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!