Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sargon and the Sea Peoples

"For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frightened children."

  Back in 4300 BCE, Sargon of Akkad found the grain farming good in the broad, flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Being an accomplished bully and not fond of toiling in the heat of the sun himself, he assembled a gang of thugs and enslaved weaker people to work for him. They built vast irrigation systems, knocked down forests and opened up much of the fertile Mesopotamian Plain to oxen and wooden plows. With good soil, good seed and adequate rain, his tribe prospered and applied their surplus to erect a number of market cities that were considered quite grand for the period.

You can’t just knock down forests and dig long irrigation ditches and expect Nature to let you off scott-free, however. The plowing opened the soil to the sun and killed the rich microbial life built by those erstwhile forests. Irrigation made the fields salted and addicted. Major lakes silted. Without the trees and their fungal network, the weather changed. It stopped raining.

After a mere 130 years of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly in 4170 BCE. There was general abandonment of agriculture, dramatic influxes of refugees, and widespread famine. The same calamity befell much of the rest of the region. Poorer tribes flocked to wealthy Akkad seeking help.

Faced with the rising tide of hungry people, Sargon’s successor thought a good solution would be a 112-mile-long wall, roughly the distance by patrol car between Brownsville TX and Rio Grande City, which Akkadians dubbed the “Repeller of the Amorites.” They may even have claimed they were going to get the Amorites to build it, but those clay tablets haven’t been located yet.

Fast forward a few decades and we find Akkadian cities in ruins, the plains desertifying, and smaller sedentary populations farther north around the shores of Lake Van trying to eke out a frugal living eating grasshoppers and frogs. It was a rough come-down from former glory.

Of course, the Akkadians were not entirely to blame. Their changing climate was also influenced by 1 to 2 degree cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that changed rainfall in the higher elevations. In their haste to develop, they had not left themselves any safety margin.

A few thousand years later another serious drought struck that part of the world — much of it within what is now Syria and Palestine — and by this time the population was much larger than back in Sargon’s day. The first wave of these “Sea Peoples” washed over Egypt in the second year of Ramesses II, 1276 BCE, but rather than build tent cities to house them, the Pharaoh simply trapped and slaughtered some 6000 people arriving in boats with all their goods, and then sent his chariots to drive stragglers back into the sea. A bit of a blowhard, Ramesses claimed a great victory and had the story inscribed in stone and read on ceremonial days.

Ramesses II
The Syrian drought continued, however, and Ramesses son, Merenptah, writes how, in the fifth year of his reign (1209 BCE), Libyans allied with the Sea Peoples to invade Egypt and were repulsed with 6000 casualties. Six thousand seems to be a popular number when you are killing Sea Peoples.

Then Merenptah’s son, Ramesses III, in c. 1200 BCE was informed they were coming again. The populations fleeing drought-stricken Syria had already destroyed the Hittite state and Ramesses III wrote, “they were coming forward toward Egypt.” Ramesses also makes the first recorded mention of the Israelites as one of those groups trying to illegally migrate into Egypt.

“If they would just report to processing centers they could apply for asylum,” Ramesses III might have said. But secretly he set ambushes all along the border and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them along the shoreline to rain down arrows on approaching ships. Once the ships’ passengers were dead or drowning the vessels were set on fire with flaming arrows so that not even children could escape. Then Ramesses III turned his archers toward any survivors who made it to land. Egyptian records again detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive or pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frightened children.

Ramesses’s border defenses were so expensive they drained the Royal Treasury. This led to the first labor strike in recorded history.

Century-long droughts can be found at many points in the historic record. California experienced a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 CE and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. Mexico experienced an abrupt climate shift between 800 to 1000 CE that brought dry conditions to the central Yucatan for 200 years, curtailing the era of monumental Mayan architecture. Lowland population densities plunged from 200 persons/km2 at the peak of the Late Classic period to less than half that by 900 CE. City complexes of more than 50,000 people, like Tikal, were abandoned to the rats and weeds.

Houston and Miami take heed.

Challenged by unprecedented environmental stresses, cultures can shift to lower subsistence levels by reducing social complexity, abandoning urban centers, and reorganizing systems of supply and production, as the Maya, Akkadians, Romans, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Athenians and many others have done, but more often — and even in those cases — they failed to recognize what was happening until it was too late to escape unscathed. They waved their arms, followed militant leaders, found convenient scapegoats, increased debt, took to the streets in protest, overtaxed their most vital resources, and kept trying to grow their way out as if growth was the only solution they could imagine.

It never works. Sometimes civilizations go the way of the Easter Islanders. Other times they are conquered and destroyed by an even more desperate and militant neighbor they foolishly made into an enemy.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but he was peddling his Harvard theory of cyclic history and really could have done a better job of thinking that through. His actual theory was that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Samuel Clemens added greater depth to Santayana’s theory, fifty years earlier, when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Last week, speaking at Wells College, I concluded by saying, “As a global culture, we can create social norms that would permit us to sustain healthy economies and ecologies into the turbulent climate future we cannot now avoid. There are neither technological nor resource barriers to prevent that outcome.” There are, however, biological limits, including the psychology of sunk investments.

Sad to say, even if the 45th President of the United States had not cheated and bullied his way through his education and actually studied history, it would not have made any difference. We are just in that part of the cycle now where stupidity trumps the obvious. The queues of refugees may not be quite the same as the Sea Peoples, but they rhyme.


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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The people in range of secret frequencies




"Fossil fuels are reaching up to pull us into their grave.

Approaching the vernal equinox in the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York I am at the annual meeting of the International Society for Biophysical Economics. At the end of the first day we took a short pre-dinner tour to the other side of Cayuga Lake and Taughannock Falls, one of the highest east of the Rocky Mountains (66 meters). The site provided an interesting metaphor because the waterfall and gorge are an example of ahanging valley, formed where the stream-carved valley meets the deeper, glacially-carved Cayuga Lake drainage. As the gorge retreats westward it exposes more of the Devonian shale near the fall’s base.

The Late Devonian extinction was second of the six major extinction events including the one now in progress, and eliminated about 19% of all families, 50% of all genera and at least 70% of all species. While the shale is named for its discovery in Devonshire, England, that part of the world at that time was in the Southern Hemisphere, part of the supercontinent, Gondwana. The Caledonian mountains were growing across what is now the Scottish Highlands and Scandinavia, while the Appalachians rose over America, all on that supercontinent.

As the scientists gathering from China, Russia, England, Australia, Latin America, Africa and beyond peered from the overlook down into the gorge, they were staring back 400 million years to a time when there was widespread anoxia in oceanic bottom waters, corals died, the rate of carbon deposition shot up, benthic organisms were devastated, especially in the tropics, ice melted from the poles and sea levels rose. The Devonian shares much in common with our present extinction event.

Another effect of those changes was the deposition of fossil hydrocarbons, largely because the lack of oxygen in the ocean allowed them to be trapped without decay. We are looking down into the formation of the fossil fuels and they are reaching up to pull us into their grave.

“We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer, continued mediocrity.”
— William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question (1866).

In his conference invocation, Neil Patterson opened with Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, “Words Before All Else,” the Haudenosaunee liturgy with a spoken refrain after each statement of truth, “and now we are of one mind.” In the Tuscarora language he shared with us the gifts of each of our relations, and then reminded us that everything we need is provided for us and all we have to remember is to give thanks.

I am writing this from the back of the auditorium and the conference has only just begun but my guess is that nothing we will hear will be any wiser than that. My own 30 minute talk in the first session was a biophysical critique of negative emissions technologies and a reminder that the Paris Agreement’s targets will require a 11 to 20 percent annual decline slope for energy and consumables for the duration of this century. For those in this audience still struggling to imagine a future with the creature comforts of the late 20th century extended (or even enlarged) to a warming world of 10 to 12 billion humans, these concepts are incomprehensible. They would prefer to grasp at straws like nuclear power or clean coal to sustain the unsustainable.

“Dry heaves are just nature’s way of demonstrating negative marginal utility.”
— Kent Klitgaard, Wells College

“I don’t know how you would teach the dinosaurs to be optimistic about the asteroid.” 
— Charles A.S. Hall

I am reminded of Col. Creighton S. Abrams famous words from the Battle of the Bulge, “They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor bastards.” Some of us were trying to design some way for civilization to cope at a lower level of complexity, returning to nature’s all-wise fold, while others were trying to tweak the built environments and pedagogy of the colleges where they teach in hopes the problem will be solved by some kind of fairy dust invented by the next generation, or the one after that. Queue the economics lecture on discounting present value.

“Systemic overshoot can’t grow its way into sustainability.” 
— Kent Klitgaard

Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” We can see in numerous ways how finite the biosphere is and how humans have been pushing beyond natural boundaries in what seems to be 100 years of miracles of engineering until we suddenly recognize we have been burning the 400 million-year-old furniture all this time and now the house has caught fire.

“What we are seeing is just the outer bands of a shitstorm we are not prepared for.” 
— James Howard Kunstler

By diminishing the capacity of nature we have been steadily been decreasing our own resilience, our margin for error, placing our own species in the queue for extinction. We can hope to build adaptive capacity but ultimately are limited by factors we are powerless to change, like the ability of mammals with sweat glands to cool their bodies after the world average temperature exceeds 7 degrees of change. Some millions of years from now we will be that dark layer at the bottom of the waterfall: the Anthropocene shale.

“Lest we forget,” Charles A.S. Hall said, “Cassandra was right.”


hieroglyphic stairway
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
once
you
knew?
I’m riding home on the Colma train
I’ve got the voice of the milky way in my dreams
I have teams of scientists
feeding me data daily
and pleading I immediately
turn it into poetry
I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech
I am the desirous earth
equidistant to the underworld
and the flesh of the stars
I am everything already lost
the moment the universe turns transparent
and all the light shoots through the cosmos
I use words to instigate silence
I’m a hieroglyphic stairway
in a buried Mayan city
suddenly exposed by a hurricane
a satellite circling earth
finding dinosaur bones
in the Gobi desert
I am telescopes that see back in time
I am the precession of the equinoxes,
the magnetism of the spiraling sea
I’m riding home on the Colma train
with the voice of the milky way in my dreams
I am myths where violets blossom from blood
like dying and rising gods
I’m the boundary of time
soul encountering soul
and tongues of fire
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I can’t sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?
I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech
— Drew Dellinger

© 2017"hieroglyphic stairway," from the book, Love Letter to the Milky Way, by Drew Dellinger

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Is it Hot Enough Yet?

"Fudging the dates to make it seem like we will cross the 2 degree threshold in 2018, however, is as egregious as any of the denialist claptrap funded by the Koch brothers or Scott Pruitt."



In January 1976, at a meeting at the Washington Sheraton, Ralph Nader introduced me to a spy who had come in from the cold. His name was David Dinsmore Comey and during the Second World War he had worked in OSS, trying to head fake the Third Reich about where the landings would come for the Allied invasion of France. He was a real life spook.

In 1975, the Atomic Industrial Forum had invited Comey to tell the nuclear industry how it could be more credible with the public. He was a high-priced consultant; not a lobbyist — a historian. Comey gave them his hard-won wisdom. To become credible you must tell the truth.

As Comey told us a few months later at this party Nader had thrown, the way the OSS deceived Hitler was by always being accurate in its leaked communications. Sometimes the Allies had to take painful losses in order to gain the Wehrmacht’s trust. But when the final invasion came, on June 6, 1944, it was not at Pas-de-Calais, where Hitler had positioned his SS Panzers, but at Normandy, where the battlements were manned by boy scouts (Hitlerjugend). Fake out.

Comey had told the nuclear industry’s spokesmen to become credible they must tell the truth: admit that low-level radiation causes cancer and long-term genetic effects; confess that important safety research has never been done, or done improperly; reveal all the hidden and external costs, both present and into the future; acknowledge there is no solution to the waste issue; and perhaps most importantly, “Talk about the ethics of consuming electricity from fission reactors for 50 years and saddling 20,000 future generations with social and environmental problems.”

On that day in 1976 at that swank hotel in the District, Comey flipped his speech over and gave the same advice to the anti-nuke stalwarts — ourself, Dana Meadows, Harvey Wasserman, Pat Birney, Kay Drey, Anna Gyorgy, Tony Roisman and others. He warned us that we didn’t need to embellish the truth. It was our strongest ally. Moreover, it was our ally alone, at that moment. He said he was perfectly confident that the nuclear industry would never follow his advice, would never tell the truth, and would never be credible.

Fast forward 42 years and we see that Comey was absolutely right about one thing. The nuclear industry has never taken his advice.

Sad to say, neither have many in the social activist community. Until recently that was less true of climate change than of other movements, but it is human nature to embellish a good story, even when not required.

Below is a 2018 NASA chart of global surface temperature anomalies from the 1880 baseline. It appears to show a gradual ascent in year-to-year average temperature, approaching 1.5 degrees C in 2015 and then declining slightly.


If we were to plot two smoothing lines to forecast the direction, they might look like this:

 

Following out the second, steeper trend line, we can project that 2 degrees would be reached some time around 2040. 

Regrettably, many in the climate activist camp are re-posting this conceptualization of that same data by Sam Carana for Arctic-News:






Leaving aside the errors in the data points for 2003–2017 that appear to have been selected from the 1880–2017 data set and then dates changed, the “third order polynomial trend added” by Carana is fitting an exponential curve to the chart such that the upward tick beginning about 50 years ago is only the first stage of a bend towards vertical.

Carana could be right. 

At this point, however, he is only speculating, and the curve could as easily revert to norm as shoot skyward. Fudging the dates to make it seem like we will cross the 2 degree threshold in 2018, however, is as egregious as any of the denialist claptrap funded by the Koch brothers or Scott Pruitt.

Carana then extrapolates on his fudged data to confidently predict that between now and 2026 (8 years from now) average global surface temperature will rise 8.1°C (14.6°F) from an annual average temperature of 56°F in 1880 to an average of 74°F in 2026. Carana’s arithmetic then forms the basis for dire predictions by Professor Guy McPherson and others that humans will go extinct within 10 years.

Returning to David Comey’s advice, we have to ask why activists should bother to exaggerate. Isn’t the story scary enough without embellishment?



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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Waiting for Korowicz

"Notice how even greater fragility is being designed into the system."



The first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season took out our power briefly, and while nothing we experienced can compare to the outage still being suffered in the Caribbean from the last hurricane season, this one, Alberto, was enough to remind us of the Korowicz Crunch.

We have a standalone PV system on the ecohostel, although we are considering dropping the expensive and toxic battery bank in favor of grid-tie. There are massive solar arrays by the horse barn that feed power from The Farm into TVA’s supply, and in a long-duration power drought the community could quickly and painlessly disengage from our neighbors (and the government) and use our collective 150 kW to power essential needs, assuming TVA did not call in the Tennessee National Guard to take the power back and secure the site.

In that way, I suppose, having large PV arrays is a little like having massive oil reserves or an emergent nuclear weapons program. You may think those things are going to do wonders for your security but actually they do quite the opposite; they could mean you have to parse White House tweets to see if it is going to be safe to send the kids out to play that day.

Because of our solar roof, we often have power when our neighbors in the county don’t, but we get internet from a tower at the county seat and when they lose power, we lose internet. This time we also lost cellular service — never very good out here to begin with.

It is great not being tethered to an office, until you lose connectivity and realize that there actually was a tether and being untethered is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Nicole Foss and I were teaching permaculture in Ireland a few years ago we stayed in the Dublin home of David Korowicz, a mutual friend through the FEASTA network. Korowicz has devoted much time to parsing the coming years and the Seneca Effect that eventually overtakes our overstretched economy.
“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” 
— Lucius Annaeas Seneca (c. 4 BC — AD 65)
In the introduction to his 56-page white paper, “The Tipping Point” (2010), Korowicz laid out our predicament:
…a case is made that our civilisation is close to a critical transition, or collapse. A series of integrated collapse mechanisms are described and are argued to be necessary. The principal driving mechanisms are re-enforcing (positive) feedbacks:
A decline in energy flows will reduce global economic production; reduced global production will undermine our ability to produce, trade, and use energy; which will further decrease economic production.
Credit forms the basis of our monetary system, and is the unifying embedded structure of the global economy. In a growing economy debt and interest can be repaid, in a declining economy not even the principal can be paid back. In other words, reduced energy flows cannot maintain the economic production to service debt. Real debt outstanding in the world is not repayable, new credit will almost vanish.
Our localized needs and welfare have become ever-more dependent upon hyper- integrated globalised supply-chains. One pillar of their system-wide functioning is monetary confidence and bank intermediation. Money in our economies is backed by debt and holds no intrinsic value; deflation and hyper-inflation risks will make monetary stability impossible to maintain. In addition, the banking system as a whole must become insolvent as their assets (loans) cannot be realised, they are also at risk from failing infrastructure.
A failure of this pillar will collapse world trade. Our ‘local’ globalised economies will fracture for there is virtually nothing produced in developed countries that can be considered truly indigenous. The more complex the systems and inputs we rely upon, the more globalised they are, and the more we are at risk from a complete systemic collapse.
Another pillar is the operation of critical infrastructure (IT-telecoms/ electricity generation/ financial system/ transport/ water & sewage) which has become increasingly co-dependent where a systemic failure in one may cause cascading failure in the others. This infrastructure depends upon continual re-supply; embodies short lifetime components; complex highly resource intensive and specialized supply-chains; and large economies of scale. They also depend upon the operation of the monetary and financial system. These dependencies are likely to induce rapid growth in the risk of systemic failure.
The high dependence of food on fossil fuel inputs, the delocalisation of food sourcing, and lean just-in-time inventories could lead to quickly evolving food insecurity risks even in the most developed countries. At issue is not just food production, but the ability to link surpluses to deficits, collapsed purchasing power, and the ability to monetize transactions.
Among the alt-econ theorists, this Singularity-like scenario of cascading consequences has come to be called the Korowicz Crunch. Of course, the one thing neither Korowicz nor anyone else can predict is timing. We are at, or just barely past, the peak of a great arc of history, a golden epoch, and to ignore the benefits this moment has brought to freedom, medicine, science and the arts would be a pity. It would be equally remiss to ignore at whose expense most of those advances were purchased.

Still, as each year extends the untenable overreach of biophysical limits and the Ponzi scheme that is fracked methane underpinning the globalized economy, we notice how even greater fragility is being designed into the system, either by architects and economists unaware of Korowicz or by factors to which little attention is paid.

Not long ago — and still in many places in the world — homes would be only a short walk or bicycle ride from a market where groceries and other essential wares could be purchased. Then came the big box stores and these markets were consolidated, often to the peripheries of population centers, into shopping malls accessible by public transport if you are lucky, otherwise only by private automobile. Along comes Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and the stage is set for online purchasing and same-day delivery of your groceries, and everything else.

So much for the Bishop’s Storehouse, in the Mormon tradition, where a seven-year supply of food for the entire community was scripturally ordained.

Not long ago every community had one or more theaters or opera houses and on weekends everyone would attend, like a church service, to socialize before (in line), during (noisy galleries) and after (the corner pub). Then came Blockbusters with rental VHS and DVD and theaters moved into living rooms. Then came Netflix, and once more, Amazon, with view-on-demand services as long as you have the bread and the bandwidth. Much the same can be said for music, although live performances will always be with us in some way.

Not long ago, the bank would give you a passbook that showed, in handwriting, how much money was in your account. Then they went digital, and now even your monthly statements are online. With banks adopting cryptocurrencies, your readily-exchangeable wealth will soon be entirely on the blockchain.

I am old enough to remember backing up my data to 400 kB diskettes. They were called floppies even though they were hard plastic because before Sony shrunk them to 3 1/2-inch squares they had been flexible Teflon-coated magnetic disks storing up to 80 kB on every 8-inch platter. Now you can misplace a terabyte thumb drive if you are not careful. No worries! Storage and backups are all moving to the Cloud.

That is a good name for it — the Cloud. Wispy. Ephemeral. At its essence, just vapor.

I still have a functioning computer that loads CP/M instructions from a 5 1/4-inch floppy every time it boots, but I don’t think those are coming back any time soon.

Even though the coming of the Korowicz singularity cannot be Post-It’d to a particular date on the calendar, it’s wise to keep a foot in the prepper camp. A wall calendar, for instance.

Know where your water comes from. Have an antifragile supply of food — like the shiitake mushrooms that come after a big storm. They are a complete protein. Have back-up power that does not involve fossil fuels. Be able to cook. Keep your tools sharp and well-oiled. And have a good idea what you will do with your time when the internet goes away suddenly and permanently.

In the meantime, we are at the pinnacle of a gilded age. Be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.
 

Friends

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Dis-complainer

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