The other day I got into a minor Twitter tiff over a Tweet of mine. In it, I pointed out that my generation (and I’m nearly 58) as the last to be properly educated and that each succeeding year after I left school, education became more and more degraded. My point in this was a warning: we’re rapidly running out of people who know how to do things. They’re all getting rather long in the tooth and if we don’t raise up their replacements, we’ll enter a Dark Age as things simply stop working and nobody knows how to repair them, or make their replacements.
One of the comments I got back is that everything is just fine – youth knows what is doing! To that, I rejoined that it’ll be fun watching Tik Tok influencers wonder in 2040 why they only get 6 hours of electricity per day. And the response on that? “Hey, buddy, some of those influencers make more money than you ever will!”. Which is true, and kinda proved my point.
And it can all fall apart. Highly advanced, industrial civilization works very well when the people running it know what they’re doing. As soon as the people who know are gone, everything rather collapses.
I have a Twitter friend from South Africa and over the past few weeks he’s been without power on multiple occasions and sometimes for many hours. What happened? Well, South Africa’s electricity has for nearly a century been provided by a government-run enterprise – so, it started under British colonial rule, transitioned to fully independent South Africa and now is still there long into post-Apartheid South Africa. But the main thing was that after Apartheid, the thing became a patronage slush fund…friends and family of the ANC got jobs…and, of course, nobody would want to take orders from the white people who had been running it so out the door they went. As far as I can determine, since the end of Apartheid nearly nothing has been done to maintain or increase power generation and so now you’ve got an aging power system built for a much smaller population laboring to keep the lights on.
And my bet is that they still don’t know what to do. That is: those in charge of South Africa haven’t the foggiest notion of how power is generated and transmitted and since the end of Apartheid they made little or no effort to send black South Africans to school on these subjects. So, very soon South Africans will be able to celebrate thirty years since the end of Apartheid…they’ll just need candles to see it.
And that is how fast things can fall apart. The Durants, in their history of Rome, noted the life of an upper class Roman who lived in Gaul in the second half of the fourth century. It was an interesting look at life in that time but what was most striking is how everything seemed fine. The man had an interesting and useful life – nothing spectacular; just a life lived. He died about ten years before the barbarian flood. To him, in his time, all seemed well…sure, the government was sclerotic and corrupt; the roads and aqueducts weren’t being well maintained; taxes were too high…but nothing to worry about? Until, of course, there was something to worry about. As I’ve said before, things fall apart slowly and then all at once. The bell tolled in South Africa in 2007 when during an oddly high demand, it was found that the system couldn’t carry the load…15 years ago. Plenty of time to get it right…but nothing was done, because nobody knew how to do it. Just as in, say, 390 AD, nobody really knew how to maintain the Roman Empire. Everyone was sort of going through the motions…but at the first bit of pressure, it was revealed that there was nothing sustaining it.
And that is my point – we have in the USA the infrastructure of a major industrial power…but it is wearing down and it isn’t keeping pace with the continued growth of population. Prices are going up for two reasons: Uncle Sam printing trillions but, also, because we don’t have the ability to just swing into higher production when higher prices makes such production profitable. I did a little shopping trip with the Mrs this week and the thing which struck me the most is how at a glance everything seemed ok but when you looked a little closer, you could see the problem.
She was, of course, looking for stuff that girls look for but, with time to kill, I went to look for some things I needed: in this case, undershirts. I like a particular brand in a particular style. It isn’t fancy stuff – it is from a brand you’ve seen your whole life. And they did have some: the shelves were not bare. But where two years ago I would have seen a dozen packages of each size, I now saw one or two packages, and they didn’t have all sizes. Went to see about getting a couple new shirts: half a rack of men’s shirts where they used to be two or three full racks. Well, we need a new knife set for the kitchen as over the years two of our steak knives have gone missing and the carving knife is pretty banged up…so I go to the rack which would in the past have set after set of kitchen knives for you to ponder quality and price. There were a total of four knife sets. One a return which had been opened (after examination, I bought this one).
This is not the America I grew up in. We are no longer the Land of Plenty. We are the Land of We’ll See What They Got And I Hope It Will Do.
I do believe we can fix this – the bell has rung for us and we are on the precipice…but all we need are people who know how to do things. As we still have people who do know how to do things, the trick is to get them to tell some youngsters how to do it. In other words, if we start very soon and begin to genuinely educate people, then just about the time we’re set to collapse, we’ll have a young generation able to step up and keep things working. It’ll be irritating for them as the generation in front of them will be made up of mostly useless people, but they’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that civilization rides on their shoulders…and for all I care, they can send the Tik Tok Influencers to work camps.
We have a very short time remaining where we can transmit civilization to the next generation. If we do, it’ll be fine. If we don’t, it’ll all die…though like as not just after I die. So, this isn’t for me: this is for the grandkids.