Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Power Of Aspirational Propaganda

Every child had a pretty good shot

to get at least as far as their old man got;

Something happened on the way to that place;

They threw an American flag in our face

Billy Joel, Allentown

I picked up a copy of the Portland Tribune today on the way home from work, as I walked to one of the MAX stations. It had a number of articles that interested me, but it also had a few letters that frankly brought me up short. Most of the writers were complaining against the city government's plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of their sharpest criticisms were leveled at proposals that seemed to be actually quite innocuous at worst, and frankly beneficial at best. Take things like adding sidewalks to streets that lack them, or making routes to schools safer (as in freer from motor vehicle hazards) for children who walk or ride their bikes to school, or making bicycle commuting safer for everyone. These didn't seem to be particularly evil proposals to me; yet some who wrote letters seemed to view these as part of a radical leftist plot to push government control onto every aspect of our lives.

The letter that really made my jaw drop was not about the proposed climate action plan. It was instead a letter asserting that the hardships endured by the early Pilgrim settlers in North America were due to socialism, because the pilgrims shared their resources. The writer states, “Lesson: Capitalism works, Socialism doesn't.” I had no idea that the early Pilgrims were so leftist. The writer's real aim, of course, was to justify selfishness. (The truth, at least as far as the pilgrims' first winter in North America, is that their hardship was due to cold weather, scurvy, lack of provisions caused by arrival late in the year, and the sickness that resulted from all of these. Later, they did in fact switch from collective farming to individual farms, and their harvests increased as a result. But that in itself is a commentary on fallen human nature.)

The justification of selfishness is not entirely surprising, yet there are aspects of it that mystify me to this day – even after all the “teaching moments” which have hit our country upside the head over the last two years. For the thing that puzzles me is the fact that so many Americans still embrace this justification, this ideology of selfishness, even though they are being burned by it.

I want to make it clear that I don't see anything wrong with private property (within limits!) or a person working to support himself and provide for his own needs. The Good Book commands honest labor so that we may meet our own needs and have something left over for charity. It also says, “If a man will not work, neither let him eat.” But the idea that all sharing of resources is a bad thing is unbalanced, as is the idea that the only way to build a prosperous society is by appealing to the selfishness of its members. Societies that live by such a philosophy are ruthless and have no safety nets; thus when any of their members fall honestly and unavoidably into trouble, their fellows tend to brush their hands, shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh, well!”

Our problem in the USA is that we don't share well. Many of us tend to look with suspicion even on voluntary sharing arrangements practiced by others, even when no one is forcing outsiders into these arrangements. One example: several months ago, a community group was trying to install a community garden in East Portland, on land that was vacant. This would have been a valuable asset for working-class people near the garden plot, who could have cut down on their food expenses and gained experience in growing healthy food for themselves. But the proposed garden aroused opposition from a group of neighbors who feared that the users of the garden plot would be dope-smoking hoodlums. The neighbors even said things like, “These people shouldn't be growing vegetables during the daytime. They should quit being lazy and get a job so they can buy their vegetables at the store!”

Why do we not share well? Why do we look with suspicion on those who do? And why are so many of us trying to take apart what safety nets we do have, especially those safety nets provided by the government? I think it has to do with the myth of the American dream – namely, that anyone can get rich if he just works hard enough or gets lucky – and the reinforcement of that myth by American mass culture. For instance, there's a billboard in downtown Portland – I don't remember exactly where just now – with an ad from a cell phone company containing the caption, “Teach Your Children Not To Share.”

But it goes deeper than that. Yesterday, we had a surprise snowstorm that kept most of us from getting home from work until quite late. I was on a bus next to a grocery store. We were waiting for TriMet to come out and put chains on the bus. While we waited, a young woman dashed in to the store (twice!) to buy some sort of scratcher Bingo lottery game. It cost her three dollars each time, and she won only three dollars each time, so I guess it was a wash. But who knows, she might have struck it rich if only she had bought the right tickets. Then there's the lottery pool in my office, and the people who each hope that the day the tickets are bought will turn out to be the last day they have to show up for work. And there are the TV game shows like “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, which reinforce the idea that with the right luck, some of us might have a shot at getting rich overnight (without having to work for it).

Of course, since any of us might potentially become a millionaire overnight through a stroke of luck, we must jealously guard the prerogatives of the rich, lest our own enjoyment of wealth be spoiled by the limiting of those prerogatives. At least, that's the propaganda pushed on us by the rich, who use all the media tools at their disposal to tell us how evil corporate taxes are (witness the large, expensive signs saying “Vote NO on Job-Killing Taxes!” in Oregon), how any government programs to help the poor are nothing more than “socialism!!!”, and how any restrictions on the use or means of amassing private property are totalitarianism.

This propaganda is so effective that many ordinary Americans are willing to vote against their own interests and to believe things that are against their own interests in order to preserve a supposed “right” to have no limitation or obligation imposed on their wealth should they ever strike it rich. So we have a society in which 20 percent of the American population controls 85 percent of America's wealth, and 80 percent of the population controls only 15 percent of the wealth – yet many of those in the 80 percent listen to Rush Limbaugh, and watch Glenn Beck, and voted for McCain and Palin, and oppose "socialized" medicine, and disbelieve in anthropogenic climate change because protecting the environment is “socialist.” Many of these people are sure that they or one of their relatives will be the next “American Idol,” or that if they invest just right, they will strike it rich, or that the next Lotto ticket will be the winning one, and that once that happens, it will be a sweet ride. We wouldn't want any moral obligation to our fellow man to spoil the ride, would we?

Most of us have no more chance of becoming rich than gasoline has of surviving the Last Judgment unburnt. Yet by wanting to be rich, and by indulging our fantasies of being rich, we continue to enable the selfishness of the rich. That selfishness is killing the rest of us.

Note: the figure on 80 percent of the population owning only 15 percent of the wealth comes from The New Elite: Inside The Minds Of The Truly Wealthy, by Jim Taylor, Doug Harrison, Stephen Kraus, copyright 2009, Harrison Group.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 2009 - Notes From The Road

I just got back from visiting family in So. Cal. The trip was an interesting experience, but then again, it always is. It's amazing what a guy notices when he moves away from a place and only returns for occasional visits. This time, I dropped by a former neighbor who lives in a house almost directly across the street from where I used to live. We got to talking about people we both knew, while a couple of his grandchildren showed me their new puppies and their Christmas presents.

He told me about another neighbor who sold his house a few months ago, for a bit over $250K. The man was forced to sell his house because of the lifestyle he had lived during the good years of the Southern California real estate boom. He had added a couple of rooms on to what was originally a Korean War vintage, two bed, one bath house in a working-class neighborhood, and had decked out the interior with genuine tile floors, granite countertops and the works. He had also bought an RV, two all-terrain tricycles, an SUV, and a boat in addition to his work truck. He paid for it all by refinancing his home loan with an adjustable-rate mortgage. He ended up owing a few hundred thousand more than he paid for the house when he bought it. When the mortgage reset, he could no longer afford the monthly payment. Even though he was able to sell his house and relocate, he is still massively in debt.

Of course, I had known that our present economic collapse would be hard on many Americans who had made foolish choices because they were seduced by wanting to live rich. But my friend began to tell me about his own situation, a situation of unavoidable hardship caused by economic contraction. My friend is originally from Mexico, and does not have a college education. He does, however, have a great deal of common sense, and he has chosen to live within his means. He too has a two-bed, one-bath Korean War vintage house, and he is paying only the original mortgage he received when he first bought his house. But his employer is slowing down and may close the place where he works. If that happens, he too will be forced to move.

This was sad news to hear. But it did provoke a discussion of true wisdom in these times, and the art of living happily without a lot of money. It also showed how sharp my neighbor is. As I said, he is originally from Mexico, and did not go to college. His English is not that good. (My Spanish is much worse, believe me!) Yet when, over two years ago, I put my house up for sale, I remember him coming by and asking why I was moving, and I explained to him all that I was then finding out about Peak Oil and the fragile state of the American economy. He got it. Every word. This is much better than I can say of many college-educated Americans I have talked with over the last two years, men and women who refuse to examine the back story behind the illusion of wealth in which we all have lived for the last few decades, and who refuse to believe that it's all about to end. My friend, on the other hand, is a clear-eyed realist. He still gets it.

For this trip, I drove down and back, as usual. (I no longer entirely trust flying.) I noticed that a lot of rest stops in California are now closed. Also, there didn't seem to be as many Highway Patrol cars as usual. I am sure that this is due to California's budget “crisis.” But these things got me thinking on the return trip, as I was driving north past Bakersfield and before Sacramento. On that particular stretch, I was listening to a podcast I had downloaded of a presentation given by a man named James Howard Kunstler to the Commonwealth Club of California in March 2007. (For those who have heard that podcast, it's the one where at the end, Kunstler doesn't realize that he's still being recorded and he asks the chairman of the club, “Where's my mug?” Maybe they give commemorative mugs to their guest speakers.)

Mr. Kunstler had stated in his talk that social systems organized on a giant scale would get in trouble in an era of economic contraction. Those closed rest stops were just one sign of the trouble that California is in. But those closed rest stops made me ask what the citizens of California were actually getting in return for their tax dollars. For they had been asked to accept severe cutbacks in State government services in order to balance their budget, yet they were still required to pay taxes. I know that money is not going toward maintaining a safety net for Californians, because many of them have been trained to regard government safety nets as evil. And they surely are not building that high speed rail line that voters approved in 2008.

Anyway, it seems that we all, including those of us in government, will have to quickly learn the art of living happily without a lot of money. As the benefits provided by government at all levels continue to shrink, this will mean that we must do much more for ourselves.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Riders Of The Mean Streets

Maybe it's me, but it seems that Oregon (or at least the Portland metro area) is no longer quite the state I encountered when I moved here over two years ago. This state and the city of Portland both had a reputation for outstanding bicycle friendliness among the various regions of the USA. During the infrequent occasions when I drove, I was shocked to find laid-back motorists who actually let you into their lane when you turn your signals on.

Things have changed for the worse. It seems that there's been a massive influx of jerks from other regions (most notably, from So. Cal.), people who drive like toddlers throwing a tantrum. They come from places where even minor arterial suburban streets are often over 80 feet wide to a place like Portland, where most streets are narrower, and they pitch a fit. (Of course, Portland has a very good mass transit system and an awesome bus service, but these people are too dysfunctional to ride mass transit.)

The tantrum these people throw consists increasingly of speeding through residential neighborhoods on streets that only allow one lane of traffic because they are so narrow. The trouble is, these are the very streets favored by bicyclists who want to avoid regions of heavy traffic. Cyclists are increasingly having to contend with impatient tailgating motorists driving threateningly inches away from them. Motorists are also increasingly guilty of attempted “right hooks” (this is when a driver pulls in front of a cyclist, then jumps into the bike lane to make a right turn without providing adequate clearance between his car and the bike).

This sort of behavior is characteristic of a nation that has been driven insane by selfish materialism. After all, it was a bunch of Americans who trampled a Wal-Mart employee to death last year because they each wanted to be the first to score an after-Thanksgiving deal on consumer electronics.

Whatever the psychological cause of this behavior, I don't care. I only know that a.) I don't want to burn my money in a gas tank; b.) I don't want to die in a crash; and c.) I'm tired of jerks in motor vehicles. Of course, many drivers are not jerks. But some of you are. So let me tell you what I propose.

If you are a driver and you don't think you can control yourself in traffic, beware. I am in the midst of conversations with the Portland police department, who have expressed their willingness to add traffic patrols to areas where bad drivers are a hazard. If you drive in the residential neighborhoods around the 42nd Street MAX station, either north or south of I-84, you had best slow down. The same thing applies to any of the residential streets west of 42nd Street and north of Broadway. And don't go racing down Ankeny. You might get busted. As the saying goes, “Kill a cyclist, go to jail.”

But if these things don't move you to change your behavior, at least slow down for your own sake. Think about it: you have driven pedestrians off the road, you have driven small children away from playing outdoors in their own neighborhoods, and you are attempting to run bicyclists off the road. The road has become a much more dangerous place because of you. Now your jerk driving, and the fact that there are so many of you who drive like this, is starting to threaten your own property. Just Google “car hits house,” click on “Images,” and you'll see tons of pictures like this one:

I have a feeling that with increased congestion and diminishing motorist sanity, incidents like this are becoming quite common. It would be interesting to do some sort of historical survey. Along those lines, check this out: “The curious frequency of cars hitting houses.

For those of us who are cyclists, I propose that we take back our cities. One way is to map out hidden, unnoticed, car-free ways, interstitials and informal thoroughfares that exist in your locales, and to learn to use them. Here are some links that talk about this: “Interstitials and informal bike routes,” and “Bicycle Wayfinding in the Early 21st Century.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Digital Fabbers, Resilient Communities and The Flow Of Stuff

Here's the next installment of my study of digital fabbers and their role in building communities that are resilient in the face of resource constraints and economic contraction. My interest in this subject is not merely academic. Rather, I am confronting this study as a man who realizes that the world has become a very messed-up place, and that the country I live in has become a particularly messed-up nation. I consider these issues in much the same way that a man's interest in aerodynamic principles might be sharpened by being in a seat on a turboprop flying through an ice storm.

When people are in trouble, it is only natural for their attention to be focused on evaluating potential solutions to their trouble. The world in general, and the United States in particular, face a number of very severe predicaments caused by the end of a cheap resource base for our industrial economy, the destruction of the environment due to that economy, and the resulting contraction and disintegration of that economy. Yet our leaders (and many of the common citizens) are proceeding cluelessly into the future, lost in wish-fulfillment fantasies. I see what's coming, and I want to make my passage through the coming trouble as easy as possible.

So I'm looking at John Robb's concept of “resilient communities” and the prominent role played by continually advancing technology (especially the digital fabber) in these communities, and I've been wondering, “can these concepts save me and my community from some serious trouble?”

In previous posts on this blog, we considered small, home-made digital fabbers (microprocessor-controlled automatic fabricators of machined parts) as a means of jump-starting small-scale manufacturing in the United States, a country which over the last several decades has outsourced the majority of its manufacturing to low-wage countries, and which is now heavily dependent on imports. The most laid-back promoters of digital fabbers point out their potential to empower local communities to make for themselves the goods on which they rely, without having to depend on regional or international trade networks. This is a benefit, as declining energy supplies and economic contraction will likely cripple large-scale or global trade networks.

The more enthusiastic promoters of digital fabbers tout them as a key step along the path to “superempowerment” of individuals and small groups. Digital fabbers enable small groups or individuals to make most or all of the things that are now provided by large corporations or governments. This democratization of manufacture is very similar to the democratization of the creation of artistic media (movies, songs, recordings, published writings) which occurred because of advances in microelectronics and digital communication.

According to some of the sources Robb quotes, the technologies with potential to drive the advance of resilient communities do not have fundamental constraints such as energy use that limit progress. This is because they achieve the expansion of their capabilities by miniaturizing functions, thus enabling more to be done in a smaller space with fewer resources. (Microelectronics are a prime example of this, with the size of discrete transistors, diodes, etc., shrinking all the time, so that the number of components that can fit on a chip increases exponentially as time passes – “Moore's Law” in action.)

Robb has speculated that this miniaturization might also be applicable to non-electronic systems – in particular, social systems organized on the community level might evolve to foster an exponential increase in wealth creation for the members of such communities. Such social system improvement would be enabled by, and dependent on, the continued availability of cheap, highly capable microelectronics and digital communication. (For instance, see “RESILIENT COMMUNITY: Fabrication Networks.”) These communities would be able to “enjoy the benefits of globalization without being vulnerable to its excesses.”

Can technology-driven “resilient communities” such as those envisioned by Robb deliver on such promises? I don't have a definitive answer. But I do have a few cautionary observations. First, I question the digital fabbers that would form the backbone of relocalized manufacture. We have already seen that they cannot yet make their own microelectronics. We have also seen that the making of silicon-based microelectronics is very energy intensive. Organic electronics don't require nearly as much energy to make, but they also don't perform nearly as well as silicon-based devices, and they require the use of exotic materials like nanotubes in order to boost their performance to levels approaching that of devices made of ultrapure silicon. The exotic additives to organic electronics also have high energy costs and require manufacturing facilities almost as elaborate as those used to make silicon devices. This means that even communities that had local small-scale fabricators would still depend on large-scale, centralized manufacturing facilities for some of the goods used by them.

But let's say that we were able to make digital fabbers that could make nearly anything, and could fit in the average suburban garage (right next to the washing machine and just behind that exercise machine you no longer use). We are immediately faced with a second question: where do we get the feedstocks used by the fabbers to make their goods? For instance, let's say I want to fabricate steel tubing for use in bicycle frames. I need a source of steel for the fabber to work on. Who will provide the steel? Or the plastic for fabbed plastic parts? Or the other feedstocks? What if some of these feedstocks require large amounts of concentrated energy for their production? If I want to make things out of aluminum castings, for instance, I must realize that producing raw aluminum as a feedstock requires large amounts of energy in mining bauxite ore, and in separating the aluminum in that ore from the other components. Then someone must deliver the finished aluminum to me. In a future of declining energy, how much raw material and what kinds of raw material will be available even for local manufacturers (let alone the big guys) to turn into finished products?

Next, how do local communities who possess their own means of production prevent the draining of wealth from themselves? It's fine to talk about relocalization as a means of keeping wealth within local communities. But we must realize that this is a reasonable goal only if the primary factor in the flow of wealth is the choice of the members of the community in spending that wealth. Now, however, we are seeing that the flow of wealth within communities and between communities and the larger world is no longer within the control of the members of those communities. Relocalization was a defensive response by communities to the sucking of wealth out of those communities by the super rich who were far removed from these communities. But the goals of relocalization have been overruled by the super-rich, who have enlisted the government as a tool to continue siphoning wealth from communities in order to concentrate that wealth within their own hands.

There are two obvious examples of this: the continued bailouts of the financial sector by the U.S. government, approved by politicians from both parties over the objections of their constituents; and the proposed “health care reform” legislation in Washington which would force all Americans to buy private health insurance. As the fortunes of the rich are threatened by the contraction of the global economy, they will increasingly use the government as a tool to extract wealth from the rest of us. This will mean the passage of laws designed to force ordinary members of ordinary communities to continue paying arbitrary “rents” of one form or another to the rich. As long as this happens, no community can achieve “resilience,” if resilience is defined by enjoyment and possession of material wealth in a technology-driven community.

I guess my main issue with John Robb's vision is that sooner or later, technology runs up against limits. Our limits are arriving fairly quickly. Soon we will not have access to large quantities of highly refined, specialized feedstocks for high-tech goods. A declining energy supply, combined with the exhaustion of available ores and other materials, will lead to scarcity of these things. I think that communities that are resilient (in the way I am now thinking of resilience) will be made of people who know how to reuse, how to hack things that already exist, and who are wise enough not to need or want shiny new stuff all the time. Such communities will be able to exist in the absence of globalism, which is a good thing, since I don't think anyone will be enjoying the benefits of globalism for much longer.

What might a different flavor of community resilience look like? In a future blog post, I might just give you a small picture of that. Meanwhile, though I don't think Mr. Robb even knows I exist, I hope he reads my little series of ruminations on his ideas. It would be interesting to hear his answers to some of my questions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Small-Scale Manufacturing and Digital Fabbers - Organic and Printable Electronics

This post continues our evaluation of the use of small digitally-controlled “fabbers” for small-scale manufacturing as a response to energy decline and economic collapse. Digital fabbers are a key part of the strategy which thinkers such as John Robb have for creating “resilient communities” that can weather the changes wrought by globalism and the hollowing-out of nation states by criminals, “terrorists,” and the extremely rich. (Mr. Robb's vision for resilient communities is driven primarily by the continued availability of cheap, advanced electronic technology. For an example of this, see Global Guerrillas: RESILIENT COMMUNITY: Technological Acceleration.)

I have only limited time for a post this week. Therefore I will give a brief summary of the things I've found relating to a vital component of digital fabbers: the microelectronics that control them. An advanced industrial society that depends on the localized, decentralized manufacture of the things it needs must be able to produce most or all of its necessary goods in this way. This applies to its electronic and microelectronic devices as well. In the last couple of posts, we have examined inorganic, silicon-based microelectronics manufactured in the ways currently employed in commercial industry.

This has revealed that the conventional manufacture of conventional silicon-based microelectronics uses large amounts of energy and costly equipment. The energy and equipment are necessary in order to produce the ultrapure silicon compounds that comprise the nanocomponents contained in most chips. According to a paper by Nestor Gonzalez Brasero of the Fundacion Telefonica, it takes 1.6 kg of fossil fuel, 72 grams of chemicals and 32 liters of water to produce a 32Mb DRAM chip whose final weight is only two grams. In 2005, 81 million desktop computers were manufactured in China, at an energy cost of 54 terawatt-hours.

It seems reasonable to assume that our expectation of the increasing availability of ever more advanced and cheap silicon-based microelectronics will one day hit a dead end. This is especially true for silicon-based components made in the standard way. Thus there has been a great deal of interest in the promise of electronics that can be made from organic compounds or other materials that don't require the high energy inputs and large-scale manufacturing plants needed to make ultrapure silicon wafers. From the turn of the 21st century various industry groups, researchers and labs have announced their interest in creating electronics, usually using inexpensive organic semiconducting compounds, that can be built by simple ink-jet printing onto a plastic substrate.

My digging around the Web has turned up the following facts:

  • The semiconducting property of certain organic chemicals has been known since at least the 1970's. In fact, melanin, a component of dark or tanned skin, is itself a natural organic semiconductor with some surprising switching properties.

  • Organic semiconductor electronics are now being used in some flat-panel displays. (The Pioneer Corporation has been producing a car stereo with an organic electronic display since 2001.)

  • Organic semiconductor electronics are being studied for use in printable RFID tags.

  • Organic semiconductor electronics are nowhere near fast enough to compete with crystalline silicon electronics at present. This is because charge transport velocities in organic semiconductors are orders of magnitude slower than in many silicon-based components. Their low charge transport velocity translates into switching speeds much lower than conventional silicon microelectronics.

  • Organic electronics require airtight protective coatings without which their performance degrades rapidly. In any case, their actual useful lifetime is limited to just a few years, and they will degrade whether they are used or not.

  • In order to create printable microelectronics with speed and performance comparable to conventional silicon-based chips, researchers are having to augment their organic electronics with metal atoms or to resort to the use of exotic materials, such as carbon nanotubes or silicon nanofibers. This detracts from the initial promise of low cost and easy fabrication of organic electronics. The making of these exotic materials still requires the same sort of high-energy, large-scale manufacturing plants that are now typical of silicon-based microelectronics. In addition, manufacturing of industrial-grade carbon nanotubes creates some serious potential pollutants.

I don't have a good handle on the energy cost involved in making organic electronics, as the technology is still in its infancy and many companies now doing research aren't interested in divulging their secrets. But I do have a couple of hunches. First, I suspect that printable and organic electronics are not yet ready to lead some next-generation “digital revolution.” Secondly, I think that large-scale, energy-intensive centralized manufacturing will still be required for many years in order to produce the fast, high-performance electronics of the sort that could power decentralized, localized manufacture of high-tech components and systems. This is a natural consequence of the need to use a lot of energy to turn high-entropy, highly disordered materials into materials with a high degree of order on a submicroscopic scale.

In short, I expect that the widespread manufacture of microelectronics will continue to remain an energy, resource and capital intensive process, although cheap, low-energy alternatives will be preferred for devices that don't have to be especially fast. It is here that printable and organic electronics can make a difference, as long as their users don't expect too much. Because of the requirement for energy and resources, I think the availability of cheap and powerful silicon-based electronics will decline as time passes. Devices based on silicon microelectronics will get more expensive. (And even if we ignore the probability of global energy decline, I think there's still "a ways to go" before you 'll be able to “print” a laptop in your garage using your own handy-dandy digital fabber ;) )

There's more to say, but I'm out of time. (Gotta get away from this computer screen!) I'm including a bunch of links below, for anyone who wants to dive in to this subject further. Enjoy.

For Further Reading

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moral Short Circuits

This week I've been doing some research on the next article in my series on digital fabbers and small-scale manufacturing. The next article will tackle the subject of organic and printable semiconductors and electronics. While I was digging up reference sources, I came across a very interesting article by Brian Martin, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and an associate of Whistleblowers Australia, an organization devoted to protecting those who uncover corruption within our present systems of social power.

The article that caught my interest is titled, “Scientific fraud and the power structure of science,” and it deals with the fact that the great majority of scientific research being performed at present is funded by and produced for the dominant holders of political and economic power. He also states that this produces a strong tendency in the scientific community to produce statements that are not entirely truthful, even though they are usually convenient for the agenda of the agency or corporation funding the research. Those scientists who become genuinely convinced of a point of view contrary to that of the dominant interests usually find their careers wrecked if they voice their views too loudly.

All this has an interesting bearing on the present debate about the reality of climate change, and what, if anything, should be done about it. The “Climategate” controversy has been the rage lately, with right-wing voices crying loudly that “Climategate proves that all this 'climate change' talk is just a ploy to deprive us of prosperity and the American way of life!” But the truth doesn't support their assertions.

The “Climategate” denouncers say that e-mails stolen from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia prove that the scientists who say that global warming is real and that it is caused by our industrial society are deliberately falsifying data to make their case more compelling. I haven't read all of the e-mails; but let's assume that these assertions are true. This still leaves several troubling facts unanswered. First, the e-mails span a period from thirteen years ago to the present. But the CRU has been in existence since 1971. From the mid 1970's onward, it has been doing research on the effects of greenhouse gases on the earth's climate. Are the critics on the right going to tell me that the CRU had been doing bogus science all that time?

Secondly, the CRU was hardly alone in studying the effects of human activity on climate. The United Nations World Meteorological Organization also studied the issue, and in 1976 issued a warning that “a very significant warming of global climate was probable.” (Sources: Wikipedia and the World Meteorological Organization.) In fact, the study of man-made climate climate change has a rather long and distinguished history, starting from Svante Arrhenius in 1896 through G.S. Callendar in 1938 to the Cold War scientists of the 1950's and 1960's who sought to provide military planners with accurate models of potential changes to climate, to the scientists from the 1970's onward who built on the work of these pioneers. Are the critics on the Right going to tell me that all of these people were conspiring to “promote socialism and wreck the American way of life!”?

Third, though I haven't read all the e-mails, I have read at least one. It isn't the dramatic “smoking gun” that Fox News would like me to believe it is.

What does this have to do with scientific fraud, some may ask. Only this: the acknowledgment of the reality of global warming, and the role human activity plays in global warming, would present a huge moral problem to those whose activities most strongly promote global warming. Moral problems are inconvenient. Thus we have “scientists” who are handsomely paid to either deny that global warming is happening at all or to deny that human industrial activity plays such a pivotal role, and workers in scientific organizations who are handsomely paid to sabotage real science. Then there is the politically motivated watering down and temporizing of the reports that actually manage to get published. The denial or watering down of climate change facts does not threaten the powerful interests who are the patrons of modern day science.

For the record, I believe that climate change is real, and that it is caused by human activity. When my family first moved to So. Cal., there were many days in the winter that were decidedly cold. One October when I was in high school, the temperature dropped to the low 30's. Much later, in the 90's after I been through the Army and gone to college and had a few more “miles under my belt,” I was surprised to witness heat waves in November. I never had a problem believing in climate change (nor did I ever doubt the man-made damage to the ozone layer, especially after I, a black man, started getting sunburned in the summertime.) But then again, maybe I was hallucinating. Or maybe I'm part of some conspiracy to wreck the American way...

For further information, check this out:

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Song Of The Coal Mine Canaries

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil has just released two new videos addressing the present reality of constrained global oil supply. One video is titled, “Acknowledging the Reality of Peak Oil.” Another is titled, “Peak Oil Reality - Production & Depletion Issues.” These videos feature interviews with oil industry experts Chris Skrebowski, Jeremy Leggett, Jeremy Gilbert, and Sadad al-Husseini. Mr. Skrebowski's credentials are impressive, as he is a fellow of the British Energy Institute and an advisor to the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas. Mr. al-Husseini is the recently retired executive vice president for exploration and production for Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's national oil company. Mr. Gilbert is the former chief engineer of British Petroleum. Jeremy Leggett's career began with a background as a geologist.

These people know what they are talking about. In these videos, they don't speak in wildly emotional, intentionally alarmist tones. Yet the things they say should alarm every rational hearer of their words. Their message is basically that world oil supply will likely not grow any further, and is due very shortly to start declining. This decline will be due in part to geology (the exhaustion of existing productive fields), and partly due to the inability of the global financial system to provide capital needed to develop new, extremely challenging reserves (such as ultra-deep water and polar fields, shale and tar sands). Chris Skrebowski estimates that the yearly decline in production from existing fields amounts to 4 million barrels per day. Jeremy Gilbert states that, “...Peak Oil is happening as we speak, or...has happened...”

Meanwhile, the problem of continued American access to refined petroleum products is growing. Over the last few years, an increasing number of American refineries have been shut down due to inadequate profit margins for their owners. What happened initially is that there was a spike in the price of refined petroleum products that began in 2005 due to constrained oil supply. This spike was initially tolerated by American consumers. But as gasoline prices stayed consistently above $3.00 per gallon, the ability of the American consumer to bear this cost was eroded. The spikes and general steady rise in refined petroleum prices from 2005 to 2008 led to the general economic collapse we are seeing today.

That collapse has made it very hard for refiners to charge prices for their products that would lead to acceptable profit margins for them, as a large number of American consumers are no longer willing or even able to pay such prices. This is why industries that depended on cheap motor fuel, from airlines to automakers, and even to drive-in coffee shops and restaurants, all took a substantial hit from 2007 to the end of 2008, and it is why exurban housing developments built far from places of work in 2006 and onward began to wither.

But it is also why refiners based in the United States began losing some serious profits from the latter half of 2007 onward, due to their inability or unwillingness to charge enough for their products to maintain the sort of profit margins they had enjoyed in the years just prior to 2007. To illustrate my point, let's take a price of $3.25 a gallon, typical of the price of unleaded regular gas in the Los Angeles area around say, April 2007. In April of 2007, crude oil cost around $65 a barrel. Now $3.25 a gallon represented the price needed to return a certain percentage of profit to the refiner of the gasoline, after expenses such as plant operations, worker salaries, and the cost of the crude itself were paid. (Independent refiners are required to buy their crude before they can refine it.) If any of these operating costs rose, this would require the refiner to raise his price in order to maintain his profit margins.

Now in July 2008, the cost of crude oil was $147 a barrel. If refiners had felt the liberty to raise their prices to cover the full impact of this increase in cost of their raw material, the price of regular unleaded gasoline should have been around $7 a gallon. What happened instead is that gas prices rose to less than $4.50 a gallon in most of the United States. This meant that refiners were subsidizing American mobility by sacrificing their profit margins.

This sort of thing could not go on forever. The predictable result has been the shrinkage of American refining capacity, as smaller independent refiners have been driven out of business and larger refiners have begun to consolidate, selling off or closing plants in order to reduce excess capacity and cut operating costs. It has also led to an increase in American imports, not only of oil, but of refined products such as gasoline, diesel fuel and aviation fuel.

And it has led to a tightening of refined product supply and an increased likelihood of shortages in the near future. Gail Tverberg, an actuary and oil industry analyst, recently posted an online article titled, “As Refineries Close, New Stresses are Added to the System.” In her article, she describes how refinery shutdowns in the Northeast are causing one of the major pipelines on the eastern seaboard to be used at maximum capacity in order to maintain adequate flows of gasoline from Gulf Coast refineries. She notes that while there seems to be adequate gasoline supply at present, the system does appear to be nearly at its limit, and thus extremely vulnerable to disruption.

So it appears that the US (or at least parts of it) could be in a major bind at some time in the near future, and that this is due not only to our reliance on imports from a falling global oil supply, but to the outsourcing and shutdown of an increasing portion of our own refining capacity. What has been the U.S. response to this? “Cash for clunkers” and the bailout of GM and Chrysler, who have rewarded us for our involuntary generosity, not by building rail rolling stock or reviving our passenger rail system, but by continuing to build gargantuan monster trucks ans SUV's, and muscle cars like the new Chevy Camaro – a car that will easily do 0 to 60 in a few days once the oil runs out and you have to get a crew of young, strong bucks to push it up to the top of a hill to get it rolling. Sometimes I think we'd be better off if we had chimpanzees running the Federal government.

Meanwhile, if you live on the East Coast and you are reading this, I'd like to ask a favor. It seems that disruptions in petroleum supply are not widely reported in the mainstream media. This became apparent during Hurricanes Gustave and Ike, and I expect that it will be the same story if there are future petroleum supply disruptions. Since you all live in areas whose delivery systems may be nearly overstressed right now, you may find yourselves facing gasoline shortages again. If that happens, please let the rest of us know so that we can have an informed assessment of our national petroleum supply situation. Feel free to leave a comment on my blog, if you'd like. If on the West Coast or elsewhere I notice similar shortages unfolding, I will be sure to publicize them on this blog.

For Further Reading

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Decency Confronts Predation

Fellow blogger Stormchild recently wrote a thought-provoking post on her blog, Gale Warnings. The title of the post is “The Underground Railroad, 2010.” Her post makes a point about the role of decent people in protecting their fellow humans from the predations of the powerful. In making this point, she uses the historical events of the Underground Railroad in pre-Civil War America, the hiding of Jews from their Nazi persecutors in occupied France during World War II, and her own experience of being rescued from an abusive work environment by the intervention of kind and perceptive senior managers.

Speaking of workplaces, she writes, “A band of uninformed 'nice guys' does not a decent workplace make; it takes an understanding of the psychodynamics of abuse, sufficient perception to know that manipulative and abusive individuals are plentiful in organizations, and sufficient moral courage to resist manipulations and see through efforts to 'set up' non-abusive individuals to be exploited. This is a tall order, and when it happens, it usually happens because one or two people, placed where they can have an impact, are willing to see, understand, and refuse to play.” She closes with a prayer that this nation (yes, our own U.S.A.) might begin to experience an outbreak of decency, that people might rise up who are willing to “...recognize abuse, call it what it is, and do what they can to oppose it and to support those targeted by it...”

I say “Amen” to that prayer. My focus is the larger society at this time of economic contraction, resource constraints and widespread man-made environmental damage. We are facing an historic transition, and there are preparations that should be made by as many of us as possible, to insure the survival and well-being of as many of us as possible. Yet the making of those preparations is being thwarted for most of us by a rich, powerful minority whose members seek to continue fattening themselves by making a prey of as many of the rest of us as possible. Whereas the abuse that occurs in smaller group settings is often due to complex psychological factors, the abuse that is being perpetrated on a large scale in our society is due mainly to the sociopathic greed of the rich. “Resilience” is hard to achieve when you're constantly having to defend yourself from people who want to turn you into lamb chops.

A typical and repugnant example of large-scale abuse and predation was recently posted on another blog, Shalom Bayit. The author, Ahavah Gayle, wrote a piece titled, Class Wars, followed by Return of the Robber Barons. Will the Serfs Strike Back? ,” in which she cited a news article about two towns in Kentucky whose water utility was bought by bailed-out insurance giant AIG in 2005. From 2008 onward, the utility began a program of raising water service fees to a level so high that at present, many residents are threatened with choosing between continuing to receive water versus being able to buy food. In November 2008, the utility announced that it was raising water rates by 51 percent, in an attempt to collect an additional $750,000 from a customer base of 8000 persons. By the way, Kentucky is not a rich state, and the residents of these towns are poor in comparison to the rest of Kentucky.

Such predations as these are taking place with ever-increasing frequency all across America. Yet there is very little visible outrage, as most people still seem to be hypnotized by television and deluded by the “American Dream” that promises that just about anyone can get rich – and by Gum, everyone should want to! If there was a genuine outbreak of decency in this country, what would it look like?

For one, it might look like people suddenly becoming willing to inconvenience themselves and link arms with each other in order to stop supporting predatory systems run by predatory masters. If I lived in one of those Kentucky towns whose water service decided to raise its rates to crushing levels, I'd be motivated to get together with my neighbors to create a safe, workable alternative to the water and sewer service. I'd save what cash I could, and use it to buy things like multiple copies of the Humanure Handbook. I'd invite people over to my house and we'd form study groups to learn how to compost our own waste and re-use graywater. I'd form a “rain barrel club,” and we'd be buying, refurbishing, scrounging or making rain barrels like nobody's business. I'd do my best to create an activist community of decent people whose “refusal to play” was able to bring down the strategies of those wanting to make a prey out of them. And it would be work, and it would be inconvenient, but in the end it would be worth it.

There are many systems, many providers of consumer “stuff,” many wealthy captains of commerce who by their sociopathic predation show that they deserve to be boycotted. But righteous boycotts almost always involve some inconvenience, because the targets of these boycotts have done so much to make themselves all-pervasive and seemingly indispensable to modern life. The more you turn your back on these providers and the goods they provide, the harder you will have to work to create alternatives for yourself. A point comes when you can't do it all alone; you need to rely on neighbors and friends, and they need to be able to rely on you, in order to create sustaining alternatives to the things that must be boycotted. I think of the black boycott of the bus service in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the hottest conflicts of the American Civil Rights movement. There is also the boycott of British goods instituted by Gandhi during India's struggle for independence from Britain.

May there be indeed such an outbreak of decency in this country that huge numbers of us turn our back on the predators who now dictate our course, and that we learn to oppose their predations. Let us not be lulled by false promises of ease or convenience into a continued silent support of these predators, a refusal to rock the boat, a default into just “going with the flow.” And may there be many who rise up to defend poor, abused people from their abusers – whether that abuse is relational, societal, political or economic.