Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Watch Out for Peaks Ahead

They can be pretty from afar
We are at an interesting crossroads in history where a perfect storm of crises is going to create significant, rapid change. Many commonplace parts of modern society will hit their peak and then not instantly disappear, but undergo a decline. How slow or swift the decline will be depend on the circumstances as well as various levels of corruption and/or government intervention (assuming the two aren’t synonymous.) Sometimes the peak may be a temporary one, if we can manage to reorganize ourselves and our resources in a sensible manner.  Some of the descents, however, are permanent or at least will last for several generations.

The financial crisis is all around us and will last at least another five years, if not ten. World Peak Oil already happened in 2005 (U.S. Peak Oil was in 1971), and world crude oil production is in gentle decline hidden by demand drop due to the recession. The oil crunch will strongly hit in 2013 (or sooner, if anyone decides to airstrike Iran.) And then there’s climate change, the ultimate humdinger that’s awfully hard to predict anything about except that it will likely cause drought, famine, flooding, forced migrations, massive species extinction and a lot of death. But given its uncertainty and longer timeframe (ooh, maybe fifteen or twenty years before the real onslaught of effects) let’s not worry about that one just yet.
Let’s get back to our immediate Peaks—Finance and Oil—and the other Peaks related to them that have appeared or are soon to appear on the near horizon.  Now perhaps you believe Peak Oil is a hoax made up by oil companies and/or environmentalists. Perhaps you think the financial crisis is on the way to recovery and another happy finance bubble is around the corner. Even so, just as an intellectual exercise, let’s pretend there’s less oil and financial wealth ahead for the vast majority of the human race. What would be the result?

Less liquidity, less energy, for starters. Which will lead to:
*Peak Credit, which will lead to
US Consumer Debt Levels
*Peak Consumer Debt
*Peak GDP
*Peak Housing
*Peak College,
*Peak Exotic Vacations,
*Peak Vegas
and *Peak Stuff. 
(Basically, any activity or item financed by home equity loans for the past decade will shrink.) This will lead to
*Peak Self-Storage,
*Peak Housing Square Footage
*Peak Lawns and Peak Yards
Which leads to *Peak Lawn Gnomes, *Peak Pink Flamingos, *Peak Lawn Mowers and *Peak Lawn Pesticides
It doesn’t necessarily lead to Peak Remodeling. Nor Peak Housing Density. Nor Peak Urban Infill. Nor Peak Family Camping. Nor Peak Knowledge, Peak Community College, or Peak Internet Connectivity. Anything that can be transferred digitally—data, news, movies, video games, magazines, books, music, etc.--probably will not peak soon, though its hard copy form probably already has. This is not to say there will be much profit in any digital media, however.

As the rate of oil pumped out of the earth slows below demand, all oil-importing countries are going to see some significant shifts. They will include:
*Peak Plastics, (which will lead to Peak Product Packaging, Peak Recycling, and Peak Cheap Plastic #@$% from China)
*Peak Paved Roads and Peak Asphalt
*Peak Internal Combustion Engines
*Peak Cars (which will lead to Peak Home Garages, Peak Auto Mechanics, Peak Gas Stations)
*Peak Commute Distance and Vehicle Miles Traveled
US Vehicle Miles Traveled
*Peak Auto Weight
*Peak Trucking Freight
*Peak Bottled Water
*Peak Soda Pop
*Peak Human Body Fat
*Peak Suburbia, Strip Malls and Parking Lots
*Peak Blueberries in February from South America
*Peak Chain Restaurants
*Peak Resorts
*Peak Downhill Skiing
*Peak Gasoline-powered toys (jetskis, speed boats, snowmobiles, etc. except where they provide actual economic benefit.)
*Peak RVs
*Peak Air Conditioning
*Peak Airports, Planes and Air Travel
But not peak rail, bicycle, boat travel or freight.  Not Peak Public Transit. Not peak energy efficiency. Not peak alternative energy. Not peak vegetable gardens, chicken and goat raising, or beekeeping. Not Peak Food, Water, or Energy Prices. Not Peak Ceiling Fans, Peak Attic Insulation, Peak Solar Hot Water Systems. Not Peak Resiliency or Peak Self-Sufficiency by any means.

US Health Costs compared to rest of world
As people and governments grow poorer we will soon experience
*Peak Healthcare
*Peak Pharmaceuticals
*Peak Lifespan in the US
*Peak ADD and ADHD
*Peak tranquilizers and anti-depressants
*Peak Prisons
*Peak Medicare, Social Security and Welfare
*Peak Washington D.C.
But not Peak Food Stamps (otherwise too much social unrest). Probably not Peak Lottery as it’s a way for people to gamble cheaply. Not Peak Retirement Age (for a while). And not Peak Family, Peak Community, Peak Relationships. These will be on the increase. Unfortunately, not Peak Homeless, Peak Crime, or Peak Disease. Sadly, probably not Peak World Population until Peak Famine hits first. Does Peak Energy lead to Peak Fertilizer which very quickly leads to Peak Food, even here in the U.S.? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Long term, Peak Arable Land due to climate change is going to be bad enough.

As I said above, many of these peaks don’t have to be permanent.  They could be temporary downslopes creating local peaks until we retrench, reorganize in a way that makes sense given our resources, and then we can go forward again. Some of these Peaks in my view are beneficial; some are going to cause a lot of suffering that is doubly sad due to the fact that, with some foresight, we could have avoided them. In general with this list I’m not saying what should happen, just what is likely to happen as I gaze into the Peak Crystal Ball.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Great Beaufort "Skedaddle"

They were at church when the word came. In the pews of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, South Carolina, master and slave alike heard that an enormous Yankee fleet was massing off Point Royal Sound a mere ten miles away. If Confederate defenses didn’t hold, the town would have to evacuate in a matter of hours. It was time to pack and to pray.

View of Beaufort, Dec 1861
In 1861, Beaufort was one of the wealthiest, most cultured cities in America. The town boasted not only a library of three thousand volumes but also some of the most erudite, educated men in the South. Having built their elegant Greek Revival mansions with ballrooms, chandeliers and two-story piazzas, planter families gathered here each summer to escape the heat and ague of their Sea Island plantations, as well as socialize and talk politics.  Secession politics. For more than a dozen years cries for secession had risen from Beaufort, much of them led by its native son, rabble-rousing, fire-eater Robert Barnwell Rhett, remembered as the “Father of Secession.”

The Confederacy knew full well that Port Royal might be a target for a Northern base, but they couldn’t be sure other sites weren’t also in the running and so were somewhat lackadaisical in establishing defenses for Port Royal Sound. During the summer of 1861, local plantations reluctantly provided slaves to begin construction of two forts to guard the Sound’s entrance: Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island. But not only were the forts still incomplete by November, the artillery installed fell far short of what was originally proposed and even farther short of what was needed when the Yankees came calling.

Plans had been underway in the North to take a Southern port since early summer, with Lincoln himself involved in the selection. After all, to implement the “Anaconda Plan”—a tight blockade of the Southern coastline intended to cripple the Confederate economy—U.S. Navy warships needed a place to refuel with the coal that gave them power. Port Royal was one of the choicest deepwater ports on the Southern coast. That a massive Northern fleet was poised to sail was common knowledge to anyone who could read a newspaper once The New York Times published the details in the article, “The Great Naval Expedition,” on October 26th. The only unknown was the destination, a secret that, remarkably, was successfully kept.  It wasn’t until they were at sea that the captain of each vessel opened a sealed envelope telling him where his ship was headed.

The Great Naval Expedition en route
The fleet that set out on Oct 29th would prove to be the largest U.S. naval and amphibious expedition in the entire nineteenth century.  It included 17 warships, 25 colliers, 33 transports, 12,000 infantry, 600 marines, and 157 big guns. Port Royal, with its two cobbled-together forts supplied with only 2500 men, 4 gunboats, and 39 guns between them, didn’t stand a chance.

Bombardment of Port Royal
Nature came to the South’s aid in the form of a storm that sank some of the Northern fleet along the way, and then rough water delayed the day of the final attack. But when November 7th dawned clear and calm, the water so still it was glassy, enough of the North’s warships were available to commence battle. Union ships concentrated their enfilade on Fort Walker. To the soldiers inside, the sound of artillery was deafening. By noon, only three of Fort Walker’s water battery guns were still operational; by 2:30 p.m., all powder was gone. The time had come to abandon the fort. The command at Fort Beauregard, concerned about being trapped on Phillips Island with no line of retreat, quickly followed suit. Thankfully, casualties on both sides were light. Accounts vary, but the Confederates finished the day with between 11 and 59 killed and an equivalent number wounded or missing, while the Union fleet saw 8 dead and 23 wounded.

Even with the enormous attacking naval force, Sea Island planters had been so confident in the defending forts manned with recruits from their very own Beaufort Volunteer Artillery that many watched the battle from shore on nearby Saint Helena Island. But when Confederate cannons grew silent and cheers reverberated from the Northern ships, they knew something had gone dreadfully wrong. They hurried home to evacuate, no doubt pained to leave bolls of valuable Sea Island cotton still unpicked in the fields.

When news of the battle’s outcome reached Beaufort, a kind of panic ensued. Facing an invading army of Yankees was too dreadful to contemplate; flight was of the essence. But what to take, what to leave behind? The daguerreotypes? The silver? Of course the family bible must be packed. Some loaded up carriages, hoping to stay ahead of the Yankees on the long overland route to safety. But Beaufort was lucky that day—there was a steamer anchored in the river that could take hundreds swiftly to Charleston. However, it had only so much room. Furniture, clothing, horses, and the vast majority of their most valuable property—slaves—would have to be left behind. In the tumult, even food and dinner dishes were abandoned on dining room tables, testament to the haste involved. That evening the steamer departed overflowing with Beaufort’s white citizenry along with every jewel and sentimental item they could squeeze on board. Legend has it that when Yankee forces arrived two days later to occupy the town, they found just one white man remaining in Beaufort, and he was dead drunk.

What must the deserted slaves, who spoke Gullah, their own Sea Island patois, have thought as the laden steamer chugged away from Beaufort’s dock? Did they realize that history had unexpectedly turned a corner right in front of them, and that now, after centuries of captivity as a people, they were suddenly free? Perhaps the political ramifications didn’t sink in that night, but before the first Yankees arrived, clothing and other finery had been looted (liberated?) from the grand homes, and food and liquor thoroughly consumed in an understandable celebration of events. 

Five generations now free (1862)
It is estimated 8-10,000 slaves were left behind in the Sea Islands when the white population fled. They were soon joined by thousands of others who escaped to the region once they realized that Northern occupation meant freedom.  They all needed food and shelter, and since the Emancipation Proclamation had yet to happen, their legal status, beyond being “contraband,” was unclear. The Army asked for help and received it in the form of the Port Royal Experiment. Financed and organized by Northern abolitionist charities, the Experiment worked as a test case to create self-sufficiency among the former slaves. Its success points to what Reconstruction might have been if less corruption and more competence had been at its helm.  Northern missionaries and teachers flocked to the Sea Islands to create schools and aid societies. Former slaves were allowed to farm the confiscated plantations and were paid $1 per 400 lbs of cotton they were able to harvest.  The Penn School on St. Helena Island was one of the earliest schools established for freed slaves and can be visited as part of the Penn Center today.

Yankees at home on a Beaufort piazza (1862)
The Union Army found Beaufort a pleasant setting for officer’s quarters, administrative offices and hospitals.  Because the Army occupied Beaufort until the end of the war, the fine mansions, while suffering damage, were not burned to the ground like so many other Southern towns and surrounding Sea Island plantations. To this day Beaufort’s centuries-old live oaks and antebellum charm remain. Port Royal turned out to be as advantageous a harbor as the Union had hoped and did much to strengthen the potency of the blockade. After the war, most planter families—their sons dead, their plantations burnt, their Beaufort homes sold in government auctions for back taxes (often without their knowledge)—never returned. The civilization that was antebellum Beaufort vanished into the night with that last steamer.

It is rare that the wheel of fortune spins as violently as it did on November 7, 1861. The town that had advocated so fiercely for secession was the first to feel the brunt of an occupying army. A people remarkable for their wealth lost almost everything in a matter of hours. A region that so defiantly insisted that its way of life—slavery—was non-negotiable ended up being the first to have a colony of former slaves experiment with what it meant to be free. The Great Skedaddle indeed.

Photos above are from (in order):  Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Harper's Weekly 11/9/1861, Harper's Weekly 11/30/1861, Library of Congress, Library of Congress. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Civil War--A Rough Beast Slouches

In 1849 things were good in Beaufort, South Carolina and about to get better. Over the next decade Britain’s demand for Sea Island cotton would go through the roof with prices to suit.  From 1850 – 1860 a great many of Beaufort’s grand houses were built as the money flowed in. Though friction with the North was increasing and inflammatory talk about secession was escalating, they were adamant  that their way of life was not negotiable. What was just around the corner for the white population of Beaufort—collapse, calamity and ruin--no one saw coming.

The seeds for the Civil War were sown long before 1861.  Even our founding fathers knew they’d embedded a desperate conundrum into the Constitution with its express protection of both human rights and slavery in the same document.  Benjamin Franklin foresaw much when he said, "Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils."  Thomas Jefferson knew trouble lay ahead when he said about slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding on or letting him loose.”  Patrick Henry wrote, "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery."

The Triumvirate at Work
Pity their descendants as they might, the problem that was too thorny for these great men to solve was left for a future generation to suffer through. Two economic systems fought for dominance—the South’s agricultural economy made possible by slave labor and the North’s industrial economy with its denser population and huge influx of immigrants.  Both wanted to expand into the western territories, the South to preserve the delicate balance of power in Congress, the North to populate the vast plains and the west with their burgeoning population. The entire first half of the 19th century was spent in compromise to prevent these two forces from tearing the country apart.  The great triumvirate of Webster, Clay and Calhoun plied their wiles in the Senate year after year to preserve the young nation. But in the end the internal contradictions of the competing ideologies and economic systems were too much. The center could not hold. As Yeats notes so often happens with war, “a blood-dimmed tide” was loosed upon the world. 

The Wages of Rhetoric
Did antebellum Beaufort have no inkling as events began to spin in an ever-widening gyre? Could they not see that the rhetoric they cheered would turn into fields of blood and mud? Perhaps no one, Northerner or Southerner, could have anticipated half a million lives would be lost. Indeed both sides expected the conflict to end in a matter of months. Perhaps Jefferson was right that  both holding on to slavery or letting go involved disaster. But could the South have transitioned away from a slave economy in a way less catastrophic and destructive? Could they have avoided the rough beast slouching towards them? This is what Beaufort 1849 explores.  

Those who believe their way of life is not negotiable may find, indeed, that history does not negotiate.

THE SECOND COMING (William Butler Yeats)
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?