Saturday, October 30, 2010

Teaching Your Children to Prognosticate

— Voltaire 

We live in a world of orthodox myth; the stories we tell ourselves about the world become the world to us. Even when some of our myths are exploded, they turn out to be so embedded by our cultural memes and temes that it can take a long time — generations — to dispel them, and sometimes they don’t ever dispel, they just go dormant for a while, and then return, zombie myths, to ensnare us all over again.

Zombie myths recycle with special vigor in election years, because patriotism is the stock and trade of scoundrels. Patriotism is the deadest myth out there and the patriotic myths of the USA are among the most obnoxious.

For a number of years, while writing this blog we have avoided using the term “American” to describe the people, places and things of the States of the United States. Instead, we use “USAnian” as the more apt term, shorn of the hubris that somehow the people, places and things of Venezuela, Brazil, the Kuna or the Huichols are not American.

Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." Indoctrinated from nursery school to graduate school, reinforced by weekly pronouncements from the pulpit and daily television bobbleheads, the gene that helps us accept bulls**t seems dominant in the modern human genome. While one can perhaps point to more dire examples — North Korea, Somalia or Zimbabwe, for instance — the USA’s homegrown mythology seems especially pernicious. It deprives USAnian children of pattern recognition.

In his current stump speech, the international war criminal Barack Obama tells audiences that while veterans were spit on and dishonored when they returned from Vietnam, his administration has extended to those returning from the Middle East nothing but honor. The premise is, of course, false. Historians well know that the myth about protesters spitting on Vietnam veterans was cooked up in the kitchens of the Nixon White House to shame the US public into sustaining genocidal bombing long after that war had become not just a fraudulent cause but a lost fraudulent cause.

Dishonoring Vietnam veterans never actually happened, except when they spoke up about what they had seen, and then they were pursued and hounded by government, much like Obama is doing today to Bradley Manning. Manning is the alleged Wikileaker, and he is being prosecuted for adhering to the Nuremburg principles and refusing to participate in the cover up of war crimes. In actuality, in the Sixties and Seventies antiwar protesters welcomed returning vets to the barricades and handed them microphones so they could describe the atrocities they had witnessed, just like Manning. Why Obama keeps trying to bolster ancient Republican propaganda is anyone’s guess. Yet, it serves to thicken the clouds of deception that obscure our children’s vision.

The releases by Wikileaks that provide fine-grained detail of Allied atrocities in the Middle East explain why the returning Iraq vets, who receive far better benefits and honors than their predecessors, commit suicide in such unprecedented numbers. Their war, like Vietnam, is indisputably an illegal war of aggression under the Nuremburg Principles, and no-one is there fighting “to bring democracy,” “to make sure 9-11 can never be repeated,” or to thwart Muslim evildoers, be they Al Qaida or Taliban. Those are all the convenient myths of the type Voltaire warned us of. Today’s cannon fodder are mere corrupted innocents, and there but for fortune go you or we.

How a nation that directs fascist decapitations of democratic societies whenever it suits a perceived strategic needs imagines it can as easily install a democratic system from the top down, while our lordly Ambassadors don’t even speak the language, is a mystery. Before their multi-trillion-dollar Iraqi Freedom project, Republicans were fond of saying “We don’t do nation building.” Now they fault the torture czar Obama for doing exactly that, using more trillions of tax dollars. The myth is not that nation building can be done or can’t be done. The myth is that we are in the Persian Gulf for any reason other than to secure a continued supply of petroleum. Our children don’t know that. They don’t know petroleum is in finite supply.

To believe that 9-11 originated in a cave in Afghanistan at this point you would have to also believe in the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus. What kind of pattern recognition do you have when you believe in the tooth fairy?

Including the 343 firefighters and 60 police  casualties, 2,752 victims died in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9-11. In contrast, between 2,000 and 5,000 civilians died and 20,000 homes were destroyed when the US invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause, discriminantly leveling entire city blocks to capture a rogue secret agent who was taking away the drug trade from the CIA and turning it to his own uses. In CIA parlance, the collateral damage is termed “bug-splat.”

Is there an Islamic Cultural Center in that part of Panama City today? Sure is. El Centro Cultural Islámico de Colón, on Central Avenue. Panama has 10 mosques. Maybe a better question is whether there are Christian Culture Centers close to the destroyed neighborhoods, since Panama was attacked by Christians — Just ‘Cause. Is this being taught in our schools? Would the average college freshman know what Operation Just Cause was?

The Saudis (not Iraqis) that took over the airplanes that crashed into the Trade Center and Pentagon on 9-11 were “terrorists,” our children are taught. Coalition soldiers who shoot disarmed prisoners at checkpoints in Iraq are “patriots.” (One of them is even standing for election to Congress next Tuesday after being court-martialed.) Both of those terms are mythic appellations. What is a “patriot” when lethal force is employed to defend lands stolen from indigenous peoples who have been displaced, impoverished and killed? What is a “terrorist” when one is fighting back against foreign aggressors?

We don’t even have a word for the faceless people in windowless buildings near Las Vegas, Nevada, who launch hellfire missiles at wedding parties or funeral processions from silent, unseen drones flying over Pakistan. They are myths in waiting. They do not exist in our children’s textbooks.

Turning to the election prattle, why are single payer medical systems “socialist?” What is so evil about “communism?” Weren’t Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles practicing communists? Didn’t J.C. chase the money lenders from the temple?

 But then, who was Jesus? Was not that whole New Testament narrative cobbled together from pre-existing stories that were centuries and millennia old by the time J.C. was supposed to have been born? Haven’t morphing storylines also given us the Virgin of Guadalupe? The Book of Mormon? UFOs?

Our bicameral brains seem to have a metaprogram that drives us to create an alternate narrative, a sub-text to the drama we see going on around us. For some of us, that takes the shape of demons and devils lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to destroy us. For others, it is an epic battle, one in which we are cast on the side of good, predisposed to undergo great sacrifice and deprivation of all manner of pleasures to ensure a favorable outcome. For still others, there are unseen, super-intelligent forces at work; aliens, quasi-military security apparati, and Bilderberg conspiracies.

Whatever your poison, there is an echo chamber where your illusions can be rendered perfectly sane. Maybe it is Glenn Beck, or maybe it is your 5th Grade Civics textbook. The Great War was due to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand; Kennedy was killed by a bullet fired by Oswald, acting alone; the US elections of 2000 and 2004 and the Mexican election of 2006 had nothing to do with Diebold voting machines; obesity has nothing to do with Frankenfoods, high fructose corn syrup or bovine growth hormone; the Great Recession will soon be over; homosexuality is a promiscuous aberration; and nuclear power is clean, safe and too cheap to meter.

Orthodoxy is supposed to serve a social benefit. It is supposed to cleave us to the narrow track that provides sanity and avoids the pitfalls history has warned us of. Problem is, our cultural orthodoxy is now sending our children in the wrong direction. It is leading them off the cliff of moral disambiguity to the rocks of pummeled hubris. And because of deliberately impaired perception, they will never see it coming.

The scary part comes when some of them decide to break out of the realm of myth and stare at unvarnished reality. Frederic Nietzsche said, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Silly Season

Octobers that come in a November election year are always the silly season, but this one is particularly daft, falling as it does at the cusp of civilizational collapse.

Virtually any candidate we can shake hands with is talking about the “speed of recovery” whether they view it as too slow, unfortunate, or the best that can be managed given the economic destruction just experienced.

A pitiful few are speaking of federal spending that might actually be a good idea — revived rail lines, green jobs in renewables and energy conservation, or bringing home the National Guard, for instance. Instead, the candidates are a chorus of raucous parrots repeating the party lines, all of which — Democratic, Republican, Green, Tea Bag — are from the la la land of a past century, when oil, coal, and uranium supplies seemed infinite and climate warming was a paltry half degree.

Of course, every rule has an exception.


Going back to the mainstream, or even the progressives, how anyone can be promising to increase the salaries of schoolteachers in the 113-degree heat of Los Angeles is almost beyond comprehension. Obviously they don’t connect the dots between a fossil fueled economy and the stains under their armpits. Robert Reich had it right when he blogged:

You want to know how to cut unemployment by half tomorrow? Get rid of the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, and make everyone who needs a job work for a dollar a day.

He was being facetious, but was more on the mark than he may have realized. In an era of declining resource availability, whether it is cheap petroleum or home mortgages, the only way to keep an economy stable is to match speeds with the rate of decline. This is not your normal business cycle. A huge number of dollars, created magically by fractional reserve banking during the heyday of deregulation, have now magically gone out of existence. As banks and governments write off bad loans and absorb the losses, the currencies backing those loans diminish. Trillions in imaginary wealth revolves back into thin air.

Where it went is less important then where it came from. It came from the pockets of home owners who had been using their overpriced houses as an ATM card, boutique mall stores that employed people to sell gee-gaws, or people who used to hire other people and now just need to buy groceries for their kids.

In this chart showing current markets and GDP and overlays of historic declines and leading economic indicators, the decline slope for 2010-2011 is 7 percent, or halving the economy every ten years. Halving the global economy every ten years is a realistic assumption based on population and available net energy trends. Buckle up. This slope could run through most of the next century. Unfortunately, it won’t change the direction of greenhouse gas pollution, or delay the consequences.

So, liberal notions of paying teachers more, or reopening colleges, pushing up the minimum wage, or subsidizing local fire departments with federal block grants, while noble, even common-sensical, are economic malfeasance. Politicians badly need to stop taking Chamber of Commerce checks and take a reality check. Everything has to contract to match the contraction of energy and natural resources.  We can do this in an orderly way or we can do it with civil strife and concatenating disasters like the summer floods in Nashville and Pakistan.

Here is a platform: get rid of the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, and make everyone who needs a job work for a dollar an hour (we are not as extreme as Reich). Forget subsidizing the bloated football programs of the State universities. Offer vo-tech for the great reskilling; training a new generation of oxen drivers and local flour millers. Teach vegetable gardening and canning in middle schools. Encourage students to leave school after the 8th grade and work at home to feed the family. Plant trees and build biochar kilns to process landfill woody wastes. Keyline fields to restore soil biology and draw carbon from the atmosphere.

Show us a politician with the guts to be talking that way and we will show you a profile in courage. That there are almost none shows just how cowardly and irrelevant our alternate Octobers have become. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

How To Turn Your House Into A Grain Bin

We are teaching a permaculture design course near Nashville, Tennessee at a recently constructed subdivision called Carothers Crossing. Driving to our classroom, normally Sales Office for the scores of cookie-cutter MacMansions littering the Crossing, we immediately appreciated why these people had need of such a workshop.

All around us, for mile upon mile, 5000 to 15000 square-foot buildings loom like sentinel giants over rolling fields of manicured grass that two years earlier had been planted in hay, corn and soybeans. The centuries-old farms that had raised horses for Forrest’s cavalry and fed the doughboys in Verdun had recently been foreclosed, or their aging owners had just had enough, and sold to the developers, who thought the building boom was just on pause, and when the economy came back the ticky-tacky glory of Carothers Crossing would be there to meet the demand. Ooops.

Now it was the developers that were threatened with foreclosure, cajoling their bankers and bleeding off fortunes won in the housing bubble of the previous decade to pay minimal interest until the recession ends. None of them have read The Long Emergency.

In the Sales Office, with its ceiling fans on a columned, wrap-around veranda designed to look vaguely Southern Plantationesque, we picked up a copy of Mother Earth News and browsed to an article on how to turn a grain bin into a house, with several photo examples from Kansas.

Staring out across the fields, we thought, “Hmmm, maybe they should have an article on how to turn your house into a grain bin.”
How To Turn Your House Into A Grain Bin

Many houses built in the past 30 years are not nearly as well-constructed as those built half a century to a century earlier. They have just barely enough building materials to support the second floor and roof, and just enough insulation to insure the local utility a fine income for many years to come. Often they have brick façades, but the bricks have no bearing strength, they are just laid up against the wall for decoration.

If you were to open up a hole in the roof and augur in 100 tons of beans or grains, the house would explode.

So the first thing we need to do is beef up the outer shell. There are several ways to go about this, but the shape of the building and the slope it sits on will be a major consideration. If the building is rounded or hexagonal and sits on level ground, the best thing to do would be to wrap the whole exterior with several lines of 3/8-inch steel cable and tighten those as tight as possible. The more rectilinear the building, the more problematic this becomes because the cable will hold the corners tight but not prevent bulges from the center of the walls.

For rectilinear buildings, as is the case for most MacMansions, it will be necessary to construct exterior buttresses every 10 to 15 feet of wall-span. This is also a good idea on buildings that are built into landscapes sloping downhill, because the weight of the stored grains will put pressure on foundations and cause the entire structure to slide in the direction gravity is pushing. For this reason, buttresses should be anchored deeply into the ground with a “T” shaped footer, opposing the vectors of force emanating from the building.
Once the exterior has been braced, we can begin rearranging the interior of the building to make it more suitable for its task. Because houses have many rooms, a useful re-purposing might be to keep those rooms but divide them into different storages: the master bedroom for wheat; the guest bedrooms for rye, barley, and buckwheat; the living room for maize, and so forth. Rather than attempt to shore up the second floor or attic to support the enormous loads, it is probably be best just to cut those floors away, using a chain saw.

Windows and doors are for the most part useless, and can be replaced with solid wall, except where grain take-out chutes are needed. You will need to retain access to get in and sweep once the grain from the previous year’s harvest has been exhausted. Any openings in the building will need to be carefully screened or sealed to prevent access by rodents and insects.

Storage of fruit, potatoes, squashes, cabbages, onions and other produce is possible but tricky for beginners. Maintaining separate rooms will be a help here. Onions and apples give off gases that can rot potatoes and grains, for instance, so by separating the different storages in sealed compartments that vent to the exterior, spoilage can be minimized.

Grain cannot go straight from field to storage. It needs to be dried. Although solar drying is the least energy-demanding, that will not be possible in all climates in all seasons, so converting a small outbuilding like a four-car garage or pool house into a grain drier is a good investment. A biomass-burning biochar-producing heater and fan is probably the most practical approach for indoor drying in most climates. This is carbon-negative, can use spoiled corn, grains and chalf for fuel, and will produce biochar for a soil amendment as an added benefit.

Access through the roof of the house will be useful for grain storage purposes, and an access hatch can be cut to allow an elevator to be fitted or an augur to lift the grains from the truck into the building. With energy costs at a premium, it is important to let gravity do as much of the work as possible, so once the building is full, that hatch can be sealed and the ground-floor chutes are used to remove the harvest for consumption or transport to the bakery, distillery, or processing plant.

Other MacMansions in the neighborhood might serve equally well re-tasked as flour-mills, bakeries, canning and freezing operations, cold-storage plants, or animal barns. Proximity here is a benefit, because it reduces transportation requirements to distances easily covered by horse and wagon.

As we look around at Carothers Crossing, with prices on vacant buildings ranging from 170,000 to 700,000 (the currency denomination is probably meaningless, you get the idea), we can imagine that in just a few years these unoccupied monstrosities will sell for 17,000 to 70,000 if buyers can even be found then. More likely, they will sit until they start to leak or burn, and then they will be torn down for salvage materials.

Wouldn’t it be better to find some more useful purpose for these fine structures, sitting as they do, in fertile farmland?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Summer Reads

— Bill Clinton

Looking at the news, most current stories have a common thread. Wars over oil; oil spill; catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and record cold waves in the Southern Hemisphere; wheat prices up on drought in Russia; forest and peat fires from the heat; economies cratering from higher energy costs and banking bubbles; states, provinces, and municipalities teetering on bankruptcy; unemployment skyrocketing; right-wing militant groups finding traction; civil rights trampled as authoritarianism hardens; and billions still being spent to keep people in the dark on peak oil and climate change.

If you turn on the TV news, pick up a newspaper, or talk to a taxi driver, chances are good that this thread will be all there is. It may not sound dire, just confused, and it may even have some unvarnished anger or wellspring of eternal hope embedded, but these are the themes.

Russian fires. Until recently, many reports said global warming would be good for Russia, because the warmer climate would improve their agriculture. In 2010 the fields of burnt wheat disproved that theory.

Who knew it would come down this way? That collapse would envelop us and we would still be, collectively speaking, as generally unaware of our peril as sheep being herded into the slaughter pen?

The advice we hear from the bobblehead pundits is rote: we need more military bases and prisons to gain security from the terrorists; that the environment will self-heal over time; that adaptation is the best solution for heat and high water; and that the recession is nearly over, and jobs and booming growth will soon return.

We are reminded of something Confucious said, "When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honors are things to be ashamed of." In an election year, it is not difficult to tell which kind of country we live in. People seem to want more riches and honors and don’t give a damn for the poverty and mean conditions of their lesser brothers and sisters. As Bill Clinton said when he was President, “You can't get elected by promising people less.” So everybody is being promised a fat bribe or a free ride, and there is no shame in taking either.

Last month, Richard Heinberg wrote in his Museletter:
...Limits to Growth foresaw this inflection point nearly forty years ago. But the world failed to heed the warning; as a result, adaptation now will be much more difficult than would have been the case if growth had been proactively curtailed decades ago. Global leaders now face the need to accomplish four enormous tasks simultaneously:
  1. Rapidly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We must do this to avert worse climate impacts, but also because the fuels themselves will be more scarce and expensive. Ending our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas proactively with minimal social disruption will require a rapid redesign of transportation, agriculture, and power-generation systems.
  2. Adapt to the end of economic growth. This means reworking, even reinventing, our existing economic system, which functions only in a condition of continuous expansion. Banking, finance, and the process of money creation will all need to be put on a new and different footing.
  3. Design and provide a sustainable way of life for 7 billion people. We must stabilize and gradually reduce human population over time, using humane strategies such as providing higher levels of education for women in poor countries.
  4. Deal with the environmental consequences of the past 100 years of fossil-fueled growth. Even if we cease all environmentally destructive practices tomorrow, we still face the momentum of processes already set in motion throughout decades of deforestation, overfishing, topsoil erosion, and fossil-fuel combustion. First and foremost of these processes is, of course, global climate change, which will almost certainly have serious impacts on world agriculture even if future carbon emissions decline sharply and soon.

Overshoot, from The Biochar Solution (in press)
What we sacrificed with all the bobblehead blindness, political procrastination, and Clinton’s Axiom was surge capacity. We gave up 40 years of surge capacity and left ourselves with neither time nor resources with which to buffer the coming waves of shocks.

All we can do is shake our head and pick up a good summer read, like The Witch of Hebron, Hold Your Applause!, or Sacred Demise. We could go to a baseball game, preferably Little League. That’s the great thing about summer, after all, you can just tune out the world for a while.

Somewhere, people are actually doing what needs to be done. Soon enough, the world will turn its attention their way.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Defense of Pseudoscience

— Arthur C. Clark 

Over the past several months The Farm Ecovillage Training Center has been blessed with the presence of a wonderful personality in the form of our new Assistant Innkeeper, KMO, host of the C-realm Podcast, a crossroads café at the edge of our global abyss. Among the many improvements we have experienced is the emergence of our own weekly podcast, ETC Voices, that transports listeners to our lovely Tennessee home and visits with our interesting friends and neighbors. Who knows? This could be the start of reviving Green Acres or Petticoat Junction, of at least PeeWee’s Playhouse.
Recently one of our listeners has launched a broadside on a recent ETC Voices show that we had not thought particularly controversal. The attack centers on our interpretation of Rudolph Steiner and biodynamic agriculture, Elaine Ingham and the soil-food-web concept; and real science versus pseudoscience.
While we don’t disagree with many of the points that have been cross-posted on various websites, we feel compelled to defend pseudoscience, if not Steiner personally.
On the 10th of November, 1619, while camped with the Habsburg army at Neuburg on the Danube, René Descartes had, in one night, three dreams, which he interpreted at the time, even before waking, to be revelations from the Spirit of Truth, reprimanding him for the sins of his youth but extending guidance for his future life.

In his third dream, the angel came to Descartes and said, “Conquest of nature is to be achieved through number and measure.” That was the beginning of the Cartesian way of dissecting the natural world — one of mechanics, formulae, and, eventually, human design, including most recently, nuclear power, genetic engineering and red nanothermite paint.

We might ask, however, if the words of the angel were intended not as a gift to Descartes, but as a grim warning, rather like the Spirit of the Future standing over the grave of Ebenezer Scrooge and pointing downward.

 While it is comforting to find some intellectual terra firma to grasp onto, we are forced to acknowledge that our still evolving neocortex exists as vibrating waves and particles in a greater, loose, fractal matrix of external vibrations, with neither boundary nor solidity. Indeed, our cravings for boundary and solidity are more than likely evolutionary echoes carried up the DNA chain from the brain of our reptile ancestor that climbed first onto land and then up into the trees. We seek that elusive comfort, and so we grasp classifications like solid, liquid and gas, or science versus pseudoscience. What we are forced eventually to understand, though, is that uncertainty is pervasive and in insecurity there is wisdom.

The genius of our scientific method is not that it separates fact from fiction by reasoned discourse —a cursory examination quickly reveals that is far from the historical case — but rather that it legitimates distrust. In that distrust there is hope for the occasional novel working hypothesis to emerge. Loaded words like “scientific,” “unscientific,” “pseudoscience,” “cult,” “superstition,” “anecdotal,” “occult” and “woo” serve the advocate and the propagandist, but do not advance a co-creative process. They obscure rather than enlighten. In my 63 years here, I have observed many occurrences I cannot explain, and neither can any science I know of at the present. I could term it magic, but that has its own baggage, so I will just call it UO, for “unexplained observations.”

When Joseph Fourier observed the greenhouse effect for the first time it was, for him, a UO. What we now know to be infrared radiation Fourier called chaleur obscure (non-luminous heat). From the work of a contemporary, William Herschel, Fourier realized that how you warm the Earth is the same as how you warm a greenhouse — by trapping light and forcing it to give up its heat. Fourier posited, although he could not prove it, that this is what gave Earth its habitable climate. Thirty-seven years later, the Irish physicist John Tyndall devised laboratory experiments that proved Fourier’s theory and 37 years after that Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius warned that industrial-age coal burning would magnify the natural greenhouse effect. He even provided a number — five degrees Celsius — corresponding with a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Were I a numbers man, I might believe that such breakthroughs invariably arrive at 37 year intervals (such as did the Club of Rome study, Limits to Growth, in 1972) and so would be anxiously anticipating the year 2046, perhaps expecting the technological singularity.

But fallacies of science are many, and one of the faulty syllogisms that it is easy to fall prey to is post hoc ergo propter hoc — as before, so after. My point is not that science is rubbish, but rather that the division between science and art is not a bright line. Clinging to the one while heaping scorn upon the other is foolish from whichever direction it emanates, like thinking that plants do not communicate with humans, that ocean waves do not alter brain waves, or that your body is a solid object, standing on solid ground.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jungle Boot Camp

"So where do we stand in mid-July 2010? While the U.S. and OECD economies may not be doing so well, the global demand for oil has recovered nicely. After taking a two-year, 3 percent dip in obeisance to the economic downturn, global oil consumption is now reported to be back in the vicinity of its 2008 high of 86.6 million barrels a day (b/d) for 2010. While U.S. demand is down a million barrels a day or so, demand from China and India are up more than enough to offset what is called "weak" US and European consumption. The International Energy Agency (IEA) tells us that it currently expects world demand to increase by 1.3 million b/d next year to a new annual high of 87.8 million b/d.

As nobody who carefully watches global oil production expects it to increase in coming years, we are left with "total productive capacity" which is currently estimated by the IEA to be 89.7 million b/d. This is about 3 million b/d above what we are currently using -- maybe. Most of this spare capacity is supposed to be in Saudi Arabia; a land of eternal optimism where oil reserves never go down no matter how much is pumped up and sold. Many are skeptical that all of this "spare capacity" is really ready-to-go, reasonable quality, sustainable production capacity. If not we are in worse shape than we believe."

We are in rural Quintana Roo, Mexico teaching a 3-week course in natural building and appropriate technology and it is noticeably hot. The temperature in the daytime can climb to around 100°F with high humidity (we are out on the Yucatan Peninsula and it is densely forested) and can hold above 80°F well into the night. The course providers, while wanting to learn about how to make cob, strawbale and earthbag buildings using local materials, also want to take good care of we students and instructors, and so rented all the available houses in this small town that were pretty new and had electricity and indoor plumbing. That was a bit ironic, considering the course subject.

Many people in this small town still live in the old Mayan ways and build one-room homes from sticks and palm thatch, with hard-packed clay floors, an open cooking fire, and hammocks. After Hurricane Wilma the government came around and gave away free cinderblock and metal roofing, sand, and bagged cement and urged everyone to replace their damaged homes with something more modern and storm-resistant. The government built free cement cube houses, put in cement floors and ceilings, and the people bought electric stoves and refrigerators, ceiling fans and sometimes even an air conditioner.

After a while those grey cubes would develop a sheen of black mold — concrete beads moisture in this climate — but the people would just paint over the mold. The people also got TVs and stayed home at night rather than going out walking around the neighborhood like they used to.

On one wall of the cuarto where we are housed there is a black mold that looks like the Madonna with the Christ child. You can see the landlord has painted it over, but the icon is determined and is once more emerging. When we come back from a day of stomping cob and making arched windows of earthbags, we unlock the door and have to stand back to let the blast of hot, cement-smelling air escape. It is well over 3-digits °F inside because the building just sits in the sun and bakes all day and the one window is not placed in such a way as to catch a breeze. The walls retain dank heat for many hours after dark. Our pattern has been to immediately turn on the ceiling fan and then sit outside until the room cools down and the air gets better. We try to imagine what it must be like for all the people in this town who now live in these high-energy buildings and we can see that in just 5 years many things have changed for them.

Once in a distant motel out of boredom we watched a TV program popular with USAnians called Extreme Makeover — Home Edition. In this show they find some poor, struggling family who have been beset by some misfortune and a team of celebrities comes in, tears down their old toxic house (using a wrecking crane and packing it off to the landfill in large containers) and builds them a new toxic house, much larger, with a huge energy footprint. We could not help but wonder, watching that, how that poor, struggling family would pay the new energy bills and whether anyone had investigated to see how many of those families sold their new houses and moved to something they could afford, or were just shamed by their neighbors into sticking it out and had to work extra hard to pay all the bills. The show gives new meaning to “house slaves.”

One irony of the Mexican rural aid program is that there is not enough State-subsidized electricity to support the building upgrades, so brown-outs and black-outs are more frequent now, and will become even more so as PEMEX, the national oil company that fuels the electric plants, nears its stated crude oil exhaustion date of 2012-2014.

We directly experienced what this will mean when we returned one night to find the power off, meaning that we could not cool down the house. In some ways it was a blessing because we did not have to listen to the neighbors’ televisions, but without the ceiling fan, sleeping was very difficult. We did what we often do in Tennessee when it is very hot (and where we have been off air conditioning since 1994) — we took a cold shower. In fact, several, every couple of hours through the night, to keep our body temperature at safe levels and get enough rest for the following day.

This could well be the future, when many places much farther from the Equator will experience similar conditions — hot days, hot nights, no power, maybe scarce water, and the consequences of earlier decisions for design of the built environment. While we lie back and try to sleep, we imagine that we are just in a boot camp here. This is basic training.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah told Saudi scholars studying in Washington that he had ordered all Saudi oil exploration to cease "in order to keep the earth's wealth for our sons and grandsons.”
— Peak Oil Review, July 12, 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Return of the King

Rumors reach us that in a secret ceremony at Buckminster Palace, the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Our source, whom has chosen to remain confidential, explained: “In 90 days time, BP has done more to reverse the power relationship between the Kingdom and its former colony than anything in nearly a century.”

The damage to British dignity and self-respect was most acutely felt during the first decade of the new century, when to everyone in the world, Britain seemed no more than Bush’s Bitch. When a compliant vassal was needed for the invasion of Iraq, to send elite troops to Basra, to validate the phony Italian memo on uranium from Niger, or to twist Chinese and Russian arms at the UN Security Council, England always bowed to US wishes. As the Downing Street Memo revealed, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw well knew that President George W. Bush had "made up his mind" to take military action and “facts were being fixed around the decision” but "the case was thin." Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith had warned that legal grounds were utterly lacking and that invasion of Iraq would be tantamount to a war crime. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom had no choice but to join the war planning and do as it was told. It was called a “partner” in White House public statements, but handled with thinly-disguised contempt in private.

Since the end of April, the power relationship between the two countries has completely reversed, and Hayward deserves much of the credit.

BP currently has oil reserves of 63 billion barrels in its portfolio, and if the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout pressure is any indication, that amount could be understated. At $60 per barrel, 63 billion barrels represents $3.78 trillion dollars. Costs of the spill are currently running BP 500 million USD (344 million pounds Sterling) per month, so in theory it would take 3780 years at that rate for the company to exhaust its assets through the hole in the bottom of the sea. If the price of oil were to rise to $120 per barrel (it reached $147 two years ago), BP’s assets, applied to present disaster cost levels, would not run out for 7562 years.

On April 2, 2010, eighteen days before the explosion in the Gulf, US President Obama, in a gala ceremony unveiling his plan to open US coastal waters to deep-sea drilling, announced, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

A report in the June 20 issue of Rolling Stone  reveals that the White House was caught flatfooted by the scale and implications of the disaster. Within the first 48 hours the President’s national security briefers advised him that the flow rate might be 110,000 barrels per day, that the loop current could wipe out the Eastern Gulf and Florida Keys fisheries, and possibly even tar beaches from Hilton Head to Hyannisport during peak summer vacation months. The damage to the nation’s seafood and tourism industries would be immense, and there are as yet no technology remedies known to politics or science.

And don’t forget the pelicans.

A blame game immediately ensued, with BP the principal target, but BP held too many cards and quickly outplayed the White House with finesse and panache.
First, it controlled the intel: concealing its high-definition cameras and other devices that would have easily allowed government scientists to calculate the flow rate of oil and gas into the Gulf; denying the presence of any underwater plume; claiming a release rate of only 5000 barrels per day. BP thumbed its nose at the puny capabilities of the United States to either assess or repair the damage.

Then it controlled the mass media: buying up search engines; taking over prime time news commercial spots with its mea culpa, and “we’ll protect you” advertisements; putting its top management at the front lines with rolled-up sleeves and ready sound bytes.

The failure of nearly every attempt at an engineered solution by the oil company made no difference to its immunity, either from criminal prosecution or the nationalization of its assets. BP’s hole card was the 9 billion dollars worth of petroleum products that it supplied the US military each year to keep boots on the ground in Af-Pak and Predator drones flying over Yemen. Without BP’s willing cooperation, every carrier fleet at sea would have to return to port, and the White House knew it.

The irony is that even as the U.S.’s oil addiction continues to feather the nests of British pensioners, that addiction could be ended virtually overnight, as every president since Jimmy Carter has well known. As John Michael Greer pointed out in The Long Descent, if the average USAnian used only as much energy as the average European, the US would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only 4 percent of the land area of the US (rooftops, deserts, and areas near cities) is enough to supply all US energy requirements, solely from the sun and wind. Even less space would be needed if the US used its long, now greasier, coastlines to tap wave and ocean thermal energy. Only the colony’s political insistence on clinging to spendthrift habit keeps BP stockholders laughing all the way to the bank.

While the Buckingham Palace ceremony was a closely guarded secret, Hayward continued to put the best foot forward for his company. “Everyone at BP is heartbroken by this event, by the loss of life and by the damage to the environment and to the livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast,” Hayward told the cameras. “It should not have happened and we are bound and determined to learn every lesson to try and ensure it never happens again.”

Never, that is, until another lesson in empire might be required.




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