Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting ready to make a mess!

So this weekend I've started looking into what's involved in this learn-to-make-stuff thing.

Something I've been wanting to do for some time now is to build some bicimaquinas. The word is Spanish and was coined by a group called Mayapedal in Guatemala. They take donated bicycles and carve them up, modify them and put them back together to make stationary pedal-powered machines. So far they've designed and built a blender, a corn grinder, a water pump and a number of other useful devices that make life a hell of a lot easier when you live somewhere without a reliable, affordable electricity supply.

Depending on who you ask, that might include a lot of us in the next few decades.

Even if you're not of an apocalyptic bent, there's a lot to love about these things. We're surrounded by clever technology that lets us imagine we're really in charge of the universe, but an awful lot of it doesn't work at all unless we keep feeding it some form of concentrated fossil sunlight.

Bicycles are sort of different; they take the power output of a human being (up to 300-400 watts in short bursts, more like 75 watts over long periods of time) and strip away as much friction as possible, allowing us to get the most work done with the least effort. It's a truly clever invention, an elegant solution to a persistent problem that dogs every animal on the planet, i.e. moving around without blowing your calorie budget. It's an honest invention that doesn't rely on a geological trust fund to work its apparent magic. In this respect it's a much bigger achievement than a car or an airplane or a moon shot.

(Let's leave aside for the moment that making replacement parts for bicycles itself depends on an industrial system that may or may not be able to function, even at a drastically reduced level, on the available renewable energy sources. Someday even bicimaquinas might not be viable. But in the meantime...)

What I also like about the bicimaquina concept is that, even for us pudgy and comfortable first-worlders, it deals with some of our current problems as well as our future ones. Leave aside the whole issue of reducing energy consumption for environmental reasons. Right now we've got labour-saving machines doing a lot of our physical work for us, while we go to gyms to work out on different machines whose purpose is to help us burn off extra calories while doing no useful work.

The Dutch cheapskate in me finds this objectionable.

So I'm gonna start with bicimaquinas because, of all the greasy, dirty, hands-onny get-stuff-doney crafts, bike repair is the one at which I am least inept. I've actually got a decent grasp of how bicycles work, though I haven't actually worked on one in years. So there's something to start with.

I think eventually I'd like to build a pedal-powered washing machine. Something like that would give you a good workout over the course of half an hour or so and get something done that, frankly, I tend to avoid. (Of course I tend to avoid exercise too...)

But for now I think the first project will be a stationary stand to mount a bike frame on--the power plant for whatever other devices I then decide to hook up to it.

Gonna have to learn how to weld...

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.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It gets worse.

Man! I do a post on the Census, laying out some questions I'd like to see added, and next thing you know, the federal government announces it's going to eliminate the long-form census entirely.

I'm sure there's no causal relationship here. Pretty sure, anyway.

The long-form census--this is the detailed one that gets sent to one in five households--provides the really useful information like mode of travel to work, housing costs for owners and renters, number of households spending over a certain threshold on housing costs, and a bunch of other very useful pieces of information for citizen researchers and academics.

It's the information that lets you prove certain inconvenient truths--that real incomes are stagnating, that more and more people use and need public transit, that housing costs are turning an entire generation into serfs.

The census is also a key historical document. It allows researchers a hundred years from now to reconstruct the basic facts of our time. Abandoning the long-form census is like burning the library at Alexandria. Some bigoted, ideological a-hole does it once and then it's gone forever.

Cancel the census and our age goes dark.

It is very convenient to self-identified conservatives that these facts will no longer be available at any meaningful level. Facts are what people use--have to use--to challenge the status quo, to demonstrate that it's not in fact morning in America. Established power lives on inertia and elite opinion. Reality has a liberal bias. Census data helps us prove this. Without data, it's all just opinion.

Who's to say that the streets aren't full of welfare queens driving their Cadillacs to the gravy train station?

Who's to say that your inability to afford housing is part of a larger trend, and not just a personal failure on your part?

Who's to say?

Without the long-form census... well, nobody.

Just like global warming. Can't prove it conclusively, therefore do nothing.

How's that working out for you?

Collecting proper census data isn't an "issue," the way health care or unemployment insurance or the deficit are issues. Opinions can vary on those, based on the facts available and one's interpretation of those facts. The census is a meta-issue. It is an issue that determines whether we can make informed decisions about other issues.

Write your MP about this.

And get off the goddamn couch and vote during the next election.