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Minister Rudd last year saying he made "no apologies" for a big Australia, but running away from that comment now) has been replaced by a much more measured and sombre view — the comments by the chief executive of the ANZ Bank on the "contagion" from the Greek collapse are a case in point.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.