Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Oil: While Americans Slept

Action entails risks and consequences. Mere thinking doesn't. In our litigious society, as soon as someone finally does something, someone else can become wealthy by finding some fault in it. Meanwhile a less fussy, more confident world abroad drills, and builds nuclear plants, refineries, dams and canals to feed and fuel millions who want what we take for granted...In our present comfort, Americans don't seem to understand nature. We believe our climate-controlled homes, comfortable offices and easy air and car travel are just like grass or trees; apparently they should sprout up on their own for our benefit...The Can't Do Society, Victor Davis Hanson, 7/2/2008

Hanson, in writing about the mindboggling refusal by all of us, voters, investors, parents, workers, citizens, to acknowledge the requirements for sustaining the world we and our ancestors have built, would never suggest he was being original. His thought, as a classicist and historian, is richly informed by the ur concepts of our civilization, founding ideas, one of the most important of which is that the human world is created, protected, and sustained by artificial structures we raise to shape and control nature and thereby enhance our lives. The other side of that coin is that if we fail to sustain these structures and, as significantly, if we refuse to evolve those systems to fit a world which still moves in directions we can't control, the result will be ruin.

In 1930, Ortega Y Gasset saw this as a manifestation of mass consciousness.

The common man, finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly-endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice...Revolt of the Masses, Ortega Y Gasset, 1930

In an increasingly metropolitan country -- fewer than 3% of the population supplies the American banquet to ourselves and to the world, it doesn't strike this writer as surprising that such thinking would arise. Anecdotally, who hasn't heard, or made, remarks about the stupid tedium of agricultural life? A few of the current generation, and a great many of the prior two generations of Americans, left the farm for the city. This is all well and good. Extraordinary advances in technology and management, and especially in genetics, mean that it's not that difficult for two or three people to run a large, productive farm or ranch. Where hand labor is still required, there is no shortage of itinerant labor. Where capital equipment is too expensive, companies have been formed that buy and operate such things as combines (grain harvesters) on a contract basis.

Unfortunately, one result of the separation of life support systems, whether farms or oil wells, from the vast majority of those supported, is the emergence of an urban perception that the city is a paradise occasionally dirtied by the presence of those responsible for keeping it alive. This was wonderfully illuminated by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. The "cost of living" in Wells' dystopian future was that, occasionally, some of the entitled were eaten by the creatures who provided them with urban comforts.

That kind of arrogance probably destroyed the first city, Uruk, and has put every city built since at risk. As an entire society becomes metropolitan, including suburbs and cities, a consensus may develop that this kind life is a birthright. The horn of plenty in the grocery store, dollar a gallon gasoline, the isolation from the dirty and the ugly are considered natural. On this plane of existence, increasingly divorced from the contingent, serious struggles may develop to pit the urban delusion of ominipotent superiority against increasingly restrained systems that, in a paradox familiar to any anthropologist, uphold the urban citizen's sense that he or she is beyond such rude concerns. Consensus has real power. When was the last time a powerplant was built in your city?

As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent." The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. (Revolt of the Masses, Ortega Y Gasset, 1930

Writing in 1930, Ortega Y Gasset knew very well that mass consensus was a deadlier force than any head of state had ever possessed. Catastrophes and mass war from 1914 to 1991, when the hammer and sickle were pulled down over the Kremlin, have restrained the effect of mass consensus, to be sure, but it still exists. Now, those on the outside of consensus are the targets of character assassination, false accusation, and, often enough, of pseudo science -- not quite murder, but just as effective in eliminating the opposition. Look at what's happened to those scientists, and there are many, who've pointed out the misuse of data by global-warning Cassandras such as Al Gore. Look at some of the summation speeches by former Senator Edwards in lawsuits. It's as if mass murder has been replaced by mass cults.

Living is an art. An art comprises technique, the will to introduce a structure to embrace and shape chaos, and materials which may be dirty. The art of a metropolitan society cannot be sustained by citizens ignorant or disdainful of ideas, strength of purpose, and of getting their hands dirty. The options for civilizations whose citizens have refused that duty are limited. Ruins may look romantic in a movie or in a painting. Try living in them. There are only so many trees to burn in Central Park.


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