Archive for March 27th, 2008

Sixteen Tons and What Did You Get?

Sharon March 27th, 2008

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

- Original Lyrics by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but my favorite version is by the Nighthawks

Ok, we’re at the end of a boom, headed solidly into what is known as a “bust.”  As Richard Heinberg so aptly put it, the party is over.  Most projections suggest that even if we’re not at an oil peak, oil will never be cheap again.  Neither will food.  A lot of people’s houses will never be worth what they paid for them, much less appreciate enough to allow them to keep borrowing money for more home improvements or upgrades. 

I was thinking on this subject as I’ve been known to do (I can just here you saying, “no kidding,  - does she ever shut about it?” ;-) ), and it occurred to me to ask you all.  Was it worth it?  That is, do you feel like that last 10 years were good years for you?  Or for the country?  Was it all good enough that it was worth the price - both the one we’re going to pay now, but also the trade-offs we had to make in the process?

That last question might seem unfair - after all, who in their right mind would say anything good about the direction the US has gone in for the last 7 years?  Surely she can’t attribute everything about the Bush administration to peak oil and the boom times?  And as to the first, well, sure, there were good times, right?

But think how much of what we’ve lost you can attribute - that is, it isn’t just a coincidence that we got involved in a vast, endless oil war, that we lost much of our personal freedom, that we consolidated wealth into a narrower strip of the population than ever before, that corporate power grew exponentially.  I think this is one thing that a lot of people still don’t grasp - these things did not just happen - they were the logical cost of what we got in exchange.

That is, it isn’t possible to build an economy dependent on an ever-increasing supply of cheap oil without eventually making evil choices simply to keep the supply flowing.  It isn’t possible to stop taking care of ourselves and paying corporations large sums of our money to meet our most basic needs without those sums translating into political power.  It isn’t possible to increasingly invest in the money economy at the expense of the home and family economy without many people being increasingly priced out of the economy all together - and so on. 

We went shopping for a set of things - more stuff, bigger houses, more energy, endless growth, corporations who will take over any inconvenient jobs for us,  and we didn’t look very carefully at the price tag.  Essentially, we put it all on our credit card, and now we’ve hit our limit, and the payment is coming due.  And most of us had no idea what we were buying.  We did it in ignorance - but partly willful ignorance.  Because the evidence was out there if we had wanted to see it. 

Now I know that most of my readers are not blue collar workers, but I was struck about how apt the lyrics of “Sixteen Tons” are increasingly to all of us.  Yeah, it is presumptuous for middle class white folks to bemoan their fate when there are plenty of other more screwed people around us - except that most of us are going to be just another species of debt slaves - ones who are luckier than some, and less lucky than others.  And I know not all of my readers are all that middle class - and I suspect fewer and fewer will be.

Here’s the thing - we really did sell our souls to the company store.  The company store isn’t a literal spot - it is all the places that the growth economy says “put your money here” - and lookie, the company you just bought your shoes from is probably a subsidary of the same folks you pay your credit card bills to.  The whole growth economy is a company store - you keep the system going by paying in (buying stuff), some of the same money (a little less each time)  rotates around and pays you to buy more stuff, but some of it gets filtered off to go deprive you of access to power and put wealth in the hands of people who already had it. Catherine Austin Fitts calls the growth economy and the political system that goes with it “the tapeworm” and that’s not a bad name.  The thing is, we can never, ever catch up - we’re never going to fix the problem by chasing those dollars around in the circle again, and letting a few more people skim off the top.

So was it worth it?  If you think about what we lost in our democracy, in self-sufficiency, in good health as we ate crappy commercial food and sat in front of the computer all day, in our kids as they came to belong to popular culture and the tv advertisers more than they belong to us, was it really worth it?  For those of us who got them, were the nice clothes and the cool toys and the iPods worth it?  For those who didn’t, was it worth it that some of us got it?  Why the hell aren’t we angrier at ourselves, and those who facilitated these choices?  The reality is that life shouldn’t be “another day older and deeper in debt.”  The company store never has anything so good that it is worth getting to the point we’ve got to. 

Every so often, I run up against someone who is just plain horrified at the idea that in the future they might have to grow gardens, preserve their own, get out use their muscles to grow food, repair their underwear, to get out and do the work of making our own and meeting many of our own needs.  That work sounds too hard, the price sounds too high.  Over on the Oil Drum when I suggested we might need 100 million farmers, someone called me “Pol Pot” and suggested I was going to be driving aging baby boomers out to midwestern cornfields at gunpoint (ok, I admit to thinking that that image was kind of funny, actually ;-) ).  That’s an extreme version of this conviction that it would be beyond horrible for us to have to meet more of our needs, but I do think that’s a common reaction - the idea that the work is too hard, that we’re better off now.

But I want to question that.  Are we better off?  Are we really?  Is the level of vulnerability we have to economic crisis better?  Does our food taste better?  Do we have what most parents and grandparents have - a secure future for our kids?  Do we know that they will have “better than we did?”  Do we look forward to a stable, optimistic world where things get better?

Any evaluation of how “bad” it will be to go back to an agrarian society has to have at its root an honest evaluation of what we have now - about what will be better and what will be worse.  And it has to contain an honest evaluation of the price we pay for what we get.  Most people on either side of any debate will pretend that there is no price tied to their “side” and a high one attached to the other.  We’ve gotten so used to the growth economy, and so confused by the sheer scope of what we live in that most of us can’t even see that the price tag was hanging off our company store purchases all along - we just didn’t read it.

 You went to work every day, and you contributed to the party.  You moved your metaphorical sixteen tons, whether you did it with sweat or with the long aching muscles of someone who sits on their ass all day.  And now, the FED will bail out companies, and let them come for your foreclosed house, and the credit card companies turn you into debt slaves.  That party is over - but it is extra over for us, who will not be bailed out.  Unless, of course, we bail one another as best we can, with what we’ve got. 

Time to recognize that we didn’t want half this shit anyway - and that none of us were prepared to pay this kind of a price.  So we need to find a new way - close the fucking store, start rethinking the system, and ask ourselves - what do we really want, and what is the price we’re really willing to pay for it?

And the answer to that is this - stop giving them your money.  Stop buying from the company store when you can.  And start building another economy - one that can hold us up when things fall down.  It isn’t easy.  It will suck.  A lot of us have unused muscles.  A lot of us will suffer.  But no small refinement on the present system will fix the problem - we paid too much for something we didn’t care enough about.  We lost what mattered.  Now, we have to get it back, and we’re going to have pay even more.  The difference is some things are worth high prices.

Democracy. Hope for the future.  A better world for our kids.  Once upon a time they were worth “Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”  They are sure as hell worth digging some dirt for.