Saturday, August 8, 2009

When Half is Worse Than Nothing at All

We’re going through a divorce. No, not my husband I, but the neighborhood. In most neighborhoods a divorce ‘down the street’ would create a few ripples at most. In our neighborhood, which is practically an extended family, it has created a tsunami.

Okay, so here’s the story. Wifey (we’ll call her Susie-Q) up and left Hubby (we’ll call him Sam). Sam, mournful and morose, spent the next few weeks crying in his beer at each and every home on the block. It seems Susie-Q done him wrong, big time. First of all, she’s been cheating on him. He has proof. He was driving through town one day around noon and saw her car in the parking lot of a local restaurant. Sure enough, she was having lunch with an old flame from some sixteen years ago. So he’s caught her red-handed, doncha know. And if that weren’t proof enough, there’s the steamy Valentine card Old Flame sent to Susie Q. (Pass the card around. Exhibit A). And now that she’s dumped him for another man, she’s playing dirty pool. She waited until he deposited his retirement check and then emptied out the joint account. She had the electricity, cable and telephone disconnected, leaving him in the dark with no means of communicating with the outside world. She filed a ridiculous restraining order against him, claiming that he was violent and she was afraid for her safety. And she’s been sleeping with a loaded gun under her pillow (which Sam has retrieved and gives to a neighbor for safe-keeping. Exhibit B).

The neighbors are properly horrified. How could she? How dare she!! Well, that tears it. We’re sending her to Coventry – if she walks by, don’t even acknowledge her existence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her, and don’t, for heaven’s sake, ask for her side of the story.

Well, I happen to like Susie Q. She’s been my friend for years and yes, she has a short fuse and can be a bit of a hot head. She also has a habit of being brutally honest and offending people at times. Some would call those faults, but those qualities are part of what I like about her. I always know where I stand with Susie Q – she’s a straight-shooter. So I went to Susie and asked for her side of the story.

First of all, why did she leave Sam? They seemed to have a good marriage. Why run out on the poor man?

Well, it seems that Sam has been convinced that Susie Q was going to cheat on him from the day they said, “I do.” After all, he and his first wife cheated on each other, so it only made sense that Susie Q would do the same thing sooner or later. But he wasn’t going to be fooled this time. This time, he would see it coming. So he tapped her phone, put GPS trackers on her car and boat, and ‘security cameras’ inside the house. When he used the GPS tracker to follow her to lunch with an old friend, it was just one straw too many. She didn’t want to fight anymore. She didn’t want to have to prove her innocence over and over. She just wanted out. So she packed up her belongings and moved onto her boat.

But what about the steamy Valentine card? Wasn’t there more to this ‘friendship’ than just an innocent lunch?

Well, it turns out the Valentine card was sixteen years old, a relic from a bygone era. Maybe the yellowed paper and $1.50 price would have been a giveaway had anybody bothered to look.

Then why did she keep the card all these years? Was she still pining for the one who got away?

The truth is that Susie Q is the sentimental type who keeps everything, including the gum wrapper chain she made back in fifth grade.

Okay, but how about the dirty pool? I mean, really, emptying out the man’s bank account, cutting off his utilities, and filing a restraining order for cripe’s sake!

Well, he was living in the house but he wasn’t paying the bills. He didn’t pay the mortgage; he didn’t pay the utilities; he didn’t pay the insurance. So she took the money out of the joint account and paid off the bills. No more, no less. Then she gave him notice that he had two weeks to switch the accounts to his name before she cancelled them out. The restraining order was filed because he was continuing to spy on her, following her and watching her through binoculars. She just wanted to be left alone!

Okay, well there was the gun under her pillow . . .

Look, he has two guns of his own (a detail he failed to mention) and one of them was unaccounted for. She assumed he had it with him. She just felt safer with protection of her own . . . .

So . . . it all boils down to ‘he said/she said.’ Personally, I find the brutally honest, straight-shooter more credible than the smooth talker, but I realize that everyone colors the story to put themselves in the best possible light. That’s human nature.

And I do know this, whether it is a neighborhood drama or climate change or health care legislation, half the story is often worse than nothing at all.

Friday, July 24, 2009

My Respects to Miss Pollyanna

“Betwixt the optimist and pessimist the difference is droll; the optimist the doughnut sees, the pessimist the hole.”
“The pessimist sees the glass as half empty, the optimist sees it as half full.”

Those are the definitions of optimism and pessimism I hear bandied about most often. And if you define optimists and pessimists that way, optimism looks like the superior option. The only problem is, neither definition is true. Optimism and pessimism aren’t about the ability to appreciate what you have, but about an expectation of where you are headed.

So if seeing the glass half full isn’t optimism, what is it? I nominate the term ‘Pollyannaism.’ If you’re not familiar with Eleanor Porter's story, Pollyanna was a young orphan who played ‘the glad game.’ She not only found something to be glad of in every circumstance, but she saw beyond human failings and brought out the best in people. We have come to use the term “Pollyanna” as a negative: “an excessively or blindly optimistic person; also unreasonably or illogically optimistic: some pollyanna notions about world peace,” but Miss Polly deserves better, and so do we -- the world needs more people like her. Moreover, one can be a pessimist and still be a Pollyanna.

So I’m going to rewrite our lexicon. A Pollyanna is a person who sees the doughnut, not the hole. An optimist is one who thinks that despite all evidence to the contrary, everything will work out just fine. And a pessimist is one who believes that even though things appear to be going well, sh*t is bound to hit the fan. I try to be a realist – one who looks at where we are now, what we are doing, and where that is likely to take us. There are times when I come to the conclusion that everything will work out just fine, and there are times when it appears shit is going to hit the fan. But either way, I hope to take lessons from Pollyanna and appreciate what I have while I have it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Good Reads

Some good reads well worth the time:

An article on the Transition Initiative in the US which includes an intro to Peak Oil and opinions from several different sources. One of the best articles on the subject that I've read to date.

Sharon Astyk's ruminations on 'where we live' -- the global markets we rely upon and the consequences of long-distance living.

James Kunstler, in his weekly address "Clusterfuck Nation," explains with his typical acerbic wit why we the economy cannot return to 'normal.' We've been borrowing from tomorrow and tomorrow is finally here:
The US economic situation is going to get a lot worse. Many more people are going to lose incomes and chattels and will suffer, and the moment will arrive when they will direct their anger outward. They need to be told two things: that the borrowed-against future is now here, requiring very different behavior; and that those who received lavish payment for looting the American future unlawfully will be subject to due process of law. So far, nobody has even been fired, let alone officially investigated.

And a plug for Greg Craven's book, What's the Worst That Could Happen?, available now for pre-order! What makes Greg's book different from all others out there is that Greg doesn't try to tell you what to think. His book is about looking at the debate on global climate change from the perspective of risk management, and he offers guidelines on how to evaluate for yourself the information that bombards us from every angle. Plus, Greg is funny.:D He has written an easy-to-read alternative to the academic tomes that weigh down the bookstore shelves. Buy a copy for yourself and one for a friend! (Or buy one to donate to your local library . . . !)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Newsreel, June 2009

Some interesting stuff in the news these days.

The US Global Change Research Program has presented to Congress and the American President a 190 page paper entitled ‘Global Climate Change Impacts in The United States.‘ If you are still wondering whether or not global climate change is real, or whether or not it is anthropogenic, the answers are here. This paper includes the most up-to-date, most thorough answers science has to offer. And if you are wondering if and when and how that might affect you, this paper addresses that, too. Well worth a read. Or if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you can browse the colorful graphics.

Of course, admitting there is a problem isn’t the same as solving it. Where to begin? Well, there’s the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill. Hummmm. Seems Monsanto (one of my all-time favorite moustache-twirling villains) and Dow Chemical (okay, I have more than one favorite!) are pulling some behind the scene shenanigans to promote poisoning of the earth and cornering the entire world’s seed stock as carbon off-sets worthy of subsidies. Lex Luthor would be proud!

In the meantime, we’ve had another shooting in Pensacola. It seems a certain mobile home park got behind on its water bill and so the more than 100 residents (who have been paying their rent all along – which supposedly includes utilities) had their water cut off. No water for over a week and the sewers were beginning to back up. Well, a local church decided to help out. They came over with water, food, and giving hearts. In the midst of this community bonding, a 17-year old from a neighboring town showed up. He had a beef with one of the residents over a stolen wallet, so he shot him in the face. The victim has since died.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a few days later some deputies responded to a call for assistance with a young man who was having a seizure at this very same mobile home park. Somehow, someway, their K-9 dog got out of the sheriff’s car and attacked the patient’s mother, sending her to the hospital with multiple bite wounds. Police aren’t sure how the dog got out of the car, but suggest that the woman aggravated the situation by reacting inappropriately, “’It didn't help that she was hysterical,’ Roy said.”

Bottom line is that if your water is cut off, your sewer is backing up, your neighbor is shot and killed during a church cook-out, your son is having a seizure, and you are being attacked by a police dog, by all means don’t get hysterical!

I am struck by how readily a trigger gets pulled. I am struck by the callousness of the water company and how readily they turned the water off. I am struck by how easily things can go awry when deputies overreact. I am struck by the ‘blame the victim’ attitude of law enforcement. I am struck by the one ray of light in this story – the church members who showed up to offer relief.

I am concerned about the number of guns in this country. I am concerned that hardship brings out the worst in some people. I am concerned that this story is only the beginning . . .

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dear Abby

I’m still not a huge fan of Dimitry Orlov, although if Sharon Astyk were to market “I’d do Dimitry Orlov” bumper stickers, I might buy one just because it’s such a great insider joke.

Maybe part of the problem I have with Dimitry is his off-hand dismissal of efforts such as Transition initiatives. As I see it, any movement toward a more sustainable, more resilient tomorrow is better than sitting around waiting for the sky to fall. We need positive visions of what the world could be. We need more bicycles, more gardens, more community. Okay, maybe reality will fall short of the plans that were made, but a step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction.

Or maybe I have a problem with him because he seems so sure of himself. I like writers who admit they could be wrong. Or maybe because he seems so ‘out there’ – so far out on the fringe that he risks 'kook' status and I’m trying to convince others that doomsayers such as he are not kooks but intelligent, well-informed, rational people who just happen to be really good at reading the tea leaves.

All that said, Dimitry made some salient points that I’d like to share.

In answer to the concern how long before TEOTWAWKI?, Orlov offers the following:

Now: end of growth, onset of permanent crisis.
The next decade: steep declines in the availability of fossil fuels; some of the natural realm left intact; some ability to make alternative arrangements.
The following decade: collapse of fossil fuel industry; natural realm largely destroyed; no ability to make alternative arrangements.

A fast collapse is the optimistic scenario. The alternative is a nasty ‘slow burn.’

The biggest risk of all, as I see it, is that the industrial economy will blunder in for a few more years, perhaps even a decade or more, leaving environmental and social devastation in its wake. Once it finally gives up the ghost, hardly anything will be left with which to start over. To mitigate against this risk, we have to create alternatives, on a small scale, that do not perpetuate this system and that can function without it.


It’s always personal. No one will inform you that collapse has happened; you will only know that it has happened to you.


There are two components to human nature, the social and the solitary. The solitary is definitely the more highly evolved, and humanity has surged forward through the efforts of brilliant loners and eccentrics. Their names live on forever precisely because society was unable to extinguish their brilliance or to thwart their initiative. Our social instincts are atavistic and result far too reliably in mediocrity and conformism. We are evolved to live in small groups of a few families, and our recent experiments that have gone beyond that seem to have relied on herd instincts that may not even be specifically human. When confronted with the unfamiliar, we have a tendency to panic and stampede, and on such occasions people regularly get trampled and crushed underfoot: a pinnacle of evolution indeed! And so, in fashioning a survivable future, where do we put our emphasis: on individuals and small groups, or on larger entities - regions, nations, humanity as a whole? I believe the answer to that is obvious.


I think that what makes us likely to think that technology will save us is that we are addled by it. Efforts at creating intelligent machines have failed, because computers are far too difficult to program, but humans turn out to be easy for computers to program. Everywhere I go I see people poking away at their little mental support units. Many of them can no longer function without them: they wouldn't know where to go, who to talk to, or even where to get lunch without a little electronic box telling what to do. . . .

There are people who believe in the emergent intelligence of the networked realm - a sort of artificial intelligence utopia, where networked machines become hyperintelligent and solve all of our problems. And so our best hope is that in our hour of need machines will be nice to us and show us kindness? If that's the case, what reason would they find to respect us? Why wouldn't they just kill us instead? Or enslave us. Oh, wait, maybe they already have!


Now, supposing all goes well, and we have a swift and decisive collapse, what should follow is an equally swift rebirth of viable localised communities and ecosystems. One concern is that the effort will be short of qualified staff.


We have a huge surplus of “factory-farmed humans” and a shortage of “free-range humans.”


It is an unfortunate fact that the recent centuries of settled life, and especially the last century or so of easy living based on the industrial model, has made many people too soft to endure the hardships and privations that self-sufficient living often involves. It seems quite likely that those groups that are currently marginalised, would do better, especially the ones that are found in economically underdeveloped areas and have never lost contact with nature.

But the best part of the whole article is Orlov’s ardent advice (this aside from his admonition to invest in land and bronze nails):
Conserve energy: get plenty of rest and sleep a lot. Sleeping burns ten times less energy than hard physical labor.

Save time: avoid living by a schedule. Choose the best time to do each thing. Work with the weather and the seasons, not against them.

Pick and choose: always have more to do than you ever plan to get done.

Have plenty of options: You don’t know what the future holds, so (don’t) plan accordingly.

Think for yourself: the popularity of a stupid idea doesn’t make it any less stupid.

Laugh at the world: make sure to maintain a healthy sense of humor.

Now that is much-needed advice -- advice I can even live with!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Future in a Maelstrom

When last we met, I was extolling the virtues of life-to-come, the happy ending I've wrenched from an uncertain future, but it's likely to be a long, rough road from here to there. The whole point of this exercise in crystal ball gazing was to facilitate decision making in the here and now -- if I see a hurricane coming, I can prepare. So how does one prepare for a future in a maelstrom?

First of all, there are the basics to consider. Apart from some highly-skilled followers of Tom Brown, Jr., most of us will need a form of exchange to help provide for our basic needs. Currently, that form of exchange is the dollar bill or some electronic version thereof. But there is a possibility that we will see the end of money as we know it – due to hyperinflation, widespread unemployment, and/or the bankruptcy of the federal government. It could happen that dollar bills will be worth little more than toilet paper (or not as much . . . I do value my toilet paper!) So what's a body to do? Hang onto your gold jewelry and Granny's silver service for starters. And put your change in a jar. Paper money may eventually be more valuable as mulch than legal tender, but metal currencies should retain some value. There may come a day when a penny is worth more than a hundred dollar bill. (Sounds crazy, I know, but crazy seems to be where we are headed!)

You can also start setting yourself up to provide goods or services that will be needed in the future. Plan on having something you can barter or trade. Make yourself more useful alive than dead. The following are what I foresee as useful occupations. You might have your own list:

Food production without the aid of fossil fuel-powered equipment, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, refrigerated storage or transport. This includes not only the obvious – growing edible plants, raising chickens and other egg producers, bee-keeping, raising sheep, goats and cows, fishing and hunting - but also things like baking bread or making cheese.

Mushroom growing – for food, medicine, and as a means of detoxifying and/or enriching soil.

Alcohol production – even in hard times, people want their booze!

Health services that rely upon folk medicines, herbal tonics and remedies, acupuncture, reiki, etc.


Clothing production - sewing new clothes, but also the ability to take existing clothes and get more use out of them. Eventually, we will need those who can take raw materials to a finished piece – i.e. from carding wool to spinning, dyeing, weaving or knitting – or tanning leather.

Production of any useful item, especially those things which are consumable – soap, paper, pen and ink – or those things that will be needed for daily life – such as cob ovens, pottery, furniture, shoes ...

Reconstruction – turning shopping malls into co-housing units, ripping out parking lots to create permaculture gardens.

Mr Fix-It services – everything from rehanging a door that has come off its hinges to replacing glass in a broken window to repairing mechanical devices, especially those that do not rely upon power to operate.

Inventing new uses for old things

Salvage and reclamation (mining dumps and abandoned buildings for reuseables)

Black-smithing, barrel making, milling, broom and basket making – the crafts that are still preserved in places like Williamsburg, VA, Silver Dollar City, MO, Sturbridge, MA, Cherokee, NC and other historical villages and amusement parks.

Power generation (windmills, water wheels, direct solar, geo-thermal, harnessing kinetic energy, oil extraction from plant material)

Power-free alternatives (candle-making, passive solar, horse-breeding, food preservation – drying, pickling, fermenting, root cellaring)

Creation and maintenance of water supply systems

Transportation services (think rick-shaws, horses and buggies, bicycle deliveries, sail and rowboats)

Communication services (ham radio, private mail and delivery services)

In addition to what-to-do, there is where-to-do-it to consider. Do you live in a place where life could go on if things start to fall apart? In deciding whether you should stay where you are or try to move, you might want to consider the following:

Do you know your neighbors? If not, you might want to make a concerted effort to get to know them.
If you do know your neighbors, are they people you could rely upon if things get tough?
Do you have a support system of family and/or friends?
If you didn't have access to motorized transportation, could you get to the places you need to go?
Are there local food markets within walking/biking distance?
Is there enough arable land to feed the locality if the supply chain were to break down?
Could you survive without power for an extended period of time?
What is your water source and how reliable is it?
What is your power source and how reliable is it?
How vulnerable are you to civil unrest or extreme weather events?
How much is crime, particularly turf wars over drug territories, already a problem in your area?
Do you own your home free and clear? If you have a mortgage, is it an adjustable or fixed rate? Do you rent?
What is your source of income and how reliable is it? (Pension funds and retirement checks could disappear. . .)
Could you, where you now live, set up a business that would allow you to offer essential goods or services?

Some of the negatives where you now live could be addressed – for example, installing more insulation, double pane windows, a metal roof, a wood-burning stove (especially if you have access to a renewable source of firewood), or a composting toilet. You could put in water cisterns to collect rainwater and/or create graywater systems for irrigation. You could replace carpeting with a flooring that doesn't need vaccuming (i.e. wood, bamboo, tile, or cork), or throw a block party and get to know your neighbors.

Also keep in mind that some of the negatives may change with changing times – your mortgage indebtedness may disappear if the banking system fails, local ordinances against chickens may go unenforced, land that is now parking lots or golf courses may be converted to food production, zoning laws that prohibit at-home-businesses may come to be ignored. On the other hand, some negatives may only get worse. No place is perfect and no place is guaranteed to be ground zero.

You can also begin the process of building self-sufficiency. Put up a clothesline and hang your clothes to dry. Buy or make a solar oven. Start growing and preserving more of your own food. Build a library of how-to books. Practice frugality -- find ways of reusing more and wasting less (which can be rather fun, actually -- like doing crossword puzzles only better!) Put your money into durable goods that could be useful in a powered-down future: a flint for starting fires, a sturdy bicycle with cart for hauling, inclement weather gear, crank-powered radios and flashlights, non-electric food grinders, a shovel and pruning shears, good knives and a sharpening stone . . . Take advantage of the internet while we still have it to learn all you can. Consider getting chickens or bees. Learn to darn socks and sew patches. Save your vegetable cooking water and use it to water your plants. Take up dancing or a musical instrument. Collect things that matter to you. Experiment. Play with stuff. Cultivate a sense of humor. Drink a little wine with your friends.

Am I following my own advice? Well, some of it. . . As I've said before, none of us really knows what the future holds, but being prepared for the worst seems the better part of wisdom, and could even be fun. When all is said and done, these are interesting times!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Could Be Wrong

Okay, the long-awaited, much-anticipated happy ending, or where Kunstler gets it wrong. James Howard Kunstler, with his highly acerbic wit, has been foretelling The Long Emergency for some time now. And for the most part, I think he has cause and effect pretty well nailed. Where I think he errs is in predicting the demise of suburbia -- wishful thinking on his part. Kunstler hates the suburbs, sees them as an ugly blight on America and an affront to his sense of esthetics. Ugly they may be, but ugliness is not a fatal flaw, not even for boxes of ticky-tacky.

Kunstler assumes that with happy motoring a relic of the past, suburbanites will be forced to flee – either to the more densely populated urban centers or to walkable small towns. While I agree small town life will soar to the top of the hit parade, why would anyone want to relocate to the city? If we do have a break-down in the supply chain, densely populated areas would be hardest hit and more than likely to experience civil unrest, aka ‘get yer guns out boys and let’s have us a looting spree!’ Cities are where black-outs and brown-outs are most likely to trap people in unlivable circumstances and where potentially unsanitary conditions could lead to epidemic. Why would someone living in their own home in a friendly suburb want to uproot and move into chaos? Okay, so maybe the bank actually owns the home and the neighbors aren’t all that friendly, but those are details that can be managed by the resourceful suburbanite.

As I see it, Joe Suburban loses his job. Wifey is still employed but the income is stretched really thin. The kids have to quit the soccer team and karate lessons – gas is too expensive to waste on unnecessary jaunts – but they have dusted off their skateboards and everyone knows to look out for them when they turn into the cul-de-sac. Joe is actively looking for work but with unemployment figures climbing Mt Everest, he is doubtful of finding anything soon. But he can grow a few vegetables in the meantime. Hey, the Obamas have dug up the White House lawn, why not do the same? Soon his front yard tomato patch is one of many on the street. Suzie next door has chickens but no one is telling code enforcement. Suzie is sharing the eggs with neighbors and who knew she had such a killer recipe for blueberry crumble? Tom down the block is being foreclosed upon but the bank is telling him to stay where he is and pay what and when he can. Better to have Tom and kin in the house than another vacant home no one will buy. Mary’s kids have moved back home and her house is a bit crowded, but they’re finding ways to adjust. When the out-of-work gather in the streets to talk economy, the question du jour is ‘how bad will it get?’ Consensus is that it could get really, really bad. No one is spending money on video games or electronic gadgets any more. Every extra dollar goes towards stocking the pantry with staples. Oprah recommends having a three-month supply of food on hand and people are taking her advice. She is Oprah after all.

When Wal-Mart’s shelves start looking bare, the tomato patch becomes a full-fledged garden. The Dervaes family of Pasadena is the new American Idol. There is hunger in suburbia, but not starvation; old Mrs. Applebee can’t get out and garden anymore, but the neighbors take turns bringing her meals. In return, she’s sharing her Depression Era knowledge of how to prepare cabbage a hundred different ways. When gas rationing becomes a reality, Mrs. Suburban can no longer get to work clear across town, so she and Joe turn their garage into a family business. Joe was always good at tinkering so he starts a little repair shop and his wife is cutting hair. Suzie, next door, is running a bakery. Mary, with the houseful of grandkids, puts all those kids on bikes and is running a fetch-and-deliver service; there aren’t many cars on the streets anymore, so traffic isn’t a problem for the two-wheelers. Zoning laws are being ignored with impunity and code enforcement hasn’t been seen in years. There are occasional disputes among neighbors but a newly formed neighborhood council is hearing complaints and people pretty much abide by their decisions.

Not everything is Green Acres meets Leave it to Beaver. Times are tough. People are making do and doing without. The weather is playing havoc, flooding some and leaving others burned out in extended drought. In places where the growing season is short, people are finding it difficult to store up enough food to make it through the winter. Pigeon pie has become a new favorite though some prefer roast squirrel, and venison stew solves the browsing deer problem. Armed gangs make occasional forays out into the suburbs, but not like they used to. Wonder if they’ve all killed each other off?

With all the hardship, one would think people would be bitter and angry. Well, some are. There are those who sit around and moan all day about the good old days and how easy it was back then. But for the most part, people are finding they enjoy their lives more than they ever did. There is a new energy in America, a new sense of purpose. People are finding clever ways to recycle discarded junk into useful new items. Kids are playing in the streets when they’re not being home-schooled or picking peas. Mom brings her homebrew to the nightly neighborhood pot-luck and Dad is helping the next-door neighbor create swales in her garden. The empty house at the end of the block has become a civic center; everyone donated extra tools, cooking utensils, sewing supplies and books to its lending library. When advertising dried up, television went off the air, and the internet is down, but radio has enjoyed a new surge in popularity. Oh, it’s not the commercial radio of a few years back, this is people in their garages giving the local news, relaying messages to loved ones in distant places, reading recipes and putting on talent shows. The electrical grid has become unreliable but people are generating their own power with windmills made from parts salvaged from the dump. It’s not 24 hour power, but it’s enough to get by. And it’s not the America we thought we were getting when we were saving to send our kids to college and putting our money in 401K's, but it’s an America of amazingly resourceful, innovative, caring people who have risen to the challenge of their times and have been pleasantly surprised by life without widescreen TV’s and morning commutes.

Okay, that’s the happy ending I’ve managed to eke from where I see us headed. Of course, I could be wrong. Actually, I know I’m wrong. The future always has a joker to play – the one thing no one foresaw, the one thing that changed everything. No one ever gets it right. But maybe I’m close. And maybe not.

Friday, April 17, 2009

And They Lived Happily Ever After

I’m a sucker for happy endings. If a book or movie doesn’t have a happy ending, I don’t want anything to do with it. That’s part of why I spend so much time peering into my crystal ball, trying to understand where we’re headed. As I look at the near future, I see us falling inexorably into turmoil – but what comes after that? I’m trying to look far enough into the future to find the happy ending. Which brings me to John Michael Greer and where I believe he has it wrong.

I have only been reading the archdruid a short time, so I may be mischaracterizing his prognostications, but he did write recently, “one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process.” I’m not sure what he means by ‘the fall of civilizations’ as it applies to life-as-we-know-it, nor am I certain what he means by ‘slow,’ but I do have my own take on where we might be going and how fast we’re getting there.

I believe that life-as-we-know-it is about to change drastically and forever and that the process will be anything but slow. It will, however, be uneven. If you live in Monroeville, Alabama where the paper mill that was one of the town’s biggest employers has now shut down, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. If you live downriver from TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. If you lived in Plaquemines Parish, Pass Christian or Dauphin Island prior to Katrina, life-as-you-know-it has already changed. But are these isolated events – life as it has always been – or are these events part of a newly emerging pattern of disaster?

The answer to that question is a long one. It begins with money. Money is a shared fiction – dollar bills have no intrinsic worth and for the most part our money today isn’t even that tangible – it’s nothing more than numbers in a computer. As long as we all agree to share the fiction, things go along pretty smoothly, but lately the fiction is wearing thin. Chris Martenson does a very easy-to-understand crash course in global economics but the bottom line is this: our financial system is based on growth. Without growth, everything falls apart. Our whole economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme where tomorrow’s assumed growth is what pays today’s bills. To keep everything greased and in running order, we must spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need. If we stop spending – because we’ve been laid off from the mill or the business where we worked is now wiped off the planet by a tidal wave or just because we’ve decided that we don’t need all that junk – then the dominoes begin to fall, and once they start falling, they will have to play themselves out. I don’t see how it can happen any other way. We cannot sustain infinite growth in a finite world – eventually we will run up against the wall of limited resources and I believe that eventually is now. Yes, there are great new ideas out there – cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, for example -- but the scale of the necessary changeover and the pressures of limited time and funding mitigate against a smooth transition. And as with any transition, there is hardship. What happens to lumber jacks and coal miners if we no longer need their services? What happens to Chinese manufacturers if we no longer buy their plastic salad shooters?

After money, we have oil. Oil is the wonder resource – it not only provides cheap, abundant energy, but it provides it in an easy-to-refine-and-use form and leaves us with side benefits -- the chemical concoctions that make agri-business a going concern and provide us with our ubiquitous plastics. But oil is running out. Okay, we’ve only used about half of the world’s supply, but it was the easy, cheap half. And as demand eventually outpaces supply, we will see both rising prices and shortages. Rising oil prices means that the price of everything goes up. Considering the shaky foundation of the all-mighty dollar, we could even see hyper-inflation. Shortages could just mean long lines at the gas pump but they could mean much worse, especially if they occur during a long, cold winter. And if there is a sustained disruption in our oil supply, we could see something that looks like this:

Almost overnight, gas stations are running on empty. The trucking industry is unable to deliver groceries to the stores. The airline industry is unable to get its airplanes in the sky. International commerce grinds to a halt as cargo ships sit idle in ports. Farmers are unable to get gas for their equipment or fertilizers for their fields. Construction equipment sits rusting. The power industry is unable to deliver coal to power plants. The power grid is still viable but unreliable. In a desperate measure, the U.S. government starts rationing gasoline. First priority are the military, emergency responders, and public works. Second priority are truckers transporting food and/or coal. Third priority are farmers and coal miners. Private vehicles are last on the list. Many of those who still have jobs are forced to quit as they can no longer get themselves to work.

Yes, but it doesn't have to be oil. We can build electric cars, wind mills, solar arrays, and generators powered by the tides. We can use passive solar and geo-thermal to heat our homes and photo-voltaics to power our television sets. Maybe, but here again, the scale of the necessary changeover and the pressures of limited time and funding mitigate against a smooth transition. And none of the above can replace oil’s side benefits.

I’m not even going to go into the possibility of war, water shortages, or extreme weather events due to climate change because I think that we already have enough ingredients for a breakdown in civil order. People who are out of work, out of food, and out of hope but who have ready access to guns won’t sit quietly by and wait for things to get better. That takes me back to my previous post.

What???? I thought she was giving us a happy ending. Well, stay tuned . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dark Thoughts on a Bright Morning

I'm suffering from cognitive dissonance. I log onto the web and read in the blogs of people like Dimitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, and James Howard Kunstler that we are already well into national collapse and that our economy will only get worse, much, much worse, never, ever to recover. Then I turn on the TV and everyone, from the President to the man-on-the-street, is talking about 'things getting back to normal' with the question being 'when,' not 'if.' I look outside the window and the world looks the same today as it did yesterday. I go to Wal-Mart and the shelves are stocked, people are buying, and we are still a nation of abundance. Kids are going off to college and getting degrees in public relations and business administration. The neighbor ladies are planning their shopping trips as if they were mini-vacations. Golf courses are selling memberships, Creekstone is selling multi-million dollar mansions, and the stock market is selling stocks. Have I bought into the insane ramblings of fringe kooks? I ask myself that question almost daily and every time the answer is the same: our whole economic model is based on an absurd fallacy of infinite growth in a finite world. We may be able to eke out a few more months, even possibly a few more years, of business-as-usual, but business-as-usual cannot last much longer. So it isn’t what the pundits are writing that convinces me, it is the truth as I see it. I admit to the possibility of being wrong, but until convinced otherwise, I must live within the parameters of this reality.

Why this obsession of mine? I am trying desperately to understand where we are and where we are headed so that I may make intelligent decisions in the here and now. Three questions remain – how bad will it get, how long do we have, and what can I/should I do? I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but I spend an inordinate amount of time reading what others have to say and considering their take on things.

Dimitry Orlov uses the collapse of the Soviet Union as a model for what’s to come, but I think the differences are as important as the similarities and if he addresses those, I haven’t yet found it.

I believe the collapse of the United States will be worse than that of the Soviet Union for many reasons, the first of which is widespread gun ownership. In the USSR, guns were in the hands of trained professionals. These trained professionals, after the collapse, became a danger to society, but they were limited in number and they were for hire. In the US, guns are in the hands of petty thugs, organized crime, militant survivalists and AngryWhite Men. Cities will be hardest hit, but small towns won’t be immune. The bloodbath is likely to be horrific. In the beginning, I see the National Guard and local authorities being used as peace enforcers, but as collapse accelerates, they are as likely to become part of the problem as part of the solution. In cities, violence is likely to be random and chaotic in the beginning, but becoming more organized as time goes on. Thugs will form gangs, gangs will organize into competing Mafiosi, Angry White Men will shoot anyone who comes to the front door, and all the elements will be at odds. Sarajevo comes to mind. In the small towns, it may be just loonies who go on shooting sprees. But in some towns, there will be local thugs who band together to grab power and take control of dwindling resources. Angry White Men will stand in opposition. In some places, thugs will win. In others, they will be wiped out and Angry White Men will take control, which may or may not be any better. And in still others, coalitions will be formed. I don’t think national and state governments will disappear entirely, but I do think they will become increasingly irrelevant. Who ends up in control of the towns’ daily life and resources will depend on the comparative strength of local groups and their respective willingness to work together in peace.

Another reason the US will be worse off than the USSR is the old adage, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” The average American lives a life of much greater ease and prosperity than the average Soviet ever did. We have farther to fall, so the trauma will be that much greater. Adding to that is the American sense of entitlement and invulnerability – “it can’t happen here” is so basic a belief as to be almost unshakeable. The Russians, however, have a fatalistic mindset. They see life as struggle, and, indeed, their history has been one of constant struggle. So, not only will we have further to fall, we are psychologically ill-equipped to deal with harsh realities. Nor are we equipped to deal with the physical realities – public transportation is all but non-existent, supply chains are long, and farming has become, for the most part, agri-business. Rare is the family farm with horses and oxen or the blacksmith with fire and forge. The Soviet Union had not advanced so far as to have almost obliterated the old ways of doing things.

Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a rather isolated event. While their country was imploding, the rest of the world was going its merry way. It won’t be that way with the collapse of the US – in part due to a global economy that relies upon American consumerism and the American dollar, in part because the international web of finances binds our fates together, and in part because we share a common, fatally flawed economic model. The poor countries may fare the best – once we stop exploiting their resources to feed our insatiable appetite for stuff, they may have a chance to recover what they have lost. I hope they do. But it won’t be a collapse of the USA, it will be a global collapse with much more dire consequences.

The energy equation is also significant. Russia had enough oil and natural gas to supply not only its own needs, but to export in exchange for hard currencies. The US has no such luck. Not only is our own supply of cheap, abundant energy insufficient, but the global supply will soon become increasingly tight and expensive. As the shortfall becomes more and more apparent, the nations with oil are likely to begin hoarding it for their own use or selling it to the highest bidder. And when it is gone, it is gone. We’ll find some alternatives, but nothing will replace what we have squandered.

And lastly, the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred during a time of relative peace, prosperity, and climate stability. The collapse of the United States will occur during a time of potential resource wars, global poverty, and climate instability. Everything will be falling apart at once. Epidemics are likely to sweep across the world, natural catastrophes are likely to accelerate, and the food distribution chain is likely to disintegrate at a time when the world is not able to respond.

There are, however, some ways in which the US may fare better than our Soviet counterparts. For one, we are not an uneasy collection of conquered nations – we are truly a united people with a united fate. For another, our politicians are elected, not selected, and we do have more freedom than the average Soviet ever imagined. We have churches with a long tradition of reaching out to those in need, and we have a heritage of pioneering spirit. I watch Americans pull together to fight a flood, to rescue a community torn apart by tornado, or to comfort the victims of random violence. I see the upsurge in home gardening, the renewed interest in raising chickens and keeping bees, the inventiveness of earthships and alternative housing. I sense that there are great untapped resources in America just waiting to be unleashed. I think Americans, not all, but a significant number, will rise to the occasion in ways that will surprise everyone, myself included.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thinking, a head

I am not by nature a skeptic, but I am trying to become one. Growing up, I was taught not to question -- "because I said so" was a standard response at both home and school -- and to question God's Word, aka the Bible, was heresy so dire as to risk Eternal Hellfire and Brimstone. So nurture shares blame with nature. A lot to overcome, but not impossible.

Why the late-life effort to birth a skeptic's mindset? Because I have come to realize that we need to be questioning everything. We need to question what we are told by politicians and news media and religious leaders and the check-out clerk at Walmart. We are in critical times and critical times require the truth. If I am to know the truth, I will have to dig for it. It takes vigilance -- I tend to believe those with whom I agree without doing the proper excavation. Vigilance and practice. I'm not there yet, but I'm working at it.

However, skepticism is more than just questioning fact and opinion, it is identifying and questioning underlying assumptions. And this, my friend, is where true adventure takes place. When we take our most cherished beliefs, beliefs so fundamental that they have become virtually invisible, and hold them up to scrutiny, magical things can happen. This is the realm of the aha-moment. This is the realm of quantum leaps. And if one is so lucky as to possess a mind both skeptical and inventive . . . No genie in a bottle could hold more potential!

But are these qualities that can be learned? Is there any chance that both nature and nurture can be fooled into a change of course? My newfound skeptic says, "Believe no one. Check it out for yourself." And so I will.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wishing You Enough

In America, we are extremely fortunate to lead lives of abundance. We do have homeless and hungry, but most of us have never known true poverty. We've always had enough. More than enough. Truth be told, most of us are burdened with way too much.

And too much is a burden . . . not to the same painful degree that too little may be. Without a doubt, the starving in Darfur would love to be burdened with too much. But what most of us don't seem to realize, as we run around frantically cramming more and more into our already overcrowded lives, is that too much is uncomfortable as well. Excess has to be dealt with. Where do you put those new shoes? You need a bigger house with bigger closets. Where do you put those excess calories, waistline or hips? Where do you invest your excess wealth? The stock market is volatile and bonds are risky. We suffer from too much entertainment and not enough connection. We suffer from too much escapism and not enough pragmatism.

We need to rediscover enough. Enough is warm and fuzzy . . . it's stretching out in a comfortable chair and losing yourself in a great book. Enough is taking a walk with a wide-eyed three-year-old and stopping to watch a caterpillar inch its way along a twig. Enough is a candlelight dinner with your one true love, even if it is yesterday's stew. Enough is a warm blanket on a cold, rainy day. Enough is when you stop at full and happy, avoiding stuffed and bloated.

I read an article today that sums it up well:

"I think that the real trick to finding that sense of satisfaction is to realize you don't need much to attain it. A window-box salad garden and a mandolin hanging on the back of the door can be all the freedom you need. If it isn't everything you want for the future, let it be enough for tonight. Living the way you want has nothing to do with how much land you have or how much you can afford to spend on a new house. It has everything to do with the way you choose to live every day and how content you are with what you have. . . . Find your own happiness and dance with it."*

So for now, I wish you enough.

*From "Life on the Homestead," by Jenna Woginrich in Mother Earth News, April/May 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Was That a Coors?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we had a prolific new member at Dblspeed, as he called himself, wrote long posts with multiple questions that none of us regulars had the time or patience to answer. Then on Christmas day, in the lull between opening packages and fixing dinner, I sat down with my computer and attempted to answer some of his obvious misconceptions. I thought it one of my more brilliant posts. As far as I know, no one ever read it. Not wishing such brilliance to go to waste, I've decided to reprint it here. So here, in a nutshell, is the history of the IPCC:

Once upon a time, back in the 1970's, there were a bunch of scientists who were sitting in the local bar having a brew. As the evening wore on and the effects of beer became more noticeable, scientist #1 turned to scientist #2 and said, "You know, Joe, I've been thinking. We all know that greenhouse gases are what keep our planet warm enough to support life. And we all know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And we know that burning fossil fuels releases abnormally high amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Do you think there's any chance that all this CO2 we're releasing could heat the planet a tad too much?" Before Joe could answer, scientist #3 leaned over the bar and put in his two cents worth. "Naw, Veronica. It sounds logical, but the facts don't support your little hypothesis. The world isn't getting warmer, it's getting cooler. For all we know, we could be starting into another ice age." Joe looked at them both a moment and then said, "By golly, this sounds like an important question. Maybe we should dig into this a bit and find out for sure!"

Fast forward to the 1980's. The same bunch of scientists are having another drink at the same bar and the same conversation comes up once again. "Hey, Joe, remember when we said we were going to take a look at that greenhouse gas thing? You done any research yet?" Joe answered, "Yeah, I've been doing quite a bit of research and I'm beginning to notice a trend here. Atmospheric CO2 levels are definitely on an upward climb. How about you, Veronica, have you got anything for us?" "Well, I guess I do. I've been studying particles in the atmosphere -- you know, air pollution, volcanic ash, etc., and it looks like some of them have a cooling effect. If we didn't have those floating around, blocking the sun, the climate would be a good deal warmer." Scientist #3 put in his three cents worth, "I've been studying this ice age idea and that was a dead end -- it seems it was those particles that caused the cooling trend, not an imminent ice age. Maybe your hypothesis on global warming has some merit after all, Veronica, but I still think we need more research before we jump to any conclusions." Joe nodded vigorously. "You're absolutely right, Lester, but who is going to put it all together? We need someone who takes my research and your research and Veronica's there and looks at the big picture. We need something like an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We could ask the top scientists the world over to review our findings and put them together into one comprehensive report every few years. Whatcha think, guys?" They all said, "Here, here," and clinked beer glasses in agreement. And that is how the IPCC was born.

Okay, so I took a little literary license. If you want to know the dry facts without the colorful embellishment, click here.

The IPCC does not do research of its own. It is comprised of hundreds of scientists the world over who study peer-reviewed research done in their field of expertise and look at the implications of that research. They are interested in the big picture, the one you don't get if you only look at individual studies. Their final report goes through an exhaustive review process which, in effect, waters it down a bit (opinions at both ends of the spectrum tend to get washed out in the process). Peer review, by the way, is not a nutritionist reviewing work by an astronomer. It is a physicist reviewing work by a physicist in his own particular field of physics -- it is experts reviewing experts and looking for any possible mistakes. That does not mean infallibility, it just means as accurate as humanly possible. That is why the IPCC reports are taken so seriously -- they represent the work of the thousands of scientists who are doing on-the-ground research. They represent the thousands of scientists who are doing the armchair reviews of the thousands of scientists who are doing on-the-ground research. And they represent thousands of man-hours by the most knowledgeable people on earth who put it all together and present 'the big picture.' When they say a conclusion is 'unequivocal,' that is as close to proof as the science community will ever come.

As for the claim that the IPCC has never done even one study that can be replicated by others, the answer to that is, "True." The IPCC does not do studies, they review studies. And the studies they review are based on empirical data that can be checked by anyone who wishes to spend time examining ice cores in Greenland or measuring CO2 on Mauna Loa. They do create computer models that put the findings into a projection of what we can expect in the future given a variety of scenarios. As the years have gone by, their models have gotten more and more reliable -- for one thing, there is more data for what is currently going on in the world. For another, there is better proxy evidence for what has happened in the past. And for another thing, computers have gotten more sophisticated and our ability to use them has improved vastly. You may see headlines along the lines of "The Arctic is melting faster than models predicted" and that, too, is for several reasons. One is the watering down process that eliminated the extremes in the models but not in real life. Another reason is that the models do not include all positive feedback systems because not enough is known about them and how they interact. And lastly, the IPCC assumed that the world would have listened and started mitigating emissions by now . . . and instead, emissions have increased.

Dblspeed, I don't know where you are, but this beer's for you!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Schooling, the Right and Wrong of It

I haven't thought much about education lately -- though at one time it was an obsession of mine. Thankfully, Sharon Astyk has been thinking enough for all of us. I highly recommend her most recent posting.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Not the Grand Canyon Yet, But Getting There

This past week there has been a conference in Copenhagen at which some of the world's smartest people have been announcing the world's most important news. Did you know that? If you scavenge the internet as I do, it has been a hot topic. However, if you get your news from the local paper and national news shows, you probably haven't a clue.

The world's most important news? Yeah, right, says who? . . . Well consider the following:

The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (where much of the hard science on global climate destabilization is conducted) has warned that even with significant reductions of CO2, we have only a 50-50 chance of preventing catastrophic climate change. The degree of reductions needed to get even the 50-50 chance are not yet being considered, much less implemented.

The Amazonian rainforests are already facing the likelihood of an irreversible 20-40% die-off and much worse if temperatures increase in excess of 2C, which is where we'll be if we don't act soon. The Amazon is known as the lungs of the world because it not only sequesters CO2 but also provides some of the oxygen we breathe. Without the Amazon, this would be a very different world!

If that's not enough to twist your shorts, climate change is exacerbating the water crisis in an overpopulated world and could conceivably "render half of world's inhabited areas unliveable."

I could go on, but you get the point. And that's just the climate change slice of the pie. If you tune into Chris Martenson's The Crash Course or read James Howard Kunstler, it becomes pretty obvious that our economy shares a fate with poor, old Humpty Dumpty. We built our economic model on one giant Ponzi scheme, and now that it is broken, all the king's horses and all the king's men aren't going to put it together again. And while our attention is fixed on gluing eggshells back together, Peak Oil is waiting in ambush.

It would be easy at this point to give up in despair, but despair is not what is called for, change is. And change is not only possible, it is already happening the world over. In the UK, Rob Hopkins and friends have started a transition initiative for re-creating self-sufficiency in our towns and cities. In the US, the permaculture movement is gaining momentum with individuals the likes of Sharon Astyk and the Dervaes family, and with entire towns such as Earthaven. In Austin, Texas, the Rhizome Collective is teaching people how to make windmills out of used bicycle parts and use bioshelters to grow food and house chickens. In the deserts of Jordan, new ways of farming are transforming wasteland into gardens, and in Lesotho, South Africa, Cowforce is teaching people to grow their own food in amazing little keyhole gardens.

So what's the big deal? We have problems and we have solutions. Well, our biggest problem is the huge gap between the people who understand the challenges we face and those who don't. The solutions are there, but unless we embrace them as a culture, they are destined to be too little too late. We need to change everything, from the way we grow and distribute our food to the way we manufacture and sell our goods to the way we structure our society.

You've got to be kidding! I like my life the way it is! No one is going to tell me what to grow in my yard or where to set the thermostat or what kind of toilet paper to buy! Everything is fine just the way it is. Well maybe not so fine, but it will be in a few months when the economy gets back to normal -- when my stocks go back up, when my house starts appreciating once again. This is just another cycle like every other cycle. Watch the news -- every night they talk about the recovery and how soon it will happen. And as for that global warming talk, there are smart people on both sides of the argument. I don't know who to believe, but it won't happen for a hundred years anyway. There are plenty of smart scientists in this world -- they'll find a way to fix it. Peak Oil? Give me a break. There's plenty of oil still to be found -- they're finding more every day. And even if they don't, we have hundreds of years of coal still in the ground. Don't mess with my life, Bub!

The gap between what is real and what is popular myth has gotten so huge that it is approaching the Grand Canyon in scale. And the larger the gap becomes, the harder it is to make the leap from one side to the other. The truth is not easy to grasp; it involves changing all one's perceptions of culture as we know it. Unfortunately, those of us who have made the leap just look like crazed lunatics to those who haven't. And sometimes even to ourselves.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Is it Crazy in Here or is it Just Me?

Picture this:

Act I: The earth is in danger of overheating. Sam Scientist has made a critical discovery and is running around waving data sheets in the air and warning everyone of the coming calamity . . . but no one is paying much attention. Joe Politician, being Joe Politician, tries to shush the doomsayer – “We don’t want to create a panic,” he says, “Just do what you have to do to fix it.” “This isn’t something I can fix on my own,” Sam calls to Joe’s retreating back as Joe returns his attention to baby kissing.

Act II: The climate is showing signs of stress. Weather-related disasters are more violent, more frequent. Sam is back with even more data to substantiate his fears. He implores Joe to listen and take action. “I thought I told you to fix it,” Joe growls from the side of his mouth without missing a single wave to his cheering public. This time Sam is not so easily dismissed. He follows Joe into the crowd calling in strident tones, “We have got to do something before it is too late or mankind will be facing extreme hardship for the next one thousand years.” The crowd grows quiet as all eyes focus on Joe’s calm, smiling face. Joe turns the attention to Sam with a sweep of his hand. “This man,” he tells the crowd, “has come to me with an unproven theory that the earth is getting warmer. He wants you to drive less, consume less, change your light bulbs and adjust your thermostats. He wants me to tax you for your energy use. He wants me to take your hard-earned money and invest it in fancy, schmancy new technologies that will cost billions of dollars. What do you want?” Joe asks the crowd with a smirk. “Should I raise your taxes?” “No new taxes!!” the crowd calls in response. “Should I invest your money in unproven technology?” “No new spending!!” the crowd calls in response. “Should we cut back on consumption?” “No new rules,” the crowd roars, “let’s go shopping!” With a grim face, Sam turns away, muttering under his breath. “Do what I told you in the first place,” Joe calls to the forlorn figure. “Fix it!”

Act III: A jubilant Sam strides confidently into Joe’s office. “I’ve done it!” he exclaims loudly, “I’ve figured out how to fix it!” Joe leans back in his chair and puts his feet on the desk. “I knew you would,” he grins. “I have every confidence in your abilities! So, tell me, what’s your plan?” “I’m going to build a cannon .6 miles in diameter,” Sam begins. “And I’m going to load it with tons of little mirror-like lenses. Then I’m going to blast the mirrors a million miles out into space. They will fan out and form a shield about 100,000 miles square. This shield will reflect enough sunlight so that earth won’t overheat after all.” “Brilliant!” Joe replies. “When can you have this ready?” “In twenty or thirty years. Of course, I’ll need money to build this thing. Oh, and the mirrors will need replacing every fifty years or so.” “Every fifty years -- for how long?” “Oh, I don’t know – a thousand years -- maybe longer.” “What about this cannon. Is it safe?” “Well, not really. As a matter of fact, it’s enormously dangerous.” “And what about the mirrors, any chance they could cool the earth too much? Or disrupt photosynthesis and plant growth? Or that we wouldn’t get enough sunlight to keep our tans?” “Don’t know until we try it, do we?” “Sounds great!! How much did you say this would cost?” “Well, I’m figuring $350 trillion but you know -- cost overruns, inflation, resource depletion, peak oil – who can say for sure? But heck, if it can save the world for centuries to come, it’s gotta be worth it!”

No, wait!! Hollywood won’t buy off on this one. Even the most hardcore sci-fi fans expect some degree of plausibility. Something this crazy could never be fiction, it could only be true.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Not a Ski-resort

Jeff Vail is an attorney at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver, Colorado specializing in litigation and energy issues. He is a former intelligence officer with the US Air Force and energy infrastructure counterterrorism specialist with the US Department of the Interior.
Hardly the profile I would have expected from a like mind, but life is full of surprises!

Jeff's latest post on scale-free design has me really excited. In a nutshell (does using that cliché make me a nutcase?):
Scale-free design describes a process that operates similarly at any scale, at any level of organization, that is fractal in structure. It is neither grass-roots nor top-down, but rather consciously, simultaneously “all of the above.” More than that, rather than merely a collection of separate national, local, and individual programs, it strives to develop programs and practices that operate simultaneously at all these levels. A simple example would be the achievement of 25% energy self-sufficiency—that is, for individuals to produce 25% of their energy needs domestically, for communities to produce a further 25% of their energy needs locally, etc.

Not only that, but Jeff takes as his model for organization the rhizome, a metaphor I am coming across more and more often as I delve into the wondrous spheres of the internet. The rhizome, as Jeff explains it:
takes it name from plants such as bamboo, aspen, or ginger that spread via a connected underground root system. As metaphor, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used rhizome to refer to a non-hierarchal form of organization. I have extended this metaphor, referring to rhizome as an alternative mode of human organization consisting of a network of minimally self-sufficient nodes that leverage non-hierarchal coordination of economic activity.

And what's more, the man is brilliant in areas I know nothing about. (When I called us like minds I was not, alas, implying a shared brilliance, only a shared outlook on life.) He blogs on topics such as fractional reserve banking and oil price volatility as it relates to the cobweb model and explains them in ways even I can understand!

And for those who may not understand the title, the reference was to Vail, Colorado, a ski-resort. Lame, I know, but there it is!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Roulette Anyone?

I have many vices, but gambling isn't one of them. When I take a risk, I like to know that the odds are in my favor. I can spend a whole week in Vegas and not bet a single nickel. This time, I have no choice. The bet has already been made -- the future of Mother Nature and all her children, including me and mine -- on a spin of the roulette wheel. The wheel is in motion, but where do I place my chips?

The table offers a range of squares. There are the Joe Romm and Thomas Friedman versions of the future -- you know, we save the world through conservation, efficiency and techno-glitz. There are Rob Hopkins versions where the world powers down to a simpler life of local sufficiency, much like my favorite poster child, Earthaven. Middle of the spectrum is Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand (rather terrifying to think that Kunstler is middle of the spectrum!), followed by a survival-of-the-most-ruthless version of Mad Max. Worst of all is the James Lovelock death toll: we're done for, so relax and enjoy the game. Somewhere on the table is my mother's version, the biblical apocalypse of Revelation. She is trying desperately to bring me back into the fold before the Rapture, but Jesus can't save a soul that denies the need for salvation.

I stand here, watching the wheel spin, trying to calculate the odds. I dismiss Lovelock and Revelation -- no bets could cover those odds! That leaves me with the Friedman/Romm to Mad Max range. There are days when I think Friedman and Romm could be right. Maybe we will get clean electrons up and running in time to power a miracle fleet of plug-in vehicles. Or maybe we'll be running our cars on compressed air. Happy motoring and the suburban lifestyle don't have to be a dead end, do they? And if we revitalize our train system, much of our current trucking could be done by rail. But what about farm equipment, construction machinery, airplanes and ocean freighters? If we are truly at peak oil, and I see every indication that we are, then personal auto transportation is but a small piece of the pie. Okay, but maybe we'll find huge new oil reserves in the melting Arctic. Oh, wait, then we would save ourselves from peak oil only to kill the planet with global warming. . . And I haven't even touched on water, food and resource shortages, climate extremes, epidemics, refugee conflicts, or the potential for war.

Joe, Thomas, I just don't see it happening your way. If we're smart, we'll get a Hopkins/Earthaven future. If we're stupid but lucky, we'll get a Kunstler world made by hand. And if we keep playing with our eyes closed, we'll be sharing the future with Mad Max. To quote a Judy Fjell song, "There's no way out of this one, no way that I can see, no place that I can run to . . . "

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets and take your chances!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wisdom of the Ages

Some great quotations on the internet today, thanks to a challenge by Nate Hagens at The Oil Drum.

"Watch money. Money is the barometer of a society's virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion---when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing---when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors---when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them against you---when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice---you may know that your society is doomed."
Ayn Rand

"The survival of the fittest is the ageless law of nature, but the fittest are rarely the strong. The fittest are those endowed with the qualifications for adaptation, the ability to accept the inevitable and conform to the unavoidable, to harmonize with existing or changing conditions."
-- Dave E. Smalley

“It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”
Douglas Adams

"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money."
Apparently a native Indian saying.

"The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
- Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, at the Nuremberg War Trials

“This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
- "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
Kenneth Boulding, economist

“Being right too soon is socially unacceptable.”
Robert A. Heinlein

And my own submissions:
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
Abraham Lincoln

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Pyramids of Egypt Got Nothing On Us

On a scale of one to ten, what I know about financial markets is a minus two. Talk about derivatives and hedge funds and futures, and I can't even begin to follow. But even I understand pyramid schemes -- to keep them from collapsing, you must constantly bring in new capital, you must keep growing. Pyramid schemes work great in the beginning -- the guys at the top get rich, the guys in the middle get promises of getting to the top, and the guys at the bottom believe they too will get their day. But eventually all pyramids reach the limit of their growth potential and the poor schmoes on the bottom get crushed in the implosion. That's why pyramid schemes are illegal. That's why Madoff is in soooo much trouble.

But, hey, wait -- isn't that how our whole financial system is structured? Isn't it all one giant Ponzi scheme? Isn't that why we're desperately pumping more money into the pyramid to keep it from imploding? Like I said, what I know is a minus two, so I could have this all wrong.

What led me to this conclusion was an article by Chuck Burr, also known as culturequake. To quote from his article:

Total world derivatives are $1000 trillion or 19 times the total world GDP of $54 billion. Over-the-counter derivatives total $684 trillion of which 67 percent are interest rate swaps. Exchange-traded derivatives total $344 trillion. Interest rate swaps are the largest derivative powder keg waiting to blow the world financial markets to supernova.
Our capitalist global casino is a house of cards. If the economy continues to sink, credit default swaps will be the first to blow as we move from hundreds of billions to trillions in corporate quarterly losses. This triggers more deficit spending, which ignites more inflation which lights the fuse to the interest rate swaps supernova.

Greater financial risk plus plummeting earnings per share pushes stock markets lower, which increases pension deficits and defaults (S&P 500 Corporate Earnings chart). As mentioned in my previous essay, America’s 500 largest companies have a deficit of $200 billion in their pension plans. If the Dow hits 4,000, pension deficits would rise to $400 to $500 billion. Retirees lose their pensions and stock market investments. Many will be left with just their FDIC insured deposits if the government does not default.

What applies to the financial markets applies to our entire economical model -- our current economy is built upon a foundation of ever increasing debt. To keep our system from collapsing, it must grow. Housing prices must go up, salaries must go up, sales must go up, tax revenues must go up. If we reach the limit of our growth potential, the whole thing will implode and the poor schmoes at the bottom will get crushed.

Sounds just like a pyramid scheme to me. But, hey, I could be wrong!

[G:As it turns out, I'm not the only one who sees it this way! Check out Joe Romm's piece: Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme, are we all Bernie Madoffs, and what comes next? Part 1]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gold Party

Years ago, I went to a lingerie party. Not proud of it, but there it is. Years before that, I went to a Mary Kay cosmetic party, and years before that, a Tupperware party. So, hey, I've been around the block. I'm no virgin!

But a gold party? "Bring your old gold jewelry," she said, "the stuff you don't want anymore. You know, broken chains, singleton earrings, or pieces you no longer wear." (She must not have access to my jewelry box or she would know that I have very little of the 'real stuff'!) "I went to one last week," she continued. "Took in a handful of gold and would have been happy with 50 bucks. I went home with 450!!"

"I think I'll pass," I answered. "I mean, if it's worth that much now, I'll just hang on to it. Might be worth even more someday."

"Well," she replied, "I figure it this way. People don't want to invest in stocks right now so they're looking for a place to put their money. Gold is it. But when the economy recovers, stocks will go up and gold will go down. Might as well get while the getting is good."

I didn't tell her where I think the economy is going, but it's not back up. And gold probably is a good investment, but I don't like the way it's mined. Odd, isn't it, how much value we put in a relatively useless yellow metal? It's good for jewelry and coins but not much more -- too soft for tools. And you can't eat it, drink it, or use it for shelter.

I hung up the phone, feeling as if I had been kicked in the stomach. How could we have dug our way so far down into the hole and still not notice the bad air? Well, I'm hanging onto my gold, the little that I do have, and I'm putting my coins in a jar every night. Just another insurance policy.

Friday, February 6, 2009


I have an elephant that follows me everywhere. He's invisible to just about everyone I know, so I try not to refer to him too often -- no point in giving people even more reason to believe I'm a bit screwy. But he is hard to ignore! Some days we tolerate one another rather well, but lately he seems to be getting more insistent -- he likes pushing me around, making me jump through hoops. There are days when he looks so terrifying that he scares the bejeebers out of me; there are nights when he sits on my chest and makes it hard to sleep, and there are mornings when he boots me out of bed at o-dark-thirty. But the hardest thing is that he's always there, the elephant in the room, and to preserve any claim on normalcy, I have to pretend otherwise.

At least he's not pink!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inauguration Day

Tuesday at 12:00 noon EST, the world changed. The polar shift was completed. As fate would have it, the moment was marked, not with an oath of office, but with soaring strains of music.

The critical mass was reached last November, evidenced by the majority vote. And now it is done and needs only be played out. Not that we won’t each have our role to play -- Obama made that evident in his inaugural speech. The polar shift was not accomplished by one man but by us all. And together we go forward.

If I were to write a description of the perfect person to be elected President, it would look exactly like Obama. Even the color of his skin and his family story are perfect. Such a man does not come our way by accident. He will go down in history among the greats. Even if we fail in this grand experiment, and I no longer think we will, he will be listed with Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandella, Mahatma Ghandi, and the like. I know this not from what he will do but from who he is. Of course, he will be forced to make compromises. He will have to prioritize. He will make mistakes. But who he is as a man will not change. Even if the unthinkable occurs and he is brought down by an assassin, the moment has been done and cannot be undone. In death, he would be even larger than in life. The poles have shifted and they will not shift back.

Love live President Obama!!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Polar Shift

I've just read two books about the future and where we are headed. Both authors agree that the way we are currently living is unsustainable and that we must either redesign the way we live on earth or earth will do it for us in a less than pleasant manner. Both authors are optimistic about a better life ahead if we make the right choices in the here and now, but the two visions of where we might be headed are quite different.

Rob Hopkins, in his book, The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, espouses a return to locality. In his vision, small, self-reliant villages provide much of their own food in ubiquitous gardens. Children are taught life skills in small, local schools. Governing is done locally. Commerce and trade still exist, but consumerism is an excess of the past that we are better off without. Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why we need a green revolution -- and how it can renew America envisions more of a Jetson-like future – high tech has improved efficiency and we have learned to live better with less thanks to ubiquitous micro chips that manage our energy for us. We have eliminated waste by instituting cradle to cradle manufacturing, but we are still essentially consumers. Just smart consumers. And instead of more local, we have become even more global.

So who is right? Given that nothing ever turns out quite as one imagines, my guess is that reality will look significantly different from either. That leaves the question, how do we design for the future when the future is so uncertain? Enter the polar shift.

Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet, predicted a polar shift for the time frame in which we now find ourselves. This has always, to my knowledge, been interpreted literally – that the magnetic poles of the earth would shift as they have done in the past. That’s how I interpreted it, too -- until I got the latest newsletter from Hank Wesselman. In it, he quotes a Hawaiian elder who says that now is the time for us to move our anchors from the negative pole to the positive pole. A polar shift!

What does that look like? It looks like a shift from fear and hatred to hope and love. It looks like a shift from wasteful exploitation to no-waste cooperation. It looks like a shift from individualism to community, from disconnect to connection. It looks like a shift from the world according to Bush to the world according to Obama. The details will work themselves out. It is the shift itself that requires our attention.

How do I apply that insight to my own life? By connecting my hara line. By acting out of love and hope. By revering life and the living planet on which we live. By finding the calm center when storms of panic churn. By communicating steadfast joy in the beauty of each new day, in each breath, in each loving gesture. It is one of those internal shifts that is not obvious to the external world. It is a change in perception, better known as a miracle. I can plant watermelon seeds with fear in my heart or I can plant with hope and the faith that we are entering a brighter, better tomorrow.

I know the comparison is cliché, but I can think of nothing as apt as the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly to describe the process. In the larval stage, the one we have just left, the caterpillar is voracious. It consumes and as it consumes, it destroys. I keep picturing Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar and the way it grows bigger and fatter with every passing day. At last the critter is sated. He spins his cocoon and inside the cocoon, miracles are happening. His body is broken down and reformed into something new. When at last he emerges, he has become a beautiful, winged creature whose bright flights take him from flower to flower, sipping nectar and spreading pollen. He is no longer destructive but constructive.

We have just entered the cocoon. The next step is the breaking down of who we are that we might be made anew. It may be painful at times, but it is necessary to the metamorphosis we are about to undergo. I, for one, embrace the opportunity and give thanks that I am alive to see it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Power of the People

Look around you. Is there anything you can see or touch that wasn’t brought to you courtesy of cheap, abundant oil? I started to add, ‘other than air,’ but then realized that even the very composition of the air we breathe has been altered by cheap, abundant oil. In the 'developed' world, everything, every thing in our lives is connected to oil. Everything.

So what happens when oil is no longer cheap and abundant? What happens when oil becomes expensive and increasingly scarce? What happens when you wait in line for hours at the gas station only to find that the pumps have run dry and the next shipment may arrive in a few days, or it may not? What happens when the trucks that supply the grocery store shelves are stranded en route waiting for gas to become available? What happens when the price of everything starts to sky rocket and pay checks and pension checks, if you are lucky enough to be getting either, stagnate? What happens to your coal-fired power plant when the equipment that mines the coal and the vehicles that transport the coal are unable to operate due to a gas shortage? What happens to your water supply when the electric pumps that suck the water from its source and deliver it to your home are working only intermittently? What happens to your toilet when the pumps that suck the sewage from the pipes and deliver it to the sewage treatment plant are working only intermittently?

What happens to an agri-business that relies upon gas engines to run the equipment, petro-chemicals for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and a transportation system to get produce to market? What happens to commerce when airplanes are grounded, awaiting fuel supplies, and cargo ships sit idle in port? What happens to the economy when businesses close right and left?

What happens when Americans start starving to death and guns are more numerous than people? What happens when hospitals close their doors and epidemics break out amongst an ill-fed populace? What happens to your personal safety when you dial 911 and are told that the police/fire/ambulance cannot respond to your call right now, try again tomorrow? What happens to national security when oil-starved nations square off in a struggle to get the supplies they need to keep their populations from dying?

It can’t happen here? Ah, the American hubris. We are magically immune to the trials and tribulations many in the world have already endured. Are currently enduring. Look at the refugee camps in the world’s ‘hot spots.’ Look at what happened in New Orleans after Katrina. Look at the future of America if we stay on our current path.

Oh, but the scientists will save us, the same ones whose warnings we have been ignoring for years. They will come up with all these cool inventions. We will switch to alternative fuels. We will build solar arrays and wind farms and nuclear power plants. Good idea. Should have done that twenty years ago. Doing it during an oil shortage is not only going to be more expensive, but progress will be much slower. Maybe, if we act fast enough, we will keep our power grid up and going. Maybe we will convert to electric cars just in the nick of time. Maybe we will even find a way to keep our big trucks on the road, delivering food to all the Wal*marts. But have you ever heard of an electric air plane? Or a plug-in fighter jet? Are there enough sail boats in the world to keep the shelves at ToysRUs stocked with plastic robots made in China? And what about all the plastics themselves? Made from petro-chemicals. And the green revolution that feeds an over-populated world – based on petro-chemicals.

Is there no hope? Yes and no. We are in for a rough ride. By all signs, we are already at peak oil. Demand is down now, thanks to a depressed economy, but cheaper oil prices and economic stimulus may change all that. Even if demand stays depressed, the supply is already beginning to taper off. Eventually, supply and demand will cross paths and all hell will break loose. There is hope, but it resides more in individual action than in anything that governments or the market place can do. It resides in the power of the people to adapt.

So dig up your lawn and plant a survival garden. Start collecting rain water in barrels or cisterns. Make yourself a solar oven and consider getting chickens. Anything you can do to become more self-reliant, do it. Anything you can do to make your home more energy efficient, do it. Anything you can do to decrease your carbon footprint, do it. If there is anything you can do to make yourself stronger and healthier, do it. If you need elective surgery, get it now. And make friends with your neighbors . . . you will need each other in the years to come.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Surviving the Transition

A few thoughts on surviving the transition from a cheap energy, oil-based economy in a temperate climate to an energy-deprived economy in a hostile climate --

I really thought I had a few years to get my personal act together, but at least for those of us in the U.S., I think this year will be it -- our economy is in such a decline that selling a house and moving elsewhere is extremely difficult and likely to get more so as the year goes by. So I'm digging in and trying to figure out how to make it work on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm starting to learn about raising chickens and rabbits and trying to figure out how to grow fruits and vegetables in pure sand and salt air. For a city girl, that's a lot of learning! We do have a long growing season that's getting even longer, plentiful sunshine and plentiful, if sporadic, rainfall. We have fresh fish, wild foods, and great neighbors. I'm hoping to convince my husband that putting in cisterns and a water collection system would be a good idea, and I'm looking for ways to live without power if need be -- by creating a solar oven, for instance. (I like the version with the black pot inside a clear glass container -- alleviates the need for plastic bags.)

And the good news is that peak oil may do what human will has failed to do --reduce fossil fuel emissions. Ironically, the financial collapse and current dip in oil prices may have also steered us away from the more destructive alternatives -- tar sands and oil shale. It seems to be happening quite fast now -- all of it. I am pessimistic that we will be able to get alternatives up and going in time and quantity to maintain our current standard of living. I am optimistic that the inevitable long-term energy crisis will be a catalyst for fundamental change -- change that has the potential for a better quality of life in the long run. We may have passed too many tipping points already, but just in case we haven't . . .

I think by this time next year, all but a few diehards will have seen the writing on the wall.