Tuesday 9 February 2016

Social Microclimate

In gardening there is the concept of a microclimate, a small area of land with especially favourable conditions for growth. It can be a natural hillside, inclined to catch the sun just right. It can be an enclosed garden, with walls to keep winds down and warm up with the sunlight (longer growing periods).

Similarly, civilisation creates a social microclimate that encourages growth. It encourages creation and building for centuries to come. Yes, there are empires which grew by the sword - yet still, they wealth they acquired went home to enrich their own lives and the lives of their fellow-citizens.

I got to thinking about this last week, while driving. Specifically, while driving through all the bloody roadworks going on. It's a pain in the ass, being slowed down to 30kph. And it got me to thinking about transport, roads, that sort of thing. I came to some simple realizations:

1/ The wheel was not the prime motivator of civilization etc (the Aztecs had the wheel - they didn't use it, despite their children having toy carts)

2/ The development of smooth, level roading was a major drive of civilization (allowing trade of goods and - more importantly! - easier travel of ideas)

3/ Our modern civilization was due to wheel, roads, and engines (of lighter weight and greater power than a horse or oxen)

So the Aztecs lived in steep mountains, which were near-impossible to use a drawn cart in. (Perhaps if they had developed a one-way ratchet-wheel of some kind that wouldn't slip on the road-surface at all.) Anyway, it was easier for them to transport things by water - for long distances, the steep mountains made shanks mare the most efficient transport system.

The Romans had roads, extremely elaborate - some still in use nowadays, 2000 years after the height of their civilization. Of course they had shipping also (no that's not a throwaway - I'm concentrating on roads here).
 Here is your typical Roman road construction:
These days, what do we get for most roads?
Crappy asphalt which crumbles to shit after a couple of harsh winters.

Contrast this garbage to the 2000-year-old Roman road, with worn ruts after a few hundred years use with iron-shod wooden wheels (the carpentum and carruca - the Roman equivalent of the limosine - had some form of suspension and metal or leather straps inside for grasping to steady yourself).

Hell, I already wrote about the ancient prototype rail that was established in 600BCE to shift ships (not fucking dingys' you can bet) across the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Corinth, and how it was still running 600 years later when the first steam-engine was created. Modern railways? How many hundred years do they last?

Any rate. The basic road construction of the underneath is the same. Where it falls down is the surface: instead of dressed stone blocks, it's either asphalt or crappy tar with gravel. Even with pneumatic tyres for cushioning the surface and spreading the load, we are constantly resurfacing our roads. (Is this cheapism? Or "planned obsolesence"?)

Yet there are American roads with proper concrete surfaces that have barely changed in 50+ years:
Now expand this thought to our modern construction. When we build a bridge, do we build with something that will last for 200+ years? No. If we're lucky it'll last 50 years, and we are constantly checking and maintaining it - to be certain that it's still safe to use.

Here's a 200 year old stone bridge in Wales, which has been maintained all right (especially after a bloody truck smashed into it):
Do you seriously think that this bridge and those like it are going to still be around 200 years from now?
Take a look at Detroit if you want to see how well our buildings and cities survive with little to no maintenance.

And Detroit neatly illustrates our rotting moral values, the decline of our social microclimate. It was easier to abandon the city than it was for Americans to keep their manufacturing in their own country. Cheaper to source it offshore to slave labor. Cheaper and easier to send away the skills and knowledge to someone who didn't develop it in the first place, but sure as shit could take the idea and run with it.

Because we've grown soft, in the West. (Will future civilizations call us the "English Empire"?) Soft, sloppy, pussies who would rather save a buck overseas than make it in-house. Rather than make something to last for decades or hundreds of years, slap up something with the minimum strength to do the job and maintain and fix it every couple of years.

We have decayed, socially and morally, to the "now" society. Everything in 10 days or less. In contrast, even Leonardo DaVinci was no genius - he took 16 years of constant work to develop his skill. We have lost the patience to develop ourselves, our skills, over 15-20 years. It's all instant gratification nowadays. (The 10,000 hours to become an expert is no joke, looked at this way.)

No longer do we plan properly, we simply chuck shit up and hope it looks good - or label whatever sticks to the wall as being good, which isn't even close. Contrast with the Medici family in The Renaissance, who had a vision:
They personally fueled the Renaissance in Florence for 30 years. City fathers fell in love with an idea: that their cities should be the focus of an unparalleled attention to beauty. As per the video, contrast this with our own mess. The idea was that we are to a large extent, shaped by the building around us. (Just look at 8:15 in the above video.)

Visit Italy, be impressed by the cities, take a million photographs. Are we inspired to do similar in our own cities?

Nah. Blame the fucking architects. Blame the fucking city council. No true vision, just bland management and public servants, just looking to keep their snouts in the public trough.

So our social microclimate has gotten soft, lazy, and lacks vision - and thus Idiocracy can survive and thrive. Civilization and intelligence create a microclimate where, for a brief instant, hope and beauty and progress happens.

So we fall apart once more.
I think the best part of the History: The Renaissance video above is how those of the time used art as advertising to push the ideas of virtues, rather than the selfish sins of modern advertising.


  1. I grew up near one of those concrete highways in Pennsylvania. It's still in good shape decades later (with maintenance -- abandoned concrete roads don't last so well).

    The trouble is the transverse seams every 20 feet or whatever. Driving along, you feel every one. It gets annoying. I think people just don't like them.

    I think you're wrong about the impetus behind lousy modern architecture, by the way. I think they're consciously putting us in our place. They have our money, and they're going to spend it on shit to teach us a lesson.

    Remember St. Michaels Cathedral in Coventry, which was famously bombed by the Nazis? They replaced it with a shitty brick jail. Just to say "So sorry the Nazis took your cathedral, but we've decided you can't have it back. Because fuck you, that's why".

    1. True, anything abandoned doesn't last well. I should have been clearer on that. Interesting, I noticed those seams when I drove some of those highways - it didn't bother me that much. The reason might be that I'm used to the constant potholes in NZ highways plus growing up with gravel roads (no seal at all).

      You might be right that it's a conscious decision.

      Interesting re St. Michaels Cathedral. I visited Dresden in Germany about twenty years ago. The place had been bombed completely flat, yet they'd taken the effort to restore and rebuild the old buildings (the Semper Opera House, museum, guild buildings, etc).

      They were in the process of restoring the Church of Our Lady, the Frauenkirche, though they had stopped temporarily. The construction had revealed an old village that nobody had known about, so for a while it was turned into an archaeological dig. Now it is completed.

      It is strangely funny, the will to beauty in some places and the will to drabness in others.

    2. Well, Warsaw in the year 1945 must have been an interesting sight, if you search for its images. The restoration efforts under Soviets were less than impressive. It was another soulless modern city of drab concrete and glass like hundreds of others, when I lived there. Starówka was one of rare exceptions.

  2. Eduardo the Magnificent12 February 2016 at 16:11

    Brilliant post. My dad was a mechanic for a long time, and quit shortly after they started putting computers in cars. He used to lament about how much plastic went into them, but then always came back to the fact that they never cheap out on the parts that could kill you if they fail; namely, the suspension. Though it seems they are even doing that now. I think you hit the nail on the head with planned obsolescence. The thinking is if you make it TOO good, it will be too expensive to buy. And you can't make enough profit selling people a good once every generation. Think of how many people would be out of work if we built 200-year roads? Or 30-year cars?

    Langdon Winner offer some great insight regarding what to do about our technology


    1. I tend to think that a sane society would build the best possible at the time. The 200 year old roads would be built - then the freed-up future work potential is used to build more. Instead we waste our future energy/potential on constant repair rather than intermittent repair.

      Though perhaps I'm the insane one, claiming that a sane society would do X.

    2. Thought experiment for doing the job right the first time:

      Imagine cities with no traffic issues, because the roads were built plentifully and properly. You need to go 120mph, you can do it without fear of tearing up the surface of the road or being slowed by road-works.

      Instead the roads are relatively narrow, restrictive, and there is quite often road-works making the traffic situation worse. To boot, you're stuck in a traffic-jam in a place with drab vertical walls and nothing that looks even halfway good around you. (I've seen some cities in America without even narrow sidewalks. Nasty. Some parts of New Zealand are not much better.)