Solar Part II

We’re finally through the permit maze.

July 11, 2022: Initial paperwork done, financing acquired, we’re moving forward.

July 31, 2022: Official notice that the process is beginning.

Aug 19, 2022: Site survey done, official plans drawn up, permitting begins.

Oct 17, 2022: Permit process completed.

Nov 16, 2022: All materials procured, work scheduled to begin.

Nov 16, 2022: Installation starts.

Tomorrow, the power goes off as they replace the breaker-panel, which is in good shape, but looks like it was installed in the 1950’s. It’s common for the area, and I’ve been informed before that it would be one of the first things replaced if we ever had a major electrical problem. Or, in this case, an electrical upgrade.

I was assured that we would have power back on by the end of the day.

Tomorrow may be a little chilly. I’m taking the day off, since I can’t do the remote-office gig. Sweater weather. Maybe brunch out.


Though we’ll need to pay attention to the dogs. They’ll need reassurance.

Skinwalker Ranch

Tonight, we’re off into the wild blue….

I have a taste for the paranormal. I’ve watched and read enough “paranormal” stories to have a pretty good feel for the trope itself. I started reading about fringe science back before I’d really noticed girls, and that interest has stayed with me right up to the present.

Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, and wiser, and more worldly, the trope has worn very thin. Most of the modern “exposés” jump straight to the “it must be extraterrestrials” or “ghosts” or “ancient gods” before the first commercial break, and the stories follow (and follow, and follow) an implausibly disconnected trail of grainy photographs copied from newspapers, pasted on a wall with push-pins and strings and sticky-notes and wide-eyed interviews and … well, let’s not belabor it. These are mostly just really (really) bad television.

I came across something the other night on Netflix, and it caught my eye because it was about the Skinwalker Ranch in Northern Utah. I read a really strange book over a decade ago titled Hunt for the Skinwalker by Kellerher and Knapp, (c) 2005, and this film appeared to be about the same place. So I decided to watch the first episode.

I am now completely hooked.

I’ve done just a little bit of due diligence on this. The format is the “reality television show,” with actors who are allegedly real people doing their thing in front of a camera while assiduously ignoring the existence of the camera filming them: what they call “the fourth wall” in cinematography. These actors are all presented as being real people, and apparently, they are real people. The fellow who takes the spotlight in most episodes is actually an astrophysicist with the University of Alabama, Huntsville, by the name of Dr. Travis S. Taylor. The other scientists are also real scientists with a variety of degrees, and the experts they bring in are real experts. Best of all, they behave like real scientists.

What they are investigating at Skinwalker Ranch is, from a scientific perspective, extremely bizarre, and they seem to appreciate just how bizarre it is, and in just the right way. You can see them regularly getting quietly pissed off at the sheer weirdness of it.

Here’s an example that made my hair stand up in the first (or second) episode: intermittent gamma rays.

A brief diversion here into the science.

Gamma radiation is electromagnetic radiation, just like radio waves, but at a much, much (much) higher frequency. The general rule of electromagnetic radiation is the half-wavelength rule: if you want to detect, or generate, E-M radiation, you need an antenna, or an emitter, about the size of the half-wavelength of the radiation. The old television broadcast wavelengths were between 1 and 10 meters, depending on the channel you were trying to pick up, which resulted in the old-fashioned television aerial you found on every suburban house in the 1950’s, with a range of aluminum rods from a couple of feet, to ten feet or so, to help pick up the different channels (wavelengths). Microwaves use much smaller antennas.

Gamma rays have a wavelength about the size of an atom. So the antennas have to be atom-sized.

There are really only two known sources of gamma rays in nature.

One comes from spontaneous decay of radioactive materials, where the atom basically self-destructs and produces “atomic radiation” (gamma rays). The other comes from one form or another of “atom smashing,” i.e. bombarding materials with a beam of particles or electrons. Sometimes the bombardment actually smashes the atom, and you get gamma rays from the wreckage. In other cases, it captures the incoming particle/electron, then spits it back out whole, and the disturbance produces gamma rays.

There is a lot of atom-smashing going on all the time in outer space, but nearly all of it gets blocked from the Earth’s surface by the ozone layer of the atmosphere. There isn’t much gamma production under the ozone layer, unless you are in a physics lab or deep in a uranium mine. Or somewhere near Fukishima, Japan. There’s a theoretical source of gamma radiation from something called “dark lightning,” which is an electron cascade high in the atmosphere that produces gamma rays. I think they’re still trying to detect that.

That’s pretty much the whole story of gamma rays.

Now, Skinwalker Ranch is on the path of wind-borne radioactive dust and debris from the Nevada nuclear testing in the 1950’s, so in principle, there could be all kinds of radioactive isotopes spread all over the ranch, just under a thin layer of soil, and God alone would know the half-life of some of those isotopes. But the thing about that sort of contamination is that it tends to stay put. You walk into a contaminated area, and you start detecting gamma rays. You walk away, and they fade out (except for maybe your shoes). They don’t arbitrarily change while you are standing there.

In that first episode, they started detecting all kinds of extreme electromagnetic noise, including gamma ray bursts that would appear for a moment, then disappear.

Two things about their reaction to this seemed very authentic.

The first was an expression of WTF disbelief, bordering on being offended. This was particularly true of Travis, who had joined this team with a whole lot of skepticism. Gamma ray bursts offended me, and I could see it on his face, too.

The second was a quick rush for the door.

This runs directly contrary to the traditional paranormal trope. You know, “Don’t go in the basement alone,” or “Don’t recite Latin from an old book while standing in the middle of a pentacle drawn in blood on the floor.” Which — of course — they always go ahead and do anyway. And then all Hell breaks loose. You know the drill.

These guys all booked it out of there.

For context, when I was a graduate student, I worked for a summer in the heavy-ion lab, and they drilled us extensively on safety. Heavy ion experiments are classic atom-smashing. They produce all kinds of noxious radioactive substances, ionizing radiation, and sometimes involve heavy ions from inherently unstable materials, like uranium and plutonium. There are Geiger counters everywhere, required safety courses, and cautionary horror stories.

You just don’t fuck with gamma rays.

After this in the show, they all started wearing personal dosimeters to measure cumulative radiation exposure. This is exactly what real scientists would do. My only critique is that they waited a lot longer than I would have to hire a company to do an environmental sweep. But they did bring in people to do the sweep, and it turned up nothing.

I’m now into season 3.

I cannot say if this is real or not. But, as my son observed, I am really enjoying my suspension of disbelief.

The series is on the History Channel (of all places):

The End of Politics

The end of politics for me, at least.

I anticipate backing away from public life on the Web. I will still post here, particularly music, wine commentary, humor, and maybe a story from time to time. Perhaps I’ll venture into deeper waters on occasion. But I don’t really want to talk about the State that is developing.

For one thing, it will become increasingly dangerous to voice any opinions about the United States other than jingoistic patriotism.

If I thought it would do any good, I’d probably continue to write and torpedoes be damned, but I don’t think it will do any good, and it will only keep me in a state of perpetual anger, outrage, and agitation, as well as expose me to government and mob retribution. So far as I can see, the board is set, the pieces are in motion, and Black — the thoughtful minority — has already lost the game, though it may take another hundred moves or so sweep all the pieces off the board. Besides, White cheats.

Anyone who feels otherwise, by all means, keep writing blog articles. Keep protesting and marching and signing petitions. Keep writing letters to your congresscritters. Keep voting. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again, and this could well be one of those times.

I find that I’m already moving on.

Here’s the thing I think I need to point out. The Soviet Union collapsed, starting in the late 1980’s. It actually collapsed: as in fell completely apart, ceased to be an international entity of any sort. The USSR went from a world superpower to a failed nation and a historical footnote in a matter of years, not decades.

And yet, Russia lives on. In many ways, it’s stronger than ever. As is Georgia, Chechnya, the Ukraine, Crimea. Czeckoslovakia became the Czech Republic and joined Europe, as did Hungary.

People still live in all these places. They eat, go to shows, fall in love, have children. The thing that fell — the USSR — was an abstraction; a thing of the imagination.

The United States is collapsing right now. The election of Trump is merely the most visible of the symptoms. I don’t think it will take long for it to fall.

But representative democracy in North America will live on. As will various other kinds of states, kingdoms, satrapies, and smaller nations, all of which will be filled with people who eat, go to shows, fall in love, and have children.

We just have a nasty period of fascism, kleptocracy, and economic collapse to get through. Just like the former states of the USSR did in the 1990’s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

I’m not going to waste energy, or risk jackbooted thugs, just to speak out against the decaying government of a failed nation. Though I grieve its death — I still have good days and bad days — the failed nation is no longer of interest.

But it isn’t yet the right time to start looking toward what will replace the failed nation-state we’ve called America.

For one thing, I have no idea how severe the intermediate chaos will be. It could range from a quiet dissolution of the Union of States, through trade embargoes and a full-scale nuclear war between the US and everyone else. We could emerge from the economic chaos into a largely-intact world willing to accept North American states as peers. We could emerge into a completely lawless dark age.

It’s even possible that a fading shadow of an American Empire, like Rome in the centuries after the death of Marcus Aurelius, could flicker on and off for decades or centuries.

Another reason it isn’t time to look forward is that there will be a lot of variety in the restructured North America that follows the collapse. There are already unbridgeable cultural differences between, say, Vermont, Alabama, and California. How those cultures will emerge as independent states without a federation to hold them under a common constitution and legal authority is pure speculation. I’d rather explore that in a fictional setting, because it will be purest fiction.

As for how to deal with this collapse at a personal level, I do have a few pieces of broad advice, which I will be trying to follow myself.

Be kinder to others than you’ve been in the past. There will be plenty of pain to go around: don’t add to it.

Be more generous than you’ve been in the past, with your money, your time, your attention, your help. There will be a lot of people who need help more than you do. They are not lazy — they have instead lost opportunity, and probably hope. If you can help them become self-supporting, fantastic. If you can’t, then help them find a roof and a meal. If the wind blows wrong, I can guarantee that you will be astonished by how quickly you can find yourself on the receiving end of charity.

Be useful. Your training, your credentials, your degree, your seniority, your expertise, your pension, and even your rights will all become meaningless. What other people will always value, however, under any circumstances, is your usefulness. They’ll pay you for that, whether in dollars, or eggs, or a place to keep warm. They’ll protect you and watch your back when you’re sleeping.

Get to know your neighbors and your community. Knock on doors, introduce yourself, bring cookies. Hold a block party and invite everyone over. Go to others’ parties. As things fall apart, these are the people who will save your life — in many cases, literally. Think in terms of walking distance. Of screaming-for-help distance. Those are your neighbors.

If you find that you truly cannot stand anyone around you where you live, now is the time to pull up stakes and move.

Limit your Internet and television exposure, especially social media. It is becoming clear that both television and the Internet have become potent and highly tunable propaganda tools, the reach of which has exceeded even that of historical religions. Meet with your neighbors instead, face-to-face.

Read books. Good, old-fashioned books.

Appreciate the little things. The sound of a gentle rain. Starlight. The smell of coffee, or roses, or warm wood in the sunlight.

Remember the Lakota expression, “Today is a good day to die.” This means, be at peace with your life, all its successes, all its failures. Do not harbor regrets over the past; do not live a life justified only by a future that may not come to pass. Remember that you will die — it is the only guarantee in life — so do not let your fear of death drag you into degradation.


The Lies We Tell On Ourselves

There are a few stock phrases floating around out there that I’ve lost patience with.

I’m not a racist, but ….” Let me finish that sentence for you. “I’m not a racist, but I’m going to say something that sounds racist, and would make you think I’m a racist if I hadn’t assured you beforehand that I’m not. Trust me.”

Right. I think it’s a lot more likely you don’t know what “racist” means. But you certainly do know what other people think it means, or you wouldn’t be trying to reassure me in advance that you aren’t one. So no, I don’t trust you, and I don’t especially want to hear your racist statements.

As a Christian, I have no choice other than ….” Let me finish that sentence for you. “As a Christian, I have no choice other than to support some idea that any sane, compassionate person would think is horrible. But I’m not responsible; please don’t blame me.”

You will never hear me say, “As a Druid, I have no choice other than ….” I own my choices. Right or wrong. I don’t blame them on the Devil, or on my religion. And you know what? Since they’re my choices, I can actually discuss them, and even change my mind. You can’t — as you say, you believe you have no choice. Well, I do blame you, and I really don’t want to hear your tortured theological excuses.

We need your contributions to help fight ….” Let me unpack that sentence for you. You are saying that the real decisions are bought.

I have no problem with giving the win to the highest bidder, if it’s a matter of auctioning off Marilyn Monroe’s underwear, or the Mona Lisa. When it’s a matter of justice, or basic human decency, this is a kind of extortion. “Pay us, or bad things will happen.”

Although, perhaps it’s just a scam, if a well-meaning one. Consider a legal defense fund for innocent prisoners on death row. Sounds like a good idea? Not really. It’s a bad legal system that routinely imprisons and executes innocents — bad in the war-crimes sense. And you’re saying it’s a good thing to plaster over this war-crime level of injustice with a few very expensive, case-by-case “corrections” to a few percent of the victims of a corrupt and war-crimes-evil legal process. Sounds to me more like a burned crust of bread thrown to a starving conscience, purchased at a premium price. ConscienceCrusts™, only $99,999,999.95 each. Prices are rising daily, so get yours NOW!

What would be good? Correcting the corrupt system, which is (ultimately) merely a matter of changing the laws to protect rather than prosecute the innocent, a process that is also called “legislation.” But that also takes lots of money, because the real decisions are bought. And my desire for protecting the innocent is up against a prisons-for-profit industry that doesn’t care who fills its beds.

Contributing money to organizations that claim to influence legislation is participating in a scam, or an extortion scheme. It won’t help correct a legislative process gone rancid; it will only speed the spoilage. So don’t come to me for money for political causes. I’m not interested.

Death of a Nation

Last Wednesday, in shock, I wrote on Facebook: “What do you do, the day your country dies?”

My personal answer turned out to be, “Go to work, like any other day.” I simply didn’t know what else to do with myself. I’ve learned through the experience of similar shocks — like losing a daughter in the middle of the night — that sometimes it’s best to just run on autopilot for a little while.

It may still be too soon for me to write, but I’m feeling that familiar pressure to put thoughts and feelings into words.

So let me start by linking to a post I wrote a little over a year ago. It’s hardly “prescient” — my observations were entirely too obvious and derivative for that. The question hanging in my mind a year ago was not whether Trump could become President, but whether the US electorate was ready to embrace Fascism. The answer has turned out to be, “Yes.”

We are now living in the early stages of a typical Fascist State.

I think it’s extremely important to point out that this isn’t about Trump. Trump is a venal opportunist who serves as the focal point to what the Germans call a “Zeitgeist,” literally “Time Ghost,” more correctly, “Spirit of the Age.” This isn’t about Trump, or his deplorable lack of character, or what he will or will not do. It is about the American People, and they have called for a “strong leader” to remove the constraints of law and punish the scapegoats they have chosen to blame their troubles on. Remove Trump from office (by fair means, or foul) and another “strong leader” will be called up in his place. Exterminate one set of scapegoats, and we will choose another.

There must be a bloodbath. The People demand it.

A year ago, I thought — I hoped — that Bernie Sanders represented a possible alternative to this. Fascism doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It happens whenever the majority of the reasonably prosperous citizens start “taking hits for the team,” yet the team keeps losing, the hits keep escalating until they threaten homes and families, and no one in power listens to them. This all started in the US in the collapse of small farms and the loss of US manufacturing jobs, back in the 1970’s. That decline, in turn, was built into the weakened but still-deadly capitalist economic system we chose to retain in the 1930’s. We came very, very close to Fascism in the US the 1930’s — it was all the fashionable rage in Europe at that time — but we instead adopted an attenuated form of Democratic Socialism that soothed the angry beast that the American public had become. That peace lasted for two generations, before capitalism began, again, to erode prosperity in favor of wealth.

I fully expected Bernie to be written off as a Socialist crank a year ago, and was both surprised and deeply encouraged when he wasn’t — instead, he became a populist figurehead for a countervailing Zeitgeist: a vision that did not involve a bloodbath.

I believe he would have won this election. I do not think the majority of people in the US were hurting badly enough, or were angry enough, to reject a peaceful real hope for the future — or even a Hail-Mary hope.

The broken two-party system didn’t support him; instead, it locked him out and confirmed all the worst fears and contempt of the electorate. The Democrats, caught up in far-less-important liberal social issues rather than hard-rock economic issues that meant food on people’s tables, decided that they must now put a woman in the White House, by fair means or foul: and the only possible candidate was a woman who was a quintessential avatar of the existing dysfunction. Republicans dismissed the existing dysfunction early in the game, and turned with open arms to Fascism.

So where this election could have been a referendum between two Zeitgeists for change, a peaceful one versus a bloody one, it instead became a referendum between slow starvation and a bloodbath.

The People chose the bloodbath.

Yes, Hillary won the majority vote, by the teensiest of margins. She lost the election because a huge percentage of the population abstained entirely. Most of the uninvolved doubtless abstained because they’ve abstained for decades — they had long ago given up on politics as meaningful in any positive way, the clear consequence of our multi-generational political failure as a nation — but many of the newest recruits to political indifference simply could not endorse either starvation or bloodbath, and stayed home.

We must now endure the bloodbath. The People have demanded it.

I want to think it could be over relatively quickly. The Axis powers in Europe lasted less than a generation. But it took a World War to stop them. I think this will soon end up in yet another World War, and I strongly suspect it will involve a major nuclear exchange. The US may throw the first nuke, it may not — but it will certainly be one of the targets, and will just as certainly strike back.

That seems to me now to be the most probable way this nation, and modern civilization, will end.

I really, really hope I’m wrong.

I’m not even close to thinking through other scenarios. I’m still in shock that it happened as it did, in a single day, though I’ve been writing about this subject for a couple of years.

It feels to me a lot like 9/11/2001 felt, but where we will go, as a nation, will be a far, far darker place.


Well, I finally got hit. My site was hacked, probably through one of the websites I don’t maintain very aggressively.

Not too much damage, really, but I’ve killed some websites and updated this one. You’ll note a few good changes.

First, the Contact Themon page uses a new plugin. If you want to send me a message, please feel free. The old one did the job, but it looked terrible, I never got around to cleaning it up, and it may have been the way in for the hackers. The new one has a Captcha, so I don’t have to worry about bots trying to sell me Viagra.

Second, I’ve overhauled the comments section with new plugins. I never get comments — well, almost never — except for a bunch of pecker-heads who would use it to post spam: mostly trying to increase their link count for Google, I think, since the comments were long lists of packed web URLs. I responded by shutting down comments after two weeks on every blog post, since at the time, there weren’t a lot of WordPress options.

Now there are, and the new, improved comments are kind of cool.

You can log in via your Facebook, Google, or Twitter accounts. Or, you can leave a comment without logging in, but you need to leave your e-mail address and respond to a Captcha.

We’ll see if that makes the comments any more usable.

So the cloud of being hacked had a silver lining.

GMO Foods

UnknownMaybe I’m just feeling grumpy today, but I ran across a YouTube clip of Neill de Grasse Tyson on GMO foods, and I have to call out Straw Man on his comments.

An ideal straw man argument is one where you stand up and utterly demolish a stupid argument that was made by no one, ever.

A more typical straw man argument is where you shift an actual argument from the real core of the discussion, to something that is deceptively similar, but unrelated and much easier to argue. I’m afraid Dr. Tyson did this very thing. Or perhaps he just doesn’t understand the real concern, because it’s been so poorly stated.

So let me frame, more precisely, the core of the discussion about GMO’s. I’ll phrase it as a question: Is the current trend toward targeted genetic modification of foods in the laboratory harmful to our food supply?

This is a more specific question than the ambiguous, “Are GMO’s harmful?” But it has a much broader scope. It implies questions about technological risk, large ecosystems, farming monoculture, profit motives, government oversight, and large-scale epidemiology.

Let’s focus even more specifically on just one tiny part of the question: Should we be eating Roundup-resistant strains of food?

No one cares about seedless watermelons, or whether they were produced by transgenics, gene-snipping, grafting, or black magic. No one cares about the “natural” progenitor of maize (corn-on-the-cob) — it’s inedible. Lord knows, no one cares about long-stem roses. Except florists.

People do care about Roundup-ready food plants. That’s what they usually mean when they carelessly say, “GMO’s.”

The first thing to note is that you don’t plant Roundup-ready plants unless you intend to spray Roundup on them. In fact, you don’t pay for Roundup-ready seeds unless you intend to spray enough Roundup to stunt or kill other (less expensive) strains of the same plant.

What is Roundup? Its primary active ingredient is glyphosate. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide — plant poison — that interferes with the plant’s ability to make certain proteins necessary for growth. It also affects certain microorganisms in a similar way, and other microorganisms (the ones that eat the stuff) in the opposite way.

The issue with “GMO foods” is not whether genetically-modified corn is inherently a Frankenfood that will cause us to sprout a third eye (useful) or a second anus (far too many of those around already), but whether its use is enabling and even promoting hazardous industrial agricultural practices that have adverse consequences for our food, our health, and our society.

No one will plant Roundup-ready GMO’s unless they intend to douse them in glyphosate. So the more correct question is, Should we eat food sprayed with killer doses of glyphosate? If the answer is, “No,” or even “maybe not,” then what is the point of a Roundup-ready GMO seed?

Let’s rephrase this more academically, and ask if the benefits of using glyphosate on food balance the risks.

What are the benefits?

Well, what is glyphosate intended to do? It kills weeds.

Why kill weeds? Weeds reduce food production under our current industrial farming processes, and it’s a substantial cost to eradicate them manually (that is, to pick the weeds) — that’s about it.

So without glyphosate, we would presumably produce somewhat less industrially-farmed food, or produce it less efficiently, which might raise prices. Of course, glyphosate isn’t free, nor are the Roundup-ready seeds, so that also raises prices. There’s some evidence that glyphosate damages certain essential microflora in the soil, rendering the soil less fertile over time, which means less food and higher prices, unless you pay for chemical fertilizer. Which, as I understand it, is wonderful weed-food, since “weeds” — especially the fast-growing kind — are specifically evolved to move into overly-fertile bare ground, like ashy forests after a fire.

We could call this the Monsanto Cycle: glyphosate -> fertilizer -> weeds -> glyphosate. With a side-business in Roundup-ready seeds so you can use the herbicidal war-zone to raise food.

This brings us to the real core issue underlying the whole discussion: should we trust Monsanto to keep us safe from harm through use of their products? The question isn’t whether GMO’s are safe, or whether glyphosate is safe, or even whether scientists, farmers, or the television psychics know the answer: the real question is whether Monsanto is safe.

There is a general perception that corporations cannot be trusted when their bottom-line is involved. It’s not an unfounded perception. The tobacco industry concealed evidence that smoking causes lung cancer for at least two generations. The oil industry has been burying data about global warming for decades. Goldman Sachs sold securitized sub-prime mortgages by the carload to suckers investors, while simultaneously taking short positions against those same investments. In all cases, it’s a matter of Profits First.

Would Monsanto tell us that it’s perfectly safe to give our children a glass of Roundup with every meal? That would depend on whether they felt it would increase or decrease their market share. It would have nothing to do with sick or dead children: children are economic externalities. Unless they become a public-relations problem.

Would Monsanto go so far as to lie about research results, and pay professional doubters to cast a shadow on any “unfounded rumors” that their products might be harmful? Given that other industries seem to have had no problem with doing exactly that, I think it’s supremely naive to think Monsanto would be any different.

So I would say, no, they can’t be trusted. Their products might be harmless — but they could be very nasty, indeed. And once the product has become a steady and successful seller, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep it high on the charts.

This has taken us a long way from the science of genetically-modified organisms, hasn’t it?

In fact, we are now so far from the science that I’m going to propose a little thought-experiment, just to clarify the whole thing.

Let’s ban glyphosate because it begins with the letter ‘g’. We spun the Big Ugly Gratuitous Government Economic Restructuring Wheel of Fortune (BUGGER WoF), the letter ‘g’ came up, and we picked ‘glyphosate’ out of a dictionary. With a dart. We’ve just banned it forever and ever: a Schedule I Controlled Substance. Possession Is Death.

Apart from the screams of doom and despair from Monsanto (which we can easily solve with, “Here’s a billion dollars, kid, now shut up and go away”) — so what? What exactly is the great boon to humankind we’ve just thrown out?

We’re all gonna starve? That’s ridiculous. We’re talking about weeds, not the Apocalypse, and they were pulling them up by hand in 1969, before Roundup was invented. And in 1869, and in 1069, and in 8969 BCE for that matter. Agribusiness will just hire more itinerant labor from Mexico and put them to work weeding in addition to picking and packing. They’ll of course cry salty tears about lost profits (and demand a billion dollars, too, it’s only fair), then they’ll raise prices and reduce some benefits and raid a pension fund (if there are any left), and that will be that.

I’m not sure I see any benefit to Roundup that doesn’t come down to a few more dollars in the pockets of big agribusiness. And from what I understand, it’s mostly big agribusiness: the small farmers are moving toward organic farming, because “organic” commands higher prices1

The risks? Oh. My. God.

Granted, they are all low-probability. Like the Fukishima reactor failure.

We have large-scale epidemiological risks based on an entire population consuming glyphosate in small quantities through pregnancy and an entire lifetime. A small uptick in autoimmune sensitivities in ten percent of the population would be impossible to detect in the laboratory, and almost impossible to detect in the population. Yet it represents huge medical costs and unnecessary human suffering. At the opposite extreme, we discover that after a generation or two, chronic glyphosate ingestion causes widespread male feminization and sterility; our population crashes in a single generation, and our civilization becomes one of those Ancient Mysteries on thirty-first century late night television — The Americans: Why Did They Vanish? Was It Alien Astronauts?

We have similar possibilities from the GMO food itself. A plant is a complex system. Put it under chemical stress (dump Roundup on it), and its biochemistry changes. Reduce or enhance its ability to respond to that stress (gene modification), and its biochemistry changes. Any of those changes could trigger epidemics of low-level dietary intolerance in humans, or even increased instances of truly dangerous allergic reactions.

We have potentially huge ecosystem changes from glyphosate-contaminated runoff from farms. Kill the tadpoles in the swamps, perhaps? Followed by mosquito plagues, which transmit everything from malaria to zikka. All kinds of species could die back or die out entirely throughout large geographic regions, radically changing the ecoscape. We can go back to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, or the more recent story about the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone, for dramatic examples of how small changes have huge effects. Some of those changes could desertify large agricultural regions.

Then we have the nightmare of hybridization in the wild, especially with some of the more reckless genetic modifications they’ve turned loose. The threat is not man-eating killer tomatoes. The threat is corn that won’t tassel, creating a spreading blight that could recurrently wipe out the entire corn monoculture of the American midwest. The threat is hybrid species that are toxic to pollinators, like bees. The threat is the unexpected and the unforeseen and the potentially catastrophic.

Low-probability risks, perhaps, but with very big consequences.

Doing genetic research on all this stuff is one thing.

Turning it loose on the world through an utterly amoral corporate capitalist system dedicated to short-term profits above every other consideration, is nothing short of irresponsible.

Especially when the only real benefit is an uptick in corporate profits. For certain corporations.

I think there’s a legitimate concern, here.

Since I have called out Dr. Tyson by name, I would welcome a rebuttal. Though I rather doubt he will see this. It’s a very large Internet, after all, and I am only one small writer within it.

[1] From what I hear around here from people actually doing the organic farming, it’s also cheaper.

The Chaos Protocols

51-gyw8JpLLSeveral people mentioned this book, and I was intrigued enough to pick it up and read it. In one sense, it’s a light read — I finished it in a day. In another sense, it’s perhaps the most simultaneously delightful, horrifying, and challenging book I’ve ever read.

Religion, mysticism, and magic are intertwined in the modern imagination, but they are actually three quite distinct things. All deal with the unseen. However, religion seeks to contain our experience of the unseen, mysticism seeks to expand our experience of the unseen, and magic attempts to use our experience of the unseen for practical purposes.

This is a book about magic.

Unlike so many other magical tomes, it is neither academically dry, nor froo-froo fluffy. The writing is hard-hitting, no-nonsense, and practical. In addition, White’s asides and turns of phrase are hilarious, and one of his chapter heading-quotes struck me as so funny and so in-tune with the tone of the book, that I have to reproduce it here:

I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum. — John Nada, They Live

Here’s the funny thing about magic: often, in fact usually, the “unseen” is plain as day, right in front of you. It is unseen not because it is composed of ineffable spiritual corpuscles that can only manifest on our material plane under a full moon in July; it is unseen because you simply don’t notice it.

Let’s say that you need a trench dug in your front yard; you have a shovel, but your back is no longer strong enough to dig it yourself, and you don’t have enough money to hire someone to dig it for you. So you do magic to get your trench dug.

One of the primary functions of magic is to change your perspective: after working your spell, you suddenly notice, as if for the first time, that your neighbor two houses down owns a backhoe. In fact, you’ve even complained when he parks it on the street. You just never thought to put his skill and equipment together with your need. You go talk to him, one thing leads to another, and in the end he’s willing to dig your trench in exchange for you writing an article about him for the local paper. Or something else equally within your reach. Or maybe he does it for free just to be neighborly.

Did the magic work? Of course it did: your trench is now dug, and had you not done the magic, it very likely would not. Like it or not, that is cause and effect.

Most magic works this way: it’s a disciplined way of messing with your own head to remove the truly formidable mental blocks that keep you from seeing opportunities and achieving practical goals.

One of the first steps, of course, is getting out of the head-space we’ve all been sold. The head-space we’ve been sold is not intended for our benefit. It is intended for the benefit of those who sold it to us, and while this has been argued (by the sellers) to be a win-win proposition, it has never really been win-win, and can no longer even be perfumed strongly enough to disguise the stench of deceit — if you can only see (and smell) clearly.

Seeing (or smelling) clearly isn’t easy, and that’s why magic is so useful.

What I found especially interesting about this book is how much White’s magical advice mirrors the practical advice I gave my sons as they approached adulthood and independence.

In my father’s time, coming out of the Great Depression and into the unprecedented economic stability of the post-War years in the US, the most viable route to success was the slow, conservative route: get a stable job with the government, or a big corporation, marry, have children, send your children to college, retire and enjoy your Golden Years.

That model was no longer sensible even for my generation, coming into adulthood in the late 1970’s, and it was one of the major disconnects between my father’s generation and mine. My father’s model was worthless by the time I needed a model, and he did not understand the world I was entering. He could not really guide me into adulthood.

I recognized this same problem when my own children came of age. My father’s world was literally inconceivable to them. My model of relative success had become useless by 2000, and I barely understood the world they were entering. I could not really guide them into adulthood.

What I did understand, and told them, was that they were entering into a world dominated by chaos, and that if they wanted to plot a successful course through it, there was no formula: they would have to embrace continuous, disruptive change, and to develop the instincts to find opportunity, weigh it, and to either follow it hard, or drop it cold and keep looking.

This is precisely how a Chaos magician views the world, as White describes it. This is interesting to me, because I’d never heard of Chaos Magic.

In many ways, I’ve been a Chaos magician — of sorts — my entire life.

That is why I have to caution that, although I found this to be “light reading,” it’s only because I’ve been unknowingly working with Chaos magic for forty years, trying to see (and smell) clearly, and I’ve come to most of the same conclusions that White has. I read this book like it was an old favorite.

I don’t think most people will see it that way. The first chapter is going to stop most people cold, as it should. I’m not going to try to give a precis here. White does a brilliant job, and I’m not going to improve on it. Buy, borrow, or steal the book and read it yourself.

But I strongly suspect that anyone encountering this set of ideas for the first time is either going to avert their eyes and say (in varying emotional tones ranging from contempt to horror), “No, this can’t be true;” or they will go into a shock of overwhelmed recognition, and will have to take a long walk and get an ice-cream cone or a shot of whiskey (or both) before they continue.

I recommend the book, but with a strong caution: it just might change your life.

Casting the Second Stone

lottolrgAnd the scribes and Pharisees brought unto [Jesus] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.

But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”

She said, “No man, Lord.”

And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

This has always been a centerpiece story of the Christian faith. It appears in the Gospel of John, one of the later Gospels — scholars tend to date it as being written sometime in the 90’s, or perhaps as late as the 120’s. It was a core piece of Christianity for at least two centuries before the Council of Nicea met and formalized the Christian Faith, and it survived that culling.

This story seems so terribly at odds with modern Christians’ reputation — particularly US American Christians — of being moralistic and judgmental, exactly as the scribes and Pharisees are described in this story.

One of the twisted excuses I’ve heard revolves around the last five words of this story: “Go, and sin no more.”

After all, the argument goes, Jesus said to sin no more. So what if she didn’t do what he said to do? What if she went straight out and committed some more adultery? What then?

Well, the argument continues, she’s basically disrespecting Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. We can quote from other places in the Bible that the only “unforgivable sin” is to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit,” and if totally dissing Jesus — Jesus Himself — is not blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is. So there you have it. She’s gonna roast in Hell. So go ahead and stone her. She deserves it.

Unless, of course, she later responds to an altar-call. Or goes to confession. Or offers up a two doves and spotless heifer. Then she’s completely off the hook (again). She can go — and sin no more, this time for real.

Messed up again? Okay, that’ll be another altar call/confession/dove-plus.

But it all turns around such a delicate subtlety of language.

Now I’ve read that some Qabalistic strains of Judaism had an interesting take on the literality of the Jewish scripture: their idea was that God made not only Jews, but also their language and their script. So — since God made all of these miraculously, in one piece out of one fabric, there’s nothing odd about saying that you can contemplate the first word of the Torah, Bereshith, which begins with the Hebrew letter Beth, and infer from the fact that this is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet that something hidden precedes the beginning of the universe — the mysterious Aleph, the thing before the Beth that initiates Bereshith. It takes literalism to a completely new level, and it works (sort of) because presumably God Himself spoke and wrote in ancient Hebrew. There could be all sorts of hidden messages and codes in the Torah, left like bread crumb trails.

No one has that luxury with English. Try to read Chaucer in the original English: and good luck with that. Yet Chaucer was writing in the relatively recent English of the 1300’s, and it only gets worse the further back you go. There was no English language in Jesus’ era, nor anything like it, much less at the beginning of creation, when God might (theoretically) have been making white Englishmen from white English chalk.

To be more specific: the passage as it appears above was translated into a now-archaic dialect of English from an ancient Latin translation of a Koine (Greek) translation of a story that might have been first told in a first-century Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic was, in turn, a language that stretches back to the Neo-Assyrian empire, a thousand years before Jesus spoke, and subsequently broke into a thousand different dialects, one of which is believed to have been spoken in first-century Galilee by a certain itinerant rabbi endorsed by John the Baptist. There are various Aramaic dialects still in use, and they are reportedly very poetic, metaphorical languages with many layers of meaning that shift according to context: it’s entirely possible that Galilean Aramaic was also an imprecise, poetic language, a language that lends itself to parables, metaphor, and shades of meaning that come clear only after a thing has been said many times in many different ways.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” How many times did Jesus use those words to start a new parable about the Kingdom of Heaven? And then, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

If you want to parse commas in something “Jesus said,” as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible, you are three kinds of ignorant fool.

My wife and I talk about translation frequently, because we both enjoy words, and she is a professional translator. She often comes to me to talk about idiomatic English phrases. What exactly does it imply to “make your bed and lie in it?” When someone says, “He hit a home run” in a romantic novel, exactly what does it mean? Try it, some time: translate any idiomatic phrase in English into a dry, literal, objective, universal meaning. It’s always tricky — sometimes, it’s virtually impossible.

Even worse, exactly the same thought can often be conveyed only by using completely different words. “His shit doesn’t stink,” is a bizarre statement if translated literally into Spanish, but the expression, “He pisses perfume” is a well-worn phrase with exactly the right nuance. “He’s batshit crazy” is unknown in German, but “He has birds in his head” gets the idea across perfectly.

In particular, the little words — the if, the and, the but — carry a huge burden of significance in English. A misplaced comma can wreak havoc on a sentence: read about the Oxford comma. All languages have subtleties of this sort, but they are all different, and the subtleties often come between the words.

So I’m going to try out a retranslation of this final sentence:

And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, for you sin no more.”

Interesting, no?

In the modern, judgmental interpretation, that tiny word “and” is freighted with a ton of subtle meaning. The word “go” appears in the imperative, English shorthand for “you can/may/should/must go now,” as a command that applies to the woman in the immediate future; this word “and” is generally taken to imply a second command, also applying to the woman in the immediate future, as “you can/may/should/must sin no more.” That is a peculiarity of the use of the word “and” in this purely English construction.

Is that precisely what was said in archaic Latin? In Koine? In first-century Galilean Aramaic?

I’m suggesting we treat the “and” as a King James English way of connecting two Latin (or Greek, or Aramaic) phrases that appear in conjunction for a completely different reason  — the first phrase is still an imperative, but the second clarifies the first by expressing why she is now free to go.

She can go, because no one can judge her sin, not even Jesus. If no one can judge her sin, then she has not sinned.

Does anyone really want to parse the word “and” this closely in King James English? Knowing that it’s a translation of a translation of a translation of a poetic, metaphorical language?

What we need to do instead is, as in Aramaic, listen to all the stories told over and over in different ways, until the meaning is clear.

Throughout all the stories, Jesus was unflinchingly brutal in his treatment of religious leaders: the scribes and the Pharisees. He called them “vipers” and “whitewashed tombs.” That’s how it comes out in King James English, but this loses all the bite those words would likely have had in first-century Palestine. A slightly better contemporary translation might be “toxic cockroaches” and “perfumed sacks of shit.”

Jesus was not being nice in these passages.

Religious leaders were pretty much the only people Jesus ever went after this way. He didn’t go after whores, nor tax collectors, nor lepers, nor even bloody worthless Samaritans. He didn’t even go after the Romans.

He only went after the religious leaders of his own people.

And all those sinners? “Your sins are forgiven.” Over and over. That’s what got him into so much trouble.

So I have to ask myself how it is that so many Christian leaders in the US have somehow decided that Jesus would have — for some reason that completely escapes me — drawn the line at homosexuals. That is, he can completely forgive an adulteress, but a homosexual?

Nah. Jesus surely would have cast the first stone in that case.

So, of course, these modern religious leaders — Jesus would never have called them toxic cockroaches — are free to cast the second stone.


Those who have ears, let them hear.

Steady-State Capitalism

In previous posts, I’ve offered a rather bleak prognosis for capitalism.

I’ve proposed a definition of capitalism that seems to cover the many kinds of capitalism we’ve experienced in the last five centuries. I’ve observed that the central flaw in all these forms of capitalism is the expectation of sustained exponential economic growth. I’ve noted that this expectation is based on the false premise that wealth is created rather than being moved and transformed, and that capitalism has been devouring the natural economy — the ecosystem that supports our very existence — in order to create our human economic wealth. I’ve pointed out the obvious fact that this isn’t sustainable — certainly not on Earth, nor in a non-material “information economy,” nor even if we develop starships and ravage the whole galaxy. I’ve suggested that capitalism is probably pretty close to its end, with the caution that it has been on its deathbed before, then gotten back up; it may well do so again, perhaps multiple times, before it goes down for good.

I’d like to explore a bit what might come after capitalism.

Note the following, in bold red letters:

We are now entering the time-honored tradition of purest speculation. 

While I speak of “likelihoods,” it’s my opinion. I have no idea what will actually happen. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughtful alternatives.

The Likely Scenario

images-1The most likely way this all plays out is an extended repeat of the boom and bust cycles we’ve seen throughout our written history. Think of Babylon, Greece, or Rome. Think of the Mayans, or the Anasazi. Think of Easter Island.

Our future most likely holds the collapse of our global capitalist civilization into a world-wide dark age, followed by the rise of subsequent civilizations that make ours look — to the people of that future time — grand, in its way, but also primitive and violent. Just as we now view ancient Rome, or Greece, or Assyria.

Civilizations have a life-cycle. While every such rise and fall has unique elements, there is a common structure to most: a rhyme-scheme, if you will, for those of you familiar with the statement that history never repeats, but it always rhymes.

One of the common rhymes in the fall of societies and civilizations is the appearance of a huge and growing gap in status and wealth between the upper and lower classes.

One way of looking at this, to follow with the language I’ve been developing in this series of essays, is that the society’s economic system, whatever it is, switches from an aerobic form to an anaerobic form — in the former, it really is creating human wealth for that society by taking it from somewhere else (Nature or other societies), while in the latter, it is simply going through the motions of wealth creation while, in fact, it is the rich stealing from others within the same society. This impoverishes the very people who provide the machinery for enriching the wealthy, and the society then becomes so weak that it either falls apart, or becomes prey to some other society.

Regardless of the mechanism, however, a large and growing wealth-gap between the rich and the poor is a strong indication that a society has peaked, and is ripe for decline.

This boom-and-bust cycle doesn’t require capitalism by any means, else we wouldn’t see it throughout history. However, capitalism feeds the cycle with enthusiastic abandon by attempting to expand the wealth of the owners at an exponential rate, leaving the other classes to suffocate as the economy turns anaerobic.

John Michael Greer takes this approach of boom-and-bust, and talks about our civilization being the first and most wasteful (and destructive) of a long sequence of rising and falling “technic societies,” which is an interesting, and actually rather hopeful way to look at this cycle.

It’s impossible to predict what greatness or depravity future high societies will embody, or what they will look like, after the intervening dark age. Will they build floating cities made of aerogels? Will they live in huge networks of self-sufficient rural villages linked by a solar-powered Internet? Will they form martial empires, or peaceful enclaves of philosophy, art, and music?

No one knows. It’s rich ground for speculative fiction.

The End of the World

A few people have preached that the end of our current global capitalist economy is the End of Humanity.

This is based mostly on the belief that Our Way of Life is also the Only Way of Life Worth Living — which is both childish and absurd.

But there is the idea of “technological overshoot.” This means that we do so much damage to the Earth’s ecosystem using technology to sustain our unsustainable way of life, that when our society falls and we lose our technological edge, people can’t find their way back to a simpler lifestyle. Soil is too damaged to farm, and fertilizer is no longer available; water is polluted at the source, and there is no technology to clean it; unprocessed air is unbreathable. In the extreme case, we trigger a cascade of extinctions that wipe out humans and other species, right down to the bugs, and evolution has to start over; or, if you’re of a religious bent, God has to dip his hands into the clay again.

This has certainly happened in isolated cultures. Easter Island is a classic example, and it isn’t the only example.

While global overshoot is possible, I personally think it unlikely. I believe our global civilization is a whole lot more fragile than people think. I believe we’ll blink before all of Nature does: our civilization will collapse, and stop destroying the environment, which will slowly recover. Our descendants may spend millennia herding goats in a steamy, rainforested Antarctica, but there will be descendants.

My biggest objection to this story, however, is that it’s not very interesting to talk about. Humans pollute their environment and go extinct. Meh. End of stories and storytelling alike. We can argue about whether Mother Nature’s “human experiment” was a tragedy or a farce, though we have to adopt a transcendent viewpoint to make the argument on either side. What else is there to say?

The more interesting question is whether there is a way to climb down from the capitalist money-tree before the branches break off and tumble us into either a dark age, or extinction.

Steady-State Capitalism

visittodowntownhdExponential growth isn’t part of the definition of capitalism. Perhaps we could have a capitalism that supports a more modest kind of growth.

The basic problem with any sub-exponential growth in a capitalist system is a scaling problem. Perhaps I can explain it this way.

If I want to invest $100, I’m expecting some return on that investment. If I want to invest $1000, I’m expecting roughly ten times the return. It doesn’t matter whether I invest the $1000 in a single enterprise, or try to spread it out over ten $100 enterprises, or whether I’m representing ten different investors, each of whom wants a return on his $100.

Returns are expected to be proportional to the total investment. As I’ve explained at length elsewhere, proportional returns are one way of defining exponential growth. Proportional growth and exponential growth are two different names for exactly the same thing.

So if you don’t have exponential growth, then returns can’t be proportional to the investment.

My son was arguing for linear growth the other night, but once he grasped this scaling issue, he saw the problem. Linear growth means that the economy grows by a fixed amount each year: it generates (say) a total of $100 in new human wealth every year. So if you are the only person to invest $100 in the economy, you get a return of $100. If you are the only person to invest $1000 in the economy, you still only get a return of $100. If ten people each invest $100 in the economy, and they have to share the $100 return, then each of them gets a return of $10. If a thousand people each invest $100, each of them gets a return of ten cents.

With linear economic growth, all of the investors (and investments) are competing for the same fixed amount of wealth generated by the economy. Over time, as the investors’ fortunes grow (albeit slowly), they will want to invest more of their money, but they are still all competing for that $100 in actual growth. Investing more reduces their proportional return.

There’s no real point to investing $100 in such an economy, because the best you can hope for is your $100 back. It might make sense to invest $90, to get that $100. But if that makes sense, then lots of people will want to invest $90, which means the $100 gets split by lots of people, meaning the return is now far less than $90. The only way this could possibly be worthwhile as a financial investment, is if the number of investors is strictly limited.

The same is true of any sub-exponential economic growth. One of the examples I’ve used before is the science fiction concept of an expanding galactic empire that collects resources from entire planets and distributes the wealth instantly through teleporting star gates. The fastest this empire could grow, economically, is quadratically — that is, as the square of time, representing the surface of a sphere expanding at the speed of light (since new resources are only available at the frontier). This is faster than linear growth, but it’s still sub-exponential. Investors are still going to see diminishing returns over time, unless the number of investors, and the amount they can each invest, is strictly limited.

So we might as well jump right in and ask how capitalism would fare in a steady-state, zero-growth economy with zero returns on investment — in the long run, this is what any sub-exponential growth looks like.

Can capitalism survive in a zero-growth setting?

The Owners in Steady-State Capitalism

We have to be careful with this idea of “steady-state.” Nothing lasts forever. And just about anything, no matter how nutty or out-of-balance, can last a few years. So let’s set an arbitrary bound of 1000 years. Anything that could last 1000 years, clearly doesn’t have a systemic problem built into it, as capitalism does, though it still might fail for other reasons.

Thus, we’re imagining a kind of steady-state capitalism that’s going strong 1000 years from now, with no economic growth, no expectation of growth, and good prospects for running another 1000 years.

I’ve proposed that the only real innovation that capitalism introduced to the Medieval European idea of hereditary feudal landholdings, was the idea that entitlements could be bought and sold.

I believe the late Medieval period actually came to this point, even within the aristocracy: in the late 1300’s, impoverished knights were quietly selling off their holdings and their titles, which they could no longer afford to support. In the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written a few centuries later, we see a long section of gossip about whether Comte Edmond Dantès’ title was inherited or bought. This still persists in the concept of “old money” versus “new money.”

Medieval European feudalism, unlike our modern society, believed in steady state. God appointed the clergy, the clergy ratified the rulers, the rulers assigned the land to lords, the serfs were bound to the land and worked it for themselves and everyone else, and all the other professions, from hooper to whore to moneylender, worked within this static system. World without end, Amen.

imagesSo some kind of feudal capitalism, consisting of semi-hereditary fortunes with ownership trades among the owners, is not at all unthinkable. The House Atreides and House Harkonnen in the Frank Herbert novel, Dune, both come to mind for me. In fact, we already see modern corporatism headed in precisely this direction: Coke and Pepsi are, essentially, feudal estates, and their controlling shareholders, board members, and executives are the aristocratic court. The corporation holds market share rather than land, and the aristocracy holds controlling stock rather than titles.

Open acknowledgement that economic growth has ceased will, however, cause a few not-so-minor shifts in the economy.

Our current model of Federal Reserve and fractional-reserve banking will have to be replaced or radically revised. Fractional reserve banking is an odd beast, only a little over a century old: it loans money into existence, and demands repayment with interest, meaning that every dollar you have in your wallet is a promissory note that obligates you (or your descendants) to pay back more than a dollar. This is one of the root causes of both inflation, and the endless need for exponential economic growth. Such a money system simply can’t survive in a zero-growth economy, because there is no place for the interest to come from.

We’ll also lose the idea of the interest-bearing US Treasury Bond, which is the bank-note the Federal Reserve issues: the US economy won’t be growing, so again, there’s no place for the interest to come from. That, in turn, will force governments back into balanced budgets based on taxation, or (bad idea) borrowing money directly from the rich for really big endeavors, like putting on a war. I’m thinking now of the amusing and recurring situation between the Medici and the Popes in the 1400’s, where the Pope requests a loan, both parties proclaim eternal admiration, gratitude, and friendship, the Pope glibly refuses to repay the loan, the lender lays siege to the Papal vineyards, the Pope excommunicates everyone involved, renegade priests defy the Pope and offer Mass anyway, and — in the end — the Pope coughs up the money with proclamations of kissy-kissy-friends-forever-again.

Municipal bonds will go the same route. These are currently a relatively painless alternative to voting for a municipal tax to support some community enterprise, like a water plant or a school. In a zero-growth economy, no one is going to buy bonds as an investment.

Commodity markets might persist, because they serve as a seasonal hedge for both buyers and sellers of commodities. But they’ll change a lot, because non-renewable resources won’t generally be commodities. Things like wheat, bananas, and pork-bellies will remain: things like oil and coal will not. There’s more room for speculation as to how precious and useful metals will shake out, and whether speculative buying on margin will still work. What seems certain, however, is that speculating in the commodity markets will be even more risky than it is now.

Stock markets will vanish. Stock won’t vanish — it is the new aristocratic title — but corporate stock will be more like real estate: not the mortgage papers, but the actual properties. Like land holdings in feudal Europe, they’ll be valuable for the rents (dividends) they return, and the power they offer. Properties that are easy to acquire will be generally worthless. Valuable properties will not change hands often, and the trades will be personal, and limited. That trade will doubtless support brokers — but I can’t see it supporting an open marketplace.

Overall, “investments” of any sort won’t yield wealth. Investment will still happen, but it will cease to be about making money, and more about getting things done: more like Kickstarter campaigns.

In particular, corporations and the wealthy holders of controlling shares will use investments, not for wealth-generation, but for ego-feeding, political power, and even general social benefit. I’m thinking now of the funeral tombs of Egypt, the sculptures of Greece, the Medieval cathedrals, the artwork of the Renaissance, or the Italian and German patronage of music during the classical period.

The only way to gain more wealth in a steady state system is to acquire it from someone else.

That means there will be war. I’ll return to this in a moment.

Commoners in Steady-State Capitalism

Let’s look briefly at the situation of the commoner, the serf, in our steady-state feudal corporate capitalism.

The first issue is population.

People breed like bunnies: that is, exponentially, at least until they eat all the lettuce and starve, or become numerous enough to attract wolves. Modern people have considered this an intractable problem that leads to inevitable doom, but there’s an odd thing: human societies have, in fact, been able to control their populations. One of the most astonishing to me is the little island of Tikopia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which can support no more than about a thousand people. They’ve apparently been there for at least a thousand years. So they clearly figured it out — they’ve proven it’s possible (as have other cultures) to put limits on population growth.

Having a stable population, however, means cultural, legal, religious, and economic commitment to keeping the population stable. There cannot be an economic advantage to having too many children; if there is, there will need to be extremely strong legal, cultural, or religious taboos to counterbalance the economic incentive. That would require a very different culture than the one we currently live in, here in the US.

There also needs to be a good mechanism for dealing with “normal” bulges and troughs in population, such as our “Baby Boom” generation, or the Black Death in the fourteenth century in Europe, which so drastically disrupted the Medieval system. Zero population growth does not mean people can’t have children: it means that, on the average, two breeders must have exactly two children that live to reproduce. But things will happen, and the population will rise and fall. The system needs to withstand this.

The current economic and cultural forces that drive people from one place to another, looking for work, in the process breaking up families and communities, will vanish: with no epidemic economic reason to move and keep moving, and stronger communities that lack our modern expectation that kids will go to a distant college and then move to a distant city to get a job, more people will simply stay put. Not everyone, of course: there will always be free spirits and malcontents.

Our current process of trying to prepare for old age, illness, and such through personal “investments” will vanish, since there is no economic growth to provide these returns. It’s quite possible that the common folk won’t even have access to banks: banks may be useful only to the wealthy. However, overall inflation should be zero, so if you put a coin in a box and bury it, then dig it up fifty years later, it will still be worth what it was worth when you buried it.

Our hyper-individualistic current outlook, as US Americans, sees this as leading to people hoarding coins, other people stealing those coins, brutal police forces and/or vigilantes seeking to get their parents’ money back, and so forth. It’s a well-worn plot cycle: kindly old restaurant owner is robbed by thugs of the Evil Triad Cartel, renegade Shaolin Monk appears from nowhere and defeats the bad guys and gets the money back, then rides into the sunset. You can set the same story in the American Old West. Or Gotham City.

In practice, this is romantic nonsense. In a stable system, you can’t have the Dickensian horror of most old people dying as beggars in a dark alley, trying to keep warm, nor can you have the free-for-all of a lawless Old West with individuals stashing a few coins in a hidden box under a mesquite tree. What real people in real societies do is, in general, called a mutual aid society. US Social Security is an example, scaled up to the national level. Before there was Social Security, there were mutual aid societies, like the Odd Fellows, or the BPOE. Before that, there were trade guilds — or at the rural level, real local communities.

Beyond those basic features, I can’t see too many constraints on the common life imposed by steady-state capitalism. There’s room for all kinds and levels of social mobility based on skills and merit, room for technology (though not for wasteful extractive technology), room for all kinds of social conventions (that don’t result in population growth).

On the whole, life for most people will be good, and satisfying. If it isn’t, people will get restive, and the system will become unstable.

The Art of War

Ownership, in capitalism, is individual and sovereign, and in a world with a finite number of things to own — specifically in a zero-sum economy that is not growing and is not expected to grow — it is inherently competitive.

The traditional way of increasing ownership of this sort has always been to take it by force. If the current owner objects, you kill him. It’s called right of conquest. It’s also known as war.

The positive side of the capitalist innovation is that it gave people an alternative to war. Ownership of the critical resources could be bought and sold, rather than inherited or granted by divine right or taken by right of conquest.

The thing that free-market fundamentalists don’t seem to understand about marketplaces, is that they depend on impartial law to validate and enforce ownership claims.

It’s like the Medici and the Pope. If you lend money to the Pope, to what authority will you appeal if he simply decides to not pay you back? If you buy controlling stock from another aristocrat in a steady-state capitalist economy, what can you do if he takes your money and then refuses to turn over the executive washroom key?

If there is no such authority to appeal to, then our steady-state capitalism will turn into an unending series of wars among the owners, using commoners as soldiers. This is not a stable system.

If there is an overarching authority, with sufficient power to reign in any individual owner or small group of owners — a corporate government, if you will — then its courts, and its bureaucracy, will be more corrupt and intrigue-ridden than any imperial court the world has ever known. That opens covert routes to increasing wealth and power, and a kind of war in the shadows. The system will not long remain impartial. Again, I think the system will prove unstable.

I would be very surprised to see any form of steady-state capitalism last a thousand years. I’d love to hear others’ thoughtful explorations of how it might be made to work.

In a subsequent post, I’d like to explore some alternatives to capitalism by playing with the concept of ownership.