Monday, April 23, 2012

It Ain't No God Damned Daisy Farm

Being a peak oil crank is more than a little interesting. You see, every day brings new messages, many of them contradictory. Some messages say that we are like a racing car that has blown a tire and is about to hit the wall at 156 miles per hour, and other messages say that everything is fine, that the car has the latest technology and even as it is traveling towards the wall, top-flight engineers are swarming over the car putting in new technology that will not only save us all but is really cool.

Among the messages that seem to indicate that we are about to enter a new golden age of technology driven bliss, are burbling squeebot ejaculations for techno advancement: the 20-year light bulb that lasts for more than 25 years, the revelation that investing in solar power gives the highest return on investment, James Cameron, movie mogul, has decided to mine asteroids, and the lithium air battery that promises up to ten times more power. These are only a handful of announcements made over the past few days. There are literally hundreds more. These paeans of tech worship come whipping at you like baseballs in a demonic batting cage and are packed with freakish giggling for the ever-so-exciting world of "hey-look-at-this-cool-shit" teenage techno-lust. If one were not capable of the even the slightest discernment, it would seem that we were about to drown in an avalanche of new stuff that used less energy, solved all our problems, provided 3-D holographic touch screens, flying cars, and quantum super computers, and promised unlimited growth because we were just that fucking awesome.

The fact is, I've been reading these science sites for as long as they were hitting the computer screen and even before that when you had to subscribe to Science News, a weekly ten to sixteen page color magazine printed on actual paper to find out the latest geegaw about to change EVERYTHING. Week in and week out I saw the promises, the over-hyped bullshit, the self-promoting crap that was designed mostly to garner more research money. How much of this wonderful tech made it to the big time? Probably less than three percent. But no one seems to remember that awesome gadget that never arrives. You know why? The average industrial age human does not want to see old news. They want the newest cutting edge tech porn available. It is not the actual device that gets them revved up, it is their feverish imagination. People who are into Star Trek are worshipping a technology that does not and will not ever exist, but do so because they anticipate it. They dream of it. They stroke themselves gently into that good night while caressing their made-in-China tricorder.

As the old saw goes, "Be careful of what you want, you just might get it." Who hasn't bought some piece of technology, thinking "Now that I have this, my life will be perfect," only to have a much better, new and improved geegaw come out invalidating your life-perfecting device and putting a new device out there for you to get a hard-on for?

What people do not seem to see or seek with equal enthusiasm are all the messages that detail the damage that all this new and old tech is causing to the ecosystem at an ever increasing pace: rising sea levels threaten hundred of power plants, climate change is a grave threat to our food supply, rains not enough to end drought in England, and radioactive sewer sludge is dumped in the open next to a high school in Japan.

For every tidbit of techno-triumphilist news,  there is a corresponding tidbit of "Oh, my fucking god" news that makes the trite consumerist techno-crap seem a bit disheartening to say the least.

My point is that even a hardened old skeptic like myself, immersed and trained in the ways of curmudgeonhood, can find himself, after a prolonged stretch of techno happy talk without a good leavening of counterintelligence from the dark side, sort of humming along with the happy harpies. "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood..." I begin to think, hey, what if I'm wrong? What if they are solving all these problems? What if they postpone the collapse for my short remaining time on this earth? What if the collapse doesn't come and we all become miners for Cameron Co. flying our dirty little mining ships between asteroids for a few dollars?

Then, inevitably, I remember that we live ON A SPHERE IN SPACE. I remember that any continuation of a paradigm that insists on growth is inherently insane. We have only so much water, so much land, so much metal, so much fuel, so much clean air, and so much species diversity. It is all finite. To use it, is to lose it. The minute you begin burning oil, it is depleting. Ditto water, land, air, etc. The seductive siren call of the ongoing pogrom that is known as science/ engineering/ marketing/ economics/ entertainment asks us to believe, to lust, to give up reason and embrace their ten minute fix of endorphins that dissipates in a puff of ennui.

So, I shake my head vigorously and make that wob bah duh, wob bah duh, wob bah duh noise that cartoon characters make when coming out of a trance and the rose tint fades from view and I see once again that not so pleasant thing known as reality. As a good friend says, "It ain't no godamned daisy farm."

No, it ain't. But, at least it's real.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On Being a Peak Oil Pest for the Future

While listening to NPR this past week, I heard a lawyer talking about the chances of George Zimmerman, who gunned down Trayvon Martin for the unforgivable crime of toting a handful of Skittles, getting an unbiased jury. It seemed to me an impossible task. Who could not know about this reprehensible murder? It saturated the media and still is popping up as new events and information emerge. But the lawyer quickly jumped in and said, au contraire my friend, you would be surprised at how many people are absolutely clueless as to events not just national but extremely local. The lawyer went on to say that they rarely had to go outside of even small towns to find clueless jurors. At first I was taken aback, but soon thought about my run-ins with people who are not my friends or coworkers (smarties, professors, and admins), and I realized that most people are utterly ignorant about almost every major issue.

Now, I don't mean the cretinous people who watch Fox News, they are not so much informed as, um...., misinformed. No, I'm talking about the majority of people who receive no news at all--not local, national, radio, newspaper, blog, billboard, or word of mouth. Thinking back to the many classes I've taught to both younger students and the returning student, the lack of awareness these people have about almost any issue is striking. I even had one class, an entire class, who had no idea who Adolf Hitler was. Now this general lack of an informed populace, on its face, is enough to make one weep or wince, but when you think of its effect on the dissemination of peak oil information, the ramifications are stupefying. If most people are unaware about Trayvon Martin, a media firestorm topic flogged to the nth, then how likely are they to be aware of peak oil. Furthermore, how likely are they to ever be informed? Perhaps not until the nation is in flames and the rubes can't fuel their Hummers and DodgeFordRamalamadingdong trucks in order to drive fifty miles to see some country western act at the motor speedway.

The sad truth is people we are trying to reach are not in the loop. In clueless town, the television never sees a news programs. The computer is not available or is used for porn, lolcats, Facebook, and poker. The newspaper does not arrive. The radio is tuned to the local Clear Channel monopoly station. Quite simply, unless the police travel about with loudspeakers making specific announcements, these people will not know about peak oil until they are involved in a food riot. "You hear about peak oil?" he said with his chin steadying a stack of Ensure cartons. "Oil? Are they going to get some gas down at the station?" she said, clubbing an attacker with her varmint rifle.

The effect that such willful ignorance will have on how people react if a Black Swan event shuts off the Strait of Hormuz can only be assumed as negative. Riots are fueled by rumor. Without an informed public, the chances for social unrest can only be magnified. If students can riot for something as trivial as a football game, rioting due to extremely expensive/non-existent fuel seems a certainty. Perhaps that's why Homeland Security is planning to buy 2,717 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Nothing better to keep the rioters down than a combat vehicle tested in Iraq.
So, despite the many, many blogs and websites devoted to informing the public about peak oil, the message is unlikely to get out beyond the palisades of the peak oil community. Truth be told, I believe that the community of those in the know is limited, perhaps a few hundred thousand, with many peak oil sites getting the majority of their hits from the same group. I know I travel the same peak oil sites day after day.

It comes down to this. The only way this can reach a critical mass and breach the main stream media's defenses is for each and everyone of you who are in the know to tell someone about peak oil. I mean tell one new person every day, every single damned day, all of it. Each semester I make each of my classes write their research paper on peak oil. I show the "End of Suburbia," and they're hooked. I assume that, on average, they each inform at least two people about what they have learned. That's a total of 225 people. I also like to make a pest of myself by interjecting in bars, restaurants, theaters, and parties whenever someone says something that can even be remotely associated with peak oil. For example, someone says, "Of course, I wash my car and it rains like crazy that night."

I respond, "Better enjoy that while you can."


"Washing your car. Chances are you won't have a car within two to five years."

"What are you talking about?"

And I'm off to the races. Usually what follows is an interesting conversation where I see a complete neophyte raise all the typical questions and solutions that people devoted to the industrial paradigm offer, and I get to shoot down all of their "save the car" responses all over again. It's great fun.

So, get to work. Word of mouth is the only way that the masses will get the message. Drop the shy routine and strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

"Hey, have you heard about peak oil?"

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Peak Oil Reversalist: The Latest Denialist Meme

I came across a blog entry at Hipcrime which takes Stuart Staniford's 2008 commentary and runs with it. Staniford asserts that peak oil will cause industrial farming to grow instead of the usual peak oil theory that high prices will force us back to our agrarian roots and out of the cities. Essentially, this Hipcrime writer is basically just another denier, much like a global warming denier. The premise put forth is that, according to basic peak oil thought, rising oil prices will drive up production costs and thus make food more costly, causing to people head out from the cities into the countryside to start a bucolic life as a farmer. Hipcrime and Staniford go on to say that we have since had higher oil prices (a point that must be examined in and of itself), yet we have not seen this phenomena of people heading out to farm for themselves, struggling industrial farms, and small farmers making more money. Instead, industrial farms have gotten larger. Thus, peak oil leads to more industrial farming.

Well, not to put too fine a point on this, I've rarely seen such a fractured case of reasoning. Essentially, they fail to understand the difference between small farms that do not use industrial tools and those which do. Plus, they misunderstand efficiency and the way it works in a society captured by the industrial system.

The small farmers that Hipcrime and Staniford refer to are those small farmers who are still indentured to the "traditional" farming methods developed since the thirties which places a farmer in thrall to the bank. The farmer borrows money to buy seed, property, chemicals, fuel, and equipment which then must be repaid in a market where everyone is fighting in a race to the bottom. The irony of more "efficient" farming (that should really be read as more reliant on cheap finite energy) is that it creates more product which drives prices down. Those shrinking prices then lead to a race for more "efficiency": GPS guided tractors, satellite analysis of fields, the use of drones to examine fields, arbitrage in the markets by farmers to control variance and so on. Each of these "advances" leads to another bout of crashing prices. When prices crash, small farmers must cash out. These farms are absorbed into megafarms.

However, if you look at farmers who walked away from their servitude to the banks, you see profitable farms with far better profit margins than the industrial farms. On top of this, they enrich the soil, improve the watershed, and produce as much or more higher quality food than any industrial concern could hope to create. Two quick examples are Polyface Farms and Green Pastures Farms. To get a good understanding of these two prime examples be sure to check out their videos: Mob Grazing with Greg Judy and Polyface Farms Pt. 1. And, remember that these two instances are competing against a brutal fossil fueled behemoth that uses all the advantages of monopoly to rig regulations, force small producers out of markets, and on and on, yet these small producers are making a profit. Imagine if they were not being hounded by the agricultural version of the Death Star. As you can see, if Staniford and Hipcrime were to select successful farms which opted out of the industrial indentured servant model, their theory would be shot down in two seconds, and they couldn't have that, right?

So, what you see is two "thinkers" setting up straw men and then mercilessly whacking them with a cudgel.

Another face of the efficient argument relates to inherent waste in an oversupplied system. Joining their straw man army is their statement that peak oil theorists believe that an agricultural system that has almost completely turned itself over to the industrial model will somehow roll over and die should fuel prices become too exorbitant. No peak oil theorist offers this. Look at simple efficiency--not that of industrial farming, which is only as efficient as the cheap energy allows it to be (no cheap energy, no industrial farming). What most people don't take into account is that cheap energy breeds inefficiency. When you have piles and piles of cheap energy laying about, there is no incentive towards efficient use of your industrial tools. But, once fuel prices go up, the vast mountain of potential fuel savings through efficiencies finally become economical--but only for a short while, because everything has its limits. We will reach or have already reached the limits to squeezing all of the efficiency we can out of the industrial farming system. For Staniford to say, look, the industrial farms didn't quit just after peak oil or even start trending towards more manual labor, is like expecting the Titanic to hit the iceberg and then ten seconds later be on the bottom of the ocean.

They cite high oil prices that should be driving industrial agriculture to its knees. They aren't that high, not for what you are buying--a vast force of energy slaves. You must also look at the price of oil adjusted for inflation. The average inflation adjusted price of a barrel over the past 12 years is $56.52 per barrel. That is not that bad. We are offshoring our woes to third world countries by pricing them out of the market thus forcing them to give up their oil to the market without firing a shot. At home, demand destruction forces people to choose between driving and eating thus keeping us in a recession. And, because of these two forces, we are seeing the markets adjust. The idea that prices have become so extraordinarily onerous as to force people to head to the bush to grow beans is ludicrous, and it is even more ludicrous to then point to that simple fact as evidence that we will not ever get to that point and that we will enjoy, as James Howard Kunstler so adroitly puts it, "happy motoring" and "cheese doodles" forever.

I can see why some people do what they do: Hipcrime seeks controversy to gain readers and notoriety and Stuart Staniford is the scientist looking at an elephant with a telescope. The problem with many scientists and engineers is their need to constrain variables, the reductionist mindset, which prevents complex thinking. But is this bizarre and irrational attack on peak oil really helpful? On a planet that was on the fast track to desertification from the moment man invented agriculture, the idea that we should be saving the souped up version of that destructive lifestyle seems a bit counterproductive. Why not just admit that we took a wrong turn? Why not use what's left of the cheap energy to de-engineer ourselves back to a truly sustainable point? Why won't they do this? Hubris, I suspect.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Apocalyptic Thinking

Eric Curren recently reviewed The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America by by Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles for the Energy Bulletin detailing the author's history of the apocalypse as a recent phenomenon that has been largely a matter of entertainment rather than correct, scientific thinking. The authors say that “This overreliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends.” They offer three common sense questions to test the apocalypse waters: “Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any threat?”

The thing is, despite the definitions offered by the authors, any event, such as global climate change that has the potential to destroy the current human friendly environment, may seem a trifle apocalyptic. The trouble is that many people who wish to lessen the potential impact of evolving threats, without denying the scientific accuracy, seem to latch upon the idea that humans will likely survive in some numbers even in a worst case scenario. The presumption seems to be that all of humanity must die off for an apocalypse to be declared.

If we look at typical definitions of the term, there are two basic meanings: the complete destruction of all human life, also known as the biblical version of apocalypse, and the lesser apocalypse definition which seems so...ummm...inferior in scope. I am not a religious man, so though the biblical definition is something that I can appreciate in its finality, I cannot take it seriously due to its requirement of a higher power as instigator. The need for an invisible sky god's input before it can be called THE APOCALYPSE makes it harder to judge. The second sense is the definition that I am more comfortable with. It merely claims a disaster on a very large scale. I think we all can agree that peak oil and climate change will be disasters on a very large scale.

There are a few issues I want to point out here. I am always amused by the intractable vanity of humanity. What is important is always us. Humans. Not the other multiple billions of species out there. We could give a damn about the 200 species going extinct every single day on average. As long as some of our destructive little group manages to pull through, then everything will be just hunky-dory. Hell, Curren even goes so far as to note, "As Gross and Gilles point out, even one of the worst catastrophes in history, the Black Death, had its upside. The bubonic plague outbreak did kill four out of every ten Europeans at the time. But those who were left behind found higher wages and plenty of cheap, empty land. And pretty soon, the beginning of the Renaissance." Golly gosh, all those millions upon millions were wrong to see the crumbling world as an apocalypse! The ones who survived got a really cool new outlook on the world! Hooray! It seems that if any people survive, say seven hardy, half-crazed scientists from McMurdo Sound, how can you call it an apocalypse? For those seven survivors, it is hardly an apocalypse, they seem to say. In order to better measure our species' personal apocalypse, I've come up with an Apocalypse Scale (For convenience I've color coded it for public dissemination):

Twin Towers of 9/11 Apocalypse: .00000926 percent of the world's population. Pink.
Second U.S./Iraq War Apocalypse: .00169 percent of the world's population. Lime Green.
Spanish Flu Apocalypse: 3 percent of the world's population. Dark Ultramarine Blue.
Mongol Conquest Apocalypse: 17 percent of the world's population. Murky Brown with Yellow Swirls.
Black Plague Apocalypse: 30 to 60 percent of the world's population. Black (what else?).
Mount Toba Bottleneck Apocalypse: ~90-95 percent of the world's population. Blinding White Light.

The next issue relates back to the 200 species a day that are going extinct. Isn't that pretty much an apocalypse right there? At the very least, it is an extinction event!! And that is not the only evidence pointing to a current apocalypse. In the United States, eighty percent of sampled streams contained drugs, hormones, pesticides, or other chemicals. Three-quarters of those streams contained more than one chemical. And, of course, we see the shifting growing zones indicating ongoing climate collapse. I know it's no blinding white light scenario, but the destruction of our one and only habitat seems a bit apocalypse flavored.

Next, there is the western-centric outlook evinced by so many who would put the deny in denial. You see, what is important to these people is not human culture or simple existence, it is the stuff, the machinery, the cars, and the freaking entertainment. Their mission is largely to save the car. Should we have to return to a pre-industrial world, then THAT they would announce as an apocalypse. 

Which brings me to my final point. What about those people who believe we need a good house cleaning? That what we really need is a swift crippling of the planet killing machine? What if you do not believe in the great science fairy and its claim to the constant mainline fix? Sure science invented asbestos insulation, but those boffins can clean that up. So what if science created estrogen mimics that permeate the ecosystem, we don't need all that wildlife. For the other species on the planet who are frantically dodging their own 200 species a day apocalypse, I'm sure the survivors will applaud heartily if we manage to bring on a human apocalypse.

I am no fan of equivocating oneself into a cul de sac of death. Let's be real here. If you render the planet, or even a large part of it, uninhabitable in the name of science, religion, or even human vanity, then you will have an apocalypse. But, the cry out there from the "level-headed" seems to be, let's wait and see which of this is really deadly and which is just so-so deadly. Let's get science on the case. Maybe they can fix it with more technology. Remember what Albert Einstein said, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." 

So, I think what we need is a better name for the ongoing downgrade of "civilization." The word "apocalypse" has too much baggage. How about Bobo the Wonder Collapse? Or, HOLY FUCK THEY ARE TRYING TO KILL US ALL!! Or, I'll Believe It When I See It?