Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

September 6, 2011

Child of Decline

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 2:12 am

I was born near Detroit in 1979, the year U.S. manufacturing peaked. The Motor City and Flint in particular declined before my eyes, as the Big Three car companies were hurt by foreign competition and simultaneously outsourced their manufacturing to countries with crappy union rights. 1979 was also nine years after the first Earth Day, and seven years after “Limits to Growth” was published, warning that the physical resources allowing for economic growth were limited. So I have always lived with the story that human activity is threatening the planet’s systems, from the ozone layer to the local food web.

The old Packard Plant, shattered and graffitied.

Packard Plant by Яick Harris, share and share alike,

I’d like to rewind history to 1980 and change the things that went on in my lifetime. We needed to invest in studying and protecting the ecology. We needed to find some means of manufacturing and transportation that created less smoke and garbage. We especially needed new sources of energy. I have the feeling that, had we seriously invested then, by now we’d all have cheap solar panels powering our houses, and maybe charging the car up, to boot.

Instead, we acted like a smoker whose doctor tells them that cigarettes are bad for you. Hmm, quitting is hard. Maybe I could switch to ultra-lights?  Wrapping every object sold at the store in a plastic casket is an abuse of abundance — but it’s slightly difficult to imagine sales working in any other way. So we pushed recycling, which still comes at a whopping energy cost, and doesn’t really fix the problems, but which allowed everybody to keep on with minimal disruption to their lifestyle. We don’t like to hear that adjustments might have to be made — as when Jimmy Carter asked the nation to please turn the thermostat down, and the American people answered by making a one-term President of him.

Also during my lifetime, America exported almost all of its capacity to manufacture goods. Some of our rivers are now cleaner thanks to the shutdown of all the factories on them. It’s hard to find clothes, umbrellas, purses, shoes and so on that are made in this land (I miss you, patriotic Converse All-Stars!). Even our brain capacity is in doubt, with Americans falling behind in math and science. How much easier is it to just hire an Indian or Chinese engineer and work with them online?

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station standing there like a mighty, but dead, tree. By motionblur, share and share alike!

With no manufacturing, mediocre brainpower, a bunch of fakes running government, and depleted natural resources, how are we going to build a bigger and better future? Oil production, the lynchpin of our economy, has peaked. GDP peaked at about the same time, in late 2007. There is no “building our way out” of our economic troubles, because we have nothing to build with. It’s kind of irrelevant to discuss a liberal or conservative economic policy for the future, because politicians of all stripes have to smile and promise the impossible re-start of growth — working from the real situation is political suicide. We should’ve taken the physical reality of life and economics on this planet more seriously, while we had the chance. Now we’re fucked, as people have been warning about for my entire life. We’re too far down this path to ever get to the future where we all have a green home, an electric car and windmill-driven electricity. To put it in economic terms, there is not enough capital out there to transition to new, sustainable technologies before a rising cost of energy and resources causes an economic collapse and we auction the country off in an attempt to keep going and paying our debts. I might be beating a dead horse with my projections of doom, but I guess I just feel like I have to speak up when many folks always hear that growth and prosperity are just around the corner. The talking heads told the Soviets the same thing in their day, no? Be prepared for things to not get any better. Check out how people have survived, sometimes thrived, in the former Soviet Union, or Detroit, or Flint, or Gary, Indiana.

The Rust Belt I live in is named for decline, and decline makes me feel at home: I think a building is never more beautiful than when it is well into its death, waiting to be torn down. Paint peels off the walls and is replaced by tag art. Plaster crumbles and reveals, by pieces, the grace of a building’s long-hidden skeleton. I like to watch the succession of plants that colonizes an abandoned area. I like living in rotten old Detroit, with neighbors who’ve often given up on having a middle-class career and instead work in the neighborhood to get by with one hustle and another. There is a mile-long stretch of 8 Mile Road that is all pawn shops, used cars, junkyards, restored furniture shops and so on. And I like an object with history, you know?

No one can predict the future with certainty. Maybe cold fusion will come into commercial production sometime in the next couple of years and save us all. Maybe aliens will invade and enslave us all. Until then, look for used-good stores, scrappers and hustlers coming to a neighborhood near you! Detroit survives by recycling itself towards oblivion, without ever getting there: that’s a much more likely future for every American town, than abundant green jobs and a hydrogen-filling station by every freeway exit. The big call for optimism is that you can live in a place like Detroit and still have a decent life. Children of decline, for better or for worse, the future is ours!


1 Comment »

  1. Yep, I feel a pang every time I pass that barely-used railyard at the Flint truck plant where I-75 meets I-69. We had such industrial power at one time, and that was real production, real wealth creation (as opposed to the “service” and “finance” sectors, which shuffle paper around in a hollow pretense of economic activity).

    Max Keiser thinks America peaked in 1969. I’d say maybe it was 1971, the last year in which real wages rose for American workers, and — not at all coincidentally — the year we went off the gold standard so that they could start transferring wealth from the People to the military industrial complex via inflation. We haven’t much noticed the past 40 years of declining wages because of a combination of new technologies, media distractions, the invisibility of the poor in major media, easily available credit, the rise of the two-income household as the norm, and slave labor in the Third World that lets us get stuff for cheap. Even if it’s increasingly crappy stuff. Hard to buy a T-shirt these days that you can’t see through.

    Webster Tarpley thinks they crushed US manufacturing intentionally in 1979-1983 by raising interest rates to sky-high levels (around 20%), making it nigh impossible for US companies to borrow money for capital expenditures like new factories or better equipment. That began the massive offshoring trend. Others think Paul Volcker (head of the Fed who put interest rates at those levels) was a hero because he saved the dollar by doing that, and by about 1979 it was looking like the currency was headed off the cliff. I think the Volcker-worship is bullshit. We should’ve had our hyperinflation back then, had our collapse, because at least we still had the means of production that could’ve pulled us back out of the depths. Now we’re looking at a much worse collapse when the dollar goes… like the fall of the Soviet Union, except worse and with civil war.

    There are these various theories (social cycle theory, generational theory, long-term economic cycle analysis) that say that of COURSE we’re in the end stages of decline, these things are cyclical and that’s just where we are right now. The theory is that every 80 years or so (4 generations) things go to shit, the last time being the 1930s economic disaster, and before that, the US Civil War (a little delayed), and before that, the Revolutionary War. The bad part is, some of the really long economic cycles are like 2-3 centuries in length, and the long one that’s coming to an end now started just before the Industrial Revolution. Which I guess is where Peak Oil comes into this; it’ll be the reason the super-long cycle has to start over.

    It won’t be all bad. Hello small organic farms and cottage industries! But when I see the pictures like the one you posted of the old Central Station, I do long for the hustle and bustle of real economic growth, as in the days when that building was packed with people and trains and goods and merchants. You and I never saw that, of course. Somebody else’s nostalgia.

    Comment by freelearner — September 6, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

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