Slipping points and no answers


We disconnected the TV a few months ago, just as the news started ramping up on the financial crisis, and just after Obama got himself elected. I occasionally buy the newspaper, or pick up a free copy of the Globe and Mail in a restaurant. The news I get arrives accidentally, so a mouse click on Yahoo might catch my attention once a week or so.

For example, I accidentally read yesterday that there’s a glut of oil on the market. Apparently OPEC or some of the oil boys (I didn’t read it that carefully) were trying to decide if they should start withholding oil from the market. Let me get this straight. The unbiased oil experts tell us that we’ve just crossed “peak oil” and that we’re now sliding down the backside of the slope, perhaps running out of oil in less than 50 years, and the mainstream media in the US is crowing about having too much? What a load of crap.

But that’s the way instant news goes. It picks up on whatever silliness is “breaking” at the moment. Two days later it’s forgotten. Writer Gore Vidal got it right in a documentary I bought last year. When addressing the situation in the US, he calls it the “United States of Amnesia”. Whatever history the place does carry forward is simply patriotic mythology for the most part, having no bearing on reality at all.

The reason for this is very simple. The US is driven by capitalism, not democracy. American-style democracy over the past century and a half has been the business of enabling business, not creating an egalitarian and democratic citizenry. While most of the developed world—Britain, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Scandinavia and hell even Russia—have publicly-funded health care, the US continues to run a user-pay system with a shabby welfare component for the poor. While other wealthy countries such as Canada have redistributed wealth across their societies, the divide between the rich and the poor in the US have been widening for a quarter of a century. Dreadful poverty exists side-by-side with extreme wealth, especially in the big cities, although some of the craftier city politicians such as those in New York City closed welfare loopholes and changed legislation to encourage the poor to leave, which they did. They moved to places like Hartford and New London, Connecticut, which now have sections that look a lot like New York used to.

If the US is not deeply democratic (as the G.W. Bush election hijack clearly showed the world in 2000), it is very capitalistic. Now, we should note here that capitalism is not a political strategy. Capitalism is simply a collection of tactics, and the tactics are levers that business people push and shove to make money. Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s just not driven by any social morality. It’s driven by profits. But there are definite consequences. It’s no coincidence that, as the lower middle class has lost its factory jobs and gone broke, a new middle class has rapidly risen up in Asia.

One of the hallmarks of global capitalism is speed. Speed of the news is just a symptom. Speed is everywhere we look. Once upon a time one went in to a gas station to pay for a fill-up. Now we swipe a card. Even before we went inside to pay, we used to wait in our cars for an attendant to come out and pump our gas for us, take our money, go inside to make change and bring it back to us, while a second attendant checked our oil and cleaned our windshield. Things go faster now, but something has been lost in the translation.

And that something is our connection to other human beings. Instead of building and maintaining community relationships, our lives have been compressed into a rapid series of events—shopping, getting gas, renewing licences, driving kids to school—or compressed entirely out of the real world and into the virtual world.

All this compression of time has two effects. First, we can do far more in any given period of time than our forebearers could ever imagine; our lives are flying by in a blur of mindless events. The second thing that happens with all this speed is that we stop reflecting about our world—all we really see is that blur through the side window. But that blur is monotonous, as everything flattens into a race to the horizon, toward the next purchase.

A purchase is also an exchange, a transaction. As the most modern human beings, we’ve become hyper-transactional. But with every transaction there’s the possibility of loss or gain. A transaction of any kind is a “slippage point”. Therefore, in our highly transactional society, we are living in a very slippery world, in which rapidly shifting economic forces can alter our physical reality.

As to our physical reality, according to some recent science, compression is a natural stage in the growth cycle. As knowledge accumulates, for example, more is known and less is unknown. Freedom to explore vast new horizons narrows with each new discovery. The discoveries become less significant, as we compress down the tunnel of diminishing returns.

We are, in fact, the first society in history with no new physical, geographic frontiers available to us. We are now faced with the prospect of diminishing returns in every activity we pursue, especially as the world population grows from 6.5 billion to 9+ billion over the next 60 or so years—and our natural resources become increasingly scarce. Loss of our physical frontier is why we are now compressing ourselves into virtual “reality”.

But there is still reality. In my Internet travels I ran into an item from MI-5, the British spy agency. Their analysis of information concludes that humanity is just 4 meals away from anarchy. The reason, I suppose, is that we’re now so interdependent, so connected by world trade that we’re no longer self-sufficient. Now there’s a lack of frontier.

It gets one thinking. What does it take to feed a small town, of say 1800 people? Well, at 2000 calories a day, that requires 3.2 million calories of food. Given that we use 10 calories of fossil fuel to raise just one calorie of food, how much fuel to we need? And how could we manage without it?

Troubling questions. Maybe we’ll just defer answering and leave it to our kids to figure out.


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