Friday 26 November 2010

Like a storm overhead

Thursday morning it began. In the wet darkness before dawn I rode from our rural home to my day job in Dublin, listening to news on the bus speakers – a team of international financial experts had flown in to meet government leaders, and reporters demanded to know why. Six days of revelations later we have a bankrupt economy, a bailout that could top a hundred billion euros, a broken government coalition, a new planned election and a severe emergency budget. And yet everything looks the same.

That morning I felt worn out from the previous day’s work. I had taken a day off work to borrow a friends’ trailer and pick up straw bales from farmer near Maynooth, as he was the only farmer I could find that still makes the human-sized bales, now that everything is done with machinery. I wanted to stack the bales into a night soil composter, seeing if I could get the right carbon and nitrogen ratios to create the high temperatures needed to kill off pathogens.

I also took our old refrigerator to the dump – I wanted to make it into an underground cold-box, but couldn’t find someone to drain the Freon from the tubes in back, and didn’t want the chemicals seeping into the groundwater. Finally, I loaded up the trailer with mulch from the pile where the county shreds its Christmas trees, and spread it between our garden beds.

On Friday our bank admitted that its value had dropped from a high of 22 billion down to 300 million – a decline of 98.4 percent. We are withdrawing most of our money until this passes, and stocking up on more food and propane than usual. I absorbed the news riding home in the darkness, writing a letter to a local teacher – my non-profit is working with a local school to get teenagers to interview elderly residents, collecting information on the skills and resources people here had a few decades ago.

Saturday marked an emergency meeting of the government, we heard as we went to the Farmers’ Market. Later that day my Girl rode her horse around the pen under a grey winter sky, with our neighbour’s daughter the same age. The Girl took her first bad fall off a horse a few weeks ago, and I told her how proud I was that she was riding again. Today, her friend fell the same way, and while I ran in and carried her to her car, she was also shaken but unharmed.

Sunday we all listened to news pundits speculate on the IMF loan, and all agreed it would mean higher taxes and less money for health and education. But no one really knew.

For me, though, Sunday was the day I ringed the row of lilandia evergreens that border our property. My father-in-law planted them twenty years ago, and while I have taken some down with a chainsaw, we realised that the barbed-wire fence behind the trees – the only thing separating our garden from dozens of hungry cows in winter – is getting old and easily broken. We think the cows recognise the rows of trees as a barrier, and that cutting them down now would encourage them to push through the barbed wire. At the same time, we need their roots to stop taking nutrients from the soil so we can plant native fruit and nut trees. My solution was to chop the bark off all the way around the base of the tree, killing it without felling it, and we can fell them at our leisure later this winter.

Sunday my wife and mother-in-law also placed cloches over our raised garden beds, and draped fleece over them to keep the frost out. Finally, The Girl and I planted a rowan sapling in the hedgerow by the canal, filling a gap behind our rows of loganberries and raspberries.

Monday morning my mother-in-law woke me even earlier than usual, so I could kill a mouse. He crept in the warm house one day, hopefully when we left the door open, and for weeks had left our mousetraps devoid of their peanut butter but unsprung. Finally my mother-in-law reached to get the cat’s food and the mouse jumped up at her. It was very considerate of him to wait for me in the plastic bag, and I made sure the cat was fed.

That day the government split apart. For a few years now the Green Party had ruled in uneasy coalition with Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall, but looks like a bad pun), perhaps Ireland’s equivalent of the Republican Party, and with a few independents they form a ruling coalition. Since the Greens had to concede a great deal of their platform to compromise, they have been a few years of continual controversy. With the onset of the bailout they announced they were washing their hands of the coalition, effectively a vote of no confidence in their senior partner. Their actions force a general election early next year, and everyone takes for granted that this is the end of Fianna Fail’s long dominance.

That night The Girl and I watched one of her favourite programmes, the documentaries of David Attenborough. We read about trilobites and velvet worms, and then I let her watch the Marx Brothers make jokes about the Depression.

On Tuesday, the offices of at least two TDs – like MPs in Britain, or Congress members in the USA – were vandalised. After centuries of being among the world’s most famous victims of poverty, the Irish had experienced one of the world’s most remarkable economic booms, the Celtic Tiger. For a magical few years, the population of some villages quadrupled, and land values increased more than that. Hundreds of thousands of Irish built new homes, including us. The natives here were intensely proud of becoming an economic powerhouse, and while most expected that it would end, few expected it to implode so spectacularly.

On Wednesday the government announced its new budget, increasing taxes and tariffs and cutting social services. That day I met The Girl’s teacher for the annual parent-teacher conference, and bought new socks for the winter – Ireland saw an unusual cold snap last winter, and climate change experts say we could get more in the coming years.

We took off work for Thanksgiving – of course it is an ordinary day for everyone else here, but I am an American and wanted to honour it. I am grateful for the life we have, and for our great fortune.

This is what the Long Emergency feels like. It feels like screaming headlines and breaking-news interruptions and haggard pedestrians and foul moods at the office. It feels, for a while, like the end of the world. But while it happens there is still birdsong and rustling leaves, frost across the fields and fog at twilight. It feels like a storm overhead and far away, thrilling and mournful and dangerous, and we scramble to take shelter from it. It can kill many people and destroy our plans, but then it passes, and the landscape looks much the same.

It will happen to you too sometime. Maybe your money will be worthless one day, having gone from work to wealth to metal to paper to stocks to derivatives, into a realm of such abstraction that it blows away on the next breeze. Maybe all the jobs in your city will disappear one by one, the young people migrating in caravans to rumours of work far away. Maybe the electricity will go off more and more often, or the store shelves will slowly go empty. Maybe people around you, fed stories of apocalypse for two generations, will think it the end of the world.

But we can’t do anything about it. That’s something that many of us, raised on fictional stories in which people change the world, cannot accept – real things are slow, last longer than our lives, and are out of our control. People have immense power – we have scoured the surface of the planet like a forest fire, created cities that rise like mountains from the shore, and set events rolling that will not dissipate for millions of years. But as a person, each of us has very little ability to change anything.

And this is the good news about the day the world ends -- it never comes, or if it does it's like any other day. It looks like a day thick with things to do – animals to be fed, bedtime stories to read and chores that don’t wait for the next news report. For those eagerly anticipating the Rapture or the Singularity or the 2012 whatever, this is the bad news – nothing will reboot your life and take away your problems.

And after the storm passes, a few things that are forever changed, and we become accustomed to them. Soon we joke casually about the events that we feared -- the terrorist attack, devaluation, election, outage or shortage – and accept it, and forget that anything else was ever normal.

Until the next end of the world.

Friday 19 November 2010

Public transportation 3: Horse Power

Horses and carriages clop past my Dublin office every day, and while they are mostly for tourists, a few country folk still drive them around our land. They are almost unknown across much of the Western World these days; even here they are rare enough that children point and wave when a horse goes by. A hundred years ago they might have shrugged at the ubiquitous presence of horses and run shrieking towards an automobile, and it’s possible their great-grandchildren might do the same a century from now.

When I mention the possibility of using horses in the future, mainstream folk tend to burst into … well, horse laughter. That will never be necessary, they tell me – we will just invent fusion, build electric cars, use bio-fuels as easily as we do petrol now, or create something new. Doomer blogs and forums, on the other hand, sometimes mention a return to horses, as does the odd post-apocalyptic film or novel – but too often as a defeated post-collapse fate, like moving back with your parents. Too often people in both camps treat horses as abstractions, with no sense of the work or limits involved.

Horses would be difficult to introduce into today’s traffic in most Western nations; although town and suburban drivers could get used to them as Dublin drivers do, and eventually there might be more need for horses and fewer cars. Certainly they wouldn’t be our first choice for transport of any kind; rather, governments and communities should invest in trains and streetcars, preferably electrified and powered by miles of solar panels and windmills. They could keep buses running through several methods I have mentioned – using unwanted vehicles, packing them tightly with passengers, driving more slowly, growing bio-fuels and so on. Together we could continue to move people to jobs, families, hospitals and allotments, and move dry goods across the world. All these things could happen, and we should push for them.

But let’s say, just for a moment, that they don’t. Let’s say your city doesn’t build a streetcar, that your county doesn’t double or treble the number of buses, that your national government doesn’t build new train tracks. Or let’s say these things don’t last; at some point fossil fuels will be gone, the materials and machines they created broken or corroded. If that happens we will still possess the original horse-power we had for 6,000 years – but we would need to re-learn what they can and cannot do.

The good news is that horse-drawn cars worked, not just for ancient chariots or Conestogas but for mass urban transit into the 20th century. For a hundred years, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, Europe and America had cities of at least a million people that ran on a massive, sophisticated network of carriages and streetcars. By 1880, according to historian John H. White, Jr., US cities had 415 horse-drawn railways running, with 18,000 cars on 3,000 miles of track, carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year. Most of these lines continued decades into the age of electricity and coal, simply because the horses worked better than any other option.

Horses have several obvious advantages over cars; they require no fossil fuel imports and contribute nothing to climate change beyond the occasional burst of methane. They are not the fastest transportation option, but neither are cars in city traffic – and in a crisis, slow movement is better than none. They can mow lawns and parks for us, although they need far more food than what our urban areas could offer.

They generate rich organic fertilizer for suburban homeowners who want to grow their own food but have thin, housing-development soil. They build more of themselves in a way that diesel engines, when left together, do not, and their children can be trained and ready to work in a few years.

Of course, horses bring massive problems with them, and if we ever consider bringing them back for transportation use, we need to become familiar with their limits again. For one thing, they have the same problems we do with extreme temperatures, and refuse to work in heat waves or blizzards. Disease can also lay them up – during an epidemic of horse flu in 1872, White wrote, “American commerce nearly came to a halt,” and companies resorted to teams of oxen or humans to pull streetcars through cities. He noted that some cities used mules, which worked better in hot weather, but of course could not produce offspring.

For another, horses required a great deal of feeding; according to historian J.R. McNeil, each horse required two hectares, enough to feed eight people, so that in 1920 a quarter of American farmland used for oats to feed horses.

Horses also required massive stables in the middle of city neighbourhoods, for they could not walk long distances into town and then walk all day. Nineteenth-century stables, White wrote, had to be two or three stories high to make room for the horses, hay and grain storage, shoeing, harness repair and manure. Food and maintenance of the horses consumed up to 50 percent of the revenues from the business, not even including the cost of paying human workers.

Horses produced 10 to 20 kilos of manure per day, and as tens of thousands walked through any major city every day, the manure was thick on the street, turning into fetid swamps in the rain and noxious dust in dry spells. Historians Joel Tarr and Clay McShane write that the omnipresent manure caused widespread typhus and other diseases.

Of course, that age had many hygiene problems aside from horses. Pigs were often herded through city streets – almost half a million in Cincinnati alone, according to historian Otto Bettmann – and rubbish piled so high in the streets that old photographs show it in traffic-blocking mounds. Future urban residents might hold their streets to higher standards of hygiene. Manure can be collected in bags under horses, and residents of an area can hire workers to keep streets clean. White even relates the claim of 19th-century city officials that mules could be toilet-trained.

Certainly a horse-and-carriage future would not allow us to live with the conveniences we have become accustomed to today. In a serious crisis, though, even a slow and old-fashioned method of moving people and goods from place to place could save lives.

All this is academic, however, unless at least some small percentage of the populace learns to drive horses. Television action heroes can jump on a horse or wagon, shake the reins and gallop away, but in this world it takes years of training, and there are few teachers. The horses require training for their jobs as well, and few today are.

Such a system would require the return of several professions, in fact, most of them newly rare: smiths to make horseshoes, farriers to put them on the horse, leather-makers and leather-workers to make straps, and horse veterinarians. We would need carpenters who can build vehicles sturdy enough to hold passengers and freight and lightweight enough to be pulled. We would need iron-workers, wheel-wrights, coopers and livery workers. You might not picture call-centre supervisors and telemarketers leaping forward to become farriers and smiths, but as time goes on it might become steadier employment, and there might be fewer of the positions we have now.

Most of all, we would need to increase the number of horses. The USA, for example, has a little more than six million horses not used for racing. At the dawn of the horseless-carriage era, there were 21 million horses in the USA, for a nation with a third of today’s population. To provide services for today’s cities, then, we would need to increase the number of horses at least tenfold – probably many times more than that, for few of the existing horses are the muscular draught breeds.

This, then, is my modest proposal: if you believe that fossil fuels are running short, if you are not certain whether fusion power or a hundred new nuclear plants are around the corner, if your government is not investing in trains or trolleys, if you are sceptical that we can grow enough bio-fuels for a bus system, then I would ask what kinds of transportation you see us using in a few decades, and what you are doing to create that system.

If you have no better ideas, then I would encourage you to learn some of these skills that were so widespread and fundamental for so long, so that at least a few people in your area have such knowledge and can teach others should it become necessary. I’ll be doing the same – let me know how it goes.


“The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City,” Joel Tarr and Clay McShane, The Making of Urban America, NY: SR Publishers, 1997.

“From Horse Power to Horsepower,” Eric Morris, Access, No. 30, Spring 2007.

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, J.R. McNeil, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

The Good Old Days--They Were Terrible!, Otto Bettmann, Random House,1974

“Horsecars: City Transit Before the Age of Electricity,” John H. White, Jr., Walter Havighurst Special Collections.

“Horse Power,” John H. White, Jr., American Heritage Volume 8, issue I, Summer 1992.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Public transportation 2: Hummers and booze

As mentioned last month, public transportation makes cities healthier -- US cities were healthier when they had streetcars, and light rail systems make many European cities more liveable today. America’s streetcars were ripped up decades ago, though, and light rail requires massive investments in infrastructure – money few cities have to throw around. Communities can still organise public transit, though, by using buses.

In my native country, the USA, buses are often associated with the poor, but they shouldn’t be. A recent HNTB Corporation survey found that 90 percent of Americans who live near public transportation use it at least some of the time, and 70 percent thought it a better choice than driving -- indicating that more people would use public transit if there was more of it. (Just assume I’m writing this for the most countries in general but my native USA in particular.)

For that matter, don’t assume that “the poor” are someone else. Forty-five million Americans, for example, lived below the poverty line last year– one in seven – and those are only the individuals making less than $10,800 or families making less than $22,000. Many if not most of us are struggling in some way, with too little savings and too much debt, and even many apparently prosperous families live only a few pay-checks from default.

Everyone needs to travel to the store, work or relatives’ houses, but many of us live in the country or in suburbs – especially Americans again, who can travel 20, 50, even 100 kilometres to work. Such journeys will grow more difficult in a time of less money and more expensive fuel, yet most residential areas have no factories or businesses to furnish jobs. Cars also break down, and in a crunch many will have less money to fix them or buy new ones. Nor can we indefinitely repair modern cars, with their plastic and micro-chips, as Cubans do their 1959 models.

People here in rural Ireland have long depended on taxis, and they can help carry people in an emergency. Taxis might less efficient than most cars on the road, however, for they usually take only one passenger at a time, and spend a lot of their time driving to and from pickup points. They certainly cannot substitute for vehicles that carry multiple passengers on regular routes.

In short, we will need buses of some kind, in small towns and inner cities, along country roads and motorways alike. Lots of them.

Unfortunately, many cities are cutting back their bus lines; a brief Google News search on the day I write this came up with five examples in the last month alone. Local officials could feel compelled to eliminate such services altogether as the tough times continue, in an attempt to cut costs. As someone who spends three hours a day on the bus, I have a particular concern for making sure they continue to exist, and could be made even more comfortable and reliable.

I used to cover city and county governments as a reporter in Missouri and Kansas, and while my articles made life difficult for certain politicians, I also know they are often harried, pressured, and unappreciated. I’ve tried to put myself in the place of officials and residents who want to keep public transit alive in the case of financial or fuel emergencies, and have a few projects that city or town residents might want to consider.
As city governments become increasingly cash-strapped, they will be less able to buy new buses or replacement parts. Many buses are already obviously old and in need of repairs, and officials probably put off paying for new ones until the boom times come again.

At the same time, almost 100 million Americans own SUVs or Hummers for some reason. In some years these suburban assault vehicles actually outsold cars, even though they are only half as efficient in miles-per-hour as 1920 Model Ts. Most people do not use their suburban assault vehicles for fording rapids or scaling Alaskan mountains, as in commercials, but rather for inching in and out of parking spaces. These vehicles typically have enough room for at least six people, plus enough cargo space, as Dave Barry put it, “to pick up something else, such as a herd of bison.”

Between the spike in fuel prices a few years ago and the recession today, many SUV owners are trying to rid themselves of these white elephants; look in any Buy-and-Sell section of any newspaper and you will see an explosion of such vehicles for sale, at plummeting prices.

These two problems could solve each other. the infamous mileage of SUVs and Hummers only results from the empty space in the back; fill it up with passengers and it becomes a very green choice. Local officials could buy them cheaply, or rent them to use to ferry passengers in lieu of bus lines.

If neither the city government nor the populace has money, enterprising officials could make more creative arrangements – say, giving the SUV owner use of a foreclosed property in exchange for the use of the vehicle, rather than forcing the homeless owner to sleep in it. They could agree to speak to the housing association keeping the SUV owner from putting up a chicken coop. They could agree to co-sign a residents’ mortgage in exchange for permission to use the vehicle. Ward council members and mayors might not officially have jurisdiction in these areas, but they might have some influence in their community, and as time goes on the world will become less official.

SUVs have several advantages over regular buses; for one thing, they would be more comfortable. Their ability to handle rough terrain might turn out a blessing after all, as they can continue to drive over roads in disrepair.
More importantly, since they only take eight or nine passengers at a time, they can be economical in small towns and in the country, driving routes that cannot afford 80-seat buses. Bus routes could actually be expanded in places, allowing otherwise marooned residents easy access to jobs, hospitals and food markets.
They can also vary their routes slightly to pick up passengers at home or a short walk away if needed, responding to phone calls for assistance. If a country-dweller needs to get to town and has the SUV driver’s mobile number, for example, they could ask the driver to vary their route slightly rather than walking miles to the nearest pickup point, without unduly inconveniencing other waiting passengers – an important detail for elderly and the handicapped. Pat Murphy of Community Solutions has proposed a plan similar to this, which he calls a “Smart Jitney” system.

Cash-strapped cities could also require drivers to supply their own SUV and fuel, compensating them by letting them keep riders’ fares, and freeing the local government from financial burden. If this sounds suspiciously like a taxi, it is – just a taxi that runs regular routes. Put another way, it could combine the security of bus lines with the flexibility of taxis and the fun of carpooling.

What if fuel becomes expensive even for an SUV bus service? Even then, communities can still keep their far-flung homes connected by going into the moonshine business.
Moonshine, or what the Irish call poitin (pa-CHEEN), is high-grade alcohol – ethanol -- made from grains, potatoes or some other plant. Typically the plants are brewed into beer or wine, and the brew is then heated in a vat to boil off the alcohol without boiling the water. At the top of the vat runs a thin tube, through which the alcohol vapour can escape and cool, dripping into a second container to become, hopefully, near-pure.

Many petroleum vehicles can run on alcohol instead of petrol or diesel, although it may require the engine to be adjusted. Many countries have kept their buses running with alcohol, from India in the 1930s to Brazil today, and with less money and technology than most modern Westerners. Some European nations have also had a good track record with them -- one Swedish study found that buses that switched to alcohol increased their fuel efficiency and reduced their pollution.

Alcohol remains a controversial remedy. Its fans tout its zero-carbon potential, since the emissions put into the air last season can be taken out of the air by growing the bio-fuel crops this season. This cycle of crops to fuel to crops can theoretically be sustained indefinitely, making alcohol seem a permanent solution to the fossil fuel crisis.

The down side, of course, is that making the alcohol fuel --- growing the crops, harvesting them, processing them into mush and distilling the result -- takes almost as much energy as you get from burning the alcohol, if not more. We will never run our current society on alcohol, for the same reasons we will never have a perpetual-motion machine.

If alcohol cannot do everything, however, that does not mean it cannot do anything. Five million urban residents might not find enough farmers around to power five million cars, but they might find enough to power 5,000 buses, each carrying 100 passengers over several trips a day. Crucially, though, alcohol crops can be grown and distilled locally, almost anywhere.

Many towns have unused land nearby -- vacant lots, abandoned fields and foreclosed farms – which can be used to grow fuel crops as well as food. Many areas also have large numbers of unemployed people who need something to do and could benefit from retraining, junk that can be refitted into stills, and educated people who need jobs.

Just as neighbourhoods full of unemployed people could set to work turning unused fields into kitchen gardens, so they could also grow fuel -- and since alcohol can be made from the discarded or inedible parts of plants, the two are not incompatible. Finally, leftover mash from the distilling process can be used to feed pigs or as compost – either way, the methane from decomposition can generate both heat and electricity.

Alcohol is just one example of a bio-fuel; diesel oil can be made from a variety of crops, from jatropha, sunflowers, corn, palm trees and many others – including something where you live. Distilling the alcohol or squeezing out the oil does not require the vast acreage of breweries, like the Guinness plant I work next to in Dublin; stills have been constructed out of discarded junk by prisoners, encamped GIs and mountain bootleggers, and a town or neighbourhood that includes some mechanics and engineers could do as well --- and without needing to make it drinkable.

Of course, few things are simple, and projects like this will require the cooperation of many local people. It will require neighbours to meet each other and work together regardless of their political or religious beliefs. It will require many man-hours of work, experimentation and patience, all things that have atrophied in the online era. It does, however, need to happen, and no one will do it for us.

Monday 8 November 2010

Rebuttal to the Spectator

The Spectator ranks as one of the world’s oldest and most prominent political magazines, so I was pleased to see their web site featured a commentary on my “O’Sterity” article – and I recognised the writer, Alex Massie, from the National Review and the American Conservative. Unfortunately, Massie not only criticised my piece -- which I can handle -- but misunderstood it.

Part of the problem might be the kind of Irish we are thinking of: early on, Massie refers to a “brasher kind of Dublin 4 swell (UCD, naturally) who thought himself the business when buying a glass shoebox by the Docks for half a million or so only to find himself undone by events.” I think he’s referring to the skyscrapers built by the Dublin docks, and I work a few miles from UCD (University College of Dublin) and the wealthy Dublin 4 neighbourhood. But I’m didn’t talk to any investors in skyscrapers: I talked to rural neighbours and people who ride the bus with me – the kind of people who form the majority of the country.

None of the people I talked to expected the boom to last forever. For them the boom meant a decent job and new home, but they knew they were not receiving most of the bubble wealth, and the change from poverty to boom and back was more muted for them than for most market speculators.

Massie particularly cited the part where I said, “few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God.”

The Spectator columnist called this “just wrong” -- investors, he said, “did think the world had changed forever and so, more importantly, did Ireland's political class.” As evidence he quotes former Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern that “the boom times are getting boomier.”

Booster quotes like this, though, are found in every market in every era. Of course some investors misjudged when the boom would end. Of course politicians reassured their constituents that happy days were here to stay. Of course the recession meant offices that will never be filled and homes that will never be finished. That’s pretty much the definition of a recession. No, my point is something else entirely.

Show me the Irish government’s hundreds of military bases around the world. Show me one. Show me the list of nations Ireland has invaded since the boom, or the massive military build-up. Show me the Irish who believe that Ireland represents the culmination of human history, and that all other nations in the world revolve around Ireland as side-kicks, enemies or recipients of aid. Show me the Irish politicos who wrote, as presidential advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski did of the USA, that Ireland must extend control over its “vassal states.” Show me the Irish who believe that God had destined their nation to rule the world, to be the focus of the battle between Good and Evil in the End Times.

For a human lifetime, since the 1930s, the US government has kept a wartime economy, spending more money on the military than the other 194 countries combined. A powerful military, of course, can be a good thing – I’m pleased my native government won against the Nazis in the 1940s, and outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the US government continues to funnel much of its enormous native wealth into controlling foreign wealth, sending our people into conflict after conflict even as the home front gets poorer.

For a while, in the mid-20th century, this plan worked: the USA remained the world’s greatest power, its per capita wealth and consumption rising ever higher. The national infrastructure, building methods, urban design, agricultural systems and everyday culture of Americans were created for a world in which the public was safe, electricity and fuel were cheap and money was plentiful. Many Americans have a deeply rooted belief both in their nation’s role as the world’s centre and protector, and in the upward march of progress. A rapidly growing minority have adopted a new kind of nationalistic Christianity that sees American politics as a mystical battleground, and looks for scapegoats when reality does not match their role-playing game.

Massie misunderstood most of all when he wrote that “Kaller's conclusion, alas, is typical of a certain Anglo-American view of Ireland: our poverty is grim but Irish poverty is charming and somehow noble…”

No, no, no. I’m not saying that the Irish are somehow destined to be poor, or that poverty is cute when practiced here. The point of the article was that we all face an age of austerity now, and the Irish are better prepared than Americans because they practiced austerity recently. Much of the everyday life and culture around here is similar to any Midwest town, but subtle differences in attitude and infrastructure make the communities more resilient against a crash. The point was that Americans could adopt some of these same practices and stand more chance of weathering the coming decades.

I think I made clear that pre-boom Ireland had deep poverty and staggering repression – I would much rather have lived in the USA than in Ireland in 1960, and Ireland did well by bringing its country into the modern world. But now the lessons should go the other way: few Americans have experience with the austerity that older Irish people grew up with, and must rediscover from scratch the attitudes and personal habits that helped people here weather the harsh economic times.

My countrymen would do well to remember that the electricity, tap water, working toilets and plentiful food they have taken for granted for four generations are gifts, which require money and energy to maintain. They should learn from people in the Third World or in older eras who have lived without such things, and as Ireland is an educated, English-speaking, culturally similar land that was a Third-World country until recently, we find this country a convenient place to learn.

Monday 1 November 2010


Most Americans would be shocked to discover how other peoples regard them – not with admiration, or envy, or hatred, but with embarrassment. The news media here and across Europe tend to regard US elections as a comedy programme, endlessly replaying the most egregious flubs of my country’s most dubious political characters.

Yet the American election still dominates the headlines here, either because people fondly remember the America that was or simply because U.S. military and economic disasters cause trouble for everyone else. As the resident American accent in the pub, I have to field a lot of questions about the latest election news. I disappoint people by telling them that not only am I not following the campaign trail, but I've also done everything I can do avoid it.

It's not that I don't care. It's that my vote takes a few days of research, not a year of hearing gossip. Before I mail the absentee ballot, I make a list of the issues I care about and compared them to candidates’ campaign contribution and voting records — not the coverage, the records themselves — calculate my choice and move on.

I want to see the United States restore its rail system, for example, so any candidate that made some meager noises in that direction gets some meager points on my list. Period. I don't care about their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know.

Many Americans seem to believe that democracy looks like the Super Bowl, a New Top Model, an American Idol, the Oscars or an apocalyptic smackdown. In reality, it simply should be a job interview, and you are the employer.

Forget this idea that your candidates represent two opposite ideologies. The two major parties represent slightly different alliances of investors, smashed together by the accidents of history. There is no other reason that evangelicals, for example, should be in the same camp with libertarians, or neoliberals with conservationists.

Finally, remember that change mostly happens between elections in a hundred thousand living rooms and library basements and county halls and percolates into the halls of power under sustained pressure.

No election let women vote, or created the civil rights movement, or laws to protect our air and water. These things happened because neighbors met, organized, protested, ran local candidates, went to prison — and moved and moved and moved until they were a movement. America gets better when Americans get it into their heads that they should be the ones running the country, and cajole and intimidate elites until the elites back down.

This Tuesday, pick the guy you think will back down first.

This piece was adapted from an Opinion piece I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2008.

Photo: "Elect Casey," courtesy of the Norman Rockwell estate.