The Shadows in the Cave

Wed, 2015-11-25 17:01
I had intended this week’s post to be the next episode in the Retrotopia narrative, chronicling Peter Carr’s meeting with the irrepressible Col. Tom Pappas of the Lakeland Republic Army, and the trip out to Defiance County for the annual drone shoot, but that will have to wait another week. No, I haven’t decided to comment instead on the recent spate of terror attacks in France.  As people in a variety of other corners of the world have pointed out, identical outrages happen all over the Third World every few days.  The only reason this latest horror has gotten so much air time is that it affected people in one of the world’s privileged countries instead.
Nor am I going to be devoting this week’s post to the latest, extremely troubling round of news from the climate change front—though that’s going to get a post to itself down the road a bit, when I’ve had time to do a little more research. That’s a far bigger story than the terror attacks in Paris, though of course it’s not getting anything like as much attention in the media.  From the beginning of serious salt water infiltration into South Florida’s aquifers, through ominously bulging sediments in Arctic Ocean shallows, to an assortment of truly frightening data points from Greenland, it’s clear that we’ve passed the threshold from “something may happen someday” to “something is happening now”—a transition that probably has quite a bit to do with the increasingly shrill tone of climate-change denialist rhetoric just now, and even more to do with the increasingly plaintive tone of those activists who still insist that everything can be fixed if we all just join hands and sing “Kum ba ya” one more time.
No, this week’s post is going to explore a topic that’s far less important in the overall scheme of things, though it’s not without its relevance to the crisis of our age. I want to talk about the reaction I fielded in response to last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, which was an exploration of our culture’s taboo against choosing not to use the latest technologies.
I expected that post to field its share of outraged denunciations, and it certainly did. What I didn’t expect was that it would receive more comments than any other post in the history of The Archdruid Report, and the vast majority of those comments would agree heartily with the two points of that post. The first of these points is that there’s a significant number of Americans out there who, for one good reason or another, choose not to use cell phones, televisions, automobiles, microwave ovens, and an assortment of other currently fashionable technologies. The second is that there’s an even larger number of Americans out there who get really, really freaky about people who make such choices.
Some of the stories I heard from readers of my blog were absolute classics of the type. There was the couple who don’t enjoy television and so don’t own one, and had a relative ask them every single year, over and over again, if she could buy them a television for Christmas.  They said no thank you every single year, and finally she went out and bought them a television anyway because she just couldn’t stand the thought that they weren’t watching one. There was the coworker who plopped a laptop playing some sitcom or other right down on the lap of one of my readers and demanded that the reader watch it, right then and there, so that they would have something to talk about. There was the person who, offended by another reader’s lack of interest in television, finally shouted, “You must be living in a dream world!” Er, which of these people was spending four to six hours a day watching paid actors playing imaginary characters act out fictional events in contrived settings?
Televisions were far from the only focus of this sort of technobullying. Other readers reported getting similar reactions from other people because they didn’t happen to have, and weren’t interested in having, microwave ovens, smartphones, and so on down the list of currently fashionable trinkets. The stories are really quite eye-opening, and not in a good way. Forget about all the popular cant that insists that you’re free in the USA to make your own choices and have whatever lifestyle you want.  According to a significant fraction of Americans—and to judge from what my readers reported, that fraction isn’t limited to any one class, income level, or region of the country—the only freedom you’re supposed to exercise, when it comes to technology, is that of choosing which brand label will be slapped on each item in the officially approved list of devices you’re expected to own.
The prevalence of technobullying and technoshaming in today’s America is a fascinating point, and one we’ll explore in a few moments, with the able assistance of the denunciations flung at last week’s post by the minority of readers who reacted that way. What I want to consider first is the fact that so many people responded to last week’s post so positively. One blog in an uncrowded corner of the internet, written by an author whose day job as an archdruid locates him squarely on the outer fringes of contemporary American life, is very nearly the opposite of a statistically valid poll. Still, the sheer volume of the response makes me suspect that something significant is going on here.
By that I don’t mean that there’s some sort of groundswell of renunciation, leading people to walk away from technologies in the same spirit that led medieval ascetics to don hair shirts and flog themselves for the good of their souls. That’s one of the common stereotypes directed at those of us who aren’t interested in the latest technotrash, and it completely misses what’s actually going on. I’ll use myself as an example here. I don’t own a television—I haven’t owned one in my adult life—and it’s not because I have some moral or political objection to televisions, or because I’m into self-denial, or what have you. I don’t own a television because I find watching television about as enticing as eating a bowl of warm snot.
It’s not the programming, either—that’s another of the standard stereotypes, that the only thing one can find objectionable about television is the programming, and it’s as inaccurate as the rest.  To me, quite simply, the activity of watching little colored shapes jerk around on a screen is boring and irritating, not relaxing and enjoyable, no matter what the little colored shapes are supposed to be doing. Yes, I grew up with a television in the house.  I experienced plenty of it back in the day, and I have zero interest in experiencing any more, because I don’t like it. It really is that simple. It’s that simple for others as well: they don’t find this or that technology enjoyable, useful, or relevant to their lifestyles, and so they’ve chosen to do something else with their money and time. Shouldn’t so simple and personal a choice be their own business, and nobody else’s?
To judge by the reactions that those who make such choices routinely field, apparently not. The pushbacks discussed in the comments page last week range from the sort of in-your-face confrontations discussed above to a much-forwarded article in I forget which online rag, where somebody was airily announcing that he wasn’t interested in being friends with somebody unless he could text some vacuous comment about lunch to the other person at 2:15 and get a response by 2:30. (My readers and I are good with that—somebody who insists on getting immediate feedback for their random outbursts of mental flatulence isn’t somebody we want as a friend, either.) Then there were the indignant responses to last week’s post, which belong in a category by themselves.
I’m sorry to say that my favorite diatribe didn’t show up in the comment queue for The Archdruid Report. It appeared instead on one of the many other websites that carry my weekly posts, and it insisted, among several other less juicy bits, that my lack of enthusiasm for television obviously meant that I was conspiring to deprive everyone else of their teevees. You’ve got to admit that for sheer giddy delirium, that one’s hard to beat. By the same logic, if I dislike peanuts—as in fact I do—I must be committed to some kind of anti-peanut crusade devoted to eradicating the entire species. Not so;  Arachis hypogaeais welcome to live and thrive, for all I care, and my fellow hominids are equally welcome to eat as much of its produce as they happen to desire.  In fact, they can divide my share among them. The only thing I ask in return is that nobody expect me to eat the things myself.
The same rule applies equally to television, as it does to a great many other things. Like most human beings, I enjoy some things and don’t enjoy others, and in the vast majority of these cases, nobody feels particularly threatened by the fact that I don’t like something they do, and avoid it for that sensible reason. For this one commenter, at least, that obviously wasn’t the case, and it’s worth reflecting on the vast personal insecurities that must have driven such a bizarre reaction. Still, that was one of a kind, so we’ll pass on to the others.
A theme that showed up rather more often in the hate mail responding to last week’s post was the insistence that if I don’t have a television, a microwave, or a cell phone, I’m a hypocrite if I have an internet connection. I encourage my readers to think about that claim for a moment. I suppose a case could be made that if my lack of interest in having a television, a microwave, or a cell phone was motivated by the kind of passion for hair-shirt asceticism mentioned above, and I had an internet connection, I could be accused of the kind of slacking that used to get you thrown out of the really top-notch hermitages. From any other perspective, it’s a triumph of absurdity. If people are in fact allowed to choose, from among the currently available technologies, those that make them happiest—as the cheerleaders of the consumer economy delight to insist—what could possibly be wrong with choosing some old technologies and some newer ones, if that’s the mix you prefer?
Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today? What’s sauce for the goose, after all, is sauce for the gander...
Finally, there’s the capstone of the whole edifice of unreason, the insistence that anybody who doesn’t use the latest, hottest technotrash wants to go “back to the caves,” or to even take all of humanity to that much-denounced destination. “The caves” have a bizarre gravitational effect on the imagination of a certain class of modern thinkers.  Everything that’s not part of the latest assortment of glitzy technogimmicks, in their minds, somehow morphs into the bearskin kilts and wooden clubs that so many of us still, despite well over a century of detailed archeological evidence, insist on pushing onto our prehistoric ancestors.
When people of this kind archly dismiss people like the Chrismans, the neo-Victorian couple just mentioned, as going “back to the caves,” they’re engaged in a very interesting kind of absurdity. Do cavemen and Victorians belong on the same level? Sure, cavemen had flush toilets and central heating, daily newspapers and public libraries, not to mention factories, railways, global maritime trade, a telegraph network covering much of the planet’s land surface, and a great deal more of the same kind! That’s absurd, of course. It’s even more absurd to insist that people who simply don’t enjoy using this or that technology, and so don’t use it, are going back to “the caves”—but I can promise you, dear reader, from my own personal experience, that if you show a lack of interest in any piece of fashionable technology, you’ll have this phrase thrown at you.
That happens because “the caves” aren’t real. They aren’t, for example, the actual cave-shrines of the Magdalenian people who lived fifteen thousand years ago, whose lifestyles were quite similar to those of Native Americans before Columbus, and who used to go deep into the caves of Europe to paint sacred images that still stun the viewer today by their beauty and artistry. “The caves” of contemporary rhetoric, rather, are thoughtstopping abstractions, bits of verbal noise that people have been taught to use so they don’t ask inconvenient questions about where this thing called “progress” is taking us and whether any sane person would actually want to go there. Flattening out the entire complex richness of the human past into a single cardboard bogeyman labeled “the caves” is one way to do that.  So is papering over the distinctly ugly future we’re making for ourselves with a screen shot or two from a Jetsons cartoon and a gaudy banner saying “We’re headed for the stars!”
It’s really rather fascinating, all things considered, that the image of the cave should have been picked up for that dubious purpose. Not that long ago, most literate people in the Western world tended to have a very different image come to mind when someone mentioned caves. That was courtesy of a man named Aristocles of Athens, who lived a little more than 2300 years ago and whose very broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato. In the longest, most influential, and most problematic of his works, usually called The Republic—a bad choice, as this word nowadays has connotations of rights under law that the Greek title Politeia lacks—he framed his discussion of the gap between perception and reality with an arresting image.
Imagine, Plato says, that we are all shackled in a cave, unable to turn our heads to either side. All we can see are dark shapes that move this way and that on the flat wall of the cave in front of us. Those dark shapes are all we know.  They are our reality.
Now imagine that one of these prisoners manages to get loose from his shackles, and turns away from the cave wall and the dark shapes on it. He’s in for a shock, because what he sees when he turns around is a bonfire, and people moving objects in front of the flames so that the objects cast shadows on the cave wall. Everything he thought was reality is simply a shadow cast by these moving objects.
If the prisoner who’s gotten loose pays attention, furthermore, he might just notice that the cave isn’t limited to the bonfire, the prisoners, the objects casting the shadows and the people who manipulate those objects. Off past the bonfire, on one side of the cave, the floor slopes upwards, and in the distance is a faint light that doesn’t seem to come from the fire at all. If our escaped prisoner is brave enough, he might decide to go investigate that light. As he does so, the bonfire and the shadows slip into the darkness behind him, and the light ahead grows brighter and clearer.
Then, if he’s brave enough and keeps going, he steps out of the cave and into the sunlight. That’s not an easy thing, either, because the light is so much more intense than the dim red glow in the cave that for a while, he can’t see a thing. He stumbles, rubs his eyes, tries to find his bearings, and discovers that the detailed knowledge he had of the way shadows moved on the cave wall won’t help him at all in this new, blazingly bright realm. He has to discard everything he thinks he knows, and learn the rules of an unfamiliar world.
Bit by bit, though, he accomplishes this. His eyes adapt to the sunlight, he learns to recognize objects and to sense things—color, for example, and depth—which didn’t exist in the shadow-world he thought he inhabited when he was still a prisoner in the cave. Eventually he can even see the sun, and know where the light that illumines the real world actually comes from.
Now, Plato says, imagine that he decides to go back into the cave to tell the remaining prisoners what he’s seen. To begin with, it’s going to be rough going, because his eyes have adapted to the brilliant daylight and so he’s going to trip and stumble on the way down. Once he gets there, anything he says to the prisoners is going to be dismissed as the most consummate rubbish:  what is this nonsense about color and depth, and a big bright glowing thing that crosses something called the sky? What’s more, the people to whom he’s addressing his words are going to misunderstand them, thinking that they’re about the shadow-world in front of their eyes—after all, that’s the only reality they know—and they’re going to decide that he must be an idiot because nothing he says has anything to do with the shadow-world.
Plato didn’t mention that the prisoners might respond by trying to drag the escapee back into line with them and bully him into putting his shackles back on, though that’s generally the way such things work out in practice. Plato also never saw a television, which is unfortunate in a way—if he had, he could have skipped the complicated setup with the bonfire and the people waving around objects that cast shadows, and simply said, “Imagine that we’re all watching television in a dark room.”
Now of course Plato had his own reasons for using the cave metaphor, and developed it in directions that aren’t relevant to this week’s post. The point I want to make here is that every technology is a filter that shapes the way we experience and interact with the world. In some cases, such as television, the filtering effect is so drastic it’s hard not to see—unless, that is, you don’t want to see it.  In other cases, it’s subtle. There are valid reasons people might want to use one filter rather than another, or to set aside an assortment of filters in order to get a clearer view of some part of the world or their lives.
There are also, as already noted, matters of personal choice. Some of us prefer sun and wind and depth and color to the play of shadows on the walls of the cave. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to drag those who don’t share that preference out into the blinding light, or that we’re going to turn ourselves into the Throg the Cave Man shadow that’s being waved around so enthusiastically on one corner of the cave wall. It does mean—or so the response to last week’s post suggests—that a significant number of people are losing interest in the shadow-play and clambering up the awkward but rewarding journey into the sunlight and the clean cool air, and it may just mean as well that those who try to bully them into staying put and staring at shadows may have less success than they expect.
******************On an entirely personal note, I’m pleased to report that Founders House Publishing has just brought out a new edition of my first science fiction novel, The Fires of Shalsha. It’s closer to mainstream SF than anything else I’ve written—it’s even set on another planet—but fans of my subsequent novels, Star’s Reach and Twilight’s Last Gleaming, will find it an enjoyable read. Copies can be ordered here.

The Heresy of Technological Choice

Wed, 2015-11-18 16:08
Among the interesting benefits of writing a blog like this, focusing as it does on the end of industrial civilization, are the opportunities it routinely affords for a glimpse at the stranger side of the collective thinking of our time. The last few weeks have been an unusually good source of that experience, as a result of one detail of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing in the posts here.
The detail in question is the system by which residents of my fictional Lakeland Republic choose how much infrastructure they want to have and, not incidentally, to pay for via their local tax revenues. It’s done on a county-by-county basis by majority vote. The more infrastructure you want, the higher your taxes are; the more infrastructure you can do without, the less of your income goes to the county to pay for it. There are five levels, called tiers, and each one has a notional date connected to it: thus tier five has the notional date of 1950, and corresponds to the infrastructure you’d expect to find in a county in the Midwestern states of the US in that year: countywide electrical, telephone, water, and sewer service; roads and related infrastructure throughout the county capable of handling heavy automobile use; and mass transit—specifically, streetcars—in the towns.
The other tiers have less infrastructure, and correspondingly lower taxes. Tier four has a notional date of 1920, tier three of 1890, tier two of 1860, and tier one of 1830. In each case, the infrastructure you’d find in such a county is roughly what you’d find in a midwestern American county in that year. With tier one, your county infrastructure consists of dirt roads and that’s about it. All the other functions of county government exist in tier one, tier five, and everything in between; there are courts, police, social welfare provisions for those who are unable to take care of themselves, and so forth—all the things you would expect to find in any midwestern county in the US at any point between 1830 and 1950. That’s the tier system:  one small detail of the imaginary future I’ve been sketching here.
Before we go on, I’d like my readers to stop and notice that the only things that are subject to the tier system are the elements of local infrastructure that are paid for by local tax revenues. If you live in a county that voted to adopt a certain tier level, that tells you what kind of  infrastructure will be funded by local tax revenues, and therefore what the tax bills are going to be like. That’s all it tells you. In particular, the tier system doesn’t apply to privately owned infrastructure—for example, railroads in the Lakeland Republic are privately owned, and so every county, whatever its tier, has train stations in any town where paying passengers and freight may be found in sufficient quantity to make it worth a railroad’s while to stop there.
The tier system also, and crucially, doesn’t determine what kind of technology the residents can use. If you live in a tier one county, you can use all the electrical appliances you can afford to buy, as long as you generate the electricity yourself. Some technologies that are completely dependent on public infrastructure aren’t going to work in a low tier county—for example, without paved roads, gas stations, huge government subsidies for petroleum production, military bases all over the Middle East, and a great deal more, cars aren’t much more than oversized paperweights—but that’s built into the technology in question, not any fault of the tier system. Furthermore, the tier system doesn’t determine social customs and mores.  If you live in a tier four county, for example, no law requires you to dress in a zoot suit or a flapper dress, drink bootleg liquor, and say things like “Hubba hubba” and “Twenty-three skidoo!” This may seem obvious, but trust me, it’s apparently far from obvious to a certain portion of my readers.
I can say this because, ever since the tier system first got mentioned in the narrative, I’ve fielded a steady stream of comments from people who wanted to object to the tier system because it forcibly deprives people of access to technology. I had one reader insist that the tier system would keep farmers in tier one counties from using plastic sheeting for hoop houses, for example, and another who compared the system to the arrangements in former Eastern Bloc nations, where the Communist Party imposed rigid restrictions on what technologies people could have. The mere facts that plastic sheeting for hoop houses isn’t infrastructure paid for by tax revenues, and that the tier system doesn’t impose rigid restrictions on anybody—on the contrary, it allows the voters in each county to choose for themselves how much infrastructure they’re going to pay for—somehow never found their way into the resulting diatribes.
What made all this even more fascinating to me is that no matter how often I addressed the points in question, and pointed out that the tier system just allows local voters to choose what infrastructure gets paid for their by tax money, a certain fraction of readers just kept rabbiting on endlessly along the same lines. It wasn’t that they were disagreeing with what I was saying. It’s that they were acting as though I had never said anything to address the subject at all, even when I addressed it to their faces, and nothing I or anyone else could say was able to break through their conviction that in imagining the tier system, I must be talking about some way to deprive people of technology by main force.
It was after the third or fourth round of comments along these lines, I think it was, that a sudden sense of deja vu reminded me that I’d seen this same sort of curiously detached paralogic before.
Longtime readers of this blog will remember how, some years ago, I pointed out in passing that the survival of the internet in the deindustrial age didn’t depend on whether there was some technically feasible way to run an internet in times of energy and resource limits, much less on how neat we think the internet is today. Rather, I suggested, its survival in the future would depend on whether it could make enough money to cover its operating and maintenance costs, and on whether it could successfully keep on outcompeting less complex and expensive ways of providing the same services to its users. That post got a flurry of responses from the geekoisie, all of whom wanted to talk exclusively about whether there was some technically feasible way to run the internet in a deindustrial world, and oh, yes, how incredibly neat the internet supposedly is.
What’s more, when I pointed out that they weren’t discussing the issues I had raised, they didn’t argue with me or try to make an opposing case.  They just kept on talking more and more loudly about the  technical feasibility of various gimmicks for a deindustrial internet, and by the way, did we mention yet how unbelievably neat the internet is? It was frankly rather weird, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  It felt at times as though I’d somehow managed to hit the off switch on a dozen or so intellects, leaving their empty husks to lurch mindlessly through a series of animatronic talking points with all the persistence and irrelevance of broken records.
It took a while for me to realize that the people who were engaged in this bizarre sort of nonresponse understood perfectly well what I was talking about. They knew at least as well as I did that the internet is the most gargantuan technostructure in the history of our species, a vast, sprawling, unimaginably costly, and hopelessly unsustainable energy- and resource-devouring behemoth that survives only because a significant fraction of the world’s total economic activity goes directly and indirectly toward its upkeep. They knew about the slave-worked open pit mines, the vast grim factories run by sweatshop labor, and the countless belching smokestacks that feed its ravenous appetite for hardware and power; they also know about the constellations of data centers scattered across the world that keep it running, each of which uses as much energy as a small city, and each of which has to have one semi-truck after another pull up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallets of brand new hard drives and other hardware, in order to replace those that will burn out the next day.
They knew all this, and they knew, or at least suspected, just how little of it will be viable in a future of harsh energy and resource constraints.  They simply didn’t want to think about that, much less talk about it, and so they babbled endlessly about other things in a frantic attempt to drown out a subject they couldn’t bear to hear discussed openly.
I’m pretty sure that this is what’s going on in the present case, too, and an interesting set of news stories from earlier this year points up the unspoken logic behind it.
Port Townsend is a pleasant little town in Washington State, perched on a bluff above the western shores of Puget Sound. Due to the vagaries of the regional economy, it basically got bypassed by the twentieth century, and much of the housing stock dates from the Victorian era. It so happens that one couple who live there find Victorian technology, clothing, and personal habits more to their taste than the current fashions in these things, and they live, as thoroughly as they can, a Victorian lifestyle. The wife of the couple, Sarah Chrisman, recently wrote a book about her experiences, and got her canonical fifteen minutes of fame on the internet and the media as a result.
You might think, dear reader, that the people of Port Townsend would treat this as merely a harmless eccentricity, or even find it pleasantly amusing to have a couple in Victorian cycling clothes riding their penny-farthing bicycles on the city streets. To some extent, you’d be right, but it’s the exceptions that I want to discuss here. Ever since they adopted their Victorian lifestyle, the Chrismans have been on the receiving end of constant harassment by people who find their presence in the community intolerable. The shouted insults, the in-your-face confrontations, the death threats—they’ve seen it all. What’s more, the appearance of Sarah Chrisman’s book and various online articles related to it fielded, in response, an impressive flurry of spluttering online denunciations, which insisted among other things that the fact that she prefers to wear long skirts and corsets somehow makes her personally responsible for all the sins that have ever been imputed to the Victorian era.
Why? Why the fury, the brutality, and the frankly irrational denunciations directed at a couple whose lifestyle choices have got to count well up there among the world’s most harmless hobbies?
The reason’s actually very simple. Sarah Chrisman and her husband have transgressed one of the modern world’s most rigidly enforced taboos. They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice.
You’re not supposed to say that in today’s world. You’re not even supposed to think it. You’re allowed, at most, to talk nostalgically about how much more pleasant it must have been not to be constantly harassed and annoyed by the current round of officially prescribed technologies, and squashed into the Procrustean bed of the narrow range of acceptable lifestyles that go with them. Even that’s risky in many circles these days, and risks fielding a diatribe from somebody who just has to tell you, at great length and with obvious irritation, all about the horrible things you’d supposedly suffer if you didn’t have the current round of officially prescribed technologies constantly harassing and annoying you.
The nostalgia in question doesn’t have to be oriented toward the past. I long ago lost track of the number of people I’ve heard talk nostalgically about what I tend to call the Ecotopian future, the default vision of a green tomorrow that infests most minds on the leftward end of things. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last forty years, you already know every detail of the Ecotopian future.  It’s the place where wind turbines and solar panels power everything, everyone commutes by bicycle from their earth-sheltered suburban homes to their LEED-certified urban workplaces, everything is recycled, and social problems have all been solved because everybody, without exception, has come to embrace the ideas and attitudes currently found among upper-middle-class San Francisco liberals.
It’s far from rare, at sustainability-oriented events, to hear well-to-do attendees waxing rhapsodically about how great life will be when the Ecotopian future arrives. If you encounter someone engaging in that sort of nostalgic exercise, and are minded to be cruel, ask the person who’s doing it whether he (it’s usually a man) bicycles to work, and if not, why not. Odds are you’ll get to hear any number of frantic excuses to explain why the lifestyle that everyone’s going to love in the Ecotopian future is one that he can’t possibly embrace today. If you want a look behind the excuses and evasions, ask him how he got to the sustainability-oriented event you’re attending. Odds are that he drove his SUV, in which there were no other passengers, and if you press him about that you can expect to see the dark heart of privilege and rage that underlies his enthusiastic praise of an imaginary lifestyle that he would never, not even for a moment, dream of adopting himself.
I wish I were joking about the rage. It so happens that I don’t have a car, a television, or a cell phone, and I have zero interest in ever having any of these things. My defection from the officially prescribed technologies and the lifestyles that go with them isn’t as immediately obvious as Sarah Chrisman’s, so I don’t take as much day to day harassment as she does. Still, it happens from time to time that somebody wants to know if I’ve seen this or that television program, and in the conversations that unfold from such questions it sometimes comes out that I don’t have a television at all.
Where I now live, in an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, that revelation rarely gets a hostile response, and it’s fairly common for someone else to say, “Good for you,” or something like that. A lot of people here are very poor, and thus have a certain detachment from technologies and lifestyles they know perfectly well they will never be able to afford. Back when I lived in prosperous Left Coast towns, on the other hand, mentioning that I didn’t own a television routinely meant that I’d get to hear a long and patronizing disquisition about how I really ought to run out and buy a TV so I could watch this or that or the other really really wonderful program, in the absence of which my life must be intolerably barren and incomplete.
Any lack of enthusiasm for that sort of disquisition very reliably brought out a variety of furiously angry responses that had precisely nothing to do with the issue at hand, which is that I simply don’t enjoy the activity of watching television. Oh, and it’s not the programming I find unenjoyable—it’s the technology itself; I get bored very quickly with the process of watching little colored images jerking about on a glass screen, no matter what the images happen to be. That’s another taboo, by the way. It’s acceptable in today’s America to grumble about what’s on television, but the technology itself is sacrosanct; you’re not allowed to criticize it, much less to talk about the biases, agendas, and simple annoyances hardwired into television as a technological system. If you try to bring any of that up, people will insist that you’re criticizing the programming; if you correct them, they’ll ignore the correction and keep on talking as though the programs on TV are the only thing under discussion.
A similar issue drives the bizarre paralogic surrounding the nonresponses to the tier system discussed above. The core premises behind the tier system in my narrative are, first, that people can choose the technological infrastructure they have, and have to pay for—and second, that some of them, when they consider the costs and benefits involved, might reasonably decide that an infrastructure of dirt roads and a landscape of self-sufficient farms and small towns is the best option. To a great many people today, that’s heresy of the most unthinkable sort.  The easiest way to deal with the heresy in question, for those who aren’t interested in thinking about it, is to pretend that nothing so shocking has been suggested at all, and force the discussion into some less threatening form as quickly as possible. Redefining it in ways that erase the unbearable idea that technologies can be chosen freely, and just as freely rejected, is quite probably the easiest way to do that.
I’d encourage those of my readers who aren’t blinded by the terror of intellectual heresy to think, and think hard, about the taboo against technological choice—the insistence that you cannot, may not, and must not make your own choices when it comes to whatever the latest technological fad happens to be, but must do as you’re told and accept whatever technology the consumer society hands you, no matter how dysfunctional, harmful, or boring it turns out to be. That taboo is very deeply ingrained, far more potent than the handful of relatively weak taboos our society still applies to such things as sexuality, and most of the people you know obey it so unthinkingly that they never even notice how it shapes their behavior. You may not notice how it shapes your behavior, for that matter; the best way to find out is to pick a technology that annoys, harms, or bores you, but that you use anyway, and get rid of it.
Those who take that unthinkable step, and embrace the heresy of technological choice, are part of the wave of the future. In a world of declining resource availability, unraveling economic systems, and destabilizing environments, Sarah Chrisman and the many other people who make similar choices—there are quite a few of them these days, and more of them with each year that passes—are making a wise choice. By taking up technologies and lifeways from less extravagant eras, they’re decreasing their environmental footprints and their vulnerability to faltering global technostructures, and they’re also contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.
The heresy of technological choice is a door. Beyond it lies an unexplored landscape of possibilities for the future—possibilities that very few people have even begun to imagine yet. My Retrotopia narrative is meant to glance over a very small part of that landscape. If some of the terrain it’s examined so far has been threatening enough to send some of its readers fleeing into a familiar sort of paralogic, then I’m confident that it’s doing the job I hoped it would do.

Retrotopia: A Visit to the Capitol

Wed, 2015-11-11 18:38
This is the ninth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finally has his interview with the President of the Lakeland Republic, asks some hard questions, and prepares for a trip into unexpected territory.
***********Finch flagged down a cab as soon as we got out onto the sidewalk, and within a minute or two we were rolling through downtown at however many miles an hour a horse makes at a steady trot. Before too many more minutes had gone by, we were out from among the big downtown buildings, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol appeared on the skyline. Finch was in high spirits, talking about the compromise Meeker had brokered with the Restos, but I was too keyed up to pay much attention. A day and a half in the Lakeland Republic had answered a few of my questions and raised a good many more that I hadn’t expected to ask at all, and the meeting ahead would probably determine whether I’d be able to get the answers that mattered.
The cab finally rolled to a halt, and the cabbie climbed down from his perch up front and opened the door for us. I’d been so deep in my own thoughts for the last few blocks that I hadn’t noticed where we’d ended up, and I was startled to see the main entrance to the Capitol in front of me. I turned to Finch. “Here, rather than the President’s mansion?”
The intern gave me a blank look. “You mean like the old White House? We don’t have one of those. President Meeker has a house in town, just like any other politician.” I must have looked startled, because he went on earnestly:  “We dumped the whole imperial-executive thing after Partition. I’m surprised so many of the other republics kept it, after everything that happened.”
I nodded noncommittally as we walked up to the main entrance, climbed the stair, and went in. There were a couple of uniformed guards inside the outer doors, the first I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, but they simply nodded a greeting to the two of us as we walked by.
We pushed open the inner doors and went into the rotunda. There was a temporary ceiling about forty feet overhead, and someone had taken the trouble to paint on it a trompe l’oeil view of the way the dome would look from beneath. In the middle of the floor was a block of marble maybe three feet on a side; I could barely see it because a dozen or so people were standing around it.  One of them, a stout and freckled blonde woman in a pale blue gingham dress, was saying something in a loud clear voice as we came through the doors:
“ solemnly swear that, should I be elected to any official position, I will faithfully execute the laws of the Lakeland Republic regardless of my personal beliefs, and should I be unable to do so in good conscience, I will immediately resign my office, so help me my Lord and Savior Jesus.” Three sudden blue-white flashes told of photos being taken, a little patter of applause echoed off the temporary ceiling, and then some of the people present got to work signing papers on the marble cube.
Finch led me around the group to a door on the far side of the rotunda. “What was that about?” I asked him with a motion of my head toward the group around the cube.
“A candidate,” he explained as we went through the doors. “Probably running for some township or county office.  A lot of them like to do the ceremony here at the Capitol and get the pictures in their local papers. You can’t run for any elected position here unless you take that oath first—well, with or without the Jesus bit, or whatever else you prefer in place of it. There was a lot of trouble before the Second Civil War with people in government insisting that their personal beliefs trumped the duties of their office—”
“I’ve read about it.”
“So that went into our constitution. Break the oath and you do jail time for perjury.”
I took that in as we went down a corridor. On the far end was what looked like an ordinary front office with a young man perched behind a desk. “Hi, Gabe,” Finch said. 
“Hi, Mike.  This is Mr. Carr?”
“Yes. Mr. Carr, this is Gabriel Menendez, the President’s assistant secretary.”
We shook hands, and Menendez picked up a phone on his desk and asked, “Cheryl, is the boss free? Mr. Carr’s here.” A pause, then:  “Yes. I’ll send him right in.” He put down the phone and waved us to the door at the far end of the room. “He’ll see you now.”
We shed coats and hats at the coatrack on one side of the office, and went through the door. On the other side was another corridor, and beyond that was a circular room with doors opening off it in various directions. Off to the left an ornate spiral stair swept up and down to whatever was on the floors above and below.  To the right was another desk; the woman sitting at it nodded greetings to us and gestured to the central door. I followed Finch as he walked to the door, opened it, and said, “Mr. President? Mr. Carr.”
Isaiah Meeker, President of the Lakeland Republic, was standing at the far side of the room, looking out the window over the Toledo streetscape below.  He turned and came toward us as soon as Finch spoke. He looked older than the pictures I’d seen, the close-trimmed hair and iconic short beard almost white against the dark brown of his face. “Mr. Carr,” he said as we shook hands. “Pleased to meet you. I hope you haven’t been completely at loose ends this last day or so.” He gestured toward the side of the room. “Please have a seat.”
It wasn’t until I turned the direction he’d indicated that I realized there were more than the three of us in the room. A circle of chairs surrounded a low table there.  Melissa Berger and Fred Vanich, whom I’d met in the Toledo train station, were already  seated there, and so were two other people I didn’t know. “Stuart Macallan from the State Department,” Meeker said, making introductions. “Jaya Patel, from Commerce. Of course you’ve already met Melissa and Fred.”
Hands got shaken and I took a seat. Macallan was the assistant secretary of state for North American affairs, I knew, and Patel had an equivalent position on the trade end of things. “I apologize for the delay,” Meeker went on. “I imagine you know how it goes, though.”
“Of course.”
“And you seem to have put the time to good use—at least for our garment industry.”
That got a general chuckle, which I joined. “When in Rome,” I said. “I take it that’s not one of the things visitors usually do, though; Mr. Finch here looked right past me this morning.”
Finch reddened. “It really does vary,” Patel said. “Some of the diplomats and business executives we’ve worked with have taken to buying all their clothes here—we’ve even fielded inquiries about exporting garments for sale abroad. Still, most of our visitors seem to prefer their bioplastic.” Her fractional shrug showed, politely but eloquently, what she thought of that.
“To each their own,” said the President. “But you’ve had the chance to see a little of Toledo, and find out a few of the ways we do things here. I’d be interested to know your first reactions.”
I considered that, decided that a certain degree of frankness wasn’t out of place. “In some ways, impressed,” I said, “and in some ways disquieted. You certainly seem to have come through the embargo years in better shape than I expected—though I’m curious about how things will go now that the borders are open.”
“That’s been a matter of some concern here as well,” Meeker allowed. “That said, so far things seem to be going smoothly.”
Macallan paused just long enough to make sure his boss wasn’t going to say more, and then cleared his throat and spoke. “One of the things we hope might come out of your visit is a better relationship with the Atlantic Republic. I’m sure you know how fraught things were with Barfield and his people. If Ms. Montrose is willing to see things ratchet down to a more normal level, we’re ready to meet her halfway—potentially more than halfway.”
“That was quite an upset she pulled off in the election,” Meeker observed. “I hope you’ll pass on my personal congratulations.”
“I’ll gladly do that,” I said to the President, and then to Macallan:  “It’s certainly possible. I don’t happen to know her thoughts on that, but a lot of people on our side of the border are interested in seeing things change, and she’s got a stronger mandate than any president we’ve had since Partition. Still—” I shrugged. “We’ll have to see what happens after the inauguration.”
“Of course,” Macallan said.
“One thing we’d be particularly interested in seeing,” said Patel, “is a widening of the opportunities for trade. Obviously that’s going to be delicate—it’s a core policy of ours that the Republic has to be able to meet its essential needs from within its own borders, and I know that stance isn’t exactly popular in  global-trade circles. We’re not interested in global trade, but there are things your country produces that we’d like to be able to buy, and things we produce that you might like to buy in exchange.”
“Again,” I said, “we’ll have to see what happens—but I don’t know of any reason why that wouldn’t be a possibility.”
She nodded, and a brief silence passed. Vanich’s featureless voice broke it. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “you mentioned that you found some of the ways we do things here disquieting. I think we’d all be interested in hearing more about that, if you’re willing.”
Startled, I glanced across the table at him, but his face was as impenetrable as it had been the first time I’d seen him. I looked at the President, who seemed amused, and then nodded. “If you like,” I said. “At first it was mostly the—” I floundered for a term. “—deliberately retro, I suppose, quality of so much of what I’ve seen: the clothing, the technology, the architecture, all of it. I have to assume that that’s an intentional choice, connected to whatever’s inspired your Resto parties in politics.”
Meeker nodded. “Very much so.”
“But that’s not actually the thing I find most disquieting. What has me scratching my head is that your republic seems to have gone out of its way to ignore every single scrap of advice you must have gotten from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the other global financial institutions—in fact, from the entire economics profession—and despite that, you’ve apparently thrived.”
Meeker’s face broke into a broad smile. “Excellent,” he said. “Excellent. I’ll offer just one correction: we haven’t succeeded as well as we have despite ignoring the economic advice of the World Bank and so forth. We’ve done so precisely because we’ve ignored their advice.”
I gave him a long wary look, but his smile didn’t waver.
“Mr. Carr,” Melanie Berger said then, “Since the end of the embargo we’ve been approached four times by the World Bank and the IMF. I’ve been involved in the discussions that followed. Each time, their economists have made long speeches about how the way we do things is hopelessly inefficient, and how we’ve got to follow their advice and become more efficient. Each time, I’ve asked them to answer a simple question: ‘more efficient for what output in terms of what input?’ Not one of them has ever been able, or willing, to give me a straight answer.”
“I had a lecture on that subject yesterday from a bank officer,” I told her.
Her eyebrows went up, and then she smiled. “Not surprising. It’s something most people here know about, if they know anything at all about money.”
I nodded, taking that in. “So what you’re suggesting,” I said, as much to Meeker as to her, “is that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about economics.”
“Not quite,” said the President. “It’s just that our history has forced us to look at things in a somewhat different light, and prioritize different things.”
It was a graceful answer, and I nodded. “The question that comes to mind at this point,” he went on, “is whether there’s anything else you’d like to see, now that you know a little more about our republic.”
“As it happens, yes,” I said. “There is.”
He motioned me to go on.
“When I drew up the list we sent to your people right after the election, I didn’t know about the tier system, and I’ve got some serious questions about what things are like at the bottom rung of that ladder. I’ve read a little bit about the system, but I’m frankly skeptical that anybody in this day and age would voluntarily choose to live in the conditions of 1830.”
“That’s actually a common misconception,” Jaya Patel said, with the same you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen more than once since my arrival. “The only thing the tier system determines is what infrastructure and services gets paid for out of tax revenues.”
“I saw a fair number of horsedrawn wagons on the train ride here,” I pointed out. “That’s not a matter of infrastructure.”
“Actually, it is,” she said. “Without a road system built to stand up to auto traffic, cars and trucks aren’t as efficient as wagons—” Her smile suddenly broadened. “—in terms of the total cost of haulage. That doesn’t keep people in tier one counties from having whatever personal technologies they want to have, and are willing and able to pay for.”
“Got it,” I said. “I’d still like to see how it works out in practice.”
“That’s easy enough,” the President said. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” I said, “though I know this may be further than you’re willing to go. I’d like to see something of your military.”
The room got very quiet. “I’d be interested,” Meeker said, “in knowing why.”
I nodded. “It seems to me that whatever you’ve achieved by this retro policy of yours comes at the cost of some frightful vulnerabilities. Ms. Berger told me a little about the war with the Confederacy and Brazil, and of course I knew a certain amount about that in advance. Obviously you won that round—but we both know that the Confederacy wasn’t in the best of shape in ‘49, and I really wonder about your ability to stand up to a modern high-tech military.”
“Like the Atlantic Republic’s?” Meeker asked, with a raised eyebrow.
I responded with a derisive snort. “With all due respect, I’m sure you know better than that. I’m thinking about what would happen if we ended up with a war zone or a failed state on our western borders.”
“Fair enough,” he said after a moment, “and I think we can satisfy you about that.”
“I’d like to suggest something,” Berger said to the President. “Defiance County is first tier.”
He glanced at her. “You’re thinking Hicksville?”
“We’ll have to find someone.”
“Tom Pappas comes to mind,” she said.
The President’s face took on a slightly glazed expression, and then he laughed. “Yes, I think Tom will do. Thank you, Melanie.” He turned to me. “Have you made any plans for tomorrow?”
“Not yet.”
“Good. The day after tomorror, there’s a—military exercise, I think you would call it—in a first tier county a couple of hours from here by train. If you’re willing, I can have my staff make the arrangements for you to go there tomorrow, have a look around, stay the night, see how our military does things the next day, and then come back. Is that workable?”
“I’d welcome that,” I told him, wondering what I’d just gotten myself into.

Retrotopia: Inflows and Outputs

Wed, 2015-11-04 16:55
This is the eighth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits a city power plant that runs on an unexpected fuel source and a stock market subject to even less familiar rules...
 ***********By the time Michael Finch and I left the streetcar plant it was pushing eleven. “Where next?” I asked.
“We’re about four blocks from one of the municipal power plants,” the intern said. “I called ahead and arranged for a tour—that’ll take about an hour, and should still give us plenty of time for lunch. Ms. Berger said you’d  want a look at our electrical infrastructure.”
I nodded. “ Please. Electricity’s an ongoing problem back home.”
“It hasn’t always been that easy here, either,” Finch admitted. “Would you like to take a cab, or—”
“Four blocks? No, that’s walking distance.” From his expression, I gathered that wasn’t always the case with visitors from outside, but he brightened and led the way east toward the Maumee River. North of us I could see bridges arching across the river, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol rising up white above the brown and gray rooftops.
The power plant was another big brick building like the streetcar factory, and I looked in vain for smokestacks. Finch led me in through the office entrance, a double door in an ornate archway, and introduced us to the receptionist inside. A few moments later we were shown into the office of the plant manager, a stocky brown-skinned man with gray hair who came over to shake my hand.
“Jim Singletary,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. I don’t imagine you have anything like our facility over in the Atlantic Republic, so if there’s anything you want to know, just ask, okay?”
I assured him I would, and he led us out of the office. The corridor outside went straight back into the heart of the plant; at its far end, we went through a door onto a glassed-in balcony overlooking a big open room where six massive and complex machines rose up from a concrete floor.
“Down on the floor, you couldn’t hear a thing but the turbines,” he said. “That’s the business end of the plant—six combined cycle gas turbines driving our generators. We get almost sixty per cent efficiency in terms of electrical generation, more than that when you factor in the heat recycling to the facility. You know how a combined cycle turbine works?”
“More or less—you put the gases from the turbine through a heat exchanger, and use that to run a steam turbine off the leftover heat, don’t you?”
“Exactly. What comes out of the heat exchangers runs around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than enough to do something with. Here, a lot of it goes to heat the fermentation tanks.”
I wondered what he meant by that, but it didn’t take long to find out. Singletary led us along the balcony to another set of doors, and through them into another glassed-in balcony overlooking a double row of what looked a little like the top ends of a row of gargantuan pressure cookers.
“The fermentation tanks,” he said. “Feedstock goes in, methane and slurry come out. At any given time, eighteen tanks are in operation and the other six are being loaded or unloaded. This way, please.”
The balcony ended at another door, and a corridor led to the left. At its end was a balcony, this time open to the outside air. Below was the Maumee River, and a line of big blocky riverboats tied up along a quay. The one closest to us was having something unloaded from it through a big pipe.
“And there’s the feedstock that makes the whole thing work,” said Singletary. “I don’t recommend going down to the quayside—it’s pretty ripe.”
“What’s the feedstock?” I asked, even though I’d begun to guess the answer.
“Manure,” he said. “Cow, horse, sheep, human—you name it. We buy manure from an eight county region to supplement what gets produced here in Toledo.” I gave him a startled look, and he grinned. “Yep. If you’ve used the toilet since you got here, you’ve contributed to Toledo’s electricity supply.”
I laughed, and he went on. “We use a three-stage fermentation process to extract nearly seventy per cent of the carbon from the feedstock while the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium stay in the sludge. By the time it’s finished in the tanks it’s sterile enough you could rub it on an open wound. We use heat output from the turbines to dry it, and ship it back to farmers as fertilizer. So everyone’s happy.”
We went back to his office and I got a rundown on the economics of the plant. “How close do you get to breaking even, between feedstock costs and fertilizer sales?” I asked.
“Not as close as I’d like,” Singletary admitted. “Ever since the Maumee and Ohio canal got reopened, the farmers south of us can sell their feedstock to Dayton or Springfield—Lima’s tier three so it’s not in the market. North of us we’ve got Detroit and Ann Arbor to bid against; east there’s Cleveland, and the canal system west of the Maumee is still being rebuilt, so that’s out of the picture at the moment.”
“You depend on canals that much?”
“We can’t afford not to. Back in the early days, we used to ship in some feedstock by rail, but the costs are just too high these days. For any kind of bulk cargo, if you don’t have to worry about speed, canal shipping’s really the way to go.”
I asked a few more questions, and then we all shook hands and Finch and I headed out into the crisp fall air. “Interested in lunch?” he asked me; we discussed restaurants while waiting for the streetcar, and then rode it north into downtown. A bar and grill around the corner from the streetcar stop where we got off served up a very passable BLT sandwich, and then we wove our way through crowded sidewalks to the big stone building that housed the Toledo Stock Market.
“Vinny Patzek,” said the young man with black slicked-back hair who greeted us in a crowded office not far from the trading floor. “Pleased to meet you.” He had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, and looked like he spent a lot of his time running flat out from one corner of the building to another. “Any chance you know something about stock markets, Mr. Carr?”
“Actually, yes—I did two years on the NYSE floor before they moved it to Albany,” I said.
His face lit up. “Sweet. Okay, this is gonna be a lot less confusing to you than it is to most of the people we see here from outside. It’s not quite the same as what you’re used to, but the differences are mostly the technology, not the underlying setup. Come on.”
“I’ll leave you with Mr. Patzek for now,” Finch told me. “I promised Ms. Berger I’d check in after lunch and see how things are going at the Capitol.”
“Fair enough,” I said, and he left through one door while Patzek herded me out through another, down a corridor, and onto the trading floor of the stock exchange.
All things considered, it wasn’t much quieter than the turbine room of the power plant, but since I’d worked on a trading floor the noise and bustle actually meant something to me. There was a reader board, a big one, covering most of the far wall; it was mechanical, not digital, and flipped black or eye-burning yellow in little rectangular patches to spell out the latest prices. There were trading posts scattered across the floor, where specialists handled the buying and selling of shares. There were floor traders and floor brokers, enough of them to make the floor look crowded, and the featureless roar  made up of hundreds of voices shouting bids and offers.
“You probably still use computers in New York, right?” Patzek said in something that wasn’t quite a yell. “Here it’s all old-fashioned open outcry, with the same kind of hand signals you’d see in the Chi-town commodity pits. Lemme show you. All we need is an order.”
“I’ll take one share of Mikkelson Manufacturing,” I said.
He grinned. “You’re on.”
“You get a lot of small orders like that?”
“All the time. You get little old ladies, working guys, you name it, who save up the cash to buy a share or two once a month, that sort of thing, and come on down here to buy it in person.” He looked up at the reader board. “Mikkelson’s MIK—see it? Seventy-two even a share. Let’s go.”
We plunged into the crowd, and I managed to follow Patzek through the middle of it to one of the trading posts, where the traders and brokers looked even busier than they were elsewhere on the floor. Right in the middle of it, the yelling was loud enough I couldn’t make out a single word, just Patzek gesturing with a closed hand and then a raised index finger and shouting something that didn’t sound much like Mikkelson Industries. It only took about a minute, though, for the market to do what markets are supposed to do, and Patzek came out of the scrum with a big grin and an order written up on a pad of paper he’d extracted from one of his vest pockets.
“We’re good,” he said. “Seventy-two and a quarter—it’s pretty lively. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t hit seventy-five by closing. Let’s settle up back at the office; they’ll be sending the certificate there.”
We went back the way we’d came. The office, busy as it was, seemed almost unnervingly quiet after the roar of the trading floor. “So that’s how it’s done,” said Patzek. “A little different, I bet.”
“Not as much as it used to be,” I said. “When I first got on the NYSE floor, there were only a couple of dozen floor traders left, and it was as quiet as a library most days. With the satellite situation and some of the other problems lately, a lot of brokerages are putting trades back on the floor again. But of course it’s still done with handheld computers, not the sort of thing you’ve got in there.”
Patzek nodded. “The way I heard it, there were handhelds on the floor in the early days after Partition, but the first time the outside tried regime change here they hacked the system and crashed it, and the exchange just let it drop. Computers are just too easy to hack. Floor traders? Not so much.”
“I bet,” I said, laughing.
I wrote a check for the price of the share, then, and filled out a couple of forms covering my side of the transaction. When I got to the form for dividend payouts, though, I looked up at Patzek. “I’ll have to make some arrangements back home before I can finish this.” He nodded, and I went on. “What kind of dividends does Mikkelson pay these days?”
“Five, maybe six percent a year. Not bad, especially since it’s tax free.”
That startled me. “Mikkelson, or dividends in general?”
“Dividends in general. They count as earned income, like wages, salaries, royalties, that sort of thing. Most other investments, you’re gonna pay tax, and if you sell that share and make a profit on it, that’s speculative income and you’re gonna get whacked.”
“So earned income is tax free, but investment income isn’t.”
“Yeah—again, except for dividends.”
I remembered what Elaine Chu had said about taxes back at the Mikkelson plant. “So you tax what you want to discourage, not what you want to encourage.”
“Heck if I know,” said Patzek. “You’ll have to ask the politicians about that.”
A moment later a messenger came in through the door we’d used, plopped a manila folder on one of the desks, and ducked back out. Half a dozen people converged on the folder; Patzek waited his turn, and came back with a sheet of stiff paper printed in ornate script.
“Here you go,” he said. “One share of Mikkelson Manufacturing. Congratulations—you’re now a limited partner with Janice Mikkelson.”
I gave him a startled look, then glanced at the certificate. I’d read about printed stock certificates, but never actually handled one, so it took me a moment to sort through the fancy printing and read the line that mattered. Sure enough, it read MIKKELSON MANUFACTURING LLP.
“Limited liability partnership,” I guessed. “So it’s not a corporation?”
“Nah, it’s a little different here. Back in the day—and we’re talking before the First Civil War, forget about the Second—corporations had to be chartered by the legislature, for some fixed number of years, and only for some kind of public benefit, not just because somebody wanted to make a few bucks. After all the problems the old Union had with corporations claiming to be people and all that, we up and drew a line under that, and went back to the original laws. Here, if a business wants to sell stock, it becomes a limited liability partnership. The limited partners are only on the hook to the value of their stock holdings, but the managing partner or partners—their butts are on the line. If Mikkelson Manufacturing ever goes bust, Mikkelson can kiss her mansion goodbye, and if the company breaks the law, she’s the one who goes to jail.”
I took that in. “Does that actually happen?”
“Not so much any more. Back when I was a kid, there were some really juicy cases, and yeah, some really rich people lost their shirts and landed behind bars. These days, you’re in business, you watch the laws as closely as you watch the bottom line—there’s too many people in politics who’d be happy to buy their constituents a new streetcar line with the proceeds from a court case.”
That didn’t sound much like the politics I was used to back home. I was still processing it when the other door came open and Michael Finch came in. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “I just talked to Ms. Berger. They got everything settled around lunchtime. If you’re ready, the President will be happy to see you this afternoon.”
I glanced at Patzek who grinned and made a scooting motion with one hand. We shook hands and said the usual, and I followed Finch out the door.
***********************Those of my readers who are fans of deindustrial fiction will be interested to hear that Founders House, the publisher of my novel Star’s Reach and the four After Oil anthologies, has a new peak oil SF novel just out, Dark Peak by George R Fehling. It’s a crisp and highly readable thriller set a generation or two after industrial civilization unravels—worth a look.
More generally, interest in deindustrial SF seems to be picking up; those of us who have been writing and reading fiction along those lines for a while may just have gotten in on the ground floor of a new genre. In a conversation a little while back with Founders House veep Shaun Kilgore, he mentioned that his firm has decided to branch out into Young Adult fiction with a deindustrial slant. Any of my readers who are interested in writing something along these lines should contact Founders House via their submissions page.
Along similar lines, I’m pleased to report that my tentative suggestion of an anthology of original short stories set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach is on its way to reality—or, more precisely, will make that transition with your help. I’ve set up a new website,, to coordinate the project and help writers work out the details of their stories. I’d encourage everyone who’s contributed stories to the three Space Bats Challenges hosted by this blog to check it out, and consider contributing to the anthology.

The Patience of the Sea

Wed, 2015-10-28 18:39
I've commented here more than once that these essays draw their inspiration from quite a variety of sources. This week’s post is no exception to that rule. What kickstarted the train of thought that brought it into being was a walk along the seashore last weekend at Ocean City, Maryland, watching the waves roll in and thinking about the imminent death of a good friend.
East coast ocean resorts aren’t exactly a common destination for vacations in October, but then I wasn’t there for a vacation. I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason; it so happens that three organizations that supervise certain of the higher degrees of Masonry in Maryland took advantage of cheap off-season hotel rates to hold their annual meetings in Ocean City last weekend. Those readers who like to think of Masonry as a vast conspiracy of devil-worshipping space lizards, or whatever the Masonophobic paranoia du jour happens to be these days, would have been heartily disappointed by the weekend’s proceedings: a few dozen guys in off-the-rack business suits or cheap tuxedos, most of them small businessmen, skilled tradesmen, or retirees, donning the ornate regalia of an earlier time and discussing such exotic and conspiratorial topics as liability insurance for local lodges.
That said, a very modest sort of history was made at this year’s session of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Maryland—as the name suggests, that’s the outfit that supervises the local bodies that confer the degrees of Royal Master and Select Master on qualified Master Masons in this state. More precisely, it’s one of two such bodies in Maryland. Back in the eighteenth century, Masonry in the United States split into two segregated branches, one for white and Native American Masons, the other for African-American Masons. Late in the twentieth century, as most other segregated institutions in American life dropped the color bar, the two branches of Masonry began a rapprochement as well.
Merger was never an option, and not for the reason you’re thinking.  Both branches of Masonry in the US are proud organizations with their own traditions and customs, not to mention a deeply ingrained habit of prickly independence, and neither was interested in surrendering its own heritage, identity, and autonomy in a merger. Thus what happened was simply that both sides opened their doors to men of any skin color or ethnic background, formally recognized each other’s validity, and worked out the details involved in welcoming each other’s initiates as visiting brethren. Masonry being what it is, all this proceeded at a glacial pace, and since each state Grand Lodge makes its own rules, the glaciers moved at different speeds in different parts of the country.
A couple of years ago, the first time I was qualified to attend the state sessions of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, I voted on the final stage in the movement of one particular glacierette, the establishment of full recognition and visitation between the two Maryland Grand Councils. My vote didn’t greatly matter, all things considered—the resolution was approved unanimously—but I was still happy to be able to cast it. I was equally happy, at this year’s grand sessions, to see the Most Illustrious Grand Master of the historically African-American Grand Council welcomed to the other Grand Council’s meeting with the traditional honors, invited to the East to address the brethren, and given a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Of such small steps is history composed.
When somebody gets around to writing the definitive account of how the two branches of US Masonry healed the old division, this weekend’s session will merit something between a footnote and a sentence if it gets mentioned at all. I seriously doubt the historian will even notice that one of the attendees came a day early, stayed a day late, enjoyed the quiet pleasures that an uncluttered seashore and a half-empty resort town have to offer, and figured out a detail or two about the trajectory of industrial civilization while walking along the beach on a cloudy afternoon, as a stiff breeze blew spray off the long gray rollers coming in from the North Atlantic.
All in all, it was a propitious place for such reflections. America just now, after all, has more than a little in common with an October day in Ocean City. Look around at the gaudy attractions that used to attract so much attention from adoring crowds, and you’ll see many of the same things I saw along the boardwalk that day. The space program? It’s boarded up for the duration like any other amusement park in the off season, though the plywood’s plastered with equally garish posters announcing coming attractions off somewhere in the indefinite future. The American Dream? The lights are shining on the upper floors and big flashing neon signs say “OPEN FOR BUSINESS,” but all the ground floor entrances are padlocked shut and nobody can get in.
The consumer products that fill the same pacifying function in American society as cheap trinkets for the kids at a seaside resort are still for sale here and there, though many of the shops are already closed and shuttered.  The shelves of those that are still open are looking decidedly bare, and what’s left has that oddly mournful quality that shoddy plastic gewgaws always get when they’ve been left on display too long. The one difference that stands out is that Ocean City in late October is mostly deserted, while the crowds are still here in today’s America, milling around aimlessly in front of locked doors and lightless windows, while the sky darkens with oncoming weather and the sea murmurs and waits.
But that wasn’t the thing that sparked this week’s reflections. The thing that sparked this week’s reflections was a stray question that came to mind when I abandoned the boardwalk to the handful of visitors who were strolling along it, and crossed the sand to the edge of the surf, thinking as I walked about the friend I mentioned earlier, who was lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the continent while his body slowly and implacably shut down. The boardwalk, the tourist attractions, and the hulking Babylonian glass-and-concrete masses of big hotels and condominiums stood on one side of me, while on the other, the cold gray sea surged and splashed and the terns danced past on the wind. The question in my mind was this: in a thousand years, which of these things will still be around?
That’s a surprisingly edgy question these days, and to make sense of that, I’d like to jump to the seemingly unrelated subject of an article that appeared a little while ago in the glossy environmental magazine Orion.
The article was titled “Peak Oil Fantasy,” and it was written by Charles Mann, who made a modest splash a little while back with a couple of mildly controversial popular histories of the New World before and after Europeans got there. Those of my readers who have been keeping track of the mainstream media’s ongoing denunciations of peak oil will find it wearily familiar. It brandished the usual set of carefully cherrypicked predictions about the future of petroleum production that didn’t happen to pan out, claimed on that basis that peak oil can’t happen at all because it hasn’t happened yet, leapt from there to the insistence that our very finite planet must somehow contain a limitless amount of petroleum, and wound up blustering that everybody ought to get with the program, “cast away the narrative of scarcity,” and just shut up about peak oil.
Mann’s article was a little more disingenuous than the run of the mill anti-peak-oil rant—it takes a certain amount of nerve to talk at length about M. King Hubbert, for example, without once mentioning the fact that he successfully predicted the peaking of US petroleum production in 1970, using the same equations that successfully predicted the peaking of world conventional petroleum production in 2005 and are being used to track the rise and fall of shale oil and other unconventional oil sources right now. Other than that, there’s nothing novel about “Peak Oil Fantasy,” as all but identical articles using the same talking points and rhetoric have appeared regularly for years now in The Wall Street Journal and other pro-industry, pave-the-planet publications. The only oddity is that a screed of this overfamiliar kind found its way into a magazine that claims to be all about environmental protection.
Even that isn’t as novel as I would wish. Ever since The Archdruid Report began publication, just short of a decade ago, I’ve been fielding emails and letters, by turns spluttering, coaxing, and patronizing, urging me to stop talking about peak oil, the limits to growth, and the ongoing decline and approaching fall of industrial society, and start talking instead about climate change, overpopulation, capitalism, or what have you. No few of these have come from people who call themselves environmentalists, and tolerably often they reference this or that environmental issue in trying to make their case.
The interesting thing about this ongoing stream of commentary is that I’ve actually discussed climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism at some length in these essays. When I point this out, I tend to get either a great deal of hemming and hawing, or the kind of sudden silence that lets you hear the surf from miles away. Clearly what I have to say about climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism isn’t what these readers are looking for, and just as clearly they’re not comfortable talking about the reasons why what I have to say isn’t what they’re looking for.
What interests me is that in the case of climate change, at least, there are aspects of that phenomenon that get the same response. If you ever want to reduce a room full of affluent liberal climate change activists to uncomfortable silence, for example, mention that the southern half of the state of Florida is going to turn into uninhabitable salt marsh in the next few decades no matter what anybody does. You can get the same response if you mention that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is so far advanced at this point that no human action can stop the drowning of every coastal city on the planet—and don’t you dare mention the extensive and growing body of research that shows that the collapse of  major ice sheets doesn’t happen at a rate of a few inches of sea level rise per century, but includes sudden “marine transgressions” of many feet at a time instead.
This discomfort is all the more interesting because these same things were being loudly predicted not much more than a decade ago by affluent liberal climate change activists. As long as they were threats located off somewhere in the indefinite future, they were eagerly used as verbal ammunition, but each of them vanished from the rhetoric as soon as it stopped being a threat and turned into a reality. I noted in an essay some years back the way that methane boiling out of the Arctic Ocean, which was described in ghoulish detail over and over again as the climate change über-threat, suddenly got dropped like a anthropogenically heated rock by climate change activists the moment it began to happen.
It’s still happening. As Arctic temperatures soar, rivers of meltwater are sluicing across the Greenland ice cap and cascading into the surrounding oceans, and the ice cap itself, in the words of one climate scientist cited in the article just linked, is as full of holes as Swiss cheese due to meltwater streaming through its innards. While climate change activists insist ever more loudly that we can still fix everything if only the right things happen in the next five years—okay, ten—well, make that fifteen—the cold gray seas off Greenland aren’t listening. The only voices that matter to them come from the roar of waterfalls off the waning ice cap, the hiss of methane bubbles rising from the shallows, and the hushed whispers of temperature and salinity in the dark waters below.
Glaciologists and marine hydrologists know this, and so do a significant number of climate scientists. It’s the would-be mass movement around climate change that has done its level best to pretend that the only irreversible tipping points are still somewhere in the future. They’re not alone in that; for a good many decades now, the entire environmental movement has been stuck in a broken-record rut, saying over and over again that we still have five years to fix the biosphere. Those of my readers who doubt this might want to pick up the twenty-year and thirty-year updates to The Limits to Growth and compare what they have to say about how long the world has to stave off catastrophe.
That is to say, the environmental movement these days has become a prisoner of the same delusion of human omnipotence that shapes so much of contemporary culture.
That’s the context in which Charles Mann’s denunciation of the peak oil heresy needs to be taken. To be acceptable in today’s mainstream environmental scene, a cause has to be stated in terms that feed the fantasy just named. Climate change is a perfect fit, since it starts from an affirmation of human power—“Look at us! We’re so almighty that we can wreck the climate of the whole planet!” —and goes on to insist that all we have to do is turn our limitless might to fixing the climate instead. The campaigns to save this or that species of big cute animal draw their force from the same emotions—“We’re so powerful that we can wipe out the elephants, but let’s keep some around for our own greater glory!” Here again, though, once some bit of ecological damagecan no longer be fixed, everyone finds something else to talk about, because that data point doesn’t feed the same fantasy.
Peak oil is unacceptable to the environmental establishment, in turn, because there’s no way to spin it as a story of human omnipotence. If you understand what the peak oil narrative is saying, you realize that the power we human beings currently claim to have isn’t actually ours; we simply stole the carbon the planet had stashed in its underground cookie jar and used it to go on a three-century-long joyride, which is almost over. The “narrative of scarcity” Mann denounced so heatedly is, after all, the simple reality of life on a finite planet.  We had the leisure to pretend otherwise for a very brief interval, and now that interval is coming to an end. There’s no melodrama in that, no opportunity for striking grand poses on which our own admiring gaze can rest, just the awkward reality of coming to terms with the fact that we’ve made many stupid decisions and now have to deal with the consequences thereof.
This is why the one alternative to saving the world that everyone in the mainstream environmental scene is willing to talk about is the prospect of imminent universal dieoff.  Near-term human extinction, the apocalypse du jour ever since December 21, 2012 passed by without incident, takes its popularity from the same fantasy of omnipotence—if we human beings are the biggest and baddest thing in the cosmos, after all, what’s the ultimate display of our power? Why, destroying ourselves, of course!
There’s a bubbling cauldron of unspoken motives behind the widespread popularity of this delusion of omnipotence, but I suspect that a large part of it comes from an unsuspected source. The generations that came of age after the Second World War faced, from their earliest days, a profoundly unsettling experience that very few of their elders ever had, and then usually in adulthood. In place of comfortable religious narratives that placed the origin of the universe a short time in the past, and its end an even shorter time in the future, they grew up with what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould usefully termed “deep time”—the vision of a past and a future on time scales the human mind has never evolved the capacity to grasp, in which all of human history is less than an eyeblink, and you and I, dear reader, no matter what we do, won’t even merit the smallest of footnotes in the story of life on this planet.
Growing up on the heels of the baby boom, I experienced all this myself. I read the Life Nature Library about as soon as I could read anything at all; by age six or so I had my favorite dinosaurs, and a little later on succumbed to the beauty of trilobites and the vast slow dances of geology.  By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power. The gospel of “you can have whatever you desire” that Barbara Ehrenreich anatomized so pitilessly in her book Bright-Sided found no answering chord in my psyche, and so it never bothered me in the least to think that a hundred million years from now, some intelligent critter of a species not yet spawned might gaze in delight at my fossilized skull, and rub its mandibles together to produce some equivalent of “Ooh, look at that!”
I’m far from the only one these days who sees the unhuman vastness of nature as something to celebrate, rather than something to fear and, at least in imagination, to try to overcome through overblown fantasies of human importance. Still, it’s a minority view as yet, and to judge by the points made earlier in this essay, it seems underrepresented in the mainstream of today’s environmental movement. The fixation on narratives that assign the sole active role to humanity and a purely passive role to nature is, I’ve come to think, a reaction to the collision between two potent cultural forces in contemporary life—the widely promulgated fantasy of infinite entitlement, on the one hand, and on the other, the dawning recognition of our species’ really quite modest, and very sharply limited, place in the scheme of things.
The conflict between these factors is becoming increasingly hard to avoid, and drives increasingly erratic behaviors, as the years pass. The first and largest generation to follow the Second World War in the developed world is nearing the one limit that affects each of us most personally. Thus it’s probably not an accident that 2030—the currently fashionable date by which humans are all supposed to be extinct—is right around the date when the average baby boomer’s statistical lifespan will run out. To my mind, the attempt to avoid that face-first encounter with limits does a lot to explain why so many boomers bailed into evangelical Protestant fundamentalism in the 1980s, with its promise that Christ would show up any day now and spare them the necessity of dying. It explains equally well why the 2012 hysteria, which made similar claims, attracted so much wasted breath in its day—and why so few people these days are able to come to terms with the reality of scarcity, of limits, and of the end of the industrial age and all its wildly overblown fantasies of self-importance.
The friend of mine who was dying as I walked the Ocean City beach last weekend was born in 1949, in the midst of the baby boom, but somehow he managed to avoid those antics and the obsessions that drove them. As a Druid among other things—he was one of the very few people I’ve known well who received more initiations than I have—he understood that death is not the opposite of life but the completion of it. When he collapsed at work a few weeks ago and was rushed to the hospital, his friends and fellow initiates in the Puget Sound area took up a steady vigil at his bedside, and kept those of us out of the region informed. The appropriate ceremonies prepared him for his passing, and another set of ceremonies are helping the living cope with his departure.
A thousand years from now, in all probability, nobody will remember how Corby Ingold lived and died, any more than they will remember the 2015 annual sessions of the Maryland Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, or this blog, or its author. A thousand years from now, for that matter, fossil fuels will be a dim memory, and so will the Greenland ice cap, the Florida peninsula, and a great deal more. It’s just possible, though very unlikely, that human beings will be among those dim memories—we rank with cockroaches and rats among Nature’s supreme generalists, and like them are remarkably hard to exterminate. Whether or not human beings are there to witness it, though, waves like the ones that rolled onto the beach at Ocean City will be rolling over the sunken ruins of Ocean City hotels, just as they rolled above the mudflats where trilobites scurried six hundred million years ago, and as they will roll onto whatever shores rise up when the continents we now inhabit have long since vanished forever.
The sea is patient.  It has outlived countless species and will outlive countless more, ours among them. Among the things it might be able to teach us, on the off chance that we’re willing to learn, is that the life of a species, like that of an individual, is completed by death, not erased by it, and that its value is measured by the beauty and wisdom it experiences and creates, not by the crasser measurements of brute force and brute endurance.

Retrotopia: A Question of Subsidies

Wed, 2015-10-21 17:00
This is the seventh installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits a streetcar factory, asks some hard questions about the use of human labor in place of machines, and gets some answers he doesn’t expect...
***********The phone rang at 8 am sharp, a shrill mechanical sound that made me wonder if there was actually a bell inside the thing. I put down the Toledo Blade and got it on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Mr. Carr? This is Melanie Berger. I’ve got—well, not exactly good news, but it could be worse.”
I laughed. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s up?”
“We’ve managed to get everyone to sit down and work out a compromise, but the President’s got to be involved in that. With any luck this whole business will be out of the way by this afternoon, and he’ll be able to meet with you this evening, if that’s acceptable.”
“That’ll be fine,” I said.
“Good. In the meantime, we thought you might want to make some of the visits we discussed with your boss earlier. If that works for you—”
“It does.”
“Can you handle being shown around by an intern? He’s a bit of a wooly lamb, but well-informed.” I indicated that that would be fine, and she went on. “His name’s Michael Finch. I can have him meet you at the Capitol Hotel lobby whenever you like.”
“Would half an hour from now be too soon?”
“Not at all. I’ll let him know.”
We said the usual polite things, and I hung up. Twenty-five minutes later I was down in the lobby, and right on time a young man in a trenchcoat and a fedora came through the doors. I could see why Berger had called him a wooly lamb; he had blond curly hair and the kind of permanently startled expression you find most often in interns, ingenues, and axe murderers. He looked around blankly even though I was standing in plain sight.
“Mr. Finch?” I said, crossing the lobby toward him. “I’m Peter Carr.”
His expression went even more startled than usual for a moment, and then he grinned. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Carr.  You surprised me—I was expecting to see someone dressed in that plastic stuff.”
“I’m not fond of being stared at,” I said with a shrug.
He nodded, as though that explained everything. “Ms. Berger told me you wanted to visit some of our industrial plants and the Toledo stock market. Unless you have something already lined up, we can head down to the Mikkelson factory first and go from there. We could take a cab if you like, or just catch the streetcar—the Green line goes within a block of the plant. Whatever you like.”
I considered that, decided that a good close look at Lakeland public transit was in order. “Let’s catch the streetcar.”
“Sure thing.”
We left the lobby, and I followed Finch’s lead along the sidewalk to the right. The morning was crisp and bright, with an edge of frost, and plenty of people were walking to work. A fair number of horsedrawn cabs rolled by, along with a very few automobiles. I thought about that as we walked. Toledo’s tier had a base date of 1950, or so the barber told me the day before, but I didn’t think that cars were anything like so scarce on American streets in that year.
We turned right and came to the streetcar stop, where a dozen people were already waiting. I turned to Finch. “The Mikkelson factory. What do they make?”
For answer he pointed up the street. Two blocks up,  the front end of a streetcar was coming into sight as it rounded the corner. “Rolling stock for streetcar lines. We’ve got three big streetcar manufacturers in the Republic, but Mikkelson’s the biggest. The Toledo system runs their cars exclusively.”
The streetcar finished the turn, sped up, and rolled to a stop in front of us. Strictly speaking, I suppose I should say “streetcars,” since there were four cars linked together, all of them painted forest green and yellow with brass trim. We lined up with the others, climbed aboard when our turn came, and Finch pushed a couple of bills down into the fare box and got a couple of paper slips—“day passes,” he explained—from the conductor. There were still seats available, and I settled into the window seat as the conductor rang a bell, ding-di-ding-di-ding, and the streetcar hummed into motion.
It was an interesting ride, in an odd way. I travel a lot, like most people in my line of work, and I’ve ridden top-of-the-line automated light rail systems in New Beijing and Brasilia. I could tell at a glance that the streetcar I was on cost a small fraction of the money that went into those high-end systems, but the ride was just as comfortable and nearly as fast. There were two employees of the streetcar system on board, a driver and a conductor, and I wondered how much of the labor cost was offset by the lower price of the hardware.
The streetscape rolled past. We got out of the retail district near my hotel and into a residential district, with a mix of apartment buildings and row houses and a scattering of other buildings: an elementary school with a playground outside, a public library, two churches, a couple of other religious buildings of various kinds, and then a big square building with a symbol above the door I recognized at once. I turned to Finch. “I wondered whether there were Atheist Assemblies here.”
“Oh, yes. Are you an Atheist, Mr. Carr?”
I didn’t see any reason to temporize. “Yes.”
“Wonderful! So am I. If you’re free this coming Sunday, you’d be more than welcome at the Capitol Assembly—that’s this one here.” He motioned at the building we were passing.
“I’ll certainly consider it,” I said, and he beamed.
By the time we got to the factory the streetcar was crammed to the bursting point, mostly with people who looked like office staff, and the sidewalks were full of men and women heading toward the factory gates for the day shift. We got off with almost everyone else, and I followed Finch down another sidewalk to the front entrance of the business office, a sturdy-looking two-story structure with MIKKELSON MANUFACTURING in big letters above the second story windows and in gold paint on the glass of the front door.
The receptionist was already on duty, and picked up a telephone to announce us. A few minutes later a middle-aged woman in a dark suit came out to shake our hands. “Mr. Carr, pleased to meet you. I’m Elaine Chu. So you’d like to see our factory?”
A few minutes later we’d exchanged our hats, coats and jackets for safety helmets and loose coveralls of tough gray cloth. “Just under half the streetcars manufactured in the Lakeland Republic are made right here,” Chu explained as we walked down a long corridor. “We’ve also got plants in Louisville and Rockford, but those supply the railroad industry—Rockford makes locomotives and Louisville’s our plant for rolling stock. Every Mikkelson streetcar comes from this plant.”
We passed through double doors onto the shop floor. I was expecting a roar of machine noise, but there weren’t a lot of machines, just workers in the same gray coveralls we were wearing, picking up what looked like hand tools and getting to work. There were streetcar tracks running down the middle of the shop floor, and I watched as a team of workers bolted two wheels, an axle, and a gear together and sent it rolling down the track to the next team. Metal parts clanged and clattered, voices echoed off the metal girders that held up the roof, and now and then some part got pulled from the line and chucked into a big cart on its own set of tracks.
“Quality control,” Chu said. “Each team checks each part or assembly as it comes down the line, and anything that’s not up to spec gets pulled and either disassembled or recycled. That’s one of the reasons we have so large a share of the market. Our streetcars average twenty per cent less downtime for repairs than anybody else’s.”
We followed the wheel assemblies down the shop floor from the team that assembled them into four-wheel bogies, through the teams that built a chassis with electric motors and wiring atop each pair of bogies, to the point where the body was hauled in on a heavily-built overhead suspension track and bolted onto the chassis. From there we went back up another long corridor to the assembly line that built the bodies. It was all a hum of activity, with dozens of tools I didn’t recognize at all, but every part of it was powered by human muscle and worked by human hands.
I think we’d been there for about two hours when we got to the end of the line, and watched a brand new Mikkelson streetcar get hooked up to overhead power lines, tested one last time, and driven away on tracks to the siding where it would be loaded aboard a train and shipped to its destination—Sault Ste. Marie, Chu explained, which was expanding its streetcar system now that the borders were open and trade with Upper Canada had the local economy booming. “So that’s the line from beginning to end,” she said. “If you’d like to come this way?”
We went back into the business office, shed helmets and coveralls, and proceeded to her office. “I’m sure you have plenty of questions,” she said.
“One in particular,” I replied. “The lack of automation. Nearly everything you do with human labor gets done in other industrial countries by machines. I’m curious as to how that works—economically as well as practically—and whether it’s a matter of government mandates or of something else.”
I gathered from her expression that she was used to the question. “Do you have a background in business, Mr. Carr?”
I nodded, and she went on. “In the Atlantic Republic, if I understand correctly—and please let me know if I’m wrong—when a company spends money to buy machines, those count as assets; that’s how they appear on the books, and there are tax benefits from depreciation and so on. When a company spends the same money to do the same task by hiring employees, they don’t count as assets, and you don’t get any of the same benefits. Is that correct?”
I nodded again.
“On the other hand, if a company hires employees, it has to spend much more than the cost of wages or salaries. It has to pay into the public social security system, public health care, unemployment, and so on and so forth, for each person it hires. If the company buys machines instead, it doesn’t have to pay any of those things for each machine. Nor is there any kind of tax to cover the cost to society of replacing the jobs that went away because of automation, or to pay for any increased generating capacity the electrical grid might need to power the machines, or what have you. Is that also correct?”
“Essentially, yes,” I said.
“So, in other words, the tax codes subsidize automation and penalize employment. You probably were taught in business school that automation is more economical than hiring people. Did anyone mention all the ways that public policy contributes to making one more economical than the other?”
“No,” I admitted. “I suppose you do things differently here.”
“Very much so,” she said with a crisp nod. “To begin with, if we hire somebody to do a job, the only cost to Mikkelson Manufacturing is the wages or salary, and any money we put into training counts as a credit against other taxes, since that helps give society in general a better trained work force. Social security, health care, the rest of it, all of that comes out of other taxes—it’s not funded by penalizing  employers for hiring people.”
“And if you automate?”
“Then the costs really start piling up. First off, there’s a tax on automation to pay the cost to society of coping with an increase in unemployment. Then there’s the cost of machinery, which is considerable, and then there’s the natural-resource taxes—if it comes out of the ground or goes into the air or water, it’s taxed, and not lightly, either. Then there’s the price of energy. Electricity’s not cheap here; the Lakeland Republic has only a modest supply of renewable energy, all things considered, and it hasn’t got any fossil fuels to speak of, so the only kind of energy that’s cheap is the kind that comes from muscles.” She shook her head. “If we tried to automate our assembly line, the additional costs would break us. It’s a competitive business, and the other two big firms would eat us alive.”
“I suppose you can’t just import manufactured products from abroad.”
“No, the natural-resource taxes apply no matter what the point of origin is. You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of cars on the streets here.”
“I did notice that,” I said.
“Fossil fuels here don’t get the government subsidies here they get almost everywhere else, and there’s the natural-resource taxes on top of that, for the fuel that’s burnt and the air that’s polluted. You can have a car if you want one, but you’ll pay plenty for the privilege, and you’ll pay even more for the fuel if you want to drive it.” 
I nodded; it all made a weird sort of sense, especially when I thought back to some of the other things I’d heard earlier. “So nobody’s technology gets a subsidy,” I said.
“Exactly. Here in the Lakeland Republic, we’re short on quite a few resources, but one thing there’s no shortage of is people who are willing to put in an honest day’s work for an honest wage. So we use the resource we’ve got in abundance, rather than becoming dependent on things we don’t have.”
“And would have to import from abroad.”
“Exactly. As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Carr, that involves considerable risks.”
I wondered if she had any idea just how acutely I was aware of those. I put a bland expression on my face and nodded. “So I’ve heard,” I said.

Retrotopia: The Scent of Ink on Paper

Wed, 2015-10-14 18:16
This is the sixth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, roaming the streets of the capitol of the Lakeland Republic, visits a newsstand and a public library, and discovers that information and knowledge are two different things...
***********I swung past my hotel, dropped off the shopping bag with my bioplastic clothes, and went back out onto Toledo’s streets. That makes it sound easier than it was; some kind of event—a wedding reception, I guessed from the decor—was getting started in one of the second floor ballrooms, and the lobby and the sidewalk outside were both crammed with people in formal wear heading in. It took some maneuvering to get through it all, but after not too many minutes I was strolling up an uncrowded sidewalk toward the unfinished white dome of the Capitol.
The Legislative Building back home in Philadelphia doesn’t have a dome. It’s an angular blob of glass and metal, designed by I forget which hotshot European architectural firm, and when it opened twenty-two years ago you could hardly access the metanet at all without being barraged by oohs and ahs about how exciting, innovative, and futuristic it was. You don’t hear much of that any more.  They’ve spent twenty-two years now trying to get the roof to stop leaking and coming up with workarounds for all the innovative features that didn’t turn out to work too well, and the design looks embarrassingly dated these days, the way avant-garde architecture always does a couple of decades down the road. I was curious to see what the Lakeland Republic had done instead.
It took two blocks to get to a place where I had a clear view of the building, and when I did, I wasn’t in for any particular surprise. They’d modeled it on state capitol buildings in the old Union, with a tall white dome in the center above the rotunda and the big formal entrance, with a wing for each house of the legislature on either side. The Lakeland Republic flag—blue above and green below, with a circle of seven gold stars for the seven states that joined together at Partition—fluttered from a flagpole out front. Long rows of windows on each wing showed that there was plenty of room for offices and meeting rooms along with the legislative chambers. The walls were white marble with classical decor, and the peaked roofs to either side of the dome didn’t look as though they were likely to leak much. I thought about what the banker had said about history, and kept going.
Another block brought me to an open storefront with a big gaudy handpainted sign above it yelling KAUFER’S NEWS in big red letters. Down below were more newspapers and magazines—the kind that are printed on paper—than I’d ever seen in one place. I remembered what Melanie Berger had said about newspapers, and decided to check it out.
Inside, magazines lined the three walls and newspapers filled a big island unit in the middle. Signs with bright red lettering on the island unit gave me some guidance: one yelled TOLEDO PAPERS, another LR PAPERS, and a third FOREIGN PAPERS. That narrowed it down a bit, but there were still fifteen different newspapers in the Toledo section.
The proprietor was sitting on a tall stool next to the entrance. She was a scruffy-looking woman in her thirties with blonde hair spilling out from under a floppy cap, wearing an apron with KAUFER’S NEWS printed on it that had seen many better days. By the time I turned toward her, she’d already unfolded herself from the stool and came over. “Can I help you?”
“Please,” I said. “I’m new in town and I don’t know the local papers.”
“No problem.” She pointed to the stacked newspapers. “The Bladeand the Journal are the two dailies—the Blade’s the paper of record, the Journal’s the community paper and a lot more lively. The rest of ‘em are weeklies—neighborhood, ethnic, religious, what have you. The Blade’s a buck twenty-five, the Journal’s seventy-five cents, the others are twenty-five, except for the Wholly Toledo—that’s the arts and nightlife rag and doesn’t cost a thing.”
It’s always amused me that everywhere in the former United States, the basic unit of the local currency is still called a buck—that’s true even in California, where what trade goes on around the edges of the civil war is mostly in Chinese currency when it isn’t just barter. I pulled out a couple of Lakeland bills, and got that day’s Toledo Blade and the latest Wholly Toledo. “Thanks,” I said.
“Sure thing.” She turned to another customer who had a magazine open. “You want to read that, Mac, you gotta buy it. This ain’t the library, you know.”
The other guy looked sheepish, closed the magazine, paid for it and left the newsstand. “Speaking of which,” I said, “how do I get to the library from here?”
“Two blocks that way, hang a left, three blocks straight ahead and you’re there.”
I thanked her again, tipped her one of the quarters she’d given me in change, and left.
The library wasn’t first on my list, though. The Bladehad a couple of articles on the front page I wanted to read. The wind was picking up, so the idea of plopping down on one of the park benches out in front of the Capitol didn’t particularly appeal; the question in my mind was where indoors I could sit down and read the thing. As it happened, I’d gone less than a block when I passed a little hole-in-the-wall café, and in the window seat was an old brown-skinned woman in a heavy wool coat with a cup of coffee in her hand and a copy of the Journal open in front of her. I took the hint, ducked inside, and a couple of minutes later was perched on a slightly rickety chair with a cup of coffee and the front page of the Blade to keep me company.
The lead article was on the political crisis that had blown up that morning. I’d guessed that the paper would have more details than you’d find in the 140-character stories you get from most metanet news sites, and I was right; for that matter, it had more detail than what you saw on the old internet, back in the day.  I’d seen classified briefing papers on political issues that didn’t cover as much ground. By the time I’d finished the first paragraph I knew the basics—the group that was threatening to bolt out of Meeker’s coalition was the Social Alternative party, and the issue was whether lowering the tariff on three industrial metals counted as a government subsidy for technology—but the rest of the story, part of it on the front page and part of it back in the middle of the first section, filled in the details: who was backing the tariff reduction, who was opposing it, what the various arguments were, what the upper house of the legislature and the justices of the Constitutional Court had to say, and so on. By the time I’d finished reading it I had a pretty fair snapshot of the way politics worked in the Republic.
The other article that caught my eye was a follow-up piece on the destruction of the Progresso IV satellite a week before. That was news, and not just for spaceheads, since it was the first satellite to get taken out by orbital junk in a midrange orbit, and it was big enough that its fragments could turn into a real problem for other satellites in that range. The article quoted the head of the Brazilian space agency and an assortment of experts, with opinions ranging from sanguine to sobering. None of the facts were new to me—I’d been following the satellite situation since my first stint in government a dozen years back—but the story put it all into context effortlessly in a page and a half of newsprint, all the way from the first warnings back in the 1970s, through the slow motion Kessler-syndrome disaster that got going in low earth orbit in 2029, to the increasing pace of satellite failures in geosynchronous orbits in the last half dozen years. Since the 2030s, I knew, the midrange orbits had gotten pretty crowded; the last thing anybody needed was a Kessler syndrome there, too.
I got a refill of my coffee, flipped through the rest of the paper. The business section was going to take careful study, I saw that at a glance.  Some of it was pretty straightforward—several counties issuing bonds, commodity prices in the Chicago exchange veering this way and that, and two full pages that looked like ordinary stock market data, except that I didn’t know any of the companies that were listed—but some of it was right out there in left field. The one that stuck in my mind was a corporation that was being wound up: not going bankrupt, being bought, or any of the other ways that corporations die back home, but winding up its affairs, distributing its remaining assets, and closing its doors. I shook my head, kept reading. The sports section seemed pretty much normal, except that I didn’t know any of the teams and there were a lot of them, enough that I wondered whether every middle-sized town in the Lakeland Republic had its very own. The arts and entertainment section in back had everything from concerts to theater listings to a page of radio programs. I nodded, slid the paper into one of the big outside patch pockets of my raincoat, paid my tab and headed out into the fading afternoon light.
The library was easy enough to find. It was a big two-story brick building with arched windows and a wide porch over the entrance, and a couple of cloth banners out front with CAPITOL BRANCH—TOLEDO PUBLIC LIBRARY on them. The lobby was spacious, with a bulletin board full of flyers. To the left, the door was propped open, and I heard a woman’s voice telling some kind of story about a mole and a water rat; a glance upward met the sign saying CHILDREN’S ROOM. I turned right, and went through the door into what I hoped was the adult section.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d guessed right, even though it didn’t look like any library I’d ever seen. Instead of rows of long bare tables studded with keyboards and screens, it had shelves upon shelves upon shelves of printed books, more of them than I think I’d ever seen in one place before. Tables and chairs clustered in the middle of the room, with people sitting bent over books, and over toward the windows were a few sofas and overstuffed chairs with their own contingent of readers. Heavy carpet covered the floor and a historical mural covered the vaulted ceiling, spanning the distance from the native tribes on one end to a half-built Capitol on the other.
I really had no idea what to make of it all. In place of the clatter of keys and the babble of voices that gave the libraries I knew their soundtrack, the room was as hushed as a funeral parlor. I watched one of the patrons go up to the big desk where the librarians stood to ask a question, and the conversation that followed took place in murmurs. Lacking anything better to do, I crossed the room to the shelves of books. There was some kind of numerical code on the spines of the books, which didn’t tell me much of anything, but from the titles I figured out quickly enough that numbers in the low three hundreds, or at least these numbers, had to do with politics. I pulled out a couple of books, glanced at them, and was about to go to another shelf when I spotted a slim volume titled Changing Tiers.
I pulled the book out, opened it, and found that it was exactly what I’d guessed, a guide for Lakelanders who were moving from one county to another at a different tier. I paged through it for a few minutes, decided that I needed to read it, and went looking for a free chair.
I realized pretty quickly that I’d found the book I needed, because it started out with a chapter on the history of the tier system, and that gave me the key to the whole arrangement. During the Second Civil War, the book explained, the states that became the Lakeland Republic got pounded most of the way back to the Stone Age by Federal airstrikes and two years of town-by-town fighting. When Washington finally fell and the fighting ended, nearly every bit of infrastructure in those states—roads, railways, power grids, water and sewer systems, you name it—was in ruins, and once Partition and the beginning of the debt crisis put paid to the last hope of a fast recovery, Lakelanders had to figure out how to rebuild and how to pay for it. The differences of opinion were drastic enough, and funds and other resources short enough, that the provisional government decided to make each county responsible for deciding what kind of infrastructure it wanted, and taxing itself to pay the costs.
From that beginning, over a decade or so of contentious local decisions and gradual rebuilding, the tier system evolved. A second chapter sketched out the legal framework—certain clauses in the constitution and its amendments, two important decisions by the Constitutional Court, and the laws that regulated what counties could and couldn’t do, and what they could and couldn’t enforce. It was all very clear, and I got out my notebook and filled most of four pages with notes. More to the point, I ended up with some sense of the logic of the tier system and the reasons why it made sense to Lakelanders.
By the time I’d finished those two chapters the last daylight was gone and the window in front of me looked out on a night scene lit by streetlamps and occasional windows. I decided not to read the rest of the book, put it back in its place on the shelves, and headed out into the cold wind.
I don’t get lost easily, or I’d probably have ended up wandering off in some random direction until I could find a cab or something. As it was, I wasn’t sure of my bearings until I got within sight of the Capitol. The sidewalks were anything but deserted—I gathered that Toledo had a lively nightlife scene—but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the people I passed just then. I was thinking about the book I’d read and the newspaper in my pocket, and the difference between the fragmentary bits of information I was used to getting off short squibs on the metanet and the knowledge-in-context I’d gathered from the longer, more context-rich pieces I’d just taken in. It was a sobering comparison. I decided I’d have to check out Lakeland schools and colleges, and see if the difference applied there as well.
When I got to the hotel where I was staying, though, I had to pay attention, because there was no way in; the crowd from the wedding reception was out in front, lining a narrow path from the door to the edge of the sidewalk, where an ornate horsedrawn carriage waited. I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out what was about to happen, so I stood there on the outer edge of the crowd, waiting for the happy couple. Some of the guests had taken the time to put on coats and hats before heading out into the night air, and I blended in well enough that a young woman pushing her way through the crowd handed me a little bag of rice to throw. I took it, amused, and waited with the rest.
A few minutes later, the guests of honor came out—two  young men in their early twenties, laughing and holding hands and obviously very much in love. I pelted them with rice along with everyone else, and stood there while they climbed into the carriage and waved. The driver snapped his reins and the horses broke into a smart trot; the usual cheering and waving followed, and away they went.
The crowd began to scatter. I turned toward the door and found myself facing the pianist who’d been playing in the hotel restaurant during lunch that same day. Of course he didn’t know me from George Washington’s off ox; he turned to go back inside, and since that was the way I was headed, too, I followed him. The lobby wasn’t too bad, but the stair was a river of people headed for the doors, and so the pianist and I ended up standing next to each other at the foot of the stair, waiting for the crowd to pass by and let us through.
“That was pretty good jazz you were playing,” I said to him, “here at lunchtime.”
He gave me a startled look. “Thank you!” Then: “You’re one of Sandy’s political friends?”
“No, just staying here at the hotel.” He nodded, and I went on. “You play anywhere else?”
“Yeah, this is just my day gig. Friday and Saturday nights I’m at the Harbor Club downtown.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a little rectangle of stiff paper and handed it to me. I realized after a blank moment that it was an old-fashioned business card. Fancy script spelled out:
Sam Capoferroand his Frogtown Five
Down below in little print was contact info.
“Show that at the door and there’s no cover charge,” he told me. “See you there sometime.”
A gap opened up in the crowd, and he headed up the stair. I pocketed the business card and waited for another opening.

A Landscape of Dreams

Wed, 2015-10-07 16:13
Maybe it’s just the psychology of selective attention, but tolerably often when I want to go into more detail about a point made in a previous essay here, stories relevant to that point in one way or another start popping up on the news. That’s been true even during this blog’s forays into narrative fiction, so it should be no surprise that it’s happened again—even though, in this case, the point in question may not be obvious to most readers yet.
One of the core themes of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing here over the last month or so is the yawning gap between the abstract notion of progress that we all have in our heads and the rather less pleasant realities to which this notion has been assigned. The imaginary Atlantic Republic, the home of the narrative’s viewpoint character, is a place where progress as we know it has continued in exactly the same direction it’s been going for the last half century or so. That’s why it’s a place where income is concentrated in ever fewer hands, leaving most of the population to struggle for survival via poorly paid part-time jobs or no jobs at all; a place where infrastructure has been allowed to fall into ruin, while investment gets focused instead on a handful of high-tech services such as the metanet (my hypothetical 2065 “improvement” of today’s internet); a place where people make do with shoddy, wretchedly unpleasant consumer goods because that’s what a handful of big corporations want to sell them and there are no other alternatives, and so on.
Now of course the immediate response of many people to this characterization can be summed up neatly as “but that’s not progress!” Au contraire, the changes just noted, unwelcome as they are, are the necessary and inevitable consequences of exactly those technological transformations that have been lauded to the skies in recent years as evidence of just how much we’ve progressed. In the same way, my imaginary Lakeland Republic, with its prosperous working classes, its thriving urban centers, its comfortable clothing, and the like, has those things because it made certain collective choices that fly in the face of everything that most people these days understand as progress.
For instance, to cite a detail that sparked discussion on the comments page last week, the Lakeland Republic has abandoned computer technology—or more precisely, after the Second Civil War and the crises that followed, it rebuilt its infrastructure and economy without making computer technology part of the mix. There were a variety of reasons for that choice, but one was an issue I’ve raised in these essays several times already: when you have an abundance of people who want steady employment and a growing shortage of the energy and other resources needed to build and operate machines, replacing employees with machines is not necessarily a smart idea, while replacing machines with employees may just be the key to renewed prosperity and stability.
That’s an issue in the story, and also in our lives today, because computers have eliminated vastly more jobs than they’ve created. Before computers came in, tens of millions of Americans supported themselves with steady jobs as typists, file clerks, stenographers, and so on through an entire galaxy of jobs that no longer exist due to computer technology. The jobs that have been created by computer technology, on  the other side of the balance, employ far fewer people, leaving the vast remainder to compete for the remaining bottom-level jobs, and this has driven down wages and widened the gap between the well-to-do and everyone else. That’s not what progress is supposed to do, according to the conventional wisdom, but that’s what it has done—and not just in this one case.
Since 1970, in point of fact, the standard of living for everyone in America outside of the wealthiest 20% or so has skidded unsteadily downward. The nation’s infrastructure has been abandoned to malign neglect, and a great many amenities that used to be taken for granted either cost vastly more than they once did, even corrected for inflation, or can’t be had for any price. We pretend, or at least the vast majority of us do, that these things either haven’t happened or don’t matter, and certainly nobody’s willing to address the possibility that these things and other equally unwelcome changes have been the result of what we like to call progress—even when that’s fairly obviously the case.
What’s going on here, in other words, is the emergence of a widening chasm between the abstraction “progress” and the things that progress is supposed to represent, such as improved living conditions, a broader range of choices available to people, and so on. The sort of progress we’ve experienced over the last half century or so hasn’t given us these things; quite the contrary; it’s yielded degraded living conditions, a narrower range of choices, and the like. Point this out to people in so many words and the resulting cognitive dissonance tends to get some truly quirky responses; put it in the form of a narrative and—at least this is my hope—a larger fraction of readers will be able to recognize the tangled thinking at the heart of the paradox, and recognize a dysfunctional abstraction for what it is.
Dysfunctional abstractions, though, are all the rage these days.  A glance through the news offers a bumper crop of examples. One that comes forcefully to mind, just at the moment, is the ongoing attempts on the part of US political and military spokescritters to find some way to talk about the US airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, without actually mentioning that the US carried out an airstrike on a hospital and killed twenty-two civilians, including three children.
It really has been a remarkable spectacle, and connoisseurs of weasel-worded evasions have had a feast spread out before them. Early on, the media in the US and its allies was full of reports that the hospital had been hit by an airstrike that somehow didn’t get around to mentioning whose aircraft was involved. Then there were stalwart claims that it hadn’t yet been confirmed that a US aircraft carried out the strike. Once that evasion passed its pull date—the Taliban, after all, doesn’t have an air force, and the public relations flacks at the Pentagon apparently decided that it just wasn’t going to work to insist that they’d somehow come up with one just for the sake of this one airstrike—the excuses began flying fast and thick. The fact that the four officially promulgated excuses I’ve seen so far all contradict one another doesn’t exactly make any of them seem particularly convincing.
What the excuses and evasions demonstrate, rather, is that the US military and government are treating what happened entirely as a matter of abstractions, rather than dealing with the harsh but inescapable reality of twenty-two smoldering corpses in a burnt-out hospital. To the media flacks at the Pentagon, evidently, this is all merely a public relations problem, and the only response to it they can think of involves finding some set of excuses, euphemisms, and evasions that will allow them to efface the distinction between a public relations problem and a war crime.
Now of course it’s not as though this sort of atrocity is unusual for the US at this point on the sorry downslope of its history. The only thing that makes the bombing of the Kunduz hospital at all unusual is that a significant fraction of the targets weren’t locals—they were physicians and hospital staff from the international charity Médecins sans Frontières, who can’t be ignored quite so easily. For well over a decade now, the US government has been vaporizing assorted groups of people all over the Middle East via drone strikes, and according to everybody but the paid flacks of the US government, a very large fraction of the people blown to bits in these attacks have been civilians. Here again, Washington DC treats this as a public relations problem, and simply denies that anything of the sort has happened.
The difficulty with this strategy, though, is that sooner or later you run up against an opponent that isn’t stuck on the level of abstractions, isn’t greatly interested in public relations, and intends to do you real, rather than abstract, harm. To some extent that’s what has sown the whirlwind that the US and its allies are now reaping in the Middle East. In many of the tribal cultures of the Middle East, vengeance against the killers of one’s family members is an imperative duty, and it doesn’t matter how airily the flacks in Washington DC dismiss the possibility that the latest drone strike annihilated a Yemeni wedding party, or what have you. The relatives of the dead know better, and the young men among them are going to do something about it, whether that involves hiking to Afghanistan or, say, joining the current mass migration into Europe, lying low for a while, and then looking for suitable targets.
The same difficulty has shifted into overdrive over the last few weeks, though, with Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war. Russia’s current leaders are realists, which is to say, they assign abstractions the limited importance they deserve. The Russian presence in Syria, accordingly, isn’t a mere gesture, it’s the efficient deployment of an expeditionary force that’s clearly intended to wage war, and is in the early stages of turning that intention into hard reality. In an impressively short time, the Russians have built, staffed, and stocked a forward air base at Latakia, and begun systematic air strikes against rebel positions; work has gotten under way on two other bases; weapons and munitions are flooding into Syria to rearm the beleaguered Syrian army; the first detachments of Revolutionary Guard soldiers from Russia’s ally Iran have arrived.  Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) and airborne units are en route to Syrian soil, where they and the Iranians will doubtless have something to do besides soak up rays on Latakia’s once-famous Mediterranean beaches.
Meanwhile Russia’s Black Sea fleet, led by its flagship, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, has positioned itself off the Syrian coast. That in itself tells an important story. The Moskva carries long range antiship missiles and an S-300 antiaircraft system; there are reports that another S-300 system has been set up on land, and Russian electronic warfare equipment has also been reported at Latakia. Neither the Islamic State militia nor any of the other rebel forces arrayed against the Syrian government have a navy, an air force, or electronics sufficiently complex to require jamming in the event of hostilities. The only nation involved in the Syrian civil war that has all these things is the United States. Clearly, then, Russia is aware of the possibility that the US may launch an air or naval assault on the Russian expeditionary force, and has the weaponry on hand to respond in kind.
Last night, working on this post, I wrote: “The Russian airstrikes so far have concentrated on rebel forces around the edges of the territory the Syrian government still holds, with some longer-range strikes further back to take out command centers, munitions dumps, and the like. The placement of the strikes says to me that the next moves, probably within weeks, will be against the rebel enclave north of Homs and the insurgent forces in Idlib province. I expect ground assaults backed up by artillery, helicopter gunships, and close-in air support—vastly more firepower, in other words, that any side in the Syrian civil war has had at its disposal so far.” This morning’s news confirmed that guess, and added in another factor: Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea fleet, most of a thousand miles from Syria. Once Idlib and the rest of western Syria is secured, I expect the Russians and their allies to march on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s notional capital—and I don’t expect them to waste any more time in doing so than they’ve wasted so far.
All this poses an immense embarrassment to the United States and its allies, which have loudly and repeatedly proclaimed the Islamic State the worst threat to world peace since the end of the Third Reich but somehow, despite a seemingly overwhelming preponderance of military force, haven’t been able to do much of anything about it. Though it’s hard to say for sure, given the fog of conflicting propaganda, it certainly looks as though the Russians have done considerably more damage to the Islamic State in a week than the US and its allies have accomplished in thirteen months of bombing. If that’s the case, some extremely awkward questions are going to be asked. Is the US military so badly led, so heavily burdened with overpriced weapons systems that don’t happen to work, or both, that it’s lost the ability to inflict serious harm on an opponent? Or—let’s murmur this one quietly—does the United States have some reason not to want to inflict serious harm on the Islamic State?
I suspect, though, that what’s actually behind the disparity is something far simpler, if no less damaging to the prestige of the United States. I commented in an earlier post here that the US has been waging its inept campaign against Islamic State as though it’s a video game—hey, we killed a commander, isn’t that worth an extra 500 points? Look at that from a different perspective and it becomes another example of the total disconnection of abstraction from reality.
The abstraction here is “fighting Islamic State.” You’ll notice that it’s not “defeating Islamic State”—in the realm of dysfunctional abstractions, such differences mean a great deal. Obama has decided that under his leadership, the US is going to fight Islamic State, and that’s what the Pentagon is doing.  At intervals, accordingly, planes go flying over various portions of Syria and Iraq to make desultory bombing runs on places where some intelligence analyst in suburban Virginia thinks an Islamic State target might have been located at some point in the last month or so.
That’s “fighting Islamic State.” Nobody can point a finger at Obama and say that he’s not fighting Islamic State, since the Air Force is still obligingly making those bombing runs. It doesn’t matter that none of this has done anything to slow down the expansion of the Islamic State militia, or to stop its appalling human rights violations; that’s in the grubby realm of realities, into which fastidious minds in Washington DC are unwilling to stoop.
Another abstraction that’s getting a lot of use in the current situation is “moderate Syrian rebels.” In the realm of realities, of course, those don’t exist.  The Pentagon’s repeated attempts to find or manufacture some, to satisfy Obama’s insistence that a supply of them ought to be forthcoming, have yielded one embarrassing failure after another.  This is for quite a simple reason, all things considered: the word “moderate” in this context means, in effect, “willing to put the interests of the US and its European allies ahead of their country and their faith.” (When American politicians use the word “moderate” about people in other countries, that’s inevitably what they mean.) Nonetheless, since the abstraction is so useful, the politicians and the Pentagon keep on waving it around. You have to read carefully to find out that some groups being labeled as potential moderates, such as the al-Nusra Front, are affiliated with al-Qaeda—you know, the outfit that the Global War On Terror was supposed to fight.
Such things should probably come as no surprise during the presidency of a man who got into office via a campaign that was never anything more than a blur of feel-good abstractions: “Hope,” “Change,” “Yes We Can,” and the like.  Barack Obama will go down in history as one of the United States’ least competent presidents precisely because everything he’s done has been so utterly fixated on the realm of abstractions. The wretchedly misnamed “Affordable Care Act” aka Obamacare is a fine example. Its enactment has made health care more expensive and less available for most Americans; it took what was already the worst health care system in the industrial world, and accomplished the not inconsiderable feat of making it even worse.
To Obama and his dwindling crowdlet of supporters, though, that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the resulting mess corresponds, to them, to the abstraction “national health care system.” He promised a national health care system, we have a national health care system—and of course it’s not exactly irrelevant that the privileged few who still praise that system are by and large those whose wealth shields them from having to cope with its disastrous failings.
It’s only fair to note that, deeply immersed in the realm of dysfunctional abstractions as Obama is, he’s got plenty of company there, and it’s not limited to the faux-liberal constituencies that put him into his current address. Listen to the verbiage spewing out of the overcrowded Republican clown car and you’ll get to witness any number of vague abstractions floating past, serenely disconnected from the awkward realm of facts. For that matter, take in the outpourings of the establishment’s pet radicals—I’m thinking just now of Naomi Klein’s embarrassingly slipshod and superficial book This Changes Everything, but there are plenty of other examples—and you’ll find no shortage of equally detached abstractions drifting by in the breeze, distracting attention from the increasingly dismal landscape of fact down there on the ground.
What troubles me most about all this is what it says about the potential for really serious disruptions here in the US in the near future. I’m sure my readers can think of other regimes that reached the stage where moving imaginary armies across a landscape of dreams took precedence over grappling with awkward facts, and once that happened, none of those regimes were long for this world. The current US political system is so deeply entrenched in its own fantasies that a complete breakdown of that system, and its replacement by something entirely different—not necessarily better, mind you, but different—is a possibility that has to be kept in mind even in the near term.

Retrotopia: A Change of Habit

Wed, 2015-09-30 18:12
I went back to the hotel for lunch.  The wind had picked up further and was tossing stray randrops at anything in its path; my clothing was waterproof but not particularly warm, and I frankly envied the passersby their hats. For that matter, I wasn’t happy about the way that my bioplastic clothes made everyone give me startled looks. Still, it was only a block and a half, and then I ducked back inside the lobby, went to the glass doors to the restaurant, stepped inside.
Maybe a minute later I was settling into a chair in a comfortable corner, and the greeter was on his way back to the door, having promised the imminent arrival of a waitress. Stray notes of piano music rippled through the air, resolved themselves into an unobtrusive jazz number.  It took me a moment to notice that the piano was actually there in the restaurant, tucked over in a nook to one side. The player was a skinny kid in his twenties, Italian-American by the look of him, and he was really pretty good. Some musicians play jazz laid-back because the fire’s gone out or they never had any in the first place, but now and again you hear one who’s got the fire and keeps it under perfect control while playing soft and low, and it’s like watching somebody take a leisurely stroll on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers. This kid was one of those. I wondered what he’d sound like with a bunch of other musicians and a room full of people who wanted to dance.
As it was, I leaned back in the chair, read the menu and enjoyed the music and the absence of the wind. The waitress showed up as prophesied, and I ordered my usual, soup and sandwich and a cup of chicory coffee—you can get that anywhere in the post-US republics, just one more legacy of the debt crisis and the hard years that followed. I know plenty of people in Philadelphia who won’t touch the stuff any more, but I got to like it and it still goes down easier than straight coffee.
Lunch was good, the music was good, and I’d missed the lunch rush so the service was better than good; I charged the meal to my room but left a tip well on the upside of enough. Then it was back outside into the wind as the kid at the piano launched into a take on “Ruby, My Dear” that wouldn’t have embarrassed a young Thelonious Monk. I had plenty of questions about the Lakeland Republic, some things that I’d been asked to look into and some that were more or less a matter of my own curiosity, and sitting in a hotel restaurant wasn’t going to get me any closer to the answers.
Outside there were still plenty of people on the sidewalks, but not so many as earlier; I gathered that lunch hour was over and everyone who worked ordinary hours, whatever those were here, was back on the job. I went around the block the hotel was on, noting landmarks, and then started wandering, lookng for shops, restaurants, and other places that might be useful during my stay: something I like to do in any unfamiliar city when I have the chance. There were plenty of retail businesses—the ground floor of every building I passed had as many as would fit—but none of them were big, and none of them had the sort of generic logo-look that tells you you’re looking at a chain outlet. Everything I knew about business said that little mom-and-pop stores like that were hopelessly inefficient, but I could imagine what the banker I’d talked with would say in response to that, and I didn’t want to go there.
The other thing that startled me as I wandered the streets was how little advertising there was. Don’t get me wrong, most of the stores had signage in the windows advertising this or that product or doing the 10% OFF THIS DAY ONLY routine; what was missing was the sort of corporate display advertising you see on every available surface in most cities. I’d figured already that there wouldn’t be digital billboards, but there weren’t any billboards at all; the shelters at the streetcar stops didn’t have display ads all over them, and neither did the streetcars; I thought back to the morning’s trip, and realized that I basically hadn’t seen any ads at all since the train crossed the border. I shook my head, wondered how the Lakeland Republic managed that, and then remembered the notebook in my pocket and put my first note into it:  Why no ads? Ask.
I was maybe six blocks from the hotel, by then, looping back after I’d checked out the streets on the west side of the capitol district, and that’s when I tore my shoe. It was my own fault, really. There was a cluster of moms with kids in strollers heading down the sidewalk, going the same direction I was but not as fast.  I veered over to the curb to get around them, misjudged my step, and a sharp bit of curbing caught the side of my shoe as I stumbled and ripped the bioplastic wide open. Fortunately it didn’t rip me, but I hadn’t brought a spare pair—these were good shoes, the sort that usually last for a couple of months before you have to throw them out. So there I was, looking at the shredded side of the shoe, and then I looked up and the first store I saw was a shoe store, I kid you not. 
I managed to keep the ripped shoe on my foot long enough to get in the door. The clerk, a middle-aged guy whose hair was that pink color you get when a flaming redhead starts to go gray, spotted me and started into the “Hi, how can I help you?” routine right as what was left of the shoe flopped right off my foot. He started laughing, and so did I; I picked the thing up, and he said, “Well, I don’t need to ask that, do I? Let’s get you measured and put something a little less flimsy on your feet.”
“I take a men’s medium-large,” I said.
He nodded, and gave me the kind of look you give to someone who really doesn’t get it. “We like to be a little more precise here. Go ahead and have a seat.”
So I sat down; he took the remains of the shoe and threw it away, and then proceeded to use this odd metal device with sliding bits on it to measure both my feet. “9D,” he said, “with a high arch. I bet your feet ache right in the middle when you’re on ‘em too long.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I take pills for that.”
“A good pair of shoes will do a better job. Let’s see, now—that’s business wear, isn’t it? You expect to do a lot of walking? Any formal or semi-formal events coming up?” I nodded yes to each, and he said, “Okay, I got just the thing for you.”
He went away, came back with a box, and extracted a pair of dark brown leather shoes from it. “This brown’ll match the putty color of those clothes of yours pretty well, and these won’t take any breaking in. Let’s give it a try.” The shoes went on. “There you go. Walk around a bit, see how they feel on you.”
I got up and walked around the store. My feet felt remarkably odd. It took me a moment to realize that this was because the shoes actually fit them. “These are pretty good,” I told him.
“Beat the pants off the things you were wearing, don’t they?”
“True enough,” I admitted. He rang up the sale on some kind of old-fashioned mechanical cash register and wrote out a bill of sale by hand; I paid up and headed out the door.
Half a block down the same street was a store selling men’s clothes. I went in, and came out something like an hour later dressed like one of the locals—wool jacket, slacks and vest, button-up cotton shirt, and tie, with a long raincoat over the top, and my ordinary clothes in a shopping bag. I’d already more than half decided to pick up something less conspicuous to wear before my shoe got torn, and money wasn’t a problem, so I bought enough to keep me for the duration of my stay, and had everything else sent back to the hotel; the bill was large enough that the clerk checked my ID and then called the bank to make sure I had enough in my account to cover it. Still, that was the only hitch, and quickly past.
From the clothes store I headed back the way I’d come, turned a corner and went three blocks into a neighborhood of narrow little shops with hand-written signs in the windows. The sign I was looking for, on the recommendation of the clothes store clerk, was barely visible on the glass of a door: S. EHRENSTEIN HABERDASHER. I went in; the space inside was only about twice as wide as the door, with shelves packed with boxes on both walls and a little counter and cash register at the far end.
S. Ehrenstein turned out to be a short wiry man with hair the color of steel wool and a nose like a hawk’s beak. “Good afternoon,” he said, and then considered me for a moment. “You’re from outside—Atlantic Republic, or maybe Upper Canada. Not Québec or New England. Am I right?”
“Atlantic,” I said. “How’d you know?”
“Your clothes and your shoes are brand new—I’d be surprised if you told me you’ve been in ‘em for as much as an hour. That says you just came from outside—that and no hat, and five o’clock shadow this early in the day; I don’t know why it is, but nobody outside seems to know how to get a proper shave. The rest, well, I pay attention to lots of  little things. How’d you hear about my shop?”
I told him the name of the clothing store, and he nodded, pleased. “Well, there you are. That’s Fred Hayakawa’s store; his family’s been in the business since half an hour before Eve bit the apple, and his clerks know a good hat, which is more than I could say for some. So are you in business, or—”
“Politics,” I said.
“Then I have just the hat for you. Let’s get your head measured.” A measuring tape came out of his pocket and looped around my head. “Okay, good. Seven and a quarter, I should have in stock.” He ducked past me, clambered onto a stepladder, pulled down a box. “Try it on. The mirror’s there.”
With the hat on, my resemblance to a minor character from a Bogart vid was complete. “Absolutely classic,” the haberdasher said from behind me. “Fedoras, homburgs, sure, they’re fine, but a porkpie like this, you can wear it anywhere and look real classy.”
“I like it,” I agreed.
“Well, there you are. Let me show you something.” He took the hat, slipped a cord out from under the ribbon. “In windy weather you put this loop over your coat button, so you don’t lose it if it blows off. If I were you I’d do that before I set one foot outside that door.”
I paid up, accepted the business card he pressed on me, and got the loop in place before I went back outside. The wind had died down, so the hat stayed comfortably in place—and the adverb’s deliberate; it kept my head warm, and the rest of the clothes were pleasant in a way that bioplastic just isn’t.
You know what it’s like when some annoying noise is so much part of the background that you don’t notice it at all, until it stops, and then all of a sudden you realize just how much it irritated you? Getting out of bioplastic was the same sort of thing. In most countries these days, everything from clothes to sheets to curtains is bioplastic, because it’s so cheap to make and turn into products that the big corporations that sell it drove everything else off the market years ago. It’s waterproof, it’s easy to clean—there’s quite a litany, and of course it was all over the metanet and the other media back when you could still buy anything else. Of course the ads didn’t mention that it’s flimsy and slippery, and feels clammy pretty much all the time, but that’s the way it goes; what’s in the stores depends on what makes the biggest profit for the big dogs in industry, and the rest of us just have to learn to live with it.
The Lakeland Republic apparently didn’t play by the same rules, though. The embargo had something to do with it, I guessed, but apparently they weren’t letting the multinationals compete with local producers. The clothes I’d bought were a lot more expensive than bioplastic equivalents would have been, and I figured it would take trade barriers to keep them on the market.
I kept walking. Two blocks later, about the time I caught sight of the capitol dome again, I passed a barbershop and happened to notice a sign in the window advertising a shave and trim. I thought about what S. Ehrenstein had said about a proper shave, laughed, and decided to give it a try.
The barber was a big balding guy with a ready grin. “What can I do for you?”
“Shave and trim, please.”
“Your timing’s good. Another half hour and you’d have to wait a bit, but as it is—” He waved me to the coatrack and the empty chair. “Get yourself comfy and have a seat.”
I shed my coat, hat, and jacket,  and sat down. He covered me up with the same loose poncho thing that barbers use everywhere, tied something snug around my neck, and went to work. “New in town?”
“Just visiting, from Philadelphia.”
“No kidding. Welcome to Toledo. Here on business?” Instead of the buzz of an electric trimmer, the clicking of scissors sounded back behind my right ear.
“More or less. I’ll try to talk to some people up at the Capitol, make some contacts, ask some questions about the way you do things here.”
“Might have to wait a day or two, according to the papers. Did you hear about this latest thing?”
“Just that there’s some kind of crisis.”
The scissor-sound moved around the back of my head from right to left. “Well, sort of. Tempest in a teapot is more like it. Something in the budget bill for next year set off the all-out Restos, and so one of the parties that’s had Meeker’s back says they’ll bolt unless whatever it is gets taken out.”
“You don’t have those out your way, do you? Here the two political blocs are Conservatives and Restorationists; Conservatives want to keep things pretty much the way they are, Restos want to take things back to the way they used to be. Okay, lay your head back.” I did, and he draped a hot damp towel over the lower half of my face, then went back to trimming. “Used to be about half and half, but these days the Restos have the bigger half—all the rural counties going to lower tiers, and so on.”
“Hmm?” I managed to say.
“Oh, that’s right. You probably don’t know about the tiers.”
“It works like this. There are five tiers, and counties vote on what tier they want to be in. The lower the tier, the lower your taxes, but the less you get in terms of infrastructure and stuff. Toledo’s tier five—we got electricity, we got phones in every house, good paving on the streets so you can drive a car if you can afford one, but we pay for it through the nose when it comes to tax time.”
He took off the towel, started brushing hot lather onto my face. “So tier five has a base date of 1950—that means we got about the same sort of services they had here that year. The other tiers go down from there—tier four’s base date  is 1920, for tier three it’s 1890, tier two’s 1860, and tier one’s 1830. You live in a tier one county, you got police, you got dirt roads, not a lot else. Of course your taxes are way, way down, too.” He put away the brush, snapped open an old-fashioned straight razor, and went to work on my stubble. “That’s the thing. Nobody’s technology gets a subsidy—that’s in the constitution. You want it, you pay all the costs, cradle to grave. You don’t get to dump ‘em on anybody else. That’s what the Restos are all up in arms about. They think something in the budget is a hidden subsidy for I forget what high-tier technology, and that’s a red line for them.”
“Mm-hmm,” I said again.
 “They’ll get it worked out. Go like this.” He drew his lips to one side, and I imitated the movement. “Meeker’s handled that sort of thing more’n a dozen times already—he’s good. If we let our presidents have second terms he’d get one. Now go like this.” I moved my lips the other way. “So they’ll drop whatever it is out of the budget, or put in a user fee, or come up with some other gimmick so that everybody’s happy. It’s not a big deal. Nothing like the fight over the treaty, or the time ten years ago when Mary Chenkin was president, when the Restos wanted to get rid of tier five, just like that. That was a real donnybrook. This close to the Capitol, you better believe I got to hear all sides of it.”
He finished shaving, washed the last bits of soap off my face with another hot wet towel, then splashed on sone kind of bay-scented aftershave that stung a bit. A brush darted around my shoulders, and then he took off the neckcloth and the poncho thing. “There you go.”
I got up, checked the trim in the big mirror on the wall, ran my fingers across my cheek; it was astonishingly smooth. “Very nice,” I said. While I got out my wallet, I asked the barber, “Do you think Toledo’s ever going to go to a lower tier?”
“People are talking about it,” he said. “I mean, it’s nice to have some of the services, but then tax time comes around and everyone says ‘Ouch.’ Me, I could live with tier four easy, and my business—” He gestured at the shop. “Other than the lights, might as well be tier one. A lot of businesses run things that way—it just makes more sense.” He handed me my change with a grin. “And more money.”

Retrotopia: Public Utilities, Private Goods

Wed, 2015-09-23 16:33
This is the fourth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, having arrived in the capital of the Lakeland Republic, discovers that things are even stranger there than he thought...
***********I’d already guessed that the hotel lobby probably wouldn’t look much like the ones I was used to seeing elsewhere, and so I wasn’t surprised. Instead of the glaring lights, security cameras, and automated check-in kiosks I was used to, it was a comfortable space with sofas and chairs around the edges, ornate chandeliers overhead, and a couple of desks staffed by actual human beings over to one side; off to the other side, glass doors framed in wood led into what looked like a full-service restaurant. A bellhop—was that the right word?—came trotting over to take my suitcase as soon as I came through the door, said something pleasant, and followed me over to the check-in desk.
“I’ve got a reservation,” I said to the clerk. “The name’s Peter Carr.”
I’d been wondering whether the hotel would turn out to use an old-fashioned computer system with a keyboard and screen, but apparently even that was too complex for local standards. Instead, the clerk pulled out a three-ring binder, opened it, and found my reservation in about as much time as it would have taken to input a name on a veepad and wait for a response to come out of the cloud. “Welcome to the Capitol Hotel, Mr. Carr. We have you down for fourteen nights.”
“That’s right.”
“Looks like everything’s paid for in advance. If you’ll sign here.” She handed me a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it and an old-fashioned ballpoint pen. Fortunately I hadn’t quite forgotten how to produce a non-digital signature, and signed on the line at the bottom. “Anything you order in the restaurant here—” She motioned toward the doors on the far side of the room. “—or for room service can be billed to the room account. How many keys will you want?”
“Just one.”
She opened a drawer, pulled out an honest-to-Pete metal key with a ring and a tag with the room number on it. “Here you go. Stairs are right down the hall; if you need the elevator it’s to the left. Is there anything else I can do for you? Enjoy your stay, Mr. Carr.”
I thanked her and headed for the hall with the bellhop in tow. My room was on the third floor and the stairs didn’t look too challenging, so I asked him, “Do you mind if we take the stairs?”
“Not a bit,” he said. “Comes with the job.”
We started up the stairs. “Do you get a lot of people here from outside the Lakeland Republic?”
“All the time. Capitol’s just four blocks away, and Embassy Row’s between here and there. We had the foreign minister of Québec here just last week.”
“No kidding.” There had been rumors for years that the Québecois started tacitly ignoring the embargo even before Canada broke up; we had decent relations with Montréal these days, but that hadn’t always been the case, and so any news about what was going on between Québec and the Lakeland Republic were worth my attention. “Big official visit, or what?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” said the bellhop. “Really nice lady. Had a bottle of champagne sent up to her room first thing every morning.”
I laughed. “Heck of a breakfast.”
“Nah, breakfast was a couple of hours later, with more champagne. Go figure.”

We got to the third floor, left the stair, and went down the hall to my room. “Just leave it inside the door,” I said, meaning the suitcase. “Thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

I didn’t have any Lakeland money to tip him, but guessed the couple of Atlantic bills I had would do. Fortunately I was right; he grinned, thanked me, and headed back toward the stair.

The room was bigger than I’d expected, with a queen-sized bed on one side and a desk and dresser on the other. I knew there wouldn’t be a veebox, but thought there might be a screen or even an old-fashioned television in the room, but no dice. The only things even vaguely electronic were a telephone on the desk and a boxy thing on the dresser that had a loudspeaker and some dials on it—a radio, I guessed, and decided to leave turning it on for later. Curtained windows on the far wall let through diffuse light; I went over and pulled the curtains open.

The bellhop hadn’t been kidding. There was the Capitol dome, half-complete, rising up above a ragged roofline right in front of me. That would be convenient, I decided, and let the curtains fall again.

I got my things settled and then went to the desk and the big envelope of yellowish paper sitting on top of it. Inside was the notebook Melissa Berger had mentioned, a couple of pens, a packet of papers that had BANK OF TOLEDO printed across the top of each sheet, an identification card with my name and photo on it, a wallet that was pretty clearly meant to hold money and the ID card, and a letter on government stationery welcoming me to Toledo in the usual bland terms, over President Meeker’s signature. Then there were half a dozen pages of instructions on how to get by in the Lakeland Republic, which covered everything from customary tips (I’d overtipped the bellhop, though not extravagantly) to who to contact in this or that kind of emergency. I nodded; clearly the bellhop hadn’t been exaggerating when he mentioned plenty of foreign guests.

I dropped my veepad in a desk drawer and got the wallet and some of the papers settled into the empty pocket. First things first, I decided: visit the bank and get the money thing sorted out, then get some lunch and do a bit of wandering.

Down in the lobby, the concierge was behind his desk. “Can I help you?”

“Please. I need to know where to find the Bank—” All at once I couldn’t remember the name, and reached for the papers in my pocket.

“Out the door,” said the concierge, “hang a left, go a block and a half straight ahead, and you’ll be standing right in front of it.”
I considered him. “You don’t need to know which bank?”
“There’s only one in town.”
That startled me, though I managed not to show it. “Okay, thanks.”
“Have a great day,” he said.
I headed out the doors, turned left, started along the sidewalk.  A cold damp wind was rushing past, pushing shreds of cloud across the sky, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why most of the other people on the sidewalk were wearing hats and  long coats; they looked much warmer than I felt. Still, Philadelphia has plenty of cold weather, and I was used to the way the chill came through bioplastic business wear. What annoyed me a little, or more than a little, was the way that my clothing made me stick out like a sore thumb.
In retrospect, it was amusing. Everybody else on the sidewalk looked like extras from half a dozen random history vids, everything from fedoras and trench coats to the kind of thing that was last in style when Toledo was a frontier town, and there I was, the only person in town in modern clothing—and you can guess for yourself who was the conspicuous one. The adults gave me startled looks and then pretended that nothing was up, but the kids stared wide-eyed as though I had two extra heads or something. As I said, it was amusing in retrospect, but at the time it made me acutely uncomfortable, and I was glad to get to the bank.
That was a three-story brick building on a street corner. Fortunately it had BANK OF TOLEDO—CAPITOL BRANCH above the doors, or I’d probably have missed it, since it didn’t look anything like the banks I was used to. Inside was even weirder: no security cameras, no automated kiosks, no guards in helmets and flak jackets pacing the balcony waiting for trouble, just a lobby with a greeter inside the door and a short line of patrons waiting for tellers. The greeter met me with a cheery “Hi, how can we help you today?” I got out the bank papers, and a minute or two later got shown into one of three little office spaces off the main lobby.
On the other side of the desk was a middle-aged African-American man with a neatly trimmed beard. “I’m Larry Jones,” he said, getting up to shake my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr.—”
“Carr,” I said. “Peter Carr.” We got the formalities out of the way and sat down; I handed him the papers; he checked them, we discussed some of the details, and he then unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a big envelope.
“Okay,” he said. “Everything’s good. The only question I have at this point is whether you’ve ever used cash or checks before.”
“I’m guessing,” I said, “that you ask that question fairly often.”
“These days, yes,” he replied. “Bit of a change since before the Treaty.”
“I bet. The answer, though, is cash, yes; checks—well, I’ve seen a few of them.”
“Okay, fair enough.” He looked relieved, and I wondered how many people from the cashless countries he’d had to walk through the details of counting out coins. “Here’s your checkbook,” he said, pulling the thing out of the envelope, and then opened it and showed me how to write a check. “Up here,” he said, flipping open a notebookish thing in front, “is where you keep track of how much you’ve spent.” He must have caught my expression, because he broke into a broad smile and said, “Long time since you’ve done math with a pen, I bet.”
“Depends on how long it’s been since never,” I told him.
He laughed. “Gotcha. Glad to say we can help you out there, too.” He opened a different drawer in his desk, handed me a flat little shape of brass. “This is a mechanical calculator,” he said. “Adds and subtracts for you.”
I took the thing, gave it a baffled look. “I didn’t know you could do that without electronics.”
“I think we’re the only country on earth that still makes these.” He showed me how to use the stylus to slide the digits up and down. Once I had it figured out, I thanked him and tucked the calculator and checkbook into my pocket.
“Do you have a minute?” I asked then. “I’ve got a couple of questions about the way you do things here—about banking, mostly.”
“Sure thing,” he said. “Ask away.”
“The concierge at the hotel said there’s only one bank here in Toledo. Is that true everywhere in the Lakeland Republic?”
“Yes, if you’re talking about consumer banking.”
“Is it the same bank everywhere?”
“Good heavens, no. Each county and each city of any size has its own bank, like it has its own water and sewer district and so on.”
“That makes it sound like a public utility,” I said, baffled.
“That’s exactly what it is. Again, that’s just consumer banking. We’ve got privately owned commercial banks here, but those do investment banking only—they’re not allowed to offer savings and checking accounts, consumer loans, small business services, that sort of thing, just like we’re not allowed to do any kind of investment banking.”
I shook my head, baffled. “Why the restriction?”
“Well, that used to be law in the United States, from the 1930s to the 1980s or so, and it worked pretty well—it was after they changed the law that the economy really started running off the rails, you know. So our legislature changed the law back after Partition, and it’s worked pretty well for us, too.” 
“I don’t think banks were public utilities back then,” I objected.
“No, that was mostly further back, and only some banks,” he agreed. “The thing is, the way we see it, there are some things that private industry does really well and some things that it doesn’t do well at all, and public utilities like water, sewer service, electricity, public transit, consumer banking, that sort of thing—those work better when you don’t let private interests milk them for profits. I know you do things different back home.”
“True enough. But isn’t it more efficient to leave those things to private industry?”
“That depends, Mr. Carr, on what you mean by efficiency.”
That intrigued me. “Please go on.”
Unexpectedly, he laughed. “I give a talk on that every year at one of the homeschool associations here in town. Efficiency is always a ratio—more or less efficient at producing an output in terms of a given input. A chemical process is efficient if it turns out more product for the same amount of raw materials, or the ssme amount of energy, or what have you. We get people from outside all the time talking about how this or that would be more efficient than what we do, and you know what? None of them seem to be able to answer a simple question: efficient for what output, in terms of what input?”
I could see where this was going, and decided to head onto a different tack. “And having consumer banks as public utilities,” I said. “Is that more efficient for some output in terms of some input?”
“We don’t worry so much about that,” the banker said. “The question that matters to most people here is much simpler: does it work or doesn’t it?”
“How do you tell?”
“History, Mr. Carr,” he said. He was smiling again. “History.”

Another World is Inevitable

Wed, 2015-09-16 16:53
I don’t normally comment in these essays on the political affairs of other countries. As I’ve noted more than once here, the last thing the rest of the world needs is one more clueless American telling everyone else on the planet what to do.  What’s more, as the United States busies itself flailing blindly and ineffectually at the consequences that its own idiotically shortsighted decisions have brought down upon it, those of us who live here have our work cut out for us already.
  That said, a sign I’ve been awaiting for quite some time has appeared on the horizon—the first rumble of a tectonic shift that will leave few things unchanged. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen in the United States, but I was somewhat startled to see where it did happen. That would be in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn has just been elected head of Britain’s Labour Party.
Those of my readers who don’t follow British politics may not know just how spectacular a change Corbyn’s election marks. In the late1990s, under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party did what erstwhile left-wing parties were doing all over the industrial world: it ditched the egalitarian commitments that had guided it in prior decades, and instead embraced a set of policies that were indistinguishable from those of its conservative opponents—the same thing, for example, that the Democratic party did here in the US. As a result, voters going to the polls found that their supposed right to shape the destiny of their nations at the voting booth had been reduced to irrelevance, since every party with a shot at power embraced the same set of political and economic policies.
That might have been bearable if the policies in question worked, but they didn’t, they don’t, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they never will. Proponents of the neoliberal consensus—I probably have to explain that label, don’t I? It’s a source of wry amusement to anybody who knows the first thing about the history of political economy that the viewpoint considered “conservative” in today’s America is what used to be known as liberalism, and still has that label in economics. Unrestricted free trade, no government interference in business affairs, no government protections for the poor, and an expansionist and militaristic foreign policy: these were the trademarks of liberal political and economic thought all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Those same policies came back into fashion as neoliberal economics, and as “conservative” politics, in the late twentieth century. Since then, proponents of neoliberalism have insisted that deregulation for industry and finance, tax cuts and government handouts for the rich, a rising spiral of punitive austerity measures for the poor, and a violent and amoral foreign policy obsessed with dominating the Middle East by force, would bring economic stability and prosperity at home and maintain peace overseas. That was the sales pitch that was used to sell these policies.  I think most people have begun to notice by now, though, that the policies in question have had precisely the opposite effect, not just once but wherever and whenever they’ve been tried.
I encourage my readers, especially those who favor the neoliberal policies just outlined, to stop and think about that for a moment. Around the globe, where businesses have been deregulated, taxes cut for the rich and government money poured into their hands, harsh austerity measures imposed on the poor, and foreign policy turned into a set of excuses for lobbing bombs at Middle Eastern countries, stability, prosperity, and peace have not been forthcoming—in fact, quite the contrary. At best, neoliberal policies bring a brief burst of relative prosperity, followed by a long slide into increasingly intractable crisis; at worst, you go straight into the crisis phase, and then things just keep getting worse.
Logically speaking, if the policies you propose don’t yield the results you expect, you change the policies. That’s not what’s happened so far in this case, though.  Quite the contrary, the accelerating failures of neoliberalism have been met across the board by an increasingly angry insistence from the corridors of power that neoliberal policies are the only options there are.
What Jeremy Corbyn’s election shows is that that insistence has just passed its pull date. Corbyn’s an old-fashioned Labourite of the pre-Blair variety, and he’s made it clear for decades that he supports the opposite of the neoliberal consensus: more regulation of finance and industry, higher tax rates and fewer handouts to the rich, more benefits for the poor, and a less aggressive foreign policy. When he entered the race to head the Labour Party after Ed Milliband’s embarrassing electoral defeat earlier this year, party apparatchiks rolled their eyes and insisted that he didn’t have a chance. What they hadn’t noticed, and what the establishment across the industrial world has by and large never noticed either, is that the consensus is only a consensus among a privileged minority, and most people outside those rarefied and self-referential circles will vote against it if they’re given half a chance.
That’s what happened in the Labour Party election. When the ballots were counted, Corbyn had staged a monumental upset, winning by a landslide on the first ballot with a total three times as large as his nearest rival’s. What’s more, since his election, people who’ve stayed out of party politics in Britain have been joining the Labour Party in droves, convinced that at long last they have the chance to have their voices heard. Until and unless he loses a general election or some other Labour Party figure mounts an effective challenge against him, Corbyn’s now the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the heir apparent to No. 10 Downing Street should Labour come out ahead in the next election.
Whether that’s a desirable outcome or not is not something I propose to discuss here, as that choice is up to the people of Great Britain and nobody else. Myself, I’m not a great fan of Corbyn’s variety of socialism, or for that matter most of the others; it seems to me that there are many better ways to run a society—though it’s only fair to say that the neoliberal consensus is not one of these. What makes Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise important is that it shows just how fragile the neoliberal consensus actually is, and how readily it can be overturned by any politician who’s willing to break with it and start addressing the concerns of the eighty to ninety per cent of the population who don’t agree with it.
That fragility need not lead to better things. Here in the United States, Donald Trump remains sky-high in the polls for exactly the same reason Jeremy Corbyn now heads the Labour Party: he’s willing to talk about things the political establishment refuses to discuss. In his case the unspeakable issue is the de facto policy, supported by both parties, of encouraging illegal immigration to the United States in order to drive down wages for the working classes and maintain a facade of prosperity for the privileged.
A great many Americans are concerned about that, and not unreasonably so. Whether allowing mass immigration to the United States is a good idea or not, it’s fair to say that sharply limiting the number of legal immigrants and then turning a blind eye to illegal immigration lands us in the worst of both worlds.  The only people who benefit from it are the employers who get to pay substandard wages to illegal immigrants, and the privileged classes whose lifestyles are propped up thereby. Since the voices of the privileged are the only ones that have been let into our collective conversation about politics for the last three and a half decades, the concerns of the broader public haven’t been addressed; now Trump is addressing them, and he just might end up in the White House as a result.
He’s not the only one who’s riding that particular issue to the brink of power. Marine Le Pen, to name just one example, is more or less France’s Donald Trump—though, France being France, she has better fashion sense and a less absurd hairstyle. Europe’s privileged classes encourage unlimited immigration, just like their American equivalents, to force down wages and break the political power of the working classes, and Le Pen’s Front National has harnessed the resentment of all those French voters who have been on the losing end of those policies for decades. Nor is France the only European nation where that’s an explosive issue. The British politicians and pundits who are busy decrying Corbyn’s election just now might want to temper their rage and consider the alternatives: if Corbyn falls, Nigel Farage and the UKIP party are waiting in the wings to harness the public’s frustration with the abject failure of business as usual, and if Farage falls in his turn, what replaces him could be much, much worse.
The mere fact that a failed consensus is cracking at the seams, in other words, does not guarantee that what replaces it will be an improvement. All it means is that there’s an opening through which a range of alternative visions can enter the political conversation of our time, and perhaps find an audience among the disenfranchised and disillusioned. That some such window of opportunity was on its way comes as no surprise; as a student of history, I’ve long taken comfort in the fact that even the most thoroughly entrenched political and economic orthodoxies have finite life spans, and will eventually be hauled out with the trash. Much of what I’ve done over the last nine years on this blog has been a matter of getting ready for the opening of that window, putting certain ideas into circulation among those few who were ready to hear them.
That’s a more important step than I think many people realize. In Germany in the early 1930s, when a failed consensus finally came apart, the only alternative visions that had any significant presence were the Leninist version of Marxian socialism, on the one hand, and a bubbling cauldron of racist fantasies and radical antirationalism on the other; the latter triumphed, and no doubt most of my readers are aware of what followed. In other places and times, less psychotic options have been available, and the results have generally been much better. The Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico a while back favored the slogan “another world is possible,” and of course they’re quite right—but a great deal depends on what kind of other world people are prepared to imagine.
This is why, for example, the last three posts here on The Archdruid Report have been devoted to a narrative describing a future very different from the one that most Americans like to imagine: a future in which the United States slams facefirst into a brick wall of unintended consequences, plunges into a bloody civil war, and fragments thereafter, and in which one of the fragments pursues a set of political and economic policies that go zooming off at right angles to the conventional wisdom of our time. I expect to resume that narrative next week, and to continue it with an assortment of interruptions thereafter, precisely because a less impoverished sense of the possible futures open to us is so crucial in facing the rising spiral of crises that defines our time.
It’s a source of some amusement to me that I’ve fielded a fair number of comments insisting that I have to reshape the narrative just mentioned to fit one or another version of the conventional wisdom. This blog’s focus being what it is, most of them have fixated on one or another aspect of what might as well be called the Ecotopian model—the last really imaginative vision of the future in this country, which was midwifed by Ernest Callenbach in his brilliant 1974 utopian fiction Ecotopia. If you know your way around today’s American Green scene, even if you haven’t read a word Callenbach wrote, you know his ideas, because they still shape an enormous amount of what passes for original thought today.
That’s not a model I’m interested in rehashing. Partly that’s because not that many people outside the San Francisco Bay region find Callenbach’s vision especially appealing; partly it’s because some aspects of the model, notably the claim that solar and wind power can support something akin to modern middle class American lifestyles, haven’t held up well in the light of experience; but it’s also partly because other worlds are also possible. The Ecotopian conventional wisdom is not the only option. It’s an option toward which I have a nostalgic fondness—I was wildly enthusiastic about Callenbach’s book back in the day—but it’s not the only game in town, and all things considered, it’s not the option I would choose today. Thus Retrotopia, as the name suggests, is not going to be full of avid spandex-clad cyclists who dine on the produce of permacultured edible forests, or what have you. It’s heading in directions that are far more threatening to the status quo—including, by the way, the Ecotopian status quo.
The crying need for an abundance of alternative visions of the future, apart from the conventional wisdom of our time, has also driven another core project of this blog, and with that in mind, I’m delighted to announce the winners of this year’s Space Bats challenge. Those of my readers who are new to The Archdruid Report may not know that since 2011, this blog has hosted a series of contests in which readers have submitted short stories set in a variety of deindustrial futures—that is, futures in which industrial society as we know it is a thing of the past, our current complex technologies have faded into legend, and human beings are busy coping with the legacies of the industrial age and leading challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing lives in that context.
The first Space Bats challenge was a shot in the dark, and to my delighted surprise, it fielded a torrent of fine short stories, the best of which were duly published by Founders House Publishing as an anthology titled After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future. A second contest duly followed in 2014, and produced two anthologies, After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis and After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth. The fourth contest was launched in March of this year; as before, I was deluged with an abundance of excellent stories, and had a hard time choosing among them; I owe thanks to everyone who submitted a story and made the choice so difficult; but the following stories will be included in the next anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores:
“Sail Away Home” by Alma Arri“Finding Flotsam” by Bill Blondeau“Alay” by Dau Branchazel“Crow Turns Over a Rock” by Eric Farnsworth“Notes for a Picnic” by Phil Harris“The Remembrancer” by Wylie Harris
“The Bald Eagle, the Lame Duck, and the Cooked Goose” by Jonah Harvey“The Baby” by Nicky Jarman“Northern Ghosts” by Gaianne Jenkins“Caretaker Poinciana” by Troy Jones“Scapegoat” by Cathy McGuire“Flowering” by John W. Riley
I trust you’ll join me in congratulating the authors and, more to the point, in reading their stories once those see print.
In its own small and idiosyncratic way, my experience with the Space Bats challenge parallels the political earthquake currently shaking the British landscape. All I did was ask readers to come up with stories that broke with the conventional wisdom concerning the future—to set aside the weary, dreary, endlessly rehashed Tomorrowland of spaceships, zap-guns, and linear technological expansion along the same lines we think we’re following today, and imagine something different—and as it turned out, that’s all I had to do. Given the opportunity to write about some less hackneyed future, scores of readers lunged for their keyboards and flooded each contest with quirky, thoughtful, interesting know, the kind of thing that science fiction used to feature all the time, back before it got sucked into the role of cheerleading for a suffocatingly narrow range of acceptable tomorrows.
There will be another Space Bats challenge, beginning in the spring of next year. I invite my readers to propose potential themes for that challenge—this fourth anthology consists entirely of stories set at least a thousand years in the future, and I’d like to have some equally offbeat focus or limitation on the next contest, in the hope that it will inspire an equally stellar collection of stories.
I’m also pleased to note that the After Oilanthologies and my post-peak novel Star’s Reach are far from the only contributions to a growing genre. Founders House, for example, has also recently published Ralph Meima’s novel Fossil Nation, the first volume of a trilogy, which offers its own lively and readable glimpse at a future that cuts across the conventional wisdom of our time and heads off in new directions. Other projects are in the works, at Founders House and elsewhere.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the same process is under way on a much vaster scale, and with much more serious consequences. As the neoliberal consensus shatters and the failure of its policies becomes impossible to ignore any longer, another world is not merely possible, it’s inevitable. The question is purely what ideas, visions, dreams, hopes, and shuddering terrors will shape the world that will emerge from neoliberalism’s smoldering corpse—and that, dear reader, will be determined in part by what you yourself are willing to imagine, to work for, and to struggle for, during the difficult years ahead of us.
*****One other note may be relevant in this context. Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with my alternative-future novel Star’s Reach. Ever since it was published, I’ve fielded requests for more fiction set in the same imaginary future, and while I’m flattered by the requests, my fiction is heading in other directions at least for now. As a result, Founders House Publishing and I have been talking about the possibility of transforming the setting of Star’s Reach into a shared world to which many authors can contribute, and doing at least one anthology—and possibly more—of short stories set in 25th-century Meriga, or the wider future in which Trey sunna Gwen and his companions have their place.
Obviously that’s a project that would require a dozen enthusiastic authors at least. My question is whether anyone’s interested in writing stories for such an anthology. If this interests you, please post a comment here; if there’s enough interest, we can get the project rolling.

Retrotopia: A Cab Ride in Toledo

Wed, 2015-09-09 17:11
This is the third installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator arrives in the capital of the Lakeland Republic, and further surprises are in store. 
  ***********The train pulled into the Toledo station something like ten minutes late—we’d had to wait for another train to clear the bridge over Sandusky Harbor, and then rolled along the Lake Erie shoreline for half an hour, past little lakeside towns and open country dotted with shore pines, before finally veering inland toward the Lakeland Republic’s capital. All the way along the shore, I watched big two- and three-masted schooners catching a ride from the wind, some obviously heading out from the Toledo lakefront, some just as obviously heading toward it. The sailing ship I’d spotted outside Sandusky was clearly nothing unusual here.
Once the train swung due west toward downtown Toledo, it was more farm country—the twentieth century kind with tractors and pickups rather than the nineteenth century kind with draft horses and wagons. Then the same sequence I’d watched around other Lakeland cities followed: houses became more frequent, fields gave way to truck gardens, and not too far after that the train was rolling past residential neighborhoods dotted with schools, parks, and little clusters of shops, striped at intervals with the omnipresent streetcar tracks and, here and there, crossed by the streetcars themselves. The houses gave way eventually to the warehouses and factories of an industrial district, and then to the dark waters of the Maumee River, swirling and rushing past the feet of a dozen bridges.
“Toledo,” the conductor called out from behind me. “End of the line, ladies and gentlemen. Please make sure you have your luggage and belongings before you leave, and thank you for riding with us.”
As the car I was in reached the far shore, I got a brief glimpse of tree-lined streetscapes, and then brick walls blotted out the view. Some of the other passengers got their luggage down from the overhead racks. Me, I had other things on my mind; it had finally occurred to me that unless I could get a veepad signal, I had no way to call the people who were supposed to meet me and make sure we didn’t miss each other, and I’d checked my veepad one last time and gotten the same dark field as before. I shrugged mentally, decided to wait and see what happened.
The train slowed to a crawl. The immigrant family across from me had apparently spotted somebody waiting for them on the platform, and were waving at the window. They already had their plastic-bag luggage in hand, and the moment the train stopped they hefted the bags and headed for the exit. I got my suitcase down from the rack; the boy who’d been sitting next to me went back to help his parents with their luggage, and I stepped into the aisle and followed the people in front of me up to the front of the car and out onto the platform.
A brightly painted sign said THIS WAY TO THE STATION. I followed that and the flow of people. Partway along I passed the immigrant family standing there with half a dozen other people in what looked like Victorian clothing out of a history vid—the wife’s family from Ann Arbor, I guessed—all talking a mile a minute. The wife was teary-eyed and beaming, and the two kids looked for the first time since I’d seen them as though they might get around to smiling one of these days. I thought about the conversation I’d had with the husband, wondered if things really were that much better at the bottom end of the income scale here.
I went through a big double door of glass and metal into what had to be the main room of the station, a huge open space under a vaulted ceiling, with benches in long rows on one side, ticket counters on the other, and what looked like half a dozen restaurants and a bar ahead in the middle distance. Okay, I said to myself, here’s where I try to find someone who has a clue about how to locate people and get around in this bizarre country.
I’d almost finished thinking that when a woman and a man in what I’d come to think of as Bogart clothing got up off one of the nearby benches and came over toward me. “Mr. Carr?”
Well, that was easy, I thought, and turned toward them. She was tall for a woman, with red-brown curls spilling out from under a broad-brimmed hat; he was a couple of inches shorter than she was, with the kind of forgettable face you look for when you’re hiring spies or administrative assistants.
“I’m Melissa Berger,” the woman said, shaking my hand, “and this is Fred Vanich.” I shook his hand as well. “I hope your trip this morning wasn’t too disconcerting,” she went on.
That last word was unexpected enough that I laughed. “Not quite,” I said. “Though there were a few surprises.”
“I can imagine. If you’ll come this way?”
“Can I take that for you?” Vanich said, and I handed over my suitcase and followed them.
“I’m afraid we’ve had to do some rescheduling,” Berger said as we headed for the doors. “The President was hoping to meet with you this afternoon, after you have time to get settled in at the hotel, but he’s got a minor crisis on his hands.  One of the Restorationist parties in our coalition is breathing fire and brimstone over a line item in an appropriations bill. It’ll blow over in a day or so, but—well, I’m sure you know how it goes.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Ellen’s been having to deal with that sort of thing every other day or so since the election.”
“That was quite an upset,” she said.
I nodded. “We were pretty happy with the way it turned out.”
Outside the air was blustery and crisp, with the first taste of approaching winter on it. The trees lining the street still clung to a few brown and crumpled leaves. Just past the trees, where I’d expected to see cabs waiting for passengers in a cloud of exhaust, horses stood placidly in front of brightly colored—buggies? Carriages? Whatever they were called, they looked like boxes with big windows, some with four wheels supporting them and some with two, and a seat up top for the driver.
I blinked, and almost stopped. Berger gave me an amused look. “I know,” she said. “We do a lot of things differently here.”
“I’ve noticed that,” I replied.
She led the way to one of the four-wheeled buggies, or whatever they were. Obviously things had been arranged in advance; she said “Good afternoon, Earl,” to the driver, he said “Good afternoon, ma’am” in response, and without another word being said my suitcase found its way into the trunk in back and the three of us were settling into place in comfortable leather seats inside, Berger and I facing forward and Vanich across from us facing backward.
The buggy swung out into traffic and headed down the street. “Is this standard here?” I asked, indicating the vehicle with a gesture.
“The cab? More or less,” said Berger. “There are a few towns with electric cabs and a fair number with pedal cabs, but you’ll find horse cabs everywhere there’s taxi service at all. The others don’t produce methane feedstock.”
I considered that. “But no gasoline or diesel cabs.”
“Not since Partition, no.”
That made a certain amount of sense to me. “I’m guessing the embargo had a lot to do with that.”
“Well, to some extent. There was quite a bit of smuggling, of course—Chicago being right on our border.”
I snorted. “And Chicago being Chicago.”  The Free City of Chicago was the smallest of the nations that came out of Partition, and made up for that by being far and away the most gaudily corrupt.
“Well, yes.  But there wasn’t that much of a market for petroleum products,” she went on. “There’s the tailpipe tax, of course, and we also lost most of the necessary infrastructure during the war—highways, pipelines, all of it.”
“I’m surprised your government didn’t subsidize rebuilding.”
“We don’t do things that way here,” she said.
I gave her a long startled look. “Obviously I have a lot to learn,” I said finally.
She nodded. “Outsiders generally do.”
I filed away the word outsider for future reference. “One thing I’ve been wondering since I crossed the border,” I said then. “Or rather two. You really don’t have metanet service in the Lakeland Republic?”
“That’s correct,” she replied at once. “We actually have jamming stations along the borders, though it’s been fifteen or sixteen years since we last had to use them.”
“Hold it,” I said. “Jamming stations?”

“Mr. Carr,” Berger said, “since Partition we’ve fought off three attempts at regime change and one full-blown military invasion. All the regime change campaigns were one hundred per cent coordinated via the metanet— saturation propaganda via social media, flashmobs, swarming attacks, you know the drill. The third one fizzled because we’d rigged a kill switch in what little metanet infrastructure we had by then and shut it down, and after that the legislature voted to scrap what was left. Then when Brazil and the Confederacy invaded in ‘49, one reason they pulled back a bloody stump was that military doctrine these days—theirs, yours, everybody else’s—is fixated on disrupting network infrastructure and realtime comm-comm, and we don’t have those, so they literally had no clue how to fight us. So, yes, we have jamming stations. If you’d like to visit one I can arrange that.”
I took that in. “That won’t be necessary,” I said then. “Just out of curiosity, do you jam anything else?”
“Not any more. We used to jam radio broadcasts from the Confederacy, but that’s because they jammed ours. We got that settled three years ago.”
“Waste of time. Only about three per cent of the Republic’s within range of a ground station, and the satellite situation—well, I’m sure you know at least as much about that as I do.”
I was by no means sure of that, but let it pass. “Okay, and that leads to my second question. How on earth do you take notes when you don’t have veepads?”
Instead of answering, she directed a rueful look at Vanich, who nodded once, as though my words had settled something.
“I’m guessing,” I said then, “that somebody just won a bet.”
“And it wasn’t me,” Berger said. “There are four questions that outsiders always ask, and there’s always a certain amount of speculation, shall we say, about which one gets asked first.” She held up one finger. “How do you take notes?” A second. “How do you find out what’s happening in the world?” A third. “What do you do to contact people?” A fourth. “And how do you pay your bar tab?”
I laughed. “I’ve got a fifth,” I said. “How do you look up facts without Metapedia?”
“That’s an uncommon one, Mr. Carr,” Vanich said. His voice was as bland and featureless as his face. If he wasn’t a spy, I decided, the Lakeland Republic was misusing his talents. “I’ve heard it now and then, but it’s uncommon.”
“To answer your question,” Berger said then, “most people use paper notebooks.” She pulled a flat rectangular shape out of her purse, fanned it open to show pages with neat angular handwriting on them, put it away again. “Available at any stationery store, but you won’t have to worry about that.  There’s one waiting at your hotel room.”
“Thank you,” I said, trying to wrap my head around writing down notes on sheets of paper. It sounded about as primitive as carving them with a chisel on stone. “Just out of curiosity, what about the others? I was planning on asking those sometime soon.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “You find out what’s happening by reading a newspaper or listening to the radio. You contact people by phone, if you’re in a county with phone service, or by writing a letter or sending a radiogram anywhere. You pay your bar tab with cash, and any larger purchases with a check—we’ve got all that set up for you; you’ll just have to visit a bank, and there’s one a block and a half from the hotel. You look up facts in books—your own, if you’ve got them, or a public library’s if you don’t. There’s a branch five blocks from your hotel.”
“Not as convenient as accessing the metanet,” I noted.
“True, but there are more important things than convenience.”
“Like national survival?”
I’d meant the words as an olive branch of sorts, and she took them that way. “Among other things.”
She looked out the window, then, and turned in her seat to face me. “We’re almost to your hotel. I’m going to have to go back to the Capitol right away and see if I can shake some sense into the Restos, and Fred has his own work to get done.  One way or another, there’ll be someone to take you around tomorrow. If you like, after you’ve settled in and had some lunch, I can have somebody come out and show you the tourist sights, or whatever else you’d like to see.”
“Thank you,” I said, “but I’d like to suggest something different. I hear your streets are pretty safe.”
She nodded. “I know the kind of thing you have to deal with in Philadelphia. We don’t have that sort of trouble here.”
“In that case, I’d like to wander around a bit on my own, check out the landscape—maybe visit the public library you mentioned.”
It was a long shot; I figured the Lakeland government would want me under the watchful eye of a handler the whole time I was in the country. To my surprise, she looked relieved. “If that works for you, it works for us,” she said. “I’ll have somebody call you first thing tomorrow—eight o’clock, if that’s not too early.”
“That’ll be fine.”
“With any luck this whole business will have blown over by then and President Meeker can see you right away.”
“Here’s hoping,” I said.
The cab came to a halt. A moment later, the driver opened the door. I shook both their hands, climbed down to the sidewalk.

Retrotopia: The View from a Moving Window

Wed, 2015-09-02 17:36
This is the second installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Readers who haven’t been following The Archdruid Report for long may find it useful to remember that not everything seen along the way has a simple explanation.
***********From the window beside me, the Steubenville station looked like a scene out of an old Bogart vid. The platform closest to the train I was riding was full of people in outdated clothes.  Most of them wore long raincoats that didn’t look a bit like bioplastic, and all of the men and most of the women had hats on. Up above was a roof of glass and ironwork that reminded me irresistibly of the Victorian era, and let daylight down onto everything. The oddest thing about it all, though, is that I didn’t see security troops anywhere. On the other side of the border, anywhere you saw this many people together there’d be at least a squad in digital camo and flak jackets, pointing assault guns ostentatiously at the sidewalk. I remembered the guards at the border, with their clipboards, holstered revolvers, and old-fashioned uniforms, and wondered how on earth the Lakeland Republic got away with that kind of carelessness.
The train finally rolled to a stop, and doors opened. The conductor had warned us that plenty of people would be coming aboard, and he wasn’t kidding: it took better than five minutes for everyone to file onto the car where I was sitting, and by the time they’d finished coming aboard, nearly every seat was taken. The aisle seat next to me wasn’t one of the empty ones; a family with three children settled in right behind me, one child next to the mother, the second next to the father, and then Mom came up to me and asked if I minded having the oldest child sit next to me. I gestured and said, “Sure,” and a boy of maybe ten plopped into the seat. “Now you mind your manners,” the woman told him, and he rolled his eyes, sighed loudly, and said, “Yeah, Mom.”
That wasn’t too promising, but he had a book with him, and as soon as he was settled in his seat, he opened it and didn’t make another sound . I was curious enough to give the book a sidelong glance; it was called Treasure Island, and it was by somebody I’d never heard of named Robert Louis Stevenson; I made a mental note to look up the name and see if he was somebody new I should check out. He wasn’t the only kid in the car who was doing something quiet, either.  Up three rows there was a girl in a blue checked dress and a bonnet who was reading something, too, and behind me, the two kids in the immigrant family were watching everything and not saying a word, though they didn’t look quite as scared as when they boarded.
A couple of solid jolts shook the car. A moment later, I heard the voice of the conductor outside calling out, “Last call for Train Twenty to Toledo via Canton and Sandusky. All aboard!” Doors clattered, the locomotive up ahead sounded its whistle, and with another jolt the train started on its way again.
The station slid away, and I got a street-level view of half a dozen blocks of downtown Steubenville. The sense of having landed on the set of an old Bogart vid was just as strong. To judge by the couple of clocks the train passed—my veepad was still giving me a dark field and the words no signal—it was right around time for the morning commute, but there wasn’t a car to be seen anywhere; the sidewalks bustled with people, and a couple of streetcars rolled past with bells clanging and standing room only on board. The train picked up speed and left the downtown behind, but further out was more of the same: streets full of comfortable-looking houses and apartment buildings, with people walking to work or waiting at streetcar stops.
Further on the houses spread out, and big gardens sprouted all over the place, with the last fall crops visible in patches separated by stubble and brown earth.  A little further, and Steubenville blended smoothly into the same sort of farm country I’d seen since shortly after the train crossed into the Lakeland Republic. The farmhouses and barns looked well-tended, windmills spun and solar water heater panels on the roofs soaked up what sunlight came through the broken clouds, and the roads I saw were unpaved but had fresh gravel on them.
A little further, and the train passed a work gang out in one of the fields. That wasn’t surprising—back on the other side of the border, you saw prison work gangs doing labor on corporate farms all the time—but these didn’t have the slouch and the least-possible-effort sort of movement you see in convicts. They were working their way across a field, digging up turnips as energetically as if they wanted to be there, and others came behind them just as methodically and carried the turnips away in bushel baskets. It was when I noticed where they were taking the turnips that my mouth dropped open.
Just past the field was a wagon with two draft horses hitched up to it. I wondered for a moment if this was an Amish farm—we’ve got Amish in our country, quite a few of them in what used to be the state of Pennsylvania before Partition, and they’re among the few people who’ve really done well in the postwar era—but the wagon had been painted in colors that, though they’d faded, had obviously once been bright. The people in the work gang weren’t dressed in any sort of Amish kit I’d ever seen, either. I shook my head as the work gang and the wagon slipped out of sight behind the train, wondering what kind of weird place I was visiting. This was the twenty-first century, after all, not the nineteenth!
And yet it was like that all the way to Canton—or, to be more precise, it was some variation on the same theme of outdated technology and inefficient land use. All the farms were absurdly small, one to two hundred acres divided up into the sort of mixed farming that modern agriculture discarded most of a century ago, and I didn’t see any trace of modern agricultural machinery: no harvesting drones, no nitrogen injection systems, no quadruple-wide megacombines, nothing. What I did see left me baffled, not least because there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. In one place I’d see trucks driving down paved roads and tractors in the fields, and twenty or thirty miles later it would be draft horses and wagons doing the same jobs.
The train passed through I don’t know how many little towns, and those were the same way: in one I’d see paved streets and a few cars and trucks, in the next the streets were paved with brick and streetcars shared space with horsedrawn carriages, and then there were a few that had brick streets and no streetcars at all. The thing that puzzled me most, though, was that all of the towns, like nearly all the farms, seemed to be thriving. Every scrap of theory I’d learned in business school argued that small towns, like small farms, were hopelessly inefficient and couldn’t possibly support themselves in a modern economy. I’d guessed earlier in the trip that there must be subsidies involved, but this far into Lakeland Republic territory, that explanation wouldn’t wash. I reached for my veepad reflexively to make a note, remembered as I got it out of my pocket that it wouldn’t get a signal, and put it away, feeling a rush of annoyance at the metanet’s absence.
We got to Canton a little ahead of schedule, or so the conductor announced cheerfully, and stopped in the switching yard east of town to lose some freight cars, gain others, and add three more passenger cars and a dining car to the back end of the train. That went quickly, though it involved a lot of jolts and thumps, and before long we were rolling ahead into the city. Canton was a fairly big town; according to what I’d read while researching this trip, it had plenty of factories until the offshoring fad of the late twentieth century scrapped the United States’ manufacturing capacity and left the nation at the mercy of rival powers.  I’d seen the gutted hulks of old factories outside Pittsburgh and a dozen other cities on our side of the border, and assumed that I’d see the same thing here.
I didn’t. What I saw instead, as the train rolled through the outlying districts of Canton, were what looked very much like warehouses and factories open for business. There weren’t many smokestacks to be seen, but the buildings had recent coats of paint on them, boxcars were being pushed down sidings by switching engines, and a mix of trucks and big horsedrawn wagons were lumbering past on the streets. Further in, the train passed the same mix of of office buildings, apartment blocks, and stores I’d seen in Steubenville, and then we slowed and stopped at the Canton station.
That had me remembering Bogart vids again. From my window I could see at least eight platforms to one side of the train I was riding, and through the windows on the other side of the car I was pretty sure I could make out two more. Signs on the platforms noted destinations all over the Lakeland Republic—Morgantown, Bowling Green, Cairo, Madison, Sault Ste. Marie—and the place fairly bustled with passengers heading for this or that train. Some of the passengers from the car I was sitting in got their luggage and headed out into the crowds, and some others came on board, stowed their luggage, and sat down; and the weirdest thing of all was that everyone seemed perfectly comfortable doing without security troops to protect them or modern technology to take care of their needs.
The train finally got under way again, and I got more views of Canton as the track headed northwest through town. About the time the houses started to spread out and the gardens got bigger, the conductor came through the door behind me and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, breakfast service is now open in the dining car, and since so many of the people in this car have been with us since Pittsburgh, you’re first.  If you’d like to head back four cars, the dining car staff will be happy to serve you.”
Just about everyone in the car got up and filed back through the door. I didn’t. I’m one of those people who doesn’t do breakfast; if I eat anything before lunch I end up with stomach trouble. The kid next to me went with his family, and the mother of the immigrant family took her two kids back to the dining car right after them. The father of the immigrant family, though, didn’t join them. After a few minutes he and I were practically alone in the car.
I half turned in my seat, gave him what I hoped would come across as a friendly smile. “Not into breakfast?”
“Too keyed up,” he said, smiling in response. “If I ate now I’d get sick to my stomach.”
I nodded. “I couldn’t help hearing the border guard say that you’re immigrating. That sounds pretty drastic. If you don’t mind my asking, what made you do that?”
His smile vanished, replaced by a wary look. “The wife has family in Ann Arbor,” he said. “They’re sponsoring us, and I got a job offer when we visited this summer. It seems like a good move.”
“Even though you have to give up modern technology?”
The wary look gave way to something that looked uncomfortably like contempt. “Technology? Like what?”
“Well, veepads and the metanet, to start with.”
By this point it was definitely contempt. “Big loss. I can’t afford any of that keech anyway.”
“Why not? You’ve got as much chance as anyone. Work hard, and—”
His expression said “whatever” more clearly than words, and he turned toward the window and away from me.
“No,” I said. “Seriously. I want to understand.”
He turned back to face me. “Yeah? Did you hear my wife start crying there at the border, once they checked our papers?” I nodded, and he went on. “You know why she started crying? Because she’s been working three different jobs, sixty hours a week plus, to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table—and before you start thinking something stupid, mister, I’ve been working more hours than her since before we got married. This is the first time she’s had anything to look forward to but that kind of schedule or worse for the rest of her life, until one of us gets too sick to work and we get chucked onto the street or into the burbs.”
“And you think you’ll be that much better off here?”
He gave me a baffled look, and then laughed a short hard laugh. “You haven’t been here before.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Then open your eyes and take a good plutting look around.” He turned back to the window, and I knew better than to try to continue the conversation.
The landscape rolled by. We were in farm country again, the same patchwork landscape of little farms and little towns, with the same weird incongruities between one place and another. I was paying more attention this time, so I noticed some of the other differences: paved roads, gravel roads, and dirt roads; in some places, streetcars and local rail service, and none of these things in others; towns that had streetlights and others that didn’t. At one point west of Canton, as the train rattled across a bridge, I looked down and honest to God, there were canal boats going both ways on a canal, each one with a mule pulling the towrope as though it was two hundred years ago and the Erie Canal was still in working order.
With my veepad useless, I didn’t have anything to do but watch the landscape roll by. The people who’d gone to breakfast trickled back a few at a time, and the conversation I’d just had with the immigrant replayed over and over again in my mind. Of course I knew perfectly well that things were pretty hard for the poor back home, and the statistics that got churned out quarter after quarter showing steady economic improvement were strictly public relations maneuvers—there been a modest upturn after the Treaty of Richmond was signed and the last closed borders between the North American republics opened up, but the consequences of the Second Civil War and the debt crisis that followed it still weighed down hard on everybody.
It’s one thing to have some more or less abstract idea that times are tough, though, and something else to hear it in the voice of someone who’d been on the losing end of the economy all his life. I started to reach for my veepad to look up honest stats on the job market back home—those weren’t easy to find if you didn’t have connections, but that wasn’t a problem for me—and caught the motion just before my hand reached my pocket. What did people do in the Lakeland Republic, I wondered irritably, when they wanted to make a note of something or look up a fact?
I stared out the window, and after a while—the train was most of the way to Sandusky by then—noticed something that made the crazy quilt pattern of old technologies on the landscape a little clearer and a lot more puzzling. The train had slowed a little, and crossed a road at an angle. The road was paved on one side and dirt on the other; I could see tractors in the middle distance off to the left, where the paved road started, and draft horses closer by on the right. Just where the pavement began was a sign that read Welcome to Huron County.
That got me thinking back over the landscape the train had crossed since the border, and yes, the breaks between one set of technology and another worked out to something like county-line distances. That made me shake my head. Had the Lakeland Republic somehow divvied up the available technology by county, so that some counties got the equivalent of twentieth century infrastructure and others got stuck with the nineteenth-century equivalent? That sounded like political suicide, unless the Republic was a lot more autocratic than the briefing papers I’d read made it sound. Then, of course, there was the fact that the farmhouses and farm towns in the nineteenth-century counties looked just as prosperous, all things considered, as their equivalents in the twentieth-century counties, and that made no sense at all. The farmers with more technology should have outproduced the others, undercut them in price, and driven them out of business in no time.
Huron County slid past the window. Farmland dotted with little towns gave way to a midsized town, which I guessed was the county seat, and then to farmland and little towns again. After a while, the conductor stepped through the door behind me and called out, “Next stop, Sandusky.” A few minutes later, the train swung around a wide curve to the left, and ran just back of the shores of Lake Erie. Off in the distance, at a steep angle ahead, Sandusky’s buildings could be seen rising up above the flat line of the landscape, but that wasn’t what caught my gaze and held it.
Out maybe a quarter mile from shore was a big schooner with three masts, white sails bellying out ahead of the wind. It wasn’t anybody’s luxury yacht, that was for sure; from stem to stern, it looked every inch a working boat. From the direction it was headed, I guessed it must have left Sandusky harbor not long before, and was headed east toward the locks around Niagara Falls, or just possibly toward Erie or Buffalo—since the Treaty of Richmond, I knew, we’d been importing agricultural products from the Lakeland Republic, though I’d never bothered to find out how they got to us. I sat there and watched the ship as it swept past, wondering why they hadn’t done the obvious thing and entrusted their shipping to modern freighters instead. What kind of strange things had been going on here during the years when the Lakeland Republic was locked away behind closed borders?

Retrotopia: Dawn Train from Pittsburgh

Wed, 2015-08-26 17:07
This is the first of a series of posts using the tools of narrative fiction to explore an alternative shape for the future. A hint to readers who haven't been with The Archdruid Report for long: don't expect all your questions to be answered right away.


I got to the Pittsburgh station early. It was a shabby remnant of what must once have been one of those grand old stations you see on history vids, nothing but a bleak little waiting room below and a stair rising alongside a long-defunct escalator to the platforms up top. The waiting room had fresh paint on the walls and the vending machines were the sort of thing you’d find anywhere.  Other than that, the whole place looked as though it had been locked up around the time the last Amtrak trains stopped running and sat there unused for forty years until the border opened up again.
The seats were fiberglass, and must have been something like three quarters of a century old. I found one that didn’t look too likely to break when I sat on it, settled down, got out my veepad and checked the schedule for the umpteenth time. The train I would be riding was listed as on time, arrival 5:10 am Pittsburgh station, departure 5:35 am, scheduled arrival in Toledo Central Station 11:12 am. I tapped the veepad again, checked the news. The election was still all over the place—President Barfield’s concession speech, a flurry of op-ed pieces from various talking heads affiliated with the losing parties about how bad Ellen Montrose would be for the country. I snorted, paged on. Other stories competed for attention: updates on the wars in California and the Balkans, bad news about the hemorrhagic-fever epidemic in Latin America, and worse news from Antarctica, where yet another big ice sheet had just popped loose and was drifting north toward the shipping lanes. 
While the news scrolled past, other passengers filed into the waiting room a few at a time. I could just make them out past the image field the veepad projected into my visual cortex. Two men and a woman in ordinary bioplastic businesswear came in and sat together, talking earnestly about some investment or other. An elderly couple whose clothes made them look like they came straight out of a history vid sat down close to the stair and sat quietly. A little later, a family of four in clothing that looked even more old-fashioned—Mom had a bonnet on her head, and I swear I’m not making that up—came in with carpetbag luggage, and plopped down not far from me. I wasn’t too happy about that, kids being what they are these days, but these two sat down and, after a little bit of squirming, got out a book each and started reading quietly. I wondered if they’d been drugged.
A little later, another family of four came in, wearing the kind of cheap shabby clothes that might as well have the words “urban poor” stamped all over them, and hauling big plastic bags that looked as though everything they owned was stuffed inside. They looked tense, scared, excited. They sat by themselves in a corner, the parents talking to each other in low voices, the kids watching everything with wide eyes and saying nothing. I wondered about them, shrugged mentally, went back to the news.
I’d finished the news and was starting through the day’s textmail, when the loudspeaker on the wall cleared its electronic throat with a hiss of static and said, “Train Twenty-One, service to Toledo via Steubenville, Canton and Sandusky, arriving at Platform One. Please have your tickets and passports ready. Train Twenty-One to Toledo, Platform One.”
I tapped the veepad to sleep, stuffed it in my pocket, got out of my seat with the others, climbed the stairs to the platform. The sky was just turning gray with the first hint of morning, and the air was cold; the whistle of the train sounded long and lonely in the middle distance. I turned to look. I’d never been on a train before, and most of what I knew about them came from history vids and the research I’d done for this trip. Based on what I’d heard about my destination, I wondered if the locomotive would be a rattletrap antique with a big smokestack pumping coal smoke into the air.
What came around the bend into view wasn’t much like my momentary fantasy, though. It was the sort of locomotive you’d have found on any American railroad around 1950, a big diesel-electric machine with a blunt nose and a single big headlight shining down on the track. It whistled again, and then the roar of the engines rose to drown out everything else. The locomotive roared past the platform, and the only thing that surprised me was the smell of french fries that came rushing past with it. Behind it was a long string of boxcars, and behind those, a baggage car and three passenger cars.
The train slowed to a walking pace and then stopped as the passenger cars came up to the platform. A conductor in a blue uniform and hat swung down from the last car. “Tickets and passports, please,” he said, and I got out my veepad, woke it, activated the flat screen and got both documents on it.
“Physical passport, please,” the conductor said when he got to me.
“Sorry.” I fumbled in my pocket, handed it to him. He checked it, smiled, said, “Thank you, Mr. Carr. You probably know this already, but you’ll need a paper ticket for the return trip.”
“I’ve got it, thanks.”
“Great.” He moved on to the family with the plastic bag luggage. The mother said something in a low voice, handed over tickets and something that didn’t look like a passport. “That’s fine,” said the conductor. “You’ll need to have your immigration papers out when we get to the border.”
The woman murmured something else, and the conductor went onto the elderly couple, leaving me to wonder about what I’d just heard. Immigration? That implied, first, that these people actually wanted to live in the Lakeland Republic, and second, that they were being allowed in. Neither of those seemed likely to me. I made a note on my veepad to ask about immigration once I got to Toledo, and to compare what they told me to what I could find out once I got back to Philadelphia.
The conductor finished taking tickets and checking passports, and called out, “All aboard!”
I went with the others to the first of the three passenger cars, climbed the stair, turned left. The interior was about what I’d expected, row after row of double seats facing forward, but everything looked clean and bright and there was a lot more leg room than I was used to. I went about halfway up, slung my suitcase in the overhead rack and settled in the window seat. We sat for a while, and then the car jolted once and began to roll forward. 
We went through the western end of Pittsburgh first of all, past the big dark empty skyscrapers of the Golden Triangle, and then across the river and into the western suburbs. Those were shantytowns built out of the scraps of old housing developments and strip malls, the sort of thing you find around most cities these days when you don’t find worse, mixed in with old rundown housing developments that probably hadn’t seen a bucket of paint or a new roof since the United States came apart. Then the suburbs ended, and things got uglier.
The country west of Pittsburgh got hit hard during the Second Civil War, I knew, and harder still when the border was closed after Partition. I’d wondered, while planning the trip, how much it had recovered in the three years since the Treaty of Richmond. Looking out of the window as the sky turned gray behind us, I got my answer: not much. There were some corporate farms that showed signs of life, but the small towns the train rolled through were bombed-out shells, and there were uncomfortable stretches where every house and barn I could see was a tumbledown ruin and young trees were rising in what had to have been fields and pastures a few decades back. After a while it was too depressing to keep looking out the window, and I pulled out my veepad again and spent a good long while answering textmails and noting down some questions I’d want to ask in Toledo.
I’d gotten caught up on mail when the door at the back end of the car slid open. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the conductor said, “we’ll be arriving at the border in about five minutes. You’ll need to have your passports ready, and immigrants should have their papers out as well. Thank you.”
We rolled on through a dense stand of trees, and then into open ground. Up ahead, a pair of roads cut straight north and south across country. Until three years ago, there’d been a tall razor-wire fence between them, soldiers patrolling our side, the other side pretty much a complete mystery.  The fence was gone now, and there were two buildings for border guards, one on each side of the line. The one on the eastern side was a modern concrete-and-steel item that looked like a skyscraper had stopped there, squatted, and laid an egg. As we got closer to it, I could see the border guards in digital-fleck camo, helmets, and flak vests, standing around with assault rifles.
Then we passed over into Lakeland Republic territory, and I got a good look at the building on the other side. It was a pleasant-looking brick structure that could have been a Carnegie-era public library or the old city hall of some midsized town, and the people who came out of the big arched doorways to meet the train as it slowed to a halt didn’t look like soldiers at all.
The door slid open again, and I turned around. One of the border guards, a middle-aged woman with coffee-colored skin, came into the car. She was wearing a white uniform blouse and blue pants, and the only heat she was carrying was a revolver tucked unobtrusively in a holster at her hip. She had a clipboard with her, and went up the aisle, checking everybody’s passports against a list.
I handed her mine when she reached me. “Mr. Carr,” she said with a broad smile. “We heard you’d be coming through this morning. Welcome to the Lakeland Republic.”
“Thank you,” I said. She handed me back the passport, and went on to the family with the plastic bag luggage. They handed her a sheaf of papers, and she went through them quickly, signed something halfway through, and then handed them back. “Okay, you’re good,” she said. “Welcome to the Lakeland Republic.”
“We’re in?” the mother of the family asked, as though she didn’t believe it.
“You’re in,” the border guard told her. “Legal as legal can be.”
“Oh my God. Thank you.” She burst into tears, and her husband hugged her and patted her on the back. The border guard gave him a grin and went on to the family in the old-fashioned clothing.
I thought about that while the border guard finished checking passports and left the car. Outside, two more guards with a dog finished going along the train, and gave a thumbs up to the conductor. A minute later, the train started rolling again. That’s it? I wondered. No metal detectors, no x-rays, nothing? Either they were very naive or very confident.
We passed the border zone and a screen of trees beyond it, and suddenly the train was rolling through a landscape that couldn’t have been more different from the one on the other side of the line. It was full of farms, but they weren’t the big corporate acreages I was used to. I counted houses and barns as we passed, and guesstimated the farms were one to two hundred acres each; all of them were in mixed crops, not efficient monocropping. The harvest was mostly in, but I’d grown up in farm country and knew what a field looked like after it was put into corn, wheat, cabbages, turnips, industrial hemp, or what have you. Every farm seemed to have all of those and more, not to mention cattle in the pasture, pigs in a pen, a garden and an orchard. I shook my head, baffled. It was a hopelessly inefficient way to run agribusiness, I knew that from my time in business school, and yet the briefing papers I’d read while getting ready for this trip said that the Lakeland Republic exported plenty of agricultural products and imported almost none. I wondered if the train would pass some real farms further in.
We passed more of the little mixed farms, and a couple of little towns that were about as far from being bombed-out shells as you care to imagine. There were homes with lights on and businesses that were pretty obviously getting ready to open for the day. All of them had little brick train stations, though we didn’t stop at any of those—I wondered if they had light rail or something. Watching the farms and towns move past, I thought about the contrast with the landscape on the other side of the border, and winced, then stopped and reminded myself that the farms and towns had to be subsidized. Small towns weren’t any more economically viable than small farms, after all. Was all this some kind of Potemkin village setup, for the purpose of impressing visitors?
The door at the back of the car slid open, and the conductor came in. “Next stop, Steubenville,” he said. “Folks, we’ve got a bunch of people coming on in Steubenville, so please don’t take up any more seats than you have to.”
Steubenville had been part of the state of Ohio before Partition, I remembered. The name of the town stirred something else in my memory, though. I couldn’t quite get the recollection to surface, and decided to look it up. I pulled out my veepad, tapped it, and got a dark field and the words: no signal. I tapped it again, got the same thing, opened the connectivity window and found out that the thing wasn’t kidding. There was no metanet signal anywhere within range. I stared at it, wondered how I was going to check the news or keep up with my textmail, and then wondered: how the plut am I going to buy anything, or pay my hotel bill?
The dark field didn’t have any answers. I decided I’d have to sort that out when I got to Toledo; I’d been invited, after all. Maybe they had connectivity in the big cities, or something. The story was that there wasn’t metanet anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, but I had my doubts about that—how can you manage anything this side of a bunch of  mud huts without net connections? No doubt, I decided, they had some kind of secure net or something. We’d talked about doing something of the same kind back in Philadelphia more than once, just for government use, so the next round of netwars didn’t trash our infrastructure the way the infrastructure of the old union got trashed by the Chinese in ‘21.
Still, the dark field and those two words upset me more than I wanted to admit. It had been more years than I wanted to think about since I’d been more than a click away from the metanet, and being cut off from it left me feeling adrift.
The sun cleared low clouds behind us, and the train rolled into what I guessed was East Steubenville. I’d expected the kind of suburbs I’d seen on the way out of Pittsburgh, dreary rundown housing interspersed with the shantytowns of the poor. What I saw instead left me shaken. The train passed tree-lined streets full of houses that had bright paint on the walls and shingles on the roofs, little local business districts with shops and restaurants open for business, and a school that didn’t look like a medium-security prison. The one thing that puzzled me was that there were no cars visible, just tracks down some of the streets and once, improbably, an old-fashioned streetcar that paced the train for a while and then veered off in a different direction. Most of the houses seemed to have gardens out back, and the train passed one big empty lot that was divided into garden plots and had signs around it saying “community garden.” I wondered if that meant food was scarce here.
A rattle and a bump, and the train was crossing the Ohio River on a big new railroad bridge. Ahead was Steubenville proper. That’s when I remembered the thing that tried to surface earlier:  there was a battle at Steubenville, a big one, toward the end of the Second Civil War. I remembered details from  headlines I’d seen when I was a kid, and a history vid I’d watched a couple of years ago; a Federal army held the Ohio crossings against Alliance forces for most of two months before Anderson punched straight through the West Virginia front and made the whole thing moot. I remembered photos of what Steubenville looked like after the fighting: a blackened landcape of ruins where every wall high enough to hide a soldier behind it had gotten hit by its own personal artillery shell.
That wasn’t what I saw spreading out ahead as the train crossed the Ohio, though. The Steubenville I saw was a pleasant-looking city with a downtown full of three- and four-story buildings, surrounded by neighborhoods of houses, some row houses and some detached. There were streetcars on the west side of the river, too—I spotted two of them as we got close to the shore—and also a few cars, though not many of the latter.  The trees that lined the streets were small enough that you could tell they’d been planted after the fighting was over. Other than that, Steubenville looked like a comfortable, established community.
I stared out the window as the train rolled off the bridge and into Steubenville, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Back on the other side of the border, and everywhere else I’d been in what used to be the United States, you still saw wreckage from the war years all over the place. Between the debt crisis and the state of the world economy, the money that would have been needed to rebuild or even demolish the ruins was just too hard to come by. Things should have been much worse here, since the Lakeland Republic had been shut out of world credit markets for thirty years after the default of ‘32—but they weren’t worse. They looked considerably better. I reached for my veepad, remembered that I couldn’t get a signal, and frowned. If they couldn’t even afford the infrastructure for the metanet, how the plut could they afford to rebuild their housing stock?
The cheerful brick buildings of Steubenville’s downtown didn’t offer me any answers. I sat back, frowning, as the train rattled through a switch and rolled into the Steubenville station. “Steubenville,” the conductor called out from the door behind me, and the train began to slow.

The Last Refuge of the Incompetent

Wed, 2015-08-19 16:37
There are certain advantages to writing out the ideas central to this blog in weekly bursts. Back in the days before the internet, when a galaxy of weekly magazines provided the same free mix of ideas and opinions that fills the blogosphere today, plenty of writers kept themselves occupied turning out articles and essays for the weeklies, and the benefits weren’t just financial: feedback from readers, on the one hand, and the contributions of other writers in related fields, on the other, really do make it easier to keep slogging ahead at the writer’s lonely trade.
This week’s essay has benefited from that latter effect, in a somewhat unexpected way. In recent weeks, here and there in the corners of the internet I frequent, there’s been another round of essays and forum comments insisting that it’s time for the middle-class intellectuals who frequent the environmental and climate change movements to take up violence against the industrial system. That may not seem to have much to do with the theme of the current sequence of posts—the vacuum that currently occupies the place in our collective imagination where meaningful visions of the future used to be found—but there’s a connection, and following it out will help explain one of the core themes I want to discuss.
The science fiction author Isaac Asimov used to say that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. That’s a half-truth at best, for there are situations in which effective violence is the only tool that will do what needs to be done—we’ll get to that in a moment. It so happens, though, that a particular kind of incompetence does indeed tend to turn to violence when every other option has fallen flat, and goes down in a final outburst of pointless bloodshed. It’s unpleasantly likely at this point that the climate change movement, or some parts of it, may end up taking that route into history’s dumpster; here again, we’ll get to that a little further on in this post.
It’s probably necessary to say at the outset that the arguments I propose to make here have nothing to do with the ethics of violence, and everything to do with its pragmatics as a means of bringing about social change. Ethics in general are a complete quagmire in today’s society.  Nietzsche’s sly description of moral philosophy as the art of propping up inherited prejudices with bad logic has lost none of its force since he wrote it, and since his time we’ve also witnessed the rise of professional ethicists, whose jobs consist of coming up with plausible excuses for whatever their corporate masters want to do this week. The ethical issues surrounding violence are at least as confused as those around any of the other messy realities of human life, and in some ways, more so than most.
Myself, I consider violence enitrely appropriate in some situations. Many of my readers may have heard, for example, of an event that took place a little while back in Kentucky, where a sex worker was attacked by a serial killer.  While he was strangling her, she managed to get hold of his handgun, and proceeded to shoot him dead. To my mind, her action was morally justified. Once he attacked her, no matter what she did, somebody was going to die, and killing him not only turned the violence back on its originator, it also saved the lives of however many other women the guy might have killed before the police got to him—if they ever did; crimes against sex workers, and for that matter crimes against women, are tacitly ignored by a fairly large number of US police departments these days.
Along the same lines, a case can be made that revolutionary violence against a political and economic system is morally justified if the harm being done by that system is extreme enough. That’s not a debate I’m interested in exploring here, though.  Again, it’s not ethics but pragmatics that I want to discuss, because whether or not revolutionary violence is justified in some abstract moral sense is far less important right now than whether it’s an effective response to the situation we’re in. That’s not a question being asked, much less answered, by the people who are encouraging environmental and climate change activists to consider violence against the system.
Violence is not a panacea. It’s a tool, and like any other tool, it’s well suited to certain tasks and utterly useless for others. Political violence in particular is a surprisingly brittle and limited tool. Even when it has the support of a government’s resource base, it routinely flops or backfires, and a group that goes in for political violence without the resources and technical assistance of some government somewhere has to play its hand exceedingly well, or it’s going to fail. Furthermore, there are many cases in which violence isn’t useful as a means of social change, as other tools can do the job more effectively.
Pay attention to the history of successful revolutions and it’s not hard to figure out how to carry out political violence—and far more importantly, how not to do so. The most important point to learn from history is that successful violence in a political context doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s the final act of a long process, and the more thoroughly that process is carried out, the less violence is needed when crunch time comes. Let’s take a few paragraphs to walk through the process and see how it’s done.
The first and most essential step in the transformation of any society is the delegitimization of the existing order. That doesn’t involve violence, and in fact violence at this first stage of the process is catastrophically counterproductive—a lesson, by the way, that the US military has never been able to learn, which is why its attempts to delegitimize its enemies (usually phrased in such language as “winning minds and hearts”) have always been so embarrassingly inept and ineffective. The struggle to delegitimize the existing order has to be fought on cultural, intellectual, and ideological battlefields, not physical ones, and its targets are not people or institutions but the aura of legitimacy and inevitability that surrounds any established political and economic order. 
Those of my readers who want to know how that’s done might want to read up on the cultural and intellectual life of France in the decades before the Revolution. It’s a useful example, not least because the people who wanted to bring down the French monarchy came from almost exactly the same social background as today’s green radicals: disaffected middle-class intellectuals with few resources other than raw wit and erudition. That turned out to be enough, as they subjected the monarchy—and even more critically, the institutions and values that supported it—to sustained and precise attack from constantly shifting positions, engaging in savage mockery one day and earnest pleas for reform the next, exploiting every weakness and scandal for maximum effect. By the time the crisis finally arrived in 1789, the monarchy had been so completely defeated on the battlefield of public opinion that next to nobody rallied to its defense until after the Revolution was a fait accompli.
The delegitimization of the existing order is only the first step in the process. The second step is political, and consists of building a network of alliances with existing and potential power centers and pressure groups that might be willing to support revolutionary change. Every political system, whatever its official institutional form might be, consists in practice of just such a network of power centers—that is, groups of people who have significant political, economic, or social influence—and pressure groups—that is, other groups of people who lack such influence but can give or withhold their support in ways that can sometimes extract favors from the power centers.
In today’s America, for example, the main power centers are found in what we may as well call the bureaucratic-industrial complex, the system of revolving-door relationships that connect big corporations, especially the major investment banks, with the major Federal bureaucracies, especially the Treasury and the Pentagon. There are other power centers as well—for example, the petroleum complex, which has its own ties to the Pentagon—which cooperate and compete by turns with the New York-DC axis of influence—and then there are pressure groups of many kinds, some more influential, some less, some reduced to the status of captive constituencies whose only role in the political process is to rally the vote every four years and have their agenda ignored by their supposed friends in office in between elections. The network of power centers, pressure groups, and captive constituencies that support the existing order of things is the real heart of political power, and it’s what has to be supplanted in order to bring systemic change.
Effective revolutionaries know that in order to overthrow the existing order of society, they have to put together a comparable network that will back them against the existing order, and grow it to the point that it starts attracting key power centers away from the network of the existing order. That’s a challenge, but not an impossible one. In any troubled society, there are always plenty of potential power centers that have been excluded from the existing order and its feeding trough, and are thus interested in backing a change that will give them the power they want and don’t have. In France before the Revolution, for example, there were plenty of wealthy middle-class people who were shut out of the political system by the aristocracy and the royal court, and the philosophes went out of their way to appeal to them and get their support—an easy job, since the philosophes and the nouveaux-richesshared similar backgrounds. That paid off handsomely once the crisis came.
In any society, troubled or not, there are also always pressure groups, plenty of them, that are interested in getting more access to the various goodies that power centers can dole out, and can be drawn into alliance with a rising protorevolutionary faction. The more completely the existing order of things has been delegitimized, the easier it is to build such alliances, and the alliances can in turn be used to feed the continuing process of delegitimization. Here again, as in the first stage of the process, violence is a hindrance rather than a help, and it’s best if the subject never even comes up for discussion; assembling the necessary network of alliances is much easier when nobody has yet had to face up to the tremendous risks involved in revolutionary violence.
By the time the endgame arrives, therefore, you’ve got an existing order that no longer commands the respect and loyalty of most of the population, and a substantial network of pressure groups and potential power centers supporting a revolutionary agenda. Once the situation reaches that stage, the question of how to arrange the transfer of power from the old regime to the new one is a matter of tactics, not strategy. Violence is only one of the available options, and again, it’s by no means always the most useful one. There are many ways to break the existing order’s last fingernail grip on the institutions of power, once that grip has been loosened by the steps already mentioned.
What happens, on the other hand, to groups that don’t do the necessary work first, and turn to violence anyway? Here again, history has plenty to say about that, and the short form is that they lose. Without the delegitimization of the existing order of society and the creation of networks of support among pressure groups and potential power centers, turning to political violence guarantees total failure.
For some reason, for most of the last century, the left has been unable or unwilling to learn that lesson. What’s happened instead, over and over again, is that a movement pursuing radical change starts out convinced that the existing order of society already lacks popular legitimacy, and so fails to make a case that appeals to anybody outside its own ranks. Having failed at the first step, it tries to pressure existing power centers and pressure groups into supporting its agenda, rather than building a competing network around its own agenda, and gets nowhere. Finally, having failed at both preliminary steps, it either crumples completely or engages in pointless outbursts of violence against the system, which are promptly and brutally crushed. Any of my readers who remember the dismal history of the New Left in the US during the 1960s and early 1970s already know this story, right down to the fine details.
With this in mind, let’s look at the ways in which the climate change movement has followed this same trajectory of abject failure over the last fifteen years or so.
The task of the climate change movement at the dawn of the twenty-first century was difficult but by no means impossible. Their ostensible goal was to create a consensus in the world’s industrial nations that would support the abandonment of fossil fuels and a transition to the less energy-intensive ways of living that renewable resources can provide. That would have required a good many well-off people to accept a decline in their standards of living, but that’s far from the insuperable obstacle so many people seem to think it must be. When Winston Churchill told the British people “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” his listeners roared their approval. For reasons that probably reach far into our evolutionary past, a call to shared sacrifice usually gets a rousing response, so long as the people who are being asked to sacrifice have reason to believe something worthwhile will come of it.
That, however, was precisely what the climate change movement was unable to provide. It’s harsh but not, I think, unfair to describe the real agenda of the movement as the attempt to create a future in which the industrial world’s middle classes could keep on enjoying the benefits of their privileged lifestyle without wrecking the atmosphere in the process. Of course it’s not exactly easy to convince everyone else in the world to put aside all their own aspirations for the sake of the already privileged, and so the spokespeople of the climate change movement generally didn’t talk about what they hoped to achieve. Instead, they fell into the most enduring bad habit of the left, and ranted instead about how awful the future would be if the rest of the world didn’t fall into line behind them.
On the off chance that any of my readers harbor revolutionary ambitions, may I offer a piece of helpful advice? If you want people to follow your lead, you have to tell them where you intend to take them. Talking exclusively about what’s going to happen if they don’t follow you will not cut it. Rehashing the same set of talking points about how everyone’s going to die if the whole world doesn’t rally around you emphatically will not cut it. The place where you’re leading them can be difficult and dangerous, the way there can be full of struggle, sacrifice and suffering, and they’ll still flock to your banner—in fact, young men will respond to that kind of future more enthusiastically than to any other, especially if you can lighten the journey with beer and the occasional barbecue—but you have to be willing to talk about your destination. You also have to remember that the phrase “shared sacrifice” includes the word “shared,” and not expect everyone else to give up something so that you don’t have to.
So the climate change movement entered the arena with one hand tied behind its back and the other hand hauling a heavy suitcase stuffed to the bursting point with middle class privilege. Its subsequent behavior did nothing to overcome that initial disadvantage. When the defenders of the existing order counterattacked, as of course they did, the climate change movement did nothing to retake the initiative and undermine its adversaries; preaching to the green choir took the place of any attempt to address the concerns of the wider public; over and over again, climate change activists allowed the other side to define the terms of the debate and then whined about the resulting defeat rather than learning anything from it. Of course the other side used every trick in the book, and then some; so? That’s how the game is played. Successful movements for change realize that, and plan accordingly.
We don’t even have to get into the abysmal failure of the climate change movement to seek out allies among the many pressure groups and potential power centers that might have backed it, if it had been able to win the first and most essential struggle in the arena of public opinion. The point I want to make is that at this point in the curve of failure, violence really is the last refuge of the incompetent. What, after all, would be the result if some of the middle class intellectuals who make up the core of the climate change movement were to pick up some guns, assemble the raw materials for a few bombs, and try to use violence to make their point? They might well kill some people before the FBI guns them down or hauls them off to life-plus terms in Leavenworth; they would very likely finish off climate change activism altogether, by making most Americans fear and distrust anyone who talks about it—but would their actions do the smallest thing to slow the dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the resulting climate chaos? Of course not.
What makes the failure of the climate change movement so telling is that during the same years that it peaked and crashed, another movement has successfully conducted a prerevolutionary campaign of the classic sort here in the US. While the green Left has been spinning its wheels and setting itself up for failure, the populist Right has carried out an extremely effective program of delegitimization aimed at the federal government and, even more critically, the institutions and values that support it. Over the last fifteen years or so, very largely as a result of that program, a great many Americans have gone from an ordinary, healthy distrust of politicians to a complete loss of faith in the entire American project. To a remarkable extent, the sort of rock-ribbed middle Americans who used to insist that of course the American political system is the best in the world are now convinced that the American political system is their enemy, and the enemy of everything they value.
The second stage of the prerevolutionary process, the weaving of a network of alliances with pressure groups and potential power centers, is also well under way. Watch which groups are making common cause with one another on the rightward fringes of society these days and you can see a competent revolutionary strategy at work. This isn’t something I find reassuring—quite the contrary, in fact; aside from my own admittedly unfashionable feelings of patriotism, one consistent feature of revolutions is that the government that comes into power after the shouting and the shooting stop is always more repressive than the one that was in power beforehand. Still, the way things are going, it seems likely to me that the US will see the collapse of its current system of government, probably accompanied with violent revolution or civil war, within a decade or two.
Meanwhile, as far as I can see, the climate change movement is effectively dead in its tracks, and we no longer have time to make something happen before the rising spiral of climate catastrophe begins—as my readers may have noticed, that’s already well under way. From here on in, it’s probably a safe bet that anthropogenic climate change will accelerate until it fulfills the prophecy of The Limits to Growth and forces the global industrial economy to its knees. Any attempt to bring human society back into some kind of balance with ecological reality will have to get going during and after that tremendous crisis. That requires playing a long game, but then that’s going to be required anyway, to do the things that the climate change movement failed to do, and do them right this time.
With that in mind, I’m going to be taking this blog in a slightly different direction next week, and for at least a few weeks to come. I’ve talked in previous posts about intentional technological regression as an option, not just for individuals but as a matter of public policy. I’ve also talked at quite some length about the role that narrative plays in helping to imagine alternative futures. With that in mind, I’ll be using the tools of fiction to suggest a future that zooms off at right angles to the expectations of both ends of the current political spectrum. Pack a suitcase, dear readers; your tickets will be waiting at the station. Next Wednesday evening, we’ll be climbing aboard a train for Retrotopia.

The War Against Change

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:27
Last week’s post explored the way that the Democratic party over the last four decades has abandoned any claim to offer voters a better future, and has settled for offering them a future that’s not quite as bad as the one the Republicans have in mind. That momentous shift can be described in many ways, but the most useful of them, to my mind, is one that I didn’t bring up last week: the Democrats have become America’s conservative party.
Yes, I know. That’s not something you’re supposed to say in today’s America, where “conservative” and “liberal” have become meaningless vocal sounds linked with the greedy demands of each party’s assortment of pressure groups and the plaintive cries of its own flotilla of captive constituencies. Still, back in the day when those words still meant something, “conservative” meant exactly what the word sounds like: a political stance that focuses on conserving some existing state of affairs, which liberals and radicals want to replace with some different state of affairs. Conservative politicians and parties—again, back when the word meant something—used to defend existing political arrangements against attempts to change them.
That’s exactly what the Democratic Party has been doing for decades now. What it’s trying to preserve, of course, is the welfare-state system of the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s—or, more precisely, the fragments of that system that still survive. That’s the status quo that the Democrats are attempting to hold in place. The consequences of that conservative mission are unfolding around us in any number of ways, but the one that comes to mind just now is the current status of presidential candidate Bernard Sanders as a lightning rod for an all too familiar delusion of the wing of the Democratic party that still considers itself to be on the left.
The reason Sanders comes to mind so readily just now is that last week’s post attracted an odd response from some of its readers. In the course of that post—which was not, by the way, on the subject of the American presidential race—I happened to mention three out of the twenty-odd candidates currently in the running. Somehow I didn’t get taken to task by supporters of Michael O’Malley, Ted Cruz, Jesse Ventura, or any of the other candidates I didn’t mention, with one exception: supporters of Sanders came out of the woodwork to denounce me for not discussing their candidate, as though he had some kind of inalienable right to air time in a blog post that, again, was not about the election.
I found the whole business a source of wry amusement, but it also made two points that are relevant to this week’s post. On the one hand, what makes Sanders’ talking points stand out among those of his rivals is that he isn’t simply talking about maintaining the status quo; his proposals include steps that would restore a few of the elements of the welfare state that have been dismantled over the last four decades. That’s the extent of his radicalism—and of course it speaks reams about the state of the Democratic party more generally that so modest, even timid, a proposal is fielding shrieks of outrage from the political establishment just now.
The second point, and to my mind the more interesting of the two, is the way that Sanders’ campaign has rekindled the same messianic fantasies that clustered around Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in their first presidential runs. I remember rather too clearly the vehement proclamations by diehard liberals in 1992 that putting Clinton in office would surely undo all the wrongs of the Reagan and Bush I eras; I hope none of my readers have forgotten the identical fantasies that gathered around Barack Obama in 2008. We can apparently expect another helping of them this time around, with Sanders as the beneficiary, and no doubt those of us who respond to them with anything short of blind enthusiasm will be denounced just as heatedly this time, too.
It bears remembering that despite those fantasies, Bill Clinton spent eight years in the White House following Ronald Reagan’s playbook nearly to the letter, and Barack Obama has so far spent his two terms doing a really inspired imitation of the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush. If by some combination of sheer luck and hard campaigning, Bernie Sanders becomes the next president of the United States, it’s a safe bet that the starry-eyed leftists who helped put him into office will once again get to spend four or eight years trying to pretend that their candidate isn’t busy betraying all of the overheated expectations that helped put him into office. As Karl Marx suggested in one of his essays, if history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy but the second is generally farce; he didn’t mention what the third time around was like, but we may just get to find out.
The fact that this particular fantasy has so tight a grip on the imagination of the Democratic party’s leftward wing is also worth studying. There are many ways that a faction whose interests are being ignored by the rest of its party, and by the political system in general, can change that state of affairs. Unquestioning faith that this or that leader will do the job for them is not generally a useful strategy under such conditions, though, especially when that faith takes the place of any more practical activity. History has some very unwelcome things to say, for that matter, about the dream of political salvation by some great leader; so far it seems limited to certain groups on the notional left of the electorate, but if it spreads more widely, we could be looking at the first stirrings of the passions and fantasies that could bring about a new American fascism.
Meanwhile, just as the Democratic party in recent decades has morphed into America’s conservative party, the Republicans have become its progressive party. That’s another thing you’re not supposed to say in today’s America, because of the bizarre paralogic that surrounds the concept of progress in our collective discourse. What the word “progress” means, as I hope at least some of my readers happen to remember, is continuing further in the direction we’re already going—and that’s all it means. To most Americans today, though, the actual meaning of the word has long since been obscured behind a burden of vague emotion that treats “progressive” as a synonym for “good.” Notice that this implies the very odd belief that the direction in which we’re going is good, and can never be anything other than good.
For the last forty years, mind you, America has been moving steadily along an easily defined trajectory. We’ve moved step by step toward more political and economic inequality, more political corruption, more impoverishment for those outside the narrowing circles of wealth and privilege, more malign neglect toward the national infrastructure, and more environmental disruption, along with a steady decline in literacy and a rolling collapse in public health, among other grim trends. These are the ways in which we’ve been progressing, and that’s the sense in which the GOP counts as America’s current progressive party: the policies being proposed by GOP candidates will push those same changes even further than they’ve already gone, resulting in more inequality, corruption, impoverishment, and so on.
So the 2016 election is shaping up to be a contest between one set of candidates who basically want to maintain the wretchedly unsatisfactory conditions facing the American people today, and another set who want to make those conditions worse, with one outlier on the Democratic side who says he wants to turn the clock back to 1976 or so, and one outlier on the Republican side who apparently wants to fast forward things to the era of charismatic dictators we can probably expect in the not too distant future. It’s not too hard to see why so many people looking at this spectacle aren’t exactly seized with enthusiasm for any of the options being presented to them by the existing political order.
The question that interests me most about all this is the one I tried to raise last week—why, in the face of so many obvious dysfunctions, are so many people in and out of the political arena frozen into a set of beliefs that convince them that the only possibilities available to us involve either staying exactly where we are or going further along the route that’s landed us in this mess? No doubt a good many things have contributed to that bizarre mental fixation, but there’s one factor that may not have received the attention it deserves: the remarkable dominance of a particular narrative in the most imaginative fiction and mass media of our time. As far as I know, nobody’s given that narrative a name yet, so I’ll exercise that prerogative and call it The War Against Change.
You know that story inside and out. There’s a place called Middle-Earth, or the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, or what have you—the name doesn’t matter, the story’s the same in every case. All of a sudden this place is threatened by an evil being named Sauron, or Voldemort, or—well, you can fill in the blanks for yourself. Did I mention that this evil being is evil? Yes, in fact, he’s evilly evil out of sheer evil evilness, without any motive other than the one just named.  What that evilness amounts to in practice, though, is that he wants to change things. Of course the change is inevitably portrayed in the worst possible light, but what it usually comes down to is that the people who currently run things will lose their positions of power, and will be replaced by the bad guy and his minions—any resemblance to the rhetoric surrounding US presidential elections is doubtless coincidental.
But wait!  Before the bad guy and his evil minions can change things, a plucky band of heroes goes swinging into action to stop his evil scheme, and of course they succeed in the nick of time. The bad guy gets the stuffing pounded out of him, the people who are supposed to run things keep running things, everything settles down just the way it was before he showed up. Change is stopped in its tracks, and all of the characters who matter breathe a big sigh of relief and live happily ever after, or until filming starts on the sequel, take your pick.
Now of course that’s a very simplified version of The War Against Change. In the hands of a really capable author, and we’ll get to one of those in a minute, that story can quite readily yield great literature. Even so, it’s a very curious sort of narrative to be as popular as it is, especially for a society that claims to be in love with change and novelty. The War Against Change takes place in a world in which everything’s going along just the way things are supposed to be.  The bad guy shows up and tries to change things, he gets clobbered by the good guys, and then everything goes on just the way it was. Are there, ahem, problems with the way things are run? Might changing things be a good idea, if the right things are changed?  Does the bad guy and his evil minions possibly even have motives other than sheer evilly evil evilness for wanting to change things?  That’s not part of the narrative. At most, one or more of the individuals who are running things may be problematic, and have to be pushed aside by our plucky band of heroes so they can get on with the business of bashing the bad guy.
It happens now and then, in fact, that authors telling the story of The War Against Change go out of their way to make fun of the possibility that anyone might reasonably object to the established order of things. Did anyone else among my readers feel vaguely sick while reading the Harry Potter saga, when they encountered Rowling’s rather shrill mockery of Hermione whatsername’s campaign on behalf of the house elves? To me, at least, it was rather too reminiscent of “No, no, our darkies love their Massa!”
That’s actually a side issue, though. The core of the narrative is that the goal of the good guys, the goal that defines them as good guys, is to make sure that nothing changes. That becomes a source of tremendous if unintentional irony in the kind of imaginative fiction that brings imagery from mythology and legend into a contemporary setting. I’m thinking here, as one example out of many, of a series of five children’s novels—The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper—the first four of which were among the delights of my childhood. You have two groups of magical beings, the Light and the Dark—yes, it’s pretty Manichean—who are duking it out in present-day Britain.
The Dark, as you’ve all probably figured out already, is trying to change things, and the Light is doing the plucky hero routine and trying to stop them. That’s all the Light does; it doesn’t, heaven help us, do anything about the many other things that a bunch of magical beings might conceivably want to fix in 1970s Britain. The Light has no agenda of its own at all; it’s there to stop the Dark from changing things, and that’s it. Mind you, the stories are packed full of splendid, magical stuff, the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to win the heart and feed the imagination of any child stuck in the dark heart of American suburbia, as I was at the time.
Then came the fifth book, Silver on the Tree, which was published in 1977.  The Light and the Dark finally had their ultimate cataclysmic showdown, the Dark is prevented from changing things...and once that’s settled, the Light packs its bags and heads off into the sunset, leaving the protagonists sitting there in present-day Britain with all the magic gone for good. I loathed the book. So did a lot of other people—I’ve never yet heard it discussed without terms like “wretchedly disappointing” being bandied around—but I suspect the miserable ending was inescapable, given the frame into which the story had already been fixed. Cooper had committed herself to telling the story of The War Against Change, and it was probably impossible for her to imagine any other ending.
 Now of course there’s a reason why this particular narrative took on so overwhelming a role in the imaginative fiction and media of the late twentieth century, and that reason is the force of nature known as J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m by no means sure how many of my readers who weren’t alive in the 1960s and 1970s have any idea how immense an impact Tolkien’s sprawling trilogy The Lord of the Rings had on the popular imagination of that era, at a time when buttons saying "Frodo Lives!" and "Go Go Gandalf" were everywhere and every reasonably hip bookstore sold posters with the vaguely psychedelic front cover art of the first Ballantine paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. In the formative years of the Boomer generation, Tolkien’s was a name to conjure with.
What makes this really odd, all things considered, is that Tolkien himself was a political reactionary who opposed nearly everything his youthful fans supported. The Boomers who were out there trying to change the system in the Sixties were simultaneously glorifying a novel that celebrates war, monarchy, feudal hierarchy, and traditional gender roles, and includes an irritable swipe at the social welfare program of post-World War Two Britain—that’s what Lotho Sackville-Baggins’ government of the Shire amounts to, with its “gatherers” and “sharers.” When Tolkien put together his grand epic of The War Against Change, he knew exactly what he was doing; when the youth culture of the Sixties adopted him as their patron saint—much to his horror, by the way—I’m not at all sure the same thing could be said about them.
What sets The Lord of the Rings apart from common or garden variety versions of The War Against Change, in fact, is precisely Tolkien’s own remarkably clear understanding of what he was trying to do, and how that strategy tends to play out in the real world. The Lord of the Rings gets much of its power and pathos precisely because its heroes fought The War Against Change knowing that even if they won, they would lose; the best they could do is put a brake on the pace of change and keep the last dim legacies of the Elder Days for a little longer before they faded away forever. Tolkien nourished his literary sense on Beowulf and the Norse sagas, with their brooding sense of doom’s inevitability, and on traditional Christian theology, with its promise of hope beyond the circles of the world, and managed to play these two against each other brilliantly—but then Tolkien, as a reactionary, understood what it was like to keep fighting for something even though he knew that the entire momentum of history was against him.
Does all this seem galaxies away from the crass political realities with which this week’s post began? Think again, dear reader. Listen to the rhetoric of the candidates as they scramble for their party’s nomination—well, except for Hillary Clinton, who’s too busy declaiming “I am so ready to lead!” at the nearest available mirror—and you’ll hear The War Against Change endlessly rehashed. What do the Republican candidates promise? Why, to save America from the evil Democrats, who want to change things. What do the Democratic candidates promise? To save America from the evil Republicans, ditto. Pick a pressure group, any pressure group, and the further in from the fringes they are, the more likely they are to frame their rhetoric in terms of The War Against Change, too.
I’ve noted before, for that matter, the weird divergence between the eagerness of the mainstream to talk about anthropogenic global warming and their utter unwillingness to talk about peak oil and other forms of resource depletion. There are several massive factors behind that, but I’ve come to think that one of the most important is that you can frame the climate change narrative in terms of The War Against Change—we must keep the evil polluters from changing things!—but you can’t do that with peak oil. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy means that things have to change, not because the motiveless malignity of some cackling villain would have it so, but because the world no longer contains the resources that would be needed to keep things going the way they’ve gone so far.
That said, if it’s going to be necessary to change things—and it is—then it’s time to start thinking about options for the future that don’t consist of maintaining a miserably unsatisfactory status quo or continuing along a trajectory that’s clearly headed toward something even worse. The first step in making change is imagining change, and the first step in imagining change is recognizing that “more of the same” isn’t going to cut it. Next week, I plan on taking some of the ideas I’ve floated here in recent months, and putting them together in a deliberately unconventional way.