Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wikileaks is a watershed

Julian Assange has ignited a firestorm amongst the thinking classes. He is driving a wedge between the establishment and the general run of the intellectual class who work the levers of our modern industrial/financial world. This has grave consequences for the legitimacy of our rulers. Julia Gillard has had the approval of the US establishment, but is fast losing support at home because of her reflexive anti-Assange statements.

As Ran Prieur says in his December the ninth post, it doesn't matter who Julian Assange really is any more because he's become a myth, an enabling story that allows us (the intellectual class) to construct the narrative of our time. When a culture is on the rise, it's relatively easy for leaders to manage their business and to maintain the Mandate of Heaven. On the downward side — which we are now on, although it may be some years before this is widely acknowledged by the intellectual classes let alone the general public — problems multiply like the heads of the Hydra. It is an unfortunate time to be in charge of anything. The compromises one must make to reach the top of the greasy pole are becoming impossible to maintain. In such a time, uncompromising types like Assange find their opportunity. The times in a sense call out for them. A few years ago David Hicks had a similar chance to play this role but the time was premature and he was too shallow a vessel to carry the load, unlike Assange.

In a world of six billion people, where the dominant culture has reached the limits of its power and is starting to lose its grip, the tensions thus produced must find their expression through the lives of individuals. This is Julian Assange's fate. He has prepared himself for it and will no doubt acquit himself courageously enough according to his own values. The longer term significance is impossible to assess. But after he is gone there will be others, for better and worse. All types of people who have ever existed are out there — Christs and Hitlers — and in every crowded city these individuals are waiting, hoping their time has come.

Assange's writings are vague, overly-simple and fairly one-dimensional to my mind. He is not the new Messiah, although I have a feeling he'd like to be. But we'll see what he comes up with. And more importantly, what is made of him.

EDIT: The Archdruid in his latest post skewers the ruling elite more effectively than I can:
The elites that mostly run today’s industrial societies, like their equivalents in every other human society, have a deeply conservative streak under whatever surface layer of fashionable radicalism may be popular at any given time. They have the positions of influence that they do because they have the educations, hold the opinions, and think the thoughts that their peers, and more particularly the immediately prior generation of their peers, considered suitable to their roles. In a society that’s more or less sustainable, this is a powerful source of stability; in one that’s stumbled into an unsustainable human ecology, these same pressures for elite conformity can make it next to impossible for anyone in charge to think about the world in any way other than the one that’s making disaster inevitable.

2nd Edit: Ran's added a permalink for his Assange post so I've modified the link on his name above.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The moral issue of now

Ran Prieur has a post which encapsulates the issue we in the industrial world face: the irrationality of our desires. He says…
My favorite election commentary is by Sharon Astyk: The election is over - Now what do we do with all the fear? I agree: the voters are not really idiots -- they are cowards, and using their human brainpower to convince themselves of fantasies that defy both reason and observation: that the government can dispense benefits without collecting taxes; that an economy based on exponential growth can continue on a planet of fixed size; that we can have utopia merely by filling the slots in the present system with different people. What they're afraid of is reality: that the government, the economy, the planet, cannot continue to give more than they get, that all the stuff we've been getting, we're going to stop getting.
If we expect Santa Claus (ie the great god of industrial civilisation) to bring us goodies endlessly while we have no appreciation of the costs, we will react with infantile rage when our desires are frustrated. And who will we blame? Refugees? Indians? Moslems? Jews?
After they lose their toys, the people will be hungry for leaders who call for the sacrifice of others, and I mean sacrifice in the literal sense: the ritual mass-murder of scapegoats. When there are piles of bodies in the streets, only then, from the sane fringes, will new and better systems grow to fill the dead spots.
And what will trigger this rage in Australia? My guess is a big collapse in real estate prices, brought on by a downturn in China which will slow our export bonanza. I hope it doesn't get as bad as Ran posits, but you never know.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The True Faith

I'm talking about Science of course, or really its wildly popular but mentally subnormal child, Scientism. The believers in Scientism are generally the same people who believe in humanity's ever-upward climb towards perfect happiness and power — ok, we have the odd World War or financial hiccup, but everything will eventually get better and better, mkay?

The more paranoid fringe of Scientismists (I've coined a nice clumsy new term!), the sort who believe that George Bush bombed the World Trade Center because the Arabs weren't smart enough to organise something like that, tend to see conspiracies everywhere, except where they really are. Scientismists know deep down they're as dumb as dogsh*t, but that there are two types of smart people in the world, scientists and those evil bastards in the tall buildings. Scientismists believe in science, not as a system of inquiry, but as a reliable faith and the fount of all good things like iPhones and Prozac and Jumbo jets. They also tend to think like Ayn Rand: that the world is run by an incredibly smart conspiracy of evildoers who grab the ideas from the scientists and do what they will with them. Anything that disadvantages the powerful will be hidden away in some vast underground bunker. Like this wonderful invention that could let cars run on next to nothing! Watch this video!

What's worth noting is that no-one interviewing the guy asks where does the energy come from? And of course the designer, who knows what it is that he's made, just assumes that they know. But one comes away with the impression that these knob-heads think the energy comes from the salt water. All it took was a lone genius to see this! Just point radio waves at salt water and kaboom! Now watch the big energy companies suppress it!

Of course this is an American TV news spot and we know how ignorant a lot of those folk are. Not like Australia, where our ABC is rigorous in its scientific rectitude. But if you listen to people in this country talking and follow the political gossip you will soon realise that magical thinking and scientism is just as firmly embedded here — in control in fact — and that we are in no way especially intellectually privileged. For a start, who is talking about the fact that Australia imports 30% of its oil? We pay for it with our exports but how long can this go on? How do you think our economy will fair without that imported oil? Will electric cars magically appear? How about the parade of diesel trucks which carry the vast majority of our goods at some stage of their distribution? Will we get electric trucks too? And who supplies all this — Santa Claus? It is a dagger at the throat of our society, but no-one is talking about it! Instead all the talk is about the distribution of the goodies we have. The banks are greedy! No, they're the pillars of our economic strength! Houses cost too much because everyone wants one, but if you're smart, get in now and buy one because they always go up in value and you too can become a millionaire without working for it!

Most of us have very little understanding of how our lives really work. We're unaware of the vast investments in plant and institutions which so intricately underpin our daily life. All these complex arrangements are built and maintained by us, but we are conscious of only the tiny area we work in. For the rest, we deal in a kind of shorthand knowledge — a pseudo language which fools us and those we talk to, because it works. Until it doesn't. So house prices and stock prices go up and down and the trick is to know when to buy and sell, because stocks and houses have become almost purely gambling chips, the key to a future of living without working! Who knows what the stocks really represent? Because we all know we live in the best and luckiest country in the World and everything just gets better and better all the time because that's the Law of Nature, or something.

This spread of magical thinking has become the characteristic of our age, an age that began seriously in the nineteen-eighties. That's when somehow it seemed possible to spin something into nothing by talking the right talk. Young guys who had been nobodies only a few years previously suddenly had black clothes and cool haircuts and were driving new Porsches — rush hour to the eastern suburbs of Melbourne seemed to be jammed with them. The recession at the end of the eighties threw cold water on a lot of this for a few years, but it all popped up again in the mid-nineties and has powered on ever since. No-one makes anything, that's all done mysteriously, in China. Instead, we all work in service industries and the coolest thing is to be a celebrity, a chef or a footballer. And get a contract for a TV show. And spend enough on your credit card to get a free flight to Honkers and back. We just wish those dumb bastards in Afghanistan would see reason 'cause then they could live like us!

How long will it all last? One could argue that it will die when it doesn't work any more as a pseudo-philosophy. Of course it has never really worked, but over a short human life span it's possible to think all kinds of bizarre things and never have reality find you out. Only a very great trauma changes people's thinking and then usually only in those young enough to be receptive. I think scientism and its adherents will be with us for a very long time: even when it's obviously shot its bolt, like the Black Knight in The Quest for the Holy Grail, with all limbs missing its acolytes will think the corner will soon be turned and we'll be soon be back to Business as Usual.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blaming, scapegoating and assigning causes

First, read Dmitri Orlov's latest post, How (not) to Organise a Community. It's a ripper! Actually it's not great literature: it's a little too long and with a "put together" feel, but also what he's saying is a hard thing to listen to and to understand because it runs against what we want to understand. We want to follow the grooves we know — we want to form committees, have meetings, produce agendas, tick boxes and then have some feel-good social functions under the guise of "networking", where we can slap each other on the back and congratulate ourselves for "doing something". 'Cause that's how civilised modern types like us solve problems, isn't it? But what Dmitri says is what I've been feeling deep down, but without being able to articulate as well as he does: that the reality of life is that it doesn't matter what you think or feel or believe. All that matters is what you do and what the situation really is. And right action can be for all the "wrong" reasons, via the "wrong" people in the "wrong" places.

I'm plugging away at a number of projects at the moment, one of which is my novel, "Alex" (I've been a bit slow cranking out the chapters but they will appear in due course!). I've been thinking that what is going to happen sometime in the next three to four decades is we are going to lose the federal government we have now. Instead we'll have a military government, which I'm calling the Military Commission in the novel. It will come in as an emergency measure but then stay on for all kinds of reasons. The state governments may well carry on for much longer as they are, because we don't invest too much abstract value in them: their job is to keep the machinery of our lives running as well as possible and that's a management task. The federal government on the other hand has "spiritual" values attached to it: our picture of something we call "Australia", and we project onto it an ideal of our national selves. As this image of ourselves fails along with the tax revenues which support the federal government, so will the democratic institution itself. The quality of our politicians will fall and they will become paralysed by our inability to realistically to map out an agreed role for them. We can see this already happening in relation to the war in Afghanistan. What we want the war to be like and what we want our role in it to be is completely at odds with the reality on the ground. Politicians at the highest levels spout the mindless platitudes we want to hear while the military are playing it for their own ends. The result is not likely to be good for the government's legitimacy.

The other thing I'm thinking about a lot and which Dmitri covers as well is, how do we build a viable economic structure for the future? Do we do it with nice reasonable people sitting around boardroom tables playing the game by the rules? I don't think so and neither does Dmitri. The future will not be "managed". It will be an eruption, a tearing of the social and economic fabric, a giving up rather than a trying harder. Our current system, where small businesses carry something like 50% of the economy, where basically it's survival of the fittest within a set of legal and economic rules, will just get harder and harder to continue. The big players, the 50% of the economy run by corporations, will be able to tilt the board in their favour because they can control politics much more effectively than us little fish — but only for a time and while generating a great deal of bitterness and anger. But the problem will be the rules which we are all playing within are going to lose their agency. If you stick to the rules you will be lucky to survive. For a start, credit, the lifeblood of business, is starting to dry up and will eventually be completely gone in its present form to be replaced by — nothing! And the desperation of the government for tax revenue, which up till now has been fine while the goods and services tax (the GST) has boomed along with the consumer economy, will mean small businesses will be squeezed very hard because the big boys will tilt the board their way. Couple this with a continuing drop in global trade and the outlook for the mass of Australian industrial style agricultural workers and self-employed people is not good.

This means that the successful entrepreneurs of the future will most certainly be criminal at one level or another. They will be outside the tax system for a start. It may well be that marijuana will be legalised simply so the government can get some tax back on it, but other drugs will not be and the general level of misery will ensure steady sales, helping the financial underworld.

Who will oppose the rise of this new class? Firstly the government at both state and federal levels due to the dropping tax revenue and the perception that an illegitimate power base is arising, threatening the carefully constructed system which has been evolving in Australia since Federation. Those classes dependent on state revenues for pay: public servants, the armed forces and teachers will see their living standards declining and tend to blame the decay on "moral delinquency". They will be joined by the mass of baby-boomer retirees who will be falling into much deeper poverty than they ever expected due to the losses on financial markets and the decline in tax revenues and hence pension payments. The teachers and other public payroll recipients will resent having higher taxes to fund the baby-boomers too, so the solidarity of the current system will be very shaky. Add to that the great mass of workers turned out of the building trade due to the impending popping of the Australian property bubble and we have a very volatile mix.

An attempt will be made to pin the blame on particular groups. We may find ourselves in a major war simply because the population will be so maddened with rage, so confused at the mysterious loss of prosperity and so helpless in their personal situations, that having an identifiable enemy to fight will seem a blessed simplification. The Muslims have a definite target painted on them at the moment: perhaps some new twist in Middle-East politics will provide the trigger.

But all these considerations must play out in our real lives: we have to avoid being thrown under the bus because we have a target painted on us, but we must also find a way to survive in a much more uncertain and dangerous, poorer world. I've been thinking about all this in relation to where I live, in the poorest part of South Gippsland in southern Victoria, Australia. I can see how this area, which at the moment has a certain level of prosperity and happiness that it's never had before, could just slowly fail, with the clever and energetic people leaving for more promising prospects anywhere else and the social fabric fraying and falling apart in consequence. I've seen it in other areas of Australia and I can see how it could easily happen here. So I'm trying to hatch a plan to counter this. My idea currently revolves around the idea of a couple of business incubators, but of course it is more than that. What I'm really trying to do is build an alternative way of life: a true counter-culture.

Who would want to be a member of such a beast, in an area like this where if you have any talent you can still count on being whisked off to some brighter future in the city? My gut feeling is that it will be the bad boys and girls. We have a few of them around here! Anyway I'm vaguely negotiating to lease a large abandoned factory in a neighboring town which I'm feeling more and more could be the centre of some crazy social experiment. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How do we really know collapse is immanent?

Aeldric has done a great post over at the Australia/New Zealand Oil Drum entitled The Networking of Resource Production: Do the Networks Give us Warnings when They are About to Fail? which goes straight to the heart of the problem I have: how can you tell in an unambiguous way that the system we are living in is approaching collapse? After all our human culture is full of legends of The End, replete with prophetic dreams, visions and revelations. If they line up with reality they get incorporated in legend and religious tradition. If they fail, which is vastly more frequent, they make page four in the newspaper under the "Quaint-goings-on-in-some-nutcase-cult" section: something a sharp student doing their Masters in psychology could use as a good subject for a thesis.

As an ordinary member of Industrial Society, what information do I have leading me to say a crash is immanent? What does an ordinary person "see" in their day-to-day existence which allows them to make these kinds of judgments? All of us have networks flowing through our lives but no-one can easily "see" these networks from start to finish or how they may relate to one another. We may understand our little bit very well and have a clear idea what is right and wrong with it. Our appreciation of other people's part is necessarily vaguer and tends to be tinged with the natural human suspicion that "others" are not as competent or hard-working as we and our colleagues. To quote from a comment Aeldric added to the discussion of the above post:
This is not helped by the fact that the problem is hidden by complexity. The people who say "We have plenty of resource X" are not just saying this to inflate the share price - they truly believe it. From their perspective, it is true.

The reason that low-quality reserves of resource X will never be extracted is only obvious when you look at the overall system.

Unfortunately, each entity only looks at their own area, the overall matrix in which we operate is treated as a "black box" that supplies our needs just as long as we continue to play our part. This faith in the system has worked thus far, but it is misplaced - we need to look at the overall system.
Add to that the seemingly exponential increase in complexity when doing anything (My wife and I are building a house and the planning requirements have two extra levels to surmount from the time I built my first: bushfire rating and energy rating which is part of a large engineering bill I didn't have before) and you have a world where everything seems micro-managed for efficiency and effectiveness, yet is all too complex for the ordinary person to control or understand more than a tiny part of their own life.

This situation is also governed by a time factor and a certain perception of "rightness". By "rightness" I mean that in Australia (at least for now!) there is a quite strong sense that we live in the best of all possible worlds, that everything is getting better and better incrementally, year on year, and the time factor means that even big changes often happen imperceptibly. So we have much better cars and sound systems, better roads, cheap international travel and the Internet which we can feel good about, while not noticing how much more difficult it is to buy a house and support a family than it was thirty years ago. We can be lulled by shiny novelties trickling into our lives while seeing our problems making our way in the world a lot of the time as "personal": that is, governed by our individual failings in a complex world where we are constantly struggling to find a role for ourselves. And strangely enough, this perception of struggle to be or at least appear competent increases amongst the more highly educated! As Jim Kunstler remarked in some context I now forget, if you go into any room full of educated people you can bet 90% feel that they are frauds.

Those of us who do want to understand the bigger picture must necessarily depend on abstract knowledge, of which we as a culture have a lot, but which in its sheer voluminousness and the difficulty in assessing its relevance poses yet another challenge. You can hardly blame the uneducated or moderately stupid for plunging headlong into dogma and cultishness which promise a shortcut to true knowledge, usually in the hands of a dubious leadership. Add to this the fact that certain professions such as economics suffer from alarming delusions and are just plain wrong in their very basis and it is little wonder that true knowledge of our real situation is limited to a very few. And even the knowledge of these few is very incomplete!

This is another reason why a political solution is simply not possible. Without the goodwill of a large proportion of the population no political party can push through a program which can address what is coming down the line towards us. And if only the tiniest minority of the population understands what is happening, how can that support appear?

Nevertheless there are people working on the problem in a rigorous and as far as possible, scientific way, so you can get reasonable quality information on what's happening. The problem is here that the phenomenon we are looking at is part of complex systems theory and therefore very difficult to quantify. So we depend on clever simplifications such as that posed by Aeldric in the article on The Oil Drum. But we still have to rely partly on less rigorous methods: "gut feelings" and intuitions which are very difficult to prove or even demonstrate to someone else. One of my favorite commenters on The Oil Drum is memmel but he drives some of the other regulars crazy, because his writing style is dyslexic and his ideas while having the ring of truth sound like a shorthand grab from a much more rigorous theorem which he never gives footnotes for. Here's an excerpt from his first comment:
I'd like to add what I came up with as the warning signal of collapse of a complex system in particular ours.
You have outline the overt signals but whats missing is what the system itself does to counteract the situation.
Indeed to the point that it obfuscates its real state.

What I believe starts to happen is the system plays whats basically a grand game of musical chairs. Its no longer capable of any real growth yet its forced to fake it.

A simple example is every job in Mexico or China results in the loss of a job in the US with a dramatic reduction in costs. No new job is created yet profit margins go up. For this to work obviously demand has to remain robust for the product of the job. Rising debt loads allow this to take place. In a real expanding economy wages would have risen rapidly in Mexico and China as they demanded they purchased the goods they where making. The wage arbitrage would have dissipated rapidly.

The same of course works for resources as well as labor the economy shifts to increase profit margins as constraints arise. Its a complex system thus a tremendous amount of shifting around is possible.

It becomes difficult to discern that its really just running around in circles and nothing is happening indeed only the explosion of debt really shows the underlying system has peaked.

As you note eventually everything becomes correlated with money and thus the final signal is in the financial arena. And its pretty simple its debt.

Next its worse than that really by the time the debt load grows to horrendous levels the system is well past its peak. This is because a lot of the debt was issued based on equity valuations supported by the previous debt expansion. Ever cheaper debt aka credit serves to support previous valuation rounds making new debt safe to issue.

So given that eventually everything gets correlated with money the signal that the system is now unstable is easy to see its debt. To understand how the system can pull off such a situation you need to look into this game of musical chairs or circular economics which eventually results in trading partners allowing debt to balloon.
Everyone has to reap real benefits even as the debt bubble expands. If now it won't expand.
This is done by allowing gains to be made on each individual transaction. Eventually of course it ends with central banks forced to carry tremendous amounts of debt in one form or another. The profits are of course skimmed off and the debt load is socialized.

On can actually construct a small variant of this. Consider a village where everyone works to build houses for each other. As each villager gets his house built by the village he owes the village for the house. Assume that resources are constrained and each house costs more than the last all paid for via credit back to the village which acts as the bank. Eventually the last house is built and its ten times the cost of the first house and the village owes itself immense sums of money as notational credit. Indeed many of the villagers that had their house built first are notational multimillionaires. Then what?
Do you see what I mean? Personally I love his comments because his intuitions have for me a ring of truth but I can understand people finding them repellent. But if we try to be more rigorous, dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s we end up with this, quoted from an article available here (warning, it's a pdf):
The theoretical basis of the work on early-warning signals in simple models is quite strong, and the first results from more elaborate models suggest that similar signals may arise in highly complex systems (23). Nonetheless, more work is needed to find out how robust these signals are in situations in which spatial complexity, chaos and stochastic perturbations govern the dynamics. Also, detection of the patterns in real data is challenging and may lead to false positive results as well as false negatives. False negatives are situations in which a sudden transition occurred but no early-warning signals could be detected in the behaviour before the shift. This can happen for different reasons. One possibility is that the sudden shift in the system was not preceded by a gradual approach to a threshold. For instance, it may have remained at the same distance from the bifurcation point, but been driven to another stable state by a rare extreme event. Also, a shift that is simply due to a fast and permanent change of external conditions (Box 1 Figure a) cannot be detected from early-warning signals.
And so on for many more qualifying paragraphs. I think memmel is easier!

In the end we have to make decisions about our lives based on hunches and intuitions as much as anything. It doesn't hurt to have some solid theoretical backup but that can be wrong too! I guess my gut feeling is that a collapse of the US economy is not far off: maybe one or two years. How that will play out in Australia is much more difficult to say as we are tied very closely to the Chinese and Japanese economies and how they will fair is open to question, seeing both are very export oriented at a time when the importing economies, namely the USA and the Eurozone are wobbling badly. And as at my public lecture in October 2008, I stated Australia was importing 1/3 of its oil needs and that proportion has remained the same (choose Australia from the drop-down menu to display).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Right actions, right thoughts

What is right action for us doom-and-gloomers? I'm caught up in our local Transition Town group. Sure, it's what some people want and it gives us members mutual support, plus we may be getting a big community garden and orchard going at the bottom of the town. But I have mixed feelings about, it in the sense that I can't see it being The Whole Answer to the problems coming towards us and I'm still copping it as well from a few people, accused of being too negative in a more general sense.

I guess my last post on the Aussie housing bubble was guaranteed to upset a lot of folk and was a typical snarky comment on things as they are now — I admit it was negative although I think it was a necessary corrective. But I think it's a good time to give a background on what I think is right action, which must first of all spring from right thoughts. And this implies a lot of what is going on amongst the chattering classes is wrong thoughts leading to wrong actions.

Why can't we just save the world by recycling plastic, buying an electric car and growing our own vegies? Why can't we do all this while making politicians pass good laws restricting pollution, exploitation and simultaneously saving the whales, while working for strong international covenants to stop those developing economies making things worse by letting their big populations to buy in to the consumer dream?

This is what I'd label the standard left-wing program save-the-world program.

The standard right-wing save-the-world program is a little different but we need to mention it too. The world is fine as long as I and my significant others are doing well! Those pesky foreigners trying to grab our stuff? Nuke 'em! Drug addicts? Kill 'em all — except for my son of course, for whom I've just paid thousands to spring from a prison in India after he was caught trying to smuggle some ganga back to Australia. The Chinese are all sub-human — except for George, with whom I go to watch Collingwood playing each week. And all these pollution laws — an evil impost on business! Except for the ones which stop the spraying of pesticides in those areas where our honey producing subsidiary has seen profits cave in over the past few years.

The right-wing is easy to mock: after all, these types always depend upon the left-wingers working for them to keep the show on the road. It's only on a few points that they can stick to their convictions. This also leads on to another not-much-mentioned paradox (to be discussed some other time): how come left-wingers and right-wingers end up building very similar societies?

But I'm more interested in the illusions of the left because they underpin a lot of what goes on in politics. Why can't we legislate to fix our problems with Peak Oil/Climate Change? Surely if everyone made a big effort to conserve, we wouldn't have a problem — right? We could all drive a Toyota Prius and presto! This is where the explanation gets tricky because it's counter-intuitive. When we make more efficient use of a resource it simply makes it available to more people, so consumption rises rather than falls. This is known as Jevons Paradox. This only applies to increases in technical efficiency of course — it's still possible to tax or otherwise restrict the availability of say, oil, in order to reduce its use. But can we restrict our use in Australia and tell the Chinese and the Indians they can't use it too? Of course you can run on and imagine some United Nations action that might force the nations of the world to restrict consumption if you put aside how utterly unlikely this is. But if it were possible, would this solve the problem of Peak Oil and carbon dioxide induced climate change? How could it, when at best, it might slow down (slightly), the rate of use of oil and coal, but the oil and coal would still get used anyway, just over a few more decades and it is still unrenewable and still adds CO2 to the atmosphere.

The fact is, the toothpaste is out of the tube. We (by which I mean the human race) will go on using oil until we can't — same with coal. You may swear off it (as far as you can, given that everything we use in day to day life has a fossil fuel component) but in the end it will all get used up anyway, irrespective of your decisions. So what if it takes fifty years longer to disappear, than if we continue to fly like mad moths around the planet? The effect will be virtually the same. Electric cars? Where does the electricity come from? From solar panels you say? How much embodied energy do they contain? You see, there is no escape. We can't have a complex industrial civilisation based on extracting sunshine from cucumbers to quote Jonathan Swift . We may entertain fantasies of a world where doves alight on the shoulders of young people dancing round the maypole at harvest time in Kabul, as well as in Korumburra, before everyone jumps on their bicycles to go back to the town hall for an election of councilors followed by a hoedown to a string band, but let's not confuse ourselves even further with these idle fantasies.

Of course it — that is, industrial civilisation — will end, and maybe quite soon. Nature will impose upon us the discipline we can't impose on ourselves. Our problem is not to save the World, but to save ourselves. By all means aim for a low carbon lifestyle, because pretty soon we will be living one anyway whether our politics is anarcho-syndicalist or slightly to the right of Ghengis Khan. Our issues will revolve around dealing with the consequences of a declining world industrial civilisation, not fixing its underpinnings.

The Heroic Materialist project is over, for all kinds of reasons. For a start, capital in the form of debt is in the process of vanishing, which is rushing us towards an economic collapse after which large-scale capital intensive projects will simply be impossible. Want to solve the energy crisis by building a nuclear fusion power station? Sure, hold a few fundraisers in your town and build one at the end of your street. Because that is about the level of economic co-operation we can expect to see in the future. The only projects which get done will be on a small scale, except in countries which can't maintain security, where we can expect large scale marauding warlord lead armies who will swiftly reduce the territories they prey upon to sparsely populated wastelands in any case.

I don't expect anything like that in Australia. We may have quite serious civil conflict if the industrial system's dispossessed citizens are victimised —always a possibility when a narrow, suspicious world-view amongst the elites replaces the boundless optimism of a time of growth. But a collapse of society I don't foresee. Instead I see the gloomy crumbling of individuals who are unprepared for the changes we are going to have to face, to be a followed by a new generation who accept the world they find as a given and get on with inventing their lives and their own goals and meanings. Some will be happy, some unhappy, but it was ever thus. Our task as the transitional generation is to smooth the way, cutting the suffering which will be inevitable while making the way clear for the next generation to find their own direction.

This will mean letting go of inappropriate dreams and plans as much as anything — at a federal level, dreams such as turning Afghanistan into suburbia and building the high speed rail link down the eastern seaboard of Australia. At the state level, we need to stop pretending we can go on living in our cities as if consumables such as oil, water and electricity are in infinite supply. And at the personal level, fantasies of a leisured retirement with overseas cruises will be snatched away.

On the other hand we will have a return of the natural world, which will no longer be under the extreme pressure industrial civilisation has been placing on it. We will eat more healthy food, get more exercise and use our wits to build viable communities rather than manipulate symbols on screens. Our lives will be in our hands, not those of "experts". For a short period, until a new system solidifies (as they always do), the world will be ours to mould in the image we think best.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cruising along in our Aussie cloud of unknowing

Ah, Australian exceptionalism! Could there ever be a more persistent yet fragile weed? Will a cold winter wind ever arise breaking those delicate fronds? Or will it be the relentless heat of summer which shrivels them to wisps of brown? No doubt we shall find out in due course.

In the meantime those guardians of our prosperity, the banks, are hard at work spreading the Love. Consider this, from News.com.au, which tells of yet more loosening of the purse strings helping feed our insane housing bubble (Bubble? It's demand lead isn't it? Another example of just how blessed, virtuous and better than everywhere else this great country is! Everyone wants to live here! In our endless good-news Aussie paradise!).

And these august Aussie banks, bastions of goodness and competence, would never, never tell fibs would they? Well, that mean man Steve Keen thinks they do. Have a look at what his digging has found out here about what the Commonwealth Bank has cooked up to suck in those overseas investors.

How thin our world view really is. Just because 95% of the population believes a particular delusion (witchcraft, the Earth being flat, endless rising real estate value) doesn't make it any truer. It just makes the bust when it comes that much more miserable.

Oh, check out Mish's take on it too.

Edit: David Llewellyn-Smith at Henry Thornton's pulls apart the Commonwealth's scheme even further. He also links to this blast in The Australian's business section. And Steve Keen weighs in again here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Warning! Rant coming on!

I went to a Transition Town training session on the weekend. I had misgivings before going but they turned out to be misplaced. It was a different style of learning to anything I'd done before, conducted by a pair of very competent women. We were given all the materials they used for the session plus a lot of extras at the end of it all, which is good because I can't see myself using what we learned for a while, as our group is still in its formative stages and I'm sure I'd forget most of it if I don't use it straight away.

I was interested in the attitudes and opinions of the other participants. Why do people get involved in something like this? Generally it is well-educated middle-class people like me I suppose, with some commitment to "doing good". However I found that there are some deep-seated ideas that are perhaps unhelpful even among the well-intentioned and well-educated. We did an exercise which was designed to help us explain rising carbon dioxide levels and the greenhouse effect. It seems from the reaction of the people I was working with that it is common to believe that by bringing pressure to bear on politicians and getting the message out to the public we will somehow reverse the trend. There seemed no understanding that nothing will be done, until the consequences make it impossible to carry on.

What do I mean by this? It is simply that anything the individual does is almost irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. I think we are well beyond remedial action on the macro, society-wide scale. We (the great Middle Class) seem to still be suffering from the illusion that we have Power. Power to change other people's behavior. Power to influence those in power. There is no general understanding, even amongst the educated, that freedom disappears the higher up the hierarchy one moves — that those at the top are so hedged in by prior constraints, massive inertias, debts owed and obligations that come with the job that our leaders have almost nowhere to move at all. And as for telling the Chinese and the Indians and the Brazilians that they need to radically restructure their societies — well it's not even worth a laugh.

We seem to be unaware that our behavior is animal behavior: we are no different from voles, slugs, armadillos or trout in our desire to produce descendants and make some space for ourselves in the larger world. And the sum of the actions of six billion humans is no different from the actions of six billion armadillos in this regard, no matter how intellectual and above "animal" behavior we think we are. Politicians know this instinctively and fear the animal passions of the "mob" — the great mass of the population — and usually (if they are "successful") stay within safe limits. But the average punter doesn't see this. We don't see ourselves as being part of some powerful mob. Instead we ordinary people are aware of our own feelings of weakness in the face of what seems to be overwhelming forces — we project our fantasies of real power onto our leaders, little realising that both feelings of weakness and fantasies of power are illusory phenomena. They come and go, depending on our immediate circumstances and the state of our digestion as much as anything. The middle classes —even the well-educated technocratic elite, working the cogs and gears of the system — don't seem any better at understanding this than the most illiterate forklift-driver.

Amongst the educated, frustration often turns into the blame game. The world is a mess, we see clearly what is wrong, nothing is being done, it's the fault of the Keynesians (if you're an Austrian economist like Mish or Gary North). Or it's the nervousness of the do-nothings in Congress who don't see the need to spend if you're Paul Krugman, the Keynesian. Or moving down the ladder into the unsavory depths, it's the liberals (if you're Anne Coulter), the right-wing demogogues and their puppet-masters (if you're a follower of Counterpunch) and so on downward to infinity where dwell the gamiest of conspiracy theorists, crazed religious nut-bags and scary eco-fanatics like Derrick Jensen. Don't get me wrong: each of these characters possess a fraction of the truth and there may be value in listening to what they say in order to see how the world works. But all of them are entirely primitive when it comes to Answers, because each of them believes in Salvation and Atonement. They believe that following their prescriptions will lead to Heaven on Earth. That's why they're dangerous. Like Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Why do these people suffer from a common fallacy? Why do they have such broad followings? Well I could spend ages raving about our Judeo-Christian world-view (which still forms the way that most of us think, even if we believe we're athiests). But I'll let you, gentle reader, think all this through in your own time. Suffice to say there are some still, small voices which do talk sense. Steve Keen on economics, Dmitri Orlov on social realities. Nobody's perfect but some are definitely better than others and popularity is a poor guide to excellence when we are so embedded in the Judeo-Christian schema and we love good-and-evil dichotomies so much (beware dichotomies!).

So what is real and how do we choose actions which are effective? Well, look out the window. Smell the flowers. Smile at your neighbor. This is reality, the single endless moment we all live in. There is no future, except in our imagination. There is no past except in our memory. If you're crossing the road and a bus is coming, step back onto the curb! And likewise with the great changes pressing down on us. To go to an analogy, if the Titanic has hit an iceberg there's no urgency in arguing with the captain about whose fault it is. Your job is to get you and your charges into a lifeboat! So try and look at what is really going to happen, not what you hope will happen. What you hope will happen is that enlightened leaders will guide us to the Promised Land. What is really going to happen is complex, messy and unpredictable in many ways, but it will include the climate changing, the financial system seizing up and the economy going down the tubes. You can't stop any of these things from happening! All you can do is try and protect yourself from the consequences. Nature, in its majestic impartiality, will deal with humanity as it deals with everything.

Ok! That'll do for now!

Monday, August 9, 2010

My outlook for 2010-2011

I'm going out on a limb but hey! — I'm not afraid of heights, just scared of hitting the ground. Anyway, I think we are not going to be so bad in Australia over the next few years as I thought a few months ago. We've just got a big price boost for mineral exports feeding into the system. The high temperatures of the northern summer seem to have done damage to the size of the Russian wheat harvest. I just drove back through several hundred kilometres of our wheat harvest and the way rainfall is going, it could be a big one. High wheat prices + world shortage + bumper Australian crop = $$$.

Longer term I think we're going to cop it along with everyone else. But we'll have the melt-down of the USA as a wake-up call over the next year or so, and that may generate the grass-roots political will we need to move to a more gentle energy descent. That and a bursting of the property bubble we've been in.

I'm cautiously optimistic. Really our greatest asset is our lack of population pressure, of the sort evident in more naturally well-favoured countries where the numbers of people have had time to grow to the limits of the environment. Not that the way of life in our cities is in any way sustainable at the moment, but it can change radically without killing half the population which is more than you can say about a lot of the world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Our presentation to the Councillors

It was a little intimidating to sit at a table facing all the Shire Councilors, the CEO and various other high-ranking officials. I was just there to support Peter who did a great job, plowing on manfully through the piece that he'd written giving an outline of the dangers facing us with peak oil, with both of us unable to read the reaction of the councilors who were not on "our" side. I handled one question from Cr Mimmie Jackson — not particularly well as I strayed a bit off topic, but Peter was better with his responses.

After our five minutes we stayed on to listen to the other people there to present their various cases, then at the end we went out to have our pictures taken by the reporters covering it. We were joined by our three Councilors who reassured us that it had gone well and that we must keep it up in future!

If any article about it comes on line I'll link to it in a future post.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Preparing to Ride the Whirlwind

Next week one of my fellow transitioners and I are going to do a presentation to our local Shire Councilors. It is our first and so it will be an interesting exercise in doing a pitch, so to speak, to group of average politicians. We already know three are on our side — they come to our meetings — so we won't be aiming at them. Instead it will be a case of persuading the skeptics, or maybe just the indifferent. How to do this?

There has been a very interesting post on The Oil Drum's Campfire discussion in the past few days entitled Dear Candidate - What Will You Do if Growth Is Over...?. I read the whole thing — all the comments, which is the point of the exercise — the other night. I was struck by the general gloominess of outlook from most commentators. I wonder if it is a reflection of the disengagement of people from their communities and from politics or whether it reflects a different political scene in the USA. Or maybe I'm a little naive. But it seems to me that it should only be a matter of casting the situation in the right light.

Politicians must read the future with some degree of accuracy if they're to succeed. I see our function as letting them know what they're facing. After all, in ten years time when we will be in the very eye of the storm which is now breaking over us, there will still be Shire Councilors in South Gippsland. The more accurately they have gauged the situation, the better I think our situation down here will be. Yes, there will be some terrible economic times ahead. But these times are going to also allow opportunities which the clever and energetic can seize. Whether good or harm comes from this depends very much on our preparation now.

Our transition group is focused necessarily on issues which mean most to our members now. These issues are generally focused on food security which is something individuals and families can take care of. The bigger picture is very important though. How does South Gippsland support itself now and how will that change in the future? This is what I'm thinking about.

Talking of the big picture, today I listened to a talk by Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth to a transition group in the UK. It's quite long but it gives the clearest picture of what is about to befall us all that I've heard lately, so if you can, give it a listen.

Monday, May 17, 2010

More thoughts on complexity

I've posted already a couple of times recently on complexity, once in response to the Archdruid's take on it, and an earlier look at Anne of Tagonist's argument. I'm not convinced complexity per se is a problem. After all we humans are very complex physically, but that doesn't matter most of the time to us and we don't need to understand it in order to get through the day. We know we'll wear out in sixty or seventy years all being well and there is really nothing we can do to change that.

I've just been listening to a talk by Niall Ferguson called Fiscal Crises and Imperial Collapses: Historical Perspective on Current Predicaments which you can listen to here. In the second part of the recording, the Q & A section, there is some talk about how the complexity of the modern financial system might make reactions to current events inherently unpredictable, versus the situation which existed even say twenty or thirty years ago before computerised, automated trading took off. All such discussion seems to me to contain the unspoken assumption that the system can somehow be fixed: modified and reformed to be safer, better. But the question is, better and safer for whom?

The financial sector of the economy has grown hugely in the past twenty or so years and the amount of money thus allocated to it for wages and dividends has become a large "take" from the wages of non-financial workers. The Global Financial Crisis showed that when you are big enough to have the welfare of the rest of the economy wound around your finger, you can dictate the terms to governments, even when the crisis can be partly shown to be as a result of your own actions. This talk of predictability and control, or loss of it, really applies to how the financial sector might see their continuing share of power maintained.

Those of us who are outside the financial sector need not worry about any of this — we just need to avoid being under it when it falls. To those of us who still imagine they need to worry, all I can say is any illusions of you being part of that class which think they have a future of living without working — and this is what all the talk of investments and superannuation is all about — are unlikely to survive the catastrophes which will engulf the world of money over the next few years.

For someone living outside the financial world, the problems are simple. How do I feed/clothe/shelter myself and live in a peaceful community? But for those who want to jump on the gravy train, of course the problem becomes one of complexity! If you think that you can live in a fashion that ignores the limitations of a sustainable existence, you are necessarily involved in game playing on a huge scale with millions of other anonymous predators, both individual and corporate, all looking for a percentage of the action, which comes down to the power at some future date to force other people to work for you. This leads quickly to fantasies of legal oversight, punishment and control, with you being a beneficiary as one of millions of superannuation fund holders or self-funded retirees who imagine that your government can look after your interests.

Let me put it to you plainly. The world economy is in the early stages of a profound financial collapse. For now you can watch the riots in Greece on TV and feel a certain smug aloofness. Soon it will be coming to a town near you. The game we have been able to play for the past thirty years, starting from the nineteen-seventies where even the moderately intelligent soon realised buying and selling real estate in an inflationary economy was a great leg-up, is over. So are all the slightly more sophisticated schemes of getting involved in investment funds.

Find another game to play!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How long can we stay lucky?

There's been an interesting change in the mood of people I deal with over the last couple of years and in the public discourse at the top end of town. The kind of blowhard boosterism which was evident only a few short months ago (Prime Minister Rudd last year saying he made "no apologies" for a big Australia, but running away from that comment now) has been replaced by a much more measured and sombre view — the comments by the chief executive of the ANZ Bank on the "contagion" from the Greek collapse are a case in point.

So the Greek economy is melting down and now we can see that it is only the beginning. Goldman Sachs are on the back foot in Congressional hearings in the USA — no matter that they may be in the clear legally — people finally want blood and the "winners" make the most satisfactory sacrificial victims in a situation where there are many sore losers. More on this later.

We have been very lucky in Australia — so far. Many of us are starting to realise that this won't last much longer. I have been labeled a negative voice in the past by a lot of people I know, but that is starting to change as it becomes obvious that it's only a matter of time before the contagion reaches us.

I draw no satisfaction from this. I will gain nothing from being right, and are just as vulnerable to economic ruin as any other citizen of this wide brown land — more so in some ways because I'm fairly crippled physically (bad back) and have no great resources at my disposal. And I get no pleasure from seeing any individuals or groups brought down by this disaster, because I don't see the disaster as being anyone's "fault". It is just our fate to live in these times.

All I want to do is avoid unnecessary pain, for myself and those close to me. That is a normal human urge. It is also a normal human urge to find someone to blame for one's own suffering. In our society this primitive urge has been recognised for what it is and been held in check by a sophisticated legal system, built up over many generations. No death penalty, no torture of suspects, no eye for an eye justice. Unfortunately such refinements are easily swept away when things get tough. Already the blame game has begun — see Goldman Sachs — and it will continue. In the end the victims of the blame game will be anyone seen as different and "doing too well". Be warned.

My weakness is I want to understand what I see and tell other people. By doing so I put myself in some danger. But I'm not looking for a fight and will skirt one unless it is absolutely unavoidable. We shall see how that goes!

In the meantime, you stay out of trouble and stay lucky, but not too visibly, obviously lucky.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Archdruid again! This time on the household economy

A good post from John Michael Greer on the economics of earning less. If you're a two income family this is something you want to think about. I realised back in the seventies that doing stuff for yourself can be a far better way to go than trying to earn enough to buy it from someone else. That's why I built my own house back then and why I'm doing it again now. My wife and I had lunch with a couple yesterday who are thinking about doing it for the first time with no prior practical experience. I admire their courage! Truly it can be hard just to take the first step outside your comfort zone and although I've been doing it all my life I still have moments of self-doubt, even terror.

But I say, take that step! It's no good trusting to the direction of the majority any more. We must — we must — strike out in another direction, even at the risk of making foolish mistakes. The thing is there are plenty of people around who will pop out of the woodwork to help you, even as there seem to be many who shout you down. Listen to the positive voices and march on!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Archdruid talks complexity

In his post The Twilight of the Machine the Archdruid talks about the utility of machines in a low energy world — he basically says that complex machines only make sense in a situation where energy is very cheap and in reliable supply. This allows a complex specialised system to exist in which investment in machines, which are themselves highly specialised and delicate compared to a person, is worth the risk. Therefore in a world in energy decline, human labour will take the place of the machine.

This may be partly right, if we are to continue to have big human populations in areas where those population are now supported by a complex machine-based civilisation. But I think this will prove to be the exceptional case. I expect that mechanical civilisation will retreat but the areas which it leaves will be largely abandoned, because if they are well populated they will unstable politically as the economy declines and that will lead to migration away from them and high mortality within them. There may well be a new feudalism which emerges in some areas (this seems to be what the Archdruid implies) but while civilisation may shrink, modern weapons will still be cheap and readily available and this will make all but the most stable societies ungovernable and a new feudalism equally unstable. See John Robb's book "Brave New War" and Global Guerrillas for his take on all that.

I expect in the main we will see shrinkage, rapid in some places and slow and steady in others, but all the while maintaining at a minimum a machine-based system of control. In Europe this will be a mostly a steady, slow drop in population but in parts of the USA and Australia it could be very rapid, mainly in areas which have a highly specialised function (mining or industrial areas) with little depth to the society.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A diversion — my venture into fiction

If it's good enough for the Archdruid, it's good enough for me! I'm publishing a novel set in the future, maybe sixty or seventy years or so, which will let me explore some of the themes I've discussed in this blog. Hey, but it will also be a story, full of adventure, intrigue and so on! Read it at Alex — a novel.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Complexity…ah, complexity!

Complexity! Everyone is talking about it! The Archdruid has a typical long post where he champions the human versus the machine, John Robb over at Global Guerrillas talks about his resilient communities growing at the margins, Ran Prieur gathers it all up talking about the computers and cars in his life, and Anne at Tagonist weighs in on social versus technical complexity. And Stuart Staniford gets stuck into the Archdruid in his post with an argument which I can't quite follow.

I'll tackle the Tagonist bit first: Anne talks about reliable, simple machines versus complicated ones. Her examples (not good ones!) are the Kohler engine in her old Gravely garden tractor and an Italian scooter she's trying to fix for a friend. At one level this is a simple argument to scotch: if you live near a Kohler dealer you're OK, but it's a long way to Italy from Ohio (plus the imperial/metric problems of part substitution). And then again, I'm sure there aren't too many well-maintained Gravelys in Italia, but you'd have no worries over there finding a throttle cable at the local tip/wreckers which would fit your scooter.

So…but it gets more complicated. You can make parts to keep even complicated machines going if you've got the time and understanding to do so. And there is the problem of choosing between a local unreliable machine and an imported reliable one (both second-hand in the case I'm about to describe). We just bought a second-hand Korean Daewoo Matiz to replace the big locally-made second-hand Ford wagon which we've had for a year or so. We didn't need the Ford's big size and what tipped us against it was a series of problems with timing and unreliability running on LPG. It seemed every month we had another issue with it. And it was the sort of problem I couldn't fix myself — lots of electronic sensors and hard-to-get-at bits. The Matiz we got because we had one before and we had a few issues with it too, but we drove it from new until we wore it out at 290,000km. We know the gearbox selectors in the Matiz we just got will go in 150,000km or so, but that's seven years away for us. And we could fix 'em, if the rest of the vehicle's condition makes it worthwhile.

Then there's Anne's social complexity argument. What to do with all the editors and other specialists when the means for plugging them into the system goes pear-shaped? Well yes indeed, but this is mainly a problem when we work for highly specialised organisations in a very big system. I'll bet there'll be an editor at my local town paper, the "Mirror", until the Earth stops rotating.

It's not so much a problem of complexity as a problem of scale. When the Soviet Union collapsed it was the size of the social entities involved that made the problems, not their complexity. If your town or city depends on a single specialised industry to keep it going you are vulnerable in a way in which a big, complex city like say Melbourne is not, with it's multiple industries and functions, and its powerful political elite which command the resources of the surrounding state almost totally. Melbourne may well shrink a little when things get tough, but I doubt very much if it will disappear. It has too many reasons for being and not enough dire threats to its existence. Contrast with say Detroit, which existed because it was built for a purpose, to build cars. The cars go and Detroit goes.

Again, most European cities are near a border of some other country, or near enough to another city for friction over resources to develop. The intervening countryside is rich enough to support a reasonably self-sufficient peasantry and so an army can easily traverse the space between cities. This makes collapse, with its attendant scrabble for power and resources, a much more dangerous affair. Contrast with Australia which is has a resource-poor, sparsely settled countryside with very great distances between the big cities. Each major city commands the state of which it is capital. The major issue for each large city is lack of water, and only Adelaide, the fifth-largest city, is hostage to three other, larger states (Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland) for access to water.

We will indeed have a considerable level of discomfort here over the next few generations but it will not be Mad Max. There will be conflict within cities between the priviledged centre and the poverty-stricken edges, but the centre will always win. There will be border-protection issues in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the north of Western Australia. The Northern Territory, the most artificial and highly subsidised state, may well collapse or be absorbed into some other island based empire coming from the break-up of Indonesia some time in the next century, especially if climate change renders the interior of the continent uninhabitable and makes Darwin, its capital, even more difficult to live in. I can see Australia breaking up either de jure or de facto into separate city states in the next century.

I'll talk about the others' essays in another post!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

James Lovelock puts it bluntly

There's an interview with James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis and the person who detected CFCs in the atmosphere which lead to the realisation of the dangers posed by their breakdown destroying the ozone layer, on the BBC — you can listen to it here. Jim's not running for office or trying to impress the girls (or anyone else for that matter): he's a very old man but a very intelligent one, who feels the urge to say what he thinks. I think what he says is pretty close to the mark.

What can we — should we — do about global warming? Jim's message is enjoy your life while you can, because the die has been cast, the trigger pulled, and we are faced with the consequences of global warming rather than the choice of avoiding global warming or not.

Jim sees the situation from a scientists point of view and also from a realists point of view. And he sees the inertia of our social system: the impossibility of rapidly changing the behaviour of the millions who depend on present arrangements for their survival. It will take a generation to change these arrangements.

This leads on to my thoughts. There are some who would not give a damn about the survival of anyone but themselves, and would be happy to support some political movement which hastened the coming depopulation of the world, if it was to result in the deaths of the billions who these supporters of a Party of Cruelty would deem inferior types, leaving more room for themselves and their supporters. How long could it take such a party to achieve real power? J K Galbraith, author of a wonderful book about the last big economic disaster of modern history, The Great Crash, 1929, said that great social disasters inoculate their survivors against a repetition until the memory of the trauma fades, which he thought takes about eighty years after a major event. So we can expect a successor to the Nazis to emerge some time around 2013-2015 if we are to time it from their accession to power in Germany in 1933.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What makes me wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning

From "Tipping Point, Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production, An Outline Review" quoted from The Oil Drum
If peak oil is imminent or medium-term, we have neither the time nor the resources to substitute for oil, or invest in conservation and efficiency, a point re-iterated in the UKERC report. It is not merely that the net energy, material and financial resources we need to adapt will be in shorter supply, or that we are replacing high quality energy sources with lower quality ones. Nor is it that the productive base for deploying alternative energy infrastructure is small with limited ramp-up rates, or that it competes with food. Nor even that as the global credit crisis continues with further risks ahead, ramping up financing will remain difficult while many countries struggle with ballooning deficits and pressing immediate concerns. But, once the effects of decline become apparent, we will lose much of what we might call the operational fabric of our civilisation. The operational fabric comprises the given conditions at any time that support system wide functionality. This includes functioning markets, financing, monetary stability, operational supply-chains, transport, digital infrastructure, command & control, health service, institutions of trust, and sociopolitical stability. It is what we casually assume does and will exist [my emphasis], and which provides the structural foundation for any project we wish to develop. For example, near future degradation and collapse of the operational fabric may mean that we already have in place a significant fraction of the renewable energy infrastructure which will ever be in place globally.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On building a house in town 2

How is our house different from a "normal" house? And how is it the same? Our design criteria were to build something low maintenance, with zero heating and cooling costs and as autonomous as possible without resorting to technologies which might not be available or easily maintained into the future. It must be comfortable and robust: able to cope with the more extreme climate which may develop over the next few years and decades. And it must be as cheap to build as possible fitting the criteria already outlined.

The obvious way to heat a house is using the sun and the house I built in the 1970's was what is called a passive solar design — the sun shone in on a tiled concrete floor in winter and heated it up, thus moderating the temperature during the night as well. I wasn't a great builder and had very tight finances, so it didn't work as well as it could have but with the mild climate at Waratah North, close to the sea, it was better than nothing and certainly better than the house I grew up in only a few miles away in Toora.

But the Waratah North house was weatherboard and had fairly skimpy insulation (none under the wooden floor) and lots of single-pane glass, plus it had no ventilation other than through opening windows. Also the sun coming in faded the furniture and any other thing it fell on, so you had to be careful what you put in the room. The glare could be hard to bear at times as well. And the room which didn't get the direct sun got mouldy and musty.

The new house has a much more sophisticated solar heating (and cooling) system. While the sun can come into one bedroom and a corner of the living room directly, most of the heating will be via a solar air heater on the roof from which air will be blown by a fan down under the concrete slab floor and through a rock pile heat store, which being fairly massive (around one hundred tonnes) will hold the heat and release it slowly up through the concrete slab. A second, separate solar heater will draw stale air from the house via a system of ducts such as you would find in large commercial buildings and before venting it outside it will pass through a heat exchanger where it will heat incoming fresh air. The house will have lots of interior thermal mass, well insulated from the outside, and double glazed windows throughout.

In summer the same solar powered air extractor will draw air up through the rock pile (which will cool the hot exterior air on very hot days). There will also be a solar hot water heater. The toilet will be a composting type so we can recycle waste into the garden and cut down on water usage and disposal. All our water will be collected from the roof of the house and carport/workshop and stored in a large 90,000 litre concrete tank which we've just had constructed. We had a similar setup at Waratah North and the water from our concrete tanks there was like champagne! The water will be pumped to a small header tank on a stand via a small solar powered electric pump — no noisy pressure pump which stops running if the power goes off leaving you with no water.

The advantage of this heating/cooling setup is I can build it and maintain it all myself. There are no microprocessors involved and the highest tech items will be some fans and an electric pump.

As for the construction of the house, it will have a series of flat roofs made of the kind of material developed for big commercial buildings using insulation glued between two metal sheets. It can span a large distance which cuts down on most of the carpentry needed for roof framing. The outside walls will be corrugated colourbond mostly, fixed to treated prefabricated stud walls and heavily insulated, with a couple of timber finished walls in the courtyard to cut down the harshness of the finish. The colourbond is low maintenance and cheap, plus a good material for our fire vulnerable site on the edge of town.

The floors will be concrete slabs for thermal mass and silence! We are planning for rammed earth interior walls for thermal mass as well.

No windows on the east or west walls and only one glazed entrance facing west in the courtyard under a roof overhang. All windows are well under eaves (we're starting to get more frequent large hailstone events). No lawn! The north facing windows (which are all on the ground floor) are protected by stone courtyard walls from any possible fire. I've got to figure out how to glaze the solar heat collector with strong enough, long lived material at a reasonable cost.

It's not a simple house at all, but hopefully by limiting the amount of plumbing and not going stupid with the kitchen (fortunately I can build all this!) we won't shoot ourselves down financially.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On building a house in town

My wife and I are building a house. I've done it before and I've helped others build their own places. Every house is a compromise, just like anything else in life. I'm designing it in Google Sketchup because I wanted to try doing a house in 3-D CAD. If you think it's a cool way to design a house be warned: it's extremely time consuming. The good thing is you can design every little detail before you start: the bad thing is that you do! House plans are generally very abstract sketches showing no more than is necessary, because a builder knows how to build — they just need shape and size specified. But a 3-D CAD is something far more complex and formidable.One reason to do it this way is that it won't be a normal house. I think like an engineer making something for the very first time and novelty is something where you need to show lots of detail in order to work through any problems. That doesn't guarantee you'll get it right though.
I like designing. But it isn't necessary. We could have bought an old place and fixed it up and it would have been fine. We could have gone on renting — I've got plenty of other things I could be doing with my time. But building a house gives a sense of direction for me. I'm involved in lots of community stuff but I'm not really good at it. Or maybe I'm better than I think I am, but I don't feel all that comfortable with it. Otherwise I would be a politician.

I abandoned the dominant religion of our industrial civilisation, Heroic Materialism, in my late teens and early twenties but like a child brought up a Catholic, I was and am a product of my time. The future will need different philosophies and different spiritual and intellectual anchors, but this is what I do — designing and building.

I am very aware that the context for our house is as crucial as the building itself. That's where things become a lot more uncertain. Will our little town be a good place to live for another twenty or so years? Things like that are hard to judge because we are looking at big changes in our world, a world which we hardly understand now! However if we don't owe money and are reasonably healthy and active I'm sure we can get by. One of the great pluses of living here is that there no social tensions or crime worth speaking of, and another is lots of well-meaning and like minded souls who are willing to put in lots of effort on community projects.

So I feel investing a lot of work and money in a house is a reasonable risk.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cogito ego sum — our major thinking error

So my dears, What Is To Be Done about climate change? I follow the arguments in the online media, mainly the ABC news site plus BBC news, Guardian online, The Oil Drum and in case you're thinking what a narrow little latte leftist I am, I read Mish Shedlock several times a day plus take a look at Gary North every now and then. Amidst all the sturm und drang it seems to me one thing stands out: people want to win arguments. And for many of them, the confusion between belief and reality seems not at all clear, and only the argument seems real.

For the so called deniers, it often seems that their distaste for what they see as parasitic leftist types drives the agenda. Deniers hardly ever argue the real science (constantly quoting the most dodgy and discredited arguments and introducing red herrings willy-nilly), but go straight for the man. The motives of these climate doomers? Keeping their grant money pouring in by tickling the dominant scientific paradigm! So how can you trust anything these bearded blood-suckers say? Burn them all!

For many on the other side, the argument is merely a mirror image. Social progress and the saving of the whole of creation is being stymied by an evil plot! Hummer driving gun-nuts paid for by sinister transnational corporations are the enemy: may they all be lifted up in the Rapture only to be turned back at the Pearly Gates and thrust down into Hell! (Which of course we don't believe in, except for these special cases who deserve it!).

Both sides believe if we can win enough hearts and minds, the Kingdom will be reached! The lion will lie down with the lamb etc. and so on…

My reaction, I'm sorry to say, is to yawn. Why? Because nothing will be done! I repeat, nothing will or can be done about climate change or greenhouse gases in any real way. Copenhagen collapsed. Why? The terrible Chinese and Indians! Phew! All the pollies had someone else to blame. Because if those baddies hadn't stood up and done it, someone else would have had to. We all think in binary terms — good and evil — hot and cold. Either something is, or it isn't. But unfortunately climate change (which may well be partly or wholly anthropogenic) is something which no-one wants to do anything about at a personal level. We want someone to solve it — yes! We want cuddly polar bears to live and whales to swim free and the poor and ignorant to see the light and get a job in customer service, but underneath it all, deep down, we all know the Truth. We all realise that there are too many of us. And we'll be damned if we're going to jump under the bus to save all those lesser types. So we must find villains to blame (whatever side we are on). Anything to avoid facing the predicament we are in. Because we can't go on in such numbers!

Oh yes, the problem will be solved. "Nature this passionless spectator this unbreakable iceberg face that can bear anything"* — dear old Mother Nature will adjust, and perhaps the human race will survive and perhaps it wont. It will not matter what any possible human survivors think or believe though, but only where they are and what they do. Because in the real world, there is no justice, there are only outcomes.

*The Marquis de Sade in Peter Weiss's "Marat Sade"

Friday, February 26, 2010

Max Keiser kicks ass again!

Good interview with a rather exhausted looking and sounding Steve Keen (who I saw the other day at Swinburne Lilydale) talking about the prospects for the Australian economy with the always amazing Max Keiser…

Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to deal with failure

Some great stuff out there on the web: Ran Prieur has posted this link to an article, The Misanthrope’s Guide to the End of the World by Venkat who writes a blog called ribbonfarm.com. There are some natural born thinkers out there who can riff on the subject of their choice in a very entertaining fashion: another is Anatoly Karlin who writes Sublime Oblivion which I've linked to on my link list. Anatoly has a great post on TEOTWAWKI too: The Final Gambit: Geoengineering.

But while it's good after-dinner fun to plunge into these heady spaces with a friend or two and some glasses of red, this is all about the world we are actually going to wake up to in the morning. Now it may be, gentle readers, that you are living lives in which you are wonderfully happy and in which you have control over your direction, your finances and the well-being of yourself and your Significant Others. Well if that is so, good on you. But we are talking about the business of failure here — the failure of an entire civilisation — and while failure may be an abstraction in an argument or discussion, in real life it acts through the lives of individuals — like us.

It's never so clear cut when it happens in our lives. It's harder to separate out the bit that's the failure of civilisation from our own weak character when we fail at the job interview/running a profitable small business/attempting to stop our kid joining the Moonies.

So this is the way the end of our civilisation will be seen by us, as a personal problem. We personally will have been too lazy, too materialistic, too non-materialistic, too far from God…and those who rule the media will ram the message home! People like Rupert Murdoch, Dark Lord of News Limited and friend of the downtrodden. And what about the young people? Why aren't they working & studying harder/giving more/being more optimistic/more politically active? For goodness sake — look at what the government is spending, just in our little town of Foster, on facilities for them! Millions! A new secondary school (which to me looks poorly designed and hopeless, energy-wise), a big new building at the primary school (did they need it? I don't think so, but as long as builder's labourers have the money to put a deposit down on a Ford or Holden V-8 ute, perhaps the empire can be maintained…). Meanwhile in Psychology Today, an article entitled The Dramatic Rise of Anxiety and Depression in Children and Adolescents: Is It Connected to the Decline in Play and Rise in Schooling? is published. Hmm.

I think it's time to stop trusting in the Powerful View ("What's best for them is best for you!"). Start a transition group in your area and see what fellow-creatures come out of the woodwork. Good luck!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thinking about "Avatar"

Ran Prieur has a good post about "Avatar", which I saw a couple of weeks ago at our local cinema. When I saw it I was somewhat taken aback by the heart-on-the-sleeve anti-industrial-exploitation-and-anti-imperialist stance, coming from the heart of the beast so to speak. My first thought was: how do you get the kids to join the Marines after they've watched "Avatar"? The "bad" characters were well drawn: the boss of the mine and the tough bastard in charge of security. The ordinary soldiers were also portrayed as "just like us" which added to the moral dilemma for the audience.

There was nothing original in the plot, but for a mainstream blockbuster to come right out and show the dynamics of the destruction wrought by our industrial civilisation so clearly and emotionally was, as far as I can remember, a first.

Many years ago I worked in the oil industry in Asia and saw all this sort of thing happening firsthand. What struck me at that time was how dependent we all are on this system for our wealth, and how ignorant most people were (and still are!) about how it works. Later, in the eighties, I was involved in the conservation movement at a political level and even there the gap between what people said they believed and how they actually lived amazed me. Like caring about East Gippsland forests but seeing nothing wrong with jetting off around the world for a casual holiday.

I hope I'm not coming across as a moralising extremist, because I think our problem lies not in struggling to be "pure" in some extreme way, but in seeing the embeddedness of our lives in a complex system which we have built, but which none of us understand or control and which has us all hostage. The most innocent of our actions have great moral consequences, such as buying a mobile phone which uses materials obtained from Congolese warlords, thus helping finance one of the most appalling conflicts on the planet.

What is the answer? "Avatar" certainly had none — the movie was made by the very system which it criticises and the ending is ridiculous. I think the real answer is both darker and in some ways easier than we would like: no great moral revolution, but a running down of the system back to a level of relative powerlessness, with no change in human nature at its core.

The "system" as it is, runs on the inchoate desires of us all. We get the political systems and politicians we "deserve" because very often they represent the various poles of our unresolved moral dilemmas, and we project the "otherness" of the parts of ourselves we can't handle onto those we see as our political foes, and over-idealise our political friends who stand for all our "good" bits. This is a childish morality which is undoing the sense of community which we need to preserve our present social systems, and it stems from a childish relationship to the forces which control our lives — necessarily, because we hardly understand them! Thus the system falls apart in yet another way, adding to resource depletion and overpopulation.

Thus the wheel revolves and the great cycle of nature takes its course.