Sunday, November 29, 2009

Small-Scale Manufacturing and Digital Fabbers - The Question of Electronics

One of the consequences of the decline of available fossil-fuel energy is the contraction of our large-scale, global industrial economy. The decline in supplies of fossil fuels will make globalism prohibitively expensive as time goes on, due to the ever-increasing energy cost of shipping bulk-manufactured goods thousands of miles from their point of manufacture to their point of final sale. Many elements of modern society will therefore only survive via the revival of local, small-scale manufacture of goods.

The creation of small-scale, do-it-yourself digital fabricators (referred to from here on as “fabbers”), has been promoted as a key to the revival of modern-day small-scale manufacturing. According to many fabber proponents and enthusiasts, the rise of fabbers promises to do for manufacturing what inexpensive consumer entertainment electronics did for the creation of media. Whereas cheap consumer electronics enabled everyone to be a potential creator of art, education or entertainment, fabbers might enable everyone to be a potential creator of useful manufactured goods.

But for fabbers to serve as a true long-term solution to the breakdown of centralized industrial production, they must be able to create everything needed for sustainable localized economies – including parts to make more fabbers. To the extent that the making of fabbers requires parts or components that can only be made by large-scale plants in today's economy, to that extent fabbers are not really sustainable. One item of concern is thus the microelectronic components used to control fabbers, as these microelectronic controllers are now made in large, energy-intensive semiconductor chip plants. There are many issues of concern for those who want to try making microprocessors on a small scale, such as the very demanding and exacting conditions required for manufacture (vacuum chambers, ultrapure materials and clean rooms), and the energy required to achieve these conditions.

These conditions apply to all semiconductor-based microelectronics, though their impact varies depending on whether we are considering organic or inorganic semiconductor materials. Today's post will consider manufacture of inorganic semiconductor microelectronics. In this post, I do not promise to come to definite conclusions, but rather to raise important questions. It seems to me that these questions are too often not addressed by those who enthusiastically promote a “fabber revolution” as a solution to economic collapse. My posts on this topic are designed to provoke a conversation on this subject. There are four questions which I'd like to see addressed:

The Question of Energy

Almost all semiconductors in use at present are inorganic. (Liquid-crystal displays, some flat-panel screens and some RFID tags are notable exceptions.) Most inorganic semiconductor electronics are silicon-based.

In its natural form, silicon is literally dirt-cheap. However, the silicon found in sand and dirt is not nearly pure enough for use in high-speed electronics. The process of purification is not nearly as cheap. Metallurgical grade silicon (98 percent pure and above) is created by the reaction of high purity silica with other materials in an electric arc furnace heated to over 1900 degrees C. A method also exists for extracting pure silicon (purity greater than 99 percent) from silica by molten salt electrolysis. But this process also requires high temperatures (around 900 degrees C).

Electronic-grade silicon must be millions of times purer than 99 percent pure. The processes of this purification start with the aforementioned metallurgical grade silicon as a feedstock. They are all very energy-intensive, with the Siemens process (Chemical Vapor Deposition) having the highest energy requirement. Getting from beach sand to electronic-grade silicon is not cheap!

Once the silicon is at the right purity, it must be doped with trace elements in order to produce the desired semiconducting properties. This process is also energy and equipment-intensive, and requires a vacuum chamber containing pure silicon rods heated to 1000 degrees C. Many of the dopant chemicals are extremely poisonous, and some are also explosive.

Once the properly doped silicon has been created, it is cut into wafers which are etched and deposited with other dopants and contact metals in vacuum chambers in order to make the final microelectronic chips used in almost all modern digital devices. The processes of this manufacture are all quite expensive, both in labor, capital (machinery required) and energy. Modern digital devices are as cheap as they are simply because not much semiconductor material is needed anymore in order to make chips of great computational power. Yet energy is generally becoming more expensive as time passes, and shortages of dopant materials are also beginning to appear.

The Question of Dopants (And Other Exotic Materials)

The dopants used to alter the conducting properties of silicon and other semiconductors are themselves hard to find, hard to mine and relatively scarce in many cases. Antimony is one such dopant, used for both silicon and germanium semiconductors, and it has found extensive use in newly developed rewritable memory for digital devices. Most of the remaining antimony in the world is produced by China, and there is no U.S. domestic antimony production. Gallium is another material whose manufacturing users experienced a recent shortage, as was the case with indium also. Thallium is yet another metal whose supply has become constrained at nearly the same time that demand for the metal has increased. Many dopants and other industrial metals have witnessed Hubbert production peaks and are now in decline.

It may be that the electronics industry will experience a dead end in the use of certain elements within the next few decades, as the available supplies of these elements run out. This will mean a stop to the making of microelectronics that depend on these elements for doping. If continued advances in electronics are to continue, the industry will have to find alternatives to expensively produced inorganic semiconductors doped with scarce materials.

Hope On The Horizon? (The Promise of Exotic Materials)

Within the last few years, there have been exciting announcements of the discovery of exotic forms of common materials, forms whose properties hold the possibility of creating wonder microelectronics which don't need exotic dopants. One such development is the creation of silicon nanotubes, which have recently been fabricated into dopant-free nanotransistors by crossing the nanowires over each other and adding tiny metal contacts known as “Schottky contacts.”

However, the creation of these exotic nanowires requires a correspondingly exotic process. The first step is the production of silane from metallurgical grade silicon at a temperature exceeding 300 degrees C. The resulting silane is pyrophoric and explosive, and must be carefully handled. Then the silane is passed over a metal catalyst in a special chamber heated to at least 400 degrees C. This step is what produces the silicon nanowires. While the process can yield nano-transistors and other nano-components that do not require dopants, the process itself is still quite energy-intensive. One publication states that the silicon nanowire breakthrough may lead to “printable electronics” that can be produced by an inkjet printer. I myself am a bit skeptical. If someone could kindly explain to me how this would work, I would happily listen.

Concluding Questions:

The promoters of one particular fabber project state that their concept is the key to “wealth without money,” and that a society supplied by fabbers can “create wealth with a minimal need for industrial manufacturing.” They even talk of a society that is able to provide its own stocks of raw materials by turning crops into polymer feedstocks for fabrication by their fabbers, so that a cycle of wealth could be perpetuated (while reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time – a neat bargain!).

I remain unconvinced (but not dogmatically so). I think that, at least as far as energy and the resource-intensive microelectronics needed to run these fabbers, their promoters have overlooked the effects of looming scarcity, and the difficulties posed by the breakdown of our present industrial society. Has anyone made a do-it-yourself garage fabber that can make silicon nanowires? How about a DIY garage fabber that can even make metallic silicon? Are there fabbers that can make high-quality vacuum deposition chambers? Are there fabbers that can dope pure silicon without the risk of toxic gases leaking out and poisoning a few households in a neighborhood? Has anyone rigorously addressed the problem of obtaining large supplies of metallic silicon in an energy-constrained future? (This is the BIG question.) Most importantly, how much energy will all of this take? How long will we retain access to that kind of energy? The future I envision for electronics looks rather different from that of the optimists, but I would welcome further discussion and enlightenment on this subject, including some more rigorous numerical analyses.

The next time I address this topic, we will consider organic (polymeric) electronics. Stay tuned...


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Year Of Consequences

There has been much to chew on recently for those who have been following the discussion of limits to global oil production. The latest round of news started with the widely publicized news that two unidentified whistleblowers from the International Energy Agency were accusing the agency of painting a much more optimistic picture of remaining petroleum reserves than is warranted by the facts. According to the whistleblowers, it was pressure from the United States that induced the IEA to make misleading and false statements, in order to prevent “panic” or the emergence of threats to American access to the world's oil supplies.

This was followed by a statement from Professor Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University in Sweden, in which he flatly stated that the IEA prediction of 105 million barrels per day by 2030 is “unrealistic.” In Mr. Aleklett's view, global petroleum production is more likely to be 75 million barrels a day in 2030. The salient point of the Uppsala forecast is that in their view, global oil production has already passed its peak, and will decline from here onward.

An increasing number of independent analysts, academics and oil industry insiders is saying the same thing – that the world has passed Peak Oil and that we are now living in the twilight of the petroleum age. More and more “coal mine canaries” are singing from the same sheet of music. The only matter of debate among these experts is whether the decline will be gentle and lengthy, or whether it will be drastic and sudden.

I'm not an oil industry expert or a geologist. But I have always been partial to the Oil Report of the German Energy Watch Group. Part of my preference has been that this report contained some pretty drastic near-term predictions, and thus it would be easy to see fairly soon whether the Energy Watch Group was on the right track. Their salient prediction was that global petroleum liquids production (consisting of the sum of conventional crude, natural gas liquids, “oil” from tar sands, and biofuels) would shrink from around 85 million barrels per day in 2007 to around 58 million barrels per day by 2020. This is a fairly steep decline, and if the Oil Report is correct, we should begin to see the proof fairly soon.

Now another analyst has generated a report containing similarly drastic predictions. Tony Erickson, a volunteer analyst at the website The Oil Drum, has just posted his latest “World Oil Production Forecast - Update November 2009‎.” His key points are that crude oil production (excluding biofuels) has already peaked, and that global oil production will decline by 2.2 million barrels per day each year between now and the end of 2012. Thus the German Energy Watch Group has been joined by another voice predicting a drastic near-term drop in global oil production.

If Mr. Erickson is correct, this means that by the end of 2010, the world will be producing 2.2 million barrels per day less than it is producing now. Due to the critical role of oil and petroleum products in the global economy, this means the very real probability that the global economy will shrink involuntarily and uncontrollably. Many things that people in the First World are used to having will become much more expensive and/or unavailable. 2010 may well be the year of another oil price superspike. Thinking of the implications for the fragile global economy may wreck your sleep tonight.

In America, many of us may have to make sudden, drastic adjustments for which most of us have not been forewarned, and which most would have rationalized away even had they known. Whereas some European nations like Germany and the Netherlands will be structurally more suited to a world of lower energy (think bicycles and mass transit, just for starters), we may find ourselves scrounging for hastily thrown-together means of adaptation. Better make sure your bike has a good lock.

Some might say that predictions like these are unnecessarily “alarmist” or even “apocalyptic.” Maybe so, maybe not. We won't have long to wait to find out. As Wallace Stevens once wrote, “Let be be the finale of seem...”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The War Against Resilient People

Sometimes, I feel so low down and disgusted,

Can't help but wonder what's been happening to my companions.

Are they lost or are they found?

Have they counted the cost it'll take to bring down

All their earthly principles they're gonna have to abandon?

Bob Dylan, Slow Train Coming

I'm not yet ready with a follow-up post on fabbers and small-scale manufacturing (I have to work a bit this weekend, just like last weekend), but I thought I'd comment on a couple of news stories I saw this weekend. There's the latest mainstream media report on backyard chickens, from USA Today: “Chickens come home to roost in backyards around the USA.” The article contains the usual photos of blond-haired children cuddling feathered “pets,” as well as listing the familiar benefits of increased food self-sufficiency.

But it also contains statements by politicians in various locales who oppose allowing city dwellers to have backyard chickens. Their objections are ostensibly about the potential for odor, nuisances, abandoned animals and unsanitary conditions. But Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey was quite a bit more honest about the real reasons for her opposition: her fears that the achieving of food self-sufficiency by city dwellers might undercut “regional” farmers in her state.

Then there's this article, “Saving The Bed-Stuy Farm,” about a New York inner-city urban farm that is now being threatened with demolition in order to make way for “affordable housing.” The trouble is that the farm has allowed many urban poor people to have inexpensive access to good, healthy food, whereas the “affordable” housing that threatens to replace the farm will most likely simply be “affordable” only in the initial terms of the loans issued to first-time buyers. The housing itself will probably be overpriced in terms of dollar amounts, and will require decades of payments in excess of $1000 a month for homeowners to pay off the loans they incur in order to buy this housing.

The icing on the cake is this item: “Senate Democrats Assured Of 60 Votes To Debate Health Bill.” The so-called health care “reform” legislation they are debating is not really about reform, but will require all Americans to buy health insurance. The only provision for any sort of publicly funded health care is the possibility that the Federal government might provide health “insurance” for people to buy. If the insurance industry can kill that provision, then “health care reform” will mean nothing more than forcing all Americans to give their money to private, for-profit insurance companies. These companies have embarked on a policy of raising their premiums at a rate that far exceeds the rate of inflation. The passage of this legislation will bankrupt large numbers of poor Americans.

The only real sort of health-care reform – a single payer system funded entirely by the U.S. Government – was never even considered by the people in Washington, who are much more interested in spending taxpayer dollars on bailing out gambling-addict mega-bankers, fighting unjust wars, and buying toys for the Department of Homeland Security, who now have their own police force patrolling the streets of major American cities like Portland, Oregon.

All of this is a sorry, yet accurate proof of a statement I made long ago on this blog, that we live and function under a corporatist system that forces as many people as possible into dependence on it, and that it actively opposes anyone who would create a safety net of alternative systems. Yet we seem to love it so. People I talk to at work don't pay much attention to politics or other deeper issues. Anymore, when I talk to them I can see the eyes of many of them glaze over. Maybe it's because they're lazy, or because they're scared of the unpleasant truths they'd have to confront if they did pay attention to deeper issues. Lately, I keep most of my thoughts entirely in my head.

I go to the store, and when I see the magazines in the magazine section, most of them are aimed at getting grown-up adolescents to buy stuff. When I get to the checkout counter, all of the magazines there are taken up with sex and celebrity – full of pictures of airhead doofus adolescent “grown-ups” consumed with their own “cuteness.” This is becoming true even at places like Whole Foods Market and New Seasons – stores which used to prominently feature magazines like Utne, Yes, Adbusters and Mother Jones. Even the so-called “progressive” flavor of mainstream media is increasingly used to maintain a corporatist status quo. The word “progressive” is being redefined to remove any threat to the continued concentration of wealth in the hands of an unrighteous few. The victims of these wealthy are increasingly left without a voice. Yes, there are blogs – but it seems at times that no one reads blogs.

Sometimes I feel so low down and disgusted...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Place In Fabland?

Several months ago, I wrote a series of posts discussing small-scale manufacturing as part of a strategy of adaptation to economic collapse due to Peak Oil. My position then was that small-scale manufacturing would primarily be employed to make the simple low-tech tools needed for a much simpler life. In this role, it would enable us to continue to have reasonable access to things such as hand tools and bicycles. I had not seriously considered small-scale manufacturing as a means of maintaining widespread access to the gadgets that define modern life in advanced industrial society. But that was before I knew much about the global community of “fabbers.” As I wrote my earlier series, I devoted a small amount of space to the fabber phenomenon, but I didn't have time to do it justice. A couple of news articles over the last month have caused me to turn back again for a more complete exploration of this subject.

According to Wikipedia, a digital fabricator (also known as a “fabber” or “fab”) is basically a “small, self-contained factory that can make objects described by digital data.” According to many enthusiasts, fabbers have great potential for democratization of the means of production in industrial society. This is because of the following advances:

  • The invention of small, inexpensive machines capable of producing three-dimensional parts

  • The digital definition of three-dimensional part manufacture as an act of three-dimensional printing

  • Increases in computational power of consumer electronics, including PC's and printers

  • And lastly, the invention and widespread availability of new materials that can be easily formed, machined and “printed” into parts, in ordinary, non-clean room environments.

All of these things are now being combined into machines that promise to do for manufacturing what cheap and powerful consumer electronics have done for media. As powerful and inexpensive consumer electronics have combined with the Internet to turn everyone into a potential creator of entertainment or news or art, so the digital fabber revolution promises to turn everyone into a potential creator of useful manufactured goods. Just as the consumer electronics revolution has weakened the power of traditional producers of media, so the fabber revolution has the power to displace traditional, capital-intensive, large-scale manufacture of goods.

Thus some fabber enthusiasts tout these machines as technological miracles that will enable every garage to be a high-tech small-scale manufacturer of high-tech products. These devices are put forward as the definitive answer to our present economic collapse, and the key to continued prosperity over the long haul. But are they all these things after all? Are they any of these things? If fabbers are the miracle that their enthusiasts claim, this leads to a near-term future that potentially looks quite different from the darker future of enforced simplicity and technological retreat envisioned by many collapse-watchers.

What role will the fabber revolution play in the near-term future of industrial society, particularly in the First World? How will the fulfillment of that role affect our society farther on, over the next several centuries? Do fabbers have the potential to preserve widespread access to highly advanced manufactured goods? Or are there limits on all advanced industrial activity that ensure a collapse of industrial society? I'm sure that everyone has their own, instinctive, gut-level answer to these questions. Yet such gut-level responses must be examined to determine whether they are fact-based or merely faith (or sometimes, wish) based.

I don't know that I will be able to offer a definitive answer to these questions. But I thought a good starting point would be to lay out what we already know about fabbers, and to put forth pertinent questions that would have to be answered in order to accurately define the true potential of fabbers in dealing with our present collapse. My observations and pertinent questions are listed below, in outline form:

  1. What can fabbers make now? (These are things whose manufacture has been reliably and repeatedly demonstrated.)

  • Gross machine parts made of plastic and some metals

  • Rudimentary control components, such as “printed circuits”

  • Objects d'art

  1. What things can fabbers not make now?

  • Ultrapure microelectronic substrates (that is, substrates made from inorganic materials like silicon)

  • Inorganic microelectronic circuits (maybe a fabber will be developed that can do this, but it requires creating ultrapure “clean room” conditions inside the average Joe's garage)

  • Other fabbers. (They can make most of the machine tool parts, but they can't yet make the microelectronics used in control of fabbers.)

  • Note: if fabbers are only practically useful when they have great computing power (needed for rapidly fabricating complex parts in 3D), then one won't be able to use a fabber to build another fabber until a fabber can also produce all of its own control circuitry and microprocessors.

  1. What will fabbers will need in order to be self-replicating (or build their own replacements), with present-generation computational abilities?

  • Feedstocks of ultrapure materials

  • A source of electric energy

  1. Ultrapure inorganic materials as a restricting condition

  • Energy, Silicon and the Siemens process (and other processes). (All processes now used for purifying silicon and associated dopants, and combining these materials into appropriate semiconductors, require large amounts of energy. As access to fossil-fuel energy declines, these processes will become increasingly expensive.)

  • Other microelectronic ingredients, like dopants, are increasingly scarce

  • Less-pure forms of these materials are less and less remarkable, until in the limit, they are no more remarkable than the natural states of these materials. Useless for high-speed electronics below a certain level of purity. (Example: a galena crystal, commonly found in nature, can be used to build a crude AM radio receiver. But it takes much purer materials to build high-speed, high-performance microelectronics.)

  • If energy is the limiting factor in producing these materials, energy is a limiting factor in a “fabber” revolution.

  • Has any work been done in recycling microelectronics, beyond simply reclaiming the metals used in them? What is the energy cost in extracting and re-purifying the silicon, metals, dopants contained in an IC or larger chip?

  1. Question: In a resource-constrained future, can suitably fast microelectronics be printed using less exotic materials? Can these be easily programmed to provide the sort of production control currently exercised by the electronics in today's fabbers?

  • Answer: polymeric organic semiconductor materials are being developed for use in possible thin-film, printable microelectronics.

  • Transistors and integrated circuits have been made with these organic semiconductors. How fast can they be made to operate? Current silicon-based MOSFET's can be switched at speeds well over 1 GHz (one billion cycles per second). Can organic transistors and microcircuits be made as fast? At present, they are not. (Circuit speed is a factor in processor speed, and thus in the speed with which a fabber controlled by such a circuit can turn out complex parts.)

  • Are there impending resource limits on organic semiconductors?

6. In the spirit of the Precautionary Principle, are there any moral or ethical or other downsides to the fabber revolution? Are there potential negative outcomes or uses of this technology that haven't been widely forseen?

Anyway, those are the points for consideration that I was able to think of in a short time. Over the next several weeks, I may try to take a stab at a few of them, as time allows. Unfortunately, time doesn't allow this weekend, as I worked a bit extra on Friday and I have to go in again tomorrow for a few hours. If anyone else wants to take a stab at tackling these questions, feel free.

For further reading, check out these links:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Room Full Of Liars

It's been the talk of the blogosphere lately that there's been a lot of lyin' coming from the US Federal government. Of course, that's nothing new, and should surprise no one. Some very reputable have cited errors and outright fabrications regarding “official” unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as lies surrounding the true effect of the various stimulus packages.

I want to focus on the unearthing of another set of lies, regarding world oil reserves and production. Yesterday, the Guardian, a British newspaper, ran an article titled, Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower. According to two anonymous senior officials at the International Energy Agency, it seems that recent IEA World Energy Outlook reports have been distorted in order to present a more optimistic picture of remaining oil reserves and production figures than is warranted by the facts. This distortion is alleged to be due to pressure from the United States government, which wanted to suppress information that might damage financial markets. The pressuring of the IEA came from the Bush administration.

I'm not going to launch into a long denunciation of the IEA or of the US government in this post, although they certainly deserve it. I simply want to point out a pertinent suspicion: namely, that if the IEA has fudged remaining reserve figures, they have also probably been fudging monthly production numbers as well.

This is a suspicion which several Peak Oil watchers voiced in 2008, as oil spiked to $147 a barrel, even though IEA monthly figures seemed to indicate that global oil production was still increasing. I never was able to swallow that story. My reasoning is as follows: in 2007, global “petroleum liquids” production was around 85 million barrels a day. In the summer of 2007 the IEA announced that the world would need an extra 1.5 million barrels a day in order to avoid shortages and price spikes.

Now basic economics tells us that the price of a commodity is determined by the balance between supply and demand. When demand goes up, creating scarcity, the price also goes up until demand is limited by the higher price and supply and demand are again in balance at the higher price. Now, the global economy required a growth rate of around 2 to 3 percent per year in order for debt-based arrangements to hold together. Since energy is a foundational component of this economy, that means that energy supply needed to grow at the same rate in order to support the global economy. Oil is one of the main sources of energy for modern society, meaning that the oil supply also had to grow at a certain rate in order to support the economy without disruption.

The funny thing is that, according to the IEA, global “liquids” supply grew from 85 million barrels a day in the summer of 2007 to 88 million barrels a day in July 2008, which was the high point of the oil price spike. Yet if global supply had actually grown in step with global demand, the price should probably not have spiked at all, and certainly should not have spiked as much as it did. Something's fishy about the 88 million barrel per day number.

And that (along with the other lies we've been hearing about over the last few days) illustrates a further point. As our economic and energy situations continue to deteriorate, the masters of our present systems will present an increasingly distorted picture of our situation, a story that is increasingly disconnected from reality. They will do this so that they can maintain as much control and guard as much of their revenue streams as possible. Those who want to find out the truth about our situation will have to be good detectives. Those who don't care, who prefer to live disconnected from reality, will increasingly be surprised by the nasty intrusion of reality into their daily lives.

As for me, I'm a lot more inclined to believe the Oil report of the German Energy Watch Group, which says that global oil production has already peaked.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Scripture Lesson for Goldman Sachs (and their fat-cat brethren)

I'm working on upcoming blog posts on small-scale manufacturing and other technical subjects. This involves a bit of research, and nothing is ready yet, as I've been a bit tied up lately. I am also lining up more interviews with people who will hopefully be able to offer valuable insights into adapting to a post-Peak world.

But in the meantime, I'd like to comment on a story that caught my eye this week. It seems that some of the rich heads of some of the richest investment banks have recently been to church (maybe for the first time in years). Case in point: last month, the Anglican Church held a panel discussion at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The panel discussed “the place of morality in the marketplace.” Goldman Sachs International advisor Brian Griffiths was a prominent speaker at the event. (Source: “Goldman Sachs's Griffiths Says Inequality Helps All,” Bloomberg, 21 October 2009)

At that conference, Mr. Griffiths defended the bonuses planned for Goldman employees for 2009, bonuses so large that they average over $500,000 per capita. (This is at a time when the official unemployment rate in Britain is well over seven percent, and British income inequality is skyrocketing.) Here are some of his outstanding quotes: “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest...We have to tolerate...inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” In the days following, bankers from Barclays Plc and Lazard International visited several London churches, delivering messages such as “Profit is not satanic,” and “Is Christianity and banking compatible? Yes. And is Christianity and fair reward compatible? Yes.” (Source: “Profit `Not Satanic,' Barclays Says, After Goldman Invokes Jesus,” Bloomberg, 4 November 2009)

Now I don't claim to be an expert on theology, but I am an evangelical Christian, and I have read the Bible a few times, and I think these banksters are in error on a few points. First, the system of usury (lending at interest) on which modern First World banking is based, was prohibited among Jews in Old Testament Israel (although I believe they were allowed to lend at interest to the Gentiles). In the New Testament, indebtedness is generally discouraged. But there is also the curious defense of inequality by the rich bankster class, at a time when unemployment among the working classes is skyrocketing and fifty percent of all American children (ninety percent of all black American children, according to one source) will require food stamps during their childhood. (Source: “High number of US kids get food stamps,” WiredPR News, 4 November 2009)

The Bible actually has some very negative things to say about inequality, especially that inequality that comes from cheating one's fellows. Yet from the remarks by the banksters, it seems they didn't read those things. So in order to save the banksters from making one Hell of a mistake (this is not frivolous swearing; I mean it literally), I have decided to post a pertinent passage from the Good Book (not that I expect them to read it):

Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, living in luxury every day. A certain beggar, named Lazarus, was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Yes, even the dogs came and licked his sores.

It happened that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his bosom. He cried and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue! For I am in anguish in this flame.”

But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But now here he is comforted and you are in anguish. Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

He said, “I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house; for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won’t also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said to him, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent. He said to him, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.” – Luke 16:19-31.

Note: this Scripture is taken from the World English Bible, a public domain translation. No royalties are owed to anyone for its use, and it may be freely quoted and read in all settings, public and private.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Preparedness Angst

At work, we have been having a series of “Neighborhood Resilience Brown Bag Lunch Discussions” over the last several months. Our discussions have covered things like bicycle commuting, peak oil, establishing neighborhood connections, and gardening. Now we have switched gears, and we are starting to discuss the book, Where There Is No Doctor. Our next discussion will be on chapter 11, titled, “Nutrition: What To Eat To Be Healthy.”

I picked up a used copy of the book a few weeks ago, and have been thumbing through it, and I have been struck with the realization of just how fragile human life can be, and how horribly things can go wrong at times. It has been a sobering realization, and I have to confess that sometimes it's hard for me to read certain parts of this book. This is the deeply unsettling part of confronting the possibility of the loss of some of the “complex systems we Americans depend on for everyday life” (to borrow a phrase from another blogger), and of confronting the need to learn real self-reliance. As I read some of the things that can go wrong with a human body, and the actions that an aid worker would have to perform to fix these things, I find myself asking, “Am I really up to this?”

At such times, I am reminded of an article I read about an interview with the captain of United Flight 232, who was able to land his plane in a (somewhat) controlled crash after he lost all of his airplane's hydraulic systems. He noted that, “...we were too busy [to be scared]. You must maintain your composure in the airplane or you will die. You learn that from your first day flying.” (Source: United Airlines Flight 232, Wikipedia) It also occurs to me that our high-tech society has made most of us into wimps. We have become so risk-averse that our idea of “safety” has evolved into dependence on experts with fancy equipment who dispense instant cures for everything.

We ordinary people are going to have to develop a new idea of safety and security: not the removal of all risks from life, but the possession of the competence and skills needed to successfully cope with unsafe and insecure situations. As time passes, it will become increasingly apparent that no one else is going to do it for us. I think we will also have to learn to tolerate uncomfortable situations for the long haul, instead of expecting an instant fix. All of this will take practice, just like the thousands of hours of practice and flight time that prepared the captain of United Flight 232 for that flight.