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Vilsack and Obama: Farmer in Chief my Ass!

Sharon December 17th, 2008

So Tom Vilsack is going to be Secretary of Agriculture, hmmm… Let’s see, rabid ethanol proponent…check!  Enthusiastic supporter of GMOs and biotechnologies…check!  Totally indebted to and under the thumb of agribusiness…check!  Yup, it seems clear that Obama really took Michael Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” piece to heart ;-P.  Short of actually appointing, say, Monsanto’s chairman, it is hard to imagine a choice less likely to make real shifts in our food system. 

But of course, as Rod Dreher points out (quite correctly) and as Carolyn Baker points out (equally correctly), so far there’s very little from the Obama administration that should make us feel secure that what’s coming is going to shift the status quo.  Ultimately, Hillary, Geithner and the rest of the crew mostly can be described as people who did things not as badly as George W. Bush and his primary appointees - but that’s hardly saying anything of note.

I was in college when Bill Clinton was elected president, and I was almost alone in my social circle in refusing to volunteer for him - I’d supported a more leftist candidate in the primaries, and despite my acute desire to believe that Clinton would offer some kind of radical change, I couldn’t quite shake the reality of his positions out of my thinking.  The same is true of Obama, who, for example, wrote of dealing with the mortgage crisis in terms of the moral hazard of bailing out homeowners - but appears to have few qualms about bailing out banks.

 I had precisely the same feeling during this campaign - I preferred Obama quite dramatically to Hillary Clinton, and there were genuinely moments of hopefulness in his campaign.  But I kept thinking, riffing on the late, great Molly Ivins, that you have to dance with them that brung you.  That is, Obama couldn’t possibly come to power without indebting himself to people who are more invested in the status quo than in improving lives.

In order to be the president many of us hoped Obama would be, he would have to be willing to betray many of the people who brought him, and their hopes and investments in his future.  This is no easy feat for anyone, and is probably less so for someone who came so far, so fast, with the hand of so many.  It isn’t impossible - other presidents have done it. The man isn’t even president yet.

But presidents are known by the company they keep - the reality is that no man can supervise all the elements of the nation alone - they depend enormously on those people that Obama is appointing right now.  He will not be out in the fields, or at the soup kitchens - he will rely on reports and summaries from those he appoints. And those summaries will be given by men whose viewpoints are already formed.  Vilsack cannot but describe our food system through the lens of his prior investments, and this will be disastrous.

In 2002, the Atlantic ran a story by Mark Bowden called “Tales of the Tyrant” - it described what it was like to be a dictator, and imagined how Saddam Hussein’s situation must lead inevitably to his downfall.  The deepest reason, Bowden argued, was that everyone lied to the dictator all the time - they couldn’t do anything else.

I’ve thought of that story a number of times in relationship to various presidencies.  It is true that our presidents don’t routinely throw advisors who tell unpleasant truths into jail - but even the best of them are surrounded, not so much by people who lie all the time, but by people who tell their truth as though it were “the” truth.  To some degree, of course, this is inevitable - everyone’s worldview is shaped by their experiences.  But it is possible to bring in a diversity of viewpoints, to find, in multiple versions of the truth, something closer to reality.  Obama has overwhelmingly chosen one, very narrow set of viewpoints - the viewpoints of people who have power now, and to whom he is already indebted for his power.

I don’t claim that there is no hope for Obama, but before he chose these people to surround him, there was hope that an ordinary man of integrity, hearing a range of viewpoints, might choose something different.  Now, we have to imagine that Obama is an extraordinary man, one with the power to find unconventional paths to knowledge, and the willingness to override the viewpoints he has invested himself in.  It gets harder to hope for change.


Scenes from the Mall

Sharon December 15th, 2008

Last night, Eric and I did something we simply never do - we went to the mall.  My mother was visiting, and kindly offered to babysit while the two of us went out to dinner, and since we do this sort of thing quite infrequently, we jumped at the chance to do a few errands uninterrupted and have a quiet meal together.  Our first two choices for dinner were closed, due to the massive power outages that still plague our region.  So, since we knew the lights were on, we ended up at the Crossgates mall.  And I have to say, even to my doomy eyes, the experience was pretty unsettling.

The restaurants were reasonably busy, and there were cars in the parking lots.  In fact, my initial reaction was that things didn’t seem to be as bad as I’d read here.  My mother had stopped to have lunch with a friend earlier today, and said that the restaurant had just re-opened, after four days without power, but was packed with people who were content to drink coffee and sit somewhere with central heating. More than 10,000 people in my region are still without power, and we figured that this would push people into the malls.  And while Sunday night isn’t peak shopping, generally speaking, an evening this close to the holidays would have been busy.

It wasn’t.  The restaurant was less busy than I’d anticipated but not empty - but the mall itself was a ghost town.  Here we were, 10 days before Christmas, on a night where for many the mall was warm, lighted, unlike home, and it was nearly empty.  The people who were there simply weren’t buying - I counted two shopping bags during the 2 hours we spent wandering around, looking and listening in gloomy fascination at the demise of American shopping. 

Every store was offering at least 30% off, often on everything, and often that over and above other discounts.  Several stores had “store closing” or “going out of business” signs up already.  Many stores had the appearance of having given up - the window of the Oshkosh children’s store, instead of cute baby mannequins in overalls was filled with half-packed boxes.  One store, selling novelties and junk was literally deserted - we walked in and waited, called out and no one appeared for a good 15 minutes - we finally gave up (we didn’t want to buy anything, we were simply curious about whether the store was actually as abandoned as it appeared to be).  No one stole anything - there really wasn’t anything to steal, or anyone to steal it.  At one store, three employees had put up a nerf basketball hoop and were taking shots, clearly having given up on sales.  Several stores looked as though their shelves hadn’t been neatened in several days.

The single line we saw was at the dollar store (not coincidentally, the only place we bought anything - I found a deck of Uno cards 2/$1 for the boys and clothespins for a buck) - otherwise, most stores had no customers at all.  When we stopped and chatted with store employees, most of them said they’d had few, if any, sales.   

Malls are not the place to restore your faith in humanity’s ability to survive hard times, and they tend to bring out a black irony in me.  The sight of some poor kid trying to get anyone to taste a plastic sausage from Hickory Farms - he called to us the full length of the aisle, and practically chased us down the corridor - was funny.  But of course, underlying the dark humor was the fact that this young man and all the employees who are paying for college (the mall is right next to SUNY Albany and draws many employees from there) and making a living are about to be the next victims in a round of layoffs.  We know, for example, that if enrollments all off enough at SUNY, my husband will probably get the axe as well - that kid with the sausage is a link in a chain that goes to our family, and thousands of other places as well.

And you can see the calculations in people’s eyes - why buy today, when things are at 40% off?   They will be 70% off after the holidays, when the chain goes bankrupt.  And then, of course, they won’t be there at all.  Eric and I stopped in Williams Sonoma to speculate on at what price we’d be willing to buy another Le Creuset dutch oven or a serious Wusthof butcher knife - the price we’d consider was well below the present valuation, but getting closer than they had been in years. 

The problem, of course, is that everyone’s ability and willingness to buy is contracting faster than the prices are deflating - it doesn’t matter how cheap the dutch oven is, in a sense - I don’t want it badly enough to spend what money we have on it, not if Eric’s job is in jeapardy.  A million such decisions and we have…detente, but not in a good way.  Even at Borders I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to buy.

The stench of failure is death to retail - even those chains that survive, in bleak half-empty malls that have to cut their heating back because revenues are down will then suffer from the new atmosphere, the stench of disaster.  Who goes to those kinds of bleak malls? 

I tried to think about what we might do with this mall, and the other malls.  Could it house students in a new, lower budget subsidized education system  - they could grow food for the dining halls and make the storefronts into small dorm style apartments. Could one revitalize a small number of malls with local businesses?  It is hard to imagine every needing anything on this scale again - there are shops that sell only caps, those that sell only shirts describing multi-gendered, nude sprting events, calendars, nauseatingly scented candles that poison the atmosphere,  (I have to say, the demise of Yankee Candle will not bring me sorrow - I can only even walk past them from as far away as possible - the stench is repulsive), and overpriced stuffed animals.  It is impossible to imagine the need for this much retail space in a more constrained society without this acute over-specialization.  So little of this meets actual needs. 

I admit, the sheer emptiness of it shocked even me - I knew how much retail sales had fallen, but knowing and seeing are two different things.   What are you seeing in your local retail sector?


2009 Predictions: Its Hour Come Round At Last

Sharon December 15th, 2008

I’m writing this a little early this year - _Independence Days_ is due in a couple of weeks, and I anticipate a great deal of distraction as the end-of-the-year predictions really start pouring out, so I thought I’d jump the gun and make mine now.

But first, how did I do last year? (And note, just ’cause I got some right last year doesn’t mean that you should take my word as gospel - I don’t think that everything that comes out of my ass is the high truth, and neither should you ;-)) 

I called this year “Here be Dragons” arguing that this was when the maps we use to make sense of the world begin to fail us.  I think that was pretty accurate - I think most people still don’t really understand how badly our maps have failed us, how the operation of our economy, our ecosystem, our culture is simply different than what we’ve been taught.  I think we can all see that most experts are pretty lost too - not because they are simply stupid, but because they aren’t prepared to work off the map.  The stories we tell ourselves shape what we can see in the world - and the conventional narratives have undermined our understanding of the realities.

Here are my predictions for 2008 and my comments on how they came out:

1. This year, the words “peak oil” will go mainstream, but this mainstreaming will not be matched by a subtle or nuanced understanding of what the words mean. That is, peak oil will be used for political purposes, and not necessarily ones anyone will approve of.

- I called this one.  As oil prices rose, CNN and the rest of the MSM couldn’t get enough of PO poster boys Simmons and Kunstler.  But, of course it wasn’t really possible to create, in that media, a complex enough understanding for people to realize that peak oil hasn’t gone away just because prices have collapsed, that, in fact, for the long term, the collapse of prices probably ensures that we’re past peak oil. 

2. By the end of the year, there will begin to be runs on preparedness equipment and food storage, a la Y2K.

- It wasn’t quite as dramatic in the equipment department as Y2K, although woodstoves and electric bikes were backordered like crazy.  But the big story was people fighting over bags of rice at Costco and other stores back in the spring. And unfortunately, for other reasons, I think we may see this one again.  Called it.

3. The NeoCons will not go gently into that good night - there will be at least one serious surprise for us. G-d willing, it won’t involve the word “nukuler” or any of its cognates.

- I’d give myself 50% on this one - I think the build up with Russia was indeed a final Neo-con attempt to make themselves seem like the best answer to a scary world (and Alaska as our DMZ), but it wasn’t as dire as I feared.

4. Hillary will not win the 2008 election. Neither, despite all the people who keep sending me emails saying he will, will Ron Paul.

- Got it.
5. The economy will tank. Yup, I’m really going out on a limb here.

- Got it.

6. Many of us will find we are being taken more seriously than we ever expected. We will still be taken less seriously than any celebrity divorce, however.

- This was certainly true for me - I don’t really know how John Michael Greer, Kunstler and Orlov, for example, felt about it, but I was surprised at how seriously my predictions were taken, and how few people thought I was over-reacting, even when doing, say ABC affiliate radio interviews.  But, of course, there are limits to seriousness - fairly few people really critiqued the worldview, but comparatively few people paid attention, either.  

7. We’ll see food riots in more nations and hunger will increase. The idea of Victory Gardens won’t seem so crazy anymore.

 - Yup.  31 nations and counting had some form of food riot this year.  And Michael Pollan wrote “Farmer in Chief” and the “White House Farm” idea hit the blogosphere.

8. The biofuels craze will begin to be thought the better of - not in time to prevent the above.

- Called it.  The collapse of oil prices of course is doing its own work, but even before that, we were finally seeing serious questioning of the premise of biofuels hit national discourse, at least in Europe.

9. We will see at least one more image of desperate people, walking out of their city becuase there’s no other alternative. And a lot of images of foreclosures.

Part one of this is the only one I got wrong, and that only partly.  People were walking out of Houston, and a whole lot of people were walking around looking for Gas in Memphis and Atlanta, but it didn’t quite have the resonance of Katrina or 9/11 - the media wasn’t paying attention, so it wasn’t the kind of iconic image that I was expecting.  The second part I called.

10. TEOTWAKI, if it ever happens, will be delayed long enough for my book to be released this fall and to make back at least the advance, so my publisher won’t have any reason to try and sue me ;-). 

- I’m not sure, but I think I might have actually made back my advance by now (all 4K of it), and my publisher is still in business.  Who knows, I might actually make a pittance!

Ok, what about the coming year?  While I think 2008 was when most people first realized something was wrong, I’m going to go out on a limb here (ok, not a huge limb, but a limb) and say that 2009 will be the year we say that things “collapsed.”  I don’t think we’re going to make it through the year without radical structural changes in the nature of life in most of the world.   I’m calling it, a la Yeats’s “Second Coming” the “The Year ‘Its Hour Come Round at Last’” 

 What do I mean by collapse?  We throw that word around, but it is easy to misunderstand.  I mean that the US is likely to undergo a financial collapse a la the Great Depression - widespread unemployment, lots of people facing hunger, cold and the inability to get health care, a disruption of what we tend to assume are birthright services, and a sense that the system doesn’t work anymore.  I don’t claim that we are headed by Thursday to cannibalism, however - what I think will be true is that we will often do surprisingly well in the state of collapse, as hard as it is.

 In previous years, I was fairly lighthearted about my predictions - this year, I don’t find it possible to be.  I really hope I’m wrong about this.  And I  hope you will make decisions based on your own judgement, not mine.  These are predictions, the results of my analysis and my intuitions, and sometimes I’m good at that.  But I do not claim that every word that comes out of my mouth or off my keyboard is the truth, and you should not take it as such.  You are getting this free on the internet - consider what you paid for it, and value it accordingly.

1. Some measure of normalcy will hold out until late spring or early summer, mostly based on hopes for the Obama Presidency.  But by late summer 2009, the aggregate loss of jobs, credit and wealth will cause an economic crisis that makes our current situation look pretty mild.  With predictions of up to a million jobs lost each month, there will simply come a point at which the economy as we understand it now cannot function - we will see the modern equivalents of breadlines and stockbrokers selling apples on the streets.

2. Many plans for infrastructure investments currently being proposed will never be completed, and many may never be started, because the US may be unable to borrow the money to fund them.  The price of globalization will be high in terms of reduced availability of funds and resources - despite all the people who think that we’ll keep building things during a collapse, we won’t.  We will have some variation on a Green New Deal in the US and some nations will continue to work on renewable infrastructure, but a lot of us are going to be getting along with the fraying infrastructure, designed for a people able to afford a lot of cheap energy, that we have now.  The most successful projects will be small, localized programs that distribute resources as widely as possible. 

I pray that we will have the brains to ignore most other things and set up some kind of health care system, one that softens the blows here.  If not, we’re really fucked - the one thing most of us can’t afford is medical care as it works now in a non-functioning economy.  Unfortunately, my bet is that we don’t do something about this, but I hope to God I’m wrong.

3. 2009 will be the year that most of the most passionate climate activists (and I don’t exclude myself) have to admit that there is simply not a snowball’s chance in hell (and hell is getting toastier quickly) that we are going to prevent a 2C+ warming of the planet.  We are simply too little, too late.  That does not mean we will give up on everything - the difference between unchecked emissions and checked ones is still the difference between life and death for millions -  but hideously, regretfully and painfully, the combination of our growing understanding of where the climate is and the economic situation will force us to begin working from the reality that the world we leave our children is simply going to be more damaged, and our legacy smaller and less worthy of us than we’d ever hoped. 

4. 2008 will probably be the world’s global oil peak, but we won’t know this for a while.  When we do realize it, it will be anticlimactic, because we’ll be mired in the consequences of our economic, energy and climate crisis.  Lack of investment in the coming years will mean that in the end, more oil stays in the ground, which is good for the climate, but tough for our ambitions for a renewable energy economy.  Over the long term, however, peak oil is very much going to come back and bite us all in the collective ass.

5. Decreased access to goods, services and food will be a reality this year.  Some of this will be due to stores going out of business - we may all have to travel further to meet needs.  Some will be due to suppliers going under, following the wave of merchant bankruptcies.  Some may be due to disruptions in shipping and transport of supplies.  Some will be due to increased demand for some items that have, up until now, been niche items, produced in small numbers for the small number of sustainability freaks, but that now seem to have widespread application.  And some may be due to deflation - farmers may not be able to harvest crops because they can’t get enough for them to pay for the harvest, and the connections between those who have goods and those who need goods may be thoroughly disrupted.  Meanwhile, millions more Americans will be choosing between new shoes and seeing the doctor.

6. Most Americans will see radical cut backs in local services and safety nets.  Funding will simply dry up for many state and local programs. Unemployment will be overwhelmed, and the federal government will have to withdraw some of its commitments simply to keep people from starving in the streets.  Meanwhile, expect to see the plows stop plowing, the garbage cease to be collected, and classrooms to have 40+ kindergarteners to a class - and potentially a three or four day school week.

7. Nations will overwhelmingly fail to pony up promised commitments to the world’s poor, and worldwide, the people who did the least harm to the environment will die increasingly rapidly of starvation.  This will not be inevitable, but people in the rich world will claim it is.

8. We will finally attempt to deal with foreclosures, but the falling value of housing will make it a losing proposition.  Every time we bring the housing values down to meet the reality, the reality will shift under our feet. Many of those who are helped will end up foreclosed upon anyway (as is already the case) and others will simply see no point in paying their mortgage when, by defaulting, they could qualify for lowered payments (as is already the case).  Ultimately, the issue will probably self resolve in either some kind of redistribution plan that puts people in foreclosed houses with minimal mortgaging, with foreclosures dragging down enough banks that people find it feasible to simply stop paying mortgages that are now unenforceable, or with civil unrest that leads people simply to take back housing for the populace.  I don’t have a bet on which one, and I don’t think it will be resolved in 2009. 

9. By the end of the year, whether or not we will collapse or have collapsed will continue to be hotly debated by everyone who can still afford their internet service.  No one will agree on what the definition of collapse actually is, plenty of people will simply be living their old lives, only with a bit less, while others will be having truly apocalyptic and deeply tragic losses.  Some will see the victims as lazy, stupid, alien and worthless, no matter how many there are.  Others will look around them and ask “how did I not see that this was inevitable?”  Many people will be forced to see that the poor are not a monolith of laziness and selfishness when they become poor.  We will know that we are in our situation only in retrospect, only in hindsight - our children will have a better name for the experience than we will, caught up in our varied personal senses of what is happening  Meanwhile, each time things get harder most of us will believe they are at the bottom, that things are now “normal” and adapt, until it becomes hard to remember what our old expectations were.

10. Despite how awful this is, the reality is that not everything will fall apart.  In the US, we will find life hard and stressful, but we will also go forward.  People will suck a lot up and retrench.  It will turn out that ordinary people were always better than commentators at figuring out what to do - that’s why they stopped shopping even while people were begging them to keep buying.  So they’ll move in with their siblings and grow gardens and walk away from their overpriced houses, or fight to keep them.  Some of them will suffer badly for it, but a surprising number of people will simply be ok in situations that until now, they would have imagined were impossible to survive.  We will endure, sometimes even find ways of loving our new lives.  There will be acts of remarkable courage and heroism, and acts of the most profound evil and selfishness.  There will be enormous losses - but we will also discover that most of us are more than we think we are - can tolerate more and have more courage and compassion than we believe of ourselves.   

An early Happy New Year, everyone.  May you know better than you deserve and see others at their best in these hard times.


Inconceivable: Why Failure Is Normal, and Should Be Part of the Plan…but Isn’t

Sharon December 13th, 2008

“He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped.  “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

…”Inconceivable!” the Sicilian cried.

The Spaniard whirled on him.  “Stop saying that word!”  It was inconceivable that anyone could follow us, but when we looked behind, there was the man in black.  It was inconceivable that anyone could sail as fast as we could sail, and yet he gained on us.  Now this too is inconceivable, but look - look” and the Spaniard pointed down through the night.  “See how he rises.”

The man in black was, indeed, rising.  Somehow, in some almost miraculous way, his fingers were finding holds in the crevices, and he was now perhaps fifteen feet closer to the top, father from death.

The Sicilian advanced on the Spaniard now, his wild eyes glittering at the insubordination.  “I have the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits.” he began, ”so when I tell you something, it is not guesswork; it is fact!  And the fact is that the man in black is not following us.  A more logical explanation would be that he is simply an ordinary sailor who dabbles in mountain climbing as a hobby who happens to have the same general final destination as we do. ” 

- William Goldman _The Princess Bride_ 

I fear that the Great Vizzini, of Goldman’s wonderfully brilliant and funny book (if you have only seen the movie, you are denying yourself a great pleasure)  may actually have to give his title of “the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits” up now - there are just so many competitors these days, most of them bankers and politicians.   Of course, it could just be that like Vizzini, they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are - and we’re starting to get a good look at what a world turned over to the corrupt and not-terrifically-bright-in-any-useful-way looks like. 

The northeast just had a major sleet, snow and ice storm.  Predictions for my area involved more than an inch of ice, followed by a few inches of snow, and widespread power outages (and, in fact, there are more than 1.2 million people in my area without power - I fielded several phone calls today from friends saying “You know, if I didn’t listen to you, I’d be a lot more uncomfortable right now.”)  The local schools closed even before the storm, in anticipation of nasty weather, so Eli was at home.  And while Eric was off giving a final exam, my kids and I convened for homeschool and set about making a list of the things we ought to do to be ready for an extended power outage.

We moved some of the firewood that sits in our mudroom into the depleted woodboxes in the house, and began moving more wood into the mudroom, so that we won’t have to try and chip the wood out from a sheet of ice.  We checked the freezer to make sure it was full, and added a few bottles of water to keep it at capacity longer.  We already keep our refrigerated food on our porch instead of using electric refrigeration, so no worries about that.  We made sure we knew where all the flashlights and the extra batteries were, put the solar lantern in the window to charge, threw on an extra load of laundry in case it was a few days before the next one could go in and generally got ready for a power outage.  We reassured the boys by changing the batteries in their LED nightlights and giving each one his own flashlight.

I was doing a radio interview as we were making these preparations, and I mentioned them to the interviewer, saying that we’re pretty ready for power outages, so that it isn’t that big a deal here.  And she asked me whether other people should do this, and when I said I thought they should prepare for interruptions in power, argued,  ”but think about all the time and money you use up getting ready to be able to operate without power - and most of the time you don’t need those preparations - after all, extended power outages for most people happen only once every few years -  is it really worth the effort for most of us?  Plus, you have to be thinking “what if something goes wrong all the time” - isn’t that depressing?” 

My interviewer was playing devil’s advocate, of course, but I think she articulates a pretty common viewpoint - the idea that thinking about failures and bad stuff is too depressing and that it isn’t worth the time and energy to prepare for most contingencies. The reasoning behind that is that most disasters - or even minor disasters - don’t happen very often.  Of course, when those disasters do happen, well, the sheer discomfort of being unprepared is pretty intense, but then we forget.

In fact, I’d go further than she did, and think that the idea of contingency planning in the US comes with a taint of superstition - that ill luck will strike those of us who actually spend time thinking  about what might go wrong.  The fact that our culture’s only vision of someone who is prepared is the survivalist curled up in a shack with his stash of guns suggests that we fundamentally think that preparation for negative outcomes is on the whacked out side.  I think this leads us to actually radically underestimate how often things go badly wrong.

And this leads to a painful  reality - despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope.  They won’t have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.

 But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal.  Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal.  We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected.  Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food.

My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don’t have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) - in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn’t just personal - our society as a whole has very few contingency plans - much less strategies for adapting to failure.  We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative.  We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture - from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects - we have no contingency plans.  Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.

All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure.  Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as “Ummm…have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?”  I’m acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure - and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen.  But in fact, we shouldn’t be shocked - failure is far more routine and normal than we expect.  Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster.

For example, for a good bit  more than a decade now, a large number of voices have responded to the idea of Globalization with fears that the creation of a global economy might eliminate protections for the most economically vulnerable members of the world’s economies, erase valuable cultural differences, lead to political hegemony and environmental rape, and also make economies more vulnerable to difficulties that once wouldn’t have concerned them much. 

It turns out that anti-globalization activists were right in just about every particular. Globalization did screw quite a lot of the world’s poor, to put it bluntly, and the collapse of globalization seems poised to screw billions more.  Tying our economies together is starting to look like it wasn’t such a hot idea for a lot of folks, starting, perhaps in Iceland, and for the International Banks that bought US mortgage dept, and travelling on to China, which depended on exports to the US, and is now seeing its own economy crash - and which crash is likely to do even more damage to the US, which depends on China to buy its debt.  Oops!  Globalization did result in unprecedented ecological damage - which we now have to live with.  It turns out that the depressing people who kept saying “umm…don’t we need a back up plan just in case this doesn’t work the way you hope it will” and “shouldn’t we maybe reconsider something that works even if things don’t go well?” were right.

There have been similar groups speaking out about energy issues for decades, or asking whether it might not be safer not to degrade the ecology in the first place than to rely on our ability to fix it when problems become evident.  And they to have been accorded precisely the amount of respect you’d expect - not much.  And they too, turn out to have been right.  It turns out that we may be spending 1/5 of global GDP (according to the Stern Report)  addressing the consequences of catastrophic climate change, unless we can stop it - which means that if we fail in the almost unbelievable challenage of arresting climate change,  we’re facing a potentially permanent Depression - because no economy can bear that burden without difficulty.  Our economy may well be permanently impacted by declines in available energy supplies, and our failure to invest in renewable energies.  Ooops.  It turns out that a lot of folks pointing out overarching problems were, well, right.

But along with the “Oops”  and the enormous chorus of voices calling our current crisis unforseeable, even as Goldman’s wonderful villain Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable!” and the talk of Black Swans and unpredictability is the fact that, as Yeats put it, things fall apart.  And they do it, not once in a great while, but rather often, even when the falling apart is something we do not choose to conceive of.

Thus, the war to end all wars built the ground for the next one, and the end mechanism of the subsequent war left us with the massive and presently insoluble problem of nuclear arms.  Similarly, as Jared Diamond observes, all of our most intractable present problems have been caused by the solutions we’ve sought to other problems - peak oil and climate change aren’t just bad things that are happening to us, they are the logical consequences of our solutions to other problems - standard of living, transportation and food issues.    In many cases, social problems follow the same course - the urbanization, for example, of Southern rural African-Americans during and after World War II really did free a lot of poor southern workers from poorly paid domestic and agricultural labor, and offer short term increases in wages.  They also destroyed cultural networks, stripped farmers of land and access to natural resources,  and resulted in an urban poverty arguably may have been more destructive than the rural poverty that preceeded it.

Now it would be false to suggest that the problems that we were solving weren’t real - and that for a time, the solutions didn’t seem better to some people.  For many a Chinese peasant, eating meat twice a week is better than twice a month before globalization.  From the perspective of someone who values the Great Northeastern Forest, the replacement of coal and wood for heating by natural gas and heating oil was a real improvement over the old options.  The problem is that the period of “solution” was brief and the new dependencies and destructions make the fall back much harsher - so, for example, the peasant who left the land to work on the periphery of the big city now no longer has his job, nor his land - or if he can get the land, climate change and pollution mean that it cannot support him any longer.  Now the American Northeasterner is completely unprepared for disruptions in price or supply of their energy - and adaptation is likely to cause even greater deforestation than before.  And, of course, there are people and perspectives from which things were always worse - from the perspective of climate change, the shift from a woodstove that heats a portion of your house to central, oil-fired heating was a disaster, for the hundreds of millions of peasants around the world who got poorer, not richer as they lost their land, there was never any good in the solution.  That things look different through different lenses is inevitable - but each layer of solution and complexity seems to have more dissenters, and put us in line for a bigger fall.

This might seem an argument primarily for contingency and scenario planning, and at a minimum, it should be.  But I’d like to suggest something else - something that works at the personal for me, and that might work at the level of societal planning.  What if we assumed failure?  What if, instead of no contingencies, or simply having a backup plan, we insisted that our society work not just when things are going well, but that the very solutions we choose operate to serve us even when they fail in reasonably likely ways?

My family uses this model in our planning for the reasonable contingencies of our lives - we aren’t prepped for everything - no bomb shelter, no SETI system to keep out alien invasion, and if the world goes into a sudden ice age, I’m woefully short on Mammoth repellent.   But we’re pretty good when we talk about things like ice storms  knocking out the power - it happens nearly every winter.  And because of that, my house works pretty well without power.  I have solar lanterns, rechargeable batteries and solar chargers, a couple of oil lamps, a manual water pump for when the well goes out, a wood cookstove, a solar oven and a composting toilet and a spare battery for the laptop so I don’t lose too much work.  Our house works great during the vast majority of times when we have power - and if it goes out, well, we flip on a few battery lights, put dinner on the cookstove to simmer and go out and bathe standing in the tub with a solar shower bag filled with water that warmed on the cookstove.  No biggie.

Now you could argue that getting my home ready to function this way took money, time and energy, and you’d be right.  So is it really worth it?  Sure - and this is why.  The very tools that I use to ensure that I’m comfortable in a power outage also serve me when the power is on.  The solar battery charger works great for my son’s nighlight, and the flashlights.  The down comforters that keep us warm when the only heat is coming from the woodstove also work great when we just don’t want to burn fuel or spend money on heating oil.  The solar lantern goes out to the barn with me, the cookstove allows me to use the wood that the ice storm is going to provide us with in fallen tree limbs.  The solar shower bags are wonderful for that outdoor sluice-off in the summer when I’m covered with garden mud.

Now these adaptations could operate as contingency plans - and then they would be costly and energy absorbing.  Having a wood cookstove that you use only when the heat or cooking facilities are out is certainly better than nothing, but it is an awfully expensive way to deal with a crisis. I certainly couldn’t blame those who are contingency planning for saying it might not be worth it.  On the other hand, a cookstove that makes use of downed wood, cuts your energy bills and also gives you an emergency backup, well, that’s not a bad solution.  By working not from the assumption that I ought to have an emergency plan for an unlikely contingency, but from the assumption that complex systems fail regularly *and* that the best system is to build infrastructure that assumes failure but also functions well without it, I get the best of both worlds - it actually doesn’t cost me very much to adapt.

How would this work on a world policy scale?  Well, let’s take energy as an example.  Let’s assume that more than 30 years ago, during the first energy shocks, we’d recognize that both absolute oil supplies (as characterized by the peaking of North American oil) and foreign supplies (as characterized by the OPEC cuts) were unstable, and subject to failure.  How would that have changed our energy and economic policy over the last 30 years?  It is very difficult to me to imagine a scenario in which we did not begin seriously building out renewable energies then - or one that did not offer improvement over our present situation.  Simply assuming that the oil supply might fail might well have reduced our overall economic growth (although that is by no means a given) compared to what we later had fueled by cheap oil.  But among the economists I know, I cannot find one who thinks that even the very short-term economic impact would have been negative enough to offset the advantages - and many doubt the impact would have been negative at all.  Similar scenarios are devisable if, for example, we were to have taken the information about global warming available to us in 1979 (copious, actually) and said “it seems pretty likely that continuing to burn fossil fuels would be a bad idea, so let’s begin a gradual phase out.” 

But, of course, hindsight is always 20-20 - what would such a policy look like right now?  Well, in economic terms, having a policy that planned for failure would mean assuming that the economy is not going to rebound in 2009 or 2010, and that our investments in infrastructure must be concentrated on mitigating the suffering of people who are going to be poorer, not shoring up financial institutions bound to failure.  Thus, we’d be putting our billions into small businesses, not huge ones, into basic things like food and insulation, instead of big luxury items that bring in profits in good times, but are useless in bad ones. 

But the funny thing about this is that just like the example of the energy build-out 30 years ago, I think there’s a compelling case to make that we would be richer in the long run, for example, if it took only a little energy to heat our homes, if we didn’t have to buy health care and if we invested in small scale agriculture.  I’m not going to sit down and make it point by point today - but I’d suggest historically speaking, the boom and bust cycle doesn’t necessarily result in net improvements over a more stable model - there’s a detailed analysis of this in Thomas Princen’s marvellous book _The Logic of Sufficiency_ that is a superb starting point for this case - and I will write more about it.

What about climate?  Well, you will remember my argument with George Monbiot - Ruchi, over at Arduous pointed out, quite rightly, the major issue with both of our approaches - that both of us are offering strategies with a substantial likelihood of failure implied.    She makes an engaging case for a third alternative.  I disagree with her analysis of how to approach this, because fundamentally I think climate change will exceed our capacity to mitigate, not to mention our capacity to manage mitigation and any kind of functional economy,  but I think the larger observation - that at this point we simply can’t afford any strategies for adapting to climate change that don’t include a full repetoir of mitigation strategies.  What this might look like is another issue - and one I intend to play with in the New Year, once I’ve shaken the book monkey off my back.

I wonder if it is possible to imagine a world in which failure is normalized, part of the narrative, expected and in which we choose our strategies to return positively even when things, as they say, fall apart.

By the way, we lost power for about 12 hours - drank cocoa, played with the boys, I worked until my laptop battery ran out, then went out and milked and hung around.  The power came out, but many of our friends are without power into next week - we’re hoping they’ll come have a sleepover party here! 


The Welcome Table

Sharon December 13th, 2008

I’m going to sit at the Welcome Table - hallelujah!  I’ll sit at the Welcome Table one of these days.

I’m going to feast on milk and honey, hallelujah! I’ll feast on milk and honey one of these days.

All God’s children gonna sit together, hallelujah! All God’s children gonna sit together one of these days. -  Traditional Spiritual “River Jordan”

I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that a lot of us are feeling powerless right now.  Most of what’s going on in the world is not something we have power over.  Most of us rightly try not to let that stop us - that is, we try to claim what power we can as often as we can.  So even though we know it might not help, we talk to our representatives, we give money, we demonstrate.  But at some level, most of us are living through events that we are powerless to control, through a history that will sweep us along with it.  Frankly, this sucks.

All of us need to devote some energy to fighting battles that will probably be lost, simply because we have an obligation to fight the good fight.  But most of us can’t live on a steady diet of tilting at windmills - we also need to do work where we know we can accomplish something, and where we know we matter.  That’s why I talk about ordinary, simple things like dinner - which, of course, has already ceased to be simple for many people.  We need to win some, even as it seems like we are overwhelmingly losing much of what we value.

And here, I think is something that we can win, and desperately need - the recreation of the welcome table.  I think one of the things that most surprised me once I became an an adult with a table of her own and the capacity to put some food on it was how rarely most of us actually sit down and eat with our friends, our extended family, our community.  Heck, most of us don’t sit down together even as a whole family that often, much less invite guests.

I think part of the problem is that we are so terribly intimidated by the idea of “entertaining” in the Emily Post/HGTV sense.  All you have to do is to read the magazines in the supermarket check-out line around this time of year (the one month of the year we actually do have people over)  to realize that “entertaining” is one heck of a project - you have to have little bits of smoked salmon in cream puffs shells with lemon-thyme creme fraiche.  You are supposed to have fancy dishes and multiple courses and serve meals that cost enough that you have to take out another mortgage on your house.

Now there is a real place for the occasional lavish feast - it isn’t something we invented yesterday, the idea that you might save up the best foods for a celebratory display has a long history.  But so too does something other than “entertaining” - the sitting down together at a meal with others to whom you are tied. - just a plain and ordinary meal, which is celebratory not because of what’s in it, but because of who is at it.  And the more we watch famous people show off their homes, cleaned by underpaid minions and their elaborate buche de buttercreams (and yes, I think it is fun to make this stuff sometimes too), the harder it becomes for a lot of people to imagine eating a simple meal together.

They say that everyone has a mitzvah (Jewish good deed) that comes naturally to them - for me, hospitality is one of them.  I like nothing better than a crowd of people eating from my table.  But part of this is because I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be fancy or complex - real hachnaset orchim (the mitzvah of hospitality) isn’t the creation of the most fabulous meals or the perfect environment - it is simply being welcoming.  The most perfect practitioner of this I know is my friend Joe, a synagogue friend.  I once joked that we were invading them, but at least we hadn’t all arrived at their home at 3 am, demanding food.  Joe knew I was joking, but looked at me with absolute seriousness, and said “If you did, we’d do our best to make you welcome.” 

All of us have different lives, and the creation of a welcoming table can take different forms.  Kathy Harrison uses “Another Place at the Table” as the title of her lovely book on foster parenting, on the project of welcoming children in need.  That’s one possibility.  And there’s a real place in the world for opening the welcome table in a world of need - I used to pack extra sandwiches when I worked in downtown Boston - it wasn’t much trouble for even a graduate student living on a pittance to make another peanut butter and jelly or hummus and pickle sandwich.  There were always homeless folks out, and it was a gift to be able to offer them a sandwich.  The park bench I used to sit on most often was transformed - it became a table at the moment that I was able to offer food to another person.

The welcome table can be as simple as inviting an elderly neighbor to dinner, or making sure that you really sit down with your sister in law once in a while and drink tea and eat something.  It can be welcoming an army of neighborhood children in for milk and cookies, or setting the church table for an army of people in need.  It can be dropping that extra casserole or pie over at the family that just had a baby or lost their job.  It can be taking the risk and asking someone to come eat with you - that step in a casual friendship that opens you, perhaps frighteningly, up for more.

We’ve lost the habit of the welcome table.  I once taught a Hebrew School class of fifth graders about Passover, and I asked them how many of them, when the Haggadah commands them to cast open their doors and call out “let all who are hungry come and eat” actually do so?  What, I asked them, would they do if someone actually tried to come in and sit down?  Overwhelmingly, these children in a comfortable suburb told me that they would never really open their doors, and that if a stranger tried to enter and eat, the would be afraid.  And there are perhaps some legitimate reasons for fear - but some even greater reasons for overcoming it.  We are people who have learned to fear the idea of casting open our doors to others.

There are things we can only understand about one another by sitting together for a meal.  Seated together, we learn about each other’s food culture - in fact, we create a food culture.  Until we eat together, there are intimacies we cannot share.  Eating together is a powerful way of tying our lives together.  Building community depends upon it - and because so many of us are too busy, or too afraid or intimidated or simply not in the habit, we lose community and intimacy in precisely the measure that we do not share food.  It is a starting point for most human connections.

Every faith that I know of has elaborate laws of hospitality, and it is worth remembering that these faiths - and the secular moral identities (for example the anarchist movement _Food Not Bombs_ takes this as a basic principle)  that share their basic ground grew up not in worlds of wealth and privelege but in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, when we were far poorer than we are now.  These moral systems do not emphasize hospitality because they are concerned with minutia, but because these are not minutia - the welcome table is simply the basis of strong communities and humane society.  The welcome table is a source of power of which we have control.  It is time to invite someone - or someone new - in to sit and eat.


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