Replacing old models with new


The rush raced up my spine, crashed into my skull and crescendoed up into every hair on my head. Music does that to me. I was listening to a tape of the Beatles “Let It Be” when George Harrison’s slow, deliberate and almost invisible guitar solo broke into my consciousness. Before that moment I’d never even noticed that the song had a guitar solo.

George Harrison was an interesting artist. He wasn’t the most gifted musician. Many of his contemporaries could play better, faster—Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton or even Keith Richards come to mind. But George took a more workmanlike approach to his craft, taking the time to find his own voice rather than copying the old blues guitar cats from the States. You’d have to re-listen to “Let It Be” to get what I mean. He’d come a long way from “She Loves You” in a very few short years—years that included drug experimentation, discovering Indian music and the sitar and working with classical musician and Beatle producer George Martin. By the time he played on “Let It Be” George had become a mature artist, and the song is a mature work of art.

I connected this thought to a brand new Mercedes Benz I saw driving through St. Andrews the other day. It was a beautiful cream colour. The lines of the thing were quite dramatic. The side windows were narrowed to slits and arched like a diver headed for the water. The effect was like the leaping Cat logo for the catamaran ferry that runs from Yarmouth to the States.

“How different,” I thought. It used to be that American or Italian cars led the way in styling. Mercedes was known for its engineering, not its dramatic style. So, what had happened? Had the merger with Chrysler triggered some new emphasis styling or what?

I don’t know why, but the thought nagged at me for a couple of days. What was it with Mercedes and the new fascination with styling? And then it hit me. Mercedes, and in fact the entire automobile industry, has reached the very end of fossil-fuel-powered engineering. Without revamping the entire paradigm of personal transportation, we are now at the zenith of automotive engineering. There’s simply nothing left for Mercedes to engineer on a regular automobile. The only remaining novelty is styling. Designing automobiles has become, not just a mature art form, but an over-mature one. Old age catches up with all of us, including our machines.

A couple of days ago my father took his old Model A roadster out for a drive. My sister went along. They headed to a coffee shop down the road and went inside for a coffee. After chatting for a couple of minutes my dad felt an arthritic pain in his neck and passed out. My sister avoided panicking and called 911 for an ambulance. At first they thought he’d had a stroke, but it turned out it had been a heart attack. He had a bad day in hospital yesterday, reacting to the drugs, but seems to be doing better today.

I’ve been expecting something like this for a while. He’s 87, and very active. So there’s no knowing when and where the clockwork might malfunction. My dad would appreciate this. He’d rescued his old Model A from some farmyard 20 years ago and spent 2 years restoring, reconstructing or renewing every piece of it, from the kingpins to the door hinges to the radiator ornament. It’s a thing of beauty.
Of course in the grand scheme my dad’s car doesn’t mean much to anybody. Most of the people who loved those little roadsters have passed on. A younger generation loved them too—as the basis for hot rods—but those people are getting old, too. The 1950s and 60s are a long fading in the rear view mirror.

Fossil fuel resources are also fading fast. Although there’s some dispute as to when, it’s likely that we’ve already crossed Peak Oil and we're now on the down side of the bell curve. In the UK they're calling this “Energy Descent”. The next 50 years may be the most difficult transition humans will ever make.

Everything from transportation to food and shelter is about to be hit—because in reality our entire social paradigm is supported by fossil fuel. Everything is about to change as the oil bell curve collapses. In fact there are four 150-year bell curves are overlapping simultaneously: the use of fossil fuels as motive power, the explosive growth in industrialization, the dramatic increase in human population, and the extreme rise in CO2 in the atmosphere among other serious environmental concerns.

The collapse of any or all of these bell curves could be catastrophic, as has been pointed out by even the most conservative sources, including two recent CIA reports.

This is not unique in history. Nor is it Apocalyptic. All societies move from early struggle to abundance to finally falling over the edge into decadence. This is what happens to all organisms as they move from immaturity to old age.

The only real defense against organic decline is not physical, but spiritual. And crossing the threshold from the physical to the metaphysical is not easy in decadent times. We’ve become accustomed to over-abundance. Just as it will be difficult to manage the a reduce, recycle and reuse strategy in our “energy descent” flight plan, it is even more difficult to leave behind the enormous physical distractions in favour of a more spare, ascetic, spiritual way of living.

I guess our present situation would be easier to see from an anthropologist’s view 500 years from now. Our fired up, wired up, Blackberried lifestyle might be seen for what it is—a kind of global case of mass ADHD.

And it’s even affected our art. Today’s art is nothing if not attention-seeking ADHD. Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God” sculpture, a diamond-covered skull is a great example. Recent knock-offs now include a $75,000 diamond-encrusted toilet. Being an art lover, I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is decadent.

Of course, all of this seems pretty remote from our lives here in Charlotte County. Then again, most of us live a big chunk of our lives in front of cable TV and high speed Internet, so we’re all shaped by it whether we like it or not.


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