Sunday, March 22, 2009

Going Deep, Part 1

"Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast."

Watching the world spin out of control (and recognizing that control was illusory anyway) the soul yearns to touch the truly authentic, to caress it just once more, perhaps to say goodbye. I have a friend who lives in the Yucatán jungle and talks to birds. After rising at first light and listening to one morning’s conversation, I asked him what they had to say.

“They are sad,” he said. “Nostalgic for what was, but is gone. Each year there are fewer of them, and they want the world put back the way it had been. They are a bit frightened at the unfamiliarity of everything now. The seasons have changed. Everything has changed. They are sad.”

It was very strange that we were having this conversation while standing in one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, a broadnecked peninsula at midpoint on the migratory flyway between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. I think it rang true for me, though. I also miss the familiar, and I am worried for the planet, if not for my own family, my remaining years here, and what will unfold in this century to come. That is why I welcome the opportunity to return to Belize each March.

Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages. Because of its British heritage and Commonwealth status, English is the official language, although only about half the people of Belize speak it and for more than half of those it is a second language. Kriol, Spanish, and at least three Mayan languages are more common to most children. With only 320,000 people, Belize’s population density is the lowest in Central America — comparable to Iceland. Less people live here today than during the classic Maya period. Unfortunately, as a Catholic country with easy immigration, the population growth rate is 2.21 percent, one of the highest in the western hemisphere. Given its natural wealth, that is small wonder.

When Christopher Nesbitt invited Andrew Goodheart Brown and I to teach the annual Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm, I immediately agreed. The course has been taught in the past by many wonderful teachers — Penny Livingston Stark, Larry Santoya, Toby Hemenway — and my previous forays into the neighborhood, including a visit to the Belize Agroforestry Research Center back in 1991, told me that this was a very special location.

Andrew, myself and a team of special guest instructors — Andrew Leslie Phillips, Maria Martinez Ros and Hector Reyes — are returning on the Vernal Equinox of 2009 to teach another PDC in this wonderful environment.

Getting to the Research Farm is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast – I recommend the 8-seat air shuttle from Belize City that takes about 45 minutes with 3 stops along the way – and then by bus (daily at noon) or taxi up to San Pedro Columbia, the little village in the highlands of the Maya Mountains that is the jumping off point for the river travel up to MMRF.

Toledo, with a population of 27,000, is the least globalized and most rustic district in Belize. The pyramid city of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia, is a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926.

The next stage of the trip travels up river past Lubaantun by the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande. A boy with a dugout “dory” canoe takes you up river for $10 Belize dollars — US $5 — per person. All of the dory men know the location, 2 miles (1 hour) up river at the shallow bend with the tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore. Alternatively, with the help of a hired guide, you can take the rugged mountain trail there.

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up river from that bamboo bend. It emerges from a vast underground river system that drains the 100,000 acre Columbia River Forest Reserve, a uniquely pristine natural area of broadleaf tropical forest, replete with howler monkeys, jaguars, monarch butterflies and birds of paradise. The Reserve continues rising up the slopes of the Maya Mountains until they spill over into Guatemala. The landscape is strongly karsified, riddled with caves and some of the largest cenotes in the country (one is 800 feet deep and 1/4 mile wide). Shallow caverns of quartz-rich rocks provide breeding habitats for many animal populations.

Christopher Nesbitt had come to Belize at age 19 and decided to emigrate and buy a piece of land on the river two years later in 1988. At the time, the land was in cattle and citrus, as are many of his neighbor’s farms today. Chris is a sort of lanky John Malkovich with a scraggly beard and a wry sense of humor. His former partner, Dawn Dean, and he have two beautiful and resourceful children, Esperanza and Zephir.

Dawn, like Christopher, is an ethnobotanist, with a specialty in vanilla to compliment Chris’s interest in cacao. Dawn wants to establish an organic vanilla industry in the Toledo District, and to empower women, maintain the viability of the traditional village lifestyle, and promote agriculture that provides ecological services while increasing the income return to small farmers.

Christopher worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association from 1997 to 2004. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

In 2004, Christopher, Dawn and a board of directors comprised of Belizeans working in agriculture formed a non-profit organization and made the Research Farm its principal asset. After years of gathering specimens of vanilla, they established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them. This, along with an extended literature review, and site visits to growers in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, prepared them for their current work, an extension service and pilot project for vanilla cultivation and marketing. The success of this project, and the enthusiasm it has generated are so high, that in December of 2007, they decided to form and register the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA) which Damn now directs.

Vanilla — the kind we find in little brown bottles or in ice cream — is the cured, fermented fruit of the perennial hemi-epiphytic orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rare endemic found in the under-story of lowland forests of Central America. Although it was a crop enjoyed and traded by the ancient Maya, there is no commercial vanilla being grown today in Belize.

Owing to a combination of hybridization and the loss of native bees, the production of vanilla fruits (called beans) requires the hand-pollination of each vanilla flower. The resulting bean must remain 9 months on the vine to reach full maturity. At the time of harvest, vanillin, vanilla’s primary flavor component, is not yet present but develops in the beans during the curing process which is comprised of scalding, sunning/sweating, drying, and conditioning. This curing process can take up to 9 months to complete, and in most countries is done in a centralized curing facility.

The majority of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico and Papua New Guinea although it is consumed primarily in North America and Europe. The world market price for vanilla fluctuates, and is currently trading at an historic low of US$10 per kilo for top grade cured vanilla beans. By contrast, in 2003, vanilla prices were at US$500 per kilo. What changed was that the high prices brought new artificial vanillas to market, driving out the original.

Even at the lower prices, cultivation and production of vanilla is a non-gender specific activity that can create alternative livelihoods for those who grow and sell vanilla, and also for those in the vanilla-based industry, which includes many speciality products.

Because of the careful attention and specific horticultural technique required, vanilla produces best when cultivated by a person who is personally acquainted with each specific plant, rather than on a plantation. For this reason, most of the world’s commercial vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 5 acres.

Christopher is demonstrating how vanilla can be grown most profitably in the way that the ancient Maya did it, as part of an agroforestry polyculture. His hillside landscape is a tree-based agricultural system that resembles the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of the native ecosystem, providing ecological services such as erosion control, air purification, soil and water retention and wildlife habitat.

In Belize, as in other parts of the world, wild vanilla stands have been decimated, and untold genotypes lost. With its low population density, Toledo District still has many wild remnant stands. Dawn has identified 27 distinct species so far, including a self-pollinating variety.

As Christopher takes our small class on a walk around the hillside above the river, we are shown the products of two decades of careful plantings. Christopher divides his new seedlings into three categories, depending on when they can be harvested. The near-term pioneer crops are the annuals like corn and beans, or the pineapple, pigeon pea, squash and melons planted between the corn contours, along with perennials like nopale cactus, yam, purslane, basil, amaranth and gourds. The intermediate crops are perennials like avocado, golden plum, zapote, sea almond, allspice, bamboo, palms, breadfruit, coconut, coffee, coco-yam, banana, citrus, mango, cacao, papaya, tea tree, euphorbia, noni, blackberries, gooseberry, chaya, ginger and pineapple. They will yield sweet fruits, jams, wines, basket-fiber, soaps, beverages and medicines after a few years of fast growth. The long term crops are samwood, mahogany, cedar, teak, Malabar chestnut, sea chestnut and other slow-growing trees that will close the over-story and send Esperanza and Zephir through college when they are ready. All of these species provide additional services to the ecosystem not usually calculated in the university agronomist’s bottom line.

An important feature to the tropical landscape design is the creation of soil. Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast. Loss of soil by over-exposure, short swidden cycles (15 years was traditional but population pressure has been collapsing rest periods to 3 to 5 years), and erosion during the intense rainy season, is the normal pattern on most farms, and many farmers struggle to supplant those losses by increasing fertilizer applications, at unreckoned cost, both to farm profits and the soil.

Many of the Research Farm’s neighbors in the Toledo District have been mis-educated in government-run ag schools subsidized by seed and chemical companies. They see trees and farm crops as in opposition — one or the other, but not both. Through the work with the cacao cooperative, and now in creating the vanilla co-op, MMRF is spreading an old meme — resiliency and profit from polyculture agroforestry.

This is the first part of an article originally published in The Permaculture Activist No. 71 Spring 2009.

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Extinction Metaphor

While speaking at Hanover College last week, we were given a tour of the Natural Sciences building there, and this display case caught our eye.

It held a scrimshaw sculpture of a Union Pacific locomotive carved from a wholly mammoth tusk found in melting Siberian permafrost more than half a century ago.

We found it a curious kind of metaphor for our condition as a species approaching extinction on a fragile planet whose eco-stasis has been upset by our addiction to coal and oil. Here, in a glass case, in a literal ivory tower, was an homage to a coal-burning icon, carved from the tusk of an enormous mammal, hunted to the brink of extinction 100,000 years ago, and then finished off by climate change.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


"[E]xisting levels of production … are now threatened by the environmental fragility of the natural resource base and the unsustainability of existing farming practices."
— The International Monetary Fund, to Zimbabwe, ten years ago

We recall a visit to Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, when that country had become one of the world’s bright microeconomic lights, illuminating the way for a future Africa of enterprise and empowerment. The Zimbabwe miracle was exciting everyone, and we purchased a pullover and pants from a company called Zimbabaloola that were emblazoned with colorful art in the style of ancient pictographs crossed with rude rock reggae. Zimbabwe had some of the most productive farms in the world and they were going organic. Permaculture and ecovillage design courses were fully subscribed. The arts scene was in blossom and world beat radio stations carried Zimbabwe’s music around the globe. And then it abruptly unraveled.

Backing up a step, Zimbabwe was never at peace for very long. It had as troubled a colonial history as Bolivia, Nigeria or anywhere else rich in resources and poor in defensive foresight. In the 13th Century it was known as Mwene Mutapa, a port of call on the gold and copper trade routes of Arab dhows and Chinese junks. In the early 17th century it was conquered by Portugal and utterly plundered. In the 19th century refugees from the Zulu wars erected the state of Matabeleland there but then were ravaged by the Shona Empire, leaving the region open to invasion by Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company in the 1880s. The fertile watershed became known as Southern Rhodesia for nearly a century, as its deeper mineral resources were systematically excavated and removed to Europe.

In 1978, the white government, supported by apartheid South Africa, was under siege by black liberation opponents and as its last alternative to collapse opened negotiations with the leaders of the Patriotic Fronts — the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe had spent 11 years in Salisbury prison, during which he earned three degrees, including a law degree from London and a bachelor of administration from the University of South Africa, by correspondence courses. He had friends in high places, including anti-colonial leaders throughout Africa. After a raucus transition to independence mediated in part by Henry Kissinger, tainted elections were held in 1980 that brought Mugabe to the center of a ruling coalition. Using mass-murder of his opponents, rigged ballots and intimidation, Mugabe was re-elected three more times. Mugabe was no Mandela.

Initially, the coalition did quite well for itself and the people of Zimbabwe. Mugabe saw a prosperous economy as his ticket to personal wealth and Swiss bank accounts, and encouraged local enterprise. That was the golden period of the 1980s and 90s, when infant mortality and malnutrition were halved, life expectancy rose to 64, and literacy jumped to an all-time high, nearly 90 percent. The labor market was unable to absorb all these young, educated Zimbabweans, however, and by the late 1990s, the World Bank and IMF were brought in to address a growing economic crisis. The IMF observed that for the poor farmers working communal lands, "existing levels of production in these areas are now threatened by the environmental fragility of the natural resource base and the unsustainability of existing farming practices" and recommended greater environmental regulation.

In 2000, Mugabe offered a constitutional amendment that would allow government to confiscate white-owned land for redistribution to black farmers without compensation. It was defeated by the voters, but he instituted the practice anyway. Self-styled "war veterans" roamed the country, invading white-owned farms and those who did not leave voluntarily were tortured or killed. Political opponents were rounded up and interred in prison camps where wives and children were sexually abused by AIDs-infected prisoners and "war veterans" and then released to live in cardboard shantytowns that were periodically bulldozed. These atrocities were well documented by eyewitness accounts published in the daily papers of South Afica when we attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002, so one can only assume that the hundred or more Heads of State and thousands of NGOs and UN agencies also attending were abundantly aware. Millions of Zimbaweans have since perished, average life expectancy has fallen to 34, AIDs is rampant and unchecked, and inflation, last measured in June 2008, was running at 11,250,000 percent.

Mugabe has extended his presidency beyond the expiration of his elected term, and blames the trouble in Zimbabwe on homosexuals and Great Britain, especially Tony Blair. We can’t help wonder whether Henry Kissinger, Milton Friedman and the IMF might have also had something to do with it.

The Mugabe model of pillaging and laying ruin to a prosperous economy was used by the cabal that took down the US economy in the first decade of this century, and the world economy trembled and fell in the wake of that. What might we now expect? Inflation at 11,250,000 percent, average life expectancy of 34, and endemic disease all seem plausible.

Let us be clear. We are not comparing Mr. Obama to Mr. Mugabe. We could compare Mr. Mugabe to Mr. Bush, except that Mr. Mugabe is still president, apparently for life. What we might say by way of making this discussion relevant is that Mr. Obama is no economist, and that is probably a good thing.

But, because of that, he did what anyone might have. He bought an insurance policy from Tim Geithner. Mr. Geithner took a meeting with him and promised he could get the USA out of this ungodly mess. He had managed a successful bailout once before, in South Korea in 1997. He’d worked in three administrations, served Kissinger Associates for three years, was New York Fed president in 2003, chairman of the G-10’s Committee on Payment and Settlement Systems of the Bank for International Settlements, and a member of the Group of Thirty. He knew where the skeletons were. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Obama bit.

Geithner’s job, re-inflate the bubble. You, know, that rapidly deflating one with the big flapping hole in its side. So with duct tape and spit, he has closed the hole, a little, and now is puffing furiously.

Can Geithner rescue the world economy by re-inflating the bubble? No more than Zimbabwe can recover with Mugabe still in the presidential palace.

Ultimately it goes back to the IMF’s prescient observation that "existing levels of production in these areas are now threatened by the environmental fragility of the natural resource base and the unsustainability of existing farming practices." It’s just that the areas of unsustainable practices we are talking about are now the whole world.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Peak Firewood

"Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water."
—Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind

We read Nate Hagens recently reposted piece from 2007 on The Oil Drum re: firewood. Hagens ran some interesting calculations. What if everyone got woodstoves? How long before peak forest?

In 2002, the forested area of the United States contained 856,000,000,000 cubic feet of tree volume, of which 364,000,000,000 cf were hardwoods. (This is the forest capital). (Due to larger amounts of creosote and much lower wood fiber density in softwoods, they are not suitable for conventional firewood and I assumed are not used for heating –in a more advanced analysis this assumption could be relaxed as people could harvest softwoods and replant with hardwoods at least to some extent and/or install external wood burners).

The current annual volume growth is 10.1 billion cubic feet annually (or about 2.5%). Existing usage rate is 5.7 billion cubic feet with an annual mortality rate of 2.7 billion cubic feet. (Interestingly, the mortality rate was at a 50 year high and the USFS admit they do not know the reason for it). For ease of calculation let’s be aggressive and assume that humans can access all of the dead wood for burning. We then have 4.4 bcf of annual growth of potential firewood that is not otherwise being utilized for lumber, electricity or current home heating. At 128 cubic feet per cord, this equates to approximately 34.7 million (more) cords of wood that can be accessed sustainably, without dipping into the forest ‘capital’. If we discontinue other current market uses for the wood we would have 10.1 billion cf or 78.9 million cords of potential firewood per year.

Freshly cut wood has over 60% moisture and therefore takes much more effort to release the energy in the wood fibers. Seasoned wood approaches 20% moisture content and releases about 6,400 BTUs per pound of wood. (Pure bone-dry wood tops 8,000 BTUs per pound but is not practical for home use). Almost all wood types create the same amount of BTUs per pound (6,400), but depending on their individual densities and other properties, differ in how many pounds make up 1 cord.

This analysis assumes one cord of wood typically is about 2400 pounds. We then arrive at 2,400 X 6,400 BTUs =15,360,000 BTUs per cord. Therefore, in the 52 US states, we have 34.7 million cords of annual volume growth of wood available times 15.36 million BTUs per cord => 533 Trillion BTUs that can be presently be accessed sustainably from hardwoods. (If we eschew all other forest products, this number roughly doubles, and if we include softwoods, it roughly doubles again)

[This compares to 7000 Trillion BTUs contributed by natural gas for home heating at present. - ab]

So the good news is if we were really cold and sans fossil fuels, we could chop down trees for at least 4 years before the US would resemble Easter Island (24,024/5,074= 4.74 years). [If we could keep out poachers, TN could go about 10 yr -- ab]
Last week we had a brief warm spell, and we were back working on the wood pile, with plenty to meditate on. Good thing we did. The fresh snow this morning makes it hard to find the chopping block (see our Facebook wall for more photos). One of the Oil Drum commenters, Don in Maine, remembered (and here we reverse his paragraph order):
Scott Nearing, when he went to friends to have dinner always wanted a spell at the wood pile first, than some home grown food and dandelion wine, and talk of economics into the wee hours.
In a society that answers every problem with a pill, splitting wood is zen. Your anger, your frustration, your doubts are gone. The body kicks in and the mind gets the rest it needs. I never come in from the wood yard in a bad mood, I look back outside and what I see is that I have been highly productive. So many of the ills some people face actually seem much less of a problem with some fresh air and work. Depression is a big one, anxiety another, hard to be either when you made a big pile of split wood, raised a good sweat, and are tired.

Mostly you end up hungry.

We would also add that arm exercise is much more exhausting than leg exercise. More adrenalin is released, your heart beats more rapidly and beats harder. But, after that cardio-flush, you have elevated levels of the brain chemicals that lower anxiety.

Exercise sends norepinephrine to brain regions involved in the body's stress response, according to work being done at the Univ. of Georgia. Norepinephrine is particularly interesting to researchers because 50 percent of the brain's supply is produced in the locus coeruleus, a brain area that connects most of the other regions involved in emotional and stress responses. The chemical is also thought to play a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent, neurotransmitters.

It isn’t entirely neurochemical, however. Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body's physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system, and so on.

So, before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water. Another Japanese saying is “He who chops wood is twice warm.” Except, it now appears, not all of us can stay warm in the winter that way any longer.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Can’t Raise A Keynes Back Up When He’s In Defeat

"We have not yet owned up to the failure of our unlimited growth economic model to come to grips with the idea of sustainability within a finite planetary ecology. "

How bad how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction
What cause and effect
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget
Makes you change
Makes you change
— Tracy Chapman, Change

“The laws of economics are like the laws of engineering. There's only one set of laws and they work everywhere.
"There are no... limits to the carrying capacity of the Earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn't a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.”
— Lawrence H. Summers (1994)

I have been going back and forth about the stimuli being applied to get the global economy, which went off the rails 14 months ago, or perhaps a few decades ago, or even 10,000 years ago, depending how you look at it, back on track. The problem is that I am not even convinced that the track is the best place for it to be.

Still, it may be helpful to break it down a little more and get at some core principles.

I have to admit that the dedicated obstructionists in the minority party in the US might even be right, if for the wrong reasons. Shoveling money down a black hole is something to do when there are no other ideas. It won’t fill up the hole. The Republicans’ proposed alternative, cut taxes, would be laughable if it weren’t as pathetic as cutting interest rates. The 4 million people thrown out of work in the past year or so won’t be paying taxes. I suspect a lot of people who are not being counted in the statistics won’t either. It is hard to track down someone when they no longer have a home, a car, a job, or a bank account.

John Maynard Keynes’ big idea was that if no-one has money left to buy anything, and credit is dead, you can “shock” the national corpse back to life by copious government spending. Only after trying everything else did Franklin D. Roosevelt try Keynes’ advice, and then — with the help of the Second World War — manage to put the industrial engine back on the tracks. The George Marshall and Douglas A. MacArthur commands applied the same serum to devastated Europe and Japan, with favorable result.

So successful was Keynes debut in the 1940s that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were set up at Bretton Woods in 1944 to provide Keynesian financing to any distressed countries. The post-war period was a Keynes-on-steroids example of unbridled optimism: the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Terror replacing World War II spending with steadily diminishing effect. “Deficits don’t matter” became the political grail.

However, there is an important change in the game now, and it is one that White House Economy Czar Larry Summers apparently doesn’t get, assuming he has not had a “come to Jesus” moment in the 15 years since he sneered at the “risk of an apocalypse due to global warming.”

USGS geologist and forecaster Marion King Hubbert expressed the difference most eloquently when he testified to Congress in 1983:
“I was in New York in the 30’s. I had a box seat at the depression. I can assure you it was a very educational experience. We shut the country down because of monetary reasons. We had manpower and abundant raw materials. Yet we shut the country down. We’re doing the same kind of thing now but with a different material outlook. We are not in the position we were in 1929–30 with regard to the future. Then the physical system was ready to roll. This time it’s not. We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.”
The track we are attempting to lift our growth engine onto was left by the Wild West’s iron horse, laid with golden spikes when much of the fertile surface area of the planet was being opened to exploitation and was soon to be responsible for 70% of the world’s economic growth. We are prisoners on that train. Billions of Chinese and Indians are prisoners on that train.

We have not yet owned up to the failure of our unlimited growth economic model to come to grips with the idea of sustainability within a finite planetary ecology. We have spent our billion-year starlight savings account on predator drones and cattle feeding operations while not thinking seriously about ways to live on the daily income that arrives for free. And so we rode our train right off a cliff, still accelerating. We were just following that track.

Seven years ago, in March, 2002, Colin Campbell, the retired petroleum geologist, predicted with amazing precision precisely where we would find ourselves now. He said:
“Initially it will be denied. There will be much lying and obfuscation. Then prices will rise and demand will fall. The rich will outbid the poor for available supplies. The system will initially appear to rebalance. The dash for gas will become more frenzied. People will realize nuclear power stations take up to ten years to build. People will also realize wind, waves, solar and other renewables are all pretty marginal and take a lot of energy to construct. There will be a dash for more fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment. The poor will not be able to afford the investment or the fuel. Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas will become completely frenzied. More and more countries will decide to reserve oil and later gas supplies for their own people. Air quality will be ignored as coal production and consumption expand once more. Once the decline really gets under way, liquids production will fall relentlessly by five percent per year. Energy prices will rise remorselessly. Inflation will become endemic. Resource conflicts will break out.”
Many of those things have come to pass, and the rest of them we can look forward to seeing sooner, rather than later. We also have the consequences of population growth and climate change to look forward to.

So, with changed conditions, do Keynes’ prescriptions still make sense? I think they do, but perhaps not in the way Larry Summers intends. We need to re-lay the track, literally. We need to reposition the global human prospect to make it more survival-oriented. That will require us to re-strike the carbon balance so that net sequestration is the prime directive for any new enterprise. That will force us to sponsor a new business model that draws in the neglected externality in all the old economic models — the global commons of atmosphere, ocean, and soil.

We will also need to come to grips with our addiction to growth. We have to cleanse our happiness receptors until we see again the simple pleasures in life that come from activities other than consuming things. We have to deal with our fecundity. We have to save wilderness, other species, the oceans.

A good place to begin would be the U.S.Treasury’s unique management role at GM, Chrysler and Ford. We can transition from cars to mass-transit by building light rail. We can power that mass-transit with next generation renewables engineered in Detroit and elsewhere. We can make organic no-till farming implements and keyline plows. Do you think this is unrealistic, or too late? We are already committed to spending more to bail out the automakers than we spent to put a man on the moon. We had light rail (trolleys and barges pulled by horses) and heavy rail (with engines powered by wood) before kerosene began replacing whale oil in home lighting. This is not rocket science.

One man’s jobs program is another man’s pork barrel, and so there is a huge amount of money about to be thrown down the rat-hole of nuclear energy, “clean” coal, and offshore oil, especially the part under Afghanistan and Iraq. And, there is still a lot of warming in the climate pipeline, no matter what we do now. We could do worse than to sponsor jobs re-greening inland deserts with coastal desalination plants and urban waste-to-biochar, switching to no-till organic farming and reforesting the Mississippi valley.

The stimulus bills will provide tax credits to buy houses, but with no quality controls on their energy or climate impact. They will shore up the sinking FDIC, about to be bankrupted by cascading bank failures, but not invest in the security of regional currencies, which have repeatedly proven themselves in times like these. What is still to come are the next rounds of buying up mortgage-backed securities by Freddie and Fannie, about $500 billion, and distressed bank bailouts — TARP-2 — which Goldman Sachs recently estimated to cost $5.7 trillion, or about 7 stimulus-packages worth.

Of course all this pales when you step back for a look at the big picture. Before the crash, US GDP was 15 trillion, and world GDP was 57 trillion. If you sum the credit default swaps, hedged assets, turbo warrants, and other forms of debt in the world, you quickly get to 1000 trillion. Even if you write off 90% of that as bogus (who wins? who loses? what topples?), you are still left with far more paper debt than our capacity to service it. Welcome to fractional reserve banking.

One of the things that Keynes understood — better than most of his disciples — was that it matters where and on whom you spend the money. He also understood that the whole game is played on a slanted board, with workers at the bottom usually getting a raw deal as investors on the top give new definitions to consumer excess — San Simeon then, Dubai now. Only continuous expansion of jobs — and manufactured hope — has kept workers from rebelling. But now they are beginning to rebel — in France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland.

The only way to prevent that conflict from enlarging and going viral is with a hand up — real hope. That is what the stimulus has to achieve.

And yet, and here is the telling point, the theme of this blog… we are back to the nexus between population, peak everything and climate change. Take the example of India. India has 9 to 10 million new people joining its labor force each year looking for work. It needs a sustained growth rate of 8.8 percent per year to create those jobs. Projections are that India’s growth will drop to 7 percent this year and 5 percent next. Those projections are probably rosy.

The International Energy Agency, tallying all known production capacities and estimating effects of recent discoveries, puts the average annual decline rate of petroleum production at 9 percent over the next several decades. Negative nine.

China has consistently turned in a 10% growth rate to provide jobs for its burgeoning population. While the proof is sketchy, China says their GDP growth has now fallen to 6.8%.

In the United States, Japan, and many European countries, growth is already in negative territory. Minus 12 for Japan, minus 10 for France, Russia and Germany, minus 15 for Spain, minus 27-29 for Latvia and Ukraine. In the USA, employment growth looks like this:

Ireland lost 36,500 jobs in January – equal to a monthly loss of 2.3 million in the US. And you don’t even want to think about Iceland.

With 20 percent of the world’s population, China has only 9 percent of the world’s farmland and 7 percent of the fresh water. All of the world’s grain exports together provide less than two-thirds of China’s annual demand for food. To avoid famine, China needs exports. As I write this, not a drop of rain has fallen on Beijing for more than 100 days. In the northern provinces, nearly four million people are without safe drinking water. People are returning home from lost jobs in the southern cities, even as their relatives are packing up to leave.

The Obama team’s application of Keynesian stimulus to the US economy is now in full swing, and what you are seeing ain’t the half of it. In addition to $1 trillion in stimulus, $3 trillion in lending to banks and businesses, Congress has authorized $6 to 9 trillion in agreements to provide aid to failing institutions like Fannie and Freddie and the Federal Reserve. How much is that? According to the Congressional Budget Office, it is 13 times what has been spent so far on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, — enough to pay off every home mortgage loan in the U.S. It is enough send a $1,500 check to every man, woman and child alive in the world. You could make every Iraqi and Afghani a millionaire.

And it still may not be enough. The planet has limits, Mr. Summers.
If everything you think you know
Makes your life unbearable
Would you change?
Would you change?
If you'd broken every rule and vow
And hard times come to bring you down
Would you change?
Would you change?
— Tracy Chapman, Change

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

So Much Hockey Puck

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." — Einstein

Lately we have been getting more mail from people who take issue with the whole thesis of global warming, never mind the existential crisis it poses for all living things in this corner of the Universe.

One of the arrows that I find stuck in my door is the notion that Michael Mann fudged his data to come up with the original hockey stick graph of the historic warming trend, and, ergo, since everything written after that has relied on the Mann proxy data set, the entire IPCC house of cards must tumble if Mann is discredited.

University of Virginia climatologist Michael Mann and his colleagues set about, some decades ago, to attempt to reconstruct temperature data for as far back as they could go. The concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is now known quite accurately back to 650,000 years from ice core data, but ambient temperatures during those eons are another story.

In my 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, I provided graphs showing that the Vostok core data was only an approximate match to the temperature data, and that numerous anomalies could be plainly seen. Atmospheric carbon and temperature rise and fall similarly, in tandem, but not identically.

Since actual instrument temperature readings only go back 150 years and are primarily centered in Europe, Mann’s group had to look to other “proxy” data sources: tree rings, ice cores, sediment cores, corals, ocean temperature gradients, borehole temperature data, and the like.

Many studies have been done, and while they differ in details, the common picture is that temperatures were warm during medieval times (1000-1700), cooled to low values in the 17th to 19th centuries, and warmed rapidly after that. Before about 2,000 years ago, we can’t really say much with accuracy, but we can see broad trends. For most of the last 11,600 years global temperatures were cooler than at present. To find temperatures above where we are now, you have to go back 3 million years, when there was much less ice and much more ocean. Between then and now what we see are the gradual temperature changes (4–7°C) between the ice ages and the warmer interglacials, a process that typically unfolded over 5000 years in each direction.

I said all this in Climate in Crisis, but one other thing we can say now is that the present rate of change is profound by any measure. If projections of a 5-degree shift in a single century are realized by our children and their children, it will be unmatched in the 50-million year proxy data record.

As regards Mann’s hockey stick, we can also say with considerable confidence that the warming observed since 1980 is unmatched in the previous 280 years, even putting greater error bands on Mann’s and others’ data. There is indeed a blade on that stick.

Now, the arrows in my door often have scrolls tied to them, directing me to the statement of Dr. David Deming, College of Earth and Energy at the University of Oklahoma. Deming testified to Congress in December of 2006 that Mann was a fraud and a charlatan and one need only look at the Medieval Warm Period during which global temperature conditions were warmer than those at present. Deming said:
“The late 20th century appears to be nothing special by comparison. It is easy to see why this graph was a problem for those pushing the global warming alarm. If the world could warm so much on such a short time scale as a result of natural causes, surely the 20th century climate change could simply be a natural effect as well. And the present climate change could hardly be considered unusually hazardous if even larger climate changes happened in the recent past, and we are simply fluctuating in the middle of what nature regularly dishes out?”
This is, of course, exactly what Republican torture-cheerleader Senator Inhofe and the other climate dunces in the thrall of Exxon/Mobil love to hear. You can be sure that if Deming had not received some fat grants for his department before that, he has all the money he can ever want now.

Of course, I am well aware that the Medieval Warm Period was not warmer than the last decade, and moreover, I am fascinated by the recent hypothesis that the cooling period which followed it, known as the Little Ice Age, may have been caused by the European contact with the Americas, the decimation of the populations there, and the reversion of their farms and cities to forest and jungle, thereby massively shifting the earth-atmosphere carbon equation. Might it not also be possible, I reasoned, that the inverse is also true: that the Medieval Warm Period came from the huge build-up of civilization in the Americas, with their plows and lime kilns, and the destruction of the natural world that accompanied all that? To be fair, one also would have to factor the city-building accomplishments of the Ming Dynasty, the destruction of the forests of Indochina, the Black Plague, and the extension of the Ottomans into Southern Europe in this period.

So imagine my surprise when some of those whose opinions I most respect counted themselves among the Deming Dunderheads. Since I respect these people, I had to actually take the time to revisit the Fourth IPCC Assessment and see if, as the critics make out, the IPCC is either duped or worse, part of the cover-up of Michael Mann’s shoddy science. I was quickly reassured. Deming’s points are now out-of-date, flat wrong, or highly misleading.

At Section 6.6 of Working Group 1’s latest published assessment, the IPCC devotes several pages to the Mann controversy, carefully weighing the claims of his critics, validating their concerns where appropriate, but then trotting out a truly impressive array of confirming research that supports the general hockey stick thesis. The most they could offer the critics was the concession that in some regions, at some times, temperatures in the Medieval Warm Period may have exceeded the current decade. They hasten to say, however, that there is a considerable difference between regional observations and global averages. Ocean heat transport down to depths as deep as 3000 meters has absorbed much of the recent anthropogenic warming, for instance.

All of this reassuring from the standpoint of my previously disclosed Houston moment but not very hopeful from the standpoint of rescuing the human prospect. The deniers can easily whip up sentiments among people recently brought to the brink of acceptance of climate change to discount Al Gore, Jim Hansen and the other town criers, and go back to your consuming ways, it is all going to be okay. And, you know, as a species, we may actually be that dumb.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Lesson of History

"The only honest government in the world"

This past week I have been working with some small town residents in rural Mexico in their preparations for petrocollapse and naturally my first recommendation is to get out of the way of the peso, because it is coming down. Today it is trading at 15 to the dollar, which is great for people with dollars, but not so good if you are getting paid 150 pesos per day, which many people here consider themselves lucky to get, usually by cleaning bathrooms, waiting tables, digging holes or banging nails.

We designed a complementary currency for this town, which we are calling the Tiburon Ballena (whale shark), with the idea of using it exclusively in the Ejido of Lazaro Cardenas. Touristas (such as those coming to dive with the whale sharks) would exchange their pesos at a Cambio booth, use the Tiburon Ballenas in restaurants and hotels, and then exchange back to pesos when they leave. If they forget to exchange back, or keep the bills as souvenirs, then so much the better, their pesos stay in the Ejido.

As I was photoshop’ing a sketch of a 100 peso bill, I went to the web to get an image of Lázaro Cárdenas, the gentleman from whom the Ejido takes its name. In the restaurants and homes of this small town there are some portraits that recur with remarkable consistency. They are the heroes of this place, and they are easily recognized by most of us from other countries: Emiliano Zapata, Frida Kahlo, Bob Marley, Che Guevara. But also there is Lázaro Cárdenas, and it is kind of surprising in one way, and not so surprising in another, that we of the North know so little of the man who was President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940.

It is a piece of history we should take the time to learn, because it has a lot to do with what is happening now in Washington.

Quoting from Wikipedia:
Lázaro Cárdenas was born into a lower-middle class family in the village of Jiquilpan, Michoacán. He supported his family (including his mother and seven younger siblings) from age 16 after the death of his father. By the age of 18 he had worked as a tax collector, a printer's devil, and a jailkeeper. Although he left school at the age of eleven, he used every opportunity to educate himself and read widely throughout his life, especially works of history.

Cárdenas originally set his sights at becoming a teacher, but was drawn into politics and the military during the Mexican Revolution after Victoriano Huerta overthrew President Francisco Madero. He backed Plutarco Elías Calles, and after Calles became president, Cárdenas became governor of Michoacán in 1928. He became known for his progressive program of building roads and schools, promoting education, land reform and social security.
That may be as far as many texts or encyclopedias written in the USA would take our children, and it is enough for a homework assignment or a class report. But there is much more that has been forgotten.

Cárdenas joined the revolutionary forces with Maderas, Zapata, Pancho Villa and others in 1913 and rose to become a general in the revolutionary army, vanquishing the autocratic regime of Porfirio Diaz. He found himself being put into nomination as Mexico’s ruling party's presidential candidate because he was considered a compromise between those wanting more democracy for the 1934 elections and the vassals and toadies of Mexico’s kingmaker of that period, ex-Presidente Plutarco Elías Calles. According to Wikipedia:
Calles went along with it, thinking he could control him as he had the previous two. This however, was not so. Cárdenas's first move once he took office late in 1934 was to have his presidential salary cut in half. Even more surprising moves would follow. After establishing himself in the presidency, in 1936 Cárdenas had Calles and dozens of his corrupt associates arrested or deported.
Cárdenas ended capital punishment (and it has never been brought back), dropped the armored cars and bodyguards that heads of state usually travel around with, and donated the ostentatious Spanish viceregal palace that had been Mexico’s White House to the National Museum of History. At Frida Kahlo’s urging, he gave refuge to the exiled Leon Trotsky, and empowered and reformed Mexico’s labor unions.

With Mexico sinking into the same Great Depression as other countries of the mid-1930s, He returned to the socialization of industry and agriculture begun with the constitution of 1917. Large hacienda landholdings were broken up and distributed to small farmers in the ejido system, and many foreign-owned properties, especially essential industries and oil fields, were expropriated. Trotsky described the Cardenas’s government as the only honest government in the world.

All this socialist activity was looked on with a jaundiced eye North of the Border, but it wasn’t until Mexico came to the aid of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and others fighting against Franco’s Facists in the Spanish Civil War that he ran afoul of the powerful men around President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt thwarted Mexico’s war aid effort, but when the war ended Cárdenas gave safe haven and protection to all exiles. Into Mexico came tens of thousands of refugees, among them distinguished intellectuals who left a lasting imprint in Mexican cultural life. There is a monument to Cárdenas in Madrid and a street named after him in Barcelona.

In 1938, Cárdenas nationalized the railroads and refashioned them into a worker’s collective. He attempted to negotiate with the major oil companies but Royal Dutch/Shell and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of New Jersey were having none of it. He appointed a presidential commission to propose an equitable split of the oil revenues, but the companies rejected the solution. So he simply nationalized Mexico's reserves and expropriated their equipment, which he paid for. The announcement inspired a spontaneous six-hour parade in Mexico City. Imagine nationalizing Exxon/Mobil.

The United States and United Kingdom reacted with predictable vengeance, closing embassies and encircling the country with an economic embargo, Cuba-style. With Hitler and Mussolini beating war drums in Europe, Roosevelt and Chamberlain could little afford to send an invasion force to Mexico and take back the oil fields, but they did the next best thing. They denied Mexico the technical knowledge required to run the refineries, especially on how to obtain a critical chemical component needed to obtain gasoline from oil; much the same way they are denying Mexico the technology to produce oil from deep ocean rigs today. Wikipedia reports the Mexican response this way:
On Cárdenas's instructions, an elite team of around 30 engineers and gifted students were tasked to discover how to obtain the needed chemical before the national fuel reserves ran out in a matter of weeks. They were on the verge of achieving their goal when an apparently accidental explosion killed them all. A second team was assembled and they succeeded; Cárdenas sent to each president of the oil companies a little box with a vial filled with the Mexican formula.
And so was created the National Polytechnic Institute and a model other nations seeking greater control over their own natural resources.

Cárdenas relinquished his office at the end of his term, despite popular clamor to remain. He was recalled to national service as Minister of National Defense (1942-45) giving him the opportunity to make amends with Roosevelt in order to deny Mexican oil to Germany and fuel the allied war effort.

He succumbed to cancer in 1970. His son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, formed the PRD and ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency three times, losing, it is generally believed, by voter fraud, most recently to Vincente Fox in 2000.

Looking to Obama’s populist ascendance to the American presidency, one could imagine few better role models than the poor meztizo Indian boy, Lázaro Cárdenas, who stood up to the great powers, the fat cat insiders and kingmakers, and the all-powerful and wealthy oil cartels, and made the fate of his people, their food, wage and energy security, and freedom from oppression the first priority for his presidency.




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