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In the wee hours of this morning, just before bed, I saw a truly ridiculous television show. Made for the History channel, “Ancient Aliens” documents evidence that extra-terrestrials visited Earth in the distant past. Now – I was not there at the time, so I can’t say for sure aliens aren’t there, or even that they aren’t here now. As an old science-fiction fan, I find the notion to be intriguing. As one with a modest amount of education as an Archaeologist, though, I’m going to have to suspend belief until we find some alien technology here, rather than just something they’ve allegedly built. The episode in question “Ancient Engineers, raised a lot of questions about how ancient people were able to lift and carve massive stones which would be difficult or impossible with cutting-edge 21st century technology.

Might it be possible that ancient builders knew something we don’t?

This sort of suggestion, these days, seems almost as bold as suggesting Stargate-style ancient alien gods. The technological, intellectual and moral supremacy of our present age is one of the central myths of our society. Our technologies aren’t just helpful at doing things faster or more efficiently, they’re seen as absolutely necessary to accomplish these tasks. Nearly every argument in the episode relied on this notion – that high-powered building tasks need modern power tools like lasers, diamond-tipped drills and angle grinders.

Could humans in ancient times, lacking electricity, air compressors and diesel generators still work and move stone? Of course they could. It happened all over the world. And though only a few intensely studied societies built giant monuments and vast stone cities, nearly every society could work stone to some degree, with the earliest examples dating back over half a million years before Babylon. That’s ten times as long as we’ve been using fire, and well into times where our brains were far smaller and bodies more apelike (if you believe that kind of thing…).

You might think that as a modern, educated human, pressure-flaking an Oldowan-era handaxe would be dead easy. Go try it. West Hamilton and Ancaster have plenty of chert. You’ll come away with an entirely new respect for our ancestors. Many archaeologists try, and few succeed. If you want to find someone who can do it (rather than just identifying them), you’re likely better off heading to a native reserve. Now, for your next project, carve a one metre cube out of granite with hand tools….sound impossible? Not at all – you might even have most of what you need at hand, you just don’t know how, and neither do I. But I could offer a few suggestions…

Perfect finishing has never been about power, but rather a very old and simple technology: abrasives. Before dremel bits and sandpaper, people had to make do with sand. Even today, many ‘stone aged’ people are on par with some of our best geologists when it comes to identifying rocks. They had to be – it was and is every bit as essential to their survival as the stock market is to a Goldman Sachs executive. Some kinds of sand are very hard and sharp (like silica, which we melt into glass). When rubbed into a softer stone they’ll grind the surface right off. Applied in one spot, by a spinning stick, they’ll bore into the surface. And if you work up through finer sands, you can polish the stone to a perfect, glass-like shine. I had to laugh watching Ancient Aliens, when, after talking at length about how carving the Sphinx would be “impossible” without modern machining, they showed a very brief clip of ancient tools. Among the axes and chisels was what looked like a fire-drill – perfect for this task.

This sort of work was unbelievably slow-going, but there isn’t much evidence that these monuments went up overnight. Most took centuries and enormous slave or corvee (tax) labour forces. The point was to demonstrate the awe-inspiring power of the rulers of the time, so it’s no surprise that this kind of monumental architecture is found only in the most centralized societies with the most powerful rulers. When large numbers of people spend decades at a time at these tasks, they’ll find simple ways to improve. The complex math displayed often has very humble roots. How do you build a perfect hemispherical dome? Nail one end of a string to the ground, and use it like a compass to trace a circle in three dimensions. How do you keep everything perfectly straight in a building site miles wide? The same way sailors travel in a straight line for weeks at a time on the open ocean – with the sky. Is it any surprise, then, that these sites tend to be laid out in perfect alignment with stars and constellations, or that these societies were so focused on astronomy?

People focused on more recent building styles, a century or two old instead of millenia, know all too well how skills have vanished over the years. This is especially true of stoneworking, a subject which has come up frequently with discussions of heritage buildings over at Raise the Hammer. Other crafts have suffered as well – I spent a good deal of time this past weekend at country antique fairs looking for old woodworking tools, because it’s hard to find anything that compares at most modern hardware stores. While we may have beefy motors with lots of nifty disposable bits, the quality of basic tools like chisels has dropped enormously. Why? They used better steel, which stayed sharp much longer and far more reliably. The same could be said for leatherworking tools, or even much of the furniture one can find at these fairs. Slow, methodical work with hand tools can produce stunning results, often just as easily as with power tools, but only if you know how to use them.

It’s often said, and Ancient Aliens often reminds us, that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If ancient Egyptians saw one of our cars, planes or computers, they might believe they were the work of the Gods. Is the reverse now becoming true? Are we now so “advanced”, and so utterly wrapped up in our own technology that any sufficiently “primitive” technology is indistinguishable from magic to us? Are we so amazed by laser levels that we’ve forgotten about the existence of plumb bobs? What would this mean if someday the power didn’t flow easily from outlets in the wall, or Home Depot closed its doors?

Any real craftsperson will tell you that it’s not just the tools. Quality work is all about method and technique – proper jigs, careful measuring and plenty of patience. Power helps, but it isn’t necessary. When we forget that it was possible to do these things with very simple tools, we forget that life is possible outside of complex industrial economies like our own. Once that happens, it becomes very difficult to criticize our system or imagine alternatives. Capitalism and industrialism become the source of all food, water, housing and medicine – a new mechanical and electronic ecosystem. This is the basis for all totalitarian societies, old and new. It’s also tremendously dangerous.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond examines the end of many societies, modern and ancient. As most archaeologists know, these collapses tended to be relatively sudden, occur right after a peak in population and resource use, and present no single, glaring “cause”. Diamond suggests that this wasn’t just about mismanagement of resources (which surely played a role), but also about the changing nature of skills in the new growing population centres. All it takes is two generations for skills like hunting to vanish – when the grandparents pass away, nobody’s left to teach them. As these cities grew, and knowledge of how to survive outside of them was replaced by knowledge of how to survive inside. People gave up hunting and gathering in favour of commerce or building giant monuments for kings. When their limited technology could no longer handle the strain on the environment, there was nothing left to do but run.

They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Does our rampant disregard for traditional skills point toward the same kind of fate suffered by Babylon, the Anasazi or Classic-Era Maya? Our (mis)use of resources like land, water and timber certainly points in the same direction, as do our increasingly out-of-touch ruling classes. There’s no question that the Egyptians or Aztecs possessed some of the most advanced technology of the ancient world, but that didn’t ensure the survival of their empires. Will ours be any different? Whatever role aliens played then (or now), there’s an undeniable role for human avarice, ambition and hubris. In those areas, we’ve seen remarkably little progress.

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To sum up the last 24 hours we’ve seen a fall of 2-4.5% around the globe in the world’s markets. After last week’s similar tumble, things are not looking good. As the European Markets are now opening and again falling, we’ll see how far this madness can go.

Viewing the longer-term trends of months and years, it looks fairly clear that we’ve entered a period of intense “volatility”. This may be a warning sign of a far worse crash to come, or it may signal the beginning of a slower, staggered fall. Where or when this might bottom out is anyone’s guess, but I highly doubt yesterday was it.

The risk now is that people are expecting a crash. Rest assured, plans are quietly being made to ‘liquidate’ fortunes at the first sign of serious trouble. Many doubtlessly already have been, and that’s likely a major driver behind these sudden drops. These plans can’t be shared (that would defeat the point), and “trouble” is highly debatable. As a result, nobody really knows where the “tipping point” lies which will drive the crowd off the cliff.

All of this might be thoroughly entertaining if the homes, incomes and livelihoods of billions of people weren’t at stake.

This week the world inched fatefully closer to economic apocalypse. All week, the world’s markets have been jumping up and down like a pile driver operated by a speed freak. Of course there’s no way of telling if or when a total cataclysmic crash might take place, but it’s clear that we can no longer discount the possibility. When markets crashed in 2008, much of the world was caught off guard as almost nobody (in the mainstream) dared predict it. If another crash comes now, it may well be (in part) because everyone is expecting it. Doom and gloom prophecies which were once limited to the “fringes” of anarchists, conspiracy theorists and peak-oilers, are now front and centre in much of the business press.

Many people are very angry, especially at Standard & Poor’s for sparking the sell-off by downgrading America’s credit rating. There’s even talk of official inquiries. And while I have no love for S&P, I have to say I’m not convinced. Obama may insist that America is “really” worthy of a AAA rating, but is it? The financial leaders of the US are now learning what it’s like for the rest of us. Credit ratings are set in arbitrary ways by unaccountable institutions, and aren’t always fair. They can destroy your ability to get out of a bad spot, and there’s rarely much you can do about it. Why is a downgrade such a frightening notion? Because for a few decades now, America has run a hefty trade deficit with the rest of the world, and their main export has been money. Their size, might and various post-war treaties granted their dollars special status as a de-facto global currency. If the value of US dollars or bonds comes into question, so does the global economy.

This notion has come up a few times in the last decade, with the most common “solution” involving replacing it with the Euro. This is no longer an option – America may have a bit of a debt crisis on its hands, but the EU now has half a dozen. Nor would Chinese money be a solution, given their current inflation crisis. The ugly truth is that we are now all too integrated for a purely regional crisis.

The other convenient demon for the recent sell-off would be the debt ceiling debate amongst America’s Government. There’s no doubting that this spectacle was shameful, childish and unbelievably irresponsible. Spending two weeks threatening a nation and the globe that you’ll default on your debts over petty policy disputes virtually guarantees that somebody’s going to declare you a “credit risk”. Some have gone so far as to call it a “the Tea Party Downgrade”, though there’s more than enough blame to go around. What the Tea Party did was prove their unparalleled ability as a vocal minority to push this brinksmanship even further to suit their own twisted beliefs. If the recent Wisconsin protests were a demonstration of how little popular support they actually have, the debt ceiling row was a show of how much influence they hold among policymakers.

With the G7 pledging to preserve ‘liquidity’ and the Fed promising not to raise ultra-low interest rates for at least another two years, there’s little doubt that bailouts are still on the agenda. Have we learned nothing from the last three years? Using public money to prop up private failures has only made the situation far worse, engendering “austerity” measures we clearly can’t afford, and generating no end of civil strife.

It’s time to be honest – there is no easy answer here. Speculators, hedge fund traders or irresponsible bankers might not have helped, but this crisis runs much deeper. The fact that the Tea Party or Greek Parliament can bring us this close to a meltdown only goes to show how much pressure is building.

What will come of all this? Consistent market failures demand a system change or face collapse. People have been predicting the collapse of capitalism since at least the time of Marx, and we haven’t seen it yet. Markets have imploded many times, but in the end there’s still governments to bail them out. After the last time, the word “socialism” was thrown around often, but no real spreading of wealth or sharing of resources took place. The largest corporations are now more profitable and consolidated than ever. What’s evolving in America is much like China – a wholesale breakdown of the (thin) boundaries between businesses and government – threatening rise of a more blatant type of technocratic rule. How far would those with power go to keep it? As far as they feel they need to.

If we can’t start talking seriously about alternatives now, then when?

I came across this article the other night, from a recent issue of Canadian Business. If it had come from a peak oil or conspiracy website I might have been more sceptical. But considering its source, the level of “Doomsaying” here is a little frightening. Could China’s mighty economy be headed for the rocks?

The description it gives of China is one which would sound eerily familiar in the west. Ri8sing inequality, ballooning debts, undervalued currencies, dubious boondoggle mega-projects and enormous bailouts are nothing new. But the scale and intensity, in a nation with so much explosive growth in the last decade, leaves many to wonder how much of it is stable or sustainable. As the article points out, much of the world’s industries are now dependent on Chinese manufacturing. If local industries were hit with a slowdown, this could bring much of the world to a standstill. If they then start spending their massive foreign currency reserves (especially US dollars), it could spread like wildfire. China’s economy at the moment has all the hallmarks of the “Roaring 20s” in America, and that’s more than cause for concern.

Does this mean that “doom” is coming? Whatever that’s supposed to mean, I doubt it. The threats which face China’s economy are very similar to those which threaten ours, and their fates are so tied up in financial arrangements that none can be looked at alone. What’s far more likely is that another global “correction” is coming, much like 2008, and that China will play a big part. Is “doom” coming? That depends on how you look at it. For millions of American manufacturing workers and displaced Chinese Peasants, it may begin to look in many ways like “doom” is finally leaving.

A few months ago I caught this snippet from the “Manifesto” of China’s “Jasmine Revolutionaries”, and thought it might be apt.

Every good and honest Chinese person, please think: So much public housing has been sold to individuals, so many state-owned enterprises and so much land have been sold, and nearly all state-owned property has been sold off. But where has all the money from these sales gone? It goes without saying that state-owned property belongs to the entire people. But what did the people get? Led by an authoritarian regime, the opaque process of privatization has made a small number of people rich, but what did the vast number of ordinary people get? Every good and honest Chinese person, please think: When Japan, Korea, and Taiwan were in the process of industrializing, they were able to make the overwhelming majority of their people prosperous. Why is it that during China’s industrialization the ordinary people are becoming poorer? Why is it that in just the last few decades China has gone from being a country with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor to one with the largest? It is because the unfair system has made a small number of people incredibly wealthy, and the vast majority of people remain poor.

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