Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Literature and the Long Decent

I recently finished Sharon Astyk's excellent and book, Depletion and Abundance, and have begun The Long Descent, by the little known author John Michael Greer, who lives just a stone's throw away in Ashland, OR. So far, the book is exceptional, and has some of the most readable prose and rational long term thinking about the decline and fall of industrial civilization that I've yet read. Where James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency was perhaps the wittiest and most nhilistic, Sharon Astyk's the most inspirational, and Richard Heinberg's Peak Everything the most informative, on the subject of peak oil and resources, so far, Greer's has been the most poetic.
I separate peak oil and climate change in my mind as two separate entities because mainly, the subjects are separated, if unintentionally by their authors. Sharon Astyk points out, quite accurately, that they are approached by two different modes of thought. Peak oil is often studied by those who are concerned with the immanent danger to themselves or their families, and climate change science is often approached by those whose main concern is one of altruism for future generations. Both are legitimate concerns, and really, they should be viewed as one in the same problem: that is, the excessive consumption of resources by our industrial civilization an it's unreasonable expectations for the future.

They are, of course, the same problem, but again, she wisely notes, that they are both so major, and so pressing, that they frequently end up in competition with one another because they are simply too much for the psyche of the world to accept as one problem. For instance, my mother provides an excellent, if tragic, example.
When she discovered that her cancer was certainly terminal, and it had metastasized throughout much of her body- she was told that she could (an encouraged) to aggressively treat her liver cancer, though she would certainly perish of the lung cancer she also had shortly thereafter (if they were to miraculously cure the former). Now it is widely known that lung cancer is much more painful and unpleasant to die of, and she reasonably said
"Well, why bother treating one if I'm just going to die from the other?" but this did not, apparently, occur to the people who had suggested the expensive and experimental treatment for the liver cancer. It seems obvious. It's cancer- it's terminal- why *potentially* extend your life by a few paltry months if your death will be so much worse in the end? But this is the meat of the problem that we will face in the coming years, and I personally expect our world to opt for the futile treatment.
That is, when we run short of oil, as the Nazis did in WWII, we will expend every resource we have left to make liquid coal fuels in our cars an trucks. We will almost undoubtedly be in such fierce denial that we burn every last ounce of extractable fossil fuel to maintain our fading way of life.

My mother chose dignity and the brevity of a life lived by the ideals she had always maintained. One of the things her mother recounted to me before her recent passing was an idyllic scene of a daughter eschewing her mother's help at doing dishes
"Me do it my own self!" She exclaimed, and this is very much the way the rest of her life was lived. To face her own problems without unnecessary intervention or help- but we will not be so brave, I think. We will perhaps see the problem- I think we already do (peak oil)- but we will choose to ignore it until it becomes intertwined inexorably with a new an bigger problem (climate change) and perhaps we already have gotten to the point where the two have become one.
John Michael Greer speaks eloquently of past civilizations crumbling and declining until the feats of their ancestors become myth and legend. He mentions that in the future, a man walking on the moon might fade into such. It does not seem unreasonable, but it really hit me with a force that sustained-
We are not destined for the stars, as I and so many others (Carl Sagan, for one) had hoped, but instead for the earth. Our cities will crumble into dust and our children will live, confused, resentful, angry, and perhaps desperate in the rubble.
At some distant and unimaginable time not too long from now, the idea of space travel will be the stuff of fairy tales, not of the evening news.
We think that technology can invent a way but of a finite world only because we are so engrossed in our consumption. It would be wise for us to remember that Einstein said (misquoted her) you cannot invent your way out of a problem using the same technology that created it. We cannot solve our problems with technology. It is not a source of energy, but an invention of it.
We have burned hundres of millions of years of condensed sunlight in the space of a couple hundred years. We feel entitled to more only because we do not remember our lives before it.
Like a man at a fine dinner imagining the next course of his meal, but the larder is empty. He cannot conceive that there will be no dessert, only desert.
It is hard to swallow, even for me, but the longer I look, the more barren the pantry appears. I realize I've eaten all my rations and left nothing for tomorrow.
I feel especially bad about this for my son.
I've begun writing him a journal- like Sarah Connor but on paper rather than tape.
In case I cannot tell him I am sorry tomorrow, I tell him today.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Climate change? What climate change?

Heat Wave Hits Poorest Communities, at Time.com
This one is a good one, as it's centered around those most vulnerable to global warming and climate change, the poor. Easily ignored by media, this growing sector of the American population is especially at risk when heat waves and catastrophic weather events occur.

Massive heat wave scorches central U.S. and expands east, as drought continues in South, at the Washington Post
This one has some excellent data, and a bunch of scary looking statistical image renderings.

U.S. drought monitor updated July 12, 2011, showing the extent of drought conditions across the country.

I like this one a lot because it's titled "Severe Weather: 'Get Used to It' Say Climatologists".
It's got a tone that reads to me like
"Well what the hell did you expect when we told you to stop your carbon burning or you'd destroy the planet? Huh? Yeah, that's right morons." Which is so satisfying for someone like me, who's been obsessed with climate change for years and has gotten so used to people denying it, that I don't even bother trying to contradict them any longer, I just say
"We'll see." and bide my time until they realize they were were punching their bad data into the WRONG-O-MATIC 3000.
Here's my favorite part:
"When scientists talk about global warming causing more heat waves, people often ask if that means that the hottest temperatures will become 'the new normal,'" Diffenbaugh said. "That got us thinking: At what point can we expect the coolest seasonal temperatures to always be hotter than the historically highest temperatures for that season?" No need to wait long, the researchers said, because the heat is already here.
"We find that the most immediate increase in extreme seasonal heat occurs in the tropics, with up to 70 percent of seasons in the early 21st century (2010-2039) exceeding the late-20th century maximum," the authors wrote.
Wide swaths of North America, China and Mediterranean Europe are also likely to enter into a new heat regime by 2070, they said.
After a year filled with severe weather events, it would seem that even climate change skeptics may begin to change their tune.
In February, Chicago was hit with a blizzard that killed seven people and left cars stranded on Lake Shore Drive in nearly two feet of snow.
That heavy snow led to severe flooding from Illinois to New Orleans in the past couple months as the Mississippi River swelled in size. Thousands of people were driven from their homes as flood waters engulfed their neighborhoods.
Monster tornados wiped out huge parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.
In Texas, 168 homes have been destroyed in what is a record wildfire season that has already blackened nearly 5,500 square miles. That is more than the previous two years combined, and an area larger than the state of Connecticut."

That's right, bitches

Anyway, this is all no-duh stuff, but there's a pretty absurd percentage of people who deny climate change, and just thinking about them kind of makes me nauseous. In fact, according to Energy Boom, only 58% of Americans believe they've got anything to worry about from all their car farts and subsidised beef production.

If people really do think that there's no such thing as global climate change, that I assume that they'll be happy to give their air conditioners to the poor, because certainly they won't be needing them if there's not going to be any trouble from mama nature in the coming years.

I'm just so done trying to talk sense into anyone about this. These dweebs could move to Tuvalu, and when it sinks from rising sea levels, they'll just say that the ocean is rising because God is crying from all the homosexuals being able to marry in New York or something. Whatever. Let them ignore it, it's happening with or without them. You can deny that you just stepped on a rusty nail and still get tetanus, fine with me, but I'm going to the fucking hospital.

Actually, the fact that I'm especially aware, and relatively well versed in climatology for a nobody, doesn't do me any good at all. There is no hospital to go to. Again, it's a case of awareness being really great as far as foreseeing what's likely to happen next and base my lifestyle, place of residence, investments, and family choices on the information I have, but there's absolutely jack that I can do to prevent it or actually protect myself from the effects of it, outside of choosing to live in an area that is *less* susceptible to the immediate effects of global warming, water shortages, etc.

James Howard Kunstler suggests, in "The Long Emergency" that in a resource depleted world that's also facing climate change, the Pacific Northwest's only real downside is that it's likely to be swarmed with climate refugees, which is probably accurate. We may suffer from an extraordinary influx of people from other parts of the country (or world) whose homes were in places that are less prepared for the future.

For instance, the Midwest is basically desert with a mm of topsoil, and certainly not fit for the comparatively (to it's ideal population- ie, 5 people and a few vultures) gargantuan number of folks it currently supports.
 The American Southwest is probably in the worst possible position, and I think personally that Las Vegas is very likely to be the absolute #1 worst place to live in the USA right now as far as climate change, petroleum and energy dependence, and water availability (!!!!) go. There'll be a mass exodus from there for sure. When I think of Las Vegas now, all I see in my mind's eye is a giant black hole sucking resources into it, and spitting out casino tokens, meth, glitter, and alcaholism.  
The "Deep South" is arguably as bad or worse, since it's even more susceptible to importation of tropical diseases. Also, people on the coastlines are going to be subjected to intesely nasty storms, seawater encroachment into fresh water supplies, and habitat loss.
The East and the Northeast are in a much better climactic region, but face a huge probable with overpopulation already, which the Pacific Northwest does not, and I think this gives us a key advantage.
Boy, am I glad I bought a house here!


There's a lot to be freaked out and worried about, but I personally feel that of all the places to be in the world, this is likely among the most secure .
(I reserve the right to amend my opinion based on new information or gangs of Asian pirates plundering the coast for resources)

I'll leave you with this delightful little gem I came across a while ago:

Yep, you're all gonna die

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why I have yet to choose voluntary simplicity, some thoughts on consumption in a depleted world

So I've been very, very slowly reading Sharon Astyk's book, Depletion and Abundance, and she talks quite a bit about the Riot for Austerity. It's a brilliant idea she and a friend had for trying to reduce the total emissions for their households by 90%, the staggering estimated necessary reduction in total greenhouse gasses to make a dent in climate change. By and large she's been successful, hovering very close to the target for some time.
Here's the thing though: Sharon Astyk is an exceptional person willing to make great personal changes in her life to do what she thinks is right, up to and including completely altering every facet of her daily existence.
I have to say I admire her dedication immenselyy, but I'm not certain I'm willing to give up my prepackaged Trader Joes Indian food, or use a composting toilet, or farm every square inch of my yard.

Cool? Yes. An assload of work? Also yes.

I know that eventually many things I love will become either unavailable due to shortages or impractical due to rising petroleum prices (Internet, mangoes, car trips, etc) but I really enjoy many of those things, and if at some point soon I suspect/ know they will be taken from me, I plan to (not excessively) enjoy them while I still have them.
My house uses about the average for electricity, maybe a little above- but mostly because there are 5 people living in my home, including four adults. (we rent out the master bedroom to a couple) If I divided it into 2 households, which would be more accurate, or per capita (excluding the baby, of course) it looks pretty good.
Anyway, I enjoy the idea of living simply.
I would like to live a more streamlined, elegant, natural life- less TV, fewer lights, less heating and a/c, more misting bottles of cold water, afternoons gardening, and natural light. But I don't want to do these things because we will soon deplete our worlds natural resources.
I want to do these things because they sound nice.

 With nearly seven billion people on this planet, I see depletion as being absolutely inevitable.
We're like an algae bloom- a red tide. We've acquired the ability to extract and utilize massive natural resources, but as they dwindle, so too will we, but not willingly, I think- and probably not gently- algae don't say
"Oh, sorry, there doesn't seem to be enough for all of us anymore so I guess me and my family will just starve and let you chow down. Cheerio, mate!"

Are you gonna eat that?

My best friend (and great mind) Paris said to me, regarding someone who attempts to live a carbon neutral life:
"It's like a fart in a blizzard."
I laughed hysterically when she said this, only partially because of it's crass charm. More than anything, it's so deftly accurate that I think perhaps the saying was coined specifically for this occasion.
I understand the virtue of setting a good example, or consuming less because you feel morally obligated to pick up some of the slack of your energy-obese countrymen. I understand these things, and I see that using less is a good way to prepare for a future of using less, but if this is the last decade I'll ever be able to have my a/c, then by George I'm not going to feel guilty for enjoying a little artificial cooling in the brutal August afternoons.
We are, as a species, going to use up whatever energy and resources we can glom our claws into, and I'm not going to make a dent in that, no matter how much of my amenities I discard.
However, I'm not going to be a conscientious consumer, and I will try to use as little as I comfortably can simply because I aesthetically enjoy simplicity, I prefer organic food, I feel morally better about refurbishing instead of buying new, and the bus is convenient and cheap. There are tons of reasons I have for not going out and just being a resource black hole, but none of them is because we're running low.

Since I wholeheartedly believe that we are headed for a (possibly violent and brutal) collapse of industrialized civilization, and that said collapse is certainly coming within my lifetime, I don't see why the hell I should give up running water now, if I might be forced to do it eventually anyway.

Yes, please

Sharon Astyk argues convincingly that it's a great preparation technique, and that you buffer yourself for inevitable change by not depending on the things that are likely to become scarce, and I do see the merits of this approach, but at least for now I'm not willing to give up my Xbox.
Maybe I'll change my mind at some point soon, but for now. I'm just not willing to dedicate the time and energy to keeping chickens or using a wood stove (though they do sound kind of fun).

I would like to have, or to learn to use all of these things as back-ups, however. I've seriously considered building a simple brick oven in my backyard, learning to can and root cellar produce, etc.
I'm also beginning to try and garden as intensively as my small, shady yard permits, and have just invested in some wonderful blueberry bushes to occupy some of the choicest spots. I would like to make the transition as easy on myself and my family as I comfortably can, the key concept here being comfortably. If and when electricity becomes scarce, I will just have to make do without my fridge and stove. It will suck, truly, and be a really big pain in the ass, but I'll learn to cope.
We all will learn to cope.
We'll have to.

Preparedness is surely valuable- and asceticism is noble, indeed. Depending on as few external inputs as you can is admirable. If I lost my job in the conventional economy my family would likely be up shit creek. We'd be able to scrape by if we canceled netflix, Internet, our phones, and let the car get repoed- but boy, I sure don't want to let go of those things until I have to.
It seems to me that being aware of what's coming provides a huge level of preparedness in and of itself. I can take this time that we have left in this era of plenty to stock up on things like hand tools, re insulate my basement, and learn new skills at my leisure.
It's way too easy to get overwhelmed and stressed out about the future of our world, and may be good for those of us who are immersed in learning about this grim stuff to step back for a minute and take some of the pressure off.
I really admire the folks who do things like set up transition towns or exist on subsistence lifestyles. Maybe I'll get there someday too, but not yet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Have you Heard the Good News?

I just read the article in the current print edition of the Portland Tribune "Cultivating a New Urban Trend", and was delighted and heartened to see such a program exists in my area. It's only a shame it's not more extensive.
It would be delightful if there were victory-garden growing classes too, for urban-dwelling wannabe food producers like me. I can read a bazillion books on gardening in the pacific Northwest and still not have any real idea what that icky looking fungus is or how to combat it, or why my potatoes all died, or how much sun, really, do peas need to produce. What can I do with my shady spots? How does one prune a grapevine, exactly? What's the best way to attract pollinators without planting invasive species? How will/ might climate change affect our garden crops? Etc etc etc.

Sharon Astyk talks a lot about redefining the word "farmer" to include serious home gardeners, too- not just people whose livelihoods depend on their farms. It is an excellent idea, because after all, there are many small time farmers whose family members (or even themselves) have to work in the formal economy to help support their homes- does that mean they're not farmers, too?

Basically, I think the whole concept of bringing farming back to being a profession that *everyone* does or contributes to to some degree, even if it's just growing herbs in the windowsill of your apartment, is what we need to be working towards.
I myself am a bumbling and inept gardener, just beginning to have any real grasp of the complexity involved in food production from an urban plot. My container garden is an uncontested failure, and I can only hope that my new plans for permaculture-oid fruit cultivation won't fall on it's face quite as hard.
But as difficult as it is, the rewards are so, so very sweet that I can't possibly stop Additionally, if everyone in my city would replace their beautiful, but impractical, flower beds with herb gardens or vegetable patches- we'd be in a much better position to face the coming shortages.
I would, personally, love to learn how to use every square inch of my property to help me in the quest for food security, but I know it's going to take a lot of hard work and not a few mistakes before I get it right.

In any event, it's a little uplifting news in a field of sometimes grim facts.

I've put up a number of links to my favorite blogs today, as well as a page called "essential basics", which is still under construction but that currently has a bunch of great stuff on it.

Pictured above, my fig tree and tiny front yard filled with lavender and rosemary

some  cool stuff after the jump

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Dangers of Optmistic Environmentalism

Last night, I read this article in Rolling Stone. I had high hopes, since I respect and admire Al Gore's persistent, if somewhat futile and muddled, campaigning for better climate-conscious legislation.
I was reminded viscerally of an excellent essay in Richard Heinberg's exceptional book Peak Everything, called "Bridging Peak Oil and Climate Change Activism" in which he points out, essentially, that where these two intertwined and equally important fields of study should be like conjoined twins- inseparable and interdependent- they are in fact acting like competitive teenage siblings, each certain that it is more important than the other, and each vying for all the attention and love, instead of working together.
Gore says:
"We do have another choice. Renewable energy sources are coming into their own. Both solar and wind will soon produce power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels; indications are that twice as many solar installations were erected worldwide last year as compared to 2009. The reductions in cost and the improvements in efficiency of photovoltaic cells over the past decade appear to be following an exponential curve that resembles a less dramatic but still startling version of what happened with computer chips over the past 50 years.
Enhanced geothermal energy is potentially a nearly limitless source of competitive electricity. Increased energy efficiency is already saving businesses money and reducing emissions significantly. New generations of biomass energy — ones that do not rely on food crops, unlike the mistaken strategy of making ethanol from corn — are extremely promising. Sustainable forestry and agriculture both make economic as well as environmental sense. And all of these options would spread even more rapidly if we stopped subsidizing Big Oil and Coal and put a price on carbon that reflected the true cost of fossil energy — either through the much-maligned cap-and-trade approach, or through a revenue-neutral tax swap."
This is such a heartbreaking thing to read because it shows that even one of the most passionate and noted climate change advocates has deep misunderstandings about the nature of available resources on our planet.
I'm not saying that energy efficient light bulbs and reusable grocery bags aren't the bees knees, but that is NOT going to cut it.
What I'm getting at here is something that's been pointed out by almost every peak oil/mineral advocate and should be utterly self evident to anyone wanting to restructure our energy consumption: We simply don't have enough stuff to create and maintain a new energy infrastructure. Both solar panels and wind turbines require rare earth minerals that are already in short supply. It's a nice idea, but it will never ever happen. The only way to reduce pollution is to reduce consumption.

Only a steep population decline (voluntary or not), an abandoning of all the products and services we love and cherish (TV, cars, computers, indoor heating and cooling, grocery stores, cheap clothes, etc), or a global economic disaster (what James Howard Kunstler refers to aptly as The Long Emergency) will drastically reduce our resource use... until of course those resources become so expensive that it becomes unreasonably inefficient to extract what's left of them.

While some theorize that we still have "time" to change, and some say it's too late- I personally think that it doesn't matter. Even if we did have time to change our ghastly habits, we won't.
Call me a sour Susan but it seems laughable to think that we'll all voluntarily switch off our a/cs and stop going to the mall to eat Sbarros Pizza and buy plastic jewelry and sweatshop jeans. Unless we simply can't afford to do those things, or they're wrenched from our cold, dead fingers, we will keep doing it till it kills us. We're addicted- like- SERIOUSLY addicted, and we're going to mainline that shit until we're dead in some squat in Hell's Kitchen with needles sticking out from our arms.
IMHO, of course, but this is all beside the point-

The misapprehension that we can continue on as we are if we all just recycle a little more and invest more in natural and renewable energies has become so deeply embedded in the environmental movement because no one has the balls to say (or possibly the knowledge that) "It takes a carbon based infrastructure to build and maintain a "renewable resource" infrastructure, and we have neither the resources, the political will, nor the social awareness to undertake such a massive shift."

When Bush sr. (then co opted by Dick Cheny and GWB) said
"The American way of life is not negotiable"- I don't think he was just being a snarky republican. I've seen "Think Green" stickers on more minivans than I can shake a stick at. We just don't GET it.

I watched a terrible commercial recently for Tom's of Maine where Sheryl Crow postures thoughtfully with her guitar and says deep shit like (I'm paraphrasing here)
"I have a philosophy that it's not about doing everything, it's about doing what you can" - This is dangerous thinking, but it's what most of us indulge in.
It's easy to try and hoist the moral burden of pollution and climate change off of our shoulders by buying organic- being environmentally aware is depressing, and it becomes a perfect storm of overwhelming horrors when you calculate in peak oil, and the looming economic collapse- I don't blame people for not facing the truth; but while climate change is a vague sort of
"We'll let our kids/grand kids deal with it in 60 years" thing, peak oil is happening NOW. We are ON the "Bumpy Plateau" where we are producing at maximum- and as demand continues to rise, so too do prices, which decreases demand, and then prices drop- but not back to where they started, because now the oil that we have left is more expensive to extract- but the prices drop enough so that demand rises, then prices go up again- but this time a little higher-
This is a game we simply can NOT play forever. Oil prices will never drop down to a buck a gallon ever again, no matter how much we subsidize.
It becomes less of a moral issue and more of a practical one. As much as the techno-fixers and optimists among us would love to build a nation of solar panels and wind turbines and geothermal plants- of high speed rails and hydrogen powered cars and organic farms.... it's simply not viable. Not only will it not happen for political reasons- it CAN'T happen. We do not posses enough raw materials to restructure our world to a more environmentally friendly one...... but then again, we can't keep going the way we're going either- Again- we are going to run into the wall of infinite demand VS a finite world.

We are going to have to (probably involuntarily) learn to live within our means- and in a world with 7 billion people facing a drastically changing climate- that is not going to happen the way we would like it to. I want to be positive about this, to see it as an opportunity for the human race to de-globalize and live a more peaceful agrarian lifestyle, but I don't think it's going to happen the way that the optimists predict- not because we are not capable of a gentle transition, but because nobody, not the oil execs all the way to Al Gore, will admit that we are living on borrowed resources even now.

The idea that we can/ will go on as before with just a few minor concessions is just the kind of magical thinking that is going to totally cripple our preparedness for the reality that is hurtling towards us.
We could soften the blow- or rather- advocates, writers, and activists could (because policymakers, government, and corporations won't and it's a joke to think we could influence their behavior) by simply making the public aware that they're about to run short or food, fuel, and plastic- so conserve and re purpose as much as you can- buy hand tools, learn to garden or knit or fix shit and you'll be in a much better position to protect the interests of yourself and those you love from the inevitable shift towards a post carbon life. The new American subsistence existence.

We're like Wiley Coyote walking over a cliff- still walking, we haven't looked down yet- but when we do- oh baby. We'll fall hard and fast.
I hope I'm wrong, I really do, but I think it's pretty indicative that I'm not when even people like Al Gore- who are in a real position to smack some sense into the common man are instead gently tapping his shoulder and saying
"Excuse me please, I hate to be a bother, but..."

Monday, July 4, 2011

What it's About

I'm mainly going to be using this blog for my own benefit. It's here to post links, photos, and text from interesting articles, videos, etc regarding peak oil, climate change, collapse, and so on.

If you don't know what peak oil or climate change are, or think they're a load of garbage, well, I'm sorry for you (but also a little jealous I can't be so gullible), and I can tell you now you almost certainly won't be interested in this blog.
At the moment I don't have a lot to contibute myself to the conversation, but I listen an awful lot, and I'd really like to keep a good record of things that I've read and seen that I'd like to be able to refer to later.

If you're also watching the poop sling around in the fan blades and looking for a place to hunker down before it splatters everywhere, then ride along with me and my blog and see where we end up.
Ecotopia or total collapse?

Who's on First?
Looks like some brainy and insightful folks over at RSA.
Let's see what they have to say.