Wintertime Blues

sundown in the rust belt

Image by Carlin Joe via Flickr

January 22, 2011

It’s that time of year again.  The wintertime blues have set in, as they always do for me in mid January, leaving me restless, at loose ends and longing for any small sign of spring.  By mid to late February, I’ll begin buying peat pots and starting the seedlings that I hope to transplant into the backyard garden starting in April.  Early March, will be occupied with laying out garden plans, checking seed supplies and other items for this year’s garden; mid March, with turning over the top layers of soil and checking the status of the earthworms living there and late March, with planting the first of the early vegetables – lettuce, radishes, carrots, peas and broccoli.

When I was younger, raising my son and, eventually, a stepson, working, going to school and maintaining a home preempted the wintertime blues.  Over the years, as these responsibilities have fallen away, the time between mid January and mid February has become one of increased temptation to wallow in the doldrums of decreased activity and mild depression.

Now, at seventy, with a growing dependence on my walking stick to compensate for balance problems when I venture out very far from home – especially in January’s snow and ice – I’ve taken to using this month, especially, for reading and cogitating on the growing decline of the American Empire and our leaders’ insistence on gutting the nation in their desperate attempts to maintain that empire.  Well, that and looking through the new crop of seed catalogs.

I’d spent the last week and a half reading articles and pdfs and pertinent parts of a couple of older books on the growth of the American Empire and was struggling to consolidate that information into some kind of coherent picture, when I stopped to check out the latest post by John Michael Greer at the Archdruid Report.

In it, he expands further on the nature of what he calls the catabolic collapse of societies, especially ours.  I had read his original paper on catabolic collapse a couple of years ago and I’m pleased to say that his current article brought into clearer focus the parts of that original paper that made my eyes glaze over, trying to understand what he was saying at the time.

There are many disadvantages to being seventy in this phase of our own catabolic collapse, but one of the advantages is that I actually lived through most of what he talks about in this latest article.  And though, like most Americans at the time, I was preoccupied with school, work and eventually raising my son, I did wonder about certain things that have now become clearer with the perspective of time.

As, for example, when he talks about the gutting of the industrial heartland in 1974: “That was the year when the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America’s then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond. Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I’ve suggested in this post, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.”

I lived through those years, that gutting of our industrial base. and remember vaguely wondering what it meant.  I also lived through what took its place and, it seems to me, set the stage for this current wave of catabolism we are going through, now.  The gutting of our small farms, the rise of big agriculture and of the big, multinational corporations – supported by our growing military empire – and, it seems to me now, underlying it all, the rise of big finance and the switch from an industrial based economy to a debt based consumer society.

As oil production peaked here in the early 70s, a manufacturing-based society became increasingly expensive to maintain. My sense is that the move to manufacturing abroad and the growth of large multinational corporations to facilitate it, the discoveries of oil in northern Alaska which facilitated the growth of big agriculture and the military empire that supported them, could not have happened without the rise of big finance. This, in turn, was supported by the flush of credit cards, and easy credit for the masses, of the late fifties and early sixties and the rise of the consumer society with its emphasis on home ownership (and its dependence on the derivatives of their mortgages).  I still remember, back about 1959, the quizzical look on my dad’s face when he received the first of many such credit cards and read the letter that accompanied it.  He held it up, shook his head and said, “This can’t be good.”  I remember it, but I was eighteen and it took me years to understand what he intuitively grasped back then.

There are, of course, limits to debt as Richard Heinberg points out in his article at PCI, this week. It seems clear to me that the peaking of conventional oil worldwide in 2005-2006 began this latest round of gutting the nation to save the empire when rising gas and oil prices collapsed the base of the financial sector – the hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of derivatives based on home ownership and, at least temporarily, the growth of the consumer society.  Whether the Empire has reached those limits of debt, now, or whether the “dumping of waste” – in the form of jobs and homes – can keep it afloat a while longer is uncertain.

We could, I suppose, further dump our waste by recalling the military from their far-flung bases, letting the big banks take the losses they are hiding, using tax policies to cut loose the big, multinational corporations who have decimated our jobs base as they increasingly build facilities, create jobs and reap – in some cases –up to ninety percent of their profits abroad, and regroup here at home in a more sustainable fashion.  We won’t, of course, at least until this or the next wave of catabolism forces it on us.  I’m sure our leaders fear the thought of up to a million newly-unemployed soldiers and their families suddenly being dumped on the fragile home economy.  And, we are all still too much in denial as a nation about the true nature of the empire that so benefited us as citizens at one time.  We will just have to play it out as the latest wave unfolds.

So that, dear reader, is as far as my perusals and cogitations have taken me during the current bout of blues. Those of us who have some understanding of what is going on will continue our preparations as best we can while waiting for spring and the planting of new gardens.  Life will go on, at least at some lower level, for most of us.  The Empire will struggle on until it no longer can.

In the meantime, I’m going to turn my attention to that growing pile of seed catalogs.

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2 Responses to Wintertime Blues

  1. graveday says:

    Linda, I remember reading ‘Little Big Man’ by Thomas Berger and noting the response to ‘credit’ by the protagonist. Same as your dad’s. It was laid out so well that it put me on my guard, which wariness has served me well over the years. GD

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