Sunday, February 23, 2014

So where to now? Who do we ask: David Holmgren, Jim Lovelock or Guy McPherson?

It's been a long while since I lasted posted. In 2012 I came to the end of long train of thought and exploration. My thinking has been changing in emphasis, but it's taken me a while to be able to articulate this change. So where am I and where are we, at the beginning of 2014?

It's obvious to me that we are in an accelerating process of decline of industrial culture. For a few years, dear little Australia seemed proof against the travails affecting the rest of the world, but now we too are on the big slide. All our automotive manufacturers have announced they will no longer build vehicles in Australia. One of our aluminium smelters is to close. Shell is selling its refinery in Geelong and its service stations. The Federal government is beginning to slash spending — no matter that it's a conservative government which is doing this — the same process would have taken place had the left-wing Labor party retained office. Tax revenues are declining and as unemployment starts to rise, the revenue from income tax and the goods and services tax (GST) will continue to fall and so the slashing will necessarily go on.

Of course the history of industrial culture has been a constant tale of birth, growth, decline and death of technologies, businesses and whole industries. But it has been a tale of growth  — "Progress" — which has seen living standards rise in general. Consequently the bulk of the population is loyal to the system. It has fed us all, so we send our children off to school to be indoctrinated, disciplined and turned into reliable employees.

Downturns in the economy have been periodic features of our civilisation for hundreds of years. Like an overgrown garden, we begin to choke on our own growth, there is a collapse and many businesses and occupations are swept away while new ones are thrust into being, now that new opportunities open up. Every downturn temporarily slows or stops growth, but every upturn which follows sees growth rebound to yet higher levels. This has lead to economic theories which ignore the constraints of natural resources. After all, we seem to have come up with substitutes every time some resource has become exhausted.

When Britain had cut down all its trees for energy, suddenly there was coal. When the limitations of coal became apparent — boom! — suddenly we had oil. An even bigger boom ushered in the atomic age which promised electricity too cheap to meter! Atomic energy fell a long way short of its promise but the cheap oil continued to flow, especially after the oil crisis of the seventies and the consequent rush to exploit offshore resources. Now that we are entering another downturn, brought on by the end of cheap oil, there will be another winnowing of inefficient, aging industries and occupations followed by a resurgence powered by…nuclear fusion? Windmills and solar cells? Zero-point energy? Algae farming? Unfortunately this time, the outlook doesn't look so good.

We now have a monstrously large human population which has been enabled — is in fact a consequence — of the cheap oil of the last hundred years. We are not going to return to business as usual powered by methane digesters running on chicken shit. We are in fact heading into a long, painful and bitter decline in which the human population will necessarily shrink back to something the planet is able to carry.

The mouthpieces of conventional economic wisdom with their constant chants of "returning to growth soon" are sounding more and more like the quacking of ducks. And we are experiencing a crisis of faith in our leaders.

This was all predictable years ago, when the implications of the peaking of conventional oil production world-wide and the consequent rise in oil price made the course of future events quite clear. My original intention with this blog was to blow the warning hooter: "Danger, danger, peak oil. Get ready people…" but now we are into the consequences and my warnings are somewhat beside the point. The question is now, What Do We Do? A subsidiary question must inevitably be, Who Should We Listen To?

On the up-and-up, everyone is fat, happy and full of love for their fellows and glad to give disinterested advice. On the downslide, things are different. Biases and special interests tend to come to the fore. People want to protect their family, their business, their community, their beliefs, their culture or their scam. It is important to develop an acute nose for these biases, because they can distort and devalue advice from even the most previously reliable gurus and sages.

First, David Holmgren. David has been a wonderful visionary and proselytiser for his Permaculture. As the crisis approached, he set up his peak oil web site, Future Scenarios, which had a big influence on me back in the day. David walks the talk. Recently he has published Crash on Demand which has caused a big stir in peak oil circles. I recommend you read Crash on Demand. David has reached something of a crisis, as many of us in the loose Peak Oil movement have. He sees that the industrial system has not crashed and is likely to become much more destructive as it fights for its survival. Remember we are all current members of this system! So his not-very-hopeful reaction is to call on aware, middle-class people who are interested in Permaculture to take the big step, disengage from the system as far as possible and maybe that lack of support will bring it down quicker, thus (maybe) saving us from the worst of the coming climate change.

So what is the problem with this? Some people are not at all happy with David's suggestions. Rob Hopkins, the genial mover behind the Transition movement, is unimpressed by David's abandonment of engagement with the powers-that-be at a local level: local government, unions etc. Others think he hasn't gone far enough. I think he's just doing what he knows best: being a responsible social activist. However I think being a responsible social activist at this point in history is a waste of time. Just because someone listens to you doesn't add up to effective action. David's remarks have stirred up the blogosphere but does that amount to anything? And at a practical level, would a small percentage of the global middle-class withdrawing their savings from banks bring down the system? I hardly think so! David has been prodded by something into making a stand outside his normal range. That's understandable, but it's important to realise that he is making his statements as a normal, private individual. I don't believe he has any more authority or special knowledge in this area than you or I.

On to Jim Lovelock. The grand old man of the Gaia hypothesis is a kind of living god, really. And he can grab the headlines, as in this Guardian online article. Jim has been an advocate of nuclear power for some time and has adopted a few contrarian positions, some of which I agree with. He doesn't appear to owe anyone any favours and so speaks his mind freely. And he's a nice man. But why the nuclear power advocacy? I think it's important to understand where Jim (and David Holmgren for that matter) are coming from. They are products of the academic system. They are highly educated members of the middle-class, however anomalous their current independence from that class's preoccupations appears to be. So at some level they want the part of the system which produced them to continue on — namely the university system. And that can only continue in a society which has the surplus to support it. Now I may be drawing a long bow here, but I'll stick with my opinion. Jim and David are talkers: that is their business as they see it.

This tendency or bias is much more obvious with people like Guy McPherson and his guest posters. Guy woke up from his academic slumbers, realised the game was up and went on a kind of intellectual rampage. Guy is basically an intelligent, good-natured fellow who is very angry. He has tried various alternative living arrangements but it hasn't been wildly successful. He feels trapped and has turned this into the most doom-laden viewpoint in the blogosphere. Humanity is screwed, the planet is a few years away from shrugging us off and there is nothing we can do about it. He has attacked Nicole Foss over a line from Nicole's voluminous essay on David Holmgren's Crash on Demand. His guest posters are pretty similar. The difference between Jim Lovelock and Guy & company is that the latter have given up all hope. They all worked so hard to climb the academic slippery pole, they out-studied the lazy and stupid ones, then arrived at the summit to find — desolation! Theirs is the tragedy of over-investment. Lazy swine (like me) dropped out early when we saw the game was rigged and went on to have a life.

So is Nature Bats Last right? Are we all screwed? A little early to say for humanity as a whole — I have my doubts — but I can say one thing for sure: we're all gonna die! It comes with the job of being a member of the human race. One other thing I'm reasonably sure of too: the academic world — as we know it — is toast. Sorry.

The best essay I've come across today is from Erik Lindberg. His essay is entitled Agency On Demand? Holmgren, Hopkins, and the Historical Problem of Agency. It's a long, thoughful piece at the end of which he says
Beyond this, I have very little to offer at this time.  I don’t know what I should do, nor how I should recommend my friends and family to act and react.
Great! Exactly how I feel. But I'm having a go, building a new house and workshop in town, looking around for a recession or depression proof business (who knows, something's got to work!) and smelling the flowers. Look, life is fuckin' hard! Evolution proceeds through the death of the unsuccessful and the breeding of the successful. But you can't live in the future (or the past). Life is now, the fleeting but endless moment before death. The future is made by people living and reacting in that moment: not by solemn committees composed of the cleverest and holiest of humanity deciding what's best for us all. We simply don't know enough to run anything but our own lives, for better or for worse.

 I distrust leaders, because I grew up with one. "Men are sheep. They need to be lead!" he would thunder. But leaders make sheep of us all.





Monday, September 17, 2012

Don't send your children to the mines

From Michael Pettis' finance blog, a dose of cold water on the vaporous conceits of our bloated miners…in two years time this will be old news and we will have adjusted to the new realities, but for now it is amusing although rather chilling to see our treasurer, Wayne Swan and Glenn Stevens from the Reserve Bank strutting around as though they are personally in control of our current good fortune. It will be interesting to see how they behave when the rug is whipped out from underneath them.

The problem is of course the shortness of human memory and our brief life span. I'm old enough to have lived through three recessions, but if you're under the age of forty-five you will have never experienced one as a responsible adult, and if you spent your young adulthood in tertiary study, raise that age to fifty.

Even when the evidence of past disaster is around you, it can be hard to notice it for what it is. When I was at university at the beginning of the nineteen-seventies I lived in Carlton, which was a suburb built in the eighteen-hundreds. The whole area had narrowly survived complete demolition as an intractable slum in the nineteen-sixties. Carlton was on the up and up when I lived there: Fitzroy, the suburb to the east was still grim, poverty-stricken and Dickensian. Yet both suburbs had been prosperous when built. They were clobbered by the depression which started in 1873 and which ran through until 1896 — the first Great Depression. Seventy-five years later they were just beginning to emerge from that disaster! Of course prosperity had returned and disappeared several times since the initial disaster but it had happened somewhere else: other suburbs were built from the fruits of prosperity while Carlton and Fitzroy were largely forgotten. Now, they are both very much up-market, one-hundred and twenty years later!

So be aware of the transitory nature of human affairs and trust not in the utterances of the mighty! The real story is written in other places. Don't worry about Gina Rinehart's crazy public bloviations: they will soon be amusing footnotes to history.

Be warned: don't send your children the mines!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A cool view of our current economic situation

For a good current view of the Australian situation, check out this PDF. from Variant Perception (an independent global macroeconomic research service). This is investment advice, but don't be fooled by the title, "Australia: The Unlucky Country". Despite the short-term pain we're going to suffer, the longer view is still better than a lot of other places!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Guy McPherson

I just came across this guy. He has a blog which I've added to my blog list. Check out his talk: it's dark but good…

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When the system hits the wall

I've just watched a presentation by Jeremy Rifkin — a very clever and articulate man — which is below. It's long but engrossing — go on, watch it, I'll wait!
If you watched it you will see what I mean. But did you also see how it is a piece of theatre, rather than a closely reasoned argument? He presents us with a view of human progress which, to condense Jeremy's argument, equates pretty much with increased energy consumption! Ergo, we must keep up the energy level! And then he pulls a whole lot of techno-speak out of the air, equating distributed information with distributed energy generation (see, one works, so the other must too!) and sketching out a sexy-sounding future with the whole world of little home generators linking together, busy making their contribution to the betterment of the human species! The young people know all about this kind of stuff 'cause they're on Facebook and Twitter! So lets get them all going on it.

Only it's all a crock of — well — crap, I'm afraid. His argument for human progress is so thin, so grossly over-simplified and ridiculously reductionist as to be no better than the sort of thing that pops into your head when you've smoked some really good weed after dinner. And then to use it as the justification for leading the young people of the world off on a campaign of technological positivism, based on about as much technical savvy as in a Jetson's cartoon, is to my mind, positively criminal. To me, the underlying game here is "Keep my scam going (and my books selling) for as long as possible". From the blurb on Amazon that goes with his book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World:

Jeremy Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and the author of eighteen bestselling books, including The Hydrogen Economy and The End of Work. He has been a guest on Face the Nation, The Lehrer News Hour, 20/20, Larry King Live, Today, and Good Morning America. The National Journal named Rifkin as one of 150 people in the U.S. that have the most influence in shaping federal government policy. He has also testified before numerous congressional committees, and since 1994, Mr. Rifkin has been a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rifkin is chairman of the Global CEO Business Roundtable, which includes IBM, Cisco, Cushman and Wakefield, and has served as an adviser to various global leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany. His monthly column on global issues appears in many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian in the U.K., Die Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, Trud in Bulgaria, Clarín in Argentina, and Al-Ittihad in the U.A.E. He lives in Bethesda, MD.
 So this dude is a heavy hitter with influence. Maybe he is a "nice guy". But what he says, if you strip away the flashy factoids, the glossy visions and the dodgy science is no better than a high-class advertisement for himself. God help you if you take anything he says seriously (for a cogent critique of his book "The Hydrogen Economy" look here). Keep him away from the children!

On to my next guest. This is Margaret Alston, a holder of an Order of Australia, Professor of Social Work and Head of Department at Monash University and Director of the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability research unit. Chair of the Australian Heads of Schools of Social Work. Much less flashy than Jeremy Rifkin, much more earnest, lots of academic credibility. This is a talk on Radio National's Big Ideas program, which is a broadcast of the Sidney Myer Rural Lecture (click to get to the page with the podcast) entitled "Rural Education…Shaping Leaders for the Future".

She is a lady with a sweet voice who is trying to Do Good Work. She starts off well by talking about the problems facing rural areas with climate change, the economic crisis and peak oil, and how leadership has to come from within rural communities rather than be imposed from outside. At about the eleven minute mark she strays off overseas, running through a number of international projects she has been associated with. The classic moment comes with her description of a conference at the Prado campus of Monash University in Italy, to do with gender and climate change. The thought of all those earnest folk (mostly women?) arriving by jumbo jet from far-flung places, trailing clouds of glory fairly impressive carbon footprints, brought a faint smile to my lips. I'm sure lots of important resolutions were passed, and great thoughts were — well — thunk. And her book about it will be out soon. Then we're off to Bangladesh which is of course full of problems, but the village people are passionate that their children be well educated even though they themselves have nothing and live in villages that get washed away every time you turn around — kablam! Just like that.

But here we have come to the meat and potatoes of the good professor's talk: education! As it is for the Bangladeshis, so it should be for us country folk in Australia! Then follows a long discussion of the problems down on the farm. Rural youngsters don't get as much education and tend to rush off to the city if they've got any brains. And how do you get young teachers to go happily off to Lake Boga to Spread the Word? Dear dear dear. With enough resources, we could be leading the world with all these brilliant country youngsters, who instead are drinking Jim Beam & Coke, crashing their utes, watching Biggest Loser, beating each other senseless or shagging in their time off from fixing fences or cleaning at the motel.

I think I've got the good Professor's schtick worked out. You make some statement about the world which catches attention and being an intelligent person, she makes an intelligent statement. Then comes the bit where you must blow your own trumpet, but in a subtle way. The international connections, the book etc. This segues into the main subject, which is to get more funding for your particular gig. Fortunately education is like love: you can never get enough of it. So her talk is — surprise! — a big advertisement for herself and her institutions. All those bright young people sitting there like little birds with their beaks open, waiting for mummy bird to drop in the Worm of Knowledge! And who is better equipped than you-know-who to play mummy bird?

Will it do any good? I think at this point, we need to find some historic, successful rural leaders of note and examine their education. How about Attila the Hun for a start? Let's get real. Rural Australia is simply a thinly-spread industrial suburb of the great international civilisation of which we are all a part. The survival of rural Australia is therefore is therefore tied closely to the fate of this mighty construct — not to whether little Johny or Jane in Grong Grong gets a diploma of Gender Studies. Unfortunately the signs aren't good. Climate change and economic collapse means quite simply that large areas of this great brown land are going to be abandoned. Those parts that will survive and thrive are quite easy to identify. They are the ones without extreme climate (sorry inland Australia, the Northern territory and Queensland!), which have good soil and which are favoured as holiday spots by the elites which will be running our cities.

As the economy starts to shrink, the chorus of entitlement-seekers will rise to a shriek. Unfortunately many intelligent people have been recruited into roles as the highly-educated technicians who run our current bloated system. Their wages are now paid by what will soon become a rapidly shrinking tax base, or by industries which cater for discretionary purchases such as cars, Coca-Cola, corn chips or holidays in Bali over which the sword of consumer cost-cutting hangs.

As reality bites will we turn away from Snake Oil salesmen like Jeremy Rifkin? Probably not — we all love a good story even if it's not true, us gullible human beings! The fate of the educators is easier to foresee — those who can teach you what you need to know will be fed and those who are peddling a scam will starve.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why open source?

Here's a neat explanation by Bre Pettis from MakerBot (who speaks on the Al Jazeera link I posted yesterday).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Makerspace/hackerspace

I've been ruminating for a few years on the best way to go about increasing the economic resilience of our corner of the world. For a time I focused on a scheme to build business incubators, and spoke to various people including our local shire's business representative, the Department of Planning & Community Development and to Regional Development Victoria, trying to drum up support. My theory: build it and they will come! I even had spaces in mind to locate the two sections, which were the retail part (in Foster, our throbbing, pulsating commercial centre!) and the manufacturing part (to be in the abandoned factory in Toora). If I could persuade the Shire to buy the Toora factory and finance the purchase of a CNC milling machine, and then somehow get a shop in Foster which could be split up into a series of little retail spaces…but my scheme never seemed to get any legs. The factory in Toora sold to someone in Sydney for what sounds like a pie-in-the-sky scheme to set up plastic recycling (and it looks more derelict and sadly overgrown by the day) and Foster also seemed like a closed door with no suitable spaces available. Plus no-one showed any enthusiasm for dropping serious money and effort into my proposal.

It all got too hard, and if something's too hard then the time or the idea isn't right. In the meantime, doodling around on other projects lead me to the Arduino processor and I started teaching my self to program it and dream vaguely of the commercial possibilities. And suddenly the world seemed to open up with lots of people talking about the new world made possible by the sudden miniaturisation and cheapness of this new generation of microprocessors. John Robb over at Global Guerrillas has been on a tear, with lots of posts on drones, drone warfare and his big push for resilient communities. And I was re-reading all my blog posts (for the first time since I started it!) when I clicked on the name of a commenter, leading me to the man himself, Mitch Davis, and his Hackvana site. Suddenly I saw the time was right! Mitch made a comment about electronics which chimed in with what I'd been thinking for a few years: to quote him
How lucky am I to be alive at this moment, when the hackerspace movement is taking off. Five years ago our "electronics" shops had ditched their components, and the world looked set to be slave to the consumerist mindset: We buy it, it fails, we throw it away, we buy it again. But a funny thing has happened in the past three years: The advent of inexpensive microprocessors, of open source hardware and software (I'm thinking in particular of the Arduino, that incredible gateway enabler) and the manufacturing power of China means that now anyone can get into electronics. And come to think of it, electronics isn't even the main point - it's just the vehicle. The main point is that we don't have to consume, we can realise how satisfying it is to create, to repurpose, to collaborate and share.
 So true: I did a big job up at Renmark in South Australia a few years ago and discovered getting bits from an electronics shop was a real battle in Mildura. At that time it seemed make-it-yourself was dying.

That was then, this is now! I contacted Mitch and he gave me some valuable pointers: to Hack Melbourne and to Little Bird Electronics amongst other things. Checking out Hack Melbourne I saw that one of the members was an old workmate of mine, Michael Borthwick, with whom I'd worked on a science museum in Malaysia back in the nineties, and he was into some wild stuff (check the Lunar Numbat Project!). Plus the Hack Melbourne seemed to be full of all the things I'd been idly kicking around: 3-D printing, electronic controls and monitoring, even DNA analysis. It seemed to be full of my kind of people. So following Mitch's advice I contacted Andy Gelme, the man behind it all, who replied to me in the middle of writing this post with an invitation to visit Hack Melbourne. Yay!

My plan is to hold a meeting in a couple of weeks (after my Hack Melbourne visit), advertising to all interested parties plus the Shire's people and get something moving. I have one schoolkid on the bus I drive who's really interested and another who might be. That's one eighth of my small sample. One in eight of the three hundred and sixty or so kids at the secondary college would be forty-five, plus a few maybe from the primary school, plus who knows how many out in the general community.

Before with the business incubators, it was a big up-front investment to get it off the ground. This is scaled way back on the financial front. Getting a space to operate in is still a problem, but I do have an interest in a factory at the bottom of the town where I'm sharing with my mate Scotty. Plus another mate Gunnar said the place he's renting in the middle of the town might be available soon. Hmm!

This time I feel like I'm in tune with the zeitgeist. Check out this item from Al Jazeeras The Stream all about hackerspaces in Africa. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Stoneleigh & Ilargi in South Gippsland!

We had our public lecture with Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh from The Automatic Earth) the end of last month. It was organised as part of her Australian tour, and Malcolm McKelvie of Baw Baw Sustainability Network and I co-operated to put it on in Leongatha. Malcolm did a great job, whereas I was a bit behind the eight-ball for the weeks leading up to it as I had a heart attack on New Years day (my first, but a minor one fortunately) so I didn't get on top of the publicity as I'd hoped to. But it didn't matter: we had around eighty people turn up which was much better than I expected. South Gippsland Shire in the shape of Christine Hamilton from their Sustainability department was completely wonderful, organising the venue and arranging a donation to make it happen as well as cleaning up afterwards. Baw Baw Shire has also kicked in a substantial donation. So it was all good!

The lecture went well and Nicole was in fine form, especially with the Q & A afterwards. My friend Ross turned up just as the lecture was about to start and acted as moderator for the Q & A which was great. After the show we went back to our place in Foster where I was putting Nicole and Ilargi (he's a great guy!) up and we drank red wine, putting the world to rights until 12:30 or so. I mentioned to Nicole I was driving the Mount Best school bus and that if she, Ilargi and Trevor, the friend who had driven them down to the lecture, wanted to they could come with me in the morning for a spectacular tour of the hills of South Gippsland. So I woke Nicole up at 6:30, we picked up Trevor (Ilargi had elected to sleep in) and off we went. It was a perfect day, the views were superb and the kids on the bus didn't riot! After we sat around drinking coffee and talking about life, the universe and everything until just before midday when they headed off for the next lecture in Geelong. Whereupon I had to have a little lie down! It took me a couple of days to recover: I hope Nicole wasn't as exhausted as I was!