Thursday, May 18, 2006

America: Horse Pen or Coffee Stain?

I've never been a horse guy (or really any kind of animal guy, really), but my parents both had them when they were young, and of the many observations I was subjected to regarding the basic idiocy of these creatures* was their tendency to denude the landscape they inhabited. Horses in pens quickly reduce the earth to a bladeless, rootless desert, chomping and stomping down the vegetation well beyond any level of sustainability.

All barnyard animals will do this if you cage them in tightly enough. Horses in the lost wild could run around indefinitely, finding new grass (or fleeing predators or chasing horsey tail, but definitely running) as they liked, giving the old stuff time to grow back. If things got too easy for the mustangs, grass running too thin or whatever, then population pressures of one sort or another would kill enough off, keeping nature in its steady thermodynamic equilibrium (except of course, when it didn't).

We humans are, by human definition, way better than barnyard animals . Using not only thumbs but cognition too, we've staved off those population pressures, tricking grass to keep coming out of the earth and feeding more and more of us. But thermodynamics is a tough mistress; nobody's yet found a way to get past rule 1 (you can't win), and never you mind rule 2 (but we'll be long since vaporized when the house finally demands its cut). Anyway, the point is that in order to keep conjuring fruit out of the ground, we've had to pump more than our allotted 160 watts per square meter into it. And even George Bush knows where that extra measure comes from, more or less (after all we've got to eat some). I find the thought fascinating that we've pumped the substance of half of our population--the atoms that make up the very meat and bones of us--from deep in the bowels of the earth's crust. We keep making people out of oil.

And we've made a hell of a lot more than people. We've fashioned a whole society on oil, and while I'm in general a subscriber to "the will of the people" as a driving force in grand demographic trends, that will can be crudely manipulated by the motivated and the powerful. Those vague forces of opinion will seek out an energetic minimum--water will always run downhill, but the course of the flow can be shaped to direct it into one valley or another. It was a hell of a post-war ride, and if we owe labor laws and catfood-free retirement to FDR's New Deal, then we have to owe that swell house in Levittown to Eisenhower's interstate system. The former may have been sustainable (depending on whom you ask, and on who's skimming the funds), but the latter planted the seeds of doom. It did two things: it centralized agriculture (which was needed to turn the old farms into subdivisions and in turn requiring more power and fertilizer to optimize the remaining ones) and it diluted the population so we could travel miles from our homes to work, sucking down the petrol like hogs at a trough.

I've been reading this jolly optimist lately, but I can't share his readers' smug disdain of the successor to the working Joe Sixpack: hummer-commuting, beef-eating, McMansion-dwelling Joe Suburb. Joe S. has got it tough; he's only going where the forces of nature dictate.

If you've ever wanted to know why coffee stains make rings instead of even beige smudges, you need to look at the thermodynamics of them. Specifically, the surface energy balance at the edge of the coffee puddle has got to be equilibrated, driving the angle it makes with the flat surface to always be the same. To do this, liquid (and usually anything suspended in it) must be drawn from the center of the puddle, which then thins and dries first.

Joe's a tiny speck floating in the great oil slick, drawn out to the geographic edges of civilization by economic and social forces. Joe can't afford to live where he works because the cost of living is too damn high in the tolerable places, and the affordable places are broken hellholes. So he keeps bulging out the edge, where there's a balance between his quality of life and his cost, and meanwhile the middle keeps evaporating behind him. And unless we keep pumping gas into our puddle, it's going to dry out from the inside first.

This is getting long, but the point is that we can't keep up the expansion without the black stuff. We need a better model than we have, and while it's a trite matter to imagine one (maybe another post), I have to point out that the current strategy, built on highways, is as artificial a situation as anything else that might have come to be. I'm just worried that the grass is already killed, we've bred too vigorously, and our stain is spread too thin. I'm worried that maybe the bridge on the freeway was out thirty years ago, and we don't yet know we're standing on air.

Don't look down.


Disclaimer: except for Kunstler's, I haven't read the cited blogs more than once.
* Evidently the true hippophiles out there--the ones that actually have horses--love the animals in spite of this characteristic.


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