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

How About Them Redskins? No offense.

redskins helmet

A gladiator of the Washington DC cult whose name may not be spoken. We’re here to help. (Photo by Kieth Allison/Flickr)

[WARNING: The following essay contains irony. If you are allergic or immune to irony, do not read it. Your head could explode.]

The population of the civilized world, by which of course I mean most of the original 48 states (I won’t say which are not included, you know who I mean) is divided into 32 cults, each organized around a team of gladiators who compete regularly in giant arenas. The  gladiators’ ferocious combats are attended by tens of thousands of acolytes (they call themselves “fans”) and are watched on television by hundreds of thousands more. They involve the maneuvering of a small oval ball on a field, and frequently feature combatants being carried off with broken bones and scrambled brains.  The sect members wear the colors and symbols of their team, venerate its mascot, organize their lives around its combats, bet heavily on the outcomes, and devote their lives to adulation. The high priests of this culture become enormously rich.

But all is not well in this paradise. Continue reading

The “Worst News of 2015” Just Got Worse

Just a garden-variety protest in some Middle Eastern county, you say, nothing to be afraid of here? Wait till you find out where these people are. (BBC Photo by Safa Al-Ahmad)

Just a garden-variety protest in some Middle Eastern county, you say, nothing to be afraid of here? Wait till you find out where these people are. (BBC Photo by Safa Al-Ahmad)

The news photo I labeled the scariest of 2014, back in August, and the news story I called the worst of 2015 a few weeks ago, just got scarier, and worse. The photo was of demonstrators who have managed to keep an insurgency alive in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for three years despite everything a boundlessly wealthy state can do to snuff it out. Bad for us, because the Eastern Province is where the Saudi oil is. The worst news of the year for us was that the Saudi king was in hospital with a terminal illness. Now the king is dead, and the difficulties faced by his successor just became worse by at least an order of magnitude. Continue reading

The Crash of 2015: Day 21 [Update: Day 22]

Hold on a second, we’ve changed our minds. Can you just hold it right there, please? We’ve decided we like it the way it is…..

The economy of the United States and the world is on fire, and with the flames and smoke visible in any direction one cared to look, the President of the United States declared last night that the worst is over, “the shadow of crisis has passed,” and happy days are here again. In reality (a state that presidents and candidates for president never seem to visit) 2015 is shaping up to be one of the worst any of us have ever seen.

It’s a potent mix of flammable situations, from an unhinged stock market to a drought-ravaged West to the fiscal convulsions of China, Russia and Europe. But for us in America, the collapse of the bogus New American Oil Revolution is the fire that’s burning hottest and spreading fastest. This is how it’s likely to go: Continue reading