December 5. I've been thinking more about my statement last Friday that urban people will do better than rural people in a collapse. A reader pointed out that rural people did better in Weimar Germany. Also they did well during the decline of Rome. So the answer depends on a lot of things. Here's a thought experiment: what changes would be necessary for rural people to do better than urban people in a 21st century American collapse?
First we need a collapse scenario. I'm going to say that liquid fuels continue to decline, renewable energy cannot replace them nearly fast enough, and everything that now depends on liquid fuels gets much more expensive. This contributes to decades of zero or negative economic growth. Another contributor is the de-monetization of labor: a lot of the economic growth of the 20th century came from taking labor that used be outside the money economy, like child care and food preparation, and bringing it into the money economy. This is going to reverse as people lose their jobs, do stuff at home for free instead of paying other people to do it, those people lose their jobs, and so on.
New money-making opportunities will be snatched by whoever is in the best position: mostly the already rich. We will shift to a serf economy, where only the very rich can afford to buy other people's time, and they buy a lot of it. Still, most of us won't starve. It's in the interests of the elite to redistribute just enough wealth that we don't violently revolt. Eventually this will take the form of an unconditional basic income, but Americans will resist this for decades, mostly because the second lowest class can't bear the emptiness of life without the lowest class to look down on. For the same reason, we will put off the inevitable mass-cancellation of personal debt.
So here's America of 2030: you have to jump through hoops (creating terrible bureaucratic jobs) to qualify for government assistance mostly in the form of junk food and antidepressants, you have massive unpayable debts (creating terrible jobs at collection agencies), you've been evicted a few times and been in some tactically useless political protests (creating terrible jobs for cops), you don't have a car but you occasionally rent a self-driving car, you make some cash on the side selling overpriced handmade arts and crafts, you spend your cash on alcohol and cannabis, and you spend most of your time looking for affordable sources of decent food and other necessities, and consuming high-tech entertainment.
Given this scenario, what would it take for rural life to be better than urban life?
It would seem that rural people have the advantage in access to food. But right now almost all farmland is used for industrial monocultures. You can't trade extra goat milk for extra cabbages from your neighbors if you're surrounded by fifty miles of cornfields controlled by Cargill. So you'd have to produce everything you want to eat on your own land, which is difficult even with unlimited resources. For rural life to be better, the giant farms would somehow have to be broken up and resettled with many small independent farmers, and they would all need housing. But an easier path to basically the same thing, would be for people already living in mid-density urban and suburban neighborhoods to convert their yards to food production. Realistically, nobody will have to grow all their own food, because we'll all have access to low-quality industrial food -- this summer I was already buying Grocery Outlet white flour. You'll only need to grow enough high-quality food to stay healthy, and a yard is big enough.
Next, rural people would need equal or better access to non-food items. This was easier in the olden days when we had fewer non-food needs and more skills in making them. Even as recently as Weimar Germany, there were a lot more people who could make brooms and axes, who didn't mind wiping their butts with leaves, who didn't need a cabinet full of meds, and who wouldn't get bored sitting under a tree for a few hours. To match that today we would need radical cultural changes, or extremely powerful 3D printers everywhere. Otherwise it's going to be easier to get stuff if you're closer to the supply lines, which will come first to cities with seaports and rail hubs, then by expensive trucking to other cities, and finally to small towns.
I'm going to give rural people the benefit of the doubt on human community. If information technology keeps getting more powerful, then we'll all be overwhelmed with social media friends, and starving for face-to-face friends, wherever we live. But if you expect a tech crash, then the country can only match the city with extremely unlikely massive resettlement and cultural change.
Finally, we need economic opportunities, ways to trade our time and skills for money and stuff. Here the advantage of being rural is that you might have enough land to grow a surplus of food and sell or trade it. But this only works if you can get the food to buyers, and remember that fuel will be more expensive and roads will certainly be in worse condition. Because rich people will have all the money, you'll want to sell stuff directly to rich people, who will live around the cities. Again, the best hope for rural life is if information technology increases the number of non-physical goods and services, and makes location irrelevant.
I think it was a mistake to use the word capitalism because it leads to semantic arguments about whether an imaginary better society is or is not "capitalist". But the idea is that under low energy flows, human systems are like trees, growing slowly, minimizing waste, and integrating with the ecosystem; under high energy flows, human systems are like annual weeds, gobbling energy to grow fast and maximize output. So the more energy a society has, the worse it is! And maybe the end of the oil age will be good for us. Another factor is whether the energy flows are centrally controlled or democratic. That's why I'm against nuclear power, because so far it can only be done in central plants, instead of everyone having a micro-reactor in their house. (For the same reason, I'm against genetic engineering until everyone can do it.) Solar panels are potentially democratic, but I expect the control systems to push for giant centralized plants. Cynically, I expect another energy boom in the next century, with more and more of the planet being covered with solar plants, with the energy feeding more political inequality, more waste, more insulation from reality, and more artificial needs than ever before.
December 2. Two reddit comments from Erinaceous (who by the way is not a woman named Erin, but a guy referencing the latin name for the hedgehog family). This one lists thirty links about ecological economics. And this great comment is about capitalism as an evolutionary system using power as the foundation rather than fitness I think it was a mistake to use the word "capitalism" because it leads to semantic arguments. But the idea is that under low energy flows, human systems are like trees, growing slowly, minimizing waste, and integrating with the ecosystem; under high energy flows, human systems are like annual weeds, gobbling energy to grow fast and maximize output. So the more energy a society has, the worse it is! And maybe the end of the oil age will be good for us. Another factor is whether the energy flows are centrally controlled or democratic. That's why I'm against nuclear power, because it's the nature of the technology that it can only be done in central plants, instead of everyone having a micro-reactor in their back yard. (For the same reason, I'm against genetic engineering until everyone can do it in their garage.) Solar panels are potentially democratic, but I expect the control systems to push for giant centralized plants. Cynically, I expect another energy boom in the next century, with more and more of the planet being covered with solar plants, with the energy feeding more political domination, more waste, more insulation from reality, and more artificial needs than ever before. Loosely related, a link I've been saving all year for winter: The Fireplace Delusion argues that burning wood in your fireplace is unnecessary and terribly polluting. But in my region, with cold winters and dry summers, dead wood builds up faster than it decomposes into soil, and forest fires are part of the ecology. So if I cut up a few dead trees and bring them back to burn in the fireplace, I'm just making smoke that would have been made anyway, and it allows me to be less dependent on the money economy and the oil companies. Rather than phasing out wood heat, we need to design and build more efficient stoves, like rocket mass heaters.
November 29. Recently I've had a few reader comments about how I gave up on the homesteading thing. Here's how I explained it in one email:
"I learned by actually trying it how hard it is. And I noticed that people I knew who had gone back to the land in small groups were unhappy compared to people in the city. In practice, most back-to-the-landers end up being little developers, or remote suburbanites. They still drive into town for food and supplies, they have to drive much farther, they cut down a lot of trees, and the only advantage is a better view."
There are several reasons people want to go "back to the land": 1) They hate the city because they have a low tolerance for chaos. But wild nature has even more chaos! 2) They imagine that rural people will do better in a collapse. But historically urban people have done better, because cities densely concentrate skills, items, and economic opportunities. 3) They overestimate their introversion, and how happy and sane they can be in prolonged isolation. 4) They feel, correctly, that rural self-sufficiency will make their life more meaningful. But this is a young person's problem and a young person's solution: to trade massive physical labor for meaning. Older people have less energy, and more ability to create their own meaning, or to find it in more subtle things.
5) They feel, correctly, that human civilization is a big pile of mistakes. But it doesn't follow that trying to get physically outside it is a good move -- especially not for humans. We're an adaptable species, and adaptable nonhumans like crows and grey squirrels are thriving in human settlements. I think the best move is to stay physically close to the center, but mentally on the fringes. Or as the ancient Christians said, "in the world but not of it."
And here's some music for the weekend, an improved version of my favorite song from a video game, Retro Remix Revue - Gerudo Valley.
page, including recipes for pies, gravy, and stuffing. I'll be making all three tonight and tomorrow, and Leigh Ann will be making real eggnog. Our recipe: 6 eggs separated, 3 cups whole milk, 2 cups heavy cream,
1 cup1½ cups spiced rum, 1/2 cup sugar, and nutmeg.
November 27. For Thanksgiving, check out the recipe section on my misc. page, including recipes for pies, gravy, and stuffing. I'll be making all three tonight and tomorrow, and Leigh Ann will be making real eggnog. Our recipe: 6 eggs separated, 3 cups whole milk, 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup spiced rum, 1/2 cup sugar, and nutmeg.
November 25. Posting will probably be light this week. Today, two links in the "sci-fi is now" category, which coincidentally I just found right next to each other on reddit. The internet mystery that has the world baffled is about a very difficult multi-part puzzle, probably a recruitment tool for a spy agency or a tech company, but no one is saying. For a good fictional spin on this, check out the book Daemon by Daniel Suarez.
And how ayahuasca can revolutionize psychotherapy:
"It's not a question of, 'Here's a drug that's going to fix you,'" Mate explains. "It's, 'Here's a substance under the effect of which you'll be able to do a kind of self-exploration that otherwise might not be available to you, or otherwise might take you years to get to.'"
November 22. It's Friday so I'm writing about music again. Monkey-Human Ancestors Got Music 30 Million Years Ago. So music is older than language. This reminds me of something I've noticed about my own musical taste. When I was a kid, I just liked whatever my ears liked. Then as a teenager my taste became corrupted by intellect and identity. On some level I was choosing what to like because of what it said about what kind of person I was. I didn't notice myself doing this but I noticed other people doing it. For example, in a college class about music history, the instructor mentioned African pop, and some liberal students were like "Oooo, tell me more about African pop!" You could see them making up their minds that they were going to love it before they had even heard it. Meanwhile I was drawn to indie rock with smart lyrics, and within that category my honest musical taste was allowed to pick out Camper Van Beethoven and Beat Happening.
Around age 30 I started to recover and learn to go by feel again. As I get older I find that I'm less interested in lyrics and vocal melodies and song structure, and more interested in the soundscape. Last month I argued that popular music is in permanent decline, but now I think this is only true for simple melodies: there is a small finite range of simple melodies that sound good to the human ear, and it's mostly been exhausted. So there will not be another songwriter like Stephen Foster or Paul McCartney because they would have to come too close to stuff that's already familiar.
We can't even objectively define a pleasing melody -- that's how far our intellect is lagging behind our creativity -- while music continues to get better in ways that are even harder to define. This reminds me of a reader comment a few years back about entropy in the universe: that there will never be total heat death because life can always adapt to lower energy by becoming more subtle and complex.
Consider this song from 1967, Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks. In its own musical universe this is untouchable -- nothing like it can possibly sound as good. Now check out this song from 42 years later, Argyle Square by Orphans & Vandals. The theme is the same: the singer expresses the beauty and wonder of a particular London neighborhood. He's barely even trying to sing a melody, and the music behind him is messy. And yet to my ears, once I've learned how to listen to it, this blows Waterloo Sunset away.
is a short 2007 piece by David Foster Wallace. He suggests that instead of giving up our freedoms to try to eliminate all risk of political violence against civilians, we could hold onto our freedoms and think of the inevitable victims as heroic martyrs. He points out that we already make the same trade-off with traffic laws, accepting a terrible death toll just so we can drive faster. I think the difference is, people take a bombing as a personal insult, a threat to their identity and status, while a car crash just feels like bad luck. is about a high school coach who has done the math, and figured out that it's better to never punt and always onside kick. His team is now dominating their conference. It's inspiring to see someone boldly doing something a better way, but depressing that no one else is following. Even in a ruthless meritocracy like sports, winning games is a weaker motivator than saving face., because healthy people live longer, consuming more health care, and ultimately die of other things that still cost money to treat. I would add: the real reason that alcohol and cigarettes are heavily taxed is that people who use them are seen as morally inferior and deserving of punishment. The purpose of sin taxes is to make obedient people feel righteous.
November 18. Unrelated links... no, wait, they are related! Just Asking is a short 2007 piece by David Foster Wallace. He suggests that instead of giving up all our freedoms to try to eliminate all risk of political violence against civilians, we could instead hold onto our freedoms and think of the inevitable victims as heroic martyrs. He points out that we already make the same trade-off with traffic laws, accepting a terrible death toll just so we can drive faster. I think the difference is, people take a political bombing as a personal insult, a threat to their identity, while a car crash just feels like bad luck.Game Theory Based Contrarian Football is about a high school coach who has done the math, and figured out that it's better to never punt and always onside kick. The team is now dominating their conference. It's inspiring to see someone boldly doing something a better way, but depressing that no one else is following. Even in a ruthless meritocracy like sports, winning games is a weaker motivator than saving face.Alcohol, Obesity and Smoking Do Not Cost Health Care Systems Money, because healthy people live longer, consuming more health care, and ultimately die of other things that still cost money to treat. I would add: the real reason that alcohol and cigarettes are heavily taxed is that people who use them are seen as morally inferior and deserving of punishment. And a great reddit thread, What are stories about picture perfect families who do fucked up stuff behind closed doors? Sample post:
When I was in school, there was one girl who epitomized all-American girl-next-door cheerleader. She was gorgeous with blue eyes, long blonde hair, perfect body, and always had this 100 watt smile. She was on Homecoming court, and so was her little sister. Her family was prominent locally: the stay-at-home mom ran the PTA, the dad had a prestigious job. This girl was on a parent-imposed diet since at least 3rd grade, despite never being fat. If she or her sister sassed her parents or got less than a B+ on an assignment, they were told they were "dogs" and they were forced to crawl around the house and eat their food from dog bowls under the kitchen table.
October 14. Last month I read the book