Friday, June 13, 2008

Pages Of Your Book On Fire

A few news items caught my eye this week. First, Washington D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Adrian Fenty recently announced the launch of a program to impose “neighborhood safety zones” in the D.C. area as part of their strategy to “curb violent crime.” The “safety zones” are manned by D.C. police who seal off designated neighborhoods, establishing checkpoints at places of entry and exit into these neighborhoods, demanding proof of identification for anyone found outdoors in the neighborhoods, and arresting or removing anyone lacking a “legitimate reason” to be there. During the first week of this program, officers were sent to the safety zone checkpoints (barricades, actually) without proper training in constitutional rights, according to news accounts. The first neighborhood safety zone has been set up in the Trinidad neighborhood, whose population is primarily black. (Source: “Lanier plans to seal off rough 'hoods in latest effort to stop wave of violence,” The Examiner, 4 June 2008,

Of course, this implies that the politicians who run D.C. believe, or want the public to believe, that those who commit crimes in their city are mainly black. This is reflective of a larger bias in the American criminal justice system, which st
ops, arrests, prosecutes and sentences members of minorities with far more severity than the rest of the population. In fact, minority males who commit a crime are likely to receive much stiffer sentences than non-minority males convicted of the same crime. A large part of the disparity in arrests and sentencing is due to the so-called national “war on drugs” which has been waged since the 1970's in the U.S. Though statistics show that crimes perpetrated by black and other minority persons as a percentage of the total minority population are the same or less than crimes perpetrated by whites, law enforcement is primarily targeted toward black and minority neighborhoods. As a result, as many as one in three young black males is in prison, serving a long and harsh sentence. (Sources: “Racially Disproportionate Drug Arrests,” Human Rights Watch,; “The war on drugs' war on minorities,” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 2007,,1,3333535.story?coll=la-news-comment) (As an example, in 2006, teen actor Haley Joel Osment was arrested after a car crash for drug possession and driving while intoxicated. He was sentenced to three years probation, 60 hours in an alcohol rehabilitation and education program, a fine of $1500, and a minimum requirement of 26 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings over a six-month period. What do you suppose would have happened to me if I had been arrested for the same offense?)

This failure of our supposed system of equal justice is rivaled only by the failure of Federal law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute banks involved in steering minority families into predatory subprime mortgages. To be sure, the present mortgage meltdown has claimed a lot of victims from every background who wanted more than they could afford, and who thought they could get something for nothing. But the subprime market was targeted primarily at minorities, who were “steered” into subprime mortgages at a rate of 55 percent of black Americans versus 17 percent of whites. This took place even when the minority applicants could have qualified for a traditional mortgage with a lower interest rate. (Source: “Federal Reserve Study Finds Race Played Role In Steering Home Owners to High Interest Sub Prime Mortgage,” Gant Daily, 10 March 2008,

But these items are merely signs that the oligarchs who run our society are happy to demonize, dehumanize and victimize those who are different from them. Those readers who are not from a minority background, and who are not (yet) poor should not grow smug or complacent, because they may be next in line for victimhood, as the people at the top of our economic system feed more desperately on those lower down. In his book, Reinventing Collapse, Dmitri Orlov has written a section titled “World's Jailers,” in which he describes how the American judicial system works well only for those who are rich. That system is perilous for the poor, no matter their color or ethnic background. Unfortunately, as the global energy crisis deepens and world petroleum extraction rates fall, more and more of us will become poor. More and more of us will become fair game for the rich, who will use every method to get what they want from us, even if it means using the courts to rob us of property or rights that are justly and rightly ours.

One of Orlov's more chilling statements is this: “If life without money is to become more normal for most people in the U.S, then it seems inevitable that the flow of humanity will become bifurcated. Those who are most helpless will find themselves on the inside (as in locked up), in institutional settings such as jails, asylums and hastily organized camps for the internally displaced...” As the global economy continues to unravel, and the U.S. economy with it, American society will become increasingly disordered, swelling the ranks of the suddenly poor and helpless. Many of these, being people who were formerly well off, will be very surprised that they are now being institutionalized.

And speaking of disordered societies, the second news item I noticed was the increasing severity of fuel price protests and strikes in Europe this week. Truckers in Spain and Portugal are striking, blockading shipping terminals, factories and large retail supply warehouses. Violent protests in Spain and Portugal have claimed at least two lives. Protests are spreading throughout Asian countries and India. A four-day truckers' strike began in Britain today.

Ostensibly the protests are about the burden placed on working class people by the high cost of fuel, which is coming on top of rising costs of food and other basic necessities. But that is only part of the story. The truth is that high and rising petroleum fuel costs are due to basic supply constraints caused by depletion of existing oil fields and the lack of new fields with sizes sufficient to satisfy global petroleum demand. We are at Peak Oil now. From here on, daily global petroleum production will decline, and there is nothing we can do about it. The well is running dry. This will lead to hardship and a forced change in the lives of almost everyone.

But hardship and forced changes are much easier to take when people honestly face the coming changes. The preparation is first and foremost a mental one, though practical details do follow afterward. So it was that England did so well during World War II under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who told the British people the truth about the world in which they found themselves, the threat they faced, and the steps they needed to take to deal with that threat. Therefore, the British faced their hardship by a heady dose of realism. There have been other times during the 20th century in which heads of state told difficult truths to their people, and the people successfully prepared themselves for difficulty.

The last time a head of any government tried to tell his people honestly about dwindling energy supplies, that head of state was President Jimmy Carter, and his message was that we Americans would have to learn to live well on less. Unfortunately, President Carter was unpopular due to his almost losing the Cold War, but his unpopularity on that front gave Americans a convenient excuse to throw away his talk of learning to live on less. Since then, no American politician has seriously talked about making realistic preparations for the times now upon us. Rather, both American and foreign politicians and media outlets have been trained by their corporate masters to deliver a message that happy times are here to stay, and that the sensible thing to do is to spend and consume our lives away. What we are seeing in the rest of the world is simply the reaction to hard times on the part of people who have not been mentally prepared for those hard times by a strong dose of truth telling. Thankfully, there is much good information on the Internet for those who want a straight dose of the truth. Yet the worldwide protests show how few people have availed themselves of that information. What will people do when things get much worse in the U.S.?

And that leads me to the third bit of news: the Weekly Petroleum Status Report published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy. According to the EIA, weekly petroleum inventories in the U.S. have been falling by between 3 and 9 million barrels per week for the last four weeks. According to the weekly report published on 11 June 2008, U.S. crude oil inventories stand at 302.2 million barrels. This is troubling news. First, it means that the U.S. has been unable to produce enough of its own oil or import enough oil from other countries to meet U.S. demand; therefore we are now drawing down our own stored reserves. Secondly, only a small portion of that 302.2 million barrels is actually a reserve. 270 million barrels is the minimum operating level that must be in the system of U.S. refineries and processing plants at all times. If U.S. stocks dip below 270 million barrels, then refineries have to start shutting down.

And right now, it is becoming more and more difficult to import oil from other nations, as demand throughout the world increases and supplies are exhausted. We could therefore be facing a situation within the next 6 weeks to two months in which we experience a sudden super-spike in oil prices and corresponding price increases for finished petroleum products like gasoline and diesel fuel, and we could even begin to see significant shortages in the U.S. I do not pretend to be an oil industry expert; I'm just a “peak oil junkie.” But I'd be making plans for dealing with interesting times, if I were you.

* * *

Ah, but what shall I say about this city in which I now live? There are many days where its downtown seems like a jewel, its bridges spanning its rivers like precious metal rings encircling gilded fingers. I certainly enjoy this place more than Southern California, and am happy for my job transfer, even though it's colder here and much rainier. For one thing, it's much easier to commute by bicycle here than it was there, where most drivers seemed only a hairsbreadth away from throwing murderous tantrums with their outsized, overpowered monster vehicles. There are tons of farmers' markets here, because there are still lots of farmers here, whereas most land in Southern California only grows houses and strip malls now. Public transportation is much more accessible and convenient here, whereas in Southern California, you can get to many places faster by walking than you can by bus. There are many people here practicing the healthy habits that serve to make a life collapse-proof: self-sufficiency, reducing car dependence, gardening for food, creation of local culture, and so on.

Yet is this place the sort of enduring jewel, the hard, beautiful, costly rock that can endure the testing that is about to come on all of us? Is it resilient enough? Do enough people here “get it?” Or will this city prove to be like a jewel made of rock candy in a hard rain? Such a question is only fitting at the end of a week in which WTI crude hovers above $130 a barrel.

And what shall I say about Southern California where I am from? To what shall I compare it? What image, what metaphor will suffice?

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