Saturday, July 13, 2013
How Well Do You Remember the 70s?
Unless you're already well into your 50s, chances are you don't remember much if anything of the 1970s. And that's too bad for you because, as you'll discover in the decades to come, a lot of what's happening to our world, our nation, mankind and your own way of life doesn't really make a lot of sense until it's measured against conditions as they were forty or fifty years ago.
Some peg a generation at 20 years. That's the interval from birth to reproduction of the next generation. Some say it's 25-years but that varies from society to society. Let's just say that the early 70s were two generations ago.
Why does that matter? It matters because each generation comes with a unique reality. For example, at my birth there were few homes with TVs, mine included. Steam locomotives were still carrying passengers. The few who flew were usually conveyed on a DC-3, a DC-4 or a Vickers Viscount, something with propellers. Grownups drank rye whiskey and every dinner featured meat of some variety. Cars ran on bias-ply tires and stopped by way of drum brakes. When I was born we were just on the cusp of enormous technological advancement, the demilitarization of wartime breakthroughs.
The 60s and the 70s were, for Canadians, an era of great prosperity. A lot of kids were raised in pretty comfortable, newer homes that were kept manicured by stay at home moms in single-income, single-job families. Imagine that - just one parent working and working just one job and not just doctors and lawyers and their like either. Wealth was nicely distributed and that supported a broad-based and robust middle class and a democracy at least somewhat attuned to their needs.
It was the era that ushered in consumerism and constant growth as the Holy Grail of capitalism masquerading as liberty itself. Owning stuff was freedom, the freedom to own ever more stuff, especially if it was the latest model-year Oldsmobile or, for mom, the newest labour-saving device.
Things were big back then. Cars were big, really big. Small screen TVs came in big wooden boxes. Hi-fi stereos came in consoles the size of a small couch. Things took up a lot of space and you could only fit so many things before you ran out. Things are infinitely smaller today and you have to wonder if that's not intended so you can have more things, a lot more. The more things you can fit in, the more things you can buy.
They had a name for consumerism back then. It was called "keeping up with the Jones-es." People weren't electronically attached back then and that made conformity much harder to mass-market. There were no high-tech networks for transport and distribution of exotic products to the middle class.
You were more likely to know where your food came from and a lot of us knew the family that grew it or raised it. Before the days of industrial agriculture you might well have had an uncle or two or at least a second-cousin who grew stuff or raised poultry or livestock, all on small land holdings. With the advent of chest-freezers we were away to the races. In my family we got pork and beef, lamb, ducks and chickens, tomatoes, sweet corn and bell peppers, potatoes, beets, peas and beans, apples, berries and more from relatives. We regularly visited their farms, walked their fields, fed their cattle and chickens, played in their barns (especially the hay lofts). Our parents were adept at "putting up" the produce, home canning, to see us through the winter including a nice supply of jams and jellies.
Let's jump ahead two generations. What do we know today? Just about nothing. Oh we might stop by some farmer's roadside stand every once in a while but most of our stuff today comes from industrialized agriculture and a lot of it travels many hundreds of miles from some distant field to our grocery shelves. We don't know how it's grown much less by whom. We don't know what sort of herbicides and pesticides linger within it or what sort of preservatives were used to keep it looking fresh. Worse yet, we no longer understand how to grow things ourselves. Some do, sure, but not many. For most, if it's not on the shelves, we starve.
We used to know how to fix things, especially engines. There were plenty of us who understood the rudiments of plugs and points and how to adjust timing chains. We knew how to take a cylinder head off and do a pretty decent valve job and rebuild a carb.
Two generations later, you need a computer to tell you what's wrong with your car and a skilled mechanic to fix it. It's electronic ignition now, that and fuel injection all controlled by onboard computers. You're no longer the only intelligence in the car, not by a long shot. You even share the driving of the car with devices you probably never see much less understand - anti-skid braking, stability control, all wheel drive, collision avoidance and automatic parking systems. Sometimes, like it or not, the car drives itself. Oh dear.
But why should any of this matter? Because, as Tim Flannery points out in "Here on Earth" we're rapidly becoming a species of high-functioning idiots. We're becoming, as individuals, ever more skilled at doing ever fewer things. And, as things become ever more sophisticated and more powerful, we become more dependent on others to supply them to us and keep them functioning. If something breaks down, we're screwed - and that means you, sister.
But what could go wrong? Oh, where to begin? I know, let's start with the Kessler Effect, the "Ablation Cascade." It's not something that could go wrong but something that, unless we do something very expensive and inconvenient about it, will go wrong as a mathematical certainty. NASA scientist Don Kessler got to thinking about all the junk in low-Earth orbit zinging around at 15,000 miles an hour. He wondered what happens when, eventually, that junk begins to impact other orbiting stuff like satellites. Even a small piece of junk is all it takes for a big satellite to explode into thousands of new bits of orbiting shrapnel just waiting to turn other spacecraft into ever more clouds of orbiting shrapnel. Eventually there'll be nothing left functioning in space and that orbital band will become unusable for, well, generations.
You know that cellphone? Nah, ain't going to work. Neither will your computer or your cable TV. Ditto for your and everyone else's GPS and that includes the military and every airline. Your ATM? Forget about it. And the transportation and distribution networks that keep food on your local store shelves, they'll go down too. If we're lucky our authorities will be able to keep some of our utilities functioning at some level, at least for a while.
Our governments, or some of them, are really beginning to take this seriously now but that mainly takes the form of panic, not action. There is futuristic talk about deploying orbital janitors that will track down and capture space debris and fire it back to earth for it to burn up on re-entry. Talk, however, is cheap. Action is expensive and, for the moment, elusive.
Smart acrobats have figured out they can still dazzle the crowd and use safety nets - just in case. In fact, I enjoy the performance better knowing the guy leaping from one swing to another has a good chance of not killing himself if something goes wrong. The thing is, we're not as smart as those acrobats. We're doing all the high wire stuff today without nets. It's just that we've been trained never to look down.
Somewhere along the line we abandoned the "Precautionary Principle".
"The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
"This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result."
We at least paid lip service to the precautionary principle back in the 70s. Today, however, it's treated as an unwelcome and unjustifiable fetter on maximized production and maximized consumption in the obsessive quest for ever greater growth. You think bitumen unduly contributes to global warming? You think global warming is real? You think fracking is hazardous through methane leaks and ground water contamination? Prove it. But, even if you do, don't expect us to listen. We have product to move.
We need to take a hard look at the 70s to see not just what as a civilization and as a nation we have gained but also what we have lost and what we're at risk to lose in the years ahead. That is going to entail prying an awful lot of denialism out of our collective consciousness. It's going to mean shaking off our self-induced amnesia and that's not going to be easy. In fact it's going to be very hard and very costly.
Like the Mayans and the Easter Islanders, we have freely embraced a host of irrational behaviours knowing full well that they are very likely to trigger our collapse. Those satellites go down and your life as you know it is over. Your society will be overtaken by utter chaos. Civilization hangs in the balance but we have yet to take a single step to save ourselves.