Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sugar coating a cow pat

This Monday all over the world (in our more "advanced" nations at least), public relations people told their partners over breakfast it was going to be a busy week. After all, the various leaders of these advanced nations were winging their way home from the Copenhagen conference, back to the bosom to their constituents, whose shining expectant faces need to be fed the right mixture of optimism leavened with the need for caution against any moves which might rock the boat, upset the apple cart, or wreck Christmas. Our leaders would need help with this.

And as they sat in their Lexus or Audi or Merc crawling along the freeway with the radio chattering cheerily in the background, our public relations types would have been thinking about what they could pull out of the file as a template to fit the task. A simple job — making an abject failure look like a work in progress. There would be some meetings of key people straight off to outline the problem, but once it was roughed out it could go down the line for the juniors to flesh out the campaign. Nothing out of the ordinary, but a good solid couple of days worth of work that would be nicely billable at a tight time for a lot of firms.

You'll be able to make your judgment of their efforts yourself, but with only a couple of sleeps till Santa comes and then with New Year and the other distractions of the festive season I expect our interest in Copenhagen will have faded and we'll be gawking at Tiger Wood's porn-star lover's latest revelations on page one, while climate change will be back buried at the bottom of page six.

For some reason, I am reminded of the last scene in Zola's novel La BĂȘte Humaine, where the driverless train careers on through the night full of happy, drunken, doomed soldiers.

Let's put my emotionalism to one side. Everything is going to an inevitable plan now and there is nothing we can do to stop it at any level above the personal. If we have made the decision not to go down with the ship, or join the drunken soldiers on the train, our task is quite simple, although not particularly easy, as we will be coming up against the resistance of those who take the p.r. spin seriously. But in essence it is to find the right place to live, get out of debt, have a maintainable shelter over our heads, a reliable food supply and a non-toxic community surrounding us. Good luck!

Edit: from Tagonist, a quote…
Speaking of Copenhagen (and the health care bill) I have a new motto: baby steps equals failure. Suck it up, spinboys...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Art on a Sunday night

And now for something completely different (via Keep It Trill)!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Copenhagen, Rudd, Wong and other delusionary phenomena

I know a lot of people follow the news, waiting with baited breath to see if our fearless leaders will "save" us all at Copenhagen. I find it a little hard to understand how anyone can believe in this stuff at all any more! I suppose the school kids have "ideals" pumped into them and then go out into the world to be exploited by their seniors until the juice is all squeezed out of them. They provide the energy, while it lasts, to give our political processes the appearance of life. But it's all a gigantic machine, set in motion by long-dead hands, where the outcome of hardly anything depends upon specific actors any more — they're all infinitely replaceable — but on the inertia of culture, the habits and desires of billions, the grooves into which our actions are forced to conform by the structures both physical and mental which we inhabit. And how can a system which depends upon infinite growth, ever-expanding credit and growing population and consumption, vote itself out of existence? Because that is the only answer to all our looming problems.

There is no such thing as "sustainable development". It has no more reality than "clean coal". We can go on pretending for a few more years. No doubt there will be people in fifty years time who when the ruin of our civilisation lies strewn about them, will continue to spout the kind of nonsense which fills TV, newspapers and our conversations. And this basically comes down to a frantic groping around for ways to keep the unsustainable way of life to which we are almost all so desperately attached, going a bit longer. But it will end.

Perhaps you find this difficult to countenance and are appalled by my "negativity". But I'm not being negative. I'm merely stating a difficult truth which we are all going to have to face if we live a few years longer. It's a law of nature if you like — and we are animals like any other, subject to the laws of nature as much as any other part of it, however much self-deluding drivel comes out of the mouths of opinion makers on every side of politics.

So is the human race Doomed? Of course bloody not!

The way to think about it is this. Will there be humans on this planet in one hundred years time? Almost certainly! Will they be living where you're living? If the answer to this is most likely yes, how will they be living? Do you want to be part of their future? Yes? Then it's up to you to try and work out how to get there from here.

Forget millennial dreams, or apocalyptic dreams. Forget all the idealistic or nihilistic nonsense you've imbibed if you can. Try to imagine the real situation which will exist in one hundred years, or whatever time span you pick.

By the way, Ran Prieur has done a great post on the same ideas I've been riffing on above. Read it here. A quote…
It is said that Obama is wearing a mask, being a deceiver, as if he carefully pretended to be a progressive activist for a quarter of a century because a time traveler from the future told him that would get him elected president in 2008 so he could pursue his secret right wing globalist agenda. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" -- but it's hard to imagine two presidents more different than Obama and Bush. The fact that the country is moving the same direction under each of them should tell us something else: the president is not the boss. Obama has never worn a mask -- Obama is the mask, and not a very good one. It has never been more obvious that America is an ossified dying empire with a suicidal inertia that no leader or movement can stop. If Sarah Palin, Dennis Kucinich, or Carrot Top were president, the system that the president pretends to run would still be bailing out banks and insurance companies, escalating wars, hiding atrocities, and generally chugging along to its ruin.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Barnaby Joyce

Barnaby Joyce is conservative politician and a thug, and I don't like his world-view. He reminds me of some of the kinds of people I was at boarding school with: arrogant and overbearing. However he has done the unthinkable and spoken the truth — called the USA for the fake that it has become and blown the whistle on the Potemkin Village of Australian exceptionalism. Unlike the cardboard cut-outs he's surrounded by in Canberra, he speaks his mind. Naturally this has freaked them out. Sooner or later this was going to happen — the cosy consensus managed by spin doctors and PR masters was going to crack. Once it breaks the ground will open up in politics and we will get very different world emerging. It will be a dangerous world because we are living in dangerous times.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Riffing on the Archdruid's latest

He strikes again! The Archdruid rarely disappoints and this week's post is another ripper, as he meticulously pulls apart our hopes and fears over climate politics and expiates on the folly of betting on the big end of town, political or business, to save our arses (or asses for US readers). Because it's over folks! Till your garden, mend your fences and talk to your neighbors, because that's what matters now.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The final episode of "Addicted to Money"

I just watched "Addicted to Money" episode 3 via iView on the ABC's site (scroll the list till you find it — only 11 days to go before it disappears). A tiresome business in South Gippsland where broadband is not much faster than dial-up, so it took me two hours to watch the last half hour of the program. In the end it was an exhortation to be virtuous. I suppose given the shortness of the program and the complexity of the subject multiplied by the contentiousness, it wasn't fair to expect much more. In the end I was surprised by the directness and honesty of the presentation but of course it could only skim the surface, leaving the courses of action to deal with the situation entirely up to us.

Which actions to take? This is where our all-to-human prejudices come into play, and I don't pretend to be free of them. But let me just say that focusing on the shortcomings of others, either at the highest levels of politics or in your own street is not likely to prove a sensible course. Look at what you are doing, and remove the plank from your own eye before you make comments on the speck in other people's. Also avoid the related problem of depending on your so-called betters to solve the problem for you. Forget about electric cars, wind power and all the other fluff. In the end, if you can't build it and fix it locally, preferably yourself, then it will suck all your blood.

What am I doing? In the next few weeks we'll be getting an aquaponics setup going at our nursery. Aquaponics will become a very popular method of growing your own produce, especially in a water-constrained environment. I'll keep posting our progress as it takes place.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Our transition meeting

We had our third meeting last night, and we used the Shires "Zing" computer system which allows a large group to get through a lot of business quickly, without being dominated by the loudest voices. There were a few technical problems but they didn't really make any difference. The virtue of the exercise was a credit to Christine Hamilton, one of the Shire's employees, who did a great job of keeping us all moving and shutting the obsessive talkers up.

I'm now waiting for the Shire to email us the results. I've got a reasonable idea of what they are, having read through the whole thing last night while we were doing it, and I think it's fair to say that the results are a reflection of both the wisdom and the folly of the educated and socially concerned citizens in our little neck of the woods. The wisdom comes from recognition of the inexorable grinding power of change, the folly from timidity and a desire to hang on to the known and a lingering belief in a Millennial notion of Progress, where a just and virtuous class of scientifically trained experts will usher in a Golden Age. This belief is really the last bit of social glue that can hold a complex society together and motivate middle-class people, binding them to the necessary life of self-sacrifice demanded by the gods of technocracy. It is a belief that will die hard and cause a lot of pain before it does.

What do I mean by this? Well, it is the idea that lies behind a lot of the rhetoric of both the Left and the Right, which thinks suffering is Someone's or Something's fault, and some fiddling with the social fabric or the silencing, re-education or execution of undesirables will lead us to endless happiness. Or perhaps it's just a matter of replacing all the V-8s with electric vehicles and having solar panels on every roof. Whatever. Perhaps you get my drift, or perhaps not.

Let me lay my cards on the table. Life goes on, according to what Nature allows, which may or may not be in accord with our wishes. During the rise of our technocratic civilisation over the past several hundred years we "won" more often than we "lost", which is why there are now so many of us. During the next several hundred years it will be the other way round. Whatever we do now can't alter that overall fate. Our task is to learn to accept whatever the moment can bring us (because in any case, that's all we have) and do the best we can, without false beliefs in our exceptionalism and other types of pseudo-religious nuttiness that infect our oh-so-secular age. Maybe solar panels will be of some use, but I'm not wasting time on peripheral issues like that. Food, shelter and community are the main requirement. Place is the most important single factor. The rest is up to the Brownian motion of fate, or the will of the gods if you like.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Addicted to Money' again

I watched the second episode of "Addicted to Money" — it really is quite good. It's interesting that a viewpoint is being presented that actually seems to bear some resemblance to reality, when 90% of what one sees or hears these days is either spin, fluff or a combination of the two. For instance our Kev (Australia's Prime Minister) drops in to Afghanistan and lets us know "we're there for the long haul", protecting the corrupt, powerless government of a country which is producing most of the World's opium. Way to go, Kev! And he's a fan of a Big Australia, even though we have no water, bad soil and are pushing our ecological limits over the breaking point.

"Addicted to Money" looked at the real story: the shift of power to China and how the Chinese are in turn caught in the US debt trap. Dear little Australia continues to be a pawn in their game, to be discarded without a thought when our moment comes.

What an amazingly interesting time we live in, with profound change gathering all round us. We are in a period like the "Phony War": the storm clouds are gathering and lots of people all over the world are suddenly unable to keep things going the way they were, yet we're living in a dream that somehow we can keep it like this in Australia forever. Make your changes now, while it's easy! Get out of debt and get in to a way of life that can carry you when the storm breaks!

Next week is the final of "Addicted to Money". Not to be missed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Local Food Map Website

Gordon Rouse has emailed me with his map of locally grown produce. It looks like a great idea. I'll quote from his email…
I wanted to let you know that my wife and I have launched our food map at http://www.localfoodmap.net.
The idea of the online map is to have locally grown produce easy to find wherever you are. You can search by keywords on your location, and registered producers will come up as icons on a map.

I am hoping as many food-producers from small vege growers to farms will put their farmgate presence on this map so that we can all find what is growing in abundance in our local area.
The system also allows users to subscribe to farms, which means growers can send out emails to their subscribers to let them know if there is a fresh harvest, or a large animal is being butchered.
I believe that this website could be an invaluable tool in meeting the aims of the Transition Town organisation, in promoting direct farmgate sales and food networks. I hope you can consider registering yourself as both producers and alertees, and maybe even letting your local members know about this through your contacts.
At this stage, there are only a few outlets in Victoria, so if you wish to see a demonstration of this working, I suggest you use "Melbourne Victoria" as your locality.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Addicted to Money": ABC TV nails its colours to the mast!

An interesting documentary, "Addicted to Money", was broadcast on ABC TV last night (Thursday). The Global Financial Crisis is so complex a beast that even those who are riding it for their own gain hardly understand it, so to expect a TV show to lay it all bare is a big ask. Television is a poor medium for intellectual exchange and the endless camera and editing doohickies filling up the space drove me nuts. The heavy-handed drug addiction metaphor irritated too, but there was no doubt of the conviction of the makers, or of their opinions of whose fault the whole debacle has been. Bankers, guard your estates!

Good talking heads interspersed through the show, particularly Elizabeth Warren who saw all this coming.

So it looks like the ABC is coming out of its corner fighting, after the long Howard years of being forced onto the back foot. Good oh! "Addicted to Money" is a series so I guess I'll tune in next week.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cross-posted interview

The interview I talked about in my last post between Stoneleigh and Euan Mearns is cross-posted at The Oil Drum, so you can read the always intelligent discussion of it by TOD people as well.

Friday, October 30, 2009

This is the way it'll go

A superb but wrenching interview by Euan Mearns of The Oil Drum with Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth. A truly sombre prospect for the USA. What can we expect here in Australia? At the moment it's all green shoots and rising interest rates. We're heading into summer with a good spring rainfall in the south where I live and family members are house hunting again.

You readers of this blog are volunteers — you don't necessarily have to agree with me, but you're unlikely to continue reading if what I say jars too violently with your world-view. So I feel no need to sweeten my message to make you "feel better". Rather the truth — it's a much better place to start thinking of where to go from here.

But it's a different case with family and in a small community, where I'm accused of being excessively negative for yelling "Danger!" I even get told that somehow by talking about it, I'm making it happen! That people like me are undermining confidence in the system and should just shut up.

I won't quote from the interview with Stoneleigh. Just read the whole thing. It lays out the course of our world history for the next twenty years. You can't stop it happening, just as I can't make it happen, but we sure as hell can attend to our immediate circumstances and make preparations to deal with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The meeting on Thursday night

We had a good turnout, and I had some calls from people who would have liked to have come but had other commitments. There were quite a few people I'd never met before. We watched a film about Cuba, "The Power of Community", which was interesting although it kind of avoided the issue of exactly who decided Cuba was going to go permaculture. Was it Castro or the plebs? Perhaps it doesn't matter for us because if the figures they gave of the radical reduction in fossil food usage for food production are true then we should be OK even here, with our poor soils.

But back to the meeting. We had a discussion after the film where we went around the room and each person spoke about their area of interest and reason for coming for the evening, and we used that to make a list of the areas of concern. These we've emailed back to everyone. There will no doubt be additions and alterations but the list gives us a basis for planning a future for the district which will take the changes we're facing into account.

Here's our Transition Corner Inlet topic list
Bulk purchase
Community projects
Leadership example for other communities
Efficiency & design

Encourage others to join
Spread awareness & understanding
Film Festival
Environmental issues
Basic energy knowledge for home or community
Using local libraries to stock relevant books/periodicals
Climate change & energy resource issues education

Local economy
Tourism eco/transition
Bartering/alternative currencies
Bulk buying & co-operatives
Small-scale local economy
Practical crafts and handy skills
Multi use of facilities (halls, community gardens)

Food production
Producing basic food groups
Preserving/value adding
Survival food
Food security
Sustainable practices
Community gardens across all communities

Explore & trial ideas
Alternative fuels
Alternative modes
Getting networks in place
Safety for cycling
Hand tools use and manufacture
Practical recycling of resources
Animal use & management

Growing medicinal herbs
Preventative health

Values (modest scale/frugality/generosity)
Sharing with youth
Maintaining social connections at a distance
Older people & physical demands
Employment conditions/availability
Welcoming incomers
Toxic politics/polarisation of views/community division
Starting with simple steps before tackling bigger things
Using/maintaining community halls as social centres more effectively
Personal growth through social involvement
Helping communities help themselves/encouraging community self-reliance
Setting targets/measuring outcomes
Process driven from bottom up
Using the Net & other technology to connect to others
Using non-threatening messages to promote change
Dealing with anxiety, stress, grieving
Co-operation and sharing skills
Network expertise
Developing, maintaining and sharing contacts

Some of our topics are a bit thinly populated. I'm sure health is a much bigger issue, but we were missing the crucial people who could have contributed there. But this is just the beginning and over the next year or so we will expand our contacts and refine our list. We will use the list to develop action plans which we'll be able to pass on to the areas of the community who need to see them.

I was happy to see how so many people are anxious to get their teeth into something real and it takes away the feeling of isolation which I've been feeling for a long time in relation to my vision of the unfolding events. Onward and upward!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Our Transition Town (Corner Inlet area, in our case!) film night

We're having our next meeting this coming Thursday (details here). I'm rather looking forward to it and feel that we might actually do some good! I'm not sure how many will come but I think some interest has been ignited. There seem to be new people popping up out of the woodwork.

I'm very fond of our little town and have seen enough of the world to appreciate its subtle but real virtues. Hardly any crime, hardly any bad vibes! People who say hello in the street to you every day, even though you know they think you're a weirdo. But I'm aware how fragile this peace is, and how in many ways we lie in the hands of an indifferent fate, which with the turn of circumstance in the greater World could ruin all this tomorrow. That's what I think is worth fighting to prevent.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Max Keiser kicks ass!

Max calls the bankers what they are: thieves.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nasim Taleb talks about Extremistan & Mediocristan

Planning your career

Here is a quote from John Robb at Global Guerrillas, and my own thoughts…
(here's a follow up to the earlier post on Entrepreneurship as Resilience): In a world dominated by Mediocristan outcomes, employment is a function of long term planning, training and experience. People could spend a lifetime working in the same industry and doing the same thing. Further, it was possible to rely on the idea that things like pensions, health care, and a job would be there when you retire. That's gone. Entrepreneurship can provide a salve to this problem. It is a vital skill/mind set that allows you to rapidly pilot new strategies for income generation within a rapidly changing environment. Further, it assumes very little. If it doesn't work, try something else. If it does work, reap the rewards and go onto the next idea.

It's not easy, but we will have little choice! The danger of this kind of life is burning out, so you need first of all to be self-indulgent: that is, you need a lot of rest. This means scaling back your material ambitions.

Also in the future, going into debt for something you want will be a very short-term option. There will simply not be enough predictability to ensure you'll be able to service a longer-term loan. We will all need savings (remember them?) which we can call on when we need them. Most useful of all will be skills other people need. If you are in competition with others, then in a resource-constrained world your existence will be in constant peril. If you are able to help, your path will always be smoothed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Transition Town blog for Corner Inlet district

Fiona Mottram and I have set up a new blog, Transition Corner Inlet, which will be a vehicle for communication about transitioning to a low energy/low CO2 future. Our first function will be a film, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, which will be screened next week at Foster Community Health Centre on Thursday October 22 starting at 7.00pm.

I'll keep this blog going as my personal take on the world, but the new blog will be a communal effort.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Maribyrnong City Council Peak Oil Contingency Plan

Phil Hart has posted an article on The Oil Drum about this initiative for the Maribyrnong City Council Peak Oil Contingency Plan (warning: PDF) with which he has been involved. It's well worth a read. The comments are worth a look too (as they usually are at TOD). In the comments there's a link to an article about the Shire of Yarra Range's attitude to the same question. Here's the vital quote…
But councillors Richard Higgins, Graham Warren and Chris Templer disagreed, saying it wasn’t council’s responsibility to plan for such contingencies.

They believe it should be a State or Federal Government issue.
Shouldn't we all just wait for Daddy to look after us?

Let me just say that when the tide rises it lifts all boats, but when it sinks only those who make it to the channel can float. We South Gippsland people live in the State electorate of the leader of the National Party in Victoria (the conservative former Country Party), Peter Ryan, and we also live in a Federal electorate represented by Russel Broadbent, a member of the Liberal Party (also conservative, you foreigners!). Both these gentlemen are in opposition to their respective governments. Neither are likely to get a bone tossed to them by their political opponents.

So as far as I'm concerned, the Lord helps those who help themselves. We have already seen how the government in Melbourne works when those closest to it (electorally) are threatened.

A cheerful 6 minutes (not)!

Here's a cheery video from Marc Faber about the immanent collapse of capitalism — enjoy!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Our Transition Town meeting

It went well! We had fifteen altogether, although Ross West, who's in the State Emergency Service, was called away to an emergency (a lost windsurfer I think) soon after we started. Andrew McEwen (Director of Sustainability at South Gippsland Shire Council) talked about the situation which makes local community based organising so important, and Councillor Jennie Deane talked about how the transition initiative got going in Loch, which is a very small town up the western end of the Shire. Susan Davies (ex State Member of Parliament) talked about the Energy Innovation Cooperative which she is setting up. We had a fairly wide-ranging discussion, but in the end Fiona Mottram (who is a journalist on the Foster Mirror) and I decided we'd get a Transition Town initiative going here, just with the two of us to start with. Not quite sure what we'll do yet, but there were lots of ideas in the air!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Neat explanation of the current Global Financial Crisis

From Steve Keen's Debtwatch, a quote...

According to Minsky’s theory:

  • Capitalist economies can and do periodically experience financial crises (something that believers in the dominant “Neoclassical” approach to economics vehemently denied until reality—in the form of the Global Financial Crisis—slapped them in the face last year);
  • These financial crises are caused by debt-financed speculation on asset prices, which leads to bubbles in asset prices;
  • These bubbles must eventually burst, because they add nothing to the economy’s productive capacity while simultaneously increasing the debt-servicing burden the economy faces;
  • When they burst, asset prices collapse but the debt remains;
  • The attempts by both borrowers and lenders to reduce leverage reduces aggregate demand, causing a recession;
  • If the economy survives such a crisis, it can go through the same process again, with another boom driving debt up even higher, followed by yet another crash; but
  • Ultimately this process has to lead to a level of debt that is so great that another revival becomes impossible since no-one is willing to take on any more debt. Then a Depression ensues.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is a Transition Town?

I haven't explained what Transition Town means — thanks Elizabeth! A quote from the Transition Town site…
A Transition Initiative is a community (lots of examples here) working together to look Peak Oil and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this BIG question:

"for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Transition Town meeting in Foster!

At 7:00 pm on Thursday the 24th of September — that's next week — we're having a meeting at the Community House in Foster (Corner of Station Road & Court Street, Foster) to talk about Transition Towns and related stuff. Andrew McEwen (Director of Sustainability at South Gippsland Shire Council) and Councillor Jennie Deane will speak. I'm sure I'll say a few words too. Bring some food to share, and ask anyone who might be interested to come along.
View Larger Map

Left or Right wing — what difference will it make?

Our government in my state — Victoria — and federally is Labor, nominally left-wing. Will it matter in the longer term whether right or left wing parties dominate politics? Supporters of both sides hope that it will matter and hope their side will win, which is perfectly natural. But I wonder whether it will make a lot of difference in the long term. I'll concede it does in the short term. I was very glad to see the end of John Howard and his gang. I wish the new lot were less like him than they are. I'll admit it — I'm a soft, left leaning libertarian who wrote letters to the papers deploring the treatment of asylum seekers and the rush to support George W Bush in whatever international adventure he was involved in. But in the longer term, maybe it doesn't make as much difference as we would like to imagine.

Politics is the froth and bubble on top of society. It is the way power and resources, which are scarce, are apportioned to an infinite demand. Underneath however are the hidden trends which really control our lives and most often they are not the product of politics. Politicians of all stripes are "successful" when they surf the wave of prosperity, the way Maggie Thatcher surfed the wave of growth which resulted from the huge bonus North Sea oil gave to the British economy. In Australia, Malcolm Fraser and the Liberals (conservatives to you non-Australians: we're upside down here at the bottom of the world) reaped the whirlwind of the recession of the late seventies, while Labor under Bob Hawke were the beneficiaries of the boom brought on by a world awash in cheap energy in the eighties. Dmitri Orlov has it that the same cheap energy destroyed the Soviet economy which was dependent on oil exports to maintain the system, thus leading, at least in part, to the collapse of the Soviet system at the end of the eighties.

Peak Oil is not a political issue, it's a geological one. The same goes for all the looming shortages which nature is shortly going to impose on us freely breeding humans. Politics may matter to you and me in our immediate time and place, but in the longer term, which is not much longer these days, these larger, hidden issues are going to take charge of our lives in uncomfortable ways.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Malthus, the Commons and localism

An interesting post from Ran Prieur. A quote…
Whenever someone brings up Malthus, I remember this critique of Malthus by Iain Boal, arguing that population only outruns food supply when there's non-local control of resources.
We've got a great example of that with Melbourne now pillaging the resources of the State ie. the water from the Thomson River and the North-South pipeline in order to keep the political peace in the ever-expanding outer suburbs. There is a certain inevitability about Melbourne acting more and more as a city-state, concerned only with its internal politics and riding roughshod over external interests. The most powerful player seems to me to be the construction industry, although you could argue their influence is national.

Anyway, bad luck if you're sitting on resources which the powerful in the City need to shore up their position. We are fortunate that so far we are just a bit too far away and awkwardly situated in South Gippsland for them to pinch our water. But it does underline the fact that local control of local resources is the key to sustainability. How can a community survive if the water is gone?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reporting back

The talk at the Green Door went well, considering that in the rush to get there (a fifty-five kilometre trip for me), I left my lecture notes sitting on the printer back at the office! But I know this stuff back the front and the crowd was pretty aware of the issues so I didn't need a script. I only knew two people there out of the twenty-five or so, but was impressed with the occasion: the attitudes of the people, their obvious commitment to finding new ways of doing things, and Karen's soup! Lots of stuff is going on everywhere it seems!

One of my friends there got stuck into me about what he sees as my excessive negativity (as he sees it represented on this blog). I'm not sure how to deal with this. I call things as I see them. Someone has to bear witness to the truth. I realise that my view of the world is very partial, and very personal in many ways. I don't think that invalidates it. There are plenty of people out there boosting their causes with lots of happy talk. No-one has to listen to me if they don't want to. I guess I'm more interested in the truth as I see it, than pushing any control agenda or trying to steer people in certain directions by subterfuge. This means I'm no politician, but someone has to say uncomfortable things if we're to understand what's going on. I'm aware that it may bring people down, but what is the alternative?

Talking of being the bearer of bad tidings, there is a great article online by J.S. Kim at Seeking Alpha, which calls the current stock market rally and happy green shoots talk for the fraud that it is. Long, but well worth reading!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Talking at the Green Door

I'm giving a talk on Peak Oil at the Green Door Cafe & Produce Store, 29 Bridge Street, Korumburra this Thursday at 6:00 pm. Call them on 03 5655 2351 or email karen@greendoorcafe.com.au for more info.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Important post on The Oil Drum

This is a pretty important post on The Oil Drum concerning how we in Australia will deal with a reduction in fuel availability. Please read it! A quote from the conclusion…
I hope these thoughts encourage you to consider the local and personal angles and think about what you and your family would be able to do. Good general advice is perhaps to buy a sturdy bicycle, get to know your neighbours better and ponder about how you can get around with much less fuel.
All very well for those city dwellers with a reasonable public transport system. Wot about us country folk eh? No rail to our area, only diesel powered road freight deliveries. Ulp!

Strategic minerals

The Archdruid has just put up a post entitled "The Dawn of Scarcity Industrialism" about the Chinese government's moves to stop exports of certain rare earth minerals. A quote…
Those of my readers who don’t track the latest fads in technology may not know that these have become crucial to many cutting edge technologies. Lanthanum, for example, is used in high-tech batteries, and neodymium goes into the permanent magnets used in electric motors and wind turbines. The innards of the Prius and other hybrids, to say nothing of the as-yet-imaginary electric cars being hyped by what’s left of the American auto industry, depend on rare earth elements, and China currently produces well over 90% of the world’s supply of most of them. The report thus sparked claims of an imminent shortage in these minerals and, predictably, a flurry of speculative interest in (and hype-ridden articles about) mines outside of China that can produce the same minerals.
An article from the Sydney Morning Herald (via Gippsland friends of Future Generations) gives more background on Australia's situation in regard to the production of rare earth minerals. Another quote…
A decision is looming in Canberra that could block plans by China to tighten its grip on the market for some of the world's most obscure but valuable minerals. China accounts for 93% of the production of so-called "rare earth" elements - and more than 99% of the output for two of them that are vital for a wide range of green energy technologies and military applications like missiles.
Over the next decade or so we will almost certainly see a rush to secure what are seen as vital raw materials by the dominant powers in the world. How this will play out for Australia is uncertain. While we are the source of many important supplies our capacity to control or defend that capability will be a major political test. The Sydney Morning Herald article refers to moves by Chinese miners to buy up rare earth miners in Australia. If China corners the market in these materials world-wide and then plays big power politics with them, we will find ourselves in a situation not unlike that leading up to World War 2, where the economic autarky of the 1930's, brought on by the Great Depression, saw the Axis power attempt to seize by force the economic resources they could not obtain by trade.

Will China attempt to make Australia into a vassal state? How will the USA react to all this? We live in interesting times.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The real world

Via Ran Prieur, an interesting and arresting graphic…

Also from Charles Hugh Smith via Ran, a great argument for why survivalism is crap. A quote (his maths is a bit sus)…
Because the best protection isn't owning 30 guns; it's having 30 people who care about you. Since those 30 have other people who care about them, you actually have 300 people who are looking out for each other, including you. The second best protection isn't a big stash of stuff others want to steal; it's sharing what you have and owning little of value. That's being flexible, and common, the very opposite of creating a big fat highly visible, high-value target and trying to defend it yourself in a remote setting.

Globalisation and entanglement in the illicit economy

John Robb mentioned an interesting video today by Nils Gilman on the illicit global economy. What struck me is the way moral integrity is compromised by large organisations and global entanglements. It is becoming impossible to live a normal life without at some level or in some way having an interest, even if it is entirely unconscious, in some illicit activity.

If you are a builder, how sure are you that the hardwood tropical timber decking you use isn't from an illegal logging operation? If you are having the house built for you what hope do you have of even knowing about such issues? And what about the consumer goods we all fill our lives with? Mobile phones are crammed with materials some of which come from places which have no reliable rule of law and where who knows who is profiting and who is suffering from the transactions involved in supply.

Our troops are in Afghanistan fighting a difficult and dangerous war with a doubtful outcome. How are the enemy there financed? Apart from the trade in opium there is apparently a huge protection racket operated by the Taliban and others which means that a large proportion of the cost of any project such as bridge or road building is skimmed off as a tax. This takes place at all levels, and starts with money paid to assure safe passage of goods into the country through Pakistan. So our troops are often overseeing the security of projects which are financing their enemies. What can the knowledge of that do to our young people who we've asked to put their lives on the line?

Remember the AWB scandal in Iraq, where it was alleged that huge bribes had been paid in order to secure wheat sales to Saddam Hussien's regime. To quote from Wikipedia,
On 11 July 2006, North American farmers are claiming $1 billion in damages from AWB at Washington DC, alleging the Australian wheat exporter used bribery and other corrupt activities to corner grain markets. The growers are also claiming that AWB used the same techniques to secure grain sales in other markets in Asia and other countries in the Middle East.

But of course this is a game everybody plays. What about Stern Hu and the allegations by the Chinese government that he'd been involved in bribery on behalf of Rio Tinto in order to obtain contracts for sales of minerals to Chinese industry? The whole point is that ordinary bods, wheat farmers, mine workers, administrators and all manner of staff who make up the bulk of the population and who are kind to animals and love their children ultimately give control of their prosperity to a few hard bastards who have to push the sales through. As long as we get the money, don't tell us how it was done!

One of the points Nils Gilman makes in the video mentioned at the beginning of this post is that money from illegal activities often ends up being invested in legitimate businesses, so that now
according to a report from Confesercenti, the second-largest Italian Trade Organization, published on October 22, 2007 in the Corriere della Sera, the Camorra [the Neopolitan Mafia] control the milk and fish industries, the coffee trade, and over 2,500 bakeries in the city. (Wikipedia)
The illicit global economy is huge and by degrees is becoming more powerful and influential. Legitimate business and government are becoming increasingly enmeshed in it and at the same time the moral legitimacy of these two becomes more questionable as they seem to fall more and more into the hands of self-interested cliques. The use of torture by the USA after 911 and the seeming impunity with which constitutional safeguards have been swept aside as "outmoded" in regards to civil liberties is an indicator of an internal change of attitude amongst big players in the US government where power is becoming more naked and there is less care for traditional legalities and restraints.

All this will inevitably add up to a loss of legitimacy in the almost religious sense in which it has underpinned the Western Enlightenment project. It will eat away at the faith of populations in their governments and in the nationalist enthusiasms which have been at the base of much of the power of those governments. What will be left are temporary enthusiasms, such as might be raised by a charismatic leader of the popularist/fascist type, but they will not have the enduring power of a deep "faith in our mission" which has been the case for most of the last century. What will also be left is loyalty to the local strong man, or tribe. If there is no-one there to fill that role then expect them to appear soon!

This may seem a long way away from Australia, but as seen by the AWB and Rio Tinto cases mentioned above, we are only holding that world at arms length for now. Soon it will be on our shores and in our cities and suburbs in an obvious way. What is the real price of our involvement in Afghanistan likely to be? Are we going to coldly throw away young lives on a doomed project or call it like it is? And how are we going to maintain our stupendous level of wealth versus the rest of the world, plus our precious sense of moral purity, when we are going to have to sit at the table with some very unpleasant people who will be demanding their pound of flesh for whatever it is we want?

A globalised world means we all play by the rules which are current. There has always been a sense that governments and corporations talk the morally pure talk but walk another line out of sight of the public. This is going to become more marked, especially when the game becomes not merely zero-sum but less than that on the slide down the other side of Hubbert's Peak. The gloves may well come off everyone when we find ourselves in a world which is controlled by gangsters at every level.

Jim Kunstler, Peak Oil's Tom Waites (well nearly!)

Check out Jim's latest post. Nothing new here and I don't read JHK expecting to learn anything, but for sheer style and crackling drive-it-right-up'emness it's a ripper. A quote…
- the Green Shoots claque at the cable networks, to the assorted quants, grinds, nerds, pimps, factotums, catamites, and cretins in every office from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the International Monetary Fund - every man-Jack and woman-Jill around the levers of power and opinion weighed in last week with glad tidings that the world's capital finance system survived what turned out to be a mere protracted bout of heartburn and has been reborn as the Miracle Bull economy. Our worries over. If you believe their bullshit. Which I don't.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

At the limits of the possible

Tight budget quashes US space ambitions: panel is the headline for a story from Space-Travel.com which landed in my in-box this morning. President Obama has commissioned a panel, which has produced a report laying out the reality of the costs involved in manned space travel versus the likely budget allocation. Here's a snip…
Reaching Mars was deemed too risky while returning to the Moon by 2020 was ruled out barring an additional three billion dollars per year to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet and build bigger rockets, according to the group led by Norm Augustine, a former CEO of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

The problem is not the just the will to do manned space flight, it's the money. You need a lot of reliable finance for a manned space program, because it takes many years to develop and the people have to be recruited, trained and paid to stay there. They need confidence and continuity in order to do their best and you need the best kind of work from such people, because to quote Tom Wolf from The Right Stuff, "It can blow at any seam!". This is why the Chinese could be on a roll at the moment with their manned program. They have a certain stability and predictability due to their dictatorial political arrangements. At the moment they're likely to do better than the Americans over the next few years if their technical people are up to scratch and the leadership of their program is good.

But in the end we are all hostages to the environment we live in. Some may push out further along a certain path than others, because they can cooperate better or are more amenable to discipline. But no-one can live on nothing, and the Chinese are likely to discover their limits are not too far away either, because the manned space enterprise rests on the back of industrial civilisation in general, which in turn is hostage to cheap oil.

We now appear to have crossed the bumpy summit of peak production in oil sometime in the last couple of years and to be standing at the top of the long slope down. From now on oil will be available, but not affordable in the way it has been, and this will undercut the assumptions which have underpinned our growth economy and our ever expanding world population. The surplus wealth and energy at the command of large organisations, which is necessary for exuberant adventures such as manned space flight, will not be there for much longer.

This is a tragedy of a profound kind. It means we are likely now to remain forever on Earth until we, meaning humans firstly, and then terrestrial life in general, goes extinct. We had a tiny window of opportunity but we missed it. Maybe the step was always too big. While us space nuts could wheel out all kinds of blue-sky designs which could theoretically get us not just off Earth and on to our local planets but beyond to more distant stars, the cost was always going to be phenomenal. We almost had the chance at the beginning of the seventies, but once public interest in the whole enterprise waned after the initial Moon landings and we lost ourselves, in the words of James Howard Kuntsler, in dark raptures of personal consumption and non-stop entertainment, the opportunity slipped from our grasp.

The Space Shuttle is a triumph of sorts, more over a basically poor design than of anything really useful. To quote again from the article I mentioned at the beginning…
The White House could take months to decide its course of action, said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

"We have inherited one of the many failed promises of the Bush administration -- to set out a very good program without providing the resources to fund it," he told AFP, urging a new direction.

"We have lived an illusion for five years."

The US space shuttle program and the ISS, he said, "were a mistake" when compared to the Apollo Project that landed man on the moon for the first time.
The unmanned commercial exploitation of space will continue for a few more decades and will return its shareholders money on their investments. There is a faint possibility that a manned program could grow out of it, but it is very unlikely, simply because manned flight is orders of magnitude more difficult than unmanned.

Isn't it an extraordinary thing though, to live at such a moment in world history when we are wheeling through the very outermost limits of what was possible. Of course our appetites are always well beyond our capabilities. But what a dream it has been and how difficult it will be to let it go.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Planning day at CERES

I nipped up to Melbourne for the day yesterday as I'd been invited to a planning day at CERES, the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies, in Brunswick. CERES is planning for the next five to ten years taking into account what we face as a result of Peak Oil and climate change, especially the social needs which will arise. It was great to spend a day with twenty people who talked about what I think about! And thanks to Serenity Hill and Kirsten Larsen from the Australian centre for science, innovation and society at Melbourne University who dobbed me in as a participant.

Despite my wife running a nursery in Foster I'm no plant guru, so my contributions were restricted to the social aspects of the future. David Holmgren was there with his partner Su Dennett and briefly sketched in his future scenarios which we worked off. Then we broke up into small groups and came up with our plans.

The day went very quickly and I had to head off at the end of it to do some business for the nursery which meant I didn't get a chance to talk to the very many interesting people there other than Serenity, Kirsten and Chris Ennis, the Manager of CERES Organic Farm and Training. What the day did do is confirm my belief that the inner urban parts of Melbourne are probably going to to do reasonably well with the changes we are now in — they have a critical mass of bright, committed people with enough power in their hands and the right priorities to steer their communities in useful directions.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pricking the bubble of Australian exceptionalism

Steve Keen delivers a lecture on the role of debt in this crisis…

Friday, August 14, 2009

According to the Mainstream the recession is over, but there are dissenters

One hundred economists, members of a profession which has always clad itself in rainments of science and mathematics but which is increasingly looking like a cross between advertising and astrology have said the recession is over in the USA (and that runs on to Australia), according to a couple of surveys which The Automatic Earth is reporting. However the reality-based and saturnine Nasim Nicholas Taleb, author of that wonderful book The Black Swan, calls phooey on this.

Recessions are "irregular" for most people and most economists. In our highly controlled Western Industrial culture, death, illness and economic downturns are not seen as an inevitable part of existence but as irregularities. This will allow our 100 economists some wriggle room when the recession returns in force: they "didn't see it coming", it's "totally unprecedented" and "not following the rules". And just as some primitive tribes blame every death on witchcraft, we will see the search for scapegoats when they once again end up with egg on their face. It's another sign of the primitive nature of our supposedly sophisticated world-view.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The moral basis of social disaster

Another video: it's American but having seen the standard of Australian TV (Biggest Loser, Australian Idol) I can see we are in the same place…

Friday, August 7, 2009

Can we count on China saving our economy?

I don't think so, and neither does this gentleman…(I can't get the video to embed!)

Monday, August 3, 2009

A moment of reality from the mainstream

From an article in the business Age
World faces 'oil crunch' within five years
August 3, 2009 - 11:15AM
A disastrous energy crunch is looming because most of the major oil fields in the world have passed their peak production, a leading economist has warned.

Fatih Birol, chief economist with Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), said such an ''oil crunch'' within the next five years could jeopardise recovery from the global recession.
Of course the problem is still some way off according to Fatih Birol…
[with] global production likely to peak in about 10 years - at least a decade earlier than most had estimated.
Actually global production appears to have already peaked, but never mind. This article picks up an interview in the "Independant" and has caused a stir in the mainstream media across the world. There's a great post on The Oil Drum about it: check it out, especially the comments.

What does it all mean? It means you've been warned folks. This is real and coming to your town very soon. Of course within a day or so the article will have been forgotten and we will slip back into the well of forgetfullness if we drink too deeply at the well of mainstream media. But the clock is ticking.

Last year at my public meeting I said five years for Australia, before we face the end of oil based prosperity. Only four years to go now.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Where to with small-scale technology and localisation?

John Robb's feverish mind is spinning out ideas furiously. He sees self-reliant communities as the future (so do I) but he also has a take on sophisticated small-scale manufacture connected with it that is more difficult to nut out. Here's the essence of his thinking…
Here's some blue sky thinking I'm running through my head at the moment, it may be of use (or not):
Based on the explanation above, we may see a rapid exponential doubling in the performance of society/economics as well. However, to see this improvement, we will need to shift to resilient communities. Here's what it will require:
A technological imperative. In short, a suite of technologies that can increasingly replicate the functions of the global economy at the hyper-local level (the equivalent of the very small or nano level of the global economy) -- with headroom for advancement/improvement as far as the eye can see. There are signs that this is potentially true: think 3D printing ("fab labs"), computing, bio, communications, etc. Is it true for agriculture and energy too? The jury is still out but super-empowerment is in the air...
New beliefs and well funded processes drive improved productivity at the local level. The beliefs and process improvements required are already being developed at the organic level, but it's not getting much help from commercial sources. A good example of this is the Transition towns effort. However, new access to vast cash flows (like my proposal on using IRAs/401ks for investments in local resilience) would radically increase the velocity of money involved. This money would likely speed up the rate of doubling, dropping it from decades to years, by supercharging commercial and open source competition.
No hard constraints. An ability to avoid or work/route around "hard" constraints on any of items on the STEMI list. The best way to avoid these limits is to obliterate thinking related to the current legacy economic system. For example: exploiting rapid advances in virtual presence and collaborative software to achieve an order of magnitude improvement in worker productivity. This obliterates the need (which we would be unable to achieve) for exponential improvements in cars, transportation infrastructure, etc. for commuting/travel. Another example: exploiting communications systems to share or purchase virtual product designs that can be locally fabricated. This is in contrast to manufacturing products in remote global locales, packaging them, storing them, marketing them, shipping them, putting them on shelves, etc. in the hope that you will purchase them.
Ran Prieur, another thinker I'm fond of following has some pertinent comments on John Robb's visions. A quote from Ran…
Why fly when we could get there on horses or sailing ships? Why even travel when we could be happy staying in the same village for our whole lives? Why use clothing when we could just live in tropical areas? Why use fire when so many foods are good raw?

I take these questions seriously. To answer them, you either have to be an extreme primitivist, and say that we shouldn't use any tools at all that we don't need for comfortable basic survival, or you have to find some justification for technologies that go beyond that. And whatever justification you choose, whether you're aware of it or not, is at the root of your whole value system on tech issues.
What shall continue on — what technologies are going to have lasting value and which will disappear? I've been bitten lots of times with bad guesses as to future trends in business, and it's made me wary of trying to pick winners, but my thoughts are that anything that's critically dependent on a resource that you can't make locally and is fairly hi-tech will fade away. So small-scaled local manufacture may go through a transitional stage of growing sophistication, but will be wiped out if it's difficult to get these critical bits sometime in the future. And by that I mean specialised electronics, specifically computer CPUs.

Much more likely to continue are techniques which make clever use of easily obtainable resources and fairly simple technologies which reduce bad pain, for example modern dentistry.

These days we've become used to the idea that thinking and research is resource intensive: big labs, lots of funky hardware. My hunch is that we have that now because we can. If the money goes away, the thinkers will still be there, spinning out ideas. Ran Prieur is a great example — a solitary guy with hardly any money, but with a sharp mind and a passion for thought who cuts through to the centre of things intuitively. He's often wrong, but hey, so are these guys with the bucks behind them. How about the economics profession for instance?

Both Ran Prieur and John Robb are bouncing off an essay by Kevin Kelly on Moore's Law which lots of people are looking at and wondering how long the seeming endless rapid increase in computer power will continue to play out. My feeling is that all this kind of progress can only take place in a big, rich society and that when the money goes the project will halt. There's nothing God-given about it. When we come back to a more locally based production system we'll stop thinking about all this kind of stuff.

What will we think about and what will we do when the dust settles from our current shakeout (I mean say twenty years from now)? When we've gotten over the pain of change, and if we put aside those activities which are involved with the avoidance of pain, we will do what people always do when they're young, energetic and bored. We'll set tasks for ourselves within the context of our situation. We'll play games, take on challenges, overcome obstacles. The new culture will rise from that. But it wont be the kind of mass technocratic culture we now have. It will be based on human thought and physical abilities.

This makes it hard to plan for that future now. Our immediate task is to survive the next couple of tumultuous decades and that will take a lot of energy. We can't afford to waste resources at this time of projects which have a high risk factor. The task we have is to try and work out where the risks lie now that the rules of the game we've all been playing are changing. More on that soon!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two World Views

To follow up on my previous post about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, I think it's necessary to tease out the differences in the two World Views which he and I represent. Kevin Rudd sees the economy clearly enough, and has the advantage of the best advice and information available when he comes to form his views. But his views are also formed by his life experience, and the last fifty years have been one of unprecedented and almost non-stop expansion of every human activity.

It is only human to assume that the conditions one has always lived in will continue on into the future without revolutionary change. Even more so, if your life experience has been one of being enmeshed in a system with a clear hierarchy which you have climbed your way through for many years and the gradations of which you take very seriously. I mean otherwise you'd hardly take your job seriously would you? Such is the case of someone like KR, who has never as far as I can tell had any sort of experience which might make him question the legitimacy of the ladder he has climbed. He also suffers from the burden of success, which tends to make one aware of the sunk costs of getting where you are and all you would lose should your attention waver.

I am a much less focused, much more muddly sort of person than the Prime Minister, which is part of the reason I am completely insignificant in the the great hierarchy of power (I also don't get my jollies bossing people around). One benefit of being a muddler is however that you allow yourself the leisure to entertain doubts. This may weaken your focus on the goals which others might exhort you to achieve, but has the advantage of letting you test (to the extent which you are able!) whether these goals are valid or not. My diffuse attention has also wandered into areas which never seemed to promise any direct career or financial benefit to me — I loved history, psychology, art, music and religious philosophy. Couple all this with a necessity for me to justify my contrariness to myself as honestly as I could even if I couldn't to those who were distressed by my lack of worldly success, and you end up having a fairly clear eyed view of most human activities and foibles including your own.

Let's put aside our personal capabilities — I'm sure that Kevin Rudd is my superior in many ways — and look at how we see the World. I'm aware that KR is religious and that may well give him a different way to regard the World, in opposition sometimes to the very materialist slant which has been the dominant social vision of our modern industrial world, but I haven't seen any evidence of it modifying his economic views. He seems as hell-bent on infinite expansion as any blind cornucopian blow-hard. I see however we have reached the end of the race and are hitting hard physical limits at many different levels, and I can also see how that would be a very difficult fact for someone in his position to acknowledge. It will undermine fundamental assumptions underlying much of what he does at a personal and political level.

Of course he is aware of environmental issues, the population pressures and the other multitude of real threats to Business As Usual, but he does not connect these problems directly to the underlying causes of them. He still thinks God or science will pull a rabbit or a series of rabbits out of the cosmic hat and save us all from the collapse we're heading for in this mad race to produce and consume More.

This is why we have people in his position talking about nonsensical matters such as "sustainable growth". This is a cover, a poor intellectual bandaid over the cornucopian fantasy that growth can go on forever. People who talk this kind of talk really do think that at some level the Earth is infinitely large and nothing will ever run out. We'll colonise space, fusion power will produce electricity too cheap to meter and we'll grow all our food in little vats watched by brilliant, all-knowing white-coated technicians! None of this is based on real knowledge, but on the kind of superficial gossip and fantasy which we've become very good at blinding ourselves with in this era of CGI films and computer games. But the people on the job, the real engineers, geologists, agriculturalists and climate scientists know it aint so.

It takes a certain strength of character to step away from what you're doing and see it clearly for what it is. If you can bring up children with that kind of fundamental honesty you have done a very good job. Unfortunately mass education, especially at the higher levels, tends to create narrow intellectual strengths at the expense of moral weakness, so don't rely on that for moral guidance.

Perhaps the best one can say is that great desire for success in the World, unchecked by doubt, can lead to great weaknesses, even in the very clever. Moderation in all things is a more useful course!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Great population post by an ex-government minister

Everyone should read this great speech by Andrew McNamara, ex-minister for the environment in Queensland which Rob Windt has posted at the Naked Mechanic.

The Prime Minister's essay on the economy

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has published a long essay in the Sydney Morning Herald which lays out his vision of what's happening financially to Australia and what we can expect over the next few years. Steve Keen has published a commentrary on the essay on his Steve Keen’s Debtwatch blog which I'd recommend reading because he zeroes in on the fact that KR does understand what has happened to the World economy and to Australia's as well. That is he sees the crucial role which debt has played and the way deleveraging of that debt will hold back industrial economies for many years to come.

While I generally agree with a lot of what Steve Keen says, there are lots of red flags in this Kevin Rudd essay from my point of view. Take the following quote:
The second new challenge is to build the foundations of sustainable growth. It begins with recognising the source of our future growth cannot be the same as for past growth.
Sustainable growth? WTF is that? We are already running up against environmental limits all over the place in this country. As just one item in a million, I happened to watch a documentary last night in the ABC about the shrinking habitat of cassowarys in north Queensland - it appears there are only 1500 or so birds left. Their habitat has shrunk because we're building out their tropical rainforest home. Another quote

But this does not mean we should accept that growth has to be lower, or that we should reduce our aspirations. Just because the global economy will be tough, we must not accept lower growth as inevitable. The budget forecasts growth over the next economic cycle at roughly the same average level as growth over the last cycle. This will be achieved only through a responsible agenda of future economic reform.

Australia will need to work smarter and harder to achieve better national growth in a weaker global environment. We need to implement a global competitiveness agenda for Australia that reinvigorates the drivers of productivity growth. Our mission must be a more globally competitive Australia capable of securing a greater slice of what may well be a more sluggish global economy.

In other words, we are going to fight an economic war with the rest of the world, where those weaker than us will go under in order that we get our "share". As if our share is so small already! And who will these weaker competitors be?

This is the classic zero-sum game. It also assumes a world economic environment which is "fair"; that is, where the other players obey rules which will allow us to win. We are not in a position to dictate these rules to the players who are the real powers in the game: the USA, China, the EU and India. When the crunch comes, and it has come already as we have recently seen in the arrest and imprisonment without charge of the mining executive Stern Hu, players like China will play very hard-ball. And let's be clear about Australia's real strength in all these games. With a tiny population and a tiny defence force we are nothing.

The statement above by the Prime Minister seems to implicity recognise that the game is zero-sum. I believe we are in a transition towards a time when the gloves will come off, and at the level of international politics we will drop the polite fiction that there is one World we're all working towards. Within a few years the power plays will be naked with no polite pretenses. Let's be clear what's at stake: we have resources which other people want in order that they may win at the game. Are we going to be in a position of strength with regard to China, especially when we're bloated with debt and heading into a future where we are going to be even more dependent on oil imports to keep our economy operating? My feeling is that we are looking to a time where the kinds of humiliations which the powerful nations in the industrialised West have been able to inflict on those we have seen as "lesser" are going to be inflicted on us. Unless the Chinese come apart first.

The essay is an interesting document in that it does lay down the ground rules which whatever government which runs this country will follow for the next few years. We, meaning you and I, are exhorted to work harder. This is because the government is going to be strapped for revenue as we slide off the peak of world production of oil and other primary powerers of our economy, and unless we all become virtual slaves of the system, the system will crash. That the system is crashing anyway cannot be admitted because we have everything invested in it - there is no alternative. This is what always happens when a population of any sort of creature runs up against the limits of its environment.

There will be a mighty crash, despite everyone's best efforts. It's not that far away. If you want to come out the other side of it, start preparing now!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Carbonic Civilisation & its Discontents

Various legislative bodies around the World are busy pushing out laws which are meant to address the issue of greenhouse gases. How effective these laws are will be inversely proportional to the wealth of the country each legislature controls. This is because people are very bad at sawing off branches they happen to be sitting on.

Us ordinary folk may labour under the delusion that technology can solve any material problem. We see glossy pics of electric cars and solar panels, and imagine the only thing stopping the adoption of low-carbon technologies are some fossilised politicians and industrialists. But this is not so. The real brake on cutting carbon dioxide outputs are tens of millions of families with 2.4 kids, two cars, a hefty mortgage and orthodontists bills. The real costs will be very high for such folk, which are a lot of the people we know.

Why? Because you may recycle your plastic, not waste water, buy organic and do all the things we are told to do, but there is a whole lot of stuff "out the back" in the industrial suburbs of every city which has to operate on copious fossil fuels in order that we can live our lives, and this stuff — the factories, warehouses, freeways, waste treatment plants, hospitals, offices, roads, mines and railways — are expensive to rebuild and will take a long time to change. "Expensive to rebuild" means we must find the time to rebuild them. Either that or we must work to pay someone else to do it. And that assumes it is possible to rebuild them in a more benign form, which in many cases it is not.

We've just had a big materialist binge over the past few years, where the cost of the stuff we use has been kept artificially low because the Chinese have paid their workers a low wage to build it. That situation cannot last. We will soon go back to paying the real cost of living. This will mean less money to change our built environment to a less carbon intensive arrangement. Add to that the decline in oil availability and we have a real problem.

And then there is the unspeakable, uncomfortable truth that lies under all this — there are way too many people on the Planet. How are we voluntarily going to reduce our population to something more in line with what the Earth can support?

The truth is that we are animals like any other on Earth. We expand to fit our environment and then some. We want more, usually not much more, just that little bit, even the richest amongst us. Do you know anyone who wants less? No, I didn't think so!

We've expanded very successfully until now. Of course we always have Problems. And we always have earnest people, experts, discussing and proposing Solutions to these Problems. These Solutions, strangely enough, always need More of something. More spending on health care, education, law and order, supervision of industry. Surely a solution to the crises looming over us at the moment is a lot less of everything? People, cars, cows, strip mining, commercial fishing, driving, flying — well, make your own list!

But of course having a lot less means things get very tough for the great mass of people with the 2.4 kids, cars etc. They need to work to pay for their lives, they vote, or even if they don't, they can make trouble for the People In Charge. And of course we all want the world to be better, we just don't want it to be at our expense. Let the less worthy pay! So we will see the hunt for people to blame — scapegoats — intensify. But of course all that is in vain if the problem is all of us.

So what is my Solution? Well, it's in several parts.

Firstly it's your problem so you've got to solve it! OK, you didn't choose to be born, but can you tell me the name of anyone who did? So get over it — you're in charge of your life.

Secondly a lot of us, maybe most of us, don't feel we're really up to scratch in a lot of ways. We'd love to be told by some competent person what to do. We believe in experts. Well guess what? Experts are often wrong! And the more they say they know and the less you do, the wronger they tend to be. Sure, listen to what people say. But an honest heart and an open mind is of more value than believing any appearance of certainty. This may mean you run against the tide of opinion a lot of the time. Learn to deal with it. You don't need to broadcast your contrariness. But practice the courage of your convictions in small ways, because one day you may need to find it for something big.

You will come across people who believe that the world was made for the use of themselves in any way they see fit, and others who will tell you the human race is a blight on creation. Avoid these types — they are both expressions of arrogance, in that they make value judgements which no-one can truly make. And both attitudes lead to trouble.

The world will re-adjust to make everything right again. Nature has a way of dealing with these problems. Those who best protect themselves from what is coming will part of the future of life on Earth. Let that be a guide for your actions.

I don't think we can do anything at a world-wide or even nation-wide level about the greenhouse problem because of the pressure of population and the prior investments we have in our industrial civilisation. So we will have to deal with the consequences of dramatic climate change over the next few decades. That's the way it is folks. Just think about how you and those closest to you can survive the coming changes. Forget about survivalism and Mad Max scenarios. Most people will survive or die where they are, dependent on the conditions in their local area. So for a start, understand where you live, how it works, how people survive in it now and how they and you might survive in the future. If it doesn't look good, move to somewhere better while you can!

Understand how nature works. Darwinian selection works through the survival and reproduction of the fittest. That doesn't mean the ones who can win races, it means the ones that fit the best into their environment, who can gain sustenance, shelter and safety without wrecking where they live.

We are used to seeing ourselves in a very upwards and outwards way. I'd say the dominant story of our civilisation for the past sixty or so years has been "Everything will be fine once we get the settings just right and all those other people learn to behave themselves". But unfortunately that just isn't so, and we are going to be flung into a world soon where we wont necessarily have any idea of what's coming next. We'll be reacting to crises right on our doorstep, not trying to make the Afghans or the Somalis jump when we say jump. For a lot of us this is going to be a bitter pill to swallow. So preempt the change and embrace your inner powerlessness now! Just concentrate on what's close by and attend to its needs: self, family, community and the enclosing natural environment. Forget saving the world-as-a-whole. That's always been a totalitarian dream powered by cheap fossil fuel.

The hard part for many of us who wake up to what's really going on is we can feel very isolated. If our Significant Other doesn't share our new view of reality, what do we do? I don't know what the answer is here other than patience and good humour. Reality will impose itself on us all eventually. Your job is to make sure you're as right as you can be. Not that anyone predicting trouble gets thanked for it, but speaking from a little experience in these matters, time is on your side with this.

What do you tell the children? I have my way with this one too, but it may not be for everyone. I have four children, two of them step-children, the oldest of whom is thirty-four. My attitude has always been that children make their own way in the world and what you need to do is keep them safe, well-fed, emotionally secure and don't let them get away with bad habits. Everything else they will pick up themselves. If you push them in a particular direction you will get adults who either will do nothing unless they're pushed, or adults who believe in pushing other people.

I've been very lucky so far with how things have turned out, but I'm aware that it is luck and not good management. The problem is, if you do something to assure success, like spend a fortune on private tutors, all you do is create someone who can't live outside that sort of system. To my way of thinking the best you can do is let children grow up in an environment which is healthy, with not enough money to get them into trouble but enough to keep them fed and give them a few basic tools for their growth. As long as they don't feel crushed by the society they grow up in, or that they are too good for it, things are generally alright. As for us breast-beating about how we elders have squandered the inheritance and left them nothing, give it a break! The last thing anyone needs is an excuse for failure and by saying something like that, you will produce either arrogance (I'm not as stupid as the person telling me this!) or a victim's mentality (I'm one of you and therefore I'm doomed too!) in a child who isn't sensible enough to say "Phooey!" to you.

Education is important but I can't say that it is necessarily effective to spend twelve or more years sitting at a desk. Looking at the corner we're busy painting ourselves into with our mighty civilisation, one needs to question some of our basic notions here. It may become more difficult to fund in the future in any case. Opportunity is the most important thing, plus the ability to take advantage of it, which involves such things as good health, common sense and a lack of timidity. Character is something which matters more than just about anything and it matters a great deal when you're younger. And character is what will distinguish the survivors from the doomed in the next, difficult stage of our history — providing they are in the right place!

The next pillar of survival is community. We ordinary folk will find it much easier if we're part of a real community. Communities are the normal human social arrangement, but they have not fared well in our industrial world which demands loyalty to abstract functions and specialisations, and prefers humanity to be broken up into single, bite-sized functional units for easier deployment to places of highest profit. The Soviets did it by force, through murder and deliberate starvation in the nineteen-twenties to break up the village structure of the Soviet Union. Our more modern societies have done it through education (get the children away from their parents and environment) and propaganda (most advertising), and by driving local, small businesses under or by making them into empty shells, fronts for a franchise. All this has so undermined community that in many places it is vestigial, especially in big cities. As a natural human artifact, it is forever being rebuilt. But building community takes a long time, generations in fact, so in the face of the rapidity of the changes we're facing it's better to find one already in existence. I've had some experience of intentional communities (I'm an old hippy) and they tend to be unstable for a variety of reasons. So I don't recommend cults or communes unless they are embedded in a larger functional community and have good relationships with it.

The final step is for us industrially disabled types to throw away our crutches. Learn to walk or ride a bike — leave the car at home — grow some of your own food, talk to your neighbors, get involved in the work of your local community. Don't be like a little bird, lying back helplessly with your beak open, squawking and waiting for Big Daddy to drop something into it. Cause Big Daddy wont be there much longer.

The solution to the greenhouse problem of carbon dioxide will be a radical fall in its production by individual people, and this is going to happen not by executive fiat, but through the uneven collapse of the great industrial civilisation which has been built up on the back of the copious use of fossil fuels as these fuels stop being affordable to the great bulk of us. The cheap stuff has all gone, and the expensive stuff is too expensive to keep the wheels spinning. We will have wars for resources and people saying we've turned the corner and that new technology will save us — it's only five or ten years away! It's always just five or ten years away.

But the show is over. It will appear to run in for years, as the elites who manage to command remaining resources claim that everything has returned to normal and those who aren't benefiting have only themselves to blame, but that's the age-old story of the relationship between the haves and have nots. Forget alternative energy. It will provide only a tiny fraction of our energy. It simply costs too much compared to dirty old oil and coal.

Will life be worth living? Of course it will! This is an amazing time to be in. We have lived through and seen the peak of the greatest civilisation the World has ever known, and we get to decide how to deal with its dissolution and the shape of what comes after it. It would have been nice to have flying cars and holiday trips to the Moon, but there's still plenty of other good things to enjoy: wine and love, children, good friends, food, music. Have fun!



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thoughts on the anniversary of the Moon landing

I was a primary school space nut. At the age of eight, growing up in a small, remote and poor country town, I knew all about multi-stage rockets, Werner von Braun, space stations and weightlessness. All through the sixties I ached for space travel to become an everyday reality. I wrote a story for my high school magazine in second form (year 8 these days) about an intrepid pair of space-tug pilots delivering some special cargo across the inky void. Finally in nineteen sixty-nine I sat with some of my fellow year 12 students in one of our science teachers' living room watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the Moon and mangle his famous quote. And then what?

That was the problem. Having strained engineering to the maximum and somehow got hundreds of thousands of people to co-operate nearly flawlessly to race against the Russians, the United States won. But it was a strangely empty victory. There were more flights to the Moon, but they were a curiously dull spectacle. Nearly everyone lost interest in the endevour. The money ran out, and that was that. Space travel was and is incredibly difficult and expensive and there's nowhere to go — at least nowhere close by with anything interesting to do or which promises a quick return on the investment. There are no cool aliens to hang out with on Mars or Venus, no strange cities under the clouds.

Before the Moon landings we — or at least I — imagined somehow there would be a breakthrough and we'd be going to the Moon for holidays by the year 2000. But most of all, I was looking for something beyond that — something ineffable but powerful — a transfiguration, an escape from our dull and routine existence, a chance to be a hero and something to give life a stronger, more real dimension. I wanted to escape from my life. And I think this was true for a lot of people. The Moon landing had become some sort of spiritual goal for many of us materialists, but its banal, dusty rock pile reality brought us strangely undone.

It was a time of many broken dreams but also of new ones. The Vietnam war was staggering on towards the increasingly obvious defeat of the Americans in this holy war — because it was a religious crusade at bottom, even if the Vietnamese didn't see it that way. Again I'd bought into this as a teenager. I can remember arguing with great conviction (against what I remember as the leader of the Victorian branch of the Communist party. He addressed us at some sort of school function at Caulfield Grammar where I was boarding for a couple of years. What the hell was he doing there? Who knows and who would now remember?) that the North Vietnamese were the evil aggressors and had to be stopped. Two years later I was on the anti-war side.

There was no great road to Damascus revelation for me. I don't know how it was for other people caught up in that tumultuous time. I just stopped believing in what I now call Heroic Materialism. It retreated for me into an historic memory. As the time came for me to step of the educational conveyor belt, I realised in an inchoate, almost subconscious way (my thinking was not clear enough for me to articulate my thoughts) that Heroic Materialism was a totalitarian vision. It required the subjugation of the will of the masses to further the dreams of a fortunate few. My idle ambitions of being an artist-engineer or architect would require me to buy into a system of social relationships which I detested. Not only that, but it was quickly obvious that only the exceptionally ruthless and energetic could rise to positions of power in such a system, and that the merely talented would be spear carriers. I didn't want to be the lacky of persons I despised, nor did I want to design ugly commercial buildings for a civilisation I suddenly found myself at odds with. I dropped out of my architecture degree at the end of the first year.

What followed was what seemed to be a very personal and private struggle to find a meaningful way forward for myself. My girlfriend and I set off on a motorbike from the city. For the next few years I didn't watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers. I worked different hard physical jobs and tried to figure out what life was really all about. How could what I do be meaningful and beautiful on a small, personal scale yet fitting into a larger, more seemly whole? As you can see, my ambitions were still grand underneath it all.

Of course what I thought of as my personal quest was really something I shared with many others at the same time. We met each other and we tried to build our New Jerusalems. We never reached what we wanted, but our efforts gave us a depth of understanding and an independence of vision. Now we are the old ones of the culture, the ones who know the subtleties and wrinkles of existence.

Just as only a small number of people could ever be truly free and powerful in a culture of Heroic Materialism, only a relatively small number of us have taken the outsiders path to try and build a new culture.

The old culture still stumbles on, with its spokesmen still talking the talk with increasingly less impact and conviction. The Americans are once more planning a Moon landing, but the budget for such an enterprise seems to be shrinking by the day. The Chinese are working hard on their space program and could still manage to pull it off if the decayed Communist Party can hold onto power and keep their industrial system spinning on for another ten or fifteen years. But I am not confident that either of them can ultimately manage it.

I grieve for the past glories of Heroic Materialism even as I despise the social arrangements it produced and which it depended on. I'm forever bifurcated by this split in loyalties. One of my favourite DVDs is a three part series put out by the BBC called "Space Race", about the rivalry between Werner von Braun and his unknown counterpart in the Soviet Union, the amazing Sergei Korolev. How much of what was achieved in space depended of the visions of these two people! And yet at what terrible human cost: more lives were lost using slave labour building the V-2 rocket, which was von Braun's first great achievement, than were lost when it struck its targets in the dying days of World War 2.

And so after forty years I can look back and say that the Moon landing was a crucial event in my life, a pivot on which my existence turned and took me down new paths. I'm still hopefully traveling. I haven't arrived yet.