Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What if?

One of the ten or so people who actually look at what I write left a comment on my last post, part of which was a web address for his own blog - so I went there. His "Rantings" are on topics of current interest, more or less. He is also into (also graduated in) philosophy. One of his recent posts asks this question:

What will happen to the economy soon is fairly well known, but what will happen to society?

Several authors have tried to answer that question, notably those whom I have linked on the right hand side of my blog, and the answers are disparate. Some, like the Archdruid, believe an new equilibrium can be found, after a possibly painful transition, but not completely lacking in modern technology. Some, like Kunstler, seem to think it will be more like "Lord of the flies," or "Mad Max." Some think modern science will pull a miracle out of it's hat and save the consumer lifestyle. Some believe feudalism will return. Most believe the population of the planet will be involuntarily reduced by starvation and lack of transportation and access to medical care, due to economic collapse, peak oil, or both.

With the exception of the Archdruid, who is philosophical and believes in a transcendant gaiaism, dieties as aspects of natural currents and innate forces and not a personal diety, none of these writers is "religious," or even particularly philosophical. What is certain is that a radical paradigm shift is going to have to occur in the way people, especially Americans, think. We cannot be islands anymore. Total independence will not be an option. Selfish indulgence of resources will no longer be an option. Expecting other people to solve your problems will no longer be an option.

Most possible futures boil down to two main scenarios - The Powers That Be will take control of everything, imposing some semblance of order to minimize a loss of their power over the masses (however reduced there may be), or total chaos and breakdown of society. The Archdruid imagines a middle ground, smaller communities creating order out of chaos, with no centralized governmental power effective enough to impose its will.

None of this really answers the question of what happens to society, but what happens to society depends on the answers to these questions.

If we look at Biblical prophecy, what we see is, basically WWIII - a fight that eventually goes nuclear, is apparently over Israel and Oil (possession of the Arab countries). That's pretty much where we are right now, obviously. And whether or not you believe in a Messiah that will stop the war and bring peace to the world, the political, financial, and military situation that results in WWIII has aspects that we can plan for and adapt to in the meantime. They exist independently of any Biblical faith or lack thereof - they are socioeconomic conditions that we can anticipate.

So, based on what we see now, where will it go from here?

To answer this question, there is one big "what if" involved. So let's ask:

What if gasoline is no longer available or is unaffordable for private automobiles?

Obviously, those who do not live near mass transit lines are in immediate trouble - they can't get to work. Preserving the family income is the first and foremost priority, so many men and women will have no choice but to temporarily abandon their family and stay with someone near where they work - or at work. For single parents, this is a bad position to be in. Home businesses and walkable local businesses and services are going to have be the backbone of the new economy, with everyone in the extended family/friend group pitching in.

The family itself will have to be moved as well - but with no one able to qualify for mortgages, etc., this will end up being a confusing shuffle for a while, as people rent out their homes and themselves rent a home closer to their work if their job is a stable one. Families will probably need to double up - extended families together or good friends - while the shuffling is going on.

This, of course, means that properties near transit lines and commercial districts will immediately become greatly in demand - whereas demand for places out in the burbs will dry up completely. What will end up happening is that friends and families will end up crowded into the desirable properties (and the rent will go up due to greatly increased demand) while at the same time outlying neighborhoods will become basically abandoned - used for scavening materials, as the Archdruid also speculates. Those who are truly desperate will become squatters in these properties, and fires and disease will be a constant problem as people without utilities resort to whatever means are necessary for sanitation and cooking and warmth.

Those who live far from shopping centers cannot bring home food in any reasonable amount of time or large quantity - even backpacks, bikes, and little red wagons with coolers can only carry so much. Shopping will become a major part of somebody's daily schedule in the extended group - walking perhaps a few miles every day or every other day to obtain what the group needs for food and personal items. (I am optimistically presuming these will still be available at a more or less reasonable cost or through barter.) Government price fixing is not out of the question, meaning an ferocious black market will spring up almost immediately. The group will have to pool their resources to obtain what they need, and trade favors and services with their neighbors. A barter system for skilled labour will almost certainly arise, leading to (as I said above) home businesses, as household groups trade what skills or time they have to receive skills or services they don't have. Some small eateries that people can walk to will survive - large chain restaurants that depend on drawing large crowds from far areas will fail. Most likely, people will once again have to learn how to cook properly.

This shuffling of residences may continue for quite a while, due to business failures of those companies that rely on consumerism for their livelihood. Consumerism as we know it is going to die a painful death. Instead of national chains, people are going to have to return to making their own products in their own local area, and this transition will take a while. Likewise, many small private organic and sustainable farms will need to spring up to feed people - no doubt the government will provide subsidies for basic foodstuffs for a while, but the era of receiving out-of-season foods from halfway across the world will also be over. People are going to have to go back to buying from local farms, who either preserve or can their own produce or, more likely, that will be left to the family group themselves. This is nearly a lost skill in this country - but there are those of us who still know how to do it, given adequate materials (glass jars, lids or wax). "Victory" gardens will need to spring up in every yard, container gardening on terraces, balconies and decks - even rooftop gardens.

With gasoline no longer available at affordable prices, it is likely that centralized school systems will be decentralized. Children will walk (or possibly be bussed) only to the closest school buildings - most will return to being k-12 buildings and offering only set programs of study, since room will be scarce for changing classes every hour. Most class groups will stay together all day. It will be the Teachers who go from room to room, not the students. Food service may or may not still be available - it might be a good idea to have lunchboxes and coldpacks in case the kids all have to bring their own lunches and snacks.

What about elderly parents or grandparents? If their home is not one of the desirable properties near transit or commercial districts where the jobs are located, they will have to be taken in by their children. That may mean they need to be transported from far away, probably at considerable expense, to be re-integrated into the extended family of the most stable breadwinner.

What about entertainment? Presuming electricity will even be available 24 hours a day, it is unlikely that people will be willing to spend the money for cable or satellite. Movie theaters may also probably fall by the wayside - they're already outrageously expensive for a family to go see. Instead, people will have to return to making their own entertainment - using their own musical instruments, reading their own books or borrowed books, playing board games, card games, and perhaps some hobbies such as writing, drawing, or painting. I wouldn't count on being able to have electricity for entertainment as we know it - video games, etc. Radio may make a comeback - old style radio with dramas read out loud and news hours morning, noon and evening. Another good hobby to have is a Ham radio license. They can run on batteries, or solar rechargers - if electricity is unreliable or sporadic cell phones and possibly even landlines may not be available all day every day.

Sociologically, this will be a terrible culture shock, there's no way around that, especially for the younger crowd. Many people will not be able to adapt, and tempers could flare as people are forced to crowd together who are used to having what is, by historical standards, and entirely unreasonable amount of space to live in. Suicides will rise dramatically for a while. Also, people living in such close proximity will have to learn to adopt fairly stringent standards of sanitation and cleanliness which, frankly, I'm not sure the younger generation even knows HOW to do. If they don't, diseases, colds and viruses will spread like wildfire.

These are thoughts off the top of my head - no doubt there are more to think of.

So, the question then becomes: What things can I reasonably do to prepare for this situation?

I'm not talking about the paranoid survivalists here. If things get that bad, nothing you do will matter - roving gangs of desperate people will eventually find and overpower you, and your preparations will be confiscated either by them or by the government. You can't possibly buy enough ammo to hold off mobs indefinately.

What I'm talking about is looking at the above possibilities and asking yourself what you would do if your friends or relatives needed to stay with you. Where would they sleep? How much "stuff" do they need to bring and where will you put it? Do you have toys and games that don't require electricity or batteries? Do you have books that are resources for kids homework and light reading for entertainment? Can you perform simple household tasks like fixing a leak or patching a hole in the roof? Do you have the tools you will need? If your location is not good, can you move to a better one? Do you have a wagon and cooler? Bike and backpack? What skills can you do for your neighbors for barter? If you are religious, do you have everything you need for home services? If you don't cook, you need to learn. If you don't have kitchen gadgets and pots and pans, you need to get them. Do you have clotheslines to hang up laundry inside in the winter? Outside in the summer?

Basically, think of all the things you do every week, month, and year and imagine having to do them without a car, possibly even without 24 hour electricity. And then make sure you have what you need to do it. Society will have a much better chance of transitioning without violence if enough people plan ahead and urge their friends and families to also plan ahead.

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