Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back to the Main Game

Right! Coming down from the Olympian heights, we need to define clearly what is to be done. The steps in order are:

(a) Educate yourself as to what the real issues are. Do Chris Martenson's Crash Course. Look at the article on Peak Oil in Wikipedia, visit Matt Savinar's "Life After the Oil Crash", read Jim Kunstler's "Long Emergency" article (I have his book if anyone wants to borrow it: he's a great writer in the excoriating American tradition of J.K. Gailbraith or Gore Vidal). Read The Oil Drum. Read Richard Heinberg (I've got his books too).

(b) Think about your own life: your strengths and vulnerabilities in terms of what you've learned in (a).

(c) Plan mitigation strategies. Hey, here's a chance to remake your life! It's not all doom and gloom and some of it might even be fun.

(d) Ignore the nonsensical spoutings of our esteemed leaders. Remember that they are products of the system which is currently failing, and have difficulties imagining solutions outside of the world that they know. Their top priority is to try and keep business as usual operating no matter what the cost to us. Seek your own salvation!

Remember our meeting in the Community Garden behind Foster Community House on November 25th at 6:00 pm (bring something to eat).

From the viewpoint of the Gods

Aeldric, an Australian contributor to The Oil Drum, has posted an article today entitled "The Failure of Networked Systems: The Repercussions of Systematic Risk" which has provoked a discussion which goes far and deep. If you're willing to take the plunge, dive in. I'd particularly recommend paying attention to posts in the discussion by Memmel who is a true genius, but severely dyslexic, so a little self-translation is in order while reading his stuff.

In a nutshell, the originating article is difficult to understand because it's highly technical, but the discussion following (which is of the highest quality) is where the true jewels lie.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A vital first step for us all (if you haven't done it yet!)

If you haven't already done so, I urge you to do Chris Martenson's Crash Course right now, as he has just posted the final chapter. It is the single clearest and most accessible way I have found to understand the crisis which is now upon us. It's broken up into many short sections, many of which you could easily fit into a coffee break in front of your computer. It is so lucid and simple that any average teenager should understand it.

Chris makes the reasons for the present financial crisis completely clear and further than that, provides an excellent set of tools for remedial actions for individuals, businesses and communities.

At future meetings we will be using his methods to analyse our situation and prepare strategies for action so it's important you familiarise yourself with the material.

Also we are shifting our next meeting date at the Community Garden to November 25th at 6:00 pm, as it clashed with another important event: Doctor Barbara Hoare's MADGE (GM foods) meeting.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

For the more adventurous...

"For the engineers out there, our current situation is akin to trying to fly an F-22 at the edge of its performance envelope with only cables and pulleys for control inputs." John Robb is worth a look if you want a view of the current world situation from a student of complex system theory. It's not easy, but it's profound. A link here to a podcast he talks about featuring Benoit Mandelbrot and Nassim Taleb: well worth a listen.

OK: an F-22 is inherently unstable and is only kept in the air by a sophisticated computer-controlled flight system which the pilot interacts with to direct the aircraft. When it's flying, everything happens way too fast for normal human reflexes. Benoit Mandelbrot is a mathematician, a pioneer of chaos theory (we have a local resident, Michael Barnsley, who is a mate of his, another pioneer of chaos theory and who has a couple of properties on Corner Inlet): Nassim Taleb is the author of "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable", a profound and insightful look at the risks of complex and brittle systems such as our current global financial setup.

What are these guys smoking?

I just saw this story on the BBC News site. Quote from Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the management board at Daimler and head of Mercedes Cars : "There are many studies that say it took 120 years to get to 800 million cars around the globe, and that it will take only another 30 years to double that volume," he says. "If that is true, the best is still ahead of us." Don't you just love the blind optimism: the faith? And of course, it's all good!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Seductive Thrill of the Horror Movie & the Hell-fire Sermon

I came across an interesting thought posted by Nate Hagens on The Oil Drum. “In writing this post, it dawned on me that much of the work we do in raising peak oil awareness is received by readers as kind of an interesting horror movie. Yes - tell me more scary facts and I will sit at my computer and read them. But its the rational brain that is receiving this information. And its not budging behaviour much.”

I think many people feel the same way when presented with the concept of Peak Oil at a meeting such as we had the other night. I felt like a fire-and-brimstone preacher: “Repent, ye sinners! The wrath of the Lord is terrible indeed, and all those who do not believe shall burn in everlasting hellfire!”

In certain perhaps not particularly edifying but all-too-human ways, we love a hell-fire sermon for the same reason we love horror films. We can get a big fright without confronting any real immediate danger. And additionally we can go away in the smug knowledge that we know something the ignorant do not. We are “insiders”. But what can we actually do with the things we have learned? I think after a meeting such as we had the other night, a lot of people on sober reflection would say “Not much”. Why is this so?

The changes threatened by a paradigm altering event such as the end of cheap oil would seem to undermine many of the plans and assumptions we have made about our lives. We feel trapped and relatively powerless to respond in a thoroughgoing way. And so we change things at the periphery. We cut down our consumption of plastic bags, we think about buying a Toyota Prius instead of a Landcruiser. But we feel our choices are limited.

This is because we have a lot of prior investment in the situation as it is. It might be our career, where we live, our relationships, our business. We don’t see ourselves as having much freedom of movement. We are very aware of what economists call ”sunk costs”, irrecoverable investments of time, money or intellectual or emotional energy we have made to get where we are. They may not fit the new reality with which we’ve been presented, but we have extreme reluctance in giving them up as a dead loss. And this is a perfectly rational response.

Major change not only trashes our prior investments but it also comes at a big psychological cost. We are much more likely to become ill or have an accident when we go through a major change. And what constitutes major change? Well, in no particular order or ranking, going to school, finishing school, getting a job, having a baby or a last child leaving home, losing a job, getting married or divorced, starting a business, having a nervous breakdown, moving house, going broke, death of friends or family, serious illness. Hopefully not all these things will happen and not too close together, thank you very much. We are naturally averse to big changes because they are costly and hard.

So the paradox is that usually our only chance to make basic changes to our life is during one of these great cataclysms. And our choices at these times then determine our fate for the next epoch of our life. The choices we make are determined at least partly by our world-view at the time and the information swirling about us. This is where the value of these big-picture events like the Peak Oil information evening can really kick in. And when we’re up against it and the situation is in flux, we can often find unexpected strength, wisdom and courage.

“To be thrown upon one's own resources, is to be cast into the very lap of fortune; for our faculties then undergo a development and display an energy of which they were previously unsusceptible.”—Benjamin Franklin

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”— Samuel Johnson, "The Life of Samuel Johnson" (1791)

The Folly Of A Depression Thesis

"We have several things working against us this time around, and few things working for us, compared to the 1930s. Here's a short list:

In the 1930s we were resource-independent. Today we are near-absolutely dependent on foreign oil. We import about 2/3rds of our consumption, and while Canada's supply is probably assured irrespective of our economic condition, the same is not true for the net creditors to the United States, particularly Arab nations. They both can and might cut us off, and so may Venezuela.
In the 1930s we had debt owned by foreigners, but nothing like today. Today we require about $2 billion in foreign capital per day to remain solvent as a nation at the government level. This has been almost-entirely financed through the purchase of cheap foreign goods from China and oil from the Middle East. If either of those sources of foreign capital flows are disrupted, things get very bad very fast. There is no reason to believe that either of these blocks of nations will continue to provide this funding as our consumption of their goods decreases and thus their need to recycle dollars disappears.
In the 1930s we had heavy industry out the wazoo in America. Today we have very little. Yes, we produce more now here than ever before - but as a proportion of what we consume, it is at all-time lows. What this means for us is that as those trade imbalances disappear prices are going to go up as the "recycling" trade goes away and production is forcibly repatriated here to the United States. (The alternative, a refusal to repatriate that production, is far worse, as that will result in a currency dislocation that will produce the same sort of price increases but no wage improvement for Americans. Down that road lies really serious trouble for us.)
On the good side, we have technology we didn't have then. This means we may be able to find efficiencies that were the stuff of fancy 50 or 100 years ago. The counter-balance to this is that the really big efficiency gains are likely behind us, having been gained in the 80s, 90s and the first part of the 00s."

Read the rest of this article. It applies to the US situation but in essence I see little difference for us. We don't import quite as much oil in percentage terms, and our debt level as a proportion of GDP is not quite so bad. But when you look at likely outcomes, the differences may turn out to be marginal. What we have going in our favour (possibly, IMHO!) is greater social cohesion and the concept of the fair go, which will hopefully see us share the pain more equitably.

Jim Kunstler strikes again (Warning: strong language if you follow the link at the bottom)

"To switch metaphors, let's say that we are witnessing the two stages of a tsunami. The current disappearance of wealth in the form of debts repudiated, bets welshed on, contracts cancelled, and Lehman Brothers-style sob stories played out is like the withdrawal of the sea. The poor curious little monkey-humans stand on the beach transfixed by the strangeness of the event as the water recedes and the sea floor is exposed and all kinds of exotic creatures are seen thrashing in the mud, while the skeletons of historic wrecks are exposed to view, and a great stench of organic decay wafts toward the strand. Then comes the second stage, the tidal wave itself -- which in this case will be horrific monetary inflation -- roaring back over the mud flats toward the land mass, crashing over the beach, and ripping apart all the hotels and houses and infrastructure there while it drowns the poor curious monkey-humans who were too enthralled by the weird spectacle to make for higher ground. The killer tidal wave washes away all the things they have labored to build for decades, all their poignant little effects and chattels, and the survivors are left keening amidst the wreckage as the sea once again returns to normal in its eternal cradle."

An opinion piece on Peak Oil at the ABC news site

A succinct summary of the dilemma for Australia. I'm not sure how long the ABC keeps stories archived. The comments are worth going through too.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Will people head bush when The Long Emergency begins to bite?

One of the enduring themes of apocalyptic thinking is the flight from the city. It's a common thread in discussion groups devoted to Peak Oil, reinforced by a long list of movies and books plus the burgeoning Survivalist movement in the US. Because so much of our media content originates in the US we tend to swallow big chunks of it undigested, often without paying close attention to how well it fits our rather different Australian situation.

The last thirty years or so, where increasingly our view of the world comes not from the stories of our ancestors or any sort of local cultural memory but from this electronic media soup we all swim in, has seen a certain set of ideas about the Australian Bush, current when I was a kid, gradually fade away. In the fifties the idea of the Bush as something to be tamed and conquered was current. The sense of the difficulty of whitefellas surviving unaided in the Bush (think Burke & Wills), the idea of the almost superhuman strength and endurance of the early settlers, hacking their way through a dripping primeval wilderness up to their knees in mud to turn the hills of South Gippsland into productive farms.

These ways of thinking about rural Australia have faded, to be replaced by other memes: the beauty of unspoiled nature (to be enjoyed from the air-conditioned comfort of the Landcruiser or tourist boat), or the managerial notion that with the proper application of modern knowledge plus plenty of industrial fertilizer and horsepower, the return on agricultural investment will rise in a steady and predictable way.

Our Australian landscape is far from tamed though, very far from the vision of say rural France with its patchwork of small productive farms and tidy vineyards, or of the American Midwest with its wheat lands growing on a rich bed of recent glacial tilth left over from the Ice Ages.

It's tough living outside of the cities in Australia, even in green South Gippsland. Our soil is ancient and leached and our weather unpredictable even before we had the phrase Climate Change to kick around. There will be no flight from the cities to the country in Australia if things get tough. Our battle will be to stop the traffic going the other way. We need to think of ways of making our life out here more stable, more sustainable (to use a word that is rapidly becoming worn and useless from overwork), and more attractive for the young people whose intelligence and strength will be needed to keep our communities viable and vibrant. It's easy to mistake our growing population of retirees with their comfortable houses on the skylines of the district as guarantors of continuing prosperity. However if Peak Oil means our rural economy wilts as less energy is available, and the cities prop themselves up by sucking the countryside around them dry of every resource, the next generation of retirees will be looking out on a landscape covered in regrowth and feral pines, with a few half derelict towns scattered along crumbling roads.

We need to rethink how we can live in this landscape if this vision is not to become reality. Our present pattern of settlement is no more than a thinly spread industrial suburb of the city, to be abandoned once it makes no further economic sense. We need to build communities which can live self-reliantly in this landscape and which are self-directed as well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A balanced and nuanced view of what's coming

Go and have a look at this thoughtful post by Sharon Astyk on her "Casaubon's Book" blog. She runs over a lot of the ground I covered in my talk last night but has a shot at predicting how things might unfold for individuals. Of course she's talking about the US situation but a lot is applicable, or will be, to our Australian one.

Forum on Fuel, Finance and the Future of South Gippsland

Our forum was well attended, with twenty-five coming along in total. After Lloyd presented a lecture on Peak Oil and the current financial crisis, we had a short break and then resumed to discuss where we should go from here. The proceedings were recorded by Nick Franklin from ABC Radio Nationals 'Radio Eye' for incorporation in a program for broadcast later in the year.

Many ideas were batted around during the discussion, with Joe Pinzone talking about the way he had restructured his fishing business to make it more financially sustainable, using less fuel and less capital intensive equipment. He also pointed to the revival of the co-operative system as a possible model to use where business people with a community of interests could carry out joint activities such as transport of goods to market.

Peter felt that Lloyd's rather gloomy outlook for future economic prospects was unjustified, and he was confident that technological solutions would be found on due course for the fossil fuel dilemma.

It was generally agreed that re-localisation was something to be aimed for, where goods and services currently provided by suppliers from outside the district which may be vulnerable to interruption as the fuel and financial crisis develops are replaced where possible through local suppliers.

Wendy brought up the possibility of setting up a LETS type barter scheme or local currency, and that local food production on a more intensive scale for local consumption could become important part of community self-reliance.

Janine mentioned the plastic bag problem and there was a discussion about ways to reduce plastic bag usage. Ross and Fiona told us about the recycling systems they had seen in Europe and Tiare told us about the retailers in Melbourne who no longer supply plastic bags. Linda saw this as an excellent opportunity for Foster to re-brand itself as a clean green town. Peter and Jan Fell mentioned the possibility of getting funds to assist us to set this up through Philip Milbourne from the State government.

Bryan told us about similar action groups in other towns, and will help us make contact with them to save us having to re-invent the wheel. He thinks it may be possible to get people from these groups to come and address us.

We discussed whether the business of the group might be better carried out by an existing group such as the Foster Community Association. We have decided to continue as a separate group for the time being. Those with memberships of another group can liaise between the two.

The next meeting will be on Tuesday the 11th of November from 6pm onwards, at the Manna Community Garden behind the Community House. It would be great if each of us can tell other people who may be able to contribute to the discussion about this next meeting. Bring them along. And don't forget to bring something to eat!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Local currencies and changing the way we do food

Another excellent post by Big Gav over at the The Oil Drum on the use of local currencies, which are really a more sophisticated form of barter. Mind you, central governments hate them!

Also have a look at this long article, written as an open letter to the next president-elect in the New York Times, on food security, food health and public policy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Career advice

There's an interesting new post on the Oil Drum with career advice for an energy constrained future. Check it out!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Forum on Fuel, Finance & the Future of South Gippsland October 14th Foster War Memorial Arts Centre

The fundamentals underpinning our economy and way of life for fifty years are changing, and we're about to enter a different world. It's a world offering both threats and opportunities in equal measure. To look at the changes we are facing and how we need to take them into account when planning our individual lives, our businesses and our community, a forum will be held at the Foster War memorial Arts Centre on Tuesday October the 14th at 7:30 PM. After a brief lecture to explain Australia's current and growing oil supply vulnerabilities, the forum will explore what this will mean for us as individuals and as a community. What are the threats? What are the opportunities? What does the current crisis in the World financial markets mean for us and how is it linked to our energy dependence?

The last fifty years, the era of cheap and abundant energy, have seen extraordinary changes in how we live and work. The cost of consumer goods and food has fallen dramatically, while the cost of housing and the number of hours we work in paid employment and devote to education and training have increased equally dramatically. The kinds of work we do now would have been difficult to imagine fifty years ago. Who would have thought a large part of the population would spend at least fifteen years in the education system, and then spend most of their working lives looking at screens and tapping on keyboards, no matter what their chosen career path?

For several generations there have been great increases in productivity in the agricultural sector, and a corresponding steep decline in the number of jobs. This has led in turn to a simplification of our local community as many trades and auxiliary occupations have disappeared. The low cost of distribution has meant the end of small-scale local manufacture. Could an increase in distribution costs because of the end of cheap oil coupled with the costs of greenhouse gas abatement policies reopen opportunities for small-scale manufacturing businesses servicing local populations? Will public transport need to grow to compensate for a shift away from increasingly expensive car dependency? What will this mean for patterns of settlement and municipal planning in country areas? How will our transport and distribution of goods change with the end of cheap oil, when at the moment our community is crucially dependant on reliable and timely deliveries in an era of low inventories and with an enormous range of key components needed to keep our complex systems functioning? How will education need to change to better equip young people for this very different world?

In tandem with the end of cheap oil we seem to be coming the end of cheap and easily available finance. How will we fund our future business and community enterprises? Can community based banking step into the gap left by the crash of the giants of international finance? Are other, older ways of financing business, such as simple partnerships and long-term family enterprises likely to re-emerge?

All societies depend on a certain level of trust. At the moment our level of trust in politics and the large-scale enterprises, and corporations controlling much of our lives, is eroding. A good example has been the recent milk contamination scare in China, which has spread globally to goods on supermarket shelves everywhere. The controversy over GM foods is another, which has seriously damaged public confidence in the benign intentions of large, faceless corporations. We are likely to see this malaise spread even wider as superannuation funds suffer big losses in the current share market decline and people who trusted a complex system beyond their control and their understanding to take care of them in old age are left feeling betrayed and bitter. Politics has undergone a similar public disenchantment, where a weary public turn away from engagement in a process which produces governments promising popular policies, but which are quickly captured by powerful special interests and work only for their benefit. Again the complexity of the international economy means no-one understands it or can control it, so that the legitimacy of leaders is further undermined by their seeming incompetence when faced with crises like the one we are currently seeing. This disenchantment and disengagement can cause a power vacuum to be produced, hollowing out the state and allowing alternative centres of power to arise. These power centres can be cults, criminal gangs or religious or tribally based alternative governments. To respond to this threat pro-actively should we re-energise local politics and take back responsibility for areas of our lives, which we have formerly been happy to surrender to anonymous and distant organizations? Can local government grow to fill this gap in political trust? Can local businesses run by members of the local community grow through capitalising on a perception that they are more likely to act in an ethical manner?

In five, ten, fifty and one hundred years time there will be people living and working in South Gippsland. By coming along to this community forum, you can help shape your future and the futures of generations succeeding us. There is no one answer to all the questions already mentioned, and many more questions needing to be asked. No one person can do this alone, but if we can tap the wisdom of the whole community (because each one of us, no matter how humble, has something to contribute) we can be far stronger and more effective discussing and acting together than if we remain isolated individuals. See you there!