Sunday Train: Neil Armstrong and an America that can do Great Things

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

By now, you would likely have seen the headline that Neil Armstrong dies: First man on the moon passes away at 82, or something akin to it.

Among those who follow the space program more closely, many are aware that there are few pictures of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. Neil Armstrong had two and a half hours of moonwalks, and Neil Armstrong operated the main camera. The camera that Buzz Aldrin operated was used for technical assignments.

This fuzzy picture was take by enhancing a picture Neil took of Buzz Aldrin, and zooming in on the reflective visor, where Neil Armstrong appears in reflection as the photographer. And the small blue dot near the top?

That's Earth.

The passing of Neil Armstrong brought my mind back to the topic of An America that Can Do Great Things, and so I thought I would reprint my piece from 11 March, 2011, for this week's Sunday Train, on the connection between HSR and an America That Can Do Great Things.
 


 
I believe that America can be greater than it ever was before.

 

 

That does not mean that its destined to be. Destiny makes us lazy. Destiny is like those post-Tour de France cycling criteriums where the top three places were guaranteed to the three big TdF heroes taking part ~ if you are in shape and need to keep going, maybe Destiny can keep the momentum going ~ but its no way to build up to race fitness.

Indeed, it does not mean that its at all likely. It may well be massively unlikely. But whether an outcome is likely or unlikely is an issue for passive spectators, watching from the sidelines. The issue for participants is whether the game is worth the candle ~ whether the prize is substantial enough to make it worthwhile playing to win.

Our modern mess media trains us to the passive observer role, with their habitual "trackside race call" coverage of public affairs. However, if we participate, that trains us in the active player role, and the real life experience is a deeper lesson than the color and noise on the noise box.

 


 

 

 

What Does It Mean for a Large Nation to be Great?

If it means anything for a nation such as the United States of America to be Great, what does it mean?

For a small nation to earn the label of great ~ a New Zealand, Central African Republic (CAR), Costa Rica, Laos ~ perhaps it can do something in particular brilliantly, and everything else OK enough not to disqualify it. We do not normally call small nations "great nations", but its not surprising to hear that a small nation is "great at {fill_in_the_blank}." Especially "great at {fill_in_the_blank} for its size."

And maybe there is some of that for medium size and medium-big size nations, except that "for its size" implies a higher standard, the bigger it goes. What would New Zealand great for its size might fall short for Australia or Canada. What would make CAR great for its size might fall short for South Africa or the Democratic Republic of Congo. What would make Costa Rice great for its size might fall short for Venezuela or Brazil.

However, my thesis is that for the four large nations of the world ~ China, the United States, the European Union and India ~ relative scales do not apply. Greatness for a large nation of the world must be on an absolute scale.
What does it mean to be Great in the 21st Century

We face existential challenges in the 21st century:

  • We face the challenge of resource footprint over-reach ~ a way of life that requires more than one earth to sustainably satisfy.
  • We face the challenge of self-poisoning ~ a way of life that progressively increases the toxicity of our life support system.
  • We face a challenge of climate chaos ~ either an induced development or amplification {+} of the end of the mild global climates and the onset of a much more turbulent Anthropocene
  • We face a challenge of Peak Oil ~ the transition from the prevailing energy base of modern industrial society because we have used it up, rather than because of the stronger appeal of an alternative
  • We still face the challenge of Radioactive War ~ with no actual elimination of the standing 20th century threat of nuclear war, now augmented by the threat of various dirty bombs

And for some reason as a nation we seem to be somehow incapable of doing more than didley-squat about more than one of them at a time.

But for one of the Four Large Nations of the world to be Great, it must be great in leading the way and collaborating on all of the existential challenges we face. The footprint of each is too big. Each must carry its weight across the board, and more than carry its own weight somewhere of vital importance.

We cannot claim the mantle of greatness on the basis of "nailing down loose nukes" ~ while we pursue an energy policy that fails to nail down untapped coal reserves ~ still less if that policy subsidizes and otherwise encourages the burning of coal. Maybe a smaller country, where its relative reliance on coal in its national economy translates to a much smaller absolute share of total carbon emissions ~ but not the Peoples Republic of China, the Republic of India, the European Union, or the United States of America.

Clearly, what is not Great is for a Large nation to sit on its ass, hoping that some other nations will pull its irons out of the fire.
No Single Act Is Sufficient to Face an Existential Challenge

One of the habitual, regular, predictable red herrings that Big Oil and other saboteurs of the United State of America surviving the 21st century intact is to point out that some vital action "is not enough".

Big fat hairy deal. No single action is enough in facing an existential challenge. Any challenge that can be faced down with any single action is not an existential challenge. Existential challenges require multiple mutually supporting, and often interlocking, actions to face up to them.

That reason is, first, keeps getting tosses up is because people fall for it. "Yeah, that's no enough" among those encouraged to be lazy about it translates readily into "not worth doing". But whether its worth doing is based on how irreplaceable it is, and how many support it gives to other vital actions.

And, second, because for those challenges that are clearly existential, saying "its not enough" resonates much better than "give up, all hope is lost, we are ultimately a failure as a nation and its time to try to build some other nation in this part of the world" ~ at least among the broad swathe of population between those dedicated to an action vital to our national survival and those adamantly opposed to one or more of those actions.

But while the point does not have billionaires making it, it can be conveyed to and understood by the vast majority of our civil society. Remember that the key thing is to communicate the point, and people across our country are familiar enough with at least one complex system to get the point: Sure a transmission is "not enough" for a car to run. An engine is not enough. Working steering is not enough. But can you drive without a transmission? Without an engine? With working steering?

We don't need a smarter electorate, we need a wiser electorate, and the "needed vs enough" idea is worth passing on to as many fellow citizens as you can, in whatever opportunity you can create to pass it on to your fellow citizens.
Why are We Facing So Many Existential Challenges?

Cast your mind back to 1980. There are two Great Nations of the World, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR is surviving a fundamentally broken domestic economy on the back of high prices for its relatively expensive to produce oil ~ and looming over the next five years is the collapse of the real price of oil from its 1979/80 peak to a multi-decade period of cheap oil (not ultra-cheap oil, mind, as we had when the Texas Railroad Commission was stabilizing oil prices via Texas oilfield production quotas, but still cheap).

And when the price of oil dropped, their ramshackle faux-socialist centralised authoritarian economic system collapsed together with the "second world" of the "cold war" world order. Now, if I listed Five Large Nations, I reckon I'd still have to include them (unless, of course, they are merely taking a several decades long pause in the process of falling apart) ~ but I only listed four.

China was still reeling from the twin catastrophes of Mao's deliberate promotion of population growth and the insane effort to convert the agrarian revolution of the rural commune system into an decentralized mass production industrial revolution that no amount of revolutionary fervor could ever suit it for. Deng Xiaoping is just launching the reset that unleashes the potential of the agrarian revolution that has already taken place among Chinese communes and then uses it to launch an actual industrial revolution ~ and the population policy that violates almost every tenet of Western social liberty, while also preventing what otherwise clearly would have been by now a collapse of central authority and descent into civil war. This was clearly a devil's choice to make, but it was a devil's choice among devil's choices. After the population policies of Mao, no angel's choice was any longer available.

India has passed through the Emergency Crisis and the stunning electoral defeat of Indira Ghandi's regime and then the subsequent collapse of a new government too experienced at opposition and inexperienced in government to hold the governing coalition together, with more years political turbulence, including Indira Ghandi's, before establishing the neo-mercantilist economic order which it has been pursuing over the past few decades. Not that political turbulence ever actually went away, but the periodic political storms did not wash away the foundations of the neo-mercantilism that had been adopted.

And the European Union? This youngest of all Four Large Nations does not even exist yet, a collection of medium-big, medium and small nation states in a divided continent, like the Greek states in the days of the Second Athenian League, before unification under Phillip II of Macedon, or the several English American colonies before the establishment of the Articles of Confederation.

In 1980, if there is a Large Nation that can act as a Great Nation and tackle potentially existential challenges before they come to a boil, that would be the United States of America. And in 1980, we elected to pursue the civil society equivalent of sitting on our fat ass and watching cartoons. And we kept it up for three decades.

Of course ongoing problems kept getting worse and worse and worse until they reached the point of existential challenges. There are always problems emerging. Either they get regularly pruned down to size, or else they go to seed and get worse and worse and worse.

Things just don't get better automatically on their own. People that imagine that they do are just engaged in the age-old practice of ignoring the people actually coping with the problems that are arising. And if the only Large Nation who is a candidate to be a truly Great Nation and tackle the big problems before they become existential challenges instead decides to pretend that hammers are bad because we sometimes hit our thumbs with them, or governments are bad because the rules they put in place are sometimes inconvenient ~ well, the kinds of problems that can only be tackled by serious national policy of a large nation exercising leadership on a world stage will, of course, sit, and fester, and get worse, and worse, and worse.
Didn't Is not Can't. Its Only Didn't.

If somebody didn't do something, maybe it means they couldn't. However, maybe it means they could have done it, but just didn't.

If a Large Nation does not act as a Great Nation, maybe it means it couldn't. Maybe it means it could have done, but just didn't.

In this case, the United States of America has the capacity to be a Great Nation. We have the capacity to pull our weight on all the major existential challenges we face and to lead the way on many.

"Will we choose to do so? What are the chances we will choose to do so?" These are passive spectator questions.If we choose to do so, we can. So as active participants, we have to act in ways that supports our nation as a whole choosing to be Great again.
So what's the big deal about High Speed Rail, then?

To get everything done, as many people as possible must do something. High Speed Rail is something.

For our Large Nation, our unchecked population explosion is the massive resource consumption that we are indulging in, creating an explosion in the cost to the earth of each member of our population.

The unsustainable deficit is the deficit between our sustainable resource base and our resource footprint.

And hoping that we can head toward an urgently necessary resource conservatism on the back of an outbreak of lifestyle asceticism seems to be an entirely vain and futile one.

So we need to find ways to do better lifestyle on less resource base per task.

Express High Speed Passenger Rail is no silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. Look at those 100mile to 500mile corridors where population growth under business as usual will demand massive unsustainable investment in new intercity highway capacity. There are a number of corridors like that in this country. In those corridors, Express High Speed Rail is less expensive than the status quo on a pure financial basis, and far less expensive in on the basis of full economic cost. Where the massive hidden subsidies and cross subsidies for operating the status quo threatens to choke our economy, Express High Speed Rail in its strongest potential corridors will generate substantial operating surpluses.

Rapid Passenger Rail is no silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 100mile to 300mile corridors where there is existing unused rail corridor capacity and transport alternatives to private motor vehicles are almost completely choked off by the multiple public and publicly mandated subsidies that "private" motor vehicles enjoy, Rapid Passenger Rail can offer a secondary alternative that can stand on its own feet on a small but viable share of the market and, again, generate an operating surplus so that they are not subject to closure with each swing of the political winds ~ and so they are not required to fight local public transport for the operating subsidies that local public transport both requires and merits.

Rapid Freight Rail is not a silver bullet along those lines, but it is a very shiny silver BB. In 800mile to 3,000mile corridors where there is sufficient long haul truck freight so that access and user fees can recoup the original capital cost of these Steel Tollways, they offer us a chance to get half or more of those diesel guzzling, asphalt destroying, motorist terrifying behemoths off the intercity highway network, replacing them with sleep-in-your-own-bed-at-night short haul truck routes at each end connected by long Rapid Electric Freight Rail hauls in between.

So, no, High Speed Rail on its own will not make America Great.

But until we start to build High Speed Rail and a range of things like High Speed Rail, and do it despite of and in the face of the opposition of Big Oil and other saboteurs of an American 21st Century, we will not start to be Great.
What About Greater than it Ever Was

The goal should be, Greater Than We Ever Were.

I mean, c'mon, "great" relative to 19th century Europe? Relative to 17th century China? Even a slaveholding, indigenous inhabitant massacring nation could hope to think of itself as great against that yardstick. 19th century Europe was no tremendous record to overcome.

"Great" in the 20th century relative to the militarist authoritarian Japan or Nazi Germany, or faux-socialist centralized authoritarian USSR? Not really a bigger challenge, is it?

But looking in the rear view mirror, many of these existential challenges global industrial civilization now faces are problems of our own making, the elaboration of a grab and plunder and move on economic system that we mutated from land to fossil fuels without fundamentally changing.

Facing up to these challenges, confronting them, and tackling them well enough to survive through to the end of this century ~ yes, that would be truly Great.
Bedlam Bridge ~ Midnight Oil

There are canyons full of movie stars,
churches made of metal
There are mountains made of muscle
We have leaders who are anxious,
we have captains not courageous
Captains tumbling into madness
But there's a man who makes no enemies,
a body never breathless
No ambition ever hopeless

Up on bedlam bridge somebody is waiting
Up on bedlam bridge I'm shot to heaven
Oh, up on bedalm bridge, waiting
Oh, up on bedlam bridge, waiting

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That photo knocks my socks off

geomoo's picture

Thank you for that. Many astronauts report an awakening to the importance of the issues you argue here. Thinking about something is no substitute for first-hand experience. Here's hoping we can use our imaginations to put ourselves in Armstrong's shoes: there's the entire earth before me. It is one finite planet.

This

But whether an outcome is likely or unlikely is an issue for passive spectators, watching from the sidelines. The issue for participants is whether the game is worth the candle ~ whether the prize is substantial enough to make it worthwhile playing to win.

Our modern mess media trains us to the passive observer role, with their habitual "trackside race call" coverage of public affairs.

is an important aspect of the theory that colors most of my observations these days, postemotion. Mestrovic's Postemotional Society builds on the work of Emile Durkheim, who theorized that in modern humans, feeling or emotion was becoming increasingly severed from action. Iow, the problem you describe is a general one, with many ramifications. Because of the gloomy prospect this theory describes, I have become highly focused on the question of whether anything stands a chance of making a difference. Are we merely venting outrage or whatever feeling for the sake of manipulating emotions, or do our feelings and thoughts connect up to some kind of meaningful action? Another way of describing it is that we have become voyeurs.

The way you go after things, Bruce, I always pull for you.

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The question of what can make a difference ...

BruceMcF's picture

... that's also why we don't put all our eggs in one basket (as, emotionally, many online in the 2008 General Election season allowed themselves to do) ... fighting for establishment of a community garden, and a Rapid Rail corridor in our state, and to keep Social Security from being undermined by its so-called "defenders" or gutted by its attackers, and to help families in low income countries buy a few goats that they can milk and breed for sale ...

... it does give us something to get stuck into when there is a disappointment on one front.

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don't know about social security but yes on the others

Shahryar's picture

Because there's less money to steal locally, those local issues are things we can influence. We can actually go to local meetings and speak up for community gardens or bike lanes or protecting neighborhoods from overdevelopment. We can go to our State representative and talk to him or her about that rail corridor or using the "rainy day fund" for education.

Social security though....I have a feeling that it's already decided and Ryan's plan will soon be called Obama Security (and some Democrats will love it!).

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Why would the ...

BruceMcF's picture

... Whig faction of the corporate party want to give up their partisan advantage on Social Security? Its not like the Republicans and abortion, where activists are using primary challenges to scare incumbents into radical reactionary positions.

The Administration plan will be unjustifiably bad, but it is likely to be some actual margin better than privatization ~ placing our national pension system on an actual Ponzi scheme basis under the cover of lying about social insurance being a Ponzi scheme.

How much better depends in part on how hard and how quick the pushback is from the supposed Democratic electoral base. But as flacid and uninvolved as supposed progressives were in the Congressional and State Legislative primary season, there's not that much leverage available.

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