• We have everything we need, but not for this…

    by  • October 2, 2010 • Everything Else • 3 Comments

    “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.”


    In 2002 I discovered the hexayurt, a simple geometry that was to change my life. In 2003, I opened the door on the first hexayurt and stuck my face into a dust storm. The thought crossed my mind, I remember it distinctly still, “I have changed the world.” Until I opened the door, the dust storm had been outside and, well… in 2003, there was no inside you could have at Burning Man for a few hundred dollars. The little house worked. The weirder part, though, is how that got me to the Pentagon.

    Basically, I hacked the shelter equation, got something with lower costs and better supply chain characteristics than the tent. I showed how to rehouse people after a nuke or similar emergency. And the DoD, partly because of the work I’d done on Winning the Oil Endgame at Rocky Mountain Institute, listened to me (pdf).

    Here’s the part of the story I don’t tell. I did several rounds of thinking with leading defense people, while a fully illegal immigrant awaiting deportation. They couldn’t get me a visa, not for want of trying, but because of incompetence verging on malice from other parts of the Bureaucracy. So I went from being in the thick of the conversations about What To Do to being… peripheral, and then more-or-less fading out of the loop all together. But for a short while, I saw how the machinery worked, and came to know the system as it really is, for just an instant in time.

    Then as quickly as it came, it was gone again.

    Since then I’ve maintained uneasy lines of communications with defense-land, both in the US and the UK. The best, surprisingly numerous and senior, yes, are warrior-sages. The worst – you cannot imagine the venality and banality of evil in its grey-suited forms. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

    I got there by chance. My politics may have been mid-way between Gandhi and Jefferson, but my attitude to life was more Ben Franklin than anything else, seeking the balance point between an internally-generated morality and the bon-vivant. I had done things not common to defense people, and I had my own set of values, fiercely defended, and my own idea about what America should be.

    I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stood. I became, in my heart, an American, and years later, when I got the chance to work with the military, however briefly, on topics like how to reduce the risk of a genocide in Iraq I leapt at the chance. I would not have designed weapons, or helped plan a war, but I was more than willing to pitch in on a withdrawal. If I had stayed, perhaps in time I would have become one of those warrior sages. I am glad I did not get the chance.

    With hindsight, I think that not getting a visa to remain in the US was a blessing in disguise. I am really worried that when the kind of trouble which is in Greece, Iceland and soon Ireland reaches America its going to be an excuse to start a civil war – that the poverty will bring the end of the union through violence.

    But this is not what I came to write about tonight. I came to write about identity. I’m writing about identity because I don’t have one. The stream of my life got completely broken by a series of coincidences (synchronicities if you like) which are so absurd that I still tell them to people as talismans of “this is not my fault, I did not mean to be here” – embarrassed by what I have become. I was not always obsessed with poverty and death by way of its prevention, I was a nobody, a bag of potential, and the hand of chance forged me into a weapon against ill fortunes worldwide, when little else could serve.

    I am, at times, the boy standing with his finger in the dyke, with ten years passed, wondering what happened to his life. But the water has not come through! I’d rather have been a programmer and meditation teacher in Chicago, but we go where we are needed, and the world has its own logic. One’s story can drift far, far away from expectations into entirely foreign terrain, and adaptation is the only option.

    The world we have known is ending in an orgy of bad debt, which is to say shattered dreams which were sold to us on credit cards and cannot be returned for a refund. The resources are committed to sixty inch plasma screen TVs rather than to shoes for the children of the poor, and so we have amused ourselves not to death, but to pathetic stature when compared to our forebears who went to the moon in tin cans because it was hard.

    Such greatness is almost passed from the world.

    What I saw in Ireland scares me because if that comes to America its going to be war, and a war which will leave this great nation, which has been diseased by tyranny since the start of the cold war, when certain matters became too important and too secret for democratic oversight, a disorganized squabbling morass of city states at best.

    America cannot live without the American Dream.

    The adamantine entitlement of Americans to be rich has led them into folly: propped up by borrowed money and fake wealth, generation after generation, the capacity which led to the post-war stature of the country has eroded in slack civic will and dissipated passion. The hippies were the best shot America had for world domination – a culture who’s defining characteristics were fun and peace is exactly what the world needed after the end of the cold war. If they had prospered – if their leaders and their communes had been left alone – America would have had the cultural reserves it needed to survive the global financial crash which the failure of the $100,000 middle class lifestyle will produce. Hippies can survive on lentils and parties. The conventional middle classes need progress.

    There is no financial enlightenment, where one has enough money to know God. Yet that is at the core of the failing American dream – that one day one will become rich and understand the world through victory. That there are no living examples of this archetypal story becoming a real person’s life changed nothing.

    The 99ers are the millions of Americans who’s unemployment payments have run out. They have no jobs, no realistic hope of finding work, and no government benefits because their payments have run out. And they have no money, at all. They live off friends and food stamps, if they are lucky enough to still be eligible for those. That situation, in a country which is knee deep in billionaires, cannot stand. If property prices collapse to sane levels, millions of middle class families will join them in poverty, via negative equity and mortgages which, once paid, will still not have returned an asset which can be resold for more than a fraction of what was paid for it. The pre-existing tensions between the Christian right (manifested as the Tea Party), the urban (mostly black) poor, and the rest of the nation will boil over, and clumsy Federal government responses to these tensions will bring the America we have known and loved to an end.

    A better America may yet rise from its ashes: one with a 5% Federal tax rate, but 10% or 20% local and state taxes. An America which lives up to the promise inherent in the independence of each State, where those who wish to live under Christian Sharia can do so, and those who wish to live in an environment with legal pot and gay marriage are able to do so too, two states over.

    Americans must forge new identities for themselves now that the American Dream is ended.

    We need to make a new future, one which exists in a real way with the physical props available for us to use in telling the stories of our lives. The old scripts call for things which simply do not exist, and our game of let’s pretend is ending one credit card statement at a time.

    Let’s do the world over. We have everything we need, but not for this.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    3 Responses to We have everything we need, but not for this…

    1. October 2, 2010 at 12:41 pm

      Great post.

      Only one piece to add – that $100,000 middle class lifestyle was always a media illusion. Median household income in the US was just over $50k before the recession – and only 16% of households earn $100k or more.

      For a generation, the representation of middle class life in the media, in films, in much of television has focused on the lifestyles of that unrepresentative 16%. (Something similar goes on in the British media’s portrayal of “Middle England”.)

      This gap between representation and reality of middle class life is an additional source of the strains within our societies.

    2. October 2, 2010 at 1:50 pm


      Great Post! Ireland has done you good!

      Very well put, clear and to the point. Also thanks for getting into your personal story a bit more, It always helps to know how someone got where they are.

    3. Chris Naden
      December 10, 2011 at 10:24 am

      DougalD: the middle class have never been median. There have always been more below them, and less above them; they are the 70th-99th percentile, not the 33rd-66th percentile.

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