Posts Tagged ‘Future’

Why do we discount the future?

January 7, 2014

Ian Welsh wrote on his blog (one of my favorites on my Blogs I Like page) that we Americans don’t care about the future any more.

The men and women who lived through the Great Depression always planned for the future. They built power plants which produced more power than needed, bridges which could handle more traffic, water purification plants which produced more water than needed. They made sure infrastructure would last for decades, and then built it so well it outlasted even their specifications.

Their heirs, the Silents and the Boomers, thought this was absurd.  Why not party now, and let the future take care of itself?

Call this the “death bet”. In its pure form, the death bet is just that, a bet that when the bill comes do, you’ll be dead.  If you live a good life and die owing millions, well, what do you care?

But someone will pay that bill.  Maybe it will be your creditors, who might even go out of business, unable to collect what they are owed.  Perhaps it will be your heirs, if the millions adhere to property.  Perhaps it will be someone you don’t even know.

But someone will pay.  The good life, bought by debt, is always paid for.

The death bet is why we are not dealing with climate change, even though we know that it is coming and we know it will kill hundreds of millions and might even destroy our entire society.  The death bet is why our governments make huge tax cuts today knowing that either taxes will have to be increased in the future or spending will have to be drastically cut because the spending is not used for investment.  But in the meantime the government can borrow, or print money, so who cares?  The politicians who make the tax cuts won’t be in power, and many of the people who receive the cuts will be dead, so what do they care?

The death bet is why America had a 2.4 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit as of 2009. It is why Californians voted in 1978 to disallow property tax increases of more than 2% per year. And it is why tuition rates have increased by hundreds of percentage points more than inflation in many countries.

A death bet always come due. It just isn’t always paid by those who made it.

via The Death Bet.

Why is this?  I think it is reinforced by a philosophy that says pursuit of self-interest in a free market is sufficient to produce a good society, and moral values just get in the way.  This is not a question of liberalism vs. conservativism per se.  You can believe in individual self-reliance and oppose the welfare state, and still be concerned about your neighbors and those who will come after you.   The house I live in was built in the 1920s, before anybody dreamed of a New Deal.  Yet it is more solidly built than many of the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another factor is that American society since its beginning has been continually transformed by rapid technological change.  Why make an automobile or a computer that will last 25 years when it will be replaced by a better model in five years?  We become habituated to focusing on the new at the expense of maintaining the old.

Some of our problems seem so intractable that it is easier to try to postpone the day of reckoning rather than to solve them.  While it would be perfectly feasible and economically beneficial to launch a public works problem to repair America’s crumbling bridges, dams and water and sewerage systems (what Welsh calls the infrastructure debt), it is much harder to face up to the need for sustainable energy and the problem of global warming.  These would require daunting transformations of society that I, for one, find it virtually impossible to face up to.

That is why apocalyptic religion, and apocalyptic fiction and movies are so popular.  If we are living in the End Times, if civilization is going to collapse anyway, why bother to invest in infrastructure, education or scientific research.

At age 77, I probably will win Welsh’s “death bet.”  I expect to fall apart before American society does.  I guess that makes me part of the problem.

The Google Search timeline of the 21st century

April 1, 2012

Click on xkcd for more like this.

Vision of a hardscrabble future

April 1, 2011

I wrote a post a couple of months ago entitled A prosperous industrial society without oil? about what life would be like after the affordable oil ran out if we successfully made a transition to nuclear, coal and/or green energy.  James Howard Kunstler anticipated my speculation in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. He said it’s not going to happen.

The “converging catastrophes” of the subtitle include global climate change and the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, but the most important one is the exhaustion of affordable oil supplies, which has already begun.

Oil is the basis of the American material standard of living.  The oil industry originated in the United States. When I was a schoolboy, the US was the world’s chief oil-exporting nation.  After our domestic production passed its peak, we turned to imports.  Now they may be peaking, too.

In my earlier post, I claimed that it would be possible to have a functioning industrial civilization without oil, based on some combination of nuclear power, coal and green technologies.  We could have electric trolley cars instead of automobiles, steam locomotive trains instead of airlines.

Kunstler anticipated my argument.  He noted that electric power, steam engines and the so-called green technologies are all products of an energy-intensive industrial civilization.  It would be technically possible to transition to non-oil energy sources, particularly nuclear power, provided this was done while we still had a functioning petroleum-based industrial economy.  But neither our dysfunctional government, our short-sighted corporate establishment nor we the people have the will to prepare for the future.  Once the emergency happens, it will be too late.  We won’t have any of the easy-to-get ores and fuels which were the basis of the original industrial revolution.

The Americans who will survive the emergency best, he wrote, are farms owners and small town residents in the Northeast and Great Lakes areas, who own farmland and possess traditional craft skills.  Mennonites probably will do well, he wrote; so will organic farmers who don’t depend on tractors, milking machines and seed companies.  Animal husbandry will be in great demand, he wrote; there will be few pets, but many working animals.  Horses will be as common as automobiles are today.

In his view suburbia will become literally as well as figuratively a vast wasteland. Big box retail stores, which depend on just-in-time deliveries over long distances, will cease to exist.  Big cities will not survive on their present scale, although he thinks certain sites, because of geography, will always will be urban centers – New York City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans and so on.  Most Americans, except for farmers on the land, will live in small towns whose economic purpose is to service the agricultural economy.

He thinks the South – “the Land of NASCAR” – will fare poorly because it depends on air conditioning and the automobile.  He doubts many people in the Rockies, the Great Plains and the Southwest will survive the collapse of the big irrigation systems.  People in the rainy coast of the Pacific Northwest will do all right if they’re not attacked by pirates (!) .

All in all, the survival of the world’s 6 billion people (at the time of writing) depends on industrial agriculture and petroleum-based fertilizers, he said; mass starvation will result when these are no longer available.

Kunstler himself has moved to the village of New Corinth, in northeastern New York near Saratoga.  He has learned the use of hand tools, and owns a gun “which is a great comfort.”  Most importantly, he has made connections with his neighbors.  Making yourself part of a community is the most important survival skill.

He emphasized that his predictions are not what he wants to happen, but what he thinks will unfortunately happen.  He said he would be pleased if some sort of miracle technological breakthrough restored the era of cheap energy, as when the peaking of the supply of whale oil sparked the development of petroleum technology, but it would be foolish to count on this happening.  As the saying goes, hope is not a plan.

(more…)

Yesterday’s future today

July 3, 2010

A century ago people envisioned cities with amazing skyscrapers, but they couldn’t have envisioned the amazing things that were actually built.

I would like to think people a century from now will be building things that are even more amazing. But maybe not. Maybe they will look back on our period as one of wretched excess based on denial of global climate change and the peaking of the world oil supply.


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