Casaubon's Book

Pick Up Your Hat

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In _Depletion and Abundance_ I write about the difficulty of committing to a lifestyle change in a world where you always seem to have more time, where defining events are always on the horizon but never present. I use the phrase “time to pick up your hat” which I take from a short story by Robert Heinlein, as a way of thinking both about how difficult it is to change and how necessary.

On the one hand, the story is a typical 1950s nuclear era tale of apocalypse – in it, the main character, a bartender, is dealing drinks when two scientists walk into his bar. Both are terribly, terribly worried about nuclear war, and have reason to be. They spend the afternoon exploring all the risks and dangers, and the bartender, previously unaware of how urgent the situation was, listens in horrified fascination. Finally, as the afternoon winds up, the bartender tells the men that if they really believed what they were saying, they would get out of the city, since it is a likely target. He argues that they can’t be serious about it – because the aggregate of the evidence they are presenting demands that they pick up their hats and get out. But, they argue, they have reasons to stay, and they can’t know with absolute certainty.

The bartender, listening to them, makes up his mind that they are right. He hands them the keys to the bar, picks up his hat and gets as far out of the city as he can. At the last moment, with the building behind him, he hesitates, realizing that he’s made no plans, prepared nothing, and turns around to call a family member and tell them he is coming home – only, of course (since this is fiction) to see the mushroom cloud going up in front of him.

What interests me about this story isn’t the mushroom cloud at the end, but the thought process at the center of the story – the ways in which we often disregard the implications of our own thinking, the difficulty we have with abandoning old assumptions. Even if we know our way of life can’t go on, even if we know that we’re headed for a fall, I think most of us like to think it won’t come that soon, it won’t be that bad, we’ll have time for the things we want and need.

I find myself thinking of this in response to John Michael Greer’s two latest posts on the process of our economic crisis. In “Endgame,” his post from last week Greer, usually wary of calling the end of things, always anti-apocalyptic, makes his most apocalyptic-seeming of prognostications – that we don’t have much time:

What this means, if I’m right, is that we may have just moved into the endgame of America’s losing battle with the consequences of its own history. For many years now, people in the peak oil scene – and the wider community of those concerned about the future, to be sure – have had, or thought they had, the luxury of ample time to make plans and take action. Every so often books would be written and speeches made claiming that something had to be done right away, while there was still time, but most people took that as the rhetorical flourish it usually was, and went on with their lives in the confident expectation that the crisis was still a long ways off.

We may no longer have that option. If I read the signs correctly, America has finally reached the point where its economy is so deep into overshoot that catabolic collapse is beginning in earnest. If so, a great many of the things most of us in this country have treated as permanent fixtures are likely to go away over the years immediately before us, as the United States transforms itself into a Third World country. The changes involved won’t be sudden, and it seems unlikely that most of them will get much play in the domestic mass media; a decade from now, let’s say, when half the American workforce has no steady work, decaying suburbs have mutated into squalid shantytowns, and domestic insurgencies flare across the south and the mountain West, those who still have access to cable television will no doubt be able to watch talking heads explain how we’re all better off than we were in 2000.

Those of my readers who haven’t already been beggared by the unraveling of what’s left of the economy, and have some hope of keeping a roof over their heads for the foreseeable future, might be well advised to stock their pantries, clear their debts, and get to know their neighbors, if they haven’t taken these sensible steps already. Those of my readers who haven’t taken the time already to learn a practical skill or two, well enough that others might be willing to pay or barter for the results, had better get a move on. Those of my readers who want to see some part of the heritage of the present saved for the future, finally, may want to do something practical about that, and soon. I may be wrong – and to be frank, I hope that I’m wrong – but it looks increasingly to me as though we’re in for a very rough time in the very near future.

Now Greer and I often disagree, although the substance of our disagreements tends to be pretty fine – that is, I think we agree on more than we disagree upon. In this case, I’m inclined to disagree with his prognostication that we’re headed for hyper-inflation. I agree that quantitative easing is occurring, I agree that we’re headed, as Greer argues in his next essay for life as a third world country. I’ve been writing about our future as “ordinary human poverty” for years, and I think that’s the most likely expression of both energy depletion and climate change – that we get seriously, unpleasantly poor. I suspect this will most immediately be via a rapidly increasing deflation, not hyper-inflation, but the endgame, as Greer puts it, isn’t all that different for ordinary people.

Do I agree we’re on the cusp of a big downleg? I wouldn’t be surprised – I’m not sure I’d state it quite as firmly as Greer, but all the economic signs I can see suggest that there’s an ill wind blowing, and it is picking up. I hope those of my readers who haven’t done what they can to basically make themselves secure will feel a new sense of urgency and do so.

The problem with the Heinlein story, or any other moment in time is that life is rarely convenient. Every disaster has people saying “well, that wasn’t all that bad” and people who will gladly tell you just how bitterly awful it was. Even in historical senses, the start dates for many events are in dispute. What I agree with Greer about is this – if you are still assuming that our collective crisis will wait until you are finished with school, have paid off the mortgage, are ready to move, etc… that’s a bad idea. All your plans should include a “what if something unpleasant occurred now” assumption. We all have differing abilities to make our lives secure, but what we can do – build up a basic reserve of food, work with other people, be aware of those in need around us, get out of debt, plant a garden – those things are always a good idea anyway. The time and energy you expend on them will not be wasted, even if you could have left your hat hanging a bit longer.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Alexandra
    February 11, 2010

    What is the name of the Heinlein story, please? (I read your book but passed it on to my mother, or I’d look it up for myself.)

  2. #2 Ruben
    February 11, 2010

    Just a slight quibble, Sharon. I don’t read JMG’s Endgame as saying we are heading into hyperinflation soon. In fact, he says we are in a deflationary collapse, which the government is trying to print its way out of–and that effort may or may not succeed.

  3. #3 Greenpa
    February 11, 2010

    It has long been my contention that people, all of us, actually DO “live what we believe”.

    Would you step off a 100 foot high cliff? No- because you “believe” in gravity- even though physicists hem and haw still when you ask them “what IS gravity, anyway?” You can’t see it; can’t touch or explain it- but boy do you believe in it. Therefore- you act as if you do.

    It’s a place where I have problems with a lot of pietists- their lives and actions tell me clearly that they do NOT believe what they say they do. If people really believed in Hell and Heaven- what a different world this would be! And everyone would rejoice at funerals.

    ———————————–

    One of the big problems with prognostications like Greer’s is the guaranteed occurrence of really big and unforeseen events.

    There’s lots of big stuff in the Universe’s Pipeline. The Big One, for Los Angeles. The Big One for Seattle, or Missouri- or The Unbelievably Huge One for Yellowstone. A real plague. etc.

    We know about those- they WILL happen, someday. But in the middle of these prognostications we pretty much always ignore the potential for “good” big events (is there pessimism lurking in our realism?).

    Like the fact that last month, for the very first time, the effort to reach functional nuclear fusion power made it to the next rung on their ladder- and it was EASIER than they’d expected it to be. Much easier. hm. I also know a very not-stupid engineer who thinks she’s seen “zero point energy” work…

    There MIGHT be white swans up ahead; as well as black. Ya just don’t know. :-)

  4. #4 darwinsdog
    February 11, 2010

    Greenpa, usually you strike me as being a paragon of wisdom, or at least about as close a thing to one I can hope to expect from a fellow ape. Surely you can ‘grok’ (since someone mentioned Heinlein) that fusion power generation would be an absolutely fatal outcome for humanity and the rest of the biosphere. Cheap and abundant energy would simply allow the cannibal ape to spawn itself that much more in excess of the sustainable carrying capacity of the biosphere, leading to a population crash that much harder and that much more devastating to K. Already Homo appropriates unto its own needs & desires fully 40% of global primary productivity, leaving only 60% to the maintenance of functional ecosystems. Do you actually think that abundant fusion energy could compensate for the loss if vital services rendered by intact ecosystems? Get real.

  5. #5 Greenpa
    February 11, 2010

    “fusion power generation would be an absolutely fatal outcome for humanity”

    Well, obviously! Of course! :-)

    No, not being facetious; and it’s quite reasonable of you to get to “he thinks this would be a good idea!” – but I don’t. Good catch, incidentally; glad to straighten it out.

    Sorry about the confusion. No, I was looking at it from the point of TPTB, and the herd. THEY would go off their rockers celebrating. The “economic” nonsense would be kept up in the air a good while longer, and they’d do really good stuff like desalinate the Mediterranean and irrigate the Sahara with it. All staggering disasters from the standpoint of sustainability or stability.

    But- what I was talking about was the potential for unforeseen events, and that they are actually inevitable, and that they make prognosticating pontifically a very risky enterprise.

    Usually we foresee collapse and disaster- but we could really just as easily see “business as usual, but bigger” happening, which would be a bigger disaster in the long run- but maybe put it into our grandchildren’s hands, instead of ours.

  6. #6 darwinsdog
    February 11, 2010

    ;) Gotcha. Whew.. Had me worried there for a minute!

  7. #7 Fern
    February 11, 2010

    Here in DC, while waiting the The End Of Civilization I’m busy living thru’ snOMG. Does this count as handling an ‘All your plans should include a “what if something unpleasant occurred now” occurance?

    I didn’t run to the store for milk and bread and toilet paper, or even beer and pizza and toilet paper. But I sure couldn’t handle more than 5 or so months of being snowed in….

  8. #8 oil monkey
    February 11, 2010

    This post reminded me of an episode of ‘the survival podcast’ a while back on the notion of ‘the downside of being prepared’ (the angle being that there isn’t really any).

    Like many, I feel like I see it all coming, yet I remain immobile when it comes to many things I could do that would put me in a better place when ‘it’ comes. I guess its sort of like playing the market these days- you know its going to crash, but the possibility of gains is so tempting…. The ‘system’ that I know is going into failure mode is still doing pretty well by me, and it is so hard to walk away from it to do what needs to be done for when the system totally fails.

  9. #9 Dan
    February 11, 2010

    I have difficulty taking seriously anyone who talks about ‘the third world’. I guess Greer’s using it as a stand in for ‘poor brown people who live in Overseasistan’ but it’s just shoddy. Greer does make interesting points but on a lot of areas – left-wing politics, for example – he seems to view the world through an astonishingly mainstream – and seemingly wholly unexamined – lens (though, to be fair, this is a criticism which can safely be made against a pretty huge proportion of those who write on PO and the like.)

    And re Greenpa’s ‘living what you believe’ – yes, in the tautological sense that your beliefs are by definition the motivation for your action, this is true but in the sense of ‘declared belief’, I’m not sure there is much evidence to support your claim.

  10. #10 vera
    February 11, 2010

    Seems like Greer is abandoning his own “slow descent” bandwagon. Too bad… I used to enjoy his cautious tone, as a change. As for the rest… the time when the world could with some meaning be divided into first, second and third worlds is passing.

  11. #11 Doug
    February 11, 2010

    It’s rather annoying to reference someone’s material but not give the name of said material. Would be nice to know the name of the Heinlen story but after much searching I think you have the author wrong.

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    February 11, 2010

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  13. #13 Clif
    February 11, 2010

    _On the Slopes of Vesuvius_ was written in 1947 by Robert A. Heinlein.

  14. #14 M. Simon
    February 11, 2010

    I can see where fusion would be a disaster. Ten thousand years of fresh water for the Sahara and then what?

  15. #15 Lori Scott
    February 11, 2010

    So glad that you enjoy Heinlein – he has long been one of my favourite writers and after reading his posthumous autobiography, I am more impressed than ever with his perception that I suspect he dry cleans and tries to pass on to his reader in neat little allegories.

  16. #16 Jesse
    February 12, 2010

    There’s an irony in the love for Heinlein here.

    Heinlein was an unrepentant libertarian on a lot of issues, and his economics took a lot from the school of thought that says capitalism will solve everything. Stranger in a Strange Land is really good, but well, let’s say that after reading some of his other work I wonder if he actually “lived what he believed” in the sense Greenpa means. (Personally Starship Troopers still gets my vote as the biggest ever apologia for fascism).

    All that said. Here’s the thing: the survivalist mode simply isn’t realistic or possible for the vast majority of the population. I live in New York city. I have a few pots with some spices and peppers. But there is no realistic way to grow enough food for 7.5 million people within the city limits. There isn’t a way to do that for 10,000 people in small towns — medieval villages were designed the way they were for a reason (fields outside bringing food to a local population within the walls). So being ‘prepared’ isn’t an option for me. Or a lot of other people.

    What is an option is taking action to prevent the kind of collapse that is forecast. It can happen, you know. It just takes a little work. We still have an ozone layer because of that kind of work. (And if you think it’s bad now, imagine if we had never stopped producing CFCs — several kinds of crop would be near impossible to grow well).

    As to fusion power– remember, it might not be bad. Look, you do understand that in a situation where people think their children will live to be five, they have fewer of them? That is why population growth drops as countries develop. See Japan. Heck, look at the US — the baby boom was an aberration. Once the population became more urban the birth rate fell right quick. (The transition happened about 1920).

    The reason is that absent things like electricity and machinery, you need labor to farm. That means children. Lots of them. Especially when they might die of smallpox before they are three, which happened at an appalling rate as late as the 50s.

    So in situations where there is lots of energy, you actually make better use of it a lot of the time, at least in terms of population growth. Farm families tend to be larger, but if I have a tractor I need not have a dozen kids to help plow. (And the rate of return on those kids is ever-smaller, especially when acreage is limited. See Rwanda and Malawi).

    I’m not a big fan of factory farming, by the way — I think a move to more local, labor-intensive modes is not a bad thing. But that is just the kind of action that might help avoid catastrophes.

    The US economy is certainly having a big set of problems. I don’t think they are insoluble yet. I don’t think we will have an ever-expanding consumer culture — I don’t think that’s possible. But I do think that there are avenues that can be taken. Some of it will require less energy-intensive lifestyles. Fewer cars, for instance. More compact cities. Less jet travel. All it takes is political will. But y’all would be shocked what political will can do. Think of how much the culture and politics of the US have changed — for good and bad — since many of us were kids.

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    February 12, 2010

    Re:Heinlein story – I honestly can’t find the story to use the title. It is in Depletion and Abundance, but I’m away from my desk and don’t have a copy with me ;-).

    Re:Heinlein -I’m no advocate of Heinlein’s worldview in general, and I don’t think mentioning a story by someone involves advocacy for a worldview in general. I think Stranger in a Strange Land is dreadful, actually, although The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a fascinating and brilliant piece of political fiction – on the order of Animal Farm, but just as I don’t take Orwell as a personal political model, I don’t take Heinlein.

    It is absolutely true that New York isn’t going to grow all of its own food – although my own estimates, building on what Cornell has done is that the state of New York could feed about half of the present population of NYC plus itself and the surrounding suburbs. But that doesn’t mean that New Yorkers have no responsibility for subsistence – most cities worldwide in the Global South produce 20% or more of their produce and meat within city limits, and New York certainly could do the same.

    I don’t think it is wholly possible to avert collapse of some sort, although I don’t necessarily think Greer’s timescale is my own. But collapse doesn’t translate to “the end of the world.” The fact is that giving up CFCs in hairspray and giving up fossil energies are two very different projects with very different orders of magnitude – and since fusion power is not exactly right around the corner for implementation it is pretty moot. But we’re not even doing the things we could easily do.

    I think you’ll find this site has a lot about agriculture and food in a lower energy society. I don’t think New York or any city is doomed – but I also don’t think New Yorkers get to wash their hands of the problem of ethical subsistence and leave it farm families and the hope of fusion reactors ;-).

    Sharon

  18. #18 Greenpa
    February 12, 2010

    Dan- ” but in the sense of ‘declared belief’, I’m not sure there is much evidence to support your claim.”

    I’m not sure I exactly take your meaning; what I was trying to say was that peoples’ actions reflect what they truly believe; and “declared belief” is nearly meaningless as a measure of actual belief.

  19. #19 curiousalexa
    February 12, 2010

    You do not cite the title of Heinlein’s story in D&A.

  20. #20 darwinsdog
    February 12, 2010

    Heinlein was a complex character. How many people can be said to be an artistic hero both to ultraright-wing libbers and to left-wing hippies at the same time? It’s almost as if Heinlein was two (or more) people. It’s almost hard to believe that the same author wrote works like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers on the one hand, and Friday, I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough For Love, on the other. Heinlein also wrote from the perspective of an obese, adolescent girl, which I think is some of his finest writing. I think that I have Heinlein figured out. Despite his gruff Naval Officer demeanor, I believe that he was an autogynophilic fetishist. Had he lived in more contemporary times, he may have chosen M-to-F transexual route. I believe that sometimes he wrote from the perspective of his male “cover” persona, and sometimes from the perspective of his preferred female self. In any case, he was an interesting person and I have a love/hate relationship with his work.

  21. #21 Twilight
    February 12, 2010

    Greer did not say we’ll have hyperinflation now – he said that at the moment deflation was overwhelming attempts to inflate the money supply, but that eventually hyperinflation would result. This is not different from what Stoneleigh and Ilargi have been saying at The Automatic Earth.

    Also, I don’t see his comments as a departure from his ideas described in The Long Decent or of Catabolic Collapse. He’s never said that some of the steps down might not be big ones. Part of the problem is understanding the scope involved. While the things he described in the recent posts might be relatively big changes, they are still just steps along the way, not the ultimate destination.

    As for the timing – who would have guessed in early 2000 that we were months away from a coup and all the things that followed in the last 10 years? One of the other points Greer made was that the lack of instantaneous change tends to mask just how fast things really are moving.

  22. #22 Sharon Astyk
    February 12, 2010

    I’m simply not convinced that Greer’s language here doesn’t imply that he thinks that hyperinflation is coming a lot sooner than I do. But the larger point stands – the advice is good.

    Sharon

  23. #23 xhmko
    February 13, 2010

    I also think he has usggested hyperinflation to be on its way, a la ZImbabwe which was an example he chose. If you look at the situation there where hyperinflation has been dramtically fast then perhaps it’s not too hard to picture a severely indebted US economy buying its own debt by printing more money triggereing this process sooner rather than later. But as always prophecies are tempered by the dynamics of what I call the “cosmolectic”. The chaotic interchange of ideas and arguments in their own evoltuionary struggle for the light of day. Each idea spurring on and conflicting with each other idea in the process.

  24. #24 xhmko
    February 13, 2010

    Sorry about all the spellling misstakes(sic), I am using a public computer in a bit of a rush.

  25. #25 Big Bomb
    February 18, 2010

    “Your hat is your hat. Know it, where it, make it real.”

    Guess who wrote those words? Guess where they appear? Guess who was also members with Heinlein in the L.A. Science Fantasy Society? Someone borrowed from someone, not sure the chronology …