Monday, January 23, 2012

Letting Go of Middleclass

Historic abnormality.  That's what one of my favorite bloggers calls the modern day middle class. Anthropologically speaking, how do societies organize? Labor at the bottom, with a ruling class at the top supported by the excesses generated by the laborers.  Modern man managed to tap in to a vast payload of ancient excess, enough to glut even the most ravenous of ruling classes, thus letting enough dribble through that a percentage of the laborers get to experience some of the perks of ruling class lifestyle. It's near impossible to convince any of those enjoying the experience that what they are living is an abnormality.  It's gone on for generations now, (at least in the global North) long enough to convince all of them of it's permanence. Like fruit flies, the memory span of the species is only so long. They've forgotten what is normal.  "Oh, those norms don't apply any more, for Pete's sake, we've been to the moon, there's nothing we can't do."  You know what we can't do? Make more oil.  I know what else we can't do. Run anything more than a fraction of our current lifestyle on renewables and muscle power. The math just doesn't work out. Not without a huge population die off, and that would create it's own problems. Math is hard to argue against, but of course the hopeful fruit flies still try. The Archdruid says it best, as usual.
"In 1929, America was still an expanding society, with an economy that was still producing something other than fiscal hallucinations, and a standard of living that had been moving raggedly upward for a good long time. ... Most Americans could reasonably expect that with hard work and prudence, they could expect to have a better standard of living in the future than they had in the past, and their children could expect to do better still.

Those days are long past. For the great majority of Americans, living standards have been declining since the early 1970s, upward mobility is increasingly a nostalgic dream, and it’s becoming harder even for government flacks to keep pretending that training people for jobs that don’t exist will make those jobs miraculously appear. Ours is a contracting society, and outside of the narrowing circle of privilege—itself facing, a little further down the road, a far more drastic form of downward mobility—most people realize that hard work and prudence, the road to a better future in past generations, are merely a slightly slower road to impoverishment than the one everyone else seems to be taking.
A great many Americans, for example, think that being hopeful in the face of the depletion of fossil fuels means assuming against all the evidence that some ample replacement will be found in time to allow us to keep our energy-intensive lifestyles running. A great many of us more generally think that being hopeful in the face of the limits to growth means trying to convince ourselves that those limits don’t apply to us, or that there will turn out to be some way around them, or that somebody or other will bail us out before our refusal to deal with those limits lands us in consequences harsher than we want to think about.
The only way out of the trap, as I’ve argued here rather more than once, is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline. To those who cling to the idea that they can maintain their present lifestyles, admittedly, it’s hard to think of any advice less welcome, but the universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want" - Archdruid
 The universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want.  I can't get those words out of my head.  Most days are a battle against bitterness. Don't get me wrong, I'm a generally happy person, I love my family and all that jazz, but there's a kernel of bitterness that wasn't there a decade ago. I know why it's there. What I do for a living is not what I wanted to do with my life. I have a job, a good job. I don't discount the benefits that bestows on my life. My family eats good food, often, in a cozy house in a low crime neighborhood. I have all the securities of the ruling class, but none of the freedom. The engineering degree that was the ticket for my grandfather to live a stable life free of debt, has become a millstone around the neck, not only for me, but for most of my generation.  Our debts are rising far faster than our expected income gains. We are financial serfs. My private loans from college won't be paid off until I'm 50. You can imagine what that does for my ability to take risks and try new things. An entire generation, crippled by debt. There go your job creators. We're all so debt ridden we want only to occupy a job, and send large chunks of the pay towards the loan companies in a desperate attempt to deal with them. This is what it looks like when a historical abnormality is coming to a close.  You work as hard as you can, but there's not quite enough to satisfy the demands of the elite to be supported and to raise your own standard of living.

Middle class is no longer an option. The rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer.  Most days I feel like I'm doing alright if I'm managing our descent gracefully.  That's all I aim to do. I can no longer forget the historical abnormality. It stares at me in the face every day. I go to work and I make sure I have enough supplies to get home if today is the day it all collapses.  I don't plan on my kids going to college, I hope I can teach them enough to get them accepted as apprentices in a craft they can support themselves in. I don't plan to ever have my debts paid off, the most I aim for is to be somewhere safe when I can't pay them anymore. I highly doubt I'll ever have a retirement savings account to speak of. Perhaps I'll get some social security if that's still around in 50 years, perhaps not. At this point, the safe place to land includes a bit of land to grow food on since only 2% of our population is growing our food, and those guys are all approaching their 70's. (Another historical abnormality) I grow and can food now, not because I really have to, but because I want the practice for the time I know is coming, the time when it won't be an option.  I sew my clothing and diapers and blankets, we could afford to buy them, but I might as well get the practice now. I'm pretty sure my children will not have the excess energy to manufacture diapers and blankets or the money to ship them in from China. 

The work I do at home helps me deal with the dichotomy of going to my job everyday. I automate factories.  The very same automation in the very same factories that deep down inside I don't believe will be running in another 20 years. I don't believe we'll have the power grid to support it, I don't believe we'll have the distribution to sustain it. The economies of scaling up and centralizing and automating are all based on the excess energy and materials that we had back in the halcyon days of oil gushers and steel exports. Putting more holes in the ground and sticking more straws down them are not going to magically create more oil, no matter how much ground water we ruin with the latest technology. Creating demand for more iron is not going to make it come out of the ground.  I can already see the signs, the cracks.  Projects that get delayed because the iron has to come from China, and it takes twice as long to arrive as original estimates.  Parts and equipment with months of lead times (the time between ordering the part and arrival) because of components that use rare earth metals that are becoming harder and harder to source.  Plants that used to run full tilt 24/7, content with the knowledge that it didn't matter how much energy it took, product out the door always equaled profit, now have to scale back and monitor energy use and look at energy efficient ways of producing that same product, with materials that require more processing to get them up to snuff.

I can't really be the only one seeing the cracks. Some are much more obvious and not at all metaphorical. The American Society of Civil Engineers lists the total unpaid/undone infrastructure repairs in this country as around 2.2 Trillion. Not one single aspect of our infrastructure got higher than a C grade. I can't believe that these failing systems are going to support even a faint facsimile of the middle class lifestyle, that historical abnormality that so many think of as a permanent. I just can't.

Middle class is an endangered species. You can’t save yourself, nor can you return to it. Don’t try to hold on until the bitter end. Just let go while you have some control.
Lord Bison 

1 comment:

Jon Lorisen said...

Powerful post Jennie.