The American internal diaspora

Continental migration

Mobility stirs the melting pot

The American promise has always emphasized mobility, both physical and social. We say that here in America you can get a new start if you move from the Old World to the New. Here you can move to a higher station in life on your own merits, as Horatio Alger classically portrayed in his plucky young heroes. Here you can move freely over a vast landscape, a freedom ultimately expressed in that most American custom, the road trip.

As America’s industrial prowess grew, so did its love affair with the automobile — along with virtually unlimited supplies of fuel for both — and opened up an unprecedented era of hyper-mobility. The pace accelerated even further with the advent of the airplane, to such an extent that “place” became almost incidental.  Geography was no longer an environment, but an interval, an obstacle to reduce in the process of achieving a destination. That process became increasingly quick and easy. Family reunion in New Hampshire? No problem. Sales meeting in Seattle? No problem.

The final step toward “placelessness” — and it probably is final — came with the internet and modern telecommunications. One memorable proclamation heralding the arrival of cyberspace was that “geography no longer matters.” Conveniently enough, this fed right into the emerging doctrine of globalization, the idea that every place is equivalent to every other place, and that life is now “distance-insensitive.” The promise of “being digital” meant you could be any place — and therefore, no place, it turns out.

Our wanderlust and urge for far horizons, when gratified to such an extreme, comes at a cost that, for the most part, we either find acceptable or simply ignore:  it’s that a certain rootlessness comes with this kind of mobility. Without roots, we deprive our identity of a vital component — identification with a specific place. A place with its own characteristic geology, plant life, climate, architecture, street names, styles, sounds, smells, tastes, attitudes, dialect. Traditionally, it’s the place we were born and grew up, but it works almost as well for our adopted home, given enough time there.

Certainly, there are those who are by nature footloose and nomadic, but while attachment to place might vary in importance from individual to individual, on average the attachment is likely to be a large part of group identity for those who live there — and depending on the place, it can be a very large part, as in the case of, say, Texas. The people of a place become “a people” partly because they share that place, and especially if enough of them stay there long enough.

Carole King once sang “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” As our mobility increased, we came to expect that growing up meant moving away from home — college out of state became a rite of passage, as did a year or two “on the road.” We began taking it for granted that you live wherever your job takes you. We came to assume that time off work would mean traveling somewhere. Ms. King’s wistful observation did, in effect, meet with a resounding “No” from society at large — even though fellow rocker Neil Young affirmed that he’s “gotta get away from this day-to-day running around,” because “everybody knows this is nowhere.”

This penchant for mobility may appear undirected and maybe a little frantic at the individual level, but over time, population movements have followed certain patterns. In the days of Manifest Destiny, it was to the West that young men would go, and in great numbers. Throughout the twentieth century, there was a massive migration of rural populations into the burgeoning cities of America. Later in the century, there was a major shift of northern populations into the Sunbelt, as air conditioning made the region more habitable for those expected to work productively in an office year-round.

It’s interesting to note that in other places and times throughout history, the movement and relocation of a population would often result in a diaspora, where the people who spread to other lands maintained ties with the homeland, keeping many of its customs and assuring each other that one day they might return. The classic example is the Jewish diaspora; more recently, we hear about the “overseas Chinese” or “Chinese diaspora.” We may well have the makings of one here. Or many, as the case may be.

Internal migrations on this continent might simply be expressions of a generalized sense of rootlessness, but it works unexpectedly well for a nation whose motto is e pluribus unum — out of many, one. We take a certain national pride in being a “melting pot,” bringing in all nationalities and assimilating them. The incessant moving about helps insure that not too many of those nationalities accumulate in one place, nor get overly attached to it. It appears that the melting pot must be stirred constantly.

Granted, the melting pot theory is a little tarnished compared to what it was a couple of generations ago, but it does bear a closer look, if only to get some clues as to why. The theory goes something like this: foreigners come to our shores and we expect them to shed their foreign cultural traits, replacing those traits with the American equivalents; thus our American culture becomes a democratic “averaging” of all the cultural values, beliefs, manners, practices and characteristics of the nationalities we’ve assimilated — plus some new stuff that we’ve presumably come up with while inhabiting this continent as Americans.

An obvious flaw here concerns the destruction and reconstruction of a human identity, however voluntary the case may be, and the ethical problem it poses. The rise of multiculturalism in the 1970’s, with its themes of positive national and ethnic identity, served as a healthy antidote, and among other things, probably put an end to any embarrassment at hearing a grandparent speak with something other than an American English accent.

A subtler difficulty lies in identifying the suitably “American” characteritics that are to replace the foreign ones. Setting aside the issue that there is still a lot of pressure in favor of the same old White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant package, we have to consider the extent to which cultural traits are a product of place: one culture, one place, in simplest terms. Assuming that the effect is in fact considerable, we are then obliged to wonder how in the world something the size of a whole continent could be considered a single place?

Any way you care to slice it, the continent consists of many places — each with its culture. Missing church on Sunday is taboo behavior in rural Alabama, but it’s probably the norm in Ann Arbor or Berkeley; putting mustard on your burger is pretty standard in Texas, but will draw reactions of  horror in New York City. So which of these is the correct all-American choice for our newly-assimilated foreigner?

For all its flaws, the melting pot theory lies at the heart of the American Experiment: we come here as many different peoples, and aspire to be one people; from many nationalities, we seek to create one nationality. Like any good experiment, this one tests a hypothesis; namely, that it is possible to create a nationality by simply declaring it. The founders seemed to think so, and must have been encouraged by their success at declaring political independence from Britain.

However, creating a nation-state is not the same thing as creating a nation. A nation, in its fundamental historical sense, is a nationality, a people, a culture that has a life quite apart from any governing apparatus it might be subject to. From this perspective, it seems obvious that a population cannot become a people simply because its political leaders wish it so.

The reality is that culture is evolutionary and emergent. It takes time for a population to become a people, and the process is by and large beyond the reach of individual intentions. A culture takes shape according to its own rules and the particular influences within it and around it — including, of course, its geographic setting, its place. As a corollary, we can expect that if a place is identifiably different, then the culture will be, too. Often, significantly different.

Several “post-melting-pot” authors have taken up this theme for study. Perhaps the earliest is Joel Garreau, whose 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America identifies a number of distinct geographic regions on our continent that are nations in every respect but formal sovereignty. He maps regional/cultural boundaries that ignore official state lines and gives the areas descriptive names: Dixie, New England, Mexamerica, The Breadbasket, and so on. He shows that these are all distinct cultural and geographic entities with distinct, often conflicting values and interests, all vying for favorable policies from one central government.

More recently, Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America continues along the lines that Garreau started, in somewhat more detail, identifying eleven such distinct regions. In the intervening time, distinctiveness among the regions seems to have sharpened, which would certainly be consistent with demographic studies by the Federal Reserve and others looking at patterns of  internal migration over time. Since 1980, according to these findings, the overall rate of internal migration has fallen steadily and significantly — by about fifty percent. Overall, the melting pot is getting stirred much more slowly than it was even a generation ago.

We can expect that when people stay put longer, the tendency is toward a tighter group. As the Federal Reserve study observes: “…high levels of migration may reduce commitment to the provision of local public goods or corrode social ties in other ways, in which case lower mobility might raise aggregate well-being.” Of course, social cohesion and group identity are a matter of degree, and on this continent, where most people still don’t even know their neighbors, the internal migration rates are still a good deal higher than in Europe and other parts of the industrialized world.

Over the span of the industrial era, Americans — a displaced population to begin with — further displaced themselves into the open lands of the West, then continued to displace themselves around the filled-up continent like marbles in a pinball game, at greater and greater fossil-fueled speeds, and created a diaspora of virtual ex-pats who didn’t have a homeland to long for, let alone return to, because they never stayed anywhere long enough to make one.

Left in the wake of this century-long homogenization is a landscape of American “generica” — a uniform distribution of strip malls, chain stores and cookie-cutter homes that make it a challenge to distinguish one town from the next without a map. Cue Getrude Stein’s quip about archetypally-generic Oakland: “There’s no there there.”

All of the frantic, culture-killing mobility appears to be on the decline, though, and enough people did in fact stay behind to get a good start on cultivating the nine or eleven or however many homelands that the rest could return to. Probably just in time, since the fuel for all of that mobility will be scarce enough soon enough that “hitting the road” will mean hitting it on foot or some equally sweaty alternative, so there’s a good chance this particular American adventure will lose much of the allure it once had.

There’s concern in some quarters that such settling down represents the coalescing of overly like-minded enclaves, aggravating the red-state/blue-state electoral divide that has gotten so pronounced in recent years. Less seriously, there’s the “let ’em secede” contingent who like to point out that red states take more than their share of the tax money, and indeed, that the red-state-of-mind influence would be blessedly absent from US politics if the former Confederacy itself were somehow absent.

This builds on the more serious argument that the Republican Conservative world view and value system is basically the culture of the Old South. If we assume so, it follows that in good American melting-pot fashion, Southern culture and values inevitably spread to places in newer states during the hectic migrational years, and those new enclaves became a diaspora whose “old country” is Dixie. Politics aside, there’s nothing particularly unusual about the phenomenon: on a smaller scale, we have New Yorker enclaves in Florida and LA; Texan diasporas in the Bay Area and Alberta; the whole list would probably make for a decent sociology master’s thesis.

However, the formation of like-minded enclaves, in and of itself, simply means geo-cultural distinctiveness — it does not automatically imply divisiveness or conflict. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that American towns and regions may actually mature fully into socially-cohesive communities — places that do in fact have some “there” there, places where people know their neighbors, talk to them on the street, and, yes, see eye-to-eye with each other on most of the things that matter to them. On the other hand, the potential for conflict does increase when one community wants some matter of theirs to be the law of the land, even though other communities in the same land may have some very different values on the matter.

The current impasse lies in the fact that competition for favor from the central government is taking place between two nations — Red nation and Blue nation — so evenly matched in power and influence that governing the Federal Union has pretty much ground to a halt. It’s anybody’s guess what will resolve the gridlock, but it probably won’t be earnest appeals from the podium for less pluribus and more unum. The melting pot has already run out of appeal, and soon enough it will lack for the fuel to keep it stirred.

Climate change is a consequence of growth

Industrial pollution from growth

Growth produces CO2

Climate change is no doubt one of the top threats to humanity’s well-being, even though there seems to be little that we can do about it, other than discussing it publicly and trying to understand its effects in enough detail to adapt to them when they do occur.

However, there’s a fundamental mistake we make with climate change as a subject for corrective action: we’re talking about the wrong thing. Climate change is not the problem. It’s a consequence of the problem. It’s an effect, not a cause. Rather than fussing about the symptom, we should focus on the disease. We should dig for the root cause. Actually, we can get there just by re-stating some things that rational people already know:

  • Climate change is caused by too much carbon dioxide pollution
  • Carbon dioxide pollution increases with the number of emission sources.
  • Most of these emissions are due to economic activity — power plants, factories, semis, automobiles.
  • As economic activity proliferates, then, so does carbon dioxide pollution

Politicians and economists have a term for “proliferation of economic activity.” They call it “growth.” It’s usually mentioned with the same reverence as “motherhood” or “apple pie.” In any typical policy discussion, it seems that growth is an end in itself, a synonym for “prosperity.”

The odd thing is, many climate change-aware people don’t ever stop to question this. Al Gore would never challenge the desirability of growth, I’m willing to bet. At best, after they mention “green energy,” they might propose some kind of pollution-filtering technology so that we can happily continue using up fossil fuels, rare earths, industrial metals and the very land we get food from in order to hold on to the economic magic of growth.

Sad to say, even if such technology were adequate and available, the sheer scale of such a proposal puts it firmly in the wishful thinking zone of the numerically-challenged. A similar case can be made with the idea that we can “replace” the world’s astronomically immense fossil-energy burn with windmills and solar panels — or even nukes, for that matter. The scale of it is, quite literally, immense — unable to be held in mind.

Our energy appetite is quantifiable, even so. The number, just for fun, is 550 quadrillion BTUs per year. A solid 80% of it comes from burning fossil fuels. To put this number in some kind of perspective, it would take roughly 14,000 nuclear power plants to replace that little bonfire. Compare the present worldwide count of 440. Of course, the much more preferable wind and solar energy sources are much less dense than nuclear, which only serves to enlarge the scale of any “replacement” proposition that much further.

We’ve been living in a state of ever-increasing material abundance for a dozen generations, long enough to set our expectations about what’s “normal” unrealistically high, to have them woven into the fabric of our institutions and our cultural DNA.  Historically speaking, though, this brief period is an outlier, skewed by our discovery and rapid exploitation of a very expendable gift of nature. The labor that once came from slaves and animals now comes from fossil fuel, mediated by the machines whose cranks it turns.

The official explanation for such abundance, of course, is Technology, and for its increase, the credit goes to Progress. If we pull the curtain aside, though, the rude fact revealed is that bits of technology without  something to turn the crank is little more than kinetic sculpture, and what we call “progress” is essentially a belief system that’s every bit as faith-based as any non-secular creed.

In blunt terms, technological progress is essentially the process of devising ever more lavish ways to burn fuel. When the fuel supply is finite, the size of the burn can increase for only so long. And when we’ve predicated so much on that increase, we have some pretty serious re-orienting to do when “so long” begins to arrive, as it is doing right now.

At this point, conversations about growth and how to encourage it cannot be considered serious. The serious conversations, at least for the short- and mid-term, need to focus on how we as a society go about managing contraction.

Longer term — another half-dozen generations, perhaps, and if we manage it well — we can expect a reversion to the historical mean for energy use and for the population size that such level of use can support. It took a while to get into overshoot, and it’ll take a while to wind it back. Such a span of time, though, is likely to be enough for the population to adjust naturally (the arithmetic is surprising), and for us to adapt to ways of living that are quite comfortable with much less use of energy.

After all, however much the myth of progress might be discredited, we do learn all the time, and here’s where we learn more about living lightly on the planet, rather than ways to gain greater concentrations of power. These would be the main circumstances for achieving the steady-state economy that’s really the only way to remedy growth. Once the  cause of climate change is remedied, perhaps then climate healing can get started.

The oil price ledge

Energy consumptionIt is a narrow space that separates the lowest cost at which oil can be sold and the highest price that an economy can afford to pay. And it’s getting narrower.

Our economy runs on oil, and the cheaper the oil, the better it grows. The relation is even clearer in the negative case: of the six economic recessions we’ve had since 1973, all of them were correlated with spikes in oil prices.

The biggest recession, in 2008, came in the wake of the biggest price spike. It was also arguably the first price rise due to long-term structural supply problems, considering the fact that the world’s production of conventional crude stopped growing in 2005. Ever since then, oil has been on the proverbial “bumpy plateau.” In contrast to the steady 2 to 3 percent annual growth of years previous, oil production has stayed at around 75 million barrels per day, showing minor fluctuations but no growth.

The result is an odd up-and-down economic cycle that has a lot to do with the fact that global oil supply is now essentially flat. It’s worth noting that supply is flat for geological reasons that trump neoclassical economic wisdom.

The bumpy economic cycle goes like this:

  • as the economy grows, demand for oil increases;
  • more demand on the same amount of supply drives up price;
  • which slows the economy;
  • which reduces demand;
  • which reduces oil price;
  • which increases demand;
  • Rinse, repeat.

It’s possible to get a numerical handle on all this, as some observers of the oil patch have started to do. The crucial factor they identify is energy expense as a portion of the Gross Domestic Product. Historically, when we spend about 9 or 10 percent of our GDP on energy, we get a recession — the economy slows way down, or stops growing altogether.

Total expenditure on energy at any given time ties very directly to the going price, because demand for oil is very inelastic, i.e., people are going to buy a given amount of oil at almost any price. They just go ahead and pay more, because they’ve really gotta have it. (In the case of oil, a 10 percent price rise results in just 2 percent less demand.)

What we get, then, is something we may have sensed all along: there is a price of oil at which our economy stops growing. Bang. Period. Like clockwork. A little under that price, it grows just a little; a little over, it stops. According Chris Nelder, one of the aforementioned observers, the economy starts to falter at $90 per barrel, and stops growing at $120, as it did in 2011.

The problem is that oil is getting more expensive to produce. Worldwide, the average cost to extract a barrel of oil is between $85 and $90. The spread between this cost and the economy-killing price point is a very narrow ledge that the industrial world now perches on, and getting narrower as oil becomes harder and more expensive to obtain.

This oil price ledge is so crucial that one of Nelder’s colleagues, oil journalist Chris Skrebowski, has offered an economically functional definition of peak oil: we’ve arrived at it when “the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth.”

Now that’s something you can keep an eye on.

Where dollars come from

Dollar generator at the FedIt was hearing one rant too many about “money out of thin air” that finally drove me to learn about how our money system actually works. Where do those dollars come from, anyway? I think I do understand now, even if I can’t quite believe it. It’s spooky, no question.

While most of us are handicapped by the lack of an economics degree, many would still like to know what the fuss is about. I’ll offer a rough report of my own findings about one crucial phase of the system: how the Federal Reserve creates money out of thin air — or thin pixels, as the case may be.

This of course is the notorious fiat money, i.e., “let-there-be” money that is simply declared into existence. Turns out, this is not such a bad idea.

Here’s what happens. The US Treasury gets much of its money from our taxes, but it also borrows money from the public by “selling” bonds and notes collectively known as “treasuries.”  A good part of the US budget goes toward paying interest on these, in fact. Usually, though, the revenue from taxes isn’t enough to cover the debt.

Enter the Federal Reserve. From time to time, the Fed will decide to buy some treasuries from John Q. Public. These are traded on the open market, just like other bonds and stocks. But unlike other mortals who have to fork over ready cash, when the Fed buys a bond from someone, all they do is this: they enter the purchase price in the “credits” column of the seller’s bank account.

That’s it. They get to do that. At that magic moment, it’s brand new legal tender, ready to spend. It’s known as “monetizing the debt.” It’s a classic two-fer: it gets the US Treasury out of hock, while at the same time putting money into circulation for everybody’s use.

Just in case this is too simple, not all dollars originate this way; only about ten percent of them do, in fact. Private banks create the rest. When you deposit $1000 in a bank, they turn right around and lend it out again, minus the legally-required reserve amount, which is currently at 10%. Then the new borrower deposits their $900, and the bank lends that out, minus the reserve, and so on until the last dime, of which they lend out nine cents.

At every step, the bank is creating new money. They get to do that. And keep the profits, as well. It’s called “fractional reserve banking.” It’s also nice work if you can get it.

Before going on with how this scheme could possibly be a good idea, it’s probably worthwhile to add a disclaimer about money. Fans of “real” money assume that gold and silver have some kind of inherent value, whereas fiat money is backed by nothing but thin air. I suggest that this is cultural bias, pure and simple.

Precious metals may be more tangible, but their value as money lies essentially in a social agreement. It just so happens that the agreement about metals is much older than the one about fiat currency notes. Money — in any form — functions as a token of value, a means of accounting our many acts of exchanging items of actual value, whether goods or labor.

So, a money system is essentially an information system.

It’s fair to ask Why bother with these novel fiat-money tokens, when the shiny metal ones have such a well-established track record? The problem comes when there aren’t enough of the metal ones to represent the overall amount of value that’s happening throughout the whole economy.

Money as an information system should be accurate, we would hope, and when an economy grows too large for the current number of metal tokens to represent it accurately, we can’t always just open up new silver mines and mint more of them to relieve the shortage. Nature puts a lid on it.

This actually occurred in the US when metal-backed money was the order of the day: the first Great Depression ran from 1873 to the mid 1890’s, a period characterized by stagnant growth due in large part to the limited money supply imposed by gold and silver.

With fiat-money tokens, however, we can issue however many (or few) it takes for accurately representing the amount of value currently in the economy. That’s the potential, anyhow. Since it is money, there’s always the temptation to issue too much of it, which leads to inflation: more and more dollars chasing the same amount of value.  That’s the opposite problem from the deflationary 1873 depression.

It all comes down to keeping the money supply accurate, then, and with fiat money, we’re asked to trust the government to do so. For many, that’s not necessarily an acceptable leap of faith, and indeed is probably one of the key indicators of where they fall along the political spectrum. Still, we do drive across government-built bridges in complete faith that we will arrive alive.

However firm or queasy our faith in the monetary system might be, we as individual citizens really don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. But at least if we know how it works, we can spot the real abuses, and perhaps be a little less tempted to move the nest egg into Krugerrands whenever we hear more table-pounding about “money from thin air.”

Last lashes of patriarchy

Alpha male lays down the lawThis election season has brought on a full-blown legislative assault against women, still another attempt by the forces of rightwingery to repeal Roe v. Wade, the 19th Amendment and, let’s be frank, the very Age of Enlightenment.

While these objectives remain out of their immediate reach, it hasn’t kept certain middle-aged white men of privilege from using their office to harass and scorn half of the population for simply trying to maintain reproductive health.

In a just world, of course, this gang would be packed off in tumbrels, but they should at least get the nod for sheer, fiendish inventiveness: mandatory probes of the nether parts? Penalties for miscarriage? Bosses screening employees for trollopy pill use?

Wow. You have to wonder what’s in it for these guys. Aside from the votes, of course — for many, there’s no bar too low, no blushes wasted in the serious pander for reelection. Even amid all the noise and posturing, it’s hard to miss the irony of small-government types who huff about The Nanny State, but assume that The Daddy State is just what Jesus would want.

The specter of daddy-ism probably brings us closer to what’s making them tick, if we can handle the awful truth. The claimed motivations — life, morality, fetal sanctity, religious freedom — are a smokescreen, pure and simple. It’s about the patriarchy preserving its power.

It’s the same old routine — father knows best and owns all the rest — that first appeared in neolithic agricultural societies and gave us city walls, organized warfare, land as private property, women as property, captive foreigners as property, and any number of proprietary fiddles geared to preserving alpha-male ease and privilege.

By the time the Enlightenment came around, it seemed that we as a species had cured the worst of all this, and certainly by the twentieth century. But no, apparently. This particular shadow-self of humanity keeps reincarnating, this time flag-wrapped and scripture-wielding, populating the rightward end of our politics with the current crowd of gender-warriors.

All the apple-pie-and-motherhood serves as their attempt to be plausible, even rational. But any lip-service to rationality slips away as their calls to action grow increasingly implausible and more overtly domineering. This could rightly be seen as a male supremacist movement, complete with its own legislative agenda of “Jane Crow” laws. We have the spectacle of wannabe patriarchs who want their perks back, spurred on by visions of better times when chattel could be secured.

This is raw power. It’s a bully’s bid for dominance. It’s war — on women, on equality, on rationality. As the political strokes get more and more outlandish, though, it’s clear that the bully is starting to throw some wild punches. It reeks of desperation.

Obnoxious as it is, this could be a good sign. To keep with the combat metaphor, once your opponent loses his temper, the fight has started to go your way. Once he loses it, well, he’s lost it. Those wild swings are easier to duck, and when he raises his club for the all-out overhead smash, he leaves himself wide open for defeat.

In a word — okay, five words — these suckers are going down.

Gasoline prices in the longer term

Goodbye, cruel fueGas prices. Every tick and twitch in them brings on tales of woe and wide-ranging armchair hunts for whom to blame — from faceless speculators to sitting presidents.

Sometimes, though, somebody will raise the idea that if you take inflation into account, the price of a gallon of gasoline has stayed about the same all along.

It’s true that there has been a baseline gasoline price that has held fairly steady since 1950, around $2.00 per gallon (in constant 2009 dollars).

There were two major exceptions, however — a rise lasting from 1973 to 1986 that topped out at $3.27 in 1981, and another from 2003 to present day, coming in at $3.48 for 2011 (all 2009 dollars, EIA data).

I would argue that the more recent rise directly correlates with the peak in world oil production, and so marks an end to the historical $2.00 baseline.

We’ve been on the “bumpy plateau” since 2005 and will probably see a period with a lot of price volatility, although generally trending upward. It’s just this sort of volatility that speculators look for, so the swings are more extreme than they might be otherwise.

This volatility may well continue for as long as oil supply stays fairly close to meeting demand — a cycle that goes from supply shortfall (relative to demand), followed by price increase, then demand decrease, followed by price decrease, then demand increase, which starts another round of supply shortfall, and so on.

Once production starts to decline noticeably, this roller coaster may straighten out, but on steady uphill climb. Demand will continue to outpace supply, and since demand for fuel is very inelastic, the necessary “demand destruction” will have to come from much higher prices.

Zombie apocalypse

Getting a head startA member of our urban farming co-op showed up at the Saturday farm stand recently carrying a shovel that she had repaired. She showed us the neatly-welded reinforcement around the socket where the handle fits. Impressed, I asked her more about it. She told me that she uses welding mainly to do sculpture, but finds plenty of practical application for it.

“It’s my real-world skill for after the Zombie Apocalypse,” she said, half-joking. Okay, maybe mostly-joking, but still…

It was another little glimmer, a small sign of something on the increase these days. It’s okay now, it seems, to mention “food security” or “energy security” in polite circles, as long as it’s just a passing mention. “Eating local” and “buying local” are now perfectly respectable topics that can sustain fairly extensive treatment before the room empties — although “sustainability” itself may not be quite there yet.

Between climate change, energy decline, and meltdowns both nuclear and financial, there’s a growing sense that the world is going to be a very different, very hands-on place by the next decade, if not sooner. The scenarios vary from Mad Max to Humble Green Consumer, with a lot of difference of opinion rushing into the vacuum left by the sheer uncertainty of it.

If the world that comes after the world as we know it needs a name, even as a placeholder, then “Zombie Apocalypse” may as good as any, and maybe better than most for the pop-media irony it offers. There’s kind of a brave, laughing-into-the-jaws-fate appeal to it. You take your morale boosters where you can find them.

For those who scoff at the Doom-and-Gloomers, I’ll cheerfully cop to the first part of the label — but definitely not the second: whether or not you’re gloomy about the prospect of doom depends very much on what, specifically, is to meet its doom. I keep thinking about that occupant of Zucotti Park who held a sign saying “The beginning is near.”

In the face of such uncertainty, though, second-guessing the outcome very much determines what sort of preparation, if any, an individual thinks prudent. For those at one end of the spectrum, it’s wilderness cabins and ample stocks of tinned meat and ammunition. For those at the other end, it’s more scoffing.

Probabilities being what they are, I’d suggest that the most productive behaviors occur in a range somewhere between the two extremes. The nice part here is that, whatever form the Zombie Apocalypse might actually take, be it mild or wild, these are mostly things we should be doing anyway: driving less, walking more, using less, getting out of debt, living closer, growing local, doing it yourself, meeting your neighbors, and so on.

At the very least, none of these are a waste of time, and they all have positive benefits. Whether the benefits prove to be strategic or even life-saving in the longer run remains to be seen, of course. But if you’ve ever had any interest in taking a welding class, now would certainly be as good a time as any.

Ninety-nine percent and the great divide

Occupy Wall Street got us talking about class in America, just like that. Long a taboo topic, it’s one that desperately needs to be aired. But we can talk about it now. A brilliant stroke it was, to bypass the loaded term “class” and give us something a lot more functional: “the 99%” vs. “the 1%.”

In a country without ranks and titles, our attempts at drawing class lines typically involve finding some numerical cutoff that we can agree on: the “poverty line” is $20K per year, “middle class” is $40K, and so on. Trouble is, it’s arbitrary and doesn’t really yield much in the way of agreement. Nor insight, for that matter.

The percentages 99 and 1 appear at first glance to be yet another stab at a quantitative divide. Indeed, a graph of  income distribution in America shows a classic “hockey stick” curve that takes its sharp upward bend right at the 99th percentile, so the quantities turned out about right in this case. While it’s good that they did, the class differences that really matter are qualitative.

It’s not just about a difference in number of dollars. There’s a point where enough difference in degree becomes a difference in kind.  Politically, it’s about the difference in interests. The one percent have an interest in maintaining the system of rewards that grants them a disproportionate share of the wealth, while the ninety-nine percent’s interest lies in getting a share that’s steady enough to keep body and soul together. On a finite planet, these interests will inevitably come into conflict.

Once such lines are drawn, of course, people will go about assigning themselves to one side or the other. Some of it is cultural: a number of solidly middle-class go-getters, for example, are likely to identify with the top one percent based purely on aspiration. Conversely, some millionaires of a populist persuasion will throw in their lot with The Common Man.

For many others, their inner geek will clamor to know exactly what income level puts a person into the literal top 1%. Here’s the short answer: half a million a year.  According to data  from the Brookings Institution, annual income for the 99th percentile (i.e., entry into the top 1%) is $506,553. Any less and you’re down here with us serfs.

These stats are about income, but here’s an item about wealth that I found to be an eye-opener. The Federal Reserve releases quarterly figures for Total Household Net Worth, an amount which is currently at $57.3 trillion. That’s the sum total of all the net worth of all the households in all the land.

There are 114.8 million of them, as it happens, so your average household is worth $499,600.  That’s right — that’s how much there is to go around. To put it another way, an even distribution of wealth would mean every single family in America sitting comfy and secure on a half-million dollar nest-egg. Make of that what you will.

But the truly great divide, I believe, that separates the upper class from the working classes is when you get to leave out the “working” part. At a certain point, income from investments is enough to live on. You don’t have to worry about having a job, because you don’t need one.

Depending on your concept of “enough,” you could be work-optional with as little $2 million to your name. Dividends and interest on that much would put you in the $100,000-a-year bracket fairly easily. For life.

When you’re work-optional, the world looks like a much different place than it does to someone who has to harness up to a paycheck. That’s privilege. That’s the real difference between the top 1% and the rest of us. Our gut-level understanding of this is what the Occupiers have so successfully struck and have finally given a voice to. We can talk about it now.

The U.S. hasn’t had a war since 1945

Andy Warhol once defined art as “anything an artist does.”Roman squad

We seem to define war as “anything an army does.”

The Confucians advised that “Good governance begins with calling things by their right names.”

I suggest that the name “war” does not rightly apply to the things the US military has been doing post-WWII. When we speak of “war” these days, we often run into conundrums and dissonance — “Did we actually win or lose in Vietnam?” or “How do we know what ‘victory’ is in Iraq?” or “Doesn’t this thing ever end?” We have expectations about what war is supposed to be that never quite seem to be met.

Rather, we could take a clue from Harry Truman, who too-rightly described the conflict in Korea as “police action.” This comes much closer to what an empire actually does when it is carrying out the business of empire — policing the periphery. Policing doesn’t have an end; it’s an ongoing function.

And to be clear about the term “empire,” we can use it here to mean “a nation that projects power beyond its borders in such a way that wealth flows from the periphery toward the center.” Every empire in history has had its own unique style, but this is what they all have in common.

Even if nuclear power were safe enough: peak uranium

Nuclear power advocates face an increasingly tough sell in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown, but it’s likely that the controversy will be endless as long it centers on what an “acceptable” level of risk might be in order to proceed with a nuclear-powered future.

Fortunately for those put off by the prospect of such a future, it’s not necessary to gear up and make a big case against it. All that’s needed is to invite advocates to make their case quantitatively. It fails on its own terms.

Usually, the sell for nuclear power presents it as a remedy for CO2 pollution and fossil fuel depletion, envisioning a world where nuclear power is the main source of energy. Let’s say for sake of argument that this project gets the green light. How do they go about making it happen?

The basic measurements:

With the resulting requirements:

  • Required number of 1 GW plants: 17,428 (550,000 PJ demand / 31.56 PJ per plant)
  • Total cost: $52.29 trillion (17,428 plants * $3 billion each)
  • Uranium oxide for whole fleet: 3,488,741 metric tons per year (17,428 plants * 200 metric tons per year)

And with these starting conditions:

  • Current number of nuclear plants worldwide: 440
  • Uranium oxide estimated reserves (IAEA known recoverable resources): 6,306,300 metric tons

Also, the buildout. To complete the project by, say, mid-century:

  • Plants built: 447 per year (17,428 plants / 39 years)
  • Cost: $1.34 trillion per year (447 plants * $3 billion)

A nuclear-powered future, then? Yes, if we build more than the total number of currently-existing plants every single year at $3 billion apiece. We’d never reach the required 17,000 plants, however, since after about 5,000 of them were built and running, the 6.3 million metric tons of world uranium reserves would be exhausted!