Populist movements don't build themselves ...

... It doesn't matter what the "horse race" outcome of the campaign is, if we fight the campaign. Fighting it, we learn how to fight. Learning how to fight political battles, we become citizens again. Becoming citizens again, we reclaim the Republic that lies dormant beneath the bread and circuses of modern American society.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sunday Train: American Greatness and High Speed Rail

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Community Blog Discussions at: ProgressiveBlue, HillbillyReport.org, Docudharma, and Agent Orange.

I believe that America can be greater than it ever was before.

That does not mean that its destined to be. Destiny makes us lazy. Destiny is like those post-Tour de France cycling criteriums where the top three places were guaranteed to the three big TdF heroes taking part ~ if you are in shape and need to keep going, maybe Destiny can keep the momentum going ~ but its no way to build up to race fitness.

Indeed, it does not mean that its at all likely. It may well be massively unlikely. But whether an outcome is likely or unlikely is an issue for passive spectators, watching from the sidelines. The issue for participants is whether the game is worth the candle ~ whether the prize substantial enough to make it worthwhile playing to win.

Our modern mess media trains us to the passive observer role, with their habitual "trackside race call" coverage of public affairs. However, if we participate, that trains us in the active player role, and the real life experience is a deeper lesson than the color and noise on the noise box.

What Does It Mean for a Large Nation to be Great?

If it means anything for a nation such as the United States of America to be Great, what does it mean?

For a small nation to earn the label of great ~ a New Zealand, Central African Republic (CAR), Costa Rica, Laos ~ perhaps it can do something in particular brilliantly, and everything else OK enough not to disqualify it. We do not normally call small nations "great", but its not surprising to hear that a small nation is "great at {fill_in_the_blank}." Especially "great at {fill_in_the_blank} for its size."

And maybe there is some of that for medium size and medium-big size nations, except that "for its size" implies a higher standard, the bigger it goes. What would New Zealand great for its size might fall short for Australia or Canada. What would make CAR great for its size might fall short for South Africa or the Democratic Republic of Congo. What would make Costa Rice great for its size might fall short for Venezuela or Brazil.

However, my thesis is that for the four large nations of the world ~ for China, the United States, the European Union and India ~ relative scales do not apply. Greatness for a large nation of the world must be on an absolute scale.

What does it mean to be Great in the 21st Century

We face existential challenges in the 21st century:
  • We face the challenge of resource footprint over-reach ~ a way of life that requires more than one earth to sustainably satisfy.
  • We face the challenge of self-poisoning ~ a way of life that progressively increases the toxicity of our life support system.
  • We face a challenge of climate chaos ~ either an induced development or amplification {+} of the end of the mild global climates and the onset of a much more turbulent Anthropocene
  • We face a challenge of Peak Oil ~ the transition from the prevailing energy base of modern industrial society because we have used it up, rather than because of the stronger appeal of an alternative
  • We still face the challenge of Radioactive War ~ with no actual elimination of the standing 20th century threat of nuclear war, now augmented by the threat of various dirty bombs

And for some reason as a nation we seem to be somehow incapable of doing more than didley-squat about more than one of them at a time.

But for one of the Four Large Nations of the world to be Great, it must be great in leading the way and collaborating on all of the existential challenges we face. The footprint of each is too big. Each must carry its weight across the board, and more than carry its own weight somewhere of vital importance.

We cannot claim the mantle of greatness on the basis of "nailing down loose nukes" ~ while we pursue an energy policy that fails to nail down untapped coal reserves ~ still less if that policy subsidizes and otherwise encourages the burning of coal. Maybe a smaller country, where its relative reliance on coal in its national economy translates to a much smaller absolute share of total carbon emissions ~ but not the Peoples Republic of China, the Republic of India, the European Union, or the United States of America.

Clearly, what is not Great is for a Large nation to sit on its ass, hoping that some other nations will pull its irons out of the fire.

No Single Act Is Sufficient to Face an Existential Challenge

One of the habitual, regular, predictable red herrings that Big Oil and other saboteurs of the United State of America surviving the 21st century intact is to point out that some vital action "is not enough".

Big fat hairy deal. No single action is enough in facing an existential challenge. Any challenge that can be faced down with any single action is not an existential challenge. Existential challenges require multiple mutually supporting, and often interlocking, actions to face up to them.

That reason is, first, keeps getting tosses up is because people fall for it. "Yeah, that's no enough" among those encouraged to be lazy about it translates readily into "not worth doing". But whether its worth doing is based on how irreplaceable it is, and how many support it gives to other vital actions.

And, second, because for those challenges that are clearly existential, saying "its not enough" resonates much better than "give up, all hope is lost, we are ultimately a failure as a nation and its time to try to build some other nation in this part of the world" ~ at least among the broad swathe of population between those dedicated to an action vital to our national survival and those adamantly opposed to one or more of those actions.

But while the point does not have billionaires making it, it can be conveyed to and understood by the vast majority of our civil society. Remember that the point is to communicate the point, and people across our country are familiar enough with at least one complex system to get the point: Sure a transmission is "not enough" for a car to run. An engine is not enough. Working steering is not enough. But can you drive without a transmission? Without an engine? With working steering?

We don't need a smarter electorate, we need a wiser electorate, and the "needed vs enough" idea is worth passing on to as many fellow citizens as you can, in whatever opportunity you can create to pass it on to your fellow citizens.

Why are We Facing So Many Existential Challenges?

Cast your mind back to 1980. There are two Great Nations of the World, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR is surviving a fundamentally broken domestic economy on the back of high prices for its relatively expensive to produce oil ~ and looming over the next five years is the collapse of the real price of oil from its 1979/80 peak to a multi-decade period of cheap oil ~ not ultra-cheap oil, as when the Texas Railroad Commission was stabilizing oil prices via Texas oilfield production quotas, but still cheap.

And when the price of oil dropped, their ramshackle faux-socialist centralised authoritarian economic system collapsed together with the "second world" of the "cold war" world order. Now, if I listed Five Large Nations, I reckon I'd still have to include them (unless, of course, they are merely taking a several decades long pause in the process of falling apart) ~ but I only listed four.

China was still reeling from the twin catastrophes of Mao's deliberate promotion of population growth and the insane effort to convert the agrarian revolution of the rural commune system into an decentralized mass production industrial revolution that no amount of revolutionary fervor could ever suit it for. Deng Xiaoping is just launching the reset that unleashes the potential of the Chinese communes and then uses it to launch an actual industrial revolution ~ and the population policy that violates almost every tenet of Western social liberty, while also preventing what otherwise clearly would have been by now a collapse of central authority and descent into civil war ~ a devil's choice, but after the population policies of Mao, no angel's choice was any longer available.

India has passed through the Emergency Crisis and the stunning electoral defeat of Indira Ghandi's regime and then the subsequent collapse of a new government too experienced at opposition and inexperienced in government to hold the governing coalition together, with more years political turbulence, including Indira Ghandi's, before establishing the neo-mercantilist economic order which it has been pursuing over the past few decades. Not that political turbulence ever actually went away, but the periodic political storms did not wash away the foundations of the neo-mercantilism that had been adopted.

And the European Union? This youngest of all Four Large Nations does not even exist yet, a collection of medium-big, medium and small nation states in a divided continent, like the Greek states in the days of the Second Athenian League, before unification under Phillip II of Macedon, or the several English American colonies before the establishment of the Articles of Confederation.

In 1980, if there is a Large Nation that can act as a Great Nation and tackle potentially existential challenges before they come to a boil, that would be the United States of America. And in 1980, we elected to pursue the civil society equivalent of sitting on our fat ass and watching cartoons. And we kept it up for three decades.

Of course ongoing problems kept getting worse and worse and worse until they reached the point of existential challenges. There are always problems emerging. Either they get regularly pruned down to size, or else they go to seed and get worse and worse and worse.

Things just don't get better automatically on their own. People that imagine that they do are just engaged in the age-old practice of ignoring them that are doing the coping with the problems. And if the only Large Nation who is a candidate to be a truly Great Nation and tackle the big problems before they become existential challenges instead decides to pretend that hammers are bad because we sometimes hit our thumbs with them, or governments are bad because the rules they put in place are sometimes inconvenient ~ well, the kinds of problems that can only be tackled by serious national policy of a large nation exercising leadership on a world stage will, of course, sit, and fester, and get worse, and worse, and worse.

Didn't Is not Can't. Its Only Didn't.

If somebody didn't do something, maybe it means they couldn't. Maybe it means they could, but just didn't.

If a Large Nation does not act as a Great Nation, maybe it means it couldn't. Maybe it means it could, but just didn't.

In this case, the United States of America has the capacity to be a Great Nation. We have the capacity to pull our weight on all the major existential challenges we face and to lead the way on many.

"Will we choose to do so? What are the chances we will choose to do so?" These are passive spectator questions. If we choose to do so, we can. So as active participants, we have to act in ways that supports our nation as a whole choosing to be Great again.

So what's the big deal about High Speed Rail, then?

To get everything done, as many people as possible must do something. High Speed Rail is something.

For our Large Nation, our unchecked population explosion is the massive resource liberalism that we are indulging in creating an explosion in the cost to the earth of each member of our population.

The unsustainable deficit is the deficit between our sustainable resource base and our resource footprint.

And hoping that we can head toward a urgently necessary resource conservatism on the back of an outbreak of lifestyle asceticism seems to be an entirely vain and futile one.

So we need to find ways to do better lifestyle on less resource base per task.

Express High Speed Passenger Rail is no silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 100mile to 500mile corridors where population growth under business as usual will demand massive unsustainable investment in new intercity highway capacity, Express High Speed Rail is less expensive than the status quo. And where the massive hidden subsidies and cross subsidies for operating the status quo threatens to choke our economy, Express High Speed Rail in its strongest potential corridors will generate substantial operating surpluses.

Rapid Passenger Rail is no silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 100mile to 300mile corridors where there is existing unused rail corridor capacity and transport alternatives to private motor vehicles almost completely choked off by the multiple public and publicly mandate subsidies that "private" motor vehicles enjoy, Rapid Passenger Rail can offer an secondary alternative that can stand on its own feet on a small but viable share of the market and, again, generate an operating surplus so that they are not subject to closure with each swing of the political winds ~ and so they are not required to fight local public transport for the operating subsidies that local public transport both requires and merits.

Rapid Freight Rail is not a silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 800mile to 3,000mile corridors where there is sufficient long haul truck freight to expect to recoup original capital cost of these Steel Tollways through access and user fees, they offer us a chance to get half or more of those diesel guzzling, asphalt destroying, motorist terrifying behemoths off the intercity highway network, replacing them with sleep-in-your-own-bed-at-night short haul truck routes at each end connected by long Rapid Electric Freight Rail hauls in between.

So, no, High Speed Rail on its own will not make America Great.

But until we start to do things like High Speed Rail, despite and in the face of the opposition of Big Oil and other saboteurs of an American 21st Century, we will not start to be Great.

What About Greater than it Ever Was

C'mon, "great" relative to 19th century Europe? Relative to 17th century China? Even a slaveholding, indigenous inhabitant massacring nation could hope to think of itself as great against that yardstick.

"Great" in the 20th century relative to the militarist authoritarian Japan or Nazi Germany, or faux-socialist centralized authoritarian USSR? Not really a bigger challenge, is it?

But looking in the rear view mirror, many of these existential challenges are problems of our own making, the elaboration of a grab and plunder and move on economic system that we mutated from land to fossil fuels without fundamentally changing.

Facing up to these challenges, confronting them, and tackling them well enough to survive through to the end of this century ~ yes, that would be truly Great.

Bedlam Bridge ~ Midnight Oil

There are canyons full of movie stars,
churches made of metal
There are mountains made of muscle
We have leaders who are anxious,
we have captains not courageous
Captains tumbling into madness
But there's a man who makes no enemies,
a body never breathless
No ambition ever hopeless

Up on bedlam bridge somebody is waiting
Up on bedlam bridge I'm shot to heaven
Oh, up on bedalm bridge, waiting
Oh, up on bedlam bridge, waiting


BruceMcF said...

Dao de Jing (64)

"A tree
  as big as a person's embrace
    grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower nine stories high
  begins with a mound of earth.
A journey of nine hundred miles
  begins under one's feet.

d-_-b ~ Bethany and Rufus ~ 900 Miles

D. P. Lubic said...

"'Will we choose to do so? What are the chances we will choose to do so?' These are passive spectator questions. If we choose to do so, we can. So as active participants, we have to act in ways that supports our nation as a whole choosing to be Great again."--Bruce McF

How I wish I could believe this to be true. The problem is that I tried to do just this sort of thing for years, and failed miserably.

For me, it boils down to not having a voice of authority, a voice of persuasion. I tried to get a light rail line instead of a four-lane highway, and all I got was called bad names, and we got the dinosaur road.

On a smaller scale, I couldn't convince a supervisor to relocate our unemployment office in a more central location. Instead, we got located to the edge of town in a shopping center because he was worried about parking. Since then, for other reasons, we were relocated again, and now we are farther out than before; in fact, our driveway is actually one mile long! I've measured it!

We are in fact three miles from any concentration of commercial development at all, and five miles from the center of a town with a population of only 15,000.

These and other exercises, for all the good they accomplished, were a total waste of time and effort. I may as well have never bothered, based on the results I got.

Even now, as gasoline approaches $4 per gallon here, a current coworker tells me he thinks there is plenty of oil available for our "Happy Motoring utopia," to borrow from James Howard Kunstler. He is not alone in this belief.

It seems the only way for me to be proven right is for everyone else--and I mean everyone else--to be proven wrong, or perhaps to wait for them to die. And I fear that by then, it will be too late, if it isn't so already.

What do you do? You fight, and you lose essentially because the game is rigged. If you don't fight because the game is rigged and you can't win, then all you can do is sit and wait and twiddle your thumbs. Either way, you lose.

It's a horrible choice, but I don't see any way that I can change anything without the ability to persuade--and that gift or talent seems to have been denied to me.

About all I can do is supply to others some insights that they may be able to use, such as the generational discussions you may have seen on the California HSR site you and I have posted on. Hopefully they can accomplish what I am unable to do, and maybe I will be useful that way--but it still feels awful to look around and see the need where you are, but to be unable to change things.

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