Sunday, April 25, 2010

Crafting Alternatives as Normalcy Evaporates

Reihan Salam of the New America Foundation envisions a rather radically changed future.  This was also published in the 22 March 2010 edition of Time Magazine:

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles. Whereas only 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, we can expect the number to explode in future years as distance education blows past the traditional variety in cost and quality. The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials. To avoid the tax man, dozens if not hundreds of strongly encrypted digital currencies and barter schemes will crop up, leaving an underresourced IRS to play whack-a-mole with savvy libertarian "hacktivists."

Work and life will be remixed, as old-style jobs, with long commutes and long hours spent staring at blinking computer screens, vanish thanks to ever increasing productivity levels. New jobs that we can scarcely imagine will take their place, only they'll tend to be home-based, thus restoring life to bedroom suburbs that today are ghost towns from 9 to 5. Private homes will increasingly give way to cohousing communities, in which singles and nuclear families will build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Gated communities will grow larger and more elaborate, effectively seceding from their municipalities and pursuing their own visions of the good life. Whether this future sounds like a nightmare or a dream come true, it's coming.
There are tons of things wrong with Mr. Salam's vision.  Like how does he greatly increase productivity without working at a computer?  And what if I really like my privacy, and want a single family home?  And most of our standard of living (i.e. no starvation, good health care, lack of drudgery) is based on very high technology.  His little communal green organic farms will be horribly inefficient in terms of calories per acre and calories per manhour.   He will not be able to feed everyone.  With local-only foods the law of the land, forget fresh fruits in the winter -- or bananas at all.  Oh, and by the way, since almost everyone will have to farm by hand, your back and knees and hips will be shot by the time you are 40.  Without highly technical medicine, lifespans will drop dramatically.

And without shared culture, and with extreme diversity, this may be a socialist's dream, but to me it looks like Yugoslavia before the massacres.

Life will become what it was for thousands of years before the rise of United States and the touchstone of individual freedom:  plagued with disease, famine, and brutality.

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