Perspectives: A Review of 2009
by Michael Doliner
(Swans - December 14, 2009) When I walk around in the street everybody seems to be swimming in soup. It's all slow motion. Everybody is so helpless. Most things don't get done. Telephone calls are not returned. I read of vague plans the local government has to think about doing something or other. It all fades away or gets done, who knows? The kids barely want to have sex. The Federal government talks gibberish, hems and haws, dribbles off like a stroke victim. They debate health care reform, say irrelevant things, misrepresent everything, pass a phony bill, and praise themselves for it. News shows lie and everybody knows they lie. People I used to think were competent seem to have lost their minds. The entire economy is a complete sham, an illusion pumped up by printing green bits of paper, or even merely making a few keystrokes. Banks are hiding houses. Wall Street brokers seem to be riding bucking broncos into the sunset. No one even knows how to make anything. Everyone is afraid to disturb, even in the slightest, anyone else in the neighborhood. They tiptoe by one another on eggshells. Their voices sound like molasses, slow and soppy sweet, and they think that's the way it ought to be. As they chat idly every molecule of them screams out, "I don't want to think about it!"
Aside from ongoing butchery, impoverishment, environmental degradation and much more too disgusting to tick off, nothing has happened in the last year other than the attempt to continue drawing a curtain of hopeful illusion over what more and more looks like the end of the species, or excuse me, at least its intelligent phase. For perhaps a few creatures with the genome of Homo erectus will still be able to drag themselves around à la Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road (soon to be a major motion picture and, who knows, if we're lucky, a reality.) It's all just a continuation of the ongoing catastrophe. I could go on to explain what I really, no really, think is going on behind the curtain. But it's far too late to hope that by understanding, people will see and do something. They the eternal they, are way past the point of doing anything. And so are you.
So, instead of reminiscing about the last year, I am going to engage in a little fantasy. Here's what I would have done if I had been Obama:
What would I have done had I been Obama? Here is the way I and everyone around me sees the present situation. Civilization is on the brink of absolute calamity. All the warnings of just how bad global warming and other effects of climate change will eventually be have been gross underestimates. The arctic ice shrank as much in a couple of years as the best estimates thought would take fifty. The further changes will make the planet completely inhospitable to civilized human life. Since the warmed arctic is releasing plumes of methane from melting clathrates and permafrost that will accelerate the greenhouse effect, in all likelihood the game is already lost, for the warming produced by the greenhouse gases already released is releasing more of these gases that will increase the climate-change effects. As an additional bonus the acidifying sea will become considerably more inhospitable to the already drastically depleted fish population. The tipping point is either already here or very close. Although it might be impossible, as president, it is my job to try to save the situation.
News about the financial meltdown is being cooked. Foreclosures and a general collapse of housing will rapidly grow in 2010 and will destroy the American economic system. There are trillions and trillions of dollars in debt obligations of various kinds. At the bottom of it is the simple fact that the United States has no real economy left. Capitalism is over. It has revealed that it is not a productive force, except tangentially. Yes, capitalists make things, but only if they can't avoid it. It is in their interest to shave quality, reduce quantity, and cheat labor. They would much prefer to make money by playing with money, à la the banksters. If capitalism is allowed simply to crack up it will generate wars in its death throes that also will end civilization. The entire huge industrial economy is certainly going to disappear within the next century, and probably much sooner. We have to find a way of letting go of it without throwing a temper tantrum.
Peak oil is here and none of the alternatives hold any real promise as transportation fuels. Even if they did, implementing them would only give us a short respite as business as usual means more middle-class people, and more middle-class people will use more energy. To simply continue to burn fossil fuels as we have been will certainly doom us to the effects of global climate change and force us into war with other nations for the last drops of oil. Given the global climate change catastrophe, burning fossil fuels has to stop right now or there is really no chance of preventing the planet from becoming a place in which we, that is civilized humanity (not Homo erectus), cannot live.
Many other problems are only a little further down the tracks of time. Phosphate shortages, collapse of fisheries, species extinction, aquifer depletion, even erosion of soil, are all a lot closer than anyone with even a medium-range plan can ignore.
As president the preservation of the planet as a place friendly to civilization is a primary consideration. But full disclosure: as a person whose loyalty to his own species is sometimes absent I wonder how "civilized" man could justify his existence before a holy court. The planet, our mother, is very, very mad at us, and with good cause. She is perfectly capable of eating us all in shear rage. And I see the justice in this. We have been very naughty children and, as everybody knows, Mother Nature is not sentimental.
However, as president of the United States I have other obligations. So first things first. The day after the election I would talk to a lot of colonels in all branches of the military. If after talking with one for some time I felt I was dealing with a human being and not an automaton with a mind locked into groupthink, I would slowly introduce the material in the preceding paragraphs without revealing that I subscribed to these beliefs. I would leave out the non-presidential views. I would search until I found a kindred soul, nothing more than a human being really, who still could think clearly. I actually think I could find this person in not too much time. I would try to gauge just how aware he is of the desperateness of the situation. Then I would ask to see his unit with him, the one he commands. (I wouldn't bother to interview anyone who didn't command a combat unit.) I would look closely at his relationship to the men and women in his command to judge their loyalty to him and to each other. If I were convinced that he believed in the critical emergency that faces the species, and also that his people were loyal to him and not to some vague fog of a puffed up entity, I would reveal his role in the plan. On inauguration day, immediately after I take the oath of office, I will start the inauguration speech with an announcement that I have appointed Colonel X as head of my security. The Colonel would then move slowly to the platform and relieve the Secret Service of its duties. I would then continue my speech in which I would describe the enormous dangers that are facing not only the United States, but the world. I would then say that as the world leader we must lead in the incredible human task of overcoming these dangers.
I will then go on to explain that there is no solution as long as there is war. For if there is even the threat of war, states will have to protect themselves and will burn all the fossil fuels they can get to increase their power. The wars, at bottom, are about fossil fuels, and the supply of fossil fuels is rapidly diminishing. So war over oil is world war. For civilization to survive there cannot be modern mechanized war. Even if it was fun, we can't do it any more. Perhaps later we might be able to have a more civilized kind of war, maybe with spears. But right now the problem is how to use less, much less of everything, and convince the rest of the world to do likewise. Only if the U.S., the world's economic leader, can lead the way can we ever hope to convince others to do the same. Everybody has to trust us, and right now nobody does. Not only can we not go to war with other countries, we have to convince them of our good will. And we can only do that with deeds. Remember, if we fail, almost certainly life as we know it will end, even if creatures with our DNA continue to haunt the earth. At that point I would ask for the resignations of all the chief military officers immediately. These resignations would already be preprinted and others soldiers under Colonel X's command would already be delivering them in the Pentagon and insisting upon an immediate signature. Anyone who hesitated would be fired for insubordination. Colonel X's men would then escort them from the Pentagon and their passes would be taken. I would keep close watch on all of them. I would then clear out the top levels of all the other departments, state, defense, everything. I would fill them with people who understand the situation and its gravity or who have absolute faith that I do.
I would then start proceedings against any of my predecessors who committed war crimes. Put them all in jail. I would go on television and say to the country, "They committed crimes, they go on trial, period." That would be the end of my speech. My new Pentagon would appoint new commanders at all American military bases in the world. All the old leaders would be relieved of command and retired. They would all be watched closely. The new commanders would be given instructions to close up shop. All the bases will be closed as quickly as possible, certainly no longer than six months. At the same time I would end all the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and anywhere else. To continue it is to doom human civilization, and the preservation of human civilization is our primary objective. We cannot engage in unjust foreign wars anywhere, even a little, and expect the kind of cooperation we need to have if we are to have any chance to achieve our task. I would order the new commanders in the war zones to withdraw to bases, arrange for truces with all belligerents, and immediately begin an American withdrawal. To explain this to the public I will say that the presence of our military bases in other countries was always imperialist and they can no longer guarantee us control of that country anyway. To maintain these bases is to destroy the possibility of the total human cooperation necessary to meet our species' emergency. We cannot both be imperialists and lead this dramatic retrenchment that is absolutely essential. We can no longer gain anything by war. I will repeat: war is obsolete. Any war will make the necessary total human cooperation impossible.
If Rush Limbaugh gives me a problem I would instruct the IRS to immediately audit his last seven years' tax returns, and the FBI to begin asking questions of his superiors and friends about his foreign contacts, possible drug use, and sexual habits. I would assign a prosecutor to see if it is plausible to bring charges against Limbaugh in connection with the murder of George Tiller. Any further problems and a SWAT team would smash down his door and make him stand in the street in his pajamas with all the cop noises in his ears. They would look for possible connections to terrorists such as those who disrupted the town hall meetings about health care. I believe that would end any resistance from the dittoheadster. Others would get the hint.
First things first. Food, shelter, and clothing. We are a phenomenally rich country. We must find or build shelter; decent, permanent appropriate shelter, for all of our citizens. In return for any funds given to banks we would take TITLE to foreclosed properties. We would set up local agencies to find or build housing for all American citizens. Finding, fixing up, and building houses would supply a lot of jobs. We wouldn't tolerate the interminable draggy way everything is done now. These agencies would be tasked with finding shelter for a family on the very first day of contact. The end of war making would supply more than enough resources for this.
But we must face the hard, hard fact. What is to become of those who are helpless, the more than homeless who are the living dead, or for that matter, the completely deranged, or the hardened criminals? These people are "unsustainable," a pointless burden upon everyone else. We must use less. But even more important is for us to retain our humanity. Without it there is no hope for worldwide cooperation so necessary if we are to have any chance with our all-but-hopeless task. No one can judge others superfluous, and to start doing so might lead to monstrous excesses.
We must establish the principle that no one has the right to take another life. Prisons, too, must go. However, there are some people we do not want to live with. I will create a city of exile far from any other habitation in the desert. Let those whom we no longer wish to live with live there. Perhaps they can create their own society. The war criminals would be the first to go. In any case, exile, rather than imprisonment or death, would be the appropriate and I think just punishment for serious crimes.
But then would come the hard and fun part. How do we get from here to there? How can the human world transform itself from the energy-gulping garbage-spewing monster it has become to something small yet full of civilized potential? It probably can't, but we might as well try. To fight for lost causes is noble. Since we are going to have to use much less energy all the solutions have to be local. Although railroads, for example, could significantly reduce our energy use, they can only be a transition technology. They would still use non-renewable resources. For the decline in fossil fuel production will continue, and even this use will become too much very soon. We simply cannot expect to transport ourselves and our things back and forth the way we have been.
So there would have to be a lot of local plans, and for this we will set up local planning boards. These would be on the model of the Athenian Assembly. Anyone living in the local area covered by the plan can come and speak. But these boards are tasked with coming up with a plan for their area within a month. There will be no time for the usual obfuscation and sophism that has been the hallmark of how Americans debate policy for many years. Think of the Athenians debating what to do while the Persian army marched towards the city. They didn't have time to fool around, and neither do we. These boards need to come up with local answers, and whatever these answers are, will have the force of law. The plans must be sustainable, otherwise there will be wars. These planning boards will have extraordinary powers to appropriate property and money. Everyone will be involved in the discussion, but no one will be allowed to make objections to a plan without at the same time proposing a viable alternative. Citizens can lose the right to speak for presenting frivolous plans or making objections to a plan without at the same time coming up with a reasonable alternative. Those details each board will decide upon.
The only hope is to turn the United States into a large confederation of self-sustaining city-states with the central government as a security umbrella over them that will close and vanish after this transition period. We should realize how delicate such an operation is. If, within a city-state there is a large range of rich and poor, happiness and misery, it will be hard for other neighboring city-states to trust in their goodwill. For surely, if they oppress one another they will have no qualms in oppressing outsiders. There is no good reason for decisions about what happens within these city states to be made outside, by the central government. If everybody within a city-state has a chance to voice his plan, not merely object to another, so that they find a solution within a given time, a real community will form. There would be no reason to restrict trade between the city-states, provided such trade was sustainable. That means no trade of, and no use of, fossil fuels. All final plans must be for the long term. The idea will be to create something permanent that one might tend for the foreseeable future. Obviously, for a plan to be sustainable it cannot use any non-renewable resource. Clearly, such a plan must have an element of population control.
In line with this I would outlaw corporations. They are a parasitic life form sucking the juice out of human life. Since the planning boards will control all assets within their territory, the corporations will be bankrupt anyway. The very concept of a corporation as an artificial person will go. People must be responsible for anything they do.
Every day, every single day, I would talk on television about the gravity of the situation. I would remind the people of the United States that what they have to do is greater, and more difficult, than anything the species has ever done before. I would remind them that there is no alternative, and that their lives are meaningless if they fail. The way of selfishness is the way of doom. The rich must give up their riches, the poor must be helped, if the human species is to spare itself a catastrophic decline into possible extinction. I am convinced that most people would prefer to be part of such a daring and noble enterprise rather than spend their short time on the planet even in the lap of luxury, however pleasurable that might be. If I am wrong I will surely be killed. So be it.
With all this happening I will have standing with the leaders of other countries to encourage them to do the same. We will, of course, retain the means to protect ourselves until some true disarmament plan can be devised. Very few missiles with atomic warheads will do. But we will not let talk about such a thing drag on. If we cannot persuade others to join us in this enterprise, we can only reiterate the arguments and hope for the best. I believe the obvious dire straits civilization is in will quickly make others see the need for our plan. With good will it would not be hard to make a verifiable plan for disarmament, for anyone will quickly see that civilization will not survive another major war, or even the continuation of those we are in now. Chicanery will benefit no one, certainly not the chicaneur.
Obviously many of the city-states will find it impossible to develop a plan for a self-sufficient local economy. The big cities will certainly find they have a problem. If through their own admission or after a month of trying several of the city-states cannot develop such plausible plans for the survival of their populations, they might propose plans for somewhat larger entities. But in the end the plan must be for a sustainable economy that uses nothing but renewable resources.
It is not civilized to live in a flat dull city. Human life needs to strive for excellence. If capitalism got one thing right it was in its universalization of the real possibility of human excellence. But the prize, the right to use an inordinate amount of the resources, brought us here. No, within our city-states the prize for excellence will be the right to procreate. Many of the new city states will find that they cannot maintain the present population. Their plans will have to include a population reduction. Naturally, a city-state will need people skilled at the various tasks necessary for the sustained life of the city to continue. What these tasks are must be much more clearly defined than they are now. The practitioners of each task should form themselves into a guild. Excellence must be possible for every one of these tasks. People who do well the tasks they have found for themselves are the logical candidates for reproduction. I believe this would be a great incentive for being excellent in, as the interviewer says, "what you do." Those who do that task would choose the best of their colleagues, if there was no objective measure. Everyone should be reminded that any tampering with the process of choice, arm twisting or palm greasing behind the scenes, corrupts the integrity of that human activity. Although the prize is great so will be the general desire to preserve integrity, and thus retain the value of one's own life's work. Fear and greed should not be what a human civilization is about. Plato called that a city of pigs. But people do not want to live in a city of pigs, and will not if all its implications are known.
The entire legal system should be changed. Instead of presenting evidence, those in court will tell stories, histories about what happened. Every criminal must be able to face his accuser, and that does not mean a representative of the state. An accuser is someone who believes a crime has been committed because of what he knows. He must tell the tale of just how he came to believe that the accused did the crime. It should be the tale of how and when each piece of evidence came into his possession, what each meant to him, and what finally convinced him of the accused's guilt. Then the accused, the accused himself -- not his mouthpiece, will have an opportunity to offer his own story, to show just why the evidence does not point to him. Was the evidence planted? Why? By whom? For what purpose? With no professional prosecutors or police whose careers depend upon convictions there would be no motive for railroading anyone, except, of course, personal animosity. The accused will tell an alternative story. Both will have the opportunity to bring others into court to bolster their stories. Trials, especially those for serious crimes, should be conducted in front of the whole community. In the end those who show up will decide what actually happened while the crime, if there was a crime, was being committed. The trials should be very swift. The trial should take place the day after the accusation, and it should be finished by the end of the day.
However, the purpose of this trial is not to enact revenge. That is barbaric. The purpose would be to restore the accused to the community. Naturally, if the crime is too heinous for that to be possible, there would be exile to Exile City. If someone has ruined his life by doing something horrible, there is no need to keep his body around until he dies a natural death. But of course such an event brings shame upon the whole city, for the city presented an environment where such horrible things happen.
There is much, much more, but that is probably enough to start.
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