Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Good Life of the Future That Once Was

I've been thinking on and off the last few days about depictions of the future in recent movies. Juxtaposing what we know of global climate change with, say, the eastern seaboard of 2054 as depicted in the movie "Minority Report" casts light from a new angle on the notion of science fiction.

Science fiction, as we've understood it up until the last 20 years or so, was largely based on levels of technological sophistication that we could imagine, but not yet produce due to lack of anticipated scientific breakthroughs, global political harmony, and/or borrowed alien knowledge.

It seems to me that we now have a new means, distinctly more pessimistic and cyber-punk, of defining science fiction. We have the technological sophistication, the materials, and the money in many regards to make at least of part of what was imagined 30 or 40 years ago a reality, but political currents, global climate change and the scarcity of fossil fuels will make them impractical if not impossible. We will be left reaching for a future of 'science possible', never to be rewarded for our ingenuity and brashness with 'science fact'.

When many of the classics of science fiction were being written in the 1960s and 1970s, it was from the launch pad of the Cold War with and against the Soviet Union. If you extrapolated the trajectory of scientific achievement from the pace of the Space Race, you couldn't be faulted for imagining a time 100 years in the future where the barriers of quantum physics had been shattered and we were suddenly able to leap across galaxies like frogs across lily pads.

The cyber-punk authors came along just as the Cold War was starting to cool down, and they presented a much more 'virtual' reality inside machines, in a 'meatspace' largely gone to seed. Technological advancements were invested largely in computer networks and inventions of consumer convenience, and thoughts of moving forth into the cosmos became a kind of stage set or window dressing. The vision and determination of the Space Race had been disrobed as political show and expediency. Getting to the moon might as well have been a contest to see who could grow the largest beets or the fattest heifers.

Now we have a space station where we learn interesting things about materials science and bone atrophy. Grand pronouncements are made about manned missions to Mars, but the political will and financial capital are suspiciously absent. Hell, our space shuttle fleet is falling apart like the walls of a rotting bathhouse, and nobody can find a few billion smackers for NASA, but can earmark dozens of times that much to keep an inadequately armored foot in the Middle East's door.

In 2054 much of the eastern seaboard will be housing crustaceans and interestingly mutated fish, and the only people living there will be living in hurricane-proof bunkers on very tall pilings. You'll need diving gear to tour the nation's capitol. As a matter of fact, all the settings visited in "Minority Report" will become aquatic habitat, instead of seedy alleyways ill-suited to jetpack practice.

The most spectacular concept (and one of the nicer bits of CGI in the movie) of personalized, computer-driven vehicles on carefully synchronized maglev highways that lead right up the side of buildings, delivering you right to your living room, is probably the least likely nominee for realization. It's a cool concept, but the amount of energy such a system would require, along with the complete re-make of urban infrastructure, is just unfathomable from where we now stand. Consider how much it cost Los Angeles to carve their woefully belated subway system through the city in 1993, at a cost of $78M per mile. Consider the interstate freeway system in the United States is about half a century old, starting to disintegrate, and way down the list of Washington priorities. If we can't even maintain the extant fruits of technology, how are we to justify and produce those still a twinkle in some urban planner's eye?

But, hey, at least the land area of the United States of 2054 will be a lot smaller, and then maybe we can swing a nationwide train system again, like we had back in the technological heyday of the 1950s!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Economic Erosion of Laurelhurst

For the last 15 months I have been an employee of the urban retailer City People's Mercantile. The glory that is mine is that of the humble cashier, but I have put substantial effort in keeping the spirit of the City People's Mercantiles of yore on Capitol Hill and in Fremont alive and kickin', i.e. supreme irreverence and a measure of wackiness. That's a little tricky given the demographic around the only remaining Mercantile version: lotsa rich folk. These are people easily given to a certain sense of entitlement, which is occasionally taken to the absurd boundaries of treating us like we should be a hippified version of Nordstroms, or Macys before its long swandive into Kmartdom.

But, that's not what I'm aiming to discuss here. City People's is located in a retail strip along Sand Point Way NE, and surrounding it are the upscale neighborhoods of Laurelhurst, Windermere and Bryant. People in these areas are not poor. The average selling price of a home in Laurelhurst in 2006 was 1.16 million. So, it's not lightly that I claim that this area is showing the fraying effects of the economic downturn. Following are a few tales of the woe that has befallen nearby businesses.

Case 1: Several months ago Gretchen of Gretchen's Place sold the business to the owner of the dry cleaning shop down the block. Apparently the owner of the business (I think his name is Joe) wanted to move into something different, and had sold the dry cleaner to someone else. Joe then turned around a couple of weeks ago, apparently unhappy with his experience as Barista Herder, and sold the business to another fellow. New fellow has made some very unfortunate decisions. The overall quality of the food has started to suck. The sandwiches in particular have suffered. I was a huge fan of the turkey sandwich on Essential rosemary sandwich bread, with a crispy pickle on the side. Last week the crispy pickle had been replaced by a vinegary fluorescent green object which may - just may - have been a cucumber about 10 years ago. Today I went in to have Justine inform me that now the rosemary bread had been replaced by something white that retained the imprint of her hand when she squeezed it. I announced a sandwich boycott and went down the block to Great Harvest.

Case 2: Nate and Dayspring got out of Great Harvest about a month after Gretchen moved on from Gretchen's Place. The new couple who took over - distinctly un-fun people with little sense of humor and even less customer service acumen - decided the first problem with the place was the organic wheat flour that had been the cornerstone of the business for years. Early on I argued the case for keeping the organic flour, and was informed that it didn't make sense because it was the only organic ingredient in the bread. Well, gee, isn't that a foundation to build on then, instead of going the opposite direction? They felt it was deceptive and gave a false impression that all the ingredients were organic. I thought that was exaggerating the situation a bit. I got off on the guy's bad side and felt a wall go up every time I talked to him after that. I pretty much stopped going to Great Harvest much after that. Most of the fun hotties had been laid off or had their hours cut way back anyway, and the new employees are about as exciting as generic toothpaste. Like employer, like employee.

Case 3: This is a minor one, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed the day spa just north of Great Harvest had cut their hours back substantially, closing for about 3 hours in the middle of the day.

This whole string of events got me thinking about an article in the New York Times I read a couple of days ago, in which the financial woes of the monied and pampered classes were laid out in stark detail. I thought, "Cry me a river!", but at the same time could see how the dynamics were working. One of the great timbers of retailing is balancing the cost of doing business with the amount you charge your customers. If the cost of business goes up, you can either do something to push it back down (think: fluorescent pickles) or you increase your prices (think: 38% increase in the cost of a Limonata soda).

All of the things that happened in the three cases I noted can be laid at the doorstep of the explosion in gas prices. Resorting to cheaper ingredients at the café and bakery are a way to keep the prices the same, or only marginally higher than they would be if the same ingredients were kept. Closing the day spa for part of the day means maximizing the number of clients during open hours, and potentially being able to curb hours for some staff. It's not like the upper middle-class is getting any better off and thus the economic erosion of the well-to-do.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bright Green

It's a common story for me these days: T. turns me onto something she found by way of her LJ Friends list, I read it, then it ties in with something I think about a lot, and before long I've done a bit of research and discovered some new community that's saying the really important stuff that so many more need to be hearing.

There's this thing out there called the 'bright green' movement. I knew nothing of it prior to tonight. They are proponents of the kind of environmentalism of which we are desperately in need. For months now I've been lamenting the 'green-washing' campaign presented by our consumer-capitalist society as an 'answer', as a way of 'making a difference' and it's all a complete crock. Along the lines of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' plan to do away with disposable grocery bags and styrofoam take-out containers at the beginning of 2009. More power to you Mayor Nickels, but don't think for a second that this is going to do anything that would even register the smallest blip on the global scale.

To be fair and charitable, Mayor Nickels' plan and slogans like 'Reduce, Re-use, Recycle' are a fine and valid effort. They're a good start, and they do well to introduce a new manner of thinking and a greater degree of consciousness. Keep in mind that they are primarily governmental cost-cutting measures, and not the panacea we seek. The important answers will not be found in continued (though 'green') consumerism. They will not be found in voting with your dollar. They will not be found in technological tinkering with the Earth's weather patterns. The most bankrupt aspect of everything that swathes itself in green propaganda is the illusion that we can make superficial changes to the lifestyles with which we've grown comfortable, which we've been told are our birthright as Americans, and that will 'save the Earth'. It won't.

What's coming can no longer be stopped; its severity can only be shortened, and those actions will have little impact on what anyone now alive experiences in their lifetimes. The Arctic polar ice cap will melt. The oceans will give up their stored methane gas. Sea levels will rise an estimated 20 feet by 2020. Life on Earth will change dramatically in the space of the next 10 years, and it will likely stay that way for centuries. However, the Earth will not cease to exist. Humanity will take a beating in the process, but it too will likely continue.

What we need to abandon as we adapt to this new paradigm is the idea that our actions are off in some other sphere, unconnected with everything around us. We also need to reassess our ideas of needs and how many of us the Earth can truly sustain. With a population nearing 7 billion people, there will come a point where even the most l0w-carbon lifestyle will exceed that capacity. We're a long ways off from that though. The things that we need to do, that will make the biggest difference, impact the very bedrock of our capitalist culture, and thus will be the hardest to implement:

Stop manufacturing and driving personal automobiles and most trucks. All single-person transport needs to be human-powered. Anything creating measurable pollution should move hundreds of people over long distances, and used only infrequently. We will have to look forward to a future of staying close to our point of origin, and give up toxic idiocy like traveling across the country for every family-oriented holiday.

Stop producing disposable garbage products, whether here, in China, or anywhere else. Nothing can be manufactured that isn't made to last a very long time. Planned obsolescence cannot be made compatible with our survival. The growth economy can no longer be the measure of business success and national prosperity.

We need to stop making condominiums and apartment buildings made from disposable, often un-reusable materials, designed to last a few decades and then be torn down for purposes of 'urban renewal', but strong structures intended to be maintained, and to last an indefinite period.

We need to adapt our lives to the seasons and available daylight. We need to live in places where the available water will support the population, and not require water to be diverted or piped in or pulled up out of artesian wells. We need to live in places where the seasonal temperature range allows us to go about our lives without unusual efforts to cool or heat our surroundings. Living in Anchorage, Alaska or Phoenix, Arizona isn't tenable.

As much as it pains me to say it (since I'm no gardener), we all need to find the space and will to grow as much of our own food as possible. You can start by supporting food grown in your own city, county, and/or state. Whether you subscribe to organic principles or not, local food is fresher, healthier, and doesn't burden the environment with the by-products of transportation over long distances.

You can start working in these directions now. Question your definitions of 'need' and 'want'. Voluntarily give up lazy, wasteful means of getting things done. Use what you have and what other have left behind before creating consumer demand for newly manufactured products - learn about and reject the Gospel of Consumption. Think about where you want to be living in ten years, and whether it's likely to be a infertile desert or underwater by then. That way you won't have your back to the wall when millions, if not billions, are forced to adapt out of catastrophic necessity.