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What did you do in the empire, grandmother?

por la abuela

Rudolf-Mates-1929 50watts.com-A-Forest-Story-by-Josef-Kozisek-(Czechoslovakia--1929)_900
Rudolf Mates, 1929 50watts.com-A-Forest-Story- by-Josef-Kozisek-(Czechoslovakia–1929)_900

The empire was an amazing time to be alive, dearie. I was what they call a professor. That meant that when I got up in the morning, I would take a hot shower, drink coffee that had been automatically brewed, get in a car that was parked in a heated garage, and drive through traffic for half an hour to a building in the middle of the city. Sometimes I would ride my bike instead, but I was considered a great renegade for doing so. There, I would park, and go in to an office, which was a series of rooms with fancy furniture and lots of computers and telephones. And there I would sit, in a room by myself with my computer, and write things in response to others’ messages. That was kind of boring. We sent the messages around to each other, and

http://www.openculture.com/2012/09 /the_illustrated_guide_to_a_phd-redux.html
http://www.openculture.com/2012/09 /the_illustrated_guide_to_a_phd- redux.html

sometimes (rarely) we submitted accumulated wisdom to something called a journal, where other professors looked at what we had written, and they weighed in on what we had written. No one else could read the articles, because the articles were hidden behind something called a “firewall” which meant that big companies made money off of the journals, and kept the public out unless you paid a lot of money for it. After a while, everyone thought alike, which eventually became a problem when circumstances changed and times got hard. The articles were meant to advance science. Because we were trained to use methods that were focused as narrowly as possible on very specific questions, the results often conflicted with each other and ended up being difficult to use in life. One week the mood of science would swing one way, and another week, the mood would swing in a radically different direction, depending on what was getting funded that week.

In addition to spending time in our little offices, we would spend lots of time in meetings with each other. Afterwards, we would send lots of messages around on the internet. As the university grew, there were more and more staff, in addition to the professors. Those staff found many things to do, which added to the meetings, and the duties. Towards the end of the academy, there were a lot of hires from the military and corporate world. After a while, the university began to look more like a business than a hall of learning.

There was even a room in this building for what they called videoconferencing, with fancy custom cabinets and granite countertops. We could have meetings with students or with other colleagues around the world. But we didn’t use it much. Everyone preferred to meet face to face. Sometimes that meant the university would send us on a trip to a meeting in another state or country. That was called networking. We got to see new places, and didn’t have to pay for it. Some people liked to fly because they got special treatment the more they flew, and got to go on free personal trips using something called “mileage plan.”

brokenrungsA lot of the work was done over the internet. Some classes took place online, and after a while, the course content was molded by the method of teaching. We taught in a way that was useful for online delivery. But the students missed face to face learning, and seemed more and more distant, and more a part of the process and not the goal. Even the textbooks were online by the end. When the electricity started to blink out in various cities, the internet went poof. In no time, we were back to reading real books, at least what was left after everything went digital. There wasn’t much extra energy left to print new ones after the collapse. That was true of a lot of things—when the dollar went, a lot of other things went, too. It was almost as though we had climbed two rungs too high on the ladder, while sawing the rungs below off every time we climbed. In the end, we fell back more rungs than would have been necessary if we had retained some kind of support lower down.

Twice a week I would take my students into a hospital to learn how to take care of patients and their associated technology. In intensive care, many of the patients were at the end of their lives, so we might spend weeks trying to keep a corpse painfully alive as it mouldered and decomposed slowly in the bed, with wailing relatives at the bedside, slowly breaking family budgets and throwing the families into penury with surreal hospital bills. Sometimes families lost their home because of the bills, even when their elder died. Maybe they should have made a rule that hospitals and doctors only got paid when the patient lived. Then maybe we wouldn’t have tried so hard to keep people at the end of life alive.

Much of the focus was on the technology and not patients. Patients got carved up into things called specialties. After a while, no one listened to the patient anymore, as cure became more important than care. Nurse servers were stocked full of goodies in every room, and when anyone expired, we would load everything in a red bag and throw it in the garbage. Most everything was disposable–bedpans, wash basins, syringes, lines, everything. Contact isolation gowns, gloves and masks were all disposable, although few used the contact gowns, because no one had time for the basics such as washing hands adequately.  We were so busy nursing the technology that if we had washed our hands every time that we were supposed to, it would have taken half of our shift. No wonder the Great Epidemic finally surfaced.

spoontransformitySome of my friends worked as bureaucrats for the government in conservation agencies. While the workers paid lip service to conservation, when it came down to changing business practices or lifestyles–when it actually came down to changing things for real, then people either couldn’t be bothered if it created the slightest inconvenience, or if it was seen as a step backwards from progress. Ardent conservationists would drive to a coffee shop every morning and buy and then throw away a paper cup, every day. Our school and work cafeterias used big piles of Styrofoam to serve each person, and the food we ate was shipped from all over the world.  No one grew anything, at school or at home. The parking lot was half-filled with big trucks. There were a lot of Priuses too. Other than costing a little more, those cars really didn’t change much. They required zero effort on the part of their owners, and the batteries and gizmos may have actually used more resources than a regular car. The government and the university both fully subsidized public transit for use, but almost none took advantage of the free buses, because it was less convenient. My friend’s building had heated sidewalks. Managers at the upper end of things got to fly all over to meetings, burning your oil to take needless meetings in vacation spots. In some sort of religious ceremony at the end of the meeting, they would throw some greenbacks on the table, in some sort of gesture to the god of what they called “carbon credits.” That appeased the carbon gods and made the travel okay.

themoreyouconsumeIn the end, though, they just locked the doors on the buildings of the conservation agency and walked away. All of those meetings and all of that travel didn’t make any difference. And it turns out nature can run itself, as long as it’s not over-run by people. Oh, the energy we wasted, that we could have saved for you, so that you could have a simple but decent life! Our green illusions just promoted more consumerism. We knew it was wrong, but the good life was too enticing and easy. Why go looking for a life that requires more work when the life we had in the short-term was so plush? Especially when doing so required swimming against a tide that sucked us ever upwards into more and more technology, consumption, and growth, no matter what we called it.

When the collapse in the American petrodollar finally came, it was mighty to behold. We’ll never be sure what caused it–there were so many crazy things going on then, and it was blamed on a lot of different things, depending on how people thought about the world. Some people decided that the problem was a thing called debt. Others thought it was the weather that caused our downfall. And others blamed it on whoever was president at the time–I can’t remember his name anymore. When the money stopped working, we lost about four levels of complexity right off the bat, because we were so overly reliant on the gasoline for transport and the electricity and the digital everything. Places without nuclear power and a functional electric grid hung in there for a while, with working economies and even local internets in places with hydropower. We had hopes that what we had would return, but there wasn’t enough functional grid to support the old ways, and not enough fossil fuels to get some renewable energy technology in anything more than small, local uses. The planes stopped flying, and airports went away except as private airports for the very rich. Trains were overwhelmed, and the roads decayed quickly. The military-industrial complex (MIC) turned in on itself. The screeners turned to screening the roadways, and travel got difficult. And “if you see something, say something” turned into “we have a voice, and feet, and we’re walking away from this”. Without the people, the national government just fell apart. People couldn’t afford the lifestyle anymore, anyway.

seussquestionsarehardWith the spotty grid, eventually some of the nuke plants in the northeastern part of the US blew up, and the densely populated northeast started to thin out through various means. We got our nuclear explosions, it just wasn’t how we thought it would roll out as nuclear war. We shut down the nuke plants, and some of the waste got moved, and some of it we’re still trying to cool on location. There are a lot more down-winders these days. I wish we had done something while we still had the extra energy to burn. I’m not sure if the radiation had a part to play in the Great Epidemic or not–it’s all so hard to sort out now. The healthcare system was so focused on genetics as the cause of everything that the doctors completely missed the dangers of environmental contaminants in the form of radiation, pesticides, and heavy metals. We were too far removed from our environment, and we had been taught to believe that it was unnecessary–what they called an “externality.” Well, a lot of people ended up externalized in the Great Epidemic, all right.

We learned how to grow food, we stopped having so many offspring, and we learned to live below our means, not so high on the hog. But only after we were forced to. Families live together again, and I get to see my family every day, and we’re all happier for the slower pace and closer ties, just the way we were meant to live in the first place.

WayNatureWorksWayPeopleThink

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  • Tom Abel

    This is awesome. Sometimes I think fiction is the most powerful way to get people to understand these complicated issues. And it is powerful emotionally too. Nice. Sad but compelling. Can this go to book length? :)

  • Doug Salzmann

    Yup, what Tom said.

    I laughed, I cried. . . and I sent it to a zillion people, a very few of whom are just beginning to “get it”.

    Thanks. We need more of this.

  • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

    Mary, you continue to amaze and delight me! From nurse to paternal interpreter to cautionary fiction writer — keep pushing away at those artificial boundaries!

  • http://twitter.com/TinyEnergies Prosperous Way Down

    Gracias, señores. Abuelita is an amalgam of the family gripes. We spent time together this week, and healthcare and travel were involved . . . .

  • Mike L

    “…Others thought it was the weather that caused our downfall…”

    Not a mention of climate change??? It’s the flip side of our fossil fuel addiction, so to leave it out constitutes a gaping hole in the story.

    • http://twitter.com/TinyEnergies Prosperous Way Down

      Mike, I mentioned ciimate pointedly but briefly for that very reason. Thanks for letting me explain. Try these three posts on climate for my opinion, which is an interpretation of Odum’s stance on the topic.

      http://prosperouswaydown.com/category/subtopics/climate-shane/

      “H.T. Odum spent formative years interrupting his undergraduate study during World War II as a tropical meteorologist in the Panama Canal zone, which helped him to develop understanding of the energetic basis of global systems. He was generally less disturbed about the threat of climate change than he was about our coming bottleneck due to peak oil, proposing that the greatest and most impacting effect of climate change would would be greater extremes and wider swings in weather. On the subject of climate, he was unsure about whether heating due to greenhouse gases would cause significant rises in sea level or not; one early hypothesis of his in the 1980s was that if heating caused more water vapor to go into the air, then more snow and ice could form in polar regions at high altitudes. Glaciers might melt at their toes at sea level, but might actually accumulate in ice fields, perhaps counteracting the relative rise in sea levels. (me, 2012)”

      In a 2001 oral history by Barnett, Odum described himself as an optimist because “my optimism is for the environment with an an adapted, lower energy human culture–held together by global information sharing. I do not think we have enough fuel to burn ourselves off the planet. We are going to run short before we wreck the biosphere, and limits are appearing now. Is that optimistic?” (Odum, 2001)

      You can read Odum’s explanation in the linked article below (p. 12) about his belief that global mechanisms for buffering CO2 would be adequate for long-term homeostasis:

      http://globalecotechnics.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Odum-scales-ecol-eng.pdf

      Mary Logan

      • Mike L

        I wish I shared his optimism, but each day brings new studies which point to breached tipping points in the stability of the climate, placing the problem out of the hands of humans to stop or control.

        • http://twitter.com/TinyEnergies Prosperous Way Down

          Who do we believe–Bill McKibben or the EIA? Odum also said, ““Truth is a state of mind in which there is no contradiction. A person perceives his idea as true because he has heard no contradiction. The less one knows, the easier it is to be dogmatic and to be sure that what one knows is true. We tend to defend dogmatically as true the things we are taught, whereas the things we learn from experience and experiments tend to be properly couched in sometimes-contradictory reality . . . ‘Scientific Truth’ requires that one place together in one’s mind both the ideas and observational data from the real world, expanding concepts until there is no contradiction” (Odum, 1995, p. 366).

          What is the empirical data from the real world telling us (per EIA graphs below)? But don’t believe the reasoning of the author of the article below. Someone needs to let him know about peak oil.

          http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/messy-us-climate-policy-somehow-working