Circuits Breaking

Among the industrial systems being strained to and beyond their limits by the tensions between growing demand and limited supplies is the electrical network of every industrialized country. Brazil is just the latest to experience the consequences of breaking circuit breakers. Continue reading

Putting the Fox in Charge of the Canary

Even after you have accepted the degree to which money has locked down the American political system, and hence its government; after you realize that there are really no more Democrats and Republicans in American politics, just Moneycrats and losers; it can still be astonishing what Money can do.

In Ohio this year, Big Agriculture decided it was threatened by the pesky people from the Humane Society of the United States who have persuaded several states to moderate the brutal treatment of animals in factory farms — such things as confining nursing sows in cages so small they can neither turn around nor even get up. Widely broadcast videos of the misery and brutality that is routinely involved in providing our beef, pork and poultry have aroused the disgust of enough people that the usual chant of “leave us alone our your food prices will go up,” or “leave us alone or we’ll stop creating jobs,” aren’t working so well any more. Continue reading

Deforming Health Care

Just about a year ago, for the first time in modern American history, voters selected a president who had not been vetted and funded by Big Money. In the euphoria of the celebration, we did not notice for a while that no similar winds of change had blown through the Congress. As a result the drive for health care reform (or was it health care insurance reform? Or both?) by the new president, with the backing of about 70 per cent of the American people, has not only missed the cup, in the parlance of golf, but the green, and cannot be found anywhere on the fairway. They are out among the trees now, looking for its remains. Continue reading

Got Swine Flu? Thank a Swine Factory

Even when the Washington Post gets around to placing the blame for the H1N1 Flu pandemic squarely where it belongs — on industrial agriculture — it does so obliquely, and with the mindset created by the industry’s flacks that prevents us from facing its increasingly dire consequences. Continue reading

Renewable is not Sustainable if it’s Industrial

Renewable is not Sustainable
The electricity industry has embraced the cause of renewable energy sources, primarily wind and sun, so that it can pour gallons of greenwash over its installations and run TV commercials about how it’s helping to save the planet. But the industrialization of renewable energy sources is little  more sustainable than are fossil-fuel-burning plants.
For example: dozens and dozens of multi-billion-dollar solar projects haven been proposed for the desert southwest, where, of course, there is lots of sunshine. But most of the proposals involve using the concentrated heat from the sun to run boilers. A typical proposal, for Amargosa Valley, Nevada, would require 1.3 billion gallons of water per year. Water, as you may know, is not plentiful in deserts.
[“Alternative Energy Projects Stumble on a Need for Water” — The New York Times.]
(It is not widely recognized how thirsty the electricity generating industry is. Providing power to the typical American home requires three times as much water as the household consumes for all other purposes.)
There are many other difficulties attending desert solar plants. You need water, as well, for the hundreds of people needed to build and maintain the plants. You need to build huge transmission lines through thousands of back yards to get the power thus produced to market.
As with solar, the industrial approach to wind energy is to erect giant wind turbines where there is lots of wind and transmit it to market via the grid. First, nothing that requires the manufacture of enormous machines and the erection of huge installations can be regarded as sustainable. Second, the highly variable output of wind turbines poses some extremely difficult problems for the managers of the grid.
What would be both renewable and sustainable when it comes to energy? The answer is simple, though not easy. We have to start, right now, to produce the energy we need where we need it. We need, in other words, to de-industrialize electricity, if we are going to keep on having any.
[For much more on this see also Chapter Six, “Grid Lock,” of my book Brace for Impact now available.]

The electricity industry has embraced the cause of renewable energy sources, primarily wind and sun, so that it can pour gallons of greenwash over its installations and run TV commercials about how it’s helping to save the planet. But the industrialization of renewable energy sources is little  more sustainable than are fossil-fuel-burning plants. Continue reading

The Swine Weed Pandemic

The Swine Weed Pandemic
It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed.
It looks just like the pig weed that corn-, cotton- and soybean-farmers have been fighting in the South forever. It’s big, it kicks the crap put of any crop it’s contesting with, and it’s tough enough to stop a combine in its tracks. The only thing different about the superweed variety is that it can’t be killed by any manmade chemical.
Twenty years or so ago, that wouldn’t have been a threat to life as we know it. But it is now. The reason —  the most successful single promotion of a destructive chemical farming practice ever perpetrated. The winner was Monsanto, which in the 1970s introduced the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, which was less persistent after application and thus less toxic to groundwater and other plant life that many other herbicides. Then, in the mid-1990s, Monsanto introduced Roundup-resistant crops, which had been genetically modified so that Roundup couldn’t kill them.
It solved an old problem of chemical farming. Until then, sprays could kill broadleaf plants, or they could kill grasses, but they couldn’t knock the wild oats out of a wheat field without killing the wheat, or select broadleaf weeds in a soybean field. Now, Roundup could. It killed everything
In about ten years, the application of Roundup went from about eight million pounds (1994) to about 120 million pounds (2005). In 2006, Roundup-Ready crops occupied nearly one-half of the available cropland in the United States.
The inherent flaw in chemical agriculture is that no chemical kills everything it’s supposed to, and every application of a chemical spurs the development of resistant mutants. There are already 16 weed species in the world, nine on the United States, that shrug off Roundup as if it was a spring rain. Pigweed is one of them.
The inherent flaw in industrial agriculture, with its relentless pursuit of the economies of scale (while it ignores the simultaneous and equal concentration of risk), is that when you have ten thousand acres of one thing, a threat to that thing is going be pretty catastrophic. Sustainable farming, by contrast, will grow 20 or 50 things on a hundred acres.
So here we have the corn and soybean and cottonseed farmers of the South who are facing ruination because of pig weed. They are trying applications of four times the previously adequate amounts of Roundup. It’s not working. They are rolling out mechanical cultivators, which have not been seen in these fields for 20 years. The problem here is that sow-and-spray agriculture was so easy, and the farms got so big (10,000 acres-plus is now the norm), that the tractors, implements and manpower needed to go back to mechanical cultivation simply don’t exist.
The pigweed problem emerged as a major threat only this summer. As Arkansas extension agent Ken Smith described it, “In July we began hearing horror stories all over the state. ‘Man, there are ankle-high weeds out there that Roundup won’t even touch.’” This year, the pig weed spread to more than a million acres of cotton and soybeans. Says Smith: “I’ve never seen anything that had this major an impact on our agriculture in a short period of time.”
This winter, farm groups all over the country will be trying to come up with an answer to the spreading plague of pigweed (the most effective control yet devised — hand weeding. Try that on 10,000 acres). Monsanto has promised a vaccine — honest,  they swear they’ll have a chemical answer by 2015.
Here’s what you can count on: the pigweed plague, and the associated accumulating failures of industrial agriculture, are going to hit us all a lot harder that the swine flu.
For a careful description of the spreading pigweed panic, written for the industrial-agriculture press, check out this piece in the Delta Farm Press: “Resistance threatens conservation tillage.”
http://deltafarmpress.com/cotton/conservation-tillage-0914/
For a less restrained version, this piece in Grist: “The chemical treadmill breaks down and the superweeds did it.”
http://www.grist.org/article/the-chemical-treadmill-breaks-down-and-the-superweeds-did-it/
And for a more complete explanation of of how we got here, see my forthcoming book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living.

It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed. Continue reading

Weapons of Mass Digestion

Suppose that the company that supplies our water notified us that from now on it would deliver water that was perfectly safe — as long as we boiled it before we touched it. We would be in the streets with placards and pitchforks before noon. Yet the food industry takes the position that its responsibilities are met when it delivers to us meat that is safe — as long as it is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before we touch it. And we have accepted this with the silence of the proverbial lambs.
The New York Times has given this remarkable arrangement some attention with a long take [“E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection”] that showcased the plight of a 22-year old woman nearly killed, and left paralyzed, by a hamburger tainted with E. Coli and not sufficiently cooked. (See! It was the cook’s fault! In this case her mother, now plagued by guilt.) Like most writing on the subject, the Times spends a lot of time emphasizing the “there oughtta be a law” aspect of the issue, faulting the US Department of Agriculture for its lackadaisacal inspection practices, as if we could somehow legislate or inspect our way away from the effects of this industrial weapon of mass digestion.
The Times does a very good job of detailing how hamburger is assembled, making it clear that it should be handled in our kitchens in the same way as any other lethal biohazard. And it profiles the Mafia-like ethics of the hamburger grinders who refuse to sell their product to anyone who threatens to test it for purity. “Nice store you got here. Be a shame if anything happend to it.” (Once again, Costco stands out here as one of the few ethical companies on the planet: they test all the burger they buy before they mix it or process it further.)
But the Times piece does not point out that the food industry not only refuses to control this threat to public health — it created it! By force-feeding corn to grass eaters, industry turns the contents of their four stomachs into acid that makes the cows sick and kills most of the E. Coli bacteria that used to l;ive there happily and benevolently, helping in the digestion of grass. The surviving bacteria were 1) acid tolerant and thus able to survive where they had never been able to before — in human stomachs, and 2) teenage mutant ninjas with some weird weapons, such as incredibly potent shiga toxins, as few as 50 of which can perforate your intestines, infect your blood and destroy your kidneys.
But, hey, you’re perfectly safe as long as you, or your hamburger provider, heat the meat to 160 degrees, sterilize all utensils, pans and dishes that touched it prior to heating, and incinerate all clothing, towels or furniture that came in contact with it.
The Times says that the paralyzed young woman “ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance.” They should have named the game. It’s not canasta, it’s Russian Roulette.

Suppose that the company that supplies our water notified us that from now on it would deliver water that was perfectly safe — as long as we boiled it before we touched it. We would be in the streets with placards and pitchforks before noon. Yet the food industry takes the position that its responsibilities are met when it delivers to us meat that is safe — as long as it is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before we touch it. And we have accepted this with the silence of the proverbial lambs. Continue reading

Forget Everything, I Said

The mantra of the industrial age rises in intensity, all around us, louder and more insistent as it becomes less defensible: we have to change everything, is the way it goes, but we can’t change any single thing.
On health care: yes, it’s terrible, the system is broken. The industry (imagine: in this country, health care is an industry), as President Obama likes to remind us, is on board this time, and agrees we must reform the system. It’s just that they are against changing any single thing about the system. Reduce their profits? That would be un-American. Offer Medicare to the people they have rejected as too poor or sick to help? Socialism! Sure, they’re willing to stop refusing or cancelling coverage of people who are, or get, sick. But that’s a no-brainer when, in return, 45 million Americans, now without insurance, are going to be required by law to pay them premiums. Now that’s a reform even an insurance coimpany could like.
The journalism industry — yes, it’s an industry now, too, I’m afraid — is complicit in all this. To cite just one example: two of the country’s most successful and respected columnists, Gail Collins and David Brooks, discuss the health care reform battle as if it were a contest of ideas between Republicans and Democrats, or the House and the Senate, or the Administration and Congress.
Compromising on Health Care
http://theconversation.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/23/compromising-on-health-care/?ref=opinion
It is no such thing. It’s a contest between the 70% of Americans who want access to decent health care at a reasonable cost — and the industries that are making their profits by either denying the care or bankrupting the patient. Of course the industries are winning, at least partly because the journalists who should be shining light on what the companies are doing are instead flapping their right wings against their left wings.
Similarly. the oil industry agrees that we are going to run short of oil, and soon. Their most optimistic scenarios put peak oil — the begining of the perpetual and irreversible decline of the world’s oil supply in the face of steadily increasing demand — at 20 years away. Most reputable observers believe it’s happening now. But Big Oil says yes! we have to change everything! They even allowed their wholly-owned President, George W. Bush, say it explicity: we are addicted to foreign oil.
Just don’t try to change any single thing. Higher gas-mileage requirements for cars? No way. Tax gasoline to reduce consumption and stimulate atlternative, renewable fuels? Are you kidding? Limit carbon emissions as a late and lame admission that we are changing the climate of the planet, to our own peril? No, no, no. Instead, British Petroleum will rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” and run TV ads about how we have to change everything.
What I argue, here and in Brace for Impact, is that survival requires that we flip this brain-dead mantra on its head, admit that we cannot change everything, and then change something.

The mantra of the industrial age rises in intensity, all around us, louder and more insistent as it becomes less defensible: we have to change everything, is the way it goes, but we can’t change any single thing. Continue reading

Hope Flickers

It’s the kind of national inititative, the kind of muscular, frontal assault on one of the most dangerous problems of our time, that could actually give reason for hope.

It’s a massive program announced this week to install in the coming year 100,000 gas-fired household electric power plants in homes (where they will also heat the water) across the country. Continue reading

Burning Words

Sadly, there is yet one more thing to be said about Congressman Joe Wilson, the latest person to demonstrate that you can become rich and famous; not despite being an idiot, but because of it.
This one more thing needs to be said because, as we contnue to reduce the content of our national discourse while we increase its heat, we are all in danger of becoming idiots, and angry idiots as well, which is not only pointless but dangerous.
This thing that needs to be brought to mind is that this country is by design a republic. The president of a republic is its head of state, in addition to being its chief executive officer. Once sworn in, the president is no longer a candidate, he holds the office, and the office embodies the United States of America. It follows that showing disrespect for the president is as grave an offense against the Republic as, for example, burning its flag.
It would have been good to see President Obama, on being called a liar by Mr. Wilson during a joint session of Congress, say to him what President Truman said after being slighted by General Douglas MacArthur: you can think whatever you like of me personally, sir, but you will respect the office that I hold.
It would have been good to see the sunshine patriots and summer soldiers of the raucous right demonstrate a twinkle of awareness of the real traditions and values of the republic on whose behalf they so lavishly emote. They who get tears in their eyes at the thought that someone somewhere might one day burn a flag are happy to see the surly and vacuous Joe Wilson set fire to the country another, more destructive, way.

Sadly, there is yet one more thing to be said about Congressman Joe Wilson, the latest person to demonstrate that you can become rich and famous, not despite being an idiot, but because of it. This one more thing needs to be said because, as we continue to reduce the content of our national discourse while we increase its heat, we are all in danger of becoming idiots, and angry idiots as well, which is not only pointless but dangerous. Continue reading