Sunday, November 9, 2014


"In the event of the worst case - where successive 75-year-old earthen dams built by the Corps of Engineers under emergency wartime conditions are overtopped or washed away -  there is no plan to protect these riverside nuclear reactors."

Many of our friends have been urgently sending us warnings of an impending nuclear catastrophe unfolding in the mountains of East Tennessee. We have been watching the situation but it is almost more interesting to watch the watchers because their overreaching reaction has many tendrils in pop culture, prepping, panic, and how we get our news in the internet age.

Not so long ago news travelled very slowly. In 1845 it took President Polk six months to get a message to California. Thanks to the Pony Express, details of Lincoln's inaugural address covered the distance between the end of the telegraph line at Fort Kearny and Sacramento in seven days, 17 hours. Lag time like that made a significant difference in events because it offered more time to ponder risks and consequences. Mail lag even had a role in keeping California out of the War of Northern Aggression.

Today we hear a beep from our phone and glance down to see what a Facebook or Twitter friend on the other side of the planet is laughing about. We can glance at our tablet to see development of a superstorm in the Bering Strait as viewed from a weather satellite. If we want to get the lowdown on something not in our news stream, we google it, fully aware that Google is filtering our results based on our particular confirmation bias.

Newspapers and the big broadcast news channels are so slow, bland, geriatric and clueless that it is no wonder their business model is circling the toilet bowl of communications history.

But at the edges of the new media map there be dragons. We cocoon within psychographic cabals of those who share our views, seldom venturing out to listen to those who disagree. Social rifts are widening. In the last US election, as earlier in Australia, Canada and the UK, conservative media trounced liberal media. That was no accident. Elections were purchased by Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and consortia of K-street lobbyists funded by repatriating Citizens United petrodollars from Riyadh and Beijing.

Sinkhole, Guatemala
The emerging insularity is ominous. Jim Inhofe, who thinks that global warming is a hoax because God has a plan for us, was elevated this week to Chairman of the most powerful environmental Senate Committee. The fossil fuel industry won virtually every election, national and local. More subsidies for drilling and burning and repeal of EPA restraints are virtually assured. Any gains made by and NRDC in the past 5 years will be reversed as certainly as night follows day.

So, naturally, when we read something in the press about a pending man-made disaster, we have to wonder. Whose ax is being ground here?

According to the Tennessee Valley Authority's news release, published in Hydroworld on November 5th:
During dam inspection Oct. 20, engineers at the South Fork Holston River facility [Boone Lake Dam] became aware of a sinkhole at the base of the 160-foot-high (49 meters) by 1,532-foot-long (467 meters) structure. The sinkhole was repaired, but on Oct. 26, inspectors discovered seepage near the location of the original sinkhole, underwater in the rip rap rocks – a foundation or sustaining wall of stones or chunks of concrete used as armor – near the shoreline. TVA said the seepage included “a small amount of water and sediment seeping from the riverbank below the dam.”

The Appalachian Mountains have a karst terrain that is especially susceptible to sinkholes. This region is also the high ground in the TVA system of 29 hydroelectric dams and pumped-storage. In karst domains – underlain with carbonate bedrock such as limestone or dolomite  rainwater percolating though organic soil becomes slightly acidic and slowly dissolves the bedrock.  Over time, it creates extensive systems of underground fissures and caves. East Tennessee is pocked with chains of sinkholes, or solution valleys, where streams mysteriously disappear underground.

After discovering the leak below Boone Lake Dam, TVA immediately began a drawdown to lower levels of the lake so it could better examine the problem. Sinkholes are not uncommon and TVA has had to deal with them before. It dealt with a similar hole at Bear Creek, Alabama in 2007 by backfilling with concrete, but the leak discovered in October has been termed "an uncommon occurrence" because of both its size and location.

TVA will be bringing down the water level about 20 feet to the necessary mark of 1,362 feet (elevation), the “winter pool” level. The rate at which the TVA can drop the lake maxes out at 2 feet per day and it expects to have the drawdown done by November 10. Jennifer Dodd, a TVA dam safety officer said it could turn out that the cause of the sinkhole and seepage is a broken pipe or drain, but they won’t know until the water’s low enough.

TVA normally lowers its lakes and reservoirs in winter to provide better flood control above cities like Chattanooga. TVA can store about 5 million acre-feet of water during the winter flood season to protect that city from extreme storms, something we may see more of in the future unless Chairman Inhofe puts in a good word with God. Chattanooga's river storage capacity can and has been used to reduce flood crests on the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois by as much as 3 feet.

All this is very reassuring until one digs a little more. Boone Lake is a V-shaped reservoir that extends for 17 miles up the South Fork Holston and for 15 miles up the Watauga. When it was filled for the first time it submerged 154 homes, 104 graves and 18 miles of roads. It holds 25 billion gallons of water. Although the dam is more than half the length of a football field tall, when full the water behind the dam is 35 yards above the normal level of the river below.

If the dam were to suddenly break, that 100-foot high wall of water would gradually diminish in height over distance. It would almost certainly sweep away the state highway bridge only a mile downstream and most likely would overflow and demolish other cross-river structures between Kingsport and Chattanooga.

The Army Ammo Dump is one of 9 Superfund sites near the river.

Kingsport would be hardest hit, because it is close to Boone Lake and has lots of vulnerable low-lying riverside infrastructure such as natural gas, oil storage depots and sewage treatment plants. There is plenty of new, high-priced development along the river shore below Kingsport, and some schools and prisons, too.

Eastman Chemical is the largest toxic waste Superfund site in Kingsport
Fifty miles downstream from Kingsport is the Cherokee Dam, hastily erected (just 16 months to build) on the Holston in 1943 to power uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. Although now retired from generating power, the Cherokee's old cement face, masking three earthen saddle dams, stands 170 feet above the river to hold back a 59-mile reservoir. If Cherokee's 75-year-old Corps of Engineers earthworks fails, it would add 244 billion gallons of water to the 25 billion gallons brought along from Boone Lake and send it all crashing down to scour the river banks at Jefferson City and Knoxville. Jefferson City has 4 Superfund sites, Knoxville 39.

Fifty miles below Knoxville stands the Fort Loudon Dam, another monument to wartime Corps of Engineers speed records for dam construction (just 12 months from start to finish). Ft Loudon holds back another 36 billion gallons, not including the channel that brings in overflow from the Tellico Dam. If Ft Loudon is destroyed or even overtopped by the wall of inrushing water, its waters dump into those of Watts Bar Lake, just below and contiguous.

Watts Bar is named for a large sandbar in the Tennessee River
The cities of Kingston, Spring City, Harriman, Loudon, Rockwood, and Lenoir City all have waterfronts on Watts Bar Lake.

This secret NRC internal report, performed after Fukushima by the agency's nuclear reactor safety division and labeled "Not for Public Release," describes what happens when such a wall of water arrives from Watts Bar Lake to Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, north of Chattanooga. It begins by describing the scenario for another facility, Duke Power's Oconee Nuclear Station, should the dam at Jocassee fail:

"Studies that are more recent have also computed flood heights that exceed the flood protection elevation of the Standby Shutdown Facility (Duke 2009, Duke 2010). The following timeline (which begins with dam failure) is an excerpt from a Duke letter, which is based on results of the 1992 study:

Notification from Jocassee would occur before a total failure of the dam; however, for purposes of this timeline, notification is assumed to be at the same time the dam fails. Following notification from Jocassee, the reactor(s) are shutdown within approximately 1 hour. The predicted flood would reach [Oconee Nuclear Station] in approximately 5 hours, at which time the [Standby Shutdown Facility] walls are overtopped. The [Standby Shutdown Facility] is assumed to fail, with no time delay, following the flood level exceeding the height of the [Standby Shutdown Facility] wall. The failure scenario results are predicted such that core damage occurs in about 8 to 9 hours following the dam break and containment failure in about 59 to 68 hours. When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result. (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10)

The above timeline assumes that Oconee Nuclear Station is notified at the same time the dam fails. The licensee considers this assumption to be conservative because the plant expects notification before the dam fails (the dam is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). The licensee notes that the above timeline does not account for the recession of floodwaters, which is postulated to occur 10 hours following dam failure (5 hours following onset of flooding at the site) (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10).


There are 12 major dams upstream from Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (the locations of six of these dams are shown in Figure 10). As indicated above, Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is located less than 2 miles from Watts Bar Dam. The remaining 11 dams are located at further distances. In the plant UFSARs, seismically-induced dam failure is considered under the operating basis earthquake coincident with one-half the PMF [presumed maximum flood] as well as during a safe-shutdown earthquake coincident with a 25-year storm. … Under this event, the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam would be overtopped and breached (WBNP 2010, p. 2.4-38, WBNP n.d., p. 2.4-31). The licensee provides results that indicate arbitrary removal of Watts Bar Dam during a 25-year flood would result in a flood elevation of 723 ft MSL (5 ft below plant grade).

In light of the concern about potentially high flood levels at Oconee Nuclear Station resulting from the failure of Jocassee Dam, it may be reasonable to understand the consequences of high flood events at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant resulting from failure of Watts Bar Dam and other upstream dams during an extreme precipitation event. Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is flood protected up to an elevation of 728ft and requires plant shutdown for flood elevations above this level. Given the close proximity of Watts Bar Dam to the plant site (Figure 11), very little warning time exists between the time of dam breach and the arrival of floodwaters at the site. The safety-related systems and components necessary for the maintenance of safe shutdown are protected up to the aforementioned design-basis flood level, which does not include a dam failure event (other than the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam).
Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Chattanooga
In the event of the worst case - something like NRC describes above, where successive 75-year-old earthen dams built by the Corps of Engineers under emergency wartime conditions are overtopped or washed away -  there is no plan to protect these riverside nuclear reactors. The emergency plan for a dam failure at Watts Bar, based on the 25-year flood, assumes the waters will stop 5 feet below the reactor building's apron. It assumes it will not reach the diesel generators, the offsite power switchyard or the spent fuel pools. In other words, it assumes something like Fukushima cannot happen.

As the Duke study says, "When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result." Chattanooga and Knoxville will be the most directly impacted, but unlike in Japan where most of the fallout blew out to sea, under normal Tennessee conditions the prevailing wind currents will carry Watts Bar and Sequoyah fallout up the western side of the Smoky Mountain National Park, across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley, and then up the eastern seaboard of the United States, raining down transuranic elements on the people and water supplies of Roanoke, Harrisburg, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Hartford, Boston and Portland, Maine.

This fate is not set in stone. TVA is prepared for sinkholes and discovered this one in time to excavate and plug it. What the sinkhole in Tennessee revealed, however, is an underlying pattern of deception and corruption. The US Congress has been spending money first to arm and train ISIS and then to arm and train its opposition but has delayed spending money on decaying infrastructure such as roads and bridges. For all we know ISIS is a false flag operation being run by ex-Navy Seals, in which case we would be arming and payrolling both sides. It would not be the first time.

After Fukushima the nation should have followed the lead of other countries and begun retiring nuclear plants, starting with the most vulnerable, and replacing them with cheaper, safer and more reliable renewable sources (carefully avoiding siting large hydro dams in karst terrain). Would that not be better Homeland Security than irradiating the entire population in airports? Instead, in the name of energy independence it relicensed old nuke plants, ignored the warnings of engineers that many are as vulnerable as Fukushima, and also increased the earthquake risks by promoting fracking in the Appalachian shale belt. Madness.

The internal NRC report says:

Like many sites in the U.S. inventory of nuclear power plants, flood levels at these two stations were based on relatively outdated flood estimation methods and/or probable precipitation estimates. The evolution of hydrological modeling — including dam break analysis — and the availability of updated meteorological data are likely to yield flooding estimates that are different than those considered during the initial licensing reviews or IPEEE studies.

What happens almost invariably is that the engineers who write words like these are relieved of their duties and shuffled off to less important work in some dimly lit boiler room office. The administrators to whom the findings are addressed stamp them as "Secret," and make sure they never see the light of day. Some clever whistleblower then posts them to the internet, where they are only read by those whose confirmation bias supports catastrophe by conspiracy.

Daniel Boone, for whom Boone Lake was named, said "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”

Perhaps if Chairman Inhofe can just put in a good word with God we will all be spared the scenarios depicted in these reports. Until then, a quiet fear of Boone will keep it interesting. 


View Video Post by The Farm Band from the Reactor album.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Rough Beast Is This?

"A globally-networked economy cannot shrink; deprived of fuel for further growth, it must break."

We are recently returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Kansas where we spoke of the promise of permaculture and carbon farming to reverse global weirding. We are always happier after attending these events because they are so grounded in real skills and vocations and full of hope for the future.

Bryan Welsh, publisher of Mother Earth News, Utne Reader and Grit and author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want,  kicked off the event with an inspiring talk on the power of vision, and how to get it going in society.

Is it hopium? Are optimists only deluded? We don't think so.

Lately some of the most sane and foresighted preppers we know are beginning to question their own assumptions, if not their sanity. Oil production did peak in 2006, after all. All conventional liquid fuels, including biofuels, peaked shortly thereafter. This is 2014. We just filled up at the pump and paid less than $2.80 per gallon. Whatever happened to The End of Suburbia?

By sole dint of mass hypnosis, the United States had a good 3Q14 GDP, sending the stock market and the dollar to new heights. Gold closed Friday just below $1180/oz, ridiculing Goldbug warnings of sovereign default and hyperinflation. The two gold share indexes closed just above their 2008 lows and are poised to go lower Monday. Most analysts described this as a reaction to the QE program just launched by Japan. Outlier David Stockman (former Nixon OMB Director) described it this way:

In fact, this was just the beginning of a Ponzi scheme so vast that in a matter of seconds its ignited the Japanese stock averages by 5%. And here’s the reason: Japan Inc. is fixing to inject a massive bid into the stock market based on a monumental emission of central bank credit created out of thin air. So doing, it has generated the greatest front-running frenzy ever recorded. The scheme is so insane that the surge of markets around the world in response to the BOJ’s announcement is proof positive that the mother of all central bank bubbles now envelopes the entire globe.

The human mind, apparently unlike that of other primates, can hold two different explanations for experiential phenomenon at the same time. That does not always produce cognitive dissonance. We are unique among primates in having a frontopolar cortex that permits multitasking, including undertaking countersurvival activities such as simultaneously driving and texting.

This helpful anatomical asset allows us to hold contrary explanations for our experiences until at some point we find evidence to support one explanation over another. We do this by categorizing features like the redness of an apple, the sweetness of honey, or the sound of an owl but withholding the conclusion that what we are experiencing is an apple, honey or an owl. Instead, we hold the experience at the initial layer of our epistemic contact with reality, a layer we can then use as the basis for more sophisticated categorization into our beliefs and theories. That is where the mischief is done.

As Professor David Orr recently wrote for Solutions:

The plow, for instance, represented the ingenuity of John Deere, but also an emerging, yet seldom acknowledged agro-industrial paradigm of total human domination of nature with commodity markets, banks, federal crop insurance, grain elevators, long-distance transport, fossil fuel dependence, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, crop subsidies, overproduction, mass obesity, soil erosion, polluted groundwater, loss of biological diversity, dead zones, and the concentrated political power of the farm lobby representing oil companies, equipment manufacturers, chemical and seed companies, the Farm Bureau, commodity brokers, giant food companies, advertisers, and so forth. The upshot is a high output, ecologically destructive, fossil-fuel dependent, unsustainable and brittle food system that wreaks havoc on the health of land, waters, and people alike.

Many farmers are now forsaking the plow for these very reasons. Their beliefs about the not-immediately-apparent realities have changed. They are planting perennials and using no-till organic techniques that turn back the clock to the way societies functioned before agriculture. With that shift comes a return not merely to nutrient-dense and more delectable seasonal cuisine but to steady-state economies, redefined gender roles, and abandonment of faith in wage slavery, or student loan and health plan indenture systems.

The re-examination of agriculture is long overdue. It is, to borrow from Yeats, twenty centuries of stony sleep vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.

In 2006, when we published The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, we assumed the post-peak decline slope would be steeper than it has been now, 8 years after the peak. What we are holding in our frontopolar cortex is not peak oil per se. That is already a fait d'accompli. What we are holding there are different explanations as to what has happened and what happens next.

 Of course, there are many things that we cannot know because they are hidden from our view. So, for instance, there is a popular narrative, put forth by the White House and captive media that Russia fomented popular unrest in Ukraine to enable it to seize Crimea and now to threaten Eastern Ukraine with annexation. We know that is a complete fabrication thanks to Wikileaks-exposed secret State Department cables, courageous reporters like Maria Finoshina on RT-TV, and observers on the ground whose accounts are self-validating. It makes us suspect everything the State Department blames on Vladimir Putin; fantasies such as training Edward Snowden as a spy, the downing of the Malaysian MH17 passenger jet, or the recent hacking of White House computers.

US claims jet was shot down by Russian-backed missile (top). Russia claims plane was shot down by US-backed fighter jet (bottom). Dutch investigators await radar evidence from both countries before deciding.

Low Gas Prices

The costs of oil extraction are rising at over 10 percent per year due to the depletion of conventional oilfields and replacement with much more expensive unconventional sources such as deepwater, Arctic, and fracked shale and gas formations. Since 2008, however, wholesale prices have dropped nearly 50% and retail prices even more, thanks to the generosity of oil refineries that have taken advantage of the global lows to push inventories to greater supplies than can be quickly sold, especially in a weak economy.

"Diminishing returns from oil limits are already beginning to hit, but the impacts and the expected shape of the down slope are quite different from those forecast by most Peak Oilers," writes Gail Tverberg.

If you were to ask why that is, Daniel Yergin and The Wall Street Journal, the Koch Party lobbyists on K-Street, or Stewart Brand's cabal of technocornucopians will sing a chorus that, as they have long predicted, increased returns from technology, whether it be horizontal drilling, mini-nukes or the latest new consumer gizmos that save energy, have more than substituted for declining recoverable resources. The logic flowing from this doctrine in every business school in every country is that peak anything is a myth. The best of these Ivory Tower economists lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
If you were to ask energy/ecology aware economists – Nicole Foss, Steve Keen, or Gail Tverberg for instance – why 2006 Peak Oil did not change business as usual (yet) they would tell you that by exponentially multiplying debt, using the 2008 financial crash as a pretext, it was possible to book imaginary profits that will be earned in the future in order to persuade gullible Main Streeters to work and spend – and to part with their life savings, homes and pensions. Massive and unrepayable debt is used to fund risky current expansions (such as for private space races, energy-intensive factories or foreign military bases) and current purchases (such as student loans and iPhones) that can float consumerist delusions ("Nothing to see here, move along") just long enough to make it through another year.

We are not advocating loitering Yergin and Foss in the same holding zone of our forebrain. Yergin is clearly wrong. Foss is clearly right. But the holding zone will be useful as we go along, so let's keep it in mind.

Instead of making more pie to be divided among ever more people needing ever more and better paying jobs, "extend and pretend" piles up more impossible-to-repay claims upon the finite underlying real assets, and most importantly, Earth's steadily declining energy resources. As David Korowicz assures us, a globally-networked economy cannot shrink; deprived of fuel for further growth, it must break.

"Let’s get real," says Richard Heinberg,

"The Earth is a bounded sphere, and the human economy is an engine that extracts raw materials and produces waste. If we keep that engine’s operation within the bounds of what our planet can absorb or replenish through its normal ecosystem functions, all is well. But if the economy continues to grow year after year, at some point the planet’s systems will be overwhelmed—even if we’re using renewable energy to extract and transform raw materials. Our uses of energy and materials can be made somewhat more efficient, but only up to a point. If the Earth itself were expanding at an ever-increasing rate, perpetual economic growth would pose no problem. Yet last time I checked, the planet hadn’t gotten any bigger — while our demands upon it continue to increase."

A reckoning is overdue. As Ellen Brown puts it,

"The too-big-to-fail banks have collectively grown 37% larger since 2008. Five banks now account for 42% of all US loans, and six banks control 67% of all banking assets."

These same few banks each have more than 40 trillion in derivatives on their books. Knock those down to market value and ripples of insolvency cascade through the entire system. This is why the prepper movement is growing, not shrinking.

One cause for Peak Oil self-doubt is that Hubbert linearization – that nice bell-shaped curve – that may correctly model growth and decline in individual oil wells and coal mines, or whole fields and provinces, and even, perhaps, estimated national reserves, does not correctly model the more complex global economy that is partly a product of market psychology involving both human aspirations and crass manipulation for nationalistic and profit purposes. A more thorough model might pull in neglected externalities such as price demand destruction, fertility rates and the corporate consolidation of media.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests that the more certainty we can ascribe to one variable (the inevitability of oil depletion, for instance) the less we can hold for some other variable (timing, price, market regulation). That fits well with what we understand of neurobiology. Our simian brains multitask, but only to two things at once, and then only by microseconds. Increase the focus on one task and all others lose focus.

What happened in 2008 is that "Extend and Pretend" became the consensus government strategy, based on reliance in economic theories equating market logic with natural law. Psychology was seen as not only capable of gaining infinite extensions, but susceptible to manipulation by mass media. Keynesians assured governments that you can buy your way out of recession.

Sadly, the multi-trillion-dollar purchase begun in 2008 was only good for a short block of time, and has now grown too expensive to repeat. We might have used that purchased time to switch rapidly to solar energy, mass-transit and walkable cities, or to put greater attention into dismantling the most dangerous threats in a sudden collapse scenario (nuclear weapons and power, GM terminator crops, pandemic-response inadequacies) but our governments decided it was more important that bankers fatten up their offshore accounts and get a summer home in the Hamptons. Maintaining the illusion of normality was paramount.
Why $2.79 gas? One guess would be that offered by Tverberg, Heinberg and others to the effect that we are in a deflationary economy, pummelled by layoffs, business failures and other indica of recession and demand destruction has driven down the price. Another explanation might be to thank our loveable Saudi friends – you know, the ones who took the Cheney-Rumsfeld contract on 9-11? Now they are playing the long con against their Empire-addled Western partners. By driving down the price of Brent Crude, they can successfully undercut the razor thin capital margins of wildcat frackers, who are now pulling the ripcord on hundreds of giant projects. Gaslanders with high market cap or being supported by heavily sedated governments like Australia and Canada's will survive to try again. For now, it is an abattoir.

Two-dollar-and-change high octane is Big-New-Gas-Play speculator blood washing into the storm grate. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

From the Deutsche Bank Commodities Quarterly:

“While we would expect an OPEC quota reduction to occur before any non-OPEC curtailments, it has been suggested that OPEC may refrain from immediate cutbacks in order to assess the price sensitivity of US tight oil production. In this unlikely event we would regard US production to be more price responsive than higher-priced (when measured on investment breakevens) Russian or Canadian supply because of shorter drilling contracts. Although the weighted average cost of US tight oil is US$ 72/bbl, close to 200 kb/d (or 9%) of 2015 expected production would not attract new investment below US$ 90/bbl, and a further 650 Kb/d would become unattractive between US$ 80-90/bbl.”

Follow the Absence of Money

Conventional wisdom holds that below $80 per barrel new fracking wells and similar unconventional plays – shales, tar sands, kerogens will not occur.  For the Saudis to keep their place as one of the top three providers of oil to the Empire and also their favored market position at Asian oil refineries, including China's, prices so low that your competition is squeezed out of business is very desirable. More importantly, that market share is something the exponentially expanding Saudi royal family desperately needs to support its acquisition of London townhouses, what with skyrocketing prices in the posher parts of town.

When there is a contest between fantasy and reality and fantasy wins, there is a tendency to see that as a rebuff. In actually, fantasy will often succeed in the short term.

Reality gets its way in the end. Looking back at the Mother Earth News Fair, we can ask again, Is it hopium? Are optimists only deluded? We don't think so.

Living now, this year, this month, with earth-based economies, where food comes from local no-till organic sources, water and air are unsullied, and the whole capitalist enterprise seems so quaint and distant, anyone can happily join the swelling ranks of anarchy. We don't need your old dystopian paradigm, thanks all the same. Everyone who wishes to can be happy living as we all should, for as long as we possibly can.

Except… this is not as true in the slums of earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince or in ebola-plagued villages in Sierra Leone. The natural world has no borders. With knowledge comes obligation. Information and tools to shift paradigms need to travel faster than plagues. Prepping in isolation is shirking. A lot of trouble down the road can be spared by a little more willingness to offer a friendly hand up, now. This is the role of permaculture. It's the responsibility of greater awareness.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

W.B Yeats, The Second Coming

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Medical Mafia

"Are there really that many men who worry they won't be ready when the moment is right? "

Whenever we're exposed to broadcast television in the United States we are always amazed at how much of it has been paid for – how much of its time has been purchased – by medical-related corporations. If you turn on the evening news, for instance (and back when we were children that was actually how people became informed of world events, astonishingly enough), the advertising is overwhelming dominated by three sectors: cars, phones, and drugs. By and large, advertising is the principal means by which United States culture instills values in its children.

Other than billion-dollar bribes paid to the best elected officials money can buy, is there some compelling reason why drug advertising is not illegal? Are erections lasting longer than 4 hours really so common that we have to be warned about them 80 times every day? Are there really that many men who worry they won't be ready when the moment is right? Pfizer apparently thinks it is worth spending $1.2 billion per year advertising Celebrex to protect its consumers from such horrific conditions.  In contrast, NASA's total cost for the Apollo program that put a man on the Moon was $22.9 billion between 1962 to 1972.

Apart from the Pentagon or NSA budgets, what else do you know that costs as much as pharmaceutical advertising? Big Pharma spent 15 billion on direct mail promotions in 2012, all that junk mail that went directly to your trash without even being opened.  For contrast, the amount the US will spend on school nutrition programs in FY 2014 is 14.8 billion.

If you were a drug company, which do you think would be more important, money for research into new and better therapies for disease or advertising drugs? Given that most drugs being advertised are available only by prescription, the target audience must be doctors, who we must presume should prescribe on the basis of efficacy and safety, not ad hype. Nonetheless, Merck spends 27% of its revenue on advertising and 17.3% on research and development. Pfizer's ratio is even more lopsided, with 33% on advertising and 14.2% on R&D. 

We are (sort of) proud to say that once we came of Medicare age, we now have medical insurance for the first time in our life. Of course the medical safety net in Tennessee, or the USA generally, is not remotely close to say, that of Mexico, Andorra, Cuba, Singapore or Costa Rica.

Take Iceland, for example. Every citizen gets complete, state of the art health care regardless of their contribution to the system. There is no private sector.

In terms of life expectancy, and most other outcomes, the U.S. and European/Asian systems perform about equally well. But the U.S. spends a much larger portion of its GDP to achieve this performance, getting similar results for 1.5 or 2 times the price. The difference could be explained, and often is, by arguing that the US spends more on innovation than other countries, but as we've seen, that is not true. The US spends more on advertising, and on gaming government spending. The real difference that accounts for the greater cost, we would argue, is the criminal element in the system.

According to a report in The New York Times:

The base pay of insurance executives, hospital executives and even hospital administrators often far outstrips doctors’ salaries, according to an analysis performed for The New York Times by Compdata Surveys: $584,000 on average for an insurance chief executive officer, $386,000 for a hospital C.E.O. and $237,000 for a hospital administrator, compared with $306,000 for a surgeon and $185,000 for a general doctor.
The line at top is the USA; below are all other countries
Mark T. Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, earned over $36 million in 2012. Ronald J. Del Mauro, a former president of Barnabas Health, a midsize health system in New Jersey, took home $21.7 million that year.

The World Health Organization declines to rank countries in their World Health Report 2010, but a report from the Commonwealth Fund ranked seven developed countries on their health care performance and the US came dead last. Maybe if it used its annual $2.7 trillion in health care expenditures for something other than television advertising of fertility enhancements, the US might be doing better when Ebola patients appear in a Texas ER than to kick them out for lack of insurance.

In June, sporting a shiny new plastic card giving us some limited access to the paywall-protected system, we showed up at the office of our assigned primary care physician for our first annual physical. We were handed a clipboard with about 3 pages of questions concerning our medical history, prescriptions and any symptoms of disease, which we dutifully filled out and returned. After about an hour's wait, we were weighed, had our blood pressure and temperature taken, and were shown into a small examining room, where we waited another 20 minutes before a Physican's Assistant came to review our questionnaire with us. The process took about 5 minutes, after which we were shown out and done for the year. We had a clean bill of health.

A few months passed and we started receiving bills. It seemed odd to us, because the annual exam is supposed to be free for people of our age, but they were only asking $10 for the "outpatient visit." We declined to pay on principle, knowing our rights, so the dunning notices have now become a regular feature of our mail and are becoming more strident. Some of the bills provided greater detail, so we dug down into the fine print.  

The doctor's office charged our (now federally-required) insurer $318.00 for the 5 minute exam with the Physician's Assistant. The Social Security Administration picked up $157.65 for that because apparently that is what they honestly consider to be the market value of a 5-minute review (!). Apparently the insurance companies have a special relationship with SSA because subsequently they got an "Adjustment" adding another $160.35 write-down from the government. This made the doctor's office whole without costing the insurance company anything apart from the time spent on paperwork and trying to collect our $10 co-pay, a futile effort.

We should note here that SSA deducts $100 per month from our social security check – money withheld from paychecks during our working career – or $1200 per year. They use this $1200 that we are forced to pay them every year to pay the $318 demanded by the doctor's office for our 5-minute annual checkup (actually $157.65), pocketing the remaining $1042.35 that we might otherwise have spent on canned cat food to have enough to eat. This is apart from the annual premiums we are required to pay to a private insurance company under Obamacare.

Our insurance company continues to cut down trees to send us dunning letters demanding $10 for what is supposed to be a free exam and we continue to ignore them. Next June we will spend another 5 minutes with a Physician's Assistant who will once more go over our answers to the questionnaire and charge $318 for her time, or perhaps 15% more, depending on the going rate of inflation in the industry. 

Although her office is billing her time out at $6360 per hour, she is probably making around $20,000 - 30,000 per year, or $10-15 per hour. But the job comes with a good insurance plan.

We use "industry" guardedly. What we are really talking about here is a grossly incompetent criminal syndicate, legally sanctioned. It might be laughable if it weren't killing so many innocent people every year.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

This Changes Nothing — Naomi Klein's Climate Prescription

"A post-capitalist world would not be one of dense cities and jet travel, but it would have a chance of averting climate change if it could rediscover a balance with nature akin to that previous noncapitalist societies maintained for millennia primarily through gift economies and perennial agronomies."

We eagerly picked up a copy of Naomi Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything — Capitalism and Climate Change, the day it was released because we were mesmerized by the word "capitalism." Of course we were interested primarily in climate change, but we already have whole shelves of books devoted to that topic, going back more than 60 years. What we are looking for now are not retread problem statements, no matter how elegantly posed, but viable solutions to the urgent, existential dilemma. When someone mentions as a pivot point something as grand as capitalism, we are immediately drawn, because at last, we think, they are getting to the root of the matter.
"There is no way this can be done without fundamentally changing the American way of life, choking off economic development, and putting large segments of our economy out of business."
— Thomas J. Donahue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce, on ambitious carbon reductions, quoted in This Changes Everything.
Klein's book disappoints. She delves into capitalism only very superficially. She does not undertake the more arduous task that her title suggests — dissecting linkages between exponential-growth driven culture and macroclimate — and then illuminating a transition pathway to a better future, some style of money game antithetical to Monopoly.

Make no mistake — understanding capitalism is key to understanding and reversing climate change. Klein provides neither the understanding of how that has happened nor any practical and promising way to post-modernize the process, such as by a smartphone linked to MazaCoin (trading at $0.000078 as of Sept. 10).  For her, "capitalism" just seems to be synonymous with "corporatism" or "greed." We might have still purchased the book if either of those words had been substituted in the title, but we would have held fewer expectations.

She refers to the books she reads to her child and creates a similar narrative here: good guys (First Nations women leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Henry Red Cloud's Solar Warriors, the Rainforest Action Network,, whose activities are "mesmerizing," "heroic," "determined;" while bad guys (Richard Branson, frackers, Fred Krupp, carbon traders, UN negotiators, Nature Conservancy) are "entrenched," "sly," or "rich and powerful." There is even a cliffhanger finish — will our heroes transition to clean energy in time?

Jean Laherrere predicts a very rapid drop in energy after 2017
Missing are any grasp of civilization itself ascending the steps of the guillotine; the inextricable fossil energy embodied in industrial-scaled renewables; or the Ponzi tsunami in sovereign debt and its implication for globalized supply chains. The dumbing down process Al Gore described in The Assault on Reason seems to have struck the left with the same casual brutality as it lobotomized the right. 

What Naomi Klein dispenses best is harangue. Because she is a very gifted writer working with a large research budget, the book sits well on its shelf beside works of similarly gifted writers performing similar harangues. Her prescription is protest — "Blockadia" is the term she coins — and while that may indeed produce results sometimes, especially when resonating with cultural shifts reflected in contemporary music and prose, it may also be catastrophically naïve if the "ask" is too far a reach for mass acceptance, or if the advocates' own lifestyles betray a secret lust for role reversal.

Martin Luther King's grasp of the use and limits of protest provides a modern example of successful "swerve" (in contemporary climate tactician lingo). As described in his famous Letter from A Birmingham Jail, there are a number of essential preconditions for moral protest. Although King does not make the attribution, his checklist is drawn from the voluminous lifetime writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

First, purify yourself.

For Gandhi and King, self-purification means, besides purging racial prejudice from your own heart, harboring no anger, while at the same time being prepared to suffer the anger of your opponent. For King, this meant the ability to forgive but not forget; to bounce back again and again, still holding love in your heart. For Gandhi it meant a willingness to take sides with your oppressor — "If anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life." (“Some Rules of Satyagraha” Young India (Navajivan) 23 February 1930 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 48, p. 340).

Second, negotiate.

King and Gandhi always sought civil remedies through normal channels, and when these failed for illegal and unconscionable reasons, they could then proceed to a final tet-a-tet. They informed authorities in advance of their intentions to resist. They offered themselves for arrest. No protest could proceed before every possible avenue for redress had been followed but inexplicably blocked by the intransigence of authority. This tedious process provided the clear moral high ground in each confrontation.

Klein writes,

"'You have been negotiating all my life.' So said Canadian college student Anjali Appadurai, as she stared down at the assembled government negotiators at the 2011 United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa. She was not exaggerating. The world's governments have been negotiating for more than two decades; they began negotiating the year that Anjali, then twenty-one years old, was born. And yet as she pointed out in her memorable speech on the convention floor, delivered on behalf of all assembled young people: 'In that time you've failed to meet pledges, you've missed targets, and you've broken promises.'"

Does this gain sufficient moral high ground to justify laying down one's life to tasers, tanks and microbeams directed from aerial platforms? Not yet.

The UN climate treaty process (UNFCCC), informed by the slowly consensed scientific authority of the IPCC, is not being thwarted so much by covert action in the West Wing and 10 Downing Street or the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries as by the sluggish response of elected or inherited governments to the slow-dawning reality of the scope of this particular problem. As successive governments over 30 years come to grasp its dimensions and what that implies for the fate of business as usual, there is a kind of institutional learning that takes place -- the kind of progress by baby steps that was foreseen by Eleanor Roosevelt when the United Nations was founded. It may seem glacially slow to people from the generations of Klein and Appadurai, raised in the Twitterverse, but slow is not "no." 

Harvard Students at September Climate March in New York
In the tortoise-like process of the UNFCCC, the next major deadline is COP-21 in Paris, December 2015. The recent high level meeting in New York and this December's COP-20 in Lima are intended to set the stage for a treaty. That legally binding treaty should be seen as a Rubicon for the UN process. If it arrests emissions by firm and timely process, "alea iacta est" – the die is cast.  If the river is not crossed, or it does not go far enough fast enough, or the UN farms the crisis out to mercenary corporations, mass civil disobedience is fully justified.

Klein writes:

"By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet I am not saying anything we don't already know. The battle is already underway but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used for the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made.…

"Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change…. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to arise to the fore that sees nature, other nations and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention.

"That is a big ask, but it gets bigger. Because of our endless delays, we also have to pull off this massive transformation without delay. The International Energy Agency warns that if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will 'lock in' extremely dangerous warming."

Giving your negotiating partner (in this case the UNFCCC) a deadline is something both King and Gandhi did. If the partner asked for an extension of time for reasonable cause that would be granted. Again and again. The process of negotiation is not complete until the last legal stone has been turned and the final responses are bereft of moral reason.

The third step in preparing successful protest is surrender. For King, this involved bearing Christian witness, as in the case of sending waves of children to face billy clubs, firehoses and attack dogs in order to fill Birmingham's jails to overcapacity.

For Gandhi, surrender meant to "never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger."

As a prisoner, Gandhi observed the same rules of self-discipline as in the outside world. He obeyed prison regulations except those contrary to his own self-respect. He fasted only when his own self-dignity demanded it. Once begun, he expected no respite from a fast. Each was a fast to the death.

Parenthetically, these same rules have been scrupulously followed by the victims of daily ritual of torture ordered by President Barack H. Obama in the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. These striking prisoners, whose numbers are estimated at between 45 and 160 but whose actual numbers are unknown owing to the gag order issued by the Department of Defense and the refusal to allow in UN human rights inspectors, are innocent men. They were innocent when they were abducted from their homes and farm fields in 2002. They were even found innocent in 2009 by the Military Review Panels ordered by federal courts in 2006. And these were kangaroo courts designed to find them guilty. Their court review came partly in response to the 26-day hunger strike in 2005 that ended only when Navy medics joined in a sympathy strike and refused to provide medical assistance to the daily torture feedings. Only then did prison authorities agree to bring the camp into compliance with the Geneva Conventions, something we all still await.

Today's tortured Guantanamo strikers are waterboarded three times per day at the orders of President Obama. It is not as though he gets up in the morning and before he sees Malia and Sasha off to school he says to a military attaché, "Oh, go ahead and torture another 100 or so prisoners at Gitmo, and throw in some women and children prisoners at the black sites in Afghanistan too, just to let them know we mean business." Rather, as a Commander who could simply order their judicially-ordained release with a few words, he remains mute, kisses his daughters' foreheads, and then prepares daily remarks to, say, praise his outgoing Attorney General for his record on civil rights, or condemn some oil-rich Middle Eastern dictator as cruel and anti-democratic.

From whence does moral authority derive?

Every day since early February 2013, each of Obama's victims is given the option of ending their fast and avoiding being waterboarded yet again — more than 1700 times for some, so far — and each day they choose dignity over the orders of their oppressors. They choose to go under the hose rather than sacrifice their regard for what it means to be a human being.

If the Gitmo hunger strike experience tells us anything, it is that protest does not always succeed. Sometimes it only worsens the conditions being protested. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the Birmingham civil disobedience campaign was going badly for King until a wire photo of a firehosed teen being attacked by a police dog made front page news. Suddenly, nationwide, public wrath was aroused.

The fourth rule for any protest is to have a goal. For Gandhi, it was Indian independence from British rule. For King, it was ending segregation. Both men, of course, wanted much more. These simple goals, while grand enough to be assumed unachievable by most observers at the outset of the protests, were nonetheless below the mark. Among his goals, King wanted to end the War in Vietnam, and wars generally. Gandhi wanted to end religious and ethnic intolerance. They got what they could, and that was quite enough for the time.

Naomi Klein also has large ambitions. Her vision of the future is bright — "the climate movement does not have the option of saying 'no' without also saying 'yes'" to the many forms of solar development. Already solar power in many of its emerging systems is cheaper and quicker for industrial use than fossil and nuclear options, but that finesses the larger point. Is the goal to save industrial civilization? Is the goal to save the religion of consumerism, of growth economics, and thus, capitalism?

The title of the book seems to suggest that capitalism is the problem. Her analysis, however, lacks the thoughtful deliberation of critics like Noam Chomsky, Steve Keen, Chris Hedges or David Korowicz. Capitalism to Klein is a foil; a target for her sharp political invective. To fight this evil scourge she urges us to storm the parapets, take the streets, stand up to the tanks. Capitalism is just her shorthand for evil greedy bastards.

She writes:

"This book is about those radical changes on the social side, as well as on the political, economic and cultural sides. What concerns me is less the mechanics of the transition — the shift from sole rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense, walkable cities — than the powerful and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required."

That statement deserves some unpacking. Klein is not very concerned about transition modalities other than street protest. She gives short shrift to Transition Towns, Holistic Management or permaculture and makes no mention of ecovillages, complimentary currencies, gift economies or bioregionalism. She sees the connection between capitalism's profit imperative and the disequilibrium of exponential growth (long a standard of permaculture training) but has scant grasp of the carbon cycle civilizational embed since the dawn of agriculture, energy return on invested energy (EROIE), or the abbreviated future-discount factor as a function of human neurobiology. 

Granted, she pays token lip service to Holistic Management and soil carbon, but calls biochar “problematic at scale” and lumps much of regrarianism with geoengineering. She seriously needs to attend the Biodiversity for a Livable Climate conference in Massachusetts next month. 

Consider her failure to grasp the exponential function as applied to human population. After describing her own difficulties in trying to bear a child, she says simply, "Anyone who wants to have a child should be able to." Really? What about a second, or a fifth? Is this a right that humans had before we emerged from the Paleolithic or is it dependent on some modern scheme of ordered liberty, not to mention bioscience? 

Is it not a right that must first, perforce, be grounded in resource availability, on the penalty of starvation for the whole? Would she confer that right on every reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or are we just talking about womens' reproductive rights here?

Self purification requires we examine our own needs and determine which of them is actually required and which is merely more comfortable. Faced with the discomfort of say, 140-degree summer months, and the discomfort of limiting family size to one-half child, as we described in our Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, which is preferable? For how long?

Klein's "mechanics of the transition" are mere Disney models of New Urbanism — dense, walkable cities presumed able to accommodate 12 billion or more people with ample power from renewable energy to carry packs of contented residents up and down 100 floors in air-conditioned elevators with happy, seasonal background music. Exactly how are those cities to be built and maintained after we dispense with profit motive, not to mention the fossil fuels to turn iron into steel and limestone into concrete?

Self-purification as a pre-protest ritual might reveal to Klein that the powerful and ideological roadblocks she attributes to a Goldman Sachs boardroom are affixed firmly within her own worldview. They are entrenched in the premises of cornucopian solar power advocates as deeply as in the Carlyle Group. If she is to exorcise the Kochs and Saudi princes from control of Earth's climate, she will have to first exorcise mechanistic utopian fantasies from her own thinking. Her admiration for indigenous peoples is good, but she needs to be reminded that their sustainability as peoples comes from their diverse cultures' awareness of natural limits and willingness to forego lifestyle choices that did not adhere to those limits.
A post-capitalist world would not be one of dense cities and jet travel, but it would have a chance of averting climate change if it could rediscover a balance with nature akin to that previous noncapitalist societies maintained for millennia primarily through gift economies and perennial agronomies.

In her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert's epiphany, which comes to her in closing chapters, is that the only way we will ever stop the advent of the Anthropocene is to eliminate the anthros, ie: near term human extinction ("NTE"). She delivers this message with an appropriate sense of grief, but after 300 pages of hard evidence it is difficult to rebut her conclusion. We can really only fall back on unreasoning hope, no matter how fantastical, because the indictment is irrefutable.

Kolbert says that the reason we have the climate threat is not because of human follies and foibles but precisely because of our genius. Our undoing is borne of our strongest attributes — all those parts of ourselves we regard as venerable. It is our human ingenuity, creative spark, versatile skills, and power to project the future from past experience that is killing every other lifeform on the planet, and finally, with the unregistered loss of some tiny, unnoticed but critical link in the web of life that supports us, ourselves as well. As long as we, tool-making homo, remain, Earth's fate is sealed and the climate will continue in the general direction of Venus. Once we are gone, recovery may yet be possible for other life forms. Archaelogists may come to know us only as that mysterious, millimeter-thin layer of radioactive plastic in Earth's outer crust.

If this message is disturbing, there may be comfort to be found by turning back to a part of This Changes Everything. In lionizing First Nations, Naomi Klein reminds us that before the Colombian Encounter there were on Turtle Island a race of people who, by and large, had learned to live in harmony with the natural world, not as dominators but as members. Not to be too simplistic, there were also indigenous nations that over-exploited, behaved with cruelty and avarice, and caused extinctions of megafauna. Klein's heroes are the former, the stewards of nature's bounty, who built verdant soils and abundant forests and lived in peace. If there is any hope for us all, it lies there, in that model. Pray we can rediscover it in time.




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