Monday, April 28, 2008

Morning Ride

Spring is definitely here now, lots of neotropical migratory birdsong at the dawn chorus, and I need to wear less on my morning bike rides. Those rides are taking me through the surrounding countryside, watching new houses still going up – impractical 3.7 inch stick frames with plywood and asphalt shingle roofs, and cheap doors and windows, that are much too big for one family and going to be quite expensive to heat and cool.

I guess it is a good thing that the banks around here are still lending. The one in Summertown even has a vinyl banner saying they have great rates for new mortgages. I just don't think it is a good time to be borrowing.

Gas stations are pushing at the limits of their abilities to display diesel prices on the old analog pumps – the kind with rolling tumblers. The older ones don’t count to $3 and $4.

My morning rides are a time to clear my head and stimulate my heart, set up my metabolism for the day and work off a few pounds. Despite getting back from an airport pickup last night at midnight, I was up at 6 and pounding the pedals, because that is when the traffic is least and the dogs still indoors or chained up for the night.

On the trip up to Nashville, I parked outside a Quick Mart and a pickup truck parked next to me. I was struck by the juxtaposition of a two-passenger vehicle whose front wheels were taller than the bonnet of my Mini. I am definitely outweighed in a dust-up, and have to rely on staying nimble.

Two new apprentices arrived from Southern Mexico, complaining of airport security hassles that stretched what should have been a 2 hour direct flight into something more than twice that long. They reported that in Mexico the violence is growing quickly now, with the drug gangs fighting the police out in the open, assassinating successive Chiefs of Police in Cancun, and otherwise terrorizing the population. It is beginning to sound like Medellin.

I also learned from them that Spain is suffering a severe water crisis. A few years ago I rode the train from Eiche, Spain to Ventimiglia, Italy and we had to to halt several times and wait for the smoke of wildfires to clear before the train could continue. The Moroccan Desert is crossing the Straits of Gibraltar and spreading up into the Iberian Peninsula. The picturesque fountains in Catalan have run dry. Reservoirs are just 20 percent full after four years of drought, and one is so dry that a village has reappeared after being under water since the river flowing through it was dammed. It is a sweet revenge for the ghosts in that village, some of whom are undoubtedly Moors.

Spain has plans to import water to Barcelona by sea beginning in May and by rail in August. A new pipeline from the Ebro river will be completed in October, but that has angered the regional governments further down the Mediterranean coast in Valencia and Murcia, which rely on the Ebro, a river growing shallower by the day. The delta around Valencia and Murcia is known for growing rice, something the world is seeing significantly less of these days.

I am still trying to get my head around this image of huge tankers docking in Barcelona, offloading water from France.

This year the UN Committee on Sustainable Development’s annual meeting in New York (CSD-16) is a review session of the third implementation cycle. By now, if everything had been going according to plan, “Sustainable Development” would be banging along on all cylinders. Instead, it seems to be limping along, wondering why it cannot reach goals on hunger, water, energy and climate. CSD-16 will focus on the themes Agriculture, Rural development, Land, Drought, Desertification, and Africa. Not much happy to report there. Still, one highlight will be the “City and Farm Linkages” tours that will take delegates to community gardens, city farms, youth and farmers markets, the Union Square Greenmarket with farmers from 200 small farms, and healthy food access programs in the poorest neighborhoods of the City. On May 10 the tours go up to the Hudson Valley to visit 3 farms and a winery in Pine Hill NY. On Sunday May 11 there is at a full day of symposia and workshops at Columbia University addressing Climate change, food security, the role of cities, agrofuels, and soil, water and nutrient conservation. I am tempted to go, except that I know all that and might be more useful here, just doing it.

The tours are free of charge but space is limited so be sure to pre-register if you want to go.

The weekend after that we are hosting our annual herbal workshop with Del Combest. This is a really valuable program, teaching you how to identify, cultivate, harvest, cure, and prepare herbs. Considering how fragile the pharmaceutical pipeline is, it is a wonder to me that more people don’t sign up for this workshop. With only 3 weeks to go, we have zero registrants so far. Del has said he will come down from Virginia where he teaches pharmacology and give the practicum in any event (we have staff and apprentices who are very interested). Do you know how you are going to get medicine for arthritis, pain management, colds and fevers, asthma, blood pressure, or chronic illnesses 10 years from now, when you will probably need them more? If not, think about coming to this.

We’ll be reporting on Del’s workshop and other happenings here at the ETC in our new blog called Terra Firma. Check it out as our Training Center staff takes turns introducing themselves and what they do.

We are getting ready this week for our workshop on biofuel conversion, which treads a narrow line between exacerbating the world food and water crises and getting to the post office (in rural areas like ours Congress stopped the money for home delivery back during the Reagan administration). Our compromise is to use french fry fat until we can grow enough algae or cattails on our waste treatment lagoons to brew our own. If you want to learn how we do it, come on down.

And bring a bicycle.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Wave With Words

Yesterday I met a man who had a wave with words. He was a cognitive semanticist. His name is Joe Brewer. He contributes to an ongoing discussion of climate policy from the viewpoint of cognitive science at

Those who regularly surf NPR or PBS will probably have seen Joe Brewer’s mentor at Berkeley, George Latoff, most often in political campaign season. Latoff is that guy who talks about language, and how conservative spinmeisters have co-opted the discussion by framing the question. Some classic examples are the “death tax,” (for inheritance taxes), “War on Terror” (for illegal, immoral and endless military adventurism), or “intelligent design” (for creationism).

Latoff advises progressives to switch the language back to actually describing what is going on. “Healthy Forests Initiative” should be called “No Tree Left Behind.” “Liberal” means “a command of the basic facts and a sense of being an equal, not a superior.” Progressives have to understand that right-wing think tanks have a four decade jump on them. Ronald Reagan was an A-student of the discipline, learning from S.I. Hiyakawa. But, hey, it is never too late to catch up.

Joe Brewer was an invited speaker at Vanderbilt University’s Interdisciplinary Conference on Climate Change and Consumption, and although I knew nothing about him, once he assumed the podium and began to speak, I closed down my multitasking mind and focused in. This guy had something serious to say.

Brewer told the small room — no more than 20 people in attendance — that the conversation about climate change was teetering precariously on being co-opted by the neoCons, and the way they were doing it was with frames. Even Al Gore was being led by the nose-ring into Fox News’ frames. To defend carbon sequestration he is forced to talk about green tech profitability, or net jobs creation.

Brewer’s central point was that environmentalists, and environmentalism, have been negatively framed. Those treehuggers would have us sacrifice comfort and well-being for the sake of some abstract aesthetic value — polar bears on an ice floe, or a tiny snail darter in a dammed stream.

Some of us are old enough to remember what it was like before Reagan, when saving the global commons for future generations was called “conservation” and those who advocated on behalf of other species were “conservationists.” That was a positive frame — the Good Steward (if The Bible is your bent), or the good parent, if you think of saving something of value for your grandchildren.

So how can we find a better frame for the world after petroleum? Well, for one thing, terms like “positive forcing” or “positive feedback,” which are used by scientists, cannot be used to convey negative climate changes to the general population. We need words that say what they mean, plain and simple. "Petrocollapse" is accurate, but unenticing.

George Latoff, in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant!, advises us that the conservative-liberal “values” dichotomy is really an argument between a strict father and a nurturing mother. Like most ex-colonies, the USA became independent by turning away from its strict (and sadistic) father and choosing instead to be the mother who nurtures and empowers her children.

Latoff says, “[R]ight-wing ideologues have convinced half of the country that the strict father family model, which is bad enough for raising children, should govern our national morality and politics.”

Our national symbol should be Liberty, raising her torch, beckoning us home, not the Eagle, brandishing arrows and hiding behind a shield.

If we talk about fixing the climate crisis by levying carbon taxes, or forcing industries to catch their smoke and bury it, we are still in the strict father frame. David Suzuki, by calling for imprisonment of climate criminals, is speaking George Bush’s language. Instead, let’s ask, what would our mother do?

She would remind us of how being a good parent involves caring for our sick family. Earth needs us. Earth needs her many creatures now going extinct. We need to care. We need to help, restore, and rebuild. We should save water, and soil, and seed for the children, and the grandchildren. Let us raise our children to care. Let us teach them to become good parents themselves.

Drawing upon Brewer’s foundational work, I can restate the NeoCon frame like this:
  • Nature is a resource waiting to be exploited.
  • Wealth is measured by money.
  • Industry makes money, and thus creates wealth.
  • Markets, which aid wealth creation, are naturally good.
  • Any intrusion by government upon free markets is bad.
  • Polluting is the natural consequence of industry, so pollution is an inevitable side-effect of wealth.
  • Protection of the economy and protection of the environment are goals that inevitably conflict.
  • If industry is forced to achieve environmental goals, then companies should be compensated for the cost.
  • The better choice is for governments just to leave it to the markets.
So we see this ends up reading very much like the Warner-Leiberman climate bill, supported by the majority of Blue Dog Democrats, such as Nashville’s Jim Cooper.

Instead of that, we can reframe:
  • Nature is the basis of our survival.
  • Wealth is really about well-being; having good friends, or living in a flourishing community.
  • A healthy economy requires a healthy environment.
  • We all breathe the air. It is our right to have it, and in clean, healthy condition.
  • Markets are tools for achieving societal goals and should serve those purposes.
  • Markets should generate wealth in the broad sense — the health of the planet and future generations.
  • Good government makes markets possible.
  • Unregulated markets destroy the societal goals that created them.
  • Regulation of industry and markets creates real wealth, and enduring wealth, in the broadest sense.
Now we just need to come up with a catchier way to say “net sequestration.”

Monday, April 14, 2008

Change or Die

If George W. Bush seems to have a haggard look and often be heard speaking with a bit of a slur lately, it is just the sound of a legacy crumbling. With that goes the hope of Republicans to install their surrogate for a Bush third term. You’ll forgive the crocodile tears.

Bush’s signature piece in his final year was to have been peace in Palestine, but the emissaries he sent to get it done were as inept at making peace as they were at making war. Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice had promised the Saudi royal family, lifelong friends of the House of Bush, that they would have a roadmap, a road, a full tank of gas, and a cooler of Powershot by now.

They haven’t even found the map.

And the Saudis know it. They have been stalled and jerked around long enough, and its time now to trim the Powershot supply for the American Empire. According to today’s Gulf Daily News ("The Voice of Bahrain") Saudi Arabia has sliced oil production to about nine million barrels per day (bpd).

For those who have been following this, that is another 200,000 bpd cut. Actual Saudi production capacity, which is what the Empire needs to continue, is said by the Saudis to be somewhere north of 11 mbpd, rising to 12.5 mbpd by next year. This latest production cut is not a small overture. It is a slap-down.

The Gulf Daily News cannot be a joy to read at the White House. Global oil consumption will rise by 1.27 mbpd in 2008, the International Energy Agency tells us in its latest monthly report, putting further price pressure on oil products, from gasoline and plastics to fertilizer and jet fuel. Worse, if you look at the USA’s other principal trading partners for crude oil, they are all on the same down escalator, headed for the nearest exit.

Mexico’s giant Cantarell field is in terminal decline and any thought of offshore replacement wells has fallen into a political Marianas Trench. The puppet government installed by Diebold, headed by Felipe Calderon, is being prevented from nationalizing Petroleos Mexicanos by the pot-banging opposition, who knew the election was rigged and now want to protect Mexico’s state-owned company from being looted. Without foreign investments in oil exploration, the Calderon government is forced to choose between skimming PEMEX profits to pay for its economic plan (more tourism) or investing in high-tech offshore drilling technology run by Mexicans. So far, they have preferred to keep skimming. It’s an addiction.

All of that is great news for the fragile coastal environment of Yucatan, but bad news for Houston, where EIA beancounters will soon be seeing much less Mexican crude arriving at refineries. Moreover, in another year or so, Houston shipwatchers will be counting far fewer Venezuelan tankers sailing up the harbor channel.

Part of Venezuela’s mutual defense treaty with China (if China is attacked by, say, Tibet, Venezuela has promised to send troops) allows China to build the special refineries needed to process Orinoco Heavy. Those special refineries never existed outside the USA before, and it means that in a year or so, Venezuelan tankers will be skirting the Penisula de la Guajira and dropping Southwest toward the Panama Canal instead of sailing Northwest past Jamaica and into the Gulf.

Of the four countries that export more than a million barrels of oil to the USA every day, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Venezuela have now begun twisting off their respective spigots, although the pinch and squeeking sound is still a little ways into our future. The fourth dealer is Canada. Can Canada make up the difference? Can any of the smaller suppliers — Nigeria, for instance? No. Of course not.

Peace in Palestine was the precondition that the Saudis placed on giving the USA a chance to transition more smoothly out of the petroleum era, or procrastinate longer, take your choice. With more deaths every day in Gaza —from lack of water, lack of food, lack of hospital access, and lack of hope — the American Empire is now looking more like Napoleon’s legions, right after they took Moscow. It is spread out thinly, with no supply line, in retreat, and the winter is blowing cold.

Just to balance this piece with a prescription for a way out, let me add an epilogue. The day after the US election next November, Mr. Obama needs to find the means to accomplish what Lamar Alexander did when he was elected Governor of Tennessee in 1979. He didn’t wait for the scheduled inauguration, but was directly sworn to the oath of office by the Tennessee Supreme Court in order to bring an abrupt halt to his predecessor’s crime spree.

After that nifty trick, Mr. Obama needs to appoint several emergency commissions. One will have to be for Truth and Reconciliation, or perhaps a Nuremberg trial, assigning responsibility for eight years of murder, torture and mayhem.

Another will focus on the hemorrhaging economy and provide a Rooseveltian program for jobs, housing, rail and agricultural revitalization. Still another will revamp US foreign and military policy, phasing the withdrawals from unsustainable bases all over the world and employing those assets at home, where they can begin the urgent work of greening our deserts, net sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, cleaning up after hurricanes or floods, and making and storing more food.

If too much Fox News has conditioned you to think of Roosevelt as an evil socialist, brace yourself for rapid reconditioning. Capitalism is based on endless growth. We are entering an era of sustained contraction. When Enterprise Capitalism fails, Progressive Social Democracy is a viable alternative to Feudal Theocracy or Militarized Autocracy. Fox News would give you the last of those choices as the best. I’m prodding President Obama towards PSD. We'll need socialized medicine, housing, food security and jobs. We'll need it to be delivered in a local, compassionate, egalitarian and non-bureaucratic fashion.

There will indeed be a need for grand scale public projects. But, instead of building another carrier fleet, the Pentagon can help Mr. Obama build desalination plants on the coasts, powered by wind and tidal energy, to pump water inland to stop the deserts’ spread. Mr. Obama can also shut down NASA’s Mission to Mars and redirect that effort towards renewable energy applications for transportation, communications and vital infrastructure.

I’m only getting warmed up. In his first hundred days, Mr. Obama should announce a program to reverse population growth through family planning and economic incentives. Foreign aid, both monetary and technical, must henceforth be conditioned on good-faith efforts by recipient countries to curb population. At home, we should set a goal of one half in one century (a modest population decline, really — just 0.7 %/yr).

Our atmospheric carbon reduction goal should be 110% by 2010. (Thank you George Monbiot.)

While the private automobile becomes increasingly expensive to fuel and service, public transportation can be publicly subsidized, even free to use in many markets, to speed conversion. Rail nodes will once more extend to every small town and neighborhood, making bike-and-jitney-to-rail possible for many routine needs and permitting freight and commerce to stay in motion. Powering this system can be an giant grid of natural energy systems — rain, sun, wind, tide, wave and geothermal.

This is not a science fiction fantasy. This is inevitable. Or else.
“[S]aid Scrooge, 'answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?'
“Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.”
— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

Our choice is to change or die.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Citizen Species

I thought the narrative Charles Hall posted to the Oil Drum website yesterday made a lot of sense. To wit:
... Oil was cheap, $3.50 a barrel, at the start of 1973. The US was the world’s largest producer. Peak oil had just occurred but no one noticed. Demand kept growing, US supply fell, foreign suppliers gained leverage. Political events and bulldozer accidents intervened. The price increased by a factor of ten, to $35 a barrel. The proportion of GDP that went to buying oil increased from about 4 percent to 13 percent, restricting discretionary spending for all. All around the world oil that had been found but not developed (as it had not been worth much) suddenly became profitable to develop, and it was. By the 1990s the world was awash in oil, and the real price fell to nearly what it was in 1973. The proportion of GDP that was energy fell to about 5 percent, essentially giving everyone a sudden free extra 8-10 percent of their incomes to play with. Many invested in the stock market, but the burst bubble of 2000 cured many. Real estate was a “safe” bet, so many invested into what was really a huge surplus square footage of McMansions etc. Just as my mother recounted to me about 1929, speculation became rampant. Then as energy prices have increased over the past 6 years an extra 5 to 10 percent “tax” has been added to our economy, and that much of the surplus wealth disappeared. Speculation was no longer desirable or possible as everyone was tightening their belt because of increased energy costs. This may or may not be accurate and it certainly is not a sufficient explanation by itself sufficient (we would have to add in the failure of Allen Greenspan etc to do their regulatory job) but two of my energy-savvy financial friends say “that just about captures it”. In systems theory language: the endogenous aspects of the economy, that the economists focus on (Fed rates, money supply etc.) became beholden to exogenous forcing functions that are not part of their training.
The question this raises for me is whether the US government has any ability to "stimulate" its economy now, such as by sending out checks for $500 to every taxpayer. For most recipients, that money will help them stretch through the end of the week, or perhaps the end of the month. Then what?

We just completed a 3-day workshop in Natural Building here at the training center in Summertown, and it was completely subscribed and a good time had by all. Lots of young couples and some people brought their whole families, teenagers especially. There was no need for us to dwell on the shadows our collective future throws; it was enough just to show how to build homes without going into debt, from materials found on site, or nearby, or from throwaways in a wasteful society.

We have a few weeks now to continue with the apprentices, completing the mudbrick, thatch, living roof and earthbag structures begun or advanced in the workshop. Then we have a 3-day biofuels class (growing, converting your car, troubleshooting) on May 2-4, and a 4-day course on herbal medicine (growing, foraging, preparing, administering) on May 14-18. We will also have a new group of apprentices arriving in May, hoping to have a more in-depth experience of meeting their food, fuel, and building needs and, then returning to their communities to teach.

What many call "social capital" we are now seeing as the only real capital we have any control over. Securities, currencies, bonds, loans ... all paper. You can't eat it, although you may be able to build with some of it (we are making fidobe bricks in a CINVA ram). Natural capital such as rainfall, climate, soil and wildlife are quickly reaching a domain well outside human management capabilities. Climate change is canceling all our bets; humbling us and showing what puny and insignificant creatures we really are.

And yet, we can still build up our social capital. We can learn how to make soil, store water, and plant forests. We can re-learn that most important of all lost skills -- fertility restraint. Having been read our rights now, we can step down from the dock and take our proper place as citizen species.




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