When Life Gives You Yemens

What happens when Yemenis have had enough, as they did in 2011. It’s not about which son of Allah you follow, or whether you get to vote; it’s about food and water and fuel. Always. (Wikipedia Photo)

What happens when Yemenis have had enough, as they did in 2011. It’s not about which son of Allah you follow, or whether you get to vote; it’s about food and water and fuel. Always. (Wikipedia Photo)

When the nation of Yemen was put on a gurney and trundled down the hall from the global intensive-care unit to hospice, it was in pretty bad shape. The United States runs the ICU, of course, and has only two treatments to offer, whatever the symptoms presented: massive injections of cash, or invasion surgery. The outcomes are universally terrible, and have been since about 1950, but no one seems able to think of another approach. That may have something to do with the quality of diagnosis: a patient who is starving and dehydrated is unlikely to respond well to either a high-pressure currency infusion or a brain transplant.   Continue reading

One of Our Islands is Missing

Going, going....  How is it we let one of our islands get away from us without learning anything? (Photo by Highcamera Aerial Photography Service)

Cedar Island, Virginia, going, going…. How is it we let one of our islands get away from us without learning anything? (Photo by Highcamera Aerial Photography Service)

The story of Cedar Island, Virginia, is a quintessentially American story, of a man who had a dream, who wrested from an empty landscape a vision of congestion, postage-stamp-sized, $100,000 lots — lots of lots — along with seaside highways, entertainments and villas. He called his vision “Ocean City, Virginia,” and it endured for half a century. But now Cedar Island’s 2,000 acres, dozens of seaside homes, and dreams of wretched excess have been wiped from the face of the earth by an implacably rising sea. Is this a great country, or what? Continue reading

The Crash of 2015, Day 49: Hell to Pay

You have this perfectly good structure, and then you kick out a few of the supporting pillars, and the next thin you know the SEC is on the phone.

What do you mean, Uncle Clarence didn’t believe they were going to do it, and stayed in his room?

I know, it’s old news. If I stop by on Monday and tell Oscar Oblivious that his house appears to be on fire, he is of course concerned. But when I stop by on Wednesday to say it’s still burning, has consumed most of the structure, and collapse appears to be imminent, he demands to know why I am bothering him with old news. The Crash of 2015, the burn and crash of the economies of much of the world into — at least — serious recession for a very long time, is well under way. It is of course no news at all for the mainstream media, transfixed as they are with simpler stories of happier, imaginary times. But for you who come here from time to time, it’s old news. How is it then that you are still in the burning house? Continue reading

Engineers Offer to Save World from Engineers

Thank God, it’s an engineer, here to save us from the fire by pouring gasoline on us. (Photo by Sergei Nivens/Shutterstock)

Thank God, it’s an engineer, here to save us from the fire by pouring gasoline on us. (Photo by Sergei Nivens/Shutterstock)

The closer a person or  a society comes to the end of its life, the more attractive magical thinking becomes. Clearly this is not going well, the thought process goes, but I can avoid the inevitable outcome if I 1) pray real hard, or 2) pay enough money to the shaman/priest/doctor, or 3) take lots and lots of Vitamin X while bathed in a strong electromagnetic field, or 4) sacrifice plenty of virgins to a volcano. The more hopeless the situation becomes, the more attractive becomes the idea of a magical, easy solution, and the lust to find one often intensifies until death intervenes. Thus now, in the dotage of our society, we are hearing a rising, insistent chant from the shamans of technology, a promise of an easy fix for the climate that is turning against us: “geoengineer it, geoengineer it.” Continue reading

Oil Prices: A Simple Explanation

graph graph

A glance at this simple chart shows how oil prices are determined, and by whom. To the best of our knowledge.

To paraphrase an old saying: For every event there is an explanation that is simple, obvious and wrong. For example, ask why oil prices started to plummet last fall and the simple, obvious answer is: too much supply, mainly because of the American fracking boom, and too little demand because of weak and weakening economies. I have ever been suspicious of people, such as weather forecasters and stock brokers, who have no idea what’s going to happen 24 hours from now but once it happens can immediately explain why it happened, in excruciating detail. Thus on January 7th in this space, I asked a question about this simple and obvious explanation, offered by people who had no clue ahead of time that it was going to happen. The question was this: On what planet does an oversupply of two percent for a machine burning 90 million barrels a day lead to a 50% drop in prices? Continue reading

The World’s Most Sustainable Country: What? Cuba?

By 2006, when this picture was taken, urban farms such as this converted soccer field in the middle of Havana were supplying the city with 90% of its produce while using virtually no petroleum products. (Photo by Dave Williams/Flickr)

By 2006, when this picture was taken, urban farms such as this converted soccer field in the middle of Havana were supplying the city with 90% of its produce while using virtually no petroleum products. (Photo by Dave Williams/Flickr)

After 50 years of pretending that Cuba is not there, the United States government this year admitted that, well, it is still there (even  Fidel Castro is still there) and we may as well deal with it. This is seen in some quarters as progress. But it is widely assumed that American business will swoop in there and upgrade them from their 1967 DeSoto cars, re-mechanize their agriculture, build fast-food restaurants, and stamp out Communism. It’s what we do.

What we should do is recognize that Cuba confronted in 1991 precisely the kind of Apocalypse that looms before us today — the sudden loss of external inputs to the economy — things such as oil, heavy equipment, cars, and did we mention oil? — and handled it. We have more to learn from them than there is likely time to learn before we are in the soup, but we should do the best we can, because there is no better example in the world for meeting and besting such a crisis. Continue reading

Grid Lock and Load Shedding: Why the Lights Are Going Out

The lights went out in Hoboken in 2012. They’re going out more often, for longer, in more places. Are you ready? (Photo by Alec Perkins/Flickr)

The lights went out in Hoboken in 2012. Thank goodness we don’t live in one of those backward countries where it happens all the time. (Photo by Alec Perkins/Flickr)

[Irony alert; avoid reading if allergic.] 

It is amusing to see — from the vantage point of the world’s number one economy, soon-to-be-number-one oil-and-gas producer, number one military power and just all around exceptional nation — the rest of the world struggling to keep the lights on. The poor beggars don’t seem to have the capacity to understand what it takes to run large enterprises and be Number One.  Examples abound: Continue reading

Peak Food is Here. Peak People Next.

If we could get photosynthesis to run by moonlight, we would have a chance of supporting the “projected” increase in world population, which as we all know will continue to increase forever, no matter what. Wait, what? (Photo by Sammydavisdog/Flickr)

If we could get photosynthesis to run by moonlight, we would have a chance of supporting the “projected” increase in world population, which as we all know will continue to increase forever, no matter what. Wait, what? (Photo by Sammydavisdog/Flickr)

One of the many insanities of industrialism is the belief — so ingrained in the system that it is never even stated — that yields and profits can and should grow forever, increasing toward infinity on a finite planet. One reason the belief is never stated is that the statement is ridiculous on its face. So industrialists worship a kind of avatar they call “growth.” Somehow, the idea that growth is always good, that it can and should go on forever, does not induce hysterical laughter, but reverence. This testifies to the effectiveness of repetition as a substitute for reason.

When an organism never stops growing, reason calls it “cancer.” When an organism stops growing upon reaching maturity, reason says it has reached its peak. In nature, this is good and normal, as is the following eventual decline and death. In industrialism, peak is a dirty word, to be denied, preferably never even discussed, along with such alien concepts as decline and  death.

Yet even the richest and most powerful humans cannot defy nature for long. She is implacable, and her ruling is that every system, every organism, every enterprise, matures — which is to say it reaches its peak — and then begins to die. This is true for everything from starfish to stars. So it’s time to be surprised all over again at a new study that shows that global industrial food production has, um, matured. As in, peaked. Continue reading

The Crash of 2015: Day 29 [UPDATE Day 30]

You have this perfectly good structure, and then you kick out a few of the supporting pillars, and the next thin you know the SEC is on the phone.

Maybe we could still live in the top floor? If we could just slow it down a little?

A couple of things to keep firmly in mind as we watch the Crash of 2015 unfold, pretty much on the schedule I’ve been writing about here for six months. First, the drop in oil prices is not the cause of this disaster, merely an accelerant. The fracking industry is succumbing to its inherent high expense, toxicity, rapid depletion rates and over-reliance on junk financing. Similarly, the stock market crash we expect to follow the fracking collapse would have come anyway because of its inherent instability, and indeed may yet occur before the chain reaction in the fracking fields has run its course. And finally, what is happening to fracking is also happening to the legacy oil business, only slower. Continue reading

The Consumer Economy Becomes Consumptive

The Randall Park Mall in Ohio was once the world’s largest, with two million square feet. It has ben rotting down since 2009. (Photo by Nicholas Eckhart/Flickr)

The Randall Park Mall in Ohio was once the world’s largest, with two million square feet. It has ben rotting down since 2009. (Photo by Nicholas Eckhart/Flickr)

The Masters of the Universe like to talk about our “consumer economy,” as if we have discovered the equivalent of the perpetual motion machine: an economy that can prosper while consuming, without having to produce anything except fast food and loan documents. Such an economy has the future of a snake that has swallowed its own tail — that full feeling is not going to last. Such an economy is not a “consumer” economy — that is almost an oxymoron — but a consumptive economy, which is to say one suffering from a wasting disease.

People trapped in a burning building don’t spend much time worrying about whether they have a wasting disease. So it’s understandable that with the American oil revolution imploding and the stock market reeling drunkenly along the edge of a cliff, not much attention is being paid to the spreading dry rot of ordinary American retail business. Still, it’s there. Continue reading