Saturday, July 24, 2010

A new career awaits you in... something or other...

The past year has been enlightening in an embarrassing sort of way.

Enlightening, in the sense that I've learned some new things in a really fundamental way. Embarrassing, because they're things that I frankly already knew for a good long time already... just not in the same way, and not at the same level.

I'm not putting it across correctly. Here's an analogy:

Everybody knows that cigarettes kill people. Even people who smoke know this; despite all the obfuscation and water-muddying of the paid tobacco lobby, nobody really doubts the simple fact that tobacco is likely to kill you, be it through heart attack, stroke or the Big C. They know this but they keep smoking anyway. It's a superficial knowledge, one whose roots haven't penetrated down and taken hold, or that have yet to find a way around the inner delusion that perhaps this particular smoker will be the exception.

Then there's the other kind of knowledge--the one with deep roots, the one that wraps itself around your heart and spine and squeezes and says, Cut the bullshit, now it's time to do something. For the smoker, maybe it's your first heart attack, or the lump that turned out (after several months of panic) to be benign. The sound of a bullet whizzing past your ear. Whoa!

My knowledge that the world is about to change in a serious way is like that. Since 2003 I've been aware of peak oil and the implications of same. I've been one of the more vocal people (in my profession at least) on the need to prepare for the end of cheap fossil fuels. I've known all this time that a lot of the jobs that exist today, simply will not in the future. Not just obvious stuff like car dealers and gas-pump jockeys and drive-thru Timmie's baristas, but more fundamental vocational extinctions arising from a breakdown in complexity.

A decomplexifying society has trouble finding the surplus resources ("surplus" being almost entirely subjective, on the part of the decision makers in that society) to support roles like theatre actors, flower arrangers and big-stone-head carvers. It also has a tendency to concentrate on immediate needs rather than long-term thinking... so useful investments in long-term problem solving such as pure science and education and planning increasingly become seen as luxuries.

Planning. Hmm.

You can see where I'm going with this.

My knowledge has thus far been superficial; it hasn't really driven any major behavioural changes on my part. To the casual observer, that may be surprising. I don't drive a car, I live in town, and I've been known to stockpile jars of peanut butter in case of sudden famine. But these are things I would have done anyway. I hate driving and for various reasons really shouldn't drive anyway; and I acquired the bomb-shelter hoarding instinct from my grandparents through my dad, whose experience in Holland during WWII taught them that when there's extra food available for cheap, you buy a whole flat of cans and store 'em.

But I've still been operating on the assumption that one way or another, my own niche in all of this will still fundamentally be a brainy thinking role. As a planner helping to develop a strategy to adapt our cities to reduced fossil fuel supplies; as a government policy wonk, part of the Brain Trust, developing such strategies at a national level.

I hope this will still be on the menu for the next forty or so years I expect to linger in this world. But lately I've started to wonder.

I saw a disturbing headline in one of the newspapers whose vending boxes festoon street corners in Ottawa. Seems the newly-barely-elected Conservative government in Britain, with its new pals the Liberal Democrats, are proposing to downsize the various government functions and devolve those powers and responsibilities onto the volunteer sector. The functions mentioned include things like public transit. In other words, not little peripheral things like arts administration or daycare, but fundamental public services that almost EVERYONE agrees are necessary on some level and require highly-trained, professional management and staff.

I'm not going to comment extensively on the insanity of this, except to say that there's nothing new in its principle except the scope. In his "Common Sense Revolution" of the mid-1990's, Mike Harris proposed to gut public services and let them be replaced by "volunteerism."

Well, of course he did. Nobody shreds a basic service without providing some fig leaf about how it will be done better, more democratically and more efficiently by someone whose core business is elsewhere--be it maximizing profit (when the service is proposed to be privatized) or feeding themselves and paying the mortgage (when it's proposed to be taken up by volunteers.)

It's obviously horseshit, it never works as advertised, and we've seen enough movement-conservative governments over the past thirty years by now to know exactly what happens. Monetary deficits avoided by one branch of government are moved off the books, into less-readily-quantifiable balance sheets such as human resource capacity, social equity and sustainability. Real costs are moved from today and into tomorrow; real benefits are hoovered up from everyone tomorrow and stuffed into the pockets of a happy few today. Public, collective debts foregone by e.g. government's cutting student aid and un-capping tuition are cut up and transferred, dollar for dollar, to individuals who have made the foolish and naive decision to go to university to become nurses, teachers, engineers, scientists or any of the other professions who will be needed to keep things running in a few years.

This makes the current goings-on very interesting in the Chinese-curse sense of the word, for someone's whose vocation is some version of public service. Don't get me wrong: My Plan A is still to play some role in government, helping my civilization manage the transition from a cheap-energy economy to something much less energy-intensive but still recognizably civilized.

But when I hear about the British-conservative-volunteerism plan, or see Americans turning against the best president they are likely to ever see in their lifetime, or people in Ontario bitching about the Liberal government because they just don't like the gosh-darned HST...

We've seen this before. In the 1970's, oil prices spiked and economies went into extended recession. After some panicked running-around-in-circles, the response was to elect governments--from Thatcher to Reagan to Mulroney--whose solution was to get things back to normal by stripping out government's power to act on problems requiring collective action. So, for instance, creating the next generation of fuel cells, solar panels and energy efficiency was left to the private sector to decide to undertake if it appeared immediately profitable.

Which for the most part it wasn't, so they pretty much didn't.

Any progress on these fronts was slow, delayed, too little and too late, and completely dwarfed by the massive proliferation of sprawl, globalized supply lines and the complete devastation of passenger rail service in favour of the energy black hole of commercial aviation.

In the past two years, we've seen a sort of moment of confused inertia like the spinning of the 1970's, akin to the couple of seconds after Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff but before he realizes he's about to fall. Cue little hand-held sign: "Help!"

Now I get the impression that the reaction to this stage in collapse will not be a sustained rallying in favour of collective and equitable action, but rather a wholesale jettisoning of "dead weight."

Another analogy. If you're on a sinking ship, it will quickly become apparent to everyone on board that you can slow the sinking by throwing stuff overboard. (You might even imagine that if you throw enough stuff overboard, you can prevent the ship from sinking entirely.)

In this analogy, the choice of what to throw overboard has so far (i.e. since the 1970's) generally been to toss the third-class passengers into the water. (You COULD ask the first-class passengers to toss some of their oversized luggage and steamer trunks instead, so the navvies and Irishmen don't have to drown. But that would be "class warfare" and a chorus of media finger puppets will ask why we are so intent on punishing success?)

Perhaps this is human nature. If it is, it's still no excuse. I think human nature (and, indeed, our nature as animals) is full of good and bad things, and things we can and should overrule with our brains and things we can't, and things that we maybe can't but must try to if we are to have a hope of surviving. There are bad brainstem habits we have to live with, there are instincts that it would be unhealthy to repress, and then there are instincts and habits that are unworthy of rational, compassionate beings and must be challenged if we are to retain any claim to legitimacy as the alpha species on this planet. A lot of our failures in the twentieth century have grown from a failure to distinguish between these. We treat imperatives as impossibilities, we champion lost causes that aren't worth winning and ignore key issues that, unless they are successfully dealt with, will make all the others academic.

Even if I were to concede the necessity of throwing the steerage passengers overboard in order to preserve the comfort of the better class of people--which I do not--I am gobsmacked by how readily people go along with it. My astonishment is purely for pragmatic reasons. As in, it doesn't surprise me that people behave in such selfish ways, but rather that they seem so unaware of where their self-interest truly lies.

Because most of us are travelling second-class. As long as things are going fine, it's easy to forget that. We get regular meals and soft bunks and even the opportunity to hobnob with the first-class passengers and the luxury to imagine that we'll someday be travelling first-class ourselves.

The key difference between liberals and conservatives may be where they expect they'll end up if second-class gets split up between the other two.

We travel on tickets that are very poorly printed, even hand-scrawled by a careless ticket agent. A "2" can look a lot like a "1" or a "3", depending on the light and how you squint. When it gets wet, the ink can run in ways that will surprise you.

So I would advise my fellow second-class passengers to think carefully before you advocate a particular jettisonning strategy. The way ships are built, there are a lot more people in steerage than in first class. And in the chaos and poor light and salt spray of a sinking vessel at midnight, your "2" may turn out to be a three after all.

I've digressed a little bit. This post started about me learning something.

For a long time I've thought in an abstract way about learning to do and make concrete things with my hands. It's not something I was ever particularly good at. I'm creative in that I can draw and I can write and I can think but when it comes to actually creating functional objects--things you can use to do things--I'm almost completely inept. Or not inept--just inexperienced. When you're Good At School and clearly bound for brain work, nobody really goes out of their way to insist that you learn how to fix things; they're so glad you're not going to be stuck in the dying factory-worker economy of the de-industrializing late twentieth century that the point doesn't get pressed.

But I think maybe that's run its course. I think that in my lifetime, people who can make or fix things--who have already become a pretty rare breed--are going to find those skills more and more useful. I think maybe it's time to become one of them.

I'll keep ya posted.


  1. Because i've known you for more than twenty years, and for ten of those years we have been discussing the themes you are writing about, I read this pretty clearly. But I think the extended metaphor became vague and abstract for the casual reader. This reads like you are frantic to say something, but then hold back from saying it.

    and I can't help but think of some of our last conversations, and the panic I felt, not just of where things were headed, or how fast, but where I was going to end up clinging on as we went over the waterfall.

    long term solutions could be sought (who knows whether they would be useful) but we aren't even attempting that. the moment in history where the problems become apparent and start affecting first and second class passengers, not just third, is happening now, has been creeping in for the last 3 years. The creep has shown itself in global economic crises, food shortages, energy shortages, infrastructure breakdown, and environmental catastrophes so dire, they cannot even be assessed. And that is the early creep, not the drop over the edge.

    it has had zero effect on policy or public consciousness.

    my resume of physical skills is limited to easily grown food(i.e tomatoes and zucchini, not life sustaining crops) and cracking skulls. My cerebral skills are generalist and not useful in the things that are to come. My mode recently has been giddy hysterical pleasure-soaked nihilism(if Rome is going to burn one way or another, why not fiddle?).

    what do you recommend for the second class passengers to do? I'm not even sure if i am second class or lower. I'm third class locally, and second class globally.

    And i have lost all faith in there being any purpose to seeking solutions that preserve some aspect of the civil life we have known.

    You are a planner in a world that isn't making plans, or executing plans. what do you recommend for the average citizen?

  2. Good question, Primate.

    I've spent this weekend starting to think about this topic as it relates to me personally. I think what's striking is how similar my own situation IS to that of the average citizen. In other words, I have some skill set that until recently was/for the moment is/for awhile into the future will be "Useful" (in the sense that the right people deem it useful enough to pay me money to do it.

    The only thing that really distinguishes me from most people is the fact that my abstract knowledge contains some specific nuggets that let me understand where' we're going.

    So this post was meant as the beginning of an ongoing exploration of what I, or the average citizen, might do to prepare for the not-so-good scenario.

    Of course, to get a best-available-case scenario, I would have to recommend that everybody get involved in federal and provincial politics, really inform themselves on the issues and on the history of how similar issues have been addressed, and get real busy and do what they can to prevent the next Canadian government from being run by so-called conservatives... because historically that end of the political spectrum has been very aggressive in deciding that XYZ person should be tossed overboard.

  3. I don't actually have any interest in canadian politics. i have been getting interested in chinse politics. the nation holding the cash, and stuck with the people is actually trying to implement plans.

    we could cheer, and try and do the same except we are a democracy, which translates to 98% of the people being clueless and 2% being greedy.

    what, would i advocate a fascist government? Hell yes. at least if it pursued a purpose. ours doesnt.

  4. Well, gotta disagree with you on that last point. The sneaky thing about fascism is that it's better at conveying a sense of purpose, and that's a dangerously seductive appeal. (To the extent that George Lucas ever said anything meaningful in his movies, that business about the dark side of the force is it...)

    I guess that if I'm saying anything with my long, rambling post, I'm saying that (a) I hope people will do what they can to get their civilization to behave in a rational and humane manner, but (b) at the moment I'm in a bit of a pessimistic mood which makes me more inclined than usual to develop my own personal Plan B.

  5. For an "energy geek" you're woefully misinformed. Of course, coming from a government background that wants any and all reasons to control the masses, I'd understand your point of view - it's the one your taskmasters want.

    Keep in mind the first people to start bleating about Warble Gloaming was not the Greenpeacers, but the Thatcher government, that wanted to, and succeeded in, pitting the beardy weirdies who want to heat everything with solar power against the miners. It worked.

    But we're going to a new fossil fuel soon, and have a backup replacement for gasoline that will make all this handwringing about onoz no more oilz irrelevant. Trucking conversion to this new tech will be easy and reduce usage by 35% alone in the US. Win.

    AND we have centuries of it, AND it's on US soil, so the explosive-belt wearing sheikhs can go pound sand.

    But, obviously, we're going to take the last of the liquid oil first. That'll buy us a few decades more, before quietly unleashing the new tech and moving all that money back over to here. HINT: Europe has none of it, which will REALLY tick them off.

    Canada also stands massively to gain. So breathe. Frequently.
    It'll be OK.

  6. Interesting. I just found "Anonymous'" post in this blog's spam filter. I've moved it to the comments section because I believe that if someone bothers to post a reply, they at least deserve for their comments to be seen. (Up to a point. Once we hit a certain troll quota, I'm disabling anonymous posting.)

    But it's interesting because for the time being anonymous posting IS enabled... and yet something about the wording caused the computer to identify this as spam. This, even though it contains no mention of penis-extension pills, penny stocks or Barack Obama's Martian birth certificate.

    Trolls of the world: You already sound like just one guy, posting from the Koch Brothers' basement. But when even a computer can identify you, it's time to work on your style a bit.