty rough go for many years, and there seem to be many causes with not all of them known yet – there is still that little annoyance that considering the one metric we have good data for ‘large’ is too big a word. Reports from the USDA suggest that this previous winter we witnessed a 23% loss in commercial honey bee colonies. This is down from an eight year average winter loss of 30%. OK, so this is not a ringing endorsement for BAU – but neither is it justification for the adjective ‘large’. The long term average is less than 50%, and recent experience is actually moving in a positive direction (less loss). Yes, 23% loss is bad; but sign of the apocalypse? Not yet. One could have simply listed insect die offs and gone on. Frogs and other amphibians are having a tough go at the moment. Add ‘em to the list, without hyperbole, and move on.

    I do like that you’ve cited the Cavendish banana. It serves as a poignant example and I won’t quibble here that it may be doomed. But I would quibble if you were going to expand on its troubles as a way to suggest that nothing will replace it. And on this particular point I’m willing to enter into a sort of Ehrlich/Simon wager [you’re familiar with the Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon bet?] And I’ll offer something fairly specific. I’ll suggest that bananas – or a banana like fruit (genus Musa) – will be available on store shelves in 20 years and at less than $2.00 a pound ($USD, adjusted for US inflation rate). I know that is more expensive than bananas today. But it won’t be a banana barren store shelf.

    The EROI argument suffers a bit as well. I don’t want to quibble with the grand arch of the argument, but as all this doom and gloom descends upon us the value of energy inputs will increase, yes? So if the value of food increases at pace there will still be opportunity for entrepreneurs to realize a return. We may have less to spend on fancy clothes or consumer electronics, but I’m persuaded that given a choice between a turtle neck sweater or dinner… she’s probably going to opt for the food. If she doesn’t, there will eventually be one less mouth to feed. A cruel but self correcting outcome.

    In summary, I’m not disagreeing with the overall paste up of negative things happening in our present biosphere. There are lots of messes, most created by us, which need our attention. But I don’t think the right approach is to exaggerate and argue with hyperbole. I would argue it is worth pointing out what one perceives as troublesome, and propose ways to ameliorate the potential problem(s) posed by said mess. Start attempting to solve a problem or two and track the outcome(s). Share your results with others, and continue to rework your efforts in the light of new developments. Like Howard Buffet suggests in ’40 Chances’ each of gets (on average) about 40 years to work at something. We decide how best to invest those 40 chances.

    And by way of introduction, I am new here. I apologize if I’ve reworked ground you’ve already covered. I wouldn’t bother to make any comment if I thought you didn’t have something special going on here. I make a living as a plant breeder. I have seen first hand how pliable and resilient our domesticates can be. From this perspective I have come to have my optimistic nature reinforced time and again. It’s not all wine and roses, but when the idiots among us have stark contrasts set in front of them, the survivors will be the ones who choose best. And I’m not convinced we wanted the others anyway.

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