June 29, 2013

Saturday Evening Post: 13 Minutes With Paul Beckwith

This is the single best climate change talk I've found so far, and Paul Beckwith, of the University of Ottawa, delivers this mini-seminar in the open air, with no notes, and nary a sip from that styrofoam cup he holds in his left hand.  He has a nice, relaxed, unpretentious and friendly way of talking about the end of life as we've known it.

It's 97 degrees here in Marin County this afternoon, as it was yesterday, and the forecast indicates that's about where the temperature will be until next Wednesday.  That's a long hot spell for the Bay Area.  I'm curious whether the jet stream phenomenon to which Paul refers, the "waviness" of its meridional movement instead of the straighter path from west to east to which modern civilization had become accustomed until, you know, recently...might have something to do with this "stuck" pattern.  We had what amounted to a winter storm about 5 days ago - cold, blowy rain.  Makes you wonder - what could be on the other side of the next sinusoidal wave to move through!

Just a guess, but I would surmise that the loss of the northern hemisphere's "air conditioner," the Arctic sea ice during the summer months, will usher in a more or less permanent era of such weirdness and unpredictability. 

June 26, 2013

The Partitioned National Brain

If you read the kooks that I read on a regular basis, such writers as Dmitry Orlov, James Howard Kunstler, Gail Tverberg, Richard Heinberg, Craig Dilworth, Herman Daly, Glenn Greenwald and the whack-jobs at Zerohedge, you may have noticed an odd convergence.  To wit, the "Libertarian" sites, such as Zerohedge (where the Comment Cowboys [h/t: Dan D]) include a posse of anti-Semitic ravers) are now beginning to quote freely from the liberal "environmentalists" in the list above.

This is very interesting to me, but then it would be, wouldn't it?  This is an indication that we are now moving beyond the old Left-Right dichotomies, where a conservative viewpoint automatically needed to reject any argument from a tree-hugger as wooly-headed nonsense.  I suspect this is because the Doom & Gloom sites, such as the dissidents at Zerohedge and numerous other places, are beginning to see that it isn't just "environmentalism" that is the problem, but the far more serious issue of energy paucity and energy unaffordability which has crushed the American economy and the economies of the Western industrial world.

So now Zerohedge is beginning to publish essays by James Howard Kunstler, the Clusterfuck Man himself, and the coiner of the phrase "the psychology of previous investment," by which Kunstler explains the otherwise inexplicable obsession of the American economy in continuing to invest in the doomed suburban world which cannot be sustained as Peak Oil exacts its terrible price of unrelenting high energy costs.  Pretty soon I expect Zerohedge will discover Dmitry Orlov and Gail Tverberg, who are quantitative in ways that Kunstler is not; Monsieur Clusterfook is a master at the snarky, Mencken-esque turn of phrase he uses to skewer the fat, dumb, video-addicts of the American Booboisie, but he is not a real numbers man.

I can add a new stylist to the committee:  John Michael Greer, with whom I was not previously familiar until I began reading Not the Future We Ordered, which is about the end times for the great "Myth of Progress" made possible by the one-time legacy of abundant fossil fuels on which modern societies engorged themselves for the last three hundred years.  Greer writes from the viewpoint of social psychology.  It is only natural that human beings are having a very hard time coming to terms with the modern maladies of overpopulation, resource scarcity, food insecurity and climate change, all of which are interrelated in diabolical ways.  We all grew up believing that things "would always get better," and now, suddenly so it seems, that fantasy has been destroyed, and there's nothing to put in its place.

That's a very difficult transition for the "Collective Unconscious."  Greer, in very simple terms, asks a question which I've alluded to numerous times in my "Mr. Krugman's Science" posts.  I liked it so much I figured out how to "bookmark" the pixels I want to save on my Kindle.  Here it is:

"The question that has rarely been asked since 2008, and needs to be asked, is why events of a kind that normally produce ordinary recessions [ref: dishonest banking, a housing bubble] have spawned something so much more serious, protracted, and resistant to solutions this time around.  A glance at the business pages of any newspaper of record will show conditions that are nearly unparalleled in living memory.  Several European nations have plunged in a few years from prosperity to a level of economic crisis in which a third or more of the labour force has no jobs and the national government is struggling to avoid defaulting on its debt.  In the United States, cities are declaring bankruptcy and laying off their firefighters and police forces, while state governments are tearing up thousands of miles of paved roads and replacing the paving with gravel, because they can no longer afford the cost of annual maintenance.  These are not the signs of an ordinary downturn in the business cycle. Bring peak oil into the picture and the severity of the crisis is easily explained."

Greer goes on to point out that oil production plateaued in 2004, and prices of petroleum began their inexorable rise.  I used Mr. Krugman's Science as simply a counterpoint to this much deeper insight into the nature of our malaise.  Paul Krugman himself is a boring and very conventional thinker with nothing to offer in terms of the relevant discourse, but he stands in for the Establishment viewpoint: it's a "bump in the road" which is amenable to Keynesian tinkering; we could be living the life of Riley again if we would just get off this "savage austerity" jag.

Probably not.  So the Great Partition in the National Brain: our alienation from nature, brought about by our habit of mediating our existences through electronic imagery, has made us, as a society, incapable of seeing that we remain dependent on the physical world for our survival and prosperity. We overworked Mother Nature; she's plumb wore out, and we don't want to face that, so we engage in delusions of money-printing and "policy arguments," and distract ourselves with temporary crises like NSA spying or gay marriage or "immigration reform."  President Obama now wants to make climate change the "signature issue" of his second term.  No, he doesn't.  He doesn't really want to get into what that would really mean for the way we actually live, but it will make for some nice "legacy" sound bites.

All of these issues have a sell-by date stamped prominently on their covers.  The real issue is the Economy and its plight in an age of resource scarcity.  That problem is not going away.  It's going to change everything.  Thoreau made Economy chapter one in his book, and he meant it in the broadest possible sense: the means by which humans engage with the world in order to survive.

June 23, 2013

Dmitry Orlov's "The Five Stages of Collapse"

One of the things I like best about Dmitry Orlov's writing is the almost complete lack of qualifiers or "hedging" phrases.  He makes his pronouncements without weasel words or syntactical escape hatches he might use later if one of his predictions fails to materialize.  Although, I have to say, he never makes a prediction definite enough to expose himself to such a criticism, at least in terms of time.  America is going to go through several stages of collapse, of that Dmitry is quite certain, and maybe a couple of them have already happened. For the big ones, however, all we are told is that they are on the way.  Maybe we'll get lucky and arrest the devolution before complete political collapse happens, but don't ask him when such widespread failure will materialize.

The Five Stages are suggested, Mr. Orlov tells us, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of the grieving process.  For the American nation-state (and for advanced industrial countries generally), the five cognates of grief are: 1. Financial. 2. Economic. 3. Political. 4. Social. 5. Cultural.  The suggestion is that financial collapse, in the form of the Great Recession of 2008, has already happened.  Economic collapse is well under way.  The political system is wobbling, and there are certainly large pockets in the country where social collapse is evident, for example, Detroit, which has lost over half of its former 1.8 million residents over the last 20 years or so, and where about half of its 143 square miles are now simply vacant land. 

It occurred to me while I was reading Dmitry that the writer he most reminds me of is Leon Trotsky.  Not so much the content, because Orlov is certainly no Marxist, although he's originally from the Soviet Union.  It's the uncompromising, lapidary style that harks back to the great Communist polemicist.  I can recall reading an essay written by Trotsky in defense of President Cardenas's nationalization of Mexican oil in 1938.  Dripping with irony, informed by peerless logic, written in powerful, compelling prose.  Dmitry is sort of like that.  He is so little compromised himself (living, as he does, on a boat in Boston Harbor) that he doesn't suffer from the cognitive dissonance of most American "liberals," who are every bit as much ensnared in the country's business rackets as those they presume to criticize.  An American liberal icon is someone like Bill Clinton, who makes a couple of hundred grand each time he gives a speech to fat cats about the plight of the little guy.

Maybe the most interesting and resonant insight I've read so far in Dmitry's book concerns his ideas on why representative democracy in a country as large as the U.S. simply doesn't work anymore. That's a subject that occurs to me on a pretty regular basis.  Orlov contrasts the U.S. Congress and Administration apparatus with such local institutions as the Pashtun jirga in Afghanistan, which is simply a group of tribal elders sitting in a circle and deciding matters for the village.   In such a system, there is direct accountability and a connection between who's deciding and the effects of the decision.  By contrast, an American is "represented" by Senators and Representatives he doesn't know personally, who are largely media and public relations creations, and who make their decisions primarily, it would seem, out of a sense of solidarity with a party apparatus in Washington, D.C. which arranges their cash infusions (campaign donations) to ensure their perpetual incumbency.  And beyond mere party adherence, the Solons of the Potomac become part of a Media-Political-Military Complex which responds primarily to the cultivation of their own power base.

I was thinking about this problem in just these terms recently when considering the perplexing hyper-conservatism of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is probably the most hawkish, anti-civil liberties Congressperson working under the Capitol Dome.  There is simply no intrusion into American privacy, no outrage by the National Security Agency, that can ruffle her serene determination that, the Constitution be damned, America is going to remain "safe" even if it means that she personally will read every American's email.  Dianne Feinstein is from San Francisco, one of two "liberal" women Senators from California.  She never utters a peep about the Fourth Amendment.  There is no war of choice she won't vote for, enthusiastically. She is reelected because she's already there.  She sponsors no signature legislation, there is nothing about her representation that is especially "Californian," and yet there she sits, year after year after year.  In a way, she's a California version of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, except that Lindsey at least occasionally comes up with a colorful turn of phrase.

Anyway, collapse.  Yeah, I suppose so, some day.  Everything changes, right?  All empires erode, disintegrate, become victims of their own excesses, right?  I get it.  Dmitry seems tired of writing about it, to tell the truth.  It's an interesting diversion, but whatever comes about will happen because of its own inevitable dynamics.  Dianne Feinstein isn't going to do anything about it.  She and husband Richard Blum, the mega-billionaire business tycoon, will just chill at their Presidio Heights mansion, maybe tool on up to Nancy Pelosi's Napa Valley spread in September and taste the early pressings of this year's pinot noir, then kick around the latest nonsense from Tom Friedman's dispatches from the Swiss Alps and Davos.

Come to think of it - collapse: hell yeah.