Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Good Water From Other Wells

I've been reading some great blog posts lately from some of my fellow writers, thinkers and doers. I thought I'd share them with you all.

First, Stormchild, author of the blog Gale Warnings, has written a good post titled, “Complexity vs. Complication.” It is a look at the dynamics of human systems, where complexity is the result of the connections between various parts of human systems and complication is the result of human “cussedness” or contrariness or indwelling sin. Complex systems can be fixed when they go wrong. Complicated systems can't, because there are people in those systems who don't want a fix. That insight can be applied to many of the large scale societal systems under which we suffer just now.

Jerry, author of SoapBoxTech, has a number of good posts. “SoapBox Thoughts on Arizona” presents intelligent commentary on the recent Arizona immigration law, while “Salvation, For Now” discusses the need for some locales to shift to dryland farming techniques as part of adapting to climate change. As to the viability of modern industrial agriculture, “How Technology Almost Killed Mixed Farming” is a good read. And “Transgenic GMO's Causing Bee Crisis?” discusses how genetically modified crops may be contributing to colony collapse disorder among honeybees.

Speaking of bees, Aimee of New To Farm Life has been writing about her experiences in learning to keep bees. Her latest bee post is “The Bee-Man Speaks”. Aimee and her husband are impressive in that while I might write about doing a thing, she and her husband both do it and find time to write about it. In addition to bees, they also keep goats and chickens (and who knows what else ;) ).

And for those trying out urban homesteading, I want to welcome a new follower of my blog, namely Heidi, author of The Itty Bitty Farm in the City. It's nice to meet another person who is learning to practice preparedness and sustainable living in an urban environment.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Davy Jones Disturbed - One Month Later

This will be a short post – my schedule has suddenly become much busier. I will say, though, that I have some good interviews lined up, and hopefully you will be seeing them over the next two months. I also owe you all a transcript of my “post-Peak health care” interview with Holly Scholles of Birthingway College of Midwifery.

Today let's talk about the ongoing oil leak caused by the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I want to list the lies that have been told so far by British Petroleum (BP) and its allies in the mainstream media:

  • Residents of Texas who discovered dead sea turtles washing up on their beaches soon after the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill were told that there was no connection between the oil spill and the dead sea turtles on Texas shores. This assertion was heavily implied in coverage of the event by Fox News. However, the truth is that the numbers of dead sea turtles are triple the normal amount for this time of year. A more accurate picture of the environmental damage can be found at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and similar sites.

  • Tar balls are now washing up on the beaches of Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard recently asserted that “lab tests show conclusively that the the Florida Keys tar balls are not linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.” The funny thing is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires that all water, tar or oil samples collected in the area affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill must be sent to TDI-Brooks International's B&B Laboratories, located in Texas. TDI-Brooks' biggest clients are multinational oil companies such as British Petroleum, owner of the Deepwater Horizon. Clearly, there is a conflict of interest here.

  • The “official” size of the leak has never lined up with reality. The official figure being bandied about is 5000 barrels per day. In the early aftermath of the disaster, that figure was far lower, as the official estimates of the severity of the leak were being published by...BP, of course! Estimates were revised upward from a mere 1000 barrels per day to the current 5000 as it became quickly obvious that BP's figures were unrealistic. Now some very respectable sources are saying that the 5000-barrel-per-day figure is also wildly optimistic. According to these sources, the figure should be closer to 70,000 barrels per day. (See “Daily Kos: Deepwater Horizon: The first 30 days” and “Gulf Oil Spill May Far Exceed Government, BP Estimates : NPR” for instance.) According to one estimate, the resulting oil slick now covers more area than the state of West Virginia.

  • Descriptions of BP's effectiveness in stopping, stemming or containing the leak have proven time and time again to be very exaggerated. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp outlets, including Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, have regularly and uncritically published BP's pronouncements that progress is being made in stemming the leak (see “ - British Petroleum Caps One of Three Gulf Oil Leaks”, and “Spill Fight Shows Progress -” for instance). Yet these statements are being regularly disproved. BP's recent statement that they were siphoning off 5000 barrels per day from the leak via a specially-equipped ship had to be revised downward, as reported here.

The situation is improving for people who want to get at the truth of the seriousness of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. There is now a live camera feed showing the leak in real time, via both satellite imagery and underwater cameras at the leak site. This live feed has been overloaded, showing just how many people are interested in learning the truth. There are also independent experts who are not friends of the oil industry, who can also provide insight into the magnitude of the disaster.

The truth that emerges is not a pretty picture. What is being seen is that BP who were incompetent in managing offshore oil drilling, are just as incompetent in managing the cleanup from an offshore well blowout. Either that, or they are unwilling to mount the sort of effort needed to stop the Gulf oil leak in a timely manner due to fear of reducing their profit margin. It is high time to bring in more competent agencies, even if this means we have to ask for help from foreign governments. This will of course tarnish the myth of American exceptionalism, as well as exposing BP to increased civil and criminal liability (for many more people will see the evidence of the magnitude of the mess BP have created). That's just too bad. Time is of the essence here. Otherwise, we face the prospect of 70,000 barrels of oil per day polluting our oceans for months on end, while BP dithers about and expends most of their energy protecting their stock value instead of taking responsibility for their mess.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pravda Moments

This is not the land that was promised me,

Even as far as my eyes can see...

Not The Land, Derek Webb

There is a series of articles about Soviet history at the PBS website. One article deals with the function of propaganda in the Soviet regime, specifically mentioning Pravda, the former official news organ of the Soviet Communist Party, which is now an independent news/editorial organization in its own right. The PBS article states that, “When the Bolshevik party came to power in the October 1917 revolution, it immediately began creating the world's first modern propaganda state. This is not at all surprising...The means of communication...were ordered seized as a priority. To hold the means of communication denied them to enemies. Public opinion mattered; making sure rivals could not get their message out mattered more.” The purpose of seizing all means of mass communication was simple: to reform and re-structure a society comprised of many heterogeneous traditions and traditional sources of authority into a cohesive unit under a strong central authority.

Thus the Bolsheviks attacked any rival authorities, including traditions of elders, ancient yet heterogeneous cultures, parental authority and religious faith. In place of these authorities they inserted themselves and their party structure, and they created a new collective of “saints” and heroes to legitimize their reign in the minds of their subjects. The constant hammering of their message through state-owned means of mass communication was another means by which they sought to legitimize themselves.

From the start, the Bolsheviks wanted to turn Russia into a new, modern, scientifically advanced techno-utopia. This was the Soviet ideal. Lenin's administration achieved the widespread electrification of the Soviet Union in a very short time. The rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union continued under Stalin, along with the breakup of family farming and the rise of collective farms. These things took place alongside the massive indoctrination of Russian children and youth in order to displace the influence of local, traditional culture and the authority of elders.

For a long while, this strategy worked. Soviet life began to improve and modern technology became widely available to a large percentage of the population. World War Two validated the propaganda depiction of the Soviet Union as a utopian experiment threatened by enemies, and validated Stalin as a defender of that utopia-in-progress. After the war, the Soviets rebuilt and expanded their industrial economy, achieving some significant public relations victories with the detonation of their own nuclear weapons, the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, the first man in space and the first space walk. While times were good and things were going the Soviets' way, it was easy for the average Soviet man on the street to believe the propaganda being pushed on him.

That began to change in the late 1970's and 1980's, as the Soviet regime experienced a series of reversals and setbacks, and ordinary people in the Soviet Union were able to travel more freely to other countries. It became apparent to a large number of people that the reality of their daily lives contradicted official media pronouncements. As one source wrote in the 1880's, the old joke about the Soviet press was that “there's no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.” Soviet media began to lose its power. Samizdat and alternative sources of news became much more important.

At least, that's how I understand how all this worked out. I must provide a caveat: I'm not Russian and haven't lived anywhere near Russia during my entire life. But my opinion is formed by the sources I've read and by sketchy memories of a Cold War childhood.

There are parallels between the “world's first propaganda state,” as Western propagandists describe the Soviet Union, and the supposedly “free,” “democratic” nations of the West, particularly the United States. I won't belabor them, as they have already been covered amply by other writers (particularly by a former citizen of the Soviet Union, a copy of whose book I own). One of those parallels does deserve some mention, however.

In the West (particularly the United States) over the years, some extremely rich people have succeeded in loosening state restrictions on the concentration and aggregation of wealth and resources. These restrictions were originally created to prevent large numbers of people from being hurt by the side effects of predatory capitalism. These restrictions are now almost completely erased. One of these restrictions was a restriction on the amount of media ownership any one person or corporation could have.

Because that restriction has been largely erased, a handful of men own huge numbers of very rich and powerful media outlets. I am thinking of Rupert Murdoch in particular (as some of you probably guessed), who is as rabid and enthusiastic an apologist for predatory capitalism as Pravda once was for Soviet socialism.

The problem for Mr. Murdoch (and for people like him) is that recent events are presenting a reality of daily experience for many Americans which is very different from the official party line they get from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal. This reality is not being experienced in isolation, but rather out in the open, by people who can look at each other and compare notes. This makes it harder for the propaganda machine to say, “So your experience is different from what we promised? That's because you're a failure.” In other words, it's getting harder for perpetrators of societal abuse to blame their victims for their own suffering.

A media outlet like Fox might still be able to succeed in making someone feel guilty for losing his job and being on food stamps (even though this person is out of work because of massive layoffs or the bankruptcy of his employer). But how can one blame residents of coastal cities and towns for a massive oil spill that pollutes their beaches and contaminates their groundwater? Or how is this the fault of “them 'terrrists,' socialists and liberals!”? By the way, which “news” outlets and political candidates were pushing the “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” message over the last two years?

The right-wing media in this country (which comprises the majority of mainstream media nowadays) would tell us that greed is good, that laissez-fare capitalism is wonderful, and that all our social problems can be solved if only we remove all governmental restrictions and “let the market decide” what our lives shall be. But if free markets and small government are so wonderful, who poisoned the water supply of Charleston, West Virginia to such an extent that seven-year-old boys there now have mouths full of caps on teeth that have been rotted away from drinking the water?

The “free-market,” selfish, “greed-is-good,” John Galt message of the American Right is diametrically opposed to reality, and is a very bad way of coping with a future of diminishing resources and a poisoned planet. For a long time, forward-thinking people have known this to be true, although the signs of our resource and environmental predicament were not obvious to most. Now the signs are becoming a lot more obvious. The Kool-Aid we've been fed is starting to make more people queasy - or, as Ahavah Gayle said recently on her blog Shalom Habayit, "This caviar tastes funny." The Deepwater Horizon accident was an American “Pravda moment.” The United States and its dominant media will be experiencing many more “Pravda moments” in the near future. Hopefully, such moments will be the start of an adult conversation.

For Further Reading,

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Surviving The Hollowing-Out of the U.S. Tech Sector

This post is another “diary” post, as opposed to a more journalistic essay. It is also a midweek post, so I'll try to keep it short. There won't be many links, as I don't have time for exhaustive research, but I'll try to include a few relevant and interesting sources.

As I have said before on this blog, I am an engineer. The type of engineering I do involves generating plans and specifications for large-scale built structures and facilities, whether they be shopping centers, airports, rail terminals, military installations, or industrial plants. I have noticed certain trends over the years, trends which recently seem to be coming to a point of crisis.

For over fifteen years, large design firms have been outsourcing various parts of construction engineering and design. It started with CAD, and has by now grown to advanced engineering up through detailed design. The countries of choice for outsourcing are China and India. Most U.S. based major design firms now have design centers in India. (I won't name names here. I still have to live in this town.)

I know of a firm whose stock was highly valued over the last few years, and which had an impressive backlog of large clients, both military and industrial. However, the economic meltdown that began in earnest in 2008 dried up a significant portion of that backlog and of their client list. One example: someone I know was involved in designing facilities for an industrial metals mine which was operating in a region where concentrations of the metal in the ore had dropped to very low levels. In order to continue operating that mine, the operators needed a stable and relatively high price for their finished metal. The crash in commodity prices at the tail end of 2008 shut down the mine (and one of this engineer's projects).

This firm was typical of most of the large players – publicly traded, requiring constant dividend growth in order to promote increased share prices, and having a business growth strategy that often consisted of capturing market share by buying up smaller firms. 2008 was a year in which dividend growth and corporate growth were threatened by the global economic contraction. This company's management turned much more to outsourcing – in an attempt, I believe, to maintain profit and dividend growth. Meanwhile, several of their U.S. offices began to shrink.

Did the outsourcing strategy work as intended? That's a hard question to answer. The local office had regular meetings where employees were told that “although we're facing lean times now, the future looks bright!” And, “The company is doing well overall!” I think, however, that they may have missed at least one 2009 earnings target.

They began to rely heavily on outsourcing in order to boost profits and increase competitiveness in a shrinking market, but I think the best they have been able to do is to slow their own bleeding. One other problem they have is that because they are so large, their business model depends on securing long-term contracts with large clients. This is the only way they can profitably support their large cadre of middle and upper managers. Outsourcing was a way for them to lower their fees in order to win these clients while maintaining their revenue flows.

But the supply of large, stable clients with lots of construction capital is drying up. Or at least, that's what I suspect, based on what I've seen over the last year. This is a natural consequence of a contracting global economy, in which both private and government clients have become so heavily indebted that it is becoming clear that they can't repay their debts. This is something I knew about via the news and blogs I read (read the May 10 post from the Automatic Earth blog to see how this is playing out in Europe) – yet I hadn't experienced it as directly until my own work started drying up and the firm I worked for began to shrink. For I also worked at a typical large firm. The story I told you about one particular large firm applies to most of the major players, I suspect. And it goes to show that a person is not always confined to reading the news – sometimes he gets to live the news as well.

As I said, I worked (or more accurately, used to work) at a typical large firm. But I found myself at home twiddling my thumbs for several weeks this year, due to lack of work. By now I have become addicted to groceries and hot and cold running water, so I needed to find a way to support my habit. I discovered that while the large firms seem to be contracting in several regions of the U.S., there were small firms that were still able to find plenty of work. As I once said to a co-worker, “It's easier for a cat to survive on a diet of mice than it is for a grizzly bear.” All the elk and moose seem to be disappearing. I am now at a cat-sized (smaller) firm.

This firm's projects rarely exceed a few hundred thousand dollars. Many of them are in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. There's still a lot of work to be done for that kind of money. It's quick-turnaround, bang-it-out work – and it keeps me on my toes. Yet even this I do not expect to last, due to the ecological and resource constraints which initiated our economic contraction in the first place. I think the economy still has a lot of shrinkage left to endure.

Therefore, my eyes are still open to options. One such option is teaching. God willing, I will be teaching a quarter of a sophomore engineering class as an adjunct at a local college. This college also does research on renewable energy, so I'll have a chance to rub shoulders with some bright people who can educate me as to just what can and cannot be accomplished on a societal level with the renewable energy options currently available. I suspect that the application of renewables will involve asking hard-headed questions about what a particular energy source is actually good for, and whether certain applications need this source or whether they are better performed using more low-tech methods. In other words, I think that the next few years will force us to triage our industrial society and its living arrangements. I suspect that engineering in the U.S. will soon be mainly about designing small-scale systems appropriate for poor communities. The future, moreover, will belong to people who know how to do productive things, not to people who only know how to "manage." Those who can teach others how to do productive things will enjoy a special place in their communities.

By the way, if you want to read an article on the ethics of outsourcing U.S. construction engineering projects to other countries, check this out: “Outsourcing Affects Civil Engineers, Too.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Waiting for a Chicken Tenders Platter at Applebee's...

One night last week, I had a work-related evening appointment which lasted until nearly 9 PM. I wasn't thrilled about having to fix myself dinner at that hour, so I went to an Applebee's near my house. Lately the Applebee's chain has been hosting live music at some of its locations (along with other odd variations on the “family restaurant” theme, such as face painting.) I ordered my usual and waited.

As I waited I heard a young woman, a solo acoustic singer-songwriter type who was strumming away on her guitar and singing lyrics of the “confessional” sort. Most people were oblivious to her, but because she was situated next to the bar, some of the patrons there applauded her at the end of each song she sang. One middle-aged man was paying particular attention to her, repeatedly asking her if she would come away to Australia with him. Later on he began to harmonize with her, contributing “oohs” and “ahhs” that were actually in key, surprisingly enough. Still, his “contributions” got on my nerves, and I was glad that I was sitting several tables away. At one point, the man asked her, “Can you rock out?!” “Yeah, when I have my band!” was her answer.

I found myself asking myself why this woman was singing at an Applebee's on a week night. This led to the larger question of why there were so many people like her, both male and female, whose chosen ambition was to make it big as rock or pop stars or singer-songwriters. After all, the field is very crowded and after a while, everyone starts to sound the same. “Making it” in the business has come to mean being signed by some major record label, and becoming rich and famous shortly thereafter. But the music “industry” has many gatekeepers who have turned music into a standardized, commoditized package consisting of a limited selection of musical “flavors.” I am sure that it's very hard for an artist to be widely heard outside the dominant system.

What of those who are outside the dominant system? It seems to me that one key to their continued existence (and happiness) is that they've lowered or altered their expectations of what they want to get out of their music. They have turned their backs on trying to be famous. If they are trying to make a living, it's via teaching (or busking) or performing at weddings and other functions – and they have a backup “day job.” Otherwise, they play just for the fun of it. (Maybe that's what that woman at Applebee's was doing.)

This got me thinking about blogging. The same sorts of questions could be asked of many bloggers, especially the left-leaning, anti-materialist sort who write politically-tinged blogs. “Why do you do it?” And, “Don't you know that you all are a dime a dozen by now? Who pays attention to you, anyway?” “You think you're gonna change the world just because you went to Guitar Center and bought a guitar and an amp?” “You think you're gonna change the world just because you started a blog?”

There's an uncomfortable reality behind these questions. One blogger said recently that in the United States, we have the illusion of freedom of speech. This is because while anyone can say almost anything they want, the chances of any ordinary person being heard by a large audience are very small. The balance of media power is still skewed very much in favor of a small number of very wealthy people who have inordinate media access, and who use that access to unrelentingly hammer home their message, their worldview, and an agenda that is harmful to many.

But there is a further problem, namely, that most of America has been advertised to death by now. As a result, most of us are jaded. In the minds of many of us, anyone who has a message must have some ulterior motive which will cost us dearly if we allow ourselves to be persuaded by the message being offered. “Besides, we've heard it all before,” many of us say. “Why should I trust you?”

I don't have easy answers to any of these questions. I have to admit that when I first started blogging, I guess I had some half-conscious idea that “I could change the world” – maybe just a little. Now I'm much less optimistic. At this time in our national and societal history, when we are facing a comprehensive predicament that will require intelligence, maturity and the starting of adult conversations that most people would rather not have, the best I can hope for is that I can engage a handful of others in an adult conversation. And I appreciate the conversations of some of my fellow bloggers, conversations which I have been privileged to join. We can think of ourselves as participants in a “house concert.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Deepwater Event Horizon

I was sitting in a job safety training meeting this morning. The trainers challenged us all to examine our attitudes toward jobsite safety, especially attacking the assumption which they believe to be prevalent among many employees that “what really matters to our company is the bottom line. If safety interferes with the bottom line, then safety has to take a back seat.” The trainers emphatically stated that at their jobsite, safety is always first.

This got me thinking about the recent deepwater oil well blowout and sinking of the British Petroleum mobile rig Deepwater Horizon. I haven't been able to follow the story as closely as I should, but I do know a few things, namely, that the sinking of the rig killed eleven people onboard; that according to reliable sources, the rig was the deepest in the world; and that for years its owner, BP, had fought the sort of safety regulations that would have prevented a disaster of the magnitude we now see. The ruptured well is leaking between 5000 and 25,000 barrels of oil per day at present (depending on whose estimate you believe), and has leaked enough oil to form a slick bigger than Rhode Island. BP's present efforts at inserting a concrete cap on the sea floor will only deal with one source of leakage; by now there are several. And there is a chance that the cap will not work as intended. Moreover, it may be months before BP can stop the leak fully. Lastly, this massive oil leak comes during both the spawning season for a lot of sea wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, and the beginning of the tropical storm season in the Atlantic.

Although I am an engineer, I am by no means an expert on the oil industry. But I am a student of human nature. I remember the strategy of the McCain-Palin campaign in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, and how the Republicans and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News blamed high energy prices on “excessive” Democratic/leftist concerns over the environment. The Republican message was simple: “Drill here, drill now, pay less,” and they wanted to open up all of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the United States and its coastal waters to oil drilling. The Gulf Coast states were all Republican-leaning “red states” in the 2008 election, with the exception of Florida.

Now they are about to be baptized in oil.

I wonder how many Republican-leaning good-ole-boy commercial fishermen will have their businesses wiped out this year by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I wonder how many coastal residents will be sickened by toxic chemicals washing up onto their beaches. I wonder how much of an economic disaster the Gulf Coast will have to face from the spill. More importantly, I wonder how many of these people will be both able and willing to connect the dots between their lifestyles and electoral choices and the oil now killing their ocean. “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Or as J.R.R. Tolkein once wrote, “The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

That is generally true, I suppose – unless someone interferes with the lesson of the burned hand by drugging the burn sufferer. And Fox News is a willing pusher of drugs these days. Their coverage of the disaster has painted BP in a very positive, almost heroic light, while greatly exaggerating the effectiveness of the work done by BP to date to stop the oil leaks. They have also tried blame shifting, questioning whether the Obama administration's response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster was effective enough. They have downplayed reports of dead animals washing up on Gulf Coast shores, saying, “...even though the dead turtles and jellyfish washing ashore along the Gulf of Mexico are clean, and scientists have yet to determine what killed them, many are just sure the flow of crude unleashed by the explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon is the culprit.” And in an unbelievable display of bad timing, they have even revived the “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” mantra, as stated in an opinion piece written by Newt Gingrich yesterday. I have compared Fox to a collection of drug pushers, but to publish the kind of distortions they do they must all be taking mind-altering drugs. Then again, money is a drug, and some people will do anything to get some of it.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is an example of the risks that come with trying to exploit ultra-deepwater oil reserves. Many respectable analysts do not believe that deepwater oil will save the world from a post-Peak state of affairs. But deepwater oil can make one really huge mess. How much more can the earth's oceans take before all the life in them collapses?


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Post-Peak Health Care - The Revival of Midwives

The global industrial economy is contracting because its resource base is contracting. This contraction is occurring throughout the First World, including the United States of America. For ordinary people experiencing everyday life in the U.S., this means that the large, complex, centralized systems for meeting our needs are becoming increasingly unaffordable. This unaffordability is an early sign that these systems are breaking down.

Mainstream health care in the U.S. is one such breaking system. Health care spending is higher in the United States than in any other industrialized nation, yet health care outcomes in the U.S. are quickly becoming the worst of any industrialized nation. In a recent study published in the medical journal Lancet, the United States placed 49th in longevity for adult women and 45th in longevity for adult men. This is worse than all of Western Europe, as well as countries like Peru, Chile, Libya, Costa Rica, Canada and Cuba. (Sources: Adult mortality rate figures put Canada ahead of US” and “Adult mortality trends reveal massive global inequalities rise”.)

The Federal government and the media recently declared American health care to be a “crisis” needing a “solution,” but that solution turned into a mere discussion of “health insurance reform.” Out of this discussion came a law designed to force most Americans to buy health insurance. The law does not prevent insurance companies from continuing to raise their premiums to unaffordable levels, nor does it address the real problems of American health care. Health care has not been fixed in the U.S., and our system is still on its way to a massive breakdown.

Yet there are emerging, local, decentralized systems for care. These systems and approaches depend primarily on the skill of their practitioners, and do not lean heavily on expensive, technology-driven complexity of our mainstream model of medical care. Midwifery is one such system and approach. Midwifery is an ancient skill which has enjoyed thousands of years of peaceful practice, as well as periods of persecution and suppression during periods when doctor-based care was gaining ascendancy. In the U.S., the most recent period of suppression was during the early part of the 20th century, when the American Medical Association worked to marginalize and criminalize midwifery as “the practice of medicine without a license or proper training.”

But in recent decades midwifery has experienced a resurgence, as more women have become dissatisfied with the standard doctor/hospital approach to childbearing. In our present time of economic contraction midwifery has become even more relevant, as standard health care becomes ever more expensive and ever more people lose access to this care because of loss of income.

Thus I found myself recently checking out the Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland Oregon, as part of my ongoing coverage of post-Peak health care. I had the opportunity to meet with Holly Scholles, founder and head of the College, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed by me. We had a long and interesting discussion about the history of Birthingway, the history of midwifery in the United States, the 20th century attacks on midwifery by the American Medical Association (as documented in the book Midwifery and Childbirth in America by Judith Rooks), and the present state of the practice of midwifery. Some interesting facts came out, such as the fact that outcomes with midwives practicing according to modern techniques are better than outcomes for doctor/hospital-based births; the fact that births by caesarian section have risen drastically over the last two decades, even though historically they were necessary on only five to fifteen percent of cases, and the fact that the introduction of expensive medical technologies has not necessarily improved birth outcomes overall.

Holly took me on a tour of the College, where I saw a community lactation coaching center, available free of charge to residents from low-income neighborhoods; an impressively well-stocked library full of medical journals, training media and books, and computers with access to online resources; a mock “birth center” complete with beds; and an herb garden for the growing of medicinal plants used in childbirth. The herb garden is interesting, because this interest in herbs is also shared by health care practitioners who are part of the Cuban health-care system. Forward-thinking groups such as these are actively building their knowledge of medicinal herbs, a useful thing in times in which many standard Western pharmaceuticals may no longer be available.

Birthingway is a good example of many useful elements of post-Peak adaptation, and not just in relation to health care. First, they are an example of people who know a vital, necessary skill, and who know how to apply it in an increasingly low-tech world. Secondly, they are part of the continuation and preservation of a useful body of knowledge. Third, they are an example of an emergent, grass-roots, bottom-up response to needs in both health care and education. Holly and I discussed all of these elements in our interview, and I hope to touch on these in more depth in a future post.

For further reading, feel free to check these links:

As to the interview, a podcast of it can be found at the Internet Archive, at “Post-Peak Healthcare - The Revival of Midwives.” (I have one confession: being a newbie podcaster, I failed to make sure my recorder's batteries were fully charged before the interview. So you'll only hear a part of it. Still, there's over 45 minutes of audio there. And I am planning to conduct a follow-up interview to cover things that were missed. There will also soon be a transcript of this week's interview.)

There's also a short video clip of my visit on Vimeo, or you can watch it below:

Post-Peak Health Care - The Revival of Midwives from TH in SoC on Vimeo.