Snatching Defeat

Off the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on August 9, 2015

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

Last week we concluded our post on climate change with a quote from James Hansen, "the matter is urgent and calls for emergency cooperation among nations." All this year we have been leading up to our collective fin de seicle moment in December, the grand denouement of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol in Paris. At this late date, we are frankly pessimistic for the outcome there.

It isn't that we expect the parchment won’t get inked, but rather that the document won’t actually accomplish its task even if the conference is a complete success. After more than two decades of negotiating for every paragraph, the Paris Treaty will be two decades out of date and strategically misdirected.

In those 20 years the goalposts have moved. They are not farther away now. They are closer.

The United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt's singular passion, is showing signs of age, architecturally symbolized by its under-maintained (owing to deadbeat nations who never pay their dues, nudge to the ribs of USAnians) 1950s rusting steel and chipped glass edifice fronting the East River on the New York skyline.

Instead of peering through the mists into a bright but challenging future, the building peers out across the river to Roosevelt Island and back in time to a Rooseveltian utopia with strong labor unions and a chicken in every pot. Actually, a-chicken-in-every-pot was the 1928 campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover, a Republican president who presided over the Crash of ‘29. Hoover advocated "kinder, gentler" capitalism. He said, "We want to see a nation built of homeowners and farm owners. We want to see more and more of them insured against death and accident, unemployment and old age." It would become the mantra of future candidates of both parties, a code for enslaving the working class through health and home insurance, college and mortgage loans while feathering the nest of banks and insurance companies.

This is oddly where we find the United Nations now, making impossible promises to lure the gullible while holding a finger on the scales of justice.

Like a military bureaucracy busily arming with the obsolete weapons of the last war, the United Nations is stuck in the past century, driving a pink Cadillac to the Mall. Here, for instance, is a chart of its projections for world population, which it derives from fertility, life expectancy and demographic trends over the past decades:

Those dash-dotted blue lines at the margins are the range that would be accomplished if there were half-a-child more or fewer births per woman than at present. Half-a-child smaller families is all it would take to move planetary stress out of the red zone.

Another way would be for the entire globe to follow the example of Greece and depopulate immediately, just by starving pensioners and slashing budgets for hospitals, fire departments and other vital services.

One problem is that projecting the past into the future is always a fool's errand. Consider the UN's projections for low-lying island nations:

By 2100, if not 2050, most of these low-lying chains will be under the ocean. Are these projected people, still worth counting, presumed to be in refugee camps, waiting at border crossings in places like Calais, or in submarine cities?

Which brings us back to stranded expectations.

Our friend Joe Brewer, a linguist who, with George Lakoff and others developed the concept of "framing," wrote a thoughtful piece on the language of the UN's sustainable development goals, now scheduled for ratification in September. Just take a moment, though, to consider the embodied ignorance of a term like "sustainable development."

What is it, exactly, that we wish to sustain? Development? What kind? Do we want Donald Trump to build condos for billionaires in Namibia? Or maybe we want more jobs for Namibians assembling smart phones in Chinese factories while former Chinese factory slaves spend their renminbi vacationing in Dubai?

Last month the long laboring UN Open Working Group announced it had formalized 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 associated targets and deemed them “integrated and indivisible.” It submitted a lengthy report for ratification by the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in September. Beaming with pride at its accomplishment, it bragged:

Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda. We are setting out together on the path towards sustainable development, devoting ourselves collectively to the pursuit of global development and of “win-win” cooperation which can bring huge gains to all countries and all parts of the world.

And then, in the next breath, it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

We reiterate that every state has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over its wealth and natural resources.

We will implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations. In doing so, we reaffirm our commitment to international law and emphasize that the Agenda is to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of states under international law, taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities.

With these caveats, the UN essentially emasculated its own achievement. It was kind of like saying, “From now on, no-one shall be allowed to shoot heroin or smoke crack. We will accomplish this through voluntary self-regulation by all would-be addicts.”

The simile is not that far-fetched. Neurobiologists and psychologists that have studied the problem of addiction have a much more nuanced picture of crime and punishment than do lawmakers or the public. They know what can reduce addiction — supportive community ties and self-respect, among other factors — and what elevates it — punishment, isolation and disgrace – but they have been unable to make that scientific case in public debate without getting shouted down, and so the criminal justice system stereotypes and victimizes addicts.

How the UN plans to discipline unfettered growth addicts is by loving them. Not tough love. Friendly advice kind of love. A forgive but not forget kind of love.

The UN plan continues:

The new Goals and targets will come into effect on 1 January 2016 and will guide the decisions we take over the next fifteen years. All of us will work to implement the Agenda within our own countries and at the regional and global levels. We will at the same time take into account different national realities, including capacities and levels of development, and culture. We will respect national policies and priorities and policy space for economic growth, in particular for developing states, while remaining consistent with relevant international rules and commitments. We acknowledge also the importance of the regional and sub-regional dimensions, regional economic integration and interconnectivity in sustainable development. Regional and sub-regional frameworks can facilitate the effective translation of sustainable development policies into concrete action at national level.

Brewer says:

The frame of national sovereignty conceals the much more nuanced picture of networked financial assets that are coordinated through a nested shell system of corporate structures—enabling things like the tax haven system and cross-cultural propaganda efforts that shape social norms at scales of regional markets.

The Committee on Sustainable Development:

We are committed to ending poverty in all its forms,including extreme poverty, by 2030. All people must enjoy a basic standard of living, including through social protection systems. We are also determined to end hunger and malnutrition and to achieve food security as a matter of priority. We will devote resources to developing rural areas and supporting small farmers, especially women farmers, herders and fishers.

We will seek to build strong economic foundations for all our countries. Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity. This will only be possible if wealth is shared and income inequality is addressed. We will work to build dynamic, sustainable, innovative and people-centred economies, promoting youth employment and women’s economic empowerment, in particular,and decent work for all. We will eradicate forced labour and human trafficking and eliminate all the worst forms of child labour. All countries stand to benefit from having a healthy and well-educated workforce with the knowledge and skills needed for productive and fulfilling work and full participation in society. We will adopt policies which increase productive capacities, productivity and productive employment; financial inclusion; sustainable agriculture, pastoralist and fisheries development; sustainable industrial development; universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services; sustainable transport systems; and resilient infrastructure.

Lately we have been trying to purge our vocabulary of the word "sustainable" (as offensive to polar bears) in much the way we purged our vocabulary of "rule of thumb" 20 years ago (as offensive to women, even though the origin was a parody, not an actual law, that husbands could beat wives with canes no wider than a thumb).

What we must ask is what we intend to sustain when we speak of sustainability? Is it, as Iowa Congressman Paul Simon famously proclaimed, our God-given right to the American way of life? Is it exponential growth of resource consumption on a finite planet? Is it a sustained rate of whale kill, coal burning, or forest-clearing? What are we talking about sustaining once fossil fuels no longer can give us all those billions of energy slaves?

As one commenter on our post last week said:

The Hansen approach – concentrating on CC [carbon capture] from a 'we obviously want to continue western civilisation, that's not the question' perspective, can be seen as a form of denial.

Joe Brewer, looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, unpacked four foundational weaknesses revealed by their language:

Insight #1: The entire effort rests on a mis-framing of poverty. The SDG documents consistently frame poverty as a disease, which, in contrast to their own promise to eradicate it by 2030, evokes the logic that it should be expected and managed, but cannot go away. When they conceptualize poverty this way, they misunderstand what it is and overlook the essential list of structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world. They fail to say how poverty is created. 

Insight #2: The language obscures “development as usual”. It ignores this topic entirely and fails to articulate that it is based on a particular, specifically neoliberal and corporatist conception of how the world economy does and should work. Also noteworthy, there is no reference to corporations—the most powerful institutions on the planet, whose influence in development spaces has been growing considerably in recent years, including via this process—an omission that prompts suspicion that an unpopular agenda may sneak through under the radar. This has the effect of neutralizing analysis on the core elements of the development model, and any consideration for the role of power politics or financial influence in development outcomes.

Insight #3: The poison pill is growth; specifically undifferentiated, perpetual growth as represented by GDP as a measure of progress. An awareness is acknowledged of the deep problems and contradictions when relying on GDP growth to tackle poverty. It is then deliberately kicked into the long grass and left as the prime operative of economic development. Indeed, the only thing the SDG framework has to offer on this is that it has nothing meaningful to offer; instead it passes this challenge to future generations.

Insight #4: The language is self-contradictory and conflicted on the relationship between nature and the economy. There is a clear and laudable intent to connect development and the environment—indeed, calling themselves the Sustainable Development Goals they could not make a bigger signal about needing development to be sustainable—but then the logic repeatedly demonstrates a confused and contradictory understanding of whether the economy is something linked with or separate from nature; there to dominate or work within. No credible use of the word sustainable would perform this way.

These insights lead to a simple antidote that can heal the SDG process and move us closer to real sustainability—tell the story of poverty creation that reveals systemic and structural causes of “development as usual.”

Brewer’s key point is that poverty is not a disease, something you catch by being born in the wrong place or choosing to be a slacker. Poverty is institutionally created.

The rules of the system are set up to extract wealth from the economy and hoard it in the hands of the few who control the money supply. This is done through unfair trade agreements, regressive tax structures and tax evasion, structural debt relations, land grabs, privatization of public utilities, and other widely used business practices. When the SDG framework conceptualizes poverty as a disease, it misunderstands what it is and overlooks this essential list of structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world.

Part of the problem, Brewer suspects, is that we like to break large, unmanageable problems down into smaller, more manageable pieces. In this case, the UN is putting different issues — rights of women and children, indigenous peoples, unsustainable agriculture, deforestation and desertification, energy costs and climate change — into issue silos, rather than treating them as part of a larger pattern of our human relationship to nature. Brewer says the two competing systems — environment and development –

“are treated as separate and distinct, which artificially divides humans from nature—an untenable position that ignores the foundational knowledge of physics and biology for living systems.”

He points out that mischaracterizing poverty as a disease leads to a complete disconnect when wealthy countries are confronted with the need to scale back or pay reparations –

Those countries that are “less developed” could be reframed as “more pillaged” and those that are “more developed” are countries that have “reaped the benefits of pillage.” – and also when under developing countries are told they should no longer try to imitate the West and think that some day they will be able to consume and hoard on a comparable scale.

What enabled the wealthy nations to pillage was the presence of natural wealth – human, plant and mineral – that could be brought under the sword or cross and systematically extracted. Where now do emerging economies like China, Brazil, India and South Korea turn to find such wealth? How does the aristocracy of the overdeveloped world keep its high-entropy investments secure without finding somewhere new to recharge them?

The UN working group is silent on these points because it has accepted without challenge a Neoliberal world view and ignored the over-consumption, financial destabilization, and enlarging inequality that demands.

Australian rancher Darren Doherty is fond of saying that sustainability is a weak ambition to begin with. “You are treading water. Is that all you want to do, tread water?”

Regeneration is a much more hopeful and ambitious term: Civilization 2.0. The goal is not to sustain high entropy habitation and extend it to 7 billlion or 12 billion people, but to redesign habitation to be low-entropy and biodiverse, letting nature heal, and to gradually bring human numbers down to something that is more (watch out, almost said sustainable) manageable within ecosystemic limits.

A couple years ago the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a report to address the subject of whether provision of minimum food support is a human right. The only practical way that could be achieved without overexploiting all the available arable land, the report said, was by transition to what they termed "eco-agriculture" but was really permaculture – primarily tree-crops and perennial grasses with some aquaculture. As we described here last week, this approach is also much more adaptive and mitigating in the climate change context, as our ancestors discovered several thousand years ago.

We are training ourselves to use "resilience" and "regenerative" in place of "sustainable" wherever possible. We particularly loathe "sustainable living" which always brings images of zombies to our mind. Ultimately nothing sustains, and any attempt to attain that end will fail. If sustainability is treading water, resilience is swimming forward against the current. And actually, once you get the hang of it, the current shifts and flows with you. 

Systemic Turmoil, Structural Reform

From the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler
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Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation June 29, 2015
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“The problem with the post-2007 world is that we are not in a cyclical recovery; we are in a structural depression defined as a sustained period of below-trend growth with no end in sight. The U.S. has caught the Japanese disease. Structural depressions are not amenable to monetary solutions, they require structural solutions.”
–James Rickards

Can anyone stabilize this bitch? At daybreak, anyway, the Federal Reserve governors were all bagging Z’s in their trundle beds. Maybe after a few pumpkin lattes they’ll jump in and tell their trading shills to BTFD. The soma-like perma-trance among those who follow markets and money matters appears to be ending abruptly with the recognition that sometimes robots and humans alike run shrieking to the exit. A pity when they get to the door and discover it opens onto a cliff-edge. Look out below.

All this trouble with money comes from one meta problem: aggregate industrial growth has ended. It has stopped more in some parts of the world than others, while in the USA it has actually been contracting. The cause is simple: the end of cheap energy, oil in particular. At over $70-a-barrel the price kills economies; under $70-a-barrel the price kills oil production. The bottom line is that, in the broadest sense, the world can no longer count on getting more stuff, except waste, garbage, political unrest, and the other various effects of entropy. From now on, there is only less of everything for a global population that has not stopped growing. The folks on-board are still having sex, of course, which has a certain byproduct.

This dynamic was plain to see a decade ago, but the people who run finance and governments thought it would be a good idea to maintain the appearance of growth via the usufruct mechanisms of central banking: ZIRP, QE, market intervention, and universal accounting fraud. It’s not working so well. Debt was generated in place of the missing growth, and now there is too much of it that can’t be repaid on a coherent schedule. Many nations, parties, and entities are in trouble with debt and the prospective defaults are starting to pile up like SUVs on a fog-bound highway. Greece is just the first one fishtailing into a guard-rail.

The magic moment will come when it becomes obvious that these systemic quandaries have no solution. The system itself is programmed for implosion, in particular and most immediately the banking sector, where most of the untruth and illusion is lodged these days. As it stands exposed, the people are compelled to shake off their faith in what it represents: order, authority, trust. Institutions fail and each failure acts as a black hole, sucking air, light, and even time out of the system.

In the natural course of things, structural reform can occur, but that natural course entails some degree of disorder and loss. If Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs founders a lot of people will be living in their cars — a first stop perhaps to not living at all. Sooner or later, though, the survivors will all have to live differently. Structural reform means, for instance, that you can no longer count on getting food the way you were used to getting it. No more 3000-mile Caesar salads and take-out tubs of Kung Po Chicken. That will be very traumatic in the early going. Eventually in the places where it is possible to grow food on a smaller scale, it will be done. Maybe not so much in the Central Valley of California anymore, but in other places: Ohio, Michigan, even New Jersey (“the garden state”). And once grown, it will be sold by means that differ from the supermarket.

Americans think that WalMart and its brethren are here to stay. They’re mistaken. Structural reform means reorganizing many layers of commerce around town centers — Main Streets — while the disintegrating strip malls await the salvage crews. Are we ready for that? Rebuilding local economies would put a lot of people back to work doing real things. All the blabber about “job creation” for the moment is only about increasing the share price of predatory corporations and the bonuses of their mendacious executives. Will the world miss them? Can we still make some things and move them around and put them up for sale? I think so.

Are you disturbed about the pervasive racketeering in health care (so-called) and higher education. Well, those grifts are eating themselves alive. Structural reform probably means far fewer and smaller colleges and far more and smaller local clinics free of the stupendous insurance chicanery that mystifies the public while it swindles them. There will be a lot of useful work for people who want to take care of other people, and certainly fewer MRIs.

Do you fear the end of mass motoring and the suburban infrastructure that it operates in? Maybe your children and their children will be happier in walkable neighborhoods — outlandish as that sounds. There is a hell of lot of rebuilding to do. It may not involve materials like strand-board and vinyl siding, but the newer and smaller buildings will probably last a whole lot longer and look better. And a lot of hands will be needed to do the work.

Will we ever again know banking on the JP Morgan scale? Not on any horizon I can imagine. But there are other ways to establish mediums of exchange, stores of value, and pricing mechanisms. You can be sure that banking will never again occupy 40 percent of gross economic activity in this land.

Today may not be the true event horizon for our diseased status quo, but it is probably, at least, the coming attraction trailer. Try not get puked on.



James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

The Next 10 Billion Years: Part II

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

Published on Cassandra’s Legacy on September 14, 2013


Discuss at the Collapse Cafe Table inside the Diner

Thou must now at last perceive of what universe thou art a part, and of what administrator of the universe thy existence is an efflux, and that a limit of time is fixed for thee, which if thou dost not use for clearing away the clouds from thy mind, it will go and thou wilt go, and it will never return. (Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”)


You can’t understand a man’s actions if you don’t take into account that what he does on a specific day is the result of events that took place during his whole lifetime and that will result in more events in the future. It is the same for a whole planet, although the lifespan of the Earth is much longer than that of a single human being. If we want to understand what’s happening today on our planet, we must try to understand how it has changed over the eons to become what it his now and what it may become in the future.

That of looking at the whole span of the history of a whole planet or even of the whole universe has a special flavor; even though none of us will ever witness the ultimate end of our biosphere, still the idea that we can imagine it is a source of great fascination. And it is not something new: it is a whole field of human thought that we can call “eschatology”, from the Greek world “eskhatos”, meaning “the last”.

In the history of people musing on the ultimate end of everything, we can see two lines of thought that we might dub, purely for convenience, the “Western” and the “Eastern” views. The Western view sees the universe, humans and everything, as having a finite and limited lifespan, the Eastern view sees the same concepts as an infinite series of cycles. The single cycle view is typical of thinkers steeped in the Greek-Latin tradition and of the monotheistic religions that arose around the Mediterranean area. In its basic form, the idea is that God created the world and that the world will have an end (apocalypse, from a Greek world meaning “revelation”). Human beings are supposed to live a one-time trial. You succeed or you don’t, but God doesn’t give you another chance. East-Asian thought seems to have been based on a different viewpoint: Buddhism sees the soul as forever reincarnating in new bodies. There is no end and no beginning to this endless cyucle that the wise may, however, be able to interrupt.

It is hard to say what factors created these two different schools of thought. One thing we know, however, is that today Western science can be seen as continuing the ancient tradition, that of the single cycle. For what we know, the universe appeared in a specific event called the “Big Bang” and it is destined to end, according to the most recent data, as a cold and dreary place made out of matter scattered over an immensely large volume. Back in  1956, Isaac Asimov was reasoning within this tradition when he wrote a story titled “The Last Question”, where he imagined humankind engaged in a forever quest for how to reverse the cycle and rejuvenate the universe. But Asimov was also thinking outside the Western box when he proposed at the end that the question could be answered, although not by humans themselves but by the computer they had created. As there is nobody to tell the answer to, the computer proceeds to carry on the answer in practice by creating light and restarting the universe.

I must have read this old story by Isaac Asimov when I was, maybe, 15 years old and it inspired a post that I wrote on “Cassandra’s Legacy” with the title “The Next Ten Billion Years” for which I borrowed from Asimov the same finale. This post of mine had a certain success and, recently, John Michael Greer (“The Archdruid”) commented on it and produced his own version of the next ten billion years as he sees them. It is by all means a fascinating piece but different from mine in a deep philosophical sense. True to his role of druid, Greer explicitly rejects the Christian “one-cycle” tradition and leans on the multiple cycle view of the universe, for instance saying that, ten million years from now,

No fewer than 8,639 global civilizations have risen and fallen over the last ten million years, each with its own unique sciences, technologies, arts, literatures, philosophies, and ways of thinking about the cosmos.

and then he goes on to describe several non-human civilizations arising and disappearing in the span of several hundred million years, including one derived from raccoons, one from ravens, and one from freshwater clams. There is no evidence in Greer’s vision of the entropy caused winding down of the universe. The atoms that once formed the Earth and its inhabitants are flung away in space by the last convulsion of the Sun and end up forming another star and a number of planets. The cycle restarts.

As I said, we are discussing philosophical matters and we’ll never find an agreement on what the Earth will look like – say – ten million years from now. So, I’ll just comment here on how science gives us very strong evidence for a “one-cycle” Earth. With that, I don’t mean just an apocalyptic end of our planet when it will be finally consumed by an expanding Sun. No, the Earth has changed all the time over its four billion years of existence, it keeps changing, and the changes are profound and irreversible.

What we call the “biosphere” has been part of this great, long lasting cycle. As all things that are born and are destined to die, the biosphere must peak and decline. Actually, it has peaked and it is declining. The biosphere productivity over the past 3.5 billion years looks a little like a gigantic Hubbert peak according to a paper by Franck, Bounama and Von Bloh,

In a previous post, I wrote about this graph that:

As you see, the Earth’s biosphere, Gaia, peaked with the start of the Phanerozoic age, about 500 million years ago. Afterwards, it declined. Of course, there is plenty of uncertainty in this kind of studies, but they are based on known facts about planetary homeostasis. We know that the sun’s irradiation keeps increasing with time at a rate of around 1% every 100 million years. That should have resulted in the planet warming up, gradually, but the homeostatic mechanisms of the ecosphere have maintained approximately constant temperatures by gradually lowering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, there is a limit: the CO2 concentration cannot go below the minimum level that makes photosynthesis possible; otherwise Gaia “dies”.

So, at some moment in the future, planetary homeostasis will cease to be able to stabilize temperatures. When we reach that point, temperatures will start rising and, eventually, the earth will be sterilized. According to Franck et al., in about 600 million years from now the earth will have become too hot for multicellular creatures to exist.

Of course, the extinction of the biosphere is not for tomorrow or, at least, the calculations say so. But it is like estimating one’s lifespan from statistical data. Theoretically, the homeostatic mechanisms that operate your body could keep you alive until reach a respectable age; sure, but homoeostasis is never perfect. For instance, there are mechanisms in your body designed to reverse the effects of traumas. You may expect these mechanisms to work well if you are young but, if you are hit by a truck at full speed, well, you end up on the wrong side of the life expectancy statistics.

Similar considerations apply to Gaia. Theoretically, the planetary homeostatic mechanisms should keep Gaia alive for hundreds of millions of years, but what about major perturbations, some planetary equivalent of being hit by a truck? Would Gaia be able to recover from a human caused runaway greenhouse catastrophe?

We cannot say for sure. What we can say is that we are living in a period called the “sixth extinction,” similar to other major past extinctions. In most cases, these extinctions appear to have been caused by an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The sixth extinction, too, is taking place in correspondence to a rise of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that may never have happened so fast in the history of the planet. This rapid rise is also taking place under a solar irradiation that has never been so high as it is today. We can’t rule out that the sixth extinction will be the last one.

So, as I said at the beginning, the present and the future of a single person can be understood from his or her past, and it is the same for the Earth (aka, “Gaia”). Science is telling us very, very strongly that the present moment is unique in the history of the planet: the future will not be like the past. It is true that, if we fail to survive as a civilization, there will be probably space for more human civilizations. And, if we go extinct, there may be space for the evolution of new sentient species. But all that will happen in different conditions and along a downward slope.

New human civilizations developing within the few hundred thousand years will not have the coal and the fossil hydrocarbons that we have consumed today. In a few hundred million years from now, new sentient species might find oil that has reformed in shallow anoxic seas – but they won’t have coal, the result of very special conditions occurring only once (for what we know) on this planet. And they will live in a planet with a much reduced biological productivity in comparison to ours. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to develop spaceflight – the future is full of opportunities, but it is never like the past.

In the end, these considerations give us just a hint of the sheer immensity of the future and of how difficult is the human attempt to conceive it. For what we know, we are a small ripple on the top of a gigantic tsunami wave that’s crashing on some remote shore. As a ripple disappears, new ones appear, but the wave keeps rolling onward to its inevitable end. And yet, we know so little: there may be other shores, other waves, the universal sea may never stop to roll, and light and darkness may exchange places in a never ending dance. So, just as Asimov concluded his story, someday, the words “Let there be light” may be said again. And there will be light again.

ever moving.
So it can act as the mother
of all things.
Not knowing its real name
we only call it the Way

If it must be named, 
let its name be Great.
Greatness means going on,
going on means going far,
and going far means turning back

(Tao Te King, as reported by Ursula K. Le Guin)

Big Ideas…

Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia

Published on Economic Undertow on March 7, 2013

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

It’s hard to miss the Big Idea that the wheels are coming off the grand twentieth-century capitalist experiment; waste for its own sake, or waste for the sake of moving all-important ‘economic indicators’, waste for the purpose of enriching the even-more-important ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’. The list of falling wheels would have to include China, Japan and Europe, but there are many more on a long list. It’s hard to think of a country in this world that doesn’t have major problems, the countries are interconnected by trade, treaty or finance so all are infected with each others’ problems in addition to their own: (Washington Post):


CDC says ‘nightmare bacteria’ a growing threat 

Lena H. Sun

Federal officials warned Tuesday that “nightmare bacteria” — including the deadly superbug that struck a National Institutes of Health facility two years ago — are increasingly resistant to even the strongest antibiotics, posing a growing threat to hospitals and nursing homes nationwide.

Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference: “It’s not often that our scientists come to me and say we have a very serious problem and we need to sound an alarm. But that’s exactly what we are doing today.”

He called on doctors, hospital leaders and health officials to work together to stop the spread of the infections. “Our strongest antibiotics don’t work, and patients are left with potentially untreatable infections,” he said.


Just like the finance economy, the biosphere, the political economy; there are “potentially untreatable … infections”. The treatments remaining in the pharmacy are the same treatments that spawned the problems in the first place: repeat applications of MORE, everywhere in the world. If MORE cannot be had immediately there are earnest promises of MORE to come … tomorrow!

A ‘Big Idea’ that is making the rounds has the various countries engaged in a currency war. Nations actively depreciate their own currencies so that they might gain export trade advantage at the expense of others.

Instead, the nations are engaged in a war for petroleum that is being waged with currency. As in all wars there are the winners who will gain fuel imports, the losers will have limited access to petroleum, their domestic fuel consumption will be exported to the winners.

In this war all the countries are engaged, to do otherwise would be to give up claims on petroleum in the future. To have a seat at the table or have any chance of winning, the countries must waste as much- as fast as possible, as waste is the collateral for the needed (depreciated) currency. The advantage lies with the United States, not only does it waste more than the others, but it produces as a consequence much of the world’s credit. The waste of other countries such as China is collateral for American credit, that is, collateral for even more American waste.

China Crude 030313

Figure 1: China crude oil imports vs. exports from Mazama Science (click on for big). So far, China is winning, it must waste or be left behind: China currency is tethered to the dollar, its fate is intertwined with ours. To run in place the Chinese must waste more than the Americans, adding to both countries’ prodigious waste- costs.

As in America, China’s waste is promoted to the citizens as ‘progress’. These ‘improvements’ never acknowledge China’s multi-thousand-year traditions or even meet any real human needs. Instead, grandiose follies are heaped upon monstrous excesses … the process serves to rationalize the excesses’ so-called ‘value’. As with the other developed countries, sunk capital has the country by the neck. China’s vast waste is collateral for China’s vast debts, to service the debts it must add to collateral. The country devours energy today so that it might devour even more tomorrow. It’s always tomorrow, good or ill, China must devour otherwise the hated Americans will do so in its place.

Stone Heads

The bravado of the xenophobic industrialism rings hollow, to win this war over resources is to lose: permanent smog, water pollution, desertification, land theft, an out of control loan-shark economy and high level capital flight. China growth is gained by constructing buildings rather than using them: ‘growth’ is thousands upon thousands of gigantic stone heads concrete towers.

Credit-driven speculation in apartments and office towers in China is intended to be a hedge against rising energy costs, just like recent credit-speculation in tract houses in the US and Tokyo office buildings twenty years ago. The Big Idea is that building prices will rise faster than the credit-inflated fuel prices. By this way of thinking, fuel is always affordable because what sets the price — credit — is the means to meet the price — credit driven momentum-chasing in asset markets. Fuel is simply another asset, rationed by access to credit.

These kinds of hedges arbitrage stupidity, they live in the hedgers’ minds and nowhere else. On Planet Earth fuel is either plentiful or not: what sets the price of fuel is the credit-cost to pull it from the ground plus a supply-and-demand driven scarcity premium. The real cost of fuel increases relentlessly over time because of depletion, meanwhile, the internal costs of the hedges increase as well. Even when fuel costs remain low, as they were from the mid-eighties to the end of the millennium, the hedges become unprofitable and collapse.

For hedgers to gain their fuel, the asset(s) must be sold to others more effectively greedy than the hedger. Whether they sell to actual customers or take out loans against their investment doesn’t matter. The selling reduces the number of potential customers: sooner or later they run out, even in populous China! That is the end of the hedge.

The Chinese who buy these buildings are unwitting conscripts in the great global currency war over petroleum. Millions of relatively prosperous Chinese have invested the life-savings of generations in future energy waste. In a world with diminishing energy supplies, the investments are stranded. The Chinese cannot afford to make use of all the currently empty buildings and the cities that contain them, otherwise they would be doing so! The Chinese would have been much better served to invest in conservation, instead they have invested in ‘conservation by other means’.

Another reason for the Chinese building frenzy is to literally set in concrete the claims of developers and urbanites over prior occupants of China’s countryside. This Big Idea is no different from Anglo-American claims that were perfected on native lands in the 19th century with farms and mines, railroads, towns and barbed wire cattle fences. There are certainly less costly ways that are equally effective and more equitable than the Big Stone Head approach.

Keep in mind, when the Chinese property bubble unravels like all the others, the banking system will be ruined. So too if one of the major currencies such as the euro, sterling or yen fails … that is, if China wins the currency war. China holds hundreds of billions- or trillions of these currencies as reserves, its positions are far too large to unwind. A currency failure, a run out of banks or a bond market hiccup would bankrupt China finance … which in turn would bankrupt the rest of the world’s finance.

Mercantilism is another Big Idea energy hedge. A country obtains petroleum at a price and uses some of it to make high-worth goods such as (fake) Gucci handbags or Lexuses which are sold to customers overseas. The gains from the sale pay for the country’s fuel plus profits to the manufacturers.

The mercantile country and its firms borrow against the overseas trading partners’ accounts. Exporter’s fuel consumption grows larger than what it ordinarily would be without the trade. This is the presumed intent of today’s currency combatants, for each become successful mercantilists and have ‘others’ subsidize their fuel waste.

Japan Crude 030313

Figure 2: Japan is going broke because its fuel imports are too costly to be met by export of its goods to increasingly broke customers. The reason the customers are broke is high fuel prices! They cannot find any countries to subsidize their own fuel waste.

If Japan doesn’t depreciate its currency it cannot export or win the petroleum war. At the same time, if it depreciates any gains from exports will offset by increased fuel cost. If the yen is sufficiently beaten down the world’s fuel suppliers will not accept it and demand dollars instead.

Japan has large foreign currency reserves but these are collateral for domestic debt. Like China, Japan has few options to free up its collateral: whatever collateral it can access is over-committed.

Japan is orbiting the drain, the recent trade deficit is the last straw, the country has too many obligations to meet … all of them coming due at once. The inflow of overseas funds into Japan and the carry trade have been the means by which the country has endured deflation without the associated depression. Japan now needs more waste — growth — or a return to the inflow of overseas funds.

Depreciating the yen is a symptom of Japan’s “potentially untreatable infection” — its past success is now killing the country. Japan is beyond desperate: on deck is nominal GDP (NGDP) targeting. This is the Bank of Japan making unsecured loans (because the Japanese private sector finance is not making any).

Sadly, the Japanese establishment does not understand why the private finance does not lend … they are in denial like the rest of the industrialized world. The private sector is bankrupt, it cannot borrow! So are Japan’s overseas customers, they just aren’t announcing it. Instead, they pretend and hope nobody is paying attention.

Deflation feeds on remedies designed to defeat it. All avenues here lead to entropy: if the private sector delevers, the government itself becomes insolvent. If Japan’s central bank leverages itself, it too becomes insolvent and there is no lender of last resort. The result is a run on Japanese banks and out of yen.

Around the world, various finance markets are pressurized, the Big Idea is to wring out volatility and create a Potemkin market that can pass as the real thing; ditto commodities, particularly gold, copper, foodstuffs and petroleum.

Time marches on and costs of volatility suppression are added to other ex-market costs, volatility emerges where the suppression forces are weakest. Right now, this is the currency markets. Switzerland can peg its currency to the euro at an affordable cost, just like the Chinese can peg its currency to dollars. Today’s question is where and how does Japan fit in particularly with its new trade deficit?

Japan has its own currency, unlike Europe, its treasury can issue yen to retire debt, extinguishing the self-created currency along with the debt. However, this remedy is likely too late to apply b/c the Japanese banking system is insolvent. An issue of government notes sufficient to effect Japan’s debt market would cause the banks to collapse.

Meanwhile, the Big Idea in Europe is the purposeful absence of any ideas at all! The technocrats are disappearing leaving a vacuum, to be filled by demagogues.

Europe crude 030613

Figure 3: Europe produces about twenty-percent of its own petroleum fuel from rapidly depleting native sources, the rest must be imported. The mercantile states Germany and Italy export energy waste to others to meet their expenses, however, these customers cannot use the exporters’ waste to meet theirs. Like Japan, Europe is bankrupt.

The big difference between Europe and Japan the euro non-currency. Factionalism suggests Europe is set to lose the currency war and have its petroleum consumption shifted to others such as China and the United States. In other words, Europe cannot afford the euro, any currencies it can afford are nut suitable for the petroleum import trade. Because the euro is the currency of none of Europe’s states, there is no real issuer nor any lender of last resort, only a pretender.

Europe’s approach to the euro has been typical of the humans’ approach to everything else: to grasp what is immediately wanted then ignore life-cycle consequences. Europe wanted the euro as an energy hedge: it gave smaller countries the means to import waste from both Germany and OPEC. Now, these small countries cannot pay for the imports and the currency does not allow for the transfer of these costs to ‘others’. The waste — of course — is worthless, it cannot be ‘repossessed’.

The outcome is a Europe frozen on the spot. If it tries to pay for the expensive euro the entire continent will be ruined and unable to afford petroleum. This is the ‘austerity’ dynamic in force currently. If any country abandons the euro, the entire enterprise falls apart and there is nothing left to the Europeans with which to gain fuel. It is hardly likely that any petroleum supplier will accept a national currency from a bankrupt nation if the same nation’s bankruptcy has fatally undermined the euro! Of course, if the euro fails so will China finance, which holds massive amounts of euro-denominated debt as reserves, far too many to be readily rid of … without precipitating the disaster that it so desperately seeks to avoid.

Like so many other countries, Europe has an unraveling property bubble/energy hedge that also failed.

Meanwhile, the exit of the technocrat is the last step in post-petroleum down escalator toward chaos. After the technocrat comes zero-government, factionalism or abdication of governing authority. This is not to say that political and administrative reform is not possible; without new resources or an ‘upside down’ approach that husbands capital there is no foundation for reforms. The factions all promise MORE and a return to waste: the broken government is able to export fuel consumption elsewhere more efficiently and with less cost than do the factions, technocrats or ineffective government.

Zero government = entropy.

The problem in Europe and elsewhere is at the end of the everyone’s driveway. Every single day the Europeans must import twelve million barrels of crude oil at staggering cost, they must borrow from New York and London financiers to do so, as they have for ever day since the end of World War Two. Europe’s pathetic car industries cannot pay their own way much less the wasteful continent’s gigantic fuel bill. Europe is beyond insolvent, beyond broke, by rights it should never borrow again, ever, from this point in time until the sun consumes itself and balloons to fill the solar system. Europe’s bosses believe with this bit- or that bit of beautifully embellished central bank promises it can claim a good that is vanishingly rare and valuable … so that this good might be burned up for time-wasting entertainment purposes and economists’ reputations only.

This is the real Big Idea, it has not materialized in the imagination of the modern world … yet. It emerges from a concrete Big Reality that the modern human works hard to ignore. Modernity is intrinsically dysfunctional, its products are entropy and ruin. Its managers defend their right to waste as they please at the expense of the rest, the non-managers demand the right to waste along with the managers: this is madness! That a war might be waged with competitive waste as a tactic speaks to the inherent moral and physical bankruptcy of the ‘modern’ idea: it has hollowed itself out. At the end of the day the competitors are all smashed, together. There can realistically be no other outcome.

The next Big Idea must be an economy that rewards conservation and the husbandry of capital by every and all means, that treats all of capital as precious, rather than a substitutable ‘input’. It isn’t such a hard idea to grasp, its application is becoming a desperate necessity. Stewardship is less difficult than competitive depreciation financed by increased resource waste. In a well-functioning conservation economy shepherds of capital become rich and by so doing the others would become rich along with them. There is still entropy, but not the Hammer of Thor.

Time is running out … we adapt or else.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & Dutch Ecotechnik

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on January 8, 2013

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

A while back I wrote a series of half-serious posts entitled Peak n’Oil. In them I attempted to pick out some tracks to listen to as we tumble down from the heights of Hubbert’s Peak. At the time, as far as I was aware, nobody was actually writing songs about peak oil and the associated civilizational decay, so most of the tracks I picked dealt with it tangentially.
All that has changed with Muse’s latest album entitled The 2nd Law. So when I got this album at Christmas it was, well, like Christmas for me. Not only had my favourite current band released a new album, but the lyrics and subject matter of the music was all about peak oil.
Well, not quite about peak oil. The Second Law of Thermodynamics concerns entropy, and what from our point of view we might as well call energy death. It states that isolated systems always evolve towards a state of thermodynamic equilibrium and therefore maximum entropy. Energy flows from zones of higher temperature to areas of lower temperature. My cup of tea is doing a very good demonstration of it right now. They also flow from concentrated form to diffuse form, providing said energy is not locked into a chemical state. To get out of that state it needs a catalytic agent.
Scale up from my cup of tea to the entire planet and that’s our peak energy problem in a nutshell. We humans have been taking the concentrated forms of energy – oil, coal and gas – which were formed over geological time, and have been turning them into diffuse heat in the atmosphere. It’s what we do every time we drive a car or turn on the kettle. In this way we have placed a single complex biological organism – us – at the centre point between concentrated and diffuse energy forms.
Doing so has enabled us to have a fossil fuel party for a couple of centuries, and we have configured our economies, societies and cultures as if we were always going to remain at this central pivotal point between concentrated and diffuse energy. Our ability to do this has marked us out as a successful species, easily able to replicate our DNA and perpetuate our progeny, because the ability to leverage other forms of energy in favour of the agent species is what marks it out as successful. That’s why foxes eat rabbits.
If you believe that we can maintain our pivotal position ad infinitum that marks you out as a cornucopian. If, however, you harbour doubts about whether this is possible, or indeed desirable, then you belong to the reality-based community who recognise that our default position is not at the exact centre of that energy equation and may be starting to drift off target.
Matthew Bellamy, Muse’s frontman, is a thoughtful chap and recognizes this. Who knows, he might even be lurking out there in the peak oil blogosphere under a pseudonym. He’s only got it slightly wrong, reason would suggest, in that the Second Law is concerned with closed systems and planet Earth isn’t a closed system as it gets inputs of solar radiation from the sun, and leaks heat back into space as well. But never mind that, it shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of what, in my opinion, is Muse’s best album to date.
Incidentally, if you’re in north America, you can catch them on their latest tour. They are well worth seeing live.
Houses in Germany with solar roofs. Image from here.
Well, it’s been a busy few days since Christmas, which has seen me in no less than six different countries. The reason for this was the fact that I had to go over to England to pick up a large trailer I got cheap on eBay, as well as a bargain basement 10 year-old-car to pull it.
When I got to England, on Boxing Day I couldn’t help but notice the whole place looked like a giant space toddler had spilled a cosmic glass of water over the whole country. Roads were submerged and trees poked out of what appeared to be lakes but were in fact fields. I have never seen the country looking so bedraggled and wet and it is quite amazing to think that only about ten months ago I wrote a post about the fact that meteorologists were forecasting a drought that would dry up all the rivers and lead to a devastating loss of wildlife. Well, they were a bit wrong on that one, with 2012 forecast to be the wettest year on historical record for England. Welcome to the new normal.
On the way out of the country a couple of days later, indeed, a flooded road led me to miss my car-train through the Channel Tunnel and I didn’t arrive in France until fairly late into the evening. When I did get there, France was entirely dark, so I don’t have any observations to make about the place, other than that it gets dark there at night time. Ditto with Belgium, which I entered later in the evening.
I had to make it to Eindhoven in Holland, where my motel bed awaited me, and did so at about 11pm. Starving hungry I enquired about getting something to eat (this particular establishment being located close to the motorway for ease of parking/locating) and was told that I could either pick from the restaurant or order sushi in the bar. A quick look at the restaurant confirmed that it was outside of my price league, so I retired to the bar to nibble on some wallet-emptying raw fish and sink a fine Belgian beer. Not for the first time in my life I marveled at the fact the Dutch are the best English speakers in the world; far better, indeed, than the English.
The next morning I hit the road again with my frankly gigantic trailer. The rain had cleared and it was sunny, illuminating the green Dutch landscape and putting me in a dreamy frame of mind. I had been driving at a steady 80kmph (50mph) all the way, as this is considered the best speed at which to save fuel – and here in Holland I noticed a strange thing: everyone else seemed to be doing the same. There were no aggressive light-flashing BMWheads eyeballing me as they screamed past. I had heard it said that the Dutch had got into eco driving as part of their fossil fuel energy descent plan, and here was the proof of it.
All that changed when I got into Germany. I always feel a bit nervous in Germany because I don’t speak more than about 50 words of German – a language deficiency often reciprocated by the natives in my experience. It has been a couple of years since I was last there – but what a difference! It is obvious even to one passing through that Germany is going hell for leather to make itself run on renewable energy. Last time I was there you could see all the wind turbines that had sprouted across the landscape – this time the story was all solar.
I’m used to seeing the odd house here in Denmark or the UK with a few solar panels on it. But Germany seems to be ramping up this on an industrial scale. Many houses sported 10-40 panels, but it was common to see barns, factories and even car showrooms with roofs made entirely of panels. Usually, as far as I could tell (remember, I was driving past) there would be 100-200 panels per roof. The record was one which had eight clusters of 8*8 panels, meaning there must have been 480 panels on a single roof.
A warehouse roof in Germany
Of course, and readers of this blog and ones like it will be well aware, that doesn’t make Germany ‘green’ or sustainable. There are still the monster truck parks, the giant supermarkets, the sprawling highways full of brand new cars driving at 200kmph (124mph) – and let’s not forget that Germany is a manufacturing country with a huge demand for high concentration energy and raw materials. I’m also well aware that Germany benefits from trading electricity with nuclear France, using that country as a giant battery.
But still. It’s hard not to admire the direction the country is taking. Everyone seems to be on board with it, and you’d have to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to say that a huge overhaul of the energy system conducted by this nation of engineers is not a step in the right direction

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues


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