Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fractal Empires In My Corner of the World

This post is adapted from my comments on the latest installment of the Archdruid Report.

Lately I am musing (no, really obsessing) about geography, hydrology, cultural, and political boundaries within the American empire. More details will ensue as I delve into the history of border skirmishes, rivalries, and canal-building schemes in the Susquehanna Basin.

If you look at a map of the eastern US, you see some organic boundaries, which generally follow either river courses or watershed divides, representing natural patterns of human settlement, or at least reasonable attempts to foster the same. Other boundaries are arrow-straight survey lines, representing hasty arbitration, either because the land was previously unclaimed or had rival claims. If the republic ever breaks apart again, these may have to be revisited.

Blank US Map
An interesting artifact of the age of hasty surveys is that the biggest river system on the Eastern Seaboard, the Susquehanna, is neither a state border nor a central feature of a single state. Also because of the way it is politically divided, the non-tidal and tidal (i.e. Chesapeake Bay) portions are usually thought of as separate entities. This has had interesting political, economic, and ecological results over nearly three centuries, and may prove more interesting again in the future.

This is just one example of what I am calling the fractal nature of empires. Colonial America, even as it was part of the British Empire, was made of little empires pumping wealth from their hinterlands, coming into conflict with neighboring empires, reaching some level of hierarchy or parity and uniting against the next common rival. New York -vs- Philadelphia becomes North -vs- South, etc. Maybe more fancifully it is like the NCAA tournament, but once you get to the final that's the beginning of the end of a civilization. But in the case of empires in decline the process goes somewhat in reverse, with long-dormant conflicts likely to reappear. Balkanization anyone? True, differences in history and society will mean differences in how things play out...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

CMD Repost: It's the Economy That's Stupid

Note: This post first appeared on Chickens of Mass Destruction November 3, 2010.

In my previous post, I mentioned that I thought that seriously curtailing fossil fuel consumption and contracting the economy were the best choices we could make for the long-term future. Today I want to elaborate a bit on that idea.

Many people are in agreement that we should reduce fossil fuel consumption, maybe because of fears of global warming or other types of pollution (the BP disaster is far from over), or a concern that we are headed for a major accessibility crisis, summed up by the term "peak oil."

Most people who are aware of these threats envision living much as we do today, maybe with more attention paid to conservation, simply substituting renewal energy sources for fossil fuels. In this scenario we can continue to grow economically. As the less-developed countries catch up their birth rates will drop, and the total human population will stabilize at a sustainable level.

There are a few problems with this.

CMD Repost: Memento Mori

Note: This post first appeared on Chickens of Mass Destruction November 2, 2010.

It's the season of Halloween, Samhain, El Día de los Muertos. In many cultures around the world it is time to meditate on death: the death of the crops at the end of the harvest season, as well as the deaths of our fellow humans. It's time to remember and honor those who have passed from this life, as well as to be mindful of our own mortality.

Not coincidentally, here in the USA it is also election time. Our tradition of holding elections on the second Tuesday in November goes back to our agrarian past when roads were poor, travel slow, and polling places up to a day or two travel from home. In most parts of the country as it existed then, in early November the harvest would be done but the worst of winter weather a safe way off.

It all leads me to ponder the meaning of elections for an empire quite probably in the Autumn of its existence. For America is an empire built on optimism and enthusiasm of a most material sort, and the material is getting scarce. A new global paradigm will emerge one way or the other.

CMD Repost: The Elephant in the Room

Note: This post first appeared in my blog Chickens of Mass Destruction on July 9, 2010.

No, I haven't abandoned this blog, but digging through the archives of John Michael Greer's Archdruid Report, and following up on links and recommendations, has put me in serious sponge mode.

I just finished reading Overshoot by William R. Catton. It's still a timely book 30 years after publication, a stark and devastating analysis of the human predicament from an ecological perspective. In a nutshell: we're riding a wave of exuberance that started with the Age of Discovery, got a boost from the Industrial Revolution, and is accelerating straight toward a crash: a major decline in both human population and material standard of living. The timing and exact nature of the crash will depend on many factors, but at this point in time, if you accept certain premises, some sort of crash is unavoidable.

If everyone on Wall Street read and understood Catton's book, or if any major world leader understood and articulated it (even Jimmy Carter missed the mark), the crash would start today, and maybe in a preferable form to many of the alternatives.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Welcome to Graceful Decline

When I started the blog Chickens of Mass Destruction, the title was mostly whimsical, a play, in case you haven't figured it out, on the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." (That phrase itself turned out to be the biggest WMD, leading as it did to a great deal of destruction over the last 8 years.)

My whimsical twist on the phrase encompassed the interests I wanted to write about: food and agriculture, ecology, and politics. There was contained therein the idea that a simple thing like backyard chickens, and the local food movement in general, could also constitute a threat, albeit a gentle and ethical one, to the industrial capitalist system.

With this post I announce a spin-off blog, Graceful Decline. Here I hope to explore the broader political, social, and ecological questions around the decline and fall of the American empire. I'll reserve CMD for food and agriculture issues. Of course these things are all related, so there may be some more cross-posting between the two.

At least some of the time, I will be using John Michael Greer's excellent blog, the Archdruid Report, as a launching point. For the last 6 years he has been laying out a feast for the cerebral cortex, making a strong case that peak oil will spell the end of our civilization, and presenting a sober projection of life after cheap energy.

For Greer it is neither zombie apocalypse nor utopian deliverance, but a middle road of hard choices, hard work, and muddling through as the gargantuan system of complexity we all depend on crumbles. His ideas are steeped in the physical sciences, particularly the limits imposed by ecology and the laws of thermodynamics. He also has a large following of commentators, with interesting insights of their own. Anyone who wants to understand what I am attempting to do here should definitely read the ADR archives, or pick up one of Greer's books. Those that deal with peak oil-related issues are like a distillation of his blog.

In looking at the nature of the empire that the US has built I am also informed by the thinking of Howard Zinn, especially his alternative history classic A People's History of the United States. It has its limitations to be sure, but for understanding the dynamics of power in a capitalist democracy it is compelling and useful. Demagogy, distraction, and divide-and-conquer were favorite tools of the founders, and they are still the mainstays of American politics on all fronts.

I look around and see a system that is committed to growth on a planet of limited capacity. It's like watching a runaway locomotive headed for a sheer drop, and all I can offer is my tiny voice. Please join the discussion, link, share. Add to my voice or try to neutralize it as you see fit...