Human Energy and Our Love of Waste
Feb 16, 2014
Oddly, when charts are made, measuring the use of energy and its production, the most important form of it, human-power, is ordinarily excluded entirely. Fueled by calories, most available from rooftops, yards, fields, and window-boxes, truly locally-grown foodstuffs, we require only muscle-power, with a little help from our fiery neighboring star, to prosper. We’ve pummeled her with abuse and continue to, but Mother Earth still pushes forth new life unceasingly, regardless. As for us, the machines, people, give us water and something to chew on and we are amazingly productive devices. It is not just salty sweat being manufactured either, it is also brilliant labor-saving insights that are being generated. Think about how hard life would be without N.Tesla’s AC current, his induction motors and electric starter in your car. It is our good fortune that homo sapiens have been gifted with an infinitude of skills and constructive inspirations spread, albeit somewhat unevenly but still universally, amongst us. How lucky can a species be?
Were we, as a whole, to develop the means to have easy and free access to this rich pool of resources, we would certainly find ourselves on the critical path to our most fulfilling destinies. By unleashing this phenomenal storehouse of wealth, composed of the sum of the vast knowledge gained by all of us, through our jobs, our experiences, and adventures, we thereby enter the Age of Abundance and leave the Age of Scarcity behind. Unfortunately, we have spent centuries, weighed down by an incomplete picture of biology, weather and such, searching for better answers to our questions, rationing our goods, providing them only to those with the means. This is our history.
Now that we are able to produce a virtually infinite amount of anything, it is only through the systematic waste of resources, especially the human ones, that it has been possible to maintain the myth of scarcity within an obscuring cloud of overabundance, for the last several decades. While the armed conflict has been the most effective way to destroy the value of both the material world as well as the living one, a century of overconsumption has left its mark on every activity. Meantime, those with factories want them to run continuously, so the first task becomes convincing everybody both that they need this thing, beyond reason, and the last, that they should not share it with anybody else. Planned obsolescence and raging fashionability will do the rest. The Waste-God must be served or the wheels of commerce grind to a halt and we are done for, or so the market says or curses if you will.
While bike-sharing and other attempts to get a grip on this suicidal drive are gaining serious traction, this good news for almost all of us is anything but that, to those whose activities provide them with huge profits from the generation of waste. The military establishment, for instance, will fight like mad to preserve their benefits for themselves. They are able and willing to do this in spite of the damage it wreaks on their fellow-creatures, and sometimes even on themselves, but they can not stop their destructive ways, because they have no way to sustain their current lifestyles without these profits. They are addicted to the ability to have their way, to superimpose their view of reality and their bankrupt value system on a pacified public. They are supported by those who pretend that the numbers tell the story and can never focus down closely enough on what is on the ground, to include it in their world-view.
One feature of our profound misuse of resources is in the prison system. A famous wag once claimed that if you steal a loaf of bread, they will put you in jail whereas if you steal a railroad, they make you a US Senator. A friend of mine was featured on CNN this morning, being granted bail for the crime of being a heroin addict and being accused, falsely it turns out, of supplying Philip Seymour Hoffman with his fatal overdose. This fellow, Robert Aaron, is renowned within the city’s musical community as one of the most accomplished and talented musicians around. He is also one of the nicest and most modest and generous people you might have the pleasure to meet. He is the polar opposite of the stereotype of a junkie, the useless slouch, dangerous and untrustworthy person. He works constantly, sometimes for very small pay, often to help aspiring artists to establish their presence. He plays in scores of styles and on a dozen instruments. Wyclef Jean, who he arranged for and played with for a decade, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and hundreds of other musicians, have improved their offerings due to his attentions. Now he is facing prison and our loss of access to his gifts, because of his current need for his, admittedly often self-destructive, medicine. The system is ready to relegate this fine, non-violent, talented person to a bare cell, where he can no longer help anyone to realize themselves, or to enlighten us. A total waste. (Contributions to his bail fund are welcome.)
Meanwhile, prisons have become an “industry”, with profit-centers and ROI charts. The society with the highest rates of incarceration is also the one which has the greatest propensity to reduce everything to numbers, to de-humanize and disguise what amounts to institutional torture. Sure, those who harm others must be held accountable in order to reduce this kind of activity, but is punishing and causing pain to people a way to improve them or is it just a form of rough vengeance, a page torn from the stone age?
We do the same thing to older folks, who have slowed down or whose skills are less needed because of onrushing automation or outsourcing. Couldn’t schools make room to allow those with a lifetime of learning, to be enabled to pass that valuable information down to the next generation? At the end of the 19th century, with industrialization taking full hold, innumerable hand-crafts were rendered obsolete and its skilled practitioners put out of work. Wood and metal workers with centuries of development contributing to their production of useful and beautiful products were rendered irrelevant, because there was a machine that could do it almost as good, or even sometimes a little better, at a rate thousands of times faster than their hands could match. An army of illustrators, fine artists, could no longer afford to fill their brushes and pens with India ink after the technology of taking and printing photographs took hold. Their loss? No, ours.
With clothing, imagine the work needed to handpick raw material, process it into yarn or thread, weave it into the fabric and make it into a garment, compared with our mechanized version of mass production, engineered by giant machines. Delivering a complex and finished piece of clothing, made by handwork only, is still the rule in some parts of the world but only the very poor or very rich have access to this system. The ability of machines to be so productive has been a mighty boon to our assumptions about what we are due and we have become used to having it all. A closet and dresser filled with garments that once would have taken a regal sweatshop to provide us with, could, until quite recently, only have belonged to a member of a noble family but instead, these former luxury items were bought for a pittance from a huge chain store. We are drowning in products but we have lost our self-identity as producers.
Likewise our food. If you had been a member of the royal family of a 19th-century empire, the presence of fresh fruit in the colder months or any foods out of season would have indicated a truly elite status. In fact, the range of ordinary products available to the masses, from soft cushioned toilet paper to a shelf of 100 exotic spices from around the world, were not easily acquired by even the most privileged members of any society in former times. Yet, we take them all for granted, without half a thought. The technologies that made it possible to live like a KIng, on a pauper’s ransom, have accustomed us to a level of comfort and ease that were unimaginable heretofore. One consequence of this is our unsupportable assumption that we should be able to have unlimited access to everything. Along with this sense of entitlement has come a lack of concern about the origins or consequences of this condition. One of the seemingly inevitable results of overabundance is a lack of understanding of or responsibility for the downside of this equation.
When it comes to transportation, the most egregious examples of imbalanced activity are to be found here. A stretch Hummer is a potent symbol for all that is wrong with this picture. It is instructive that the origin of this abomination is to be found on the field of battle. It is a weapon in the form of an automobile. We can combine its purposes as a life-protecting device into one of a life-destroying one and these identities merge and blend into one another seamlessly. It is wonderful to feel impervious in a dangerous world but our vulnerability is always with us, no matter what.
We spend a lot of energy projecting strength, and swagger with a coating of suave will always be a crowd-pleaser. Displaying this on the outside is often a cover for a lack of inner confidence and durability on the inside though. The cure for elitist, top-down definitions of our value and nature, is much more bottom-up, creative and life-affirming phenomena. Block parties without the tube socks. The stakes keep getting higher and the time to repair the breach shorter. I keep thinking that this is something about the importance of music, and its main components, like harmony, tone and pace, style and rhythm. Meanwhile, if we do have to sing for our supper, I think we should at least be able to pick the tune, and choose the main course, and be treated like guests, not servants.
You can hear some of my songs, free, on http://www.SteveStollman.com/ produced and with musical accompaniment by Robert Aaron, on all wind & string instruments and keyboards.