The wheels coming off

ex- Limo
ex- Limo shared CC by mikecogh

There is no mystery, no comedy, only the constant reminder that Rebecca Black the respiratory entity intends to turn Rebecca Black the meme into a thriving industry of self, and the rest of the world can go fuck. It can’t help but crescendo in that most cardinal of late-capitalist symbols turned farce: the limousine — Marshall McLuhan’s tidy-chrome womb, bulletproof and full of booze. — Rebecca Black and the Death of a Meme

Counting Her Money
Counting Her Money shared CC by moriza

Reading that characterization of the limousine in a piece about silly pop music, I’m reminded of an article I encountered thirteen years ago in Harper’s magazine. David Quammen’s “Planet of weeds: Tallying the losses of Earth’s animals and plants”, with its dreary vision of the mid-term future as “a crummier place, a lonelier and uglier place”, stuck with me. Not least due to a metaphor posed by Thomas Homer-Dixon:

In conversation with the journalist Robert D. Kaplan, as quoted in Kaplan’s book The Ends of the Earth, Homer-Dixon said it more vividly: “Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.”

That direction, necessarily, will be toward ever more desperate exploitation of landscape. When you think of Homer-Dixon’s stretch limo on those potholed urban streets, don’t assume there will be room inside for tropical forests. Even Noah’s ark only managed to rescue paired animals, not large parcels of habitat. The jeopardy of the ecological fragments that we presently cherish as parks, refuges, and reserves is already severe, due to both internal and external forces: internal, because insularity itself leads to ecological unraveling; and external, because those areas are still under siege by needy and covetous people. Projected forward into a future of 10.8 billion humans, of which perhaps 2 billion are starving at the periphery of those areas, while another 2 billion are living in a fool’s paradise maintained by unremitting exploitation of whatever resources remain, that jeopardy increases to the point of impossibility.

…So the world’s privileged class — that’s your class and my class — will probably still manage to maintain themselves inside Homer-Dixon’s stretch limo, drinking bottled water and breathing bottled air and eating reasonably healthy food that has become incredibly precious, while the potholes on the road outside grow ever deeper. Eventually the limo will look more like a lunar rover. Rag-tag mobs of desperate souls will cling to its bumpers, like groupies on Elvis’s final Cadillac. The absolute poor will suffer their lack of ecological privilege in the form of lowered life expectancy, bad health, absence of education, corrosive want, and anger. Maybe in time they’ll find ways to gather themselves in localized revolt against the affluent class. Not likely, though, as long as affluence buys guns. In any case, well before that they will have burned the last stick of Bornean dipterocarp for firewood and roasted the last lemur, the last grizzlybear, the last elephant left unprotected outside a zoo.

Rereading this passage after some years of it percolating in my fevered enfeebled subconscious, if anything this vision of the future seems overly generous, at least from the perspective of a citizen of North America or Europe (“your class and my class”). There is room for ever-fewer people in that limo, and groupies clinging to the bumper strikes me as an apt metaphor for the North American vox populi these days… (A few brave and eloquent exceptions, offering some solace and inspiration.)

Related flashback: Call it a moment of zen

5 thoughts on “The wheels coming off

  1. Powerful passage. It strikes me as correct in describing current events, and on track for when it was written.

    And is this a glimpse of 2012? “Maybe in time they’ll find ways to gather themselves in localized revolt against the affluent class. Not likely, though, as long as affluence buys guns. “

  2. Interesting article, but I think that the term “doom-mongering” is particularly appropriate.

    I’ve seen this sentiment shared widely across various writings and commentary, but it is still baffling to me. “There is room for ever-fewer people in that limo[…]” Really? Looking at the last decade of history shows an enormous migration out of poverty of people in China, to the tune of about 500 million from 1981 to 2004. For a more dramatic example, look at Taiwan. In 1972, Taiwan had a per-capita GDP of about $170, according to Wikipedia, around those of the Congo and Zaire. It was very much one of those countries whose people were clinging to the metaphorical limo of the rich Western world. Nowadays, Taiwan has a per-capita GDP of $35,700, equal to that of Germany, and above Finland, the UK, Japan, France, and the European Union as a whole. It is a world leader in semiconductors, smartphones, biotech and nanotech. There certainly was enough room in the limo for their 23 million people. The same is true of South Korea, which in 1962 had a per-capita GDP of $104, which is now $30,000 or a 300-fold increase over 50 years.

    It’s clear that the “rag-tag mobs” can not only enter, but can drive the limo, given a few decades of strong growth. I simply cannot understand this kind of pessimism in the face of such unrelenting and glorious elevation of people all over the world out of poverty and into post-industrial prosperity.

  3. Bryan – thanks for stopping by. I’ll be thinking of you and your family when the hurricane hits this weekend, hope you stay safe.

    Daniel, thank you for your comment. I don’t take pleasure in being a doom-monger, and in my heart of hearts hope optimists such as yourself turn out to be correct… that everything will be OK, that we are on a glorious path to global post-industrial prosperity. I don’t dispute there has been impressive economic growth in Asia, though there are plenty of potential dangers there as well. Personally, looking at global conflict and violence, immediate economic indicators (income inequality for one, and western economies running on debt-powered fumes), climate change, prospects for food, energy and water supplies, and (the topic of the essay) species extinction… Well, like I said I hope you turn out to be right. I really do.

  4. Daniel, I take your point to a certain degree. Modern transnational capital has done extraordinary things over the past 200 years.

    But two recent developments look like limits on that development, or worse. Both were implicit in that article, and maybe I read too much in from my own thinking.

    The first is the switch to financialization, followed by oligarchy (the term as used by Johnson and Kwak). Starting in the 1990s the US and UK started devoting increasing shares of economic activity not towards manufacturing, nor service, but to financial services. This hasn’t let anyone ride the limo who didn’t already have a seat; instead, the new financials made the limo more sleek, at best. At worst the financial bubble has made the entire situation worse – obviously there are many competing theories about the current crisis, but the financial origin seems most persuasive to me.

    (Yes, I’m speaking of the US and UK in isolation. That’s because their experience seems to be the leading edge of a larger curve, and also because the downplaying of manufacturing and services depends on the global economy. Another post for that.)

    The second, potentially far more drastic problem is the resource crisis beginning to settle in at a global scale. Peak oil and water are horrendously deep problems, which could well represent upper bounds to our socio-economic progress. The limo gets harder to ride, and needs more security guards.

    (Yes, peak oil and water are not without critics. Both are problematic due to data limits and massive complexity.)

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