Fires Rage, Words Fail

You can watch the fires break out and spread only for so long before you, too, are involved.

You can watch the fires break out and spread only for so long before you, too, are involved.

The Daily Impact has been a quiet place lately, and I will tell you why: words fail me. The scale of the global crash now enveloping us, and the fecklessness of the leaders pretending to protect and defend us, exceed the vocabulary of this wretched scribe. If one manages, however briefly, to comprehend the enormity of the multiple disasters bearing down on us, then one accidentally sees part of a presidential-candidate debate and has to pick up  pieces of one’s skull all over the room again.

How bad it is in the United States:

  • One verse that has been sung for years now by the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Chorus is that we are converting to a service economy, in which half of us will serve meals, keep house and otherwise cater to the other half, and that will work fine. But now — just now — the malaise that has been eating at all the other economic enterprises of the country has attacked the restaurant industry. “If services stumble too,” observes a writer on David Stockman’s website, “there truly is nothing left.”
  • Another verse from the aforementioned Chorus: We may not make much anymore, but we sure move stuff around, and that employs a lot of people and keeps the economy chugging along. Not so much anymore. “The Transportation Recession Spreads,” says Wolf Richter of WolfStreet, with the subhead “Hope came unglued all over again.” Orders for new 18-wheeler trucks have been falling since September of 2015, because of declining freight volumes, and after a slight recovery in December (hence the hope), plummeted nearly 50% (year-to-year) in January. Rail freight is experiencing a similar, vertigo-inducing slump.
  • American jobs of all kinds are being vaporized at a rate not seen since the Great Recession got traction in 2009. Just in January, layoffs quadrupled.  See this partial list of job cuts so far this year, and an assessment of the mass layoffs just ahead. Every month the government issues, and the “Happy” Chorus extols, monthly reports lauding robust job-creation and the continued low (seasonally adjusted, statistically weighted, seasoned-to-taste) unemployment rate, while ignoring the gut-wrenching disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people from the job market. These people, six million or so of them now, are not unemployed. They are vanished.
  • The U.S. oil industry, which was promoting itself just a few months ago as the progenitor of a new American Revolution, of a return to American energy independence, and on, and on — is a smoking ruin. Shale drillers are in the process of reporting losses of about $15 billion for 2015; reductions of 25 per cent and more in their balance sheets because of devalued oil; and levels of debt that  forced 42 oil companies into bankruptcy last year and will drive under many more than that this year. Nor is the carnage limited to the shale patch; from Exxon down, Big Oil is experiencing shrinking profits, tumbling stock prices and credit ratings.   

As glum as the situation and the prospects are nationally, they are even worse abroad — for China, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada and much of Europe and Asia. (Please, valued commenters, find me a country that is doing well, with rising employment and wages, a stable currency, manageable debt, decent health care and security for its citizens. Let’s write about it and then move there. Assuming it’s on this planet.)

Failing that, as I survey the tides of misery rising everywhere, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding everywhere, the hopes and dreams and people dying everywhere — words fail me.

All of this confirms me once again as an Age Optimist — a person who, despite everything, maintains a sunny unshaken faith that before these events play themselves out, he will be dead.

What’s Next for Oil: Whiplash

roller coaster

This is the closest we could come to a chart showing what is next for ojl and gas prices, and how it’s going to feel. (Photo by Patrick McGarvey)

A savvy investor once told me that if you read something in the news, it is no longer true, if it ever was. I keep this in mind as I read over and over that the world is awash in 3 billion barrels of surplus oil. This glut — always and everywhere specified as 3 billion barrels — is present, the conventional wisdom (oxymoron alert) goes, because the crafty Saudis refused to cut production when the price of oil tanked (metaphor alert). They did this, it is said, to run the pesky American oil frackers out of business before they took over the world. This reminds me of the engraved plaque found in many Irish bars: “The Lord invented whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world.” An endearing sentiment, but probably not true. Continue reading

World Trade is Coming to a Halt [UPDATED]

ship scrapyard

This is where more and more of the world’s cargo fleet are headed — the scrapyard, like this one in Bangladesh. (Photo by Christoph Hein)

On Friday, for the first time in recorded history (according to MarineTraffic.com), there may not have been a single cargo ship in transit across the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. If true, this would have roughly the same implications for the industrial world as does a flatline on a heart monitor, for a patient in ICU. Somebody had better call a Code Blue.

Since Friday, the stock market — after the worst beginning of a year since the last Ice Age — has been creeping upward. Guess they didn’t get the memo about the Code Blue. Continue reading

The Scariest News Story of 2016

Arab Spring Yemen

This is what the Arab Spring looked like in Yemen, four years ago, when its people lost all hope. This is what Saudi Arabia, with diminishing prospects of success, is trying desperately to avoid. (Wikipedia Photo)

Correct. The scariest news story of 2016 is already in. Saudi Arabia is starting to come apart, and when its unscheduled rapid disassembly is a little farther along, the Industrial Age will come to an end.

[TROLL: “Don’t you ever get tired of making predictions that never come true? You said exactly the same thing a year ago. And the year before that.” Actually, dear trolls, what you find here are not exactly predictions, rather they are analyses of trends and the likely outcomes of those trends. But even if you insist they are predictions, the fact is that virtually all of them are in the process of “coming true” — it’s just that people who have the historical horizons of a fruit fly assume that anything that doesn’t happen while they’re looking at it is never going to happen, and never happened before. In medicine that’s called amnesia.]

But back to Saudi Arabia, where the forces of disassembly have been in play for decades.   Continue reading

2015: The Year of Lying Dangerously

Pinnochio

No, we don’t think his nose is deformed. Looks perfectly normal to us. And we’re going to vote for him. Photo by Tristan Schmurr/ Flickr

The crash of the industrial age proceeded apace in 2015. One reason that is not well understood is that a different, parallel trend — the onset of moral bankruptcy accompanying the collapse of American Empire — also accelerated this year, often obscuring the economic news, often by design. Whether one is causing the other, or both are caused by something else, is something for the historians to sort out, if there are any historians. Right now, both are happening too fast to analyze. But let’s focus for a moment on the moral decline.

The ethical glue that once held our culture together — the unquestioned mutual commitment to freedom and decency and fair dealings — is liquefying at a terrifying rate. This is what happens at the end of empires, when the energy of their high ideals is spent, the ecstasy of their ascent is in the past, and the agony of decline causes them — their leaders and their people — to abandon everything they once believed in. Continue reading

Billions of Barrels of US Oil Set to Disappear. Poof.

oil fire

An oil refinery in Puerto Rico burns in 2009. That’s one way to make a bunch of oil disappear, but accountants can do it faster. And they’re going to. (Wikipedia Photo)

In a few weeks, several billion barrels of American oil will vanish in an instant. (I am not making this stuff up: the headline is right there on Bloomberg Business, hardly a chicken-little medium.) This is — shortly to be was — the oil that just a few months ago (Remember? When we were young, and happy?) was to return us to energy independence, to make us the number one oil producer in the world, to bring the happy days here again for good.

Okay, there were weasel words salted into those assurances all along, words that we didn’t realize were there until too late. The new American oil revolution was going to put us on the road back in the general direction of North American energy independence (as long as you counted Mexican and Canadian oil, too); and we would be the number one oil producer if you included in your definition of “oil” such things as biofuels, refinery gains from heat expansion, spillage and, if necessary, drippings from leaky transmissions in shopping mall parking lots. Continue reading

The Search for the Crash of 2015

Plane-Crash The later it gets in the year, the more pointed become the questions: “So. Where’s your Crash of 2015, eh?” (Some of the questioners are Canadian.) Reminds me of a story. I was in a strange city, to meet a person very important to my future, and had been given directions to, let’s call it the Metropolis Building. “Huge building, right on Main Street, you can’t miss it.” I followed the directions, but could not find the building. Increasingly frantic as the appointed time drew near, I gave myself a time out, letting a granite wall alongside the sidewalk support me as I gathered my wits. I decided desperate measures were called for. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked a passerby, “Can you direct me to the Metropolis Building?” The reply was accompanied by a withering look. “You’re leaning on it.”

And that, dear interlocutor, is my answer to you. Look no further for the Crash of 2015; you’re standing in the rubble. And if you are going to disagree with me, based on the fact that CNBC and the Wall Street Journal have not yet described what you’re standing in as rubble, then let’s just agree that we reside on different planets, rely on different sources of information and part company. Continue reading

Debunking the Defamers of Religion

Bible

When you read what this text requires practitioners of an ancient religion to do, you will be horrified. (Wikipedia Photo)

It has been disturbing of late to hear politicians and pundits maligning one of the world’s great religions, reasoning (if that’s the right word to describe the process) that the actions of fundamentalists reveal the nature of the religion as one that counsels brutality, slavery, murder and death. It is perhaps not surprising — given that these fundamentalists have been responsible for virtually every violent act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11/2001 — that they have drawn so much invective down upon their whole belief system. I resolved to put the matter to rest by doing what none of the commenters seem to have done; by reading closely what the unfamiliar scriptures actually have to say.

Sadly, I must report that instead of debunking the defamers, I found confirmation of what many of us thought were reprehensible slanders. Continue reading

Charades in Paris

sea level rise

“A rising sea today submerged the hall in which COP21 negotiators were debating what to do about sea level rise.” You think that’s fantasy? Take a look at what COP21 is actually, really doing.

Charades: an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance. Paris: site of the 2015 conference of COP21 (or, if you insist: Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 21st Session). Yes, it’s the 21st time the participants have gathered to congratulate themselves for finally getting serious about climate change, with the promise that this time they will not only be serious about it, they will actually do something about it.

Of course they haven’t been; and of course they won’t. The only principle to which they have been committed, leaders of the industrialized and developing nations alike, is the first principle of industrialized politics: always appear to be doing something, but never do anything.  To do something about climate change would negatively affect one or more of the Leaders’ industrial patrons on whom most of them depend to stay in office; but a Leader must always appear to be doing something about something lest the starving, choking, drowning peasants rise up and ruin the business plan. Continue reading

Beware the Tides of March

Blue Sky Flooding

US Highway 80, only access to Tybee Island, Georgia, underwater on October 27. It was the worst flood since a Category 2 hurricane in 1935. No rain, no wind, just an implacably rising sea.

When I first published Brace for Impact, six years ago, I did not give climate change its own chapter. I thought it was a slow-moving threat multiplier, that would exacerbate the effects of more immediate damage done by by polluters, industrial agriculture, peak oil and the like. Boy, has that changed. The onslaughts of drought, heat, savage storms and sea level rise have accelerated beyond the expectations of scientists just a few years ago, and as we come around the turn to the home stretch, climate change is neck and neck with the various other existential threats to the industrial age. The finish line, of course, being the place where we are all finished. Continue reading