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Belmont Club

You Can’t Take It With You

July 2nd, 2012 - 2:42 pm

One of Rush Limbaugh’s latest shows begins with this taunt.

If you’re in the DC area, are you happy you don’t have an electric car? Yeah, with the power outages, are you happy you don’t have an electric car? Because two million, five million, three schmillion, whatever. Aren’t you glad you don’t have an electric car? By the way, how are those windmills working out for you? How are the windmills and solar panels working out? Are they running your air-conditioning for you? As you sit there and sweat away, how are things doing in the nation’s capital? All those windmills are really working out, huh? Solar panels, yeah, man, that’s the future. There you are, sitting there, sweating, stinking like a stuck pig for three days, and it’s gonna be this way for another week. It’s a good thing you don’t have an electric car or you couldn’t get around, you couldn’t escape. Isn’t it amazing.

It brought back memories of a barbecue I attended a couple of months with a political figure in Australia. He maintained that current policies failed to take into account the fact that while Oz had a lot of coal resources, it was still dependent on imported oil for moving-around fuel. An international disturbance, he said, would be distinctly unpleasant for those accustomed to sipping white wine along the beautiful beaches of the Australian East coast. With regard to the cars, I have little doubt that the machine shops and panel beaters would do a land-office trade producing conversions that my father told me about in World War 2. The coal-fired car. In Japanese occupied Philippines they were fueled, not by coal, but by dried coconut husks. It was slow, hell on the engine (you have to carbon-blast the cyclinder bores frequently) and it probably doesn’t meet EPA emissions standards.

Gassify the coal and then feed it to the engine

But it worked, kind of and sort of, so you can see where Limbaugh might have a point. Modern man is tremendously dependent on the infrastructure to keep him going. Where once the majority of people lived on the farm, and were independent in the short run from civilizational disruptions, modern man lives entirely on the grid. He buys food from the Store, gets his power from the Electric Plug and his protection from the Station House.  What happens if the Store, Electric Plug, Wi-Fi point and Station House ain’t there no more? Even for a couple of weeks?

Keith Veronese, writing an entertainment column asks: who would want to survive the collapse of civilization? “Would you want to survive, and emerge into the post-apocalyptic wasteland? Would the positives of playing a role in a new society outweigh the loss of creature comforts? Or would you rather just go out with the majority of the human race? ”

What self respecting liberal would want to live  in a world where maybe only Rush Limbaugh is playing on the radio? Well in that event, they can console themselves by acknowledging that Limbaugh got some things right.  In his own way Rush was talking about something Belmont Club readers are familiar with: The Design Margin.

The Design Margin is rooted in the notion that life is uncertain; that since things have often collapsed in the past and may collapse again we actually need to have more reserves than we think.  Asteroid strikes, wars and natural calamities happen — and with far more frequency than the space alien invasions that Paul Krugman suggests we prepare against.

Bad times are frequent events.

The idea that the office on the corner will always be able to dispense Government Cheese does not reflect the normal historical experience. Rather it reflects that peculiar period of stability and prosperity which followed the end of the Second World War: the Pax Americana, which the Left hates. Our civilizational attitudes have been formed on the basis of the exception, not the rule.

But though they may hate the Pax Americana, the Greens probably can’t live without it. Can’t live without the Ipods, the connectivity, the store-bought food, the cafe-bought lattes — all the ugly things made by private industry. And by paring down the redundancies in the system as wasteful and unsightly; by reducing the energy reserves of the system in favor of such fairy schemes as windmills and carbon trading the Greens have made the system far less robust than it could have been. Because they are never going to need the Design Margin. Ever. Until they do.

Veronese writes, “I wouldn’t last long in a Mad Max-style world — the most complex thing I can do to my car is replace its refrigerant. I’d probably die in the first couple of months — or once my glasses broke, whichever came first.”

But I think Veronese is wrong. He might survive; survive by doing things which are unthinkable to him now. But if he made it through he would have a new respect for the Design Margin.

Years ago I had a Jewish friend whose father had survived the war in Europe and emigrated to America. When my friend reached late adolescence, his father, who had become a prosperous doctor in America, beckoned his son with a furtive gesture. He led the young man to a closet. And in it were a packed suitcase, a stout pair of shoes, an overcoat and a hat. “I want you to know,” he told his son, “that if you need to run, it’s all here ready to go.” He looked at his father and thought to himself that the experience of the war had created an indelible paranoia. The old man could not get it into his mind that the Nazis were gone and that he was safe from it for all time in the Midwest.

Perhaps the old Jew knew something we have forgotten. That we are not safe because of some natural condition. We were safe for only so long as the Pax Americana endured. Remove that, undermine that, dismantle that — remove the Plug, the Store and the Station House — and all the bets were off.


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