Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Situation

I’ve been putting this post off but it’s time I sat down to write it. In this post I’m going to describe my current situation. But first, a little background.
I was the third person in my family to finish high school and the first to go to college. I come from a background of abject poverty. We lived on the streets off and on throughout my childhood and I know what its like to eat out of a garbage can. I was determined that I was going to climb out of all of that, make it to the middle class and generally have a good life. When I started college and came to choose a major I chose engineering. Not because I liked engineering (I really didn’t) or because I have any aptitude for the subject (trust me, I don’t) but because engineers get paid a lot of money. Had I followed my heart’s desire I would probably have ended up with a combined degree in English and History or Sociology or all three. But, those fields don’t pay. Engineering did. That was foremost on my list of requirements because I wanted, above all else, to be financially secure. I didn’t want a big house and a big car (though those were nice); I just wanted to know I’d always have a roof over my head and food on the table. And some pretty clothes to wear. Hey, I can be as vain as the next gal. ;-)

I got through college, somehow. It took several years. I worked and also depended on scholarships, grants, and loans. How I survived my senior year of engineering school I’ve no idea. I have no talent for and no real interest in fluid mechanics or anything else like that. But I was determined and I worked hard. I graduated Magna Cum Laude. Not bad for someone who should rightly have been an English major. I also graduated at a younger age than most of my class because I finished high school early.

Then the real fun begin. Corporate work. Cubicles. Fluorescent lights. I can not describe how much I hated the workspace. It was second only to the work. Both nearly gave me a nervous breakdown before it was over. When I chose engineering I specialized in aerospace, thinking it would be cool to work on the next mission to the moon. Ha ha, NASA wasn’t going back to the moon anytime soon and getting a job there? Good luck with that. Another thing they don’t tell you in engineering school is that pretty much all the real engineering jobs have been outsourced because we don’t build anything in this country anymore. What’s left? Mostly software and programming. That’s right, you study bridge building for four years and end up debugging programs.

My first job wasn’t too bad. It was actually part of a NASA contract. I had a window and could go outside. I still hated it but I could tolerate it. And, I loved the money. I was making more money every two weeks than I had ever seen. I won’t lie and say I was super responsible with it, because I wasn’t. I didn’t go hog wild –but I had no idea how to handle being suddenly middle class. Growing up I was more worried about finding dinner and dodging stray bullets at school than learning how to balance a checkbook. But, I did okay and managed to save a little.

My mother died about this time. No condolences, please. That was a ‘good riddance’ event. At her funeral I was struck by the almost overwhelming desire to kick her casket. Long story. But she had life insurance so I came into a little bit of money. Not as much as my brothers, who refused to help pay for her funeral (thanks a lot, assholes) but some. Only good thing the woman ever did for me. And I was making good money, so I decided to buy a house if I could.

At twenty-one this is a really bad idea. But I was really, really sick of apartments. Looking back I know that anyone who would give a mortgage to a kid my age was out of their mind. But, this was the middle of the housing bubble after all. No, I did not get one of those subprime loans. I was actually pretty smart about it. I got a very conservative FHA loan. And the payments were and are about six hundred a month –roughly what a decent apartment costs in this area. In the past few years I have made a lot of improvements –planted fruit trees, the garden, berry bushes. This was also the time I started becoming more aware of all the problems in the world and looked into things like Peak Oil and Voluntary Simplicity.

My job went from bad to worse. First I got transferred to another facility. This one was a complex of big auditoriums, layer after layer of cube mazes stacked on top of another. No windows in any of the buildings. They discouraged going outside to eat lunch. You couldn’t go anywhere at lunch because it was twenty minutes from the nearest restaurant. I constantly felt like an ant in an anthill or a rat in a maze. Then I lost my job. Or rather, I was fired. They put me on assignment I couldn’t do in good conscience. I can’t discuss it. The bottom line is, I refused and they fired me. That was the end of my engineering career. Once you’ve got a black mark like that on your record there’s no getting another job in the corporate world, certainly not in the same field. Believe me, I tried.

That was well over a year ago. Since then I’ve worked a variety of jobs and tried my hand at graduate school. I’ve kept things together until now thanks to income, savings, and financial assistance. But at the moment I’m no longer in grad school (I dropped out) and my job is a PRN position that pays only $6.82 an hour. I work other odd jobs of course, but I’m bringing in only about three hundred dollars a month. To put it mildly, I’m not making ends meet. My house is up for sale but I really doubt it will sell at this point. I’m considering renting out a room but I’ve done that before and it didn’t work out well (to put it mildly) so I’m hesitant to try it again. I have nowhere to go if I lose the house so I don’t know what I’ll do.
So, that is the situation I find myself in.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Update

We are still having gas shortages here in the southeast. The worst places seem to be the Carolinas, followed by the larger metros like Atlanta and Nashville. There is gas locally, but not as much as usual and most stations are out of at least one grade. Many are still out entirely. I shall have to get gas tomorrow and I’m not looking forward to it. One thing is for sure: if it comes down to camping out to get gas, I’ll just stay home. Today is my last work day for a while, so hey, I can do it.

The area I live in is going to suffer severely from the effects of Peak Oil. This is your typical car-centered metropolitan area, complete with suburban bedroom communities. There is a small urban core but everything else has pretty much been built since 1950. The whole area has about 250,000 people in it, which is 200,000 more than I’d like locally. I don’t live in the city per se –I live on the outer periphery. But I am lucky in that the nearest grocery stores in only 7 miles from my house –most people live farther away. There are strict zoning laws and everything is kept separated. How long that will go on remains to be seen.

I still have not found a full-time job. My little PRN job at six bucks an hour has given me a lot of hours this past week, but that won’t last and the amount of money I make is almost laughable. All told, between that and my odd jobs I’m bringing in about three hundred bucks a month. Not nearly enough to support a household. Or even part of one, here. My house hasn’t sold and at this point I doubt it will do so. The credit markets have frozen and pretty much everyone is running scared. As well they should be.

It is time for all of us to begin making alternative arrangements.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Light and Darkness

Today is the fall equinox, also known as Mabon in the pagan tradition. Yes, this is another one of my crazy religious posts, but please bear with me. I do have a point. ;-)

In the pagan tradition there are eight holy days: the two equinoxes, the two solstices, and the four cross-quarter days between them. The half of the year that lies between Ostara (the spring equinox) and Mabon is known as the light half of the year; the other half is known as the dark half of the year. On the equinox day and night –light and darkness –are precisely balance. Every day from here until the winter solstice each day will get a little bit shorter and the night will be a little bit longer. After the solstice the reverse will be true, until day and night are again in balance on Ostara. After that, day will overtake night until the longest day is reached on the summer solstice. Days will then grow shorter until we reach Mabon again and the cycle will repeat.

This is the sacred balance: that light and darkness must, on the whole, be equal. If this balance goes out of true, then problems will inevitably result. This may seem a strange thing to say, as in our culture we are thought that light is good and darkness is bad. But it is true nonetheless. Please note I am not talking about good and evil here. While evil can –and should be –seen as dark, there is nothing inherently evil about darkness. In fact, darkness is as sacred as light. Darkness and light are both necessary halves of the whole.

The womb is dark, as is the ground in which we plant our seeds. Winter and death are dark. We grow in the light and reach for the sun, then slowly decline and die. This is the pattern that has existed for time untold, the pattern that must exist for life to go on. Light and darkness, light and darkness.

Winter is necessary. Without winter, without the dark half of the year, then the earth can not rest. All life springs from darkness and all life returns to darkness. Without the cycle of death and decay new birth becomes impossible. This too is something we have forgotten in our culture –we cling to the light, believing that all darkness is evil and avoid death and other problems as long as possible. We have forgotten that everything flows in a pattern, that there is a cycle that repeats endlessly. The wheel does not stop turning just because we wish it to. The rules that apply to all of life also apply to countries, to nations, to everything that exists under the sun. ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’

Once more winter is coming. We entered the dark half of the year only a few minutes ago. I performed my ritual and came inside to write this essay. Not only is winter coming for the year, but for the culture in which we live. Do not fear the winter. Or the dark. These are not things to be feared. They are natural parts of life. Without winter there can be no spring. Without darkness there can be no light.

May the winter be mild, and may the spring to come be glorious.

Blessed be.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Higher Toll

All the converging crises of the world at large are together going to claim a very high number of victims. I do not refer here to death alone, but to abject impoverishment and other such ills. This number will be higher than it absolutely has to be. We could all band together to confront these crises, care for each other, and help in the long transition to a more sustainable society. Doing this would undoubtedly reduce the casualty list by a substantial amount, possibly even to the natural attrition rate. But we won’t. Not collectively, at any rate. There are any number of reasons for this and I see no reason to list them here, as I’m certain most people can come up with the list on their own. In many cases we will not even do this on a smaller scale, and that I think is the great tragedy –because it doesn’t need to be that way.

Many people speak of community and its importance in the coming era. Few people speak of what that really means or how to go about building one. Perhaps because we do not know how. It is this lack of community that will cause the higher toll as we move into this new paradigm. There are two specific aspects of this –barriers to building community, if you will –that I wish to discuss. In some ways they apply worldwide, but primarily to America. This is after all my homeland and the only culture I know deeply.

1.) Attitudes. Surprised to see this? We have a strange culture in this country, one that teaches us to look down on others who aren’t as favored as we are in some way, rather than seeing ourselves as lucky. Thus, as more and more people become squeezed and get knocked off a cliff the ones who are doing all right will, for the most part, look down their noses and complain about how the unfortunate one should have done this or that differently. Until it becomes their own turn to be tossed off the cliff.

This also applies to those who believe in being prepared for peak oil and so forth. I’ve noticed an attitude of “we’ve always been frugal so we’re okay” among many that also manages to imply a sense of superiority over those who haven’t been frugal. The same with the preparedness camps. All of this is well and good –until things get rocky. Say your roof starts leaking in a few years and you can no longer afford to have it fixed. That young man next door to you who hasn’t had a clue these past few years and loves McDonald’s might be a roofer. What if you get pregnant and can no longer afford the doctor? You haven’t prepared for that. But the hippy-dippy new age non-Christian woman who lives down the road from you and wears weird clothes may be a licensed midwife.
This is what I mean: these attitudes will help keep us apart from one another, help prevent us from banding together during the crises.

2.) The self-sufficiency up-by-your-bootstraps mythos. I bet that raised a lot of hackles. There’s nothing wrong with self-sufficiency –to a point. But, like anything else, it can go to far. We have been ingrained with a belief that everyone should be completely independent. Every person, every family for themselves. You either make it on your own or you fall on your own, and tough. This is barely possible in an expanding industrial society and only then if you have enough money to pay for everything you can’t do on your own. In any other society –including the transitional one we have now –attempting to do this is not only madness, it can actually be suicidal.

No one person or one family can do everything. Yet we have been taught that needing help is shameful and so many of us will not ask for it when we need it. Many others will look down on those who do ask. One person may be able to eke out a barely subsistence level existence –but a town can build a bridge. As we transition down the back side of Hubbert’s peak more and more people are going to be unable to make it. We all ready have the beginnings of this in the tent cities and slums of the world. It is spreading and will only get worse. Bands of people working together can help ease the transition and pull each other away from the cliff.

The problem will lie in how our cultural conditioning will attempt to keep us each thinking and trying to make it on our own. And this is what will make the toll far higher than it needs to be.

United we can make it. But divide us and we may all come down. It is time to retire phrases like “self-made man” and “up by your bootstraps” which were never very true anyway, and bring back older phrases, such as: one for all, and all for one.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Garden Report

So, the majority of the gardening year is over. I am not planting a fall garden because I am trying to move. How has my garden done this year?

Tomatoes: I planted several kinds of tomatoes. The Brandywine and Arkansas Traveler did not do well, but I think this was due to the location as much as anything. My Cherokee Purple got hit by a weedeater. The Romas did well, as always. My German Johnson Pink also did really well. A lot of people think these are ugly tomatoes, but I love them. And the taste can't be beaten. The golden nugget did the same as last year -a sudden burst of heavenly tomatoes and then nothing. My yellow pears are doing wonderfully. The only problem with them is that they are VERY prone to cracking, so I will need to stake them next year.

Peppers -I grew three kinds of peppers. Cayenne, sweet bannana, and bell. All did grew. I'm still getting peppers.

Eggplants -my japenese eggplants did okay, but I discovered that I still don't much care for eggplant, except grilled.

Pole beasn -serious problems. The vines grew well and produced plenty of beans but they were pretty much inedible. This was supposed to be the same variety as last year's though from a different seedhouse, but they look nothing like them.

Summer Squash -also serious problems. I had some bad seed and after replatning 3 times I got hit by squash borers at the worst possible moment. I still got some, but not much. I will be using a different seed house next year.

Watermelons -yum.

Pumpkins -still coming in.

Cabbage -going well.

Carrots -going well.

That's the garden report. I hope next year's is even better!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Five Themes of the 21st Century

I am working to simplify my life and make it more sustainable for many reasons. Foremost among these is that I believe it is the right thing to do. I feel that the lifestyle most of us in the west lead today is not only unsustainable but immoral. There are also many reasons for the latter: inequitable distribution of resources, outright oppression of others to get what we want, and the wanton destruction of our environment. These things are anathema to me not only on the grounds of basic decency and morality but also religiously. My religion treats the Earth and all of its creatures as sacred.

There is also another reason for my attempts at simplification and sustainability and if you have read many of my posts and essays you will all ready know what it is: namely, that we have no choice. Peak oil and climate change, together with population overshoot and environmental degradation are going to force it on us. This will not be an apocalypse, though it may feel that way to those caught up in it and I will be the first to admit that the death of family or oneself is certainly a personal apocalypse, but I am referring to the overarching society and all of humanity. Everything is connected and everything runs in cycles. Societies, peoples, and individuals all have seasons. Summer follows spring, then comes fall, then winter and finally spring arrives again. What we are witnessing now is the autumn of a society, a way of life, an era in history. Not the end of history or the human race, merely an autumn. Winter is coming and it will be harsh and cold, but at the end, spring will come once again.

When trying to decipher an uncertain future or to make personal decisions it always helps to step back and take a look at the big picture. I have always been a bit of a big picture person –not surprising that, since I have a talent for organizing and coordinating. Now I am going to take a look at the really big picture, the themes that will almost certainly shape the twenty-first century as we head into autumn. These will affect different people at different times and in different locations, as well as to varying degrees, but I think that, looking back from the year 2100 these will seem to be the overriding themes of the whole century. Not that I expect to be around in the year 2100 –though I hope to be; that would be pretty cool, after all –but I expect some of my children and grandchildren to be. That this century will be different than the last goes without saying –the 20th century was the height of industrial society, the summer if you will, and now comes the long slow fall into autumn and winter. I can’t say if spring will have come by the year 2100, but I certainly hope it will be on the way.

1.) Peak Energy. I expect energy per capita to peak at some point early in this century and then begin to decline as depletion takes its inevitable toll on fossil fuels. How fast this will happen is up in the air and no, I don’t expect that the entire world will be dark by the year 2100 –I expect some areas, particularly those with hydro power or solar power, will still have power. But starting soon we will no longer have the equivalent of hundreds of slaves at our disposal, energy-wise. Sooner or later this century a mile will again be a long way away.

2.) Depopulation. Notice I didn’t say ‘die-off’; the concepts are different. The latter generally means a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the population over a very short period of time. The former means a slower, gradual process of attrition. This will happen by a combination of factors that will vary from place to place: old age, malnutrition, disease, war, environmental degradation. I sincerely hope the majority of the attrition will be due to old age but I am not certain. We have seriously overshot our carrying capacity on this planet and our numbers are going to go down one way or another. Nature bats last –and the grim reaper runs the bases.

3.) Migration. There is going to be an awful lot of migration during this century. Entire populations will be on the move. People will move from arid regions to wetter regions, from very cold regions to warmer ones, from really hot regions to cooler ones, from areas torn by strife and natural disaster to those at peace. This will create a lot of problems and no doubt governments will try to maintain their ‘border security’ but I expect these measures will be in vain. Desperate people are not easily stopped. Particularly when there are large numbers of them.

4.) Climate change impacts. Climate changes are all ready happening. The arctic sea ice has reached a new record low again this year –and it will only get worse; soon, the entire arctic will be ice free in the summer. Hurricanes are intensifying and getting larger (Ike anyone? It was the size of Texas!). Droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters are happening all over and more often. These things will only happen more often and get worse as this century wears on –lending to the migration mentioned above and to war.

5.) War. Iraq may be the first resource war, but it won’t be the last. As resources get scarcer, climate change hits hard, and more people migrate I expect there will be more wars fought across the world. I hope these don’t become too bad or there aren’t too many of them, but I don’t see them not happening.

Winter may be coming, but so is spring. Remember that when times get tough.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Report From On the Ground in Alabama

We haven't been hit by Ike. Yet. It is supposed to be coming through tomorrow. But we are feeling the effects.
About 75% of all the gas stations in my town are out of gas. The ones that have it are strictly rationing it and selling it for as much as $4.65 a gallon. I paid $3.55 on Thursday.

The damage reports from the refineries are not in yet, but the ones shut down by Gustav are just now re-opening and there was a lot more disruption from Ike. It may be days before the gas starts flowing again. This means a lot of people are going to have problems getting to work this week, and some of the delivery trucks may not make it to the stores. Depending on how this goes, it may well turn out to be a dress rehearsal for PO.

Katrina was not this bad. Prices went up and a few stations ran out -some stayed out of gas for a couple of weeks. But not nearly this many.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Gas Shortages

We are having gas shortages here, though you won't see it on the local news. I had heard about them but had not encountered them until I went to get gas for the first time since Hurrican Gustav. When you live in the south, you fill up before a hurricane and I had done so. Yesterday I discovered that most gas stations have several empty pumps and they are limiting you to ten gallons each.

Yet oil is going down. Can anyone say 'election season'?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Decision Making Part Three

I’m going to do an example of the kind of decision-making list is useful in this installment. This is going to be a list of the advantages and disadvantages of living in various parts of the country. I am going to focus on the southeast because I know it best but I will start with a brief list of the other areas in the country.

Southwest: There are no real advantages here and lots of disadvantages. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough: if you live in the southwest, please move.

Advantages: abundant water, some good farmland, mild climate
Disadvantages: will probably take in a lot of people from the southwest, climate change will raise the coastline, proximity to the coast may be a problem later in this century if people do start fleeing Japan and Asia en masse. (Btw, one side note: about Kunstler’s famous pirate line, there are more pirates in the world now than ever before and that will only increase on the downside of Hubbert’s peak, but they will be around every coast and quite a few navigable lakes and rivers.

Upper and Eastern Midwest
This is Ohio, Wisconsin, and the like
Advantages: Not overly populated, lots of good farmland, large numbers of farmers who know how to farm non-industrially, lots of water.
Disadvantages: the rust belt, several collapsed or collapsing cities, pollution from the industrial age in many lakes and rivers, severe cold in the winter.

Most of the Midwest
Kansas, Nebraska and the like
Advantages: low population, lots of space
Disadvantages: Currently industrial farmland, naturally arid land, future of rainfall is severely in doubt. A century from now most people who live on the plains will probably live like the Indians of old. In other words, hunter gatherers and nomadic peoples, not farmers. It will be exceedingly hard to farm a natural desert without input from the Ogllala aquifer (which is running dry).

Advantages: lots of good farmland that still is not paved over, lots of navigable waterways, large Amish population, good network of small towns still there.
Disadvantages: harsh winter weather, the entire northeast metropolis corridor (who is going to feed all those people?), the cost of living there right now is pretty high.

The Southeast
This list is going to be personalized. I am considering relocating, and this is one of the things I am looking at.
Advantages: lots of space, lots of arable land, the cost of living is extremely low compared to most of the country. If you own a piece of property outright you can live for almost nothing. There are lots of navigable waterways, lots of wilderness. It’s a very beautiful area. Property taxes are negligible on most places. It does get cold in the winter but not all that cold and not for very long so heating bills are really low. I have lived in various parts of the South my entire life and in a lot of ways I love this area. I have friends here.

Heat –and lots of it. I live in the northern part of Alabama, and the highs pretty much stay above ninety the entire summer, and with high humidity to boot.
Climate change projections –the projections disagree on whether the south will get wetter or drier and the reality will probably be different for each region, but it will get hotter. Subtropical and probably tropical heat eventually.
Agriculture –most agriculture is industrial but we do have a good population of Amish and Mennonites. The problem lies in that it will be increasingly hard to grow many of the staple crops here as the century wears on and climate changes starts to kick in.
Water –wetter or drier is up in the air, but pumping water and wells are a big challenge. We’ve had a multi-year drought and most wells are dry right now. Without electric pumping there would hardly be any water to go around.
Size –you could fit a lot of the northeastern states into Alabama alone. It’s that big. This means everything is spread out. Vastly so. I have friends who live a forty-five minute drive away and are not only in the same county, but the same town. This is not uncommon.
Bugs –and lots of them. Maybe you don’t see this as a disadvantage but consider what pests do to crops. Last year I had an invasion of some sort of caterpillar that ate half the leaves on my redbud tree literally overnight. It’s a small tree, but still. This year its spiders. Lots and lots of spiders of all kinds. They are everywhere. You have no idea how much I hate spiders. Plus, there are the usual bugs: fire ants, black ants, aphids, mosquitos. And with bugs come…
Diseases –mosquito-borne illnesses will become more common as the climate heats up and controls die off. Tropical illnesses are projected to make a comeback in this are within ten years. We’re talking malaria at the very least. That was a major problem here up until about 1950 or so and it will come back, particularly in Louisiana, coastal Virginia and other such areas. Other diseases will creep in too –dengue fever, yellow fever, etc. West Nile is all ready here. The Deep South will become depopulated if for no other reason than disease. If it becomes a desert that will only make matters worse.
Government –ok, I hate to put this one in here but I have to. The same government that makes property taxes low also will not put money into schools, roads etc. We have an almost feudal system here in Alabama and there are no apologies for it. Food is taxed; poor people pay 11% of their incomes while the rich pay 4%. Income taxes started at $4,000 for a family of four until last year; that has now been raised to $12,000. We have no way of directly petitioning the legislature save by voting on its members. Control is so centralized that when Mobile wanted to spray for mosquitoes they had to get a constitutional amendment to do it. No, that’s not a joke.
Culture, or rather certain aspects of culture. There are a lot of good things in Southern culture. There are also a lot of bad things. Hyper-patriotism. Sexism. Racism. Extreme homophobia. Religions that run toward the anti-tolerant, bible-thumping, we are right and you are going to hell lot. There are literally dozens of such churches in the county I live in with over 5,000 members and hundreds of smaller ones. Now, I have no problem with them believing what they want –my first rule of life is live and let live. I do have a significant problem with them trying to make me conform to their rules, however. I am a lesbian and a pagan and such am a serious target. (I am also multi-racial, but that is not obvious as I am white enough to pass.) If I had kids here I would have to worry about them be taken away for the sole reason that I am a lesbian. I constantly have to worry about hate crimes. This is only going to get worse as times worsen.

There you have it. That is the list. If you have read this far, it is probably easy to see why I am considering relocating. To make such a list work properly you need to scale each item and value it, and then add up the values to see what wins. To tell the truth, the main reason I am considering relocating are climate change and the cultural issues. I truly do love the south land. The Smokies, the forests, the mountains, these are all things I love. I am a pagan, after all. ;-) But there are other factors to consider. Where I could have a good life and have kids, for one. Most importantly, where I will have the best chance of surviving the coming crises.

I am not sure Dixie is it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Dark Night of the Soul

“OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
-Invictus, William Ernest Henley

“I stood under a tall oak tree, asked the goddess to shelter me
Wrapped me up in ancient green, ancient green
All my tears, all my tears, all my tears, River’s gon’a wash away”
-Ancient Green, Unknown

The first quote above is one of my favorite poems, the second one of my favorite songs. I am having a dark night of the soul. Everything seems to have gone crazy. The world is nuts and getting worse. Is there anywhere out there where love still exists? Where mercy, kindness, and compassion have not been forgotten? Is there anyplace where community still exists, where people actually care for one another?

If so, I have never seen it. My family of origin could have been the poster child for dysfunctional and abusive. I am afraid it does not exist. The world is so full of Darkness. I fear there is no more Light left. How can you call good things back into a world where thousands die of starvation by the day, where it is impossible to count the number of wars that are being waged as I write, where we are quickly destroying the planet itself? The pain I feel is immense, both for me and for the world around me.

Monday, September 08, 2008

World Made By Hand

I finally got the chance to read World Made by Hand, Kunstler’s latest work. Unlike most of his work it is fiction. It is a pretty awful novel, all and all. Oh –don’t get me wrong; compared to most of the works in this genre it is practically Shakespeare. But overall it is pretty bad. I spent a good part of the novel trying to think of how to rewrite it. It is not nearly as sharp or as witty as his non-fiction.

To start with, Kunstler, as always, is a racist, sexist pig. I read his columns and books because he is pretty dead on about most of the energy issues and such we are facing. But I don’t think we would get along well if we ever met. In fact, I think I would have to exercise all my self-control to keep from strangling the man. First, the sexism: gender roles have reverted in full force and no one minds. No one even argues. Women quietly return to the kitchen. They don’t even come to the city council meetings anymore, with the exception of the pastor’s wife, who is there to ‘stand by her man’. It is quite obvious this the way he thinks things should be. Kunstler sees women as good for cleaning, cooking, and bedding and not much else. Men are all big and strong. In his worldview of even the modern world, there is no such thing as petite, effeminate man or a strong, burly woman. No man is good at ‘womanly things’ and no woman is good at ‘manly things’. Of course, the reality is much more complex. He obviously has never met the bouncer at the local gay bar, for instance; she is an older woman but I think most special forces dudes would think twice before challenging her. I’ve known men who are smaller than I am and women who are master carpenters.

Second, for the racism part: Kunstler makes it explicit –not just clear –that there are no people of color in this town and that this is a good thing. He also mentions hordes and gang riots and street wars several times and these are always portrayed as black vs. white or latino vs. white. He even compares the low-life Wayne Karp and his group of thugs to the Iroquois, thereby spending a good deal of the book insulting one of the most dignified, gentle, and civilized people that have ever lived. (Who were the basis for the U.S. Constitution, by the way.) I am not quite certain he thinks women and people of color are quite human. He also insults Southerners pretty thoroughly; he has no understanding at all of Southern culture.

So, does this book have any redeeming qualities? Yes, I think so. If you ignore the more terrible elements and the flawed writing there is a pretty good picture of life in part of the twenty-first century. No power, no air conditioning, no fast food, eating more and working hard but also more community. One of the reasons I read Kunstler is that he has an eerie habit of being prescient about the future. I think this book contains a lot of good foreshadowing about what life will be like in many places later this century.

I’m not sure about the timing of this book. As I read it I looked for clues. The best I can figure is that it is set in the 2015-2025 timeframe. I draw this conclusion based on the best guess that the narrator is about fifty and the pastor about sixty. This is the feeling I get; it could be a little off. Other clues are the music and such they hear and recognize. This leads me to conclude that the narrator is a member of generation X and about ten years older than myself. (I am smack on the border of X and Y, depending on whose analysis your reading I could be on either side. Which one I claim depends on what mood I’m in. ;-) )

The other clue is this: a 95 year old woman dies in the course of the novel, and it states that she was a nurse in the second world war. For that to be the case, she would need to have been born no later than 1927, assuming she became a nurse straight out of high school in 1945. That gives her a date of death no later than 2022. The year before I will be fifty. Gulp.

Is this a realistic time frame? I don’t know. In the book the crises were speeded up by a couple of well-placed nukes. That could very well happen. As could any number of other things. The downside of Hubbert’s slope is a slippery critter, and we may well slide down a lot faster than we climbed up. Also, this checks with my gut and what I said in my last post: that my grandchildren will hardly know fossil fuels. Even if I had a child today I would not be a grandmother by 2022, but I would be old enough to be. And if my first child is born in, say five years (assuming I have a child), then I could be a grandmother by 2033 or so. I think he may have sped up the timeframe a bit, but I also think this is a fairly good estimate.

All in all, I think you should read the book. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;-)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Decision Making, Part Two

Okay, in part one I talked about the first rule of decision making in uncertain times: hedge your bets. This goes double (or even triple) for anyone who has children, particularly underage children. I listed the things you need to worry about: food, water, shelter, community and security. That’s it. Let me reiterate that a little more forcefully: don’t worry about your pension, don’t worry about healthcare. If things improve or don’t get any worse, they’ll be there. If things start getting really bad they won’t. Trying to protect them will only divert valuable resources away from keeping the things that do matter. Like food.

I also said I would take my best shot at prognosticating the future in this piece. That’s a risky business. But it doesn’t take a Nostradomus to look at the fact and read trendlines. So the first thing I am going to do is lay out a few facts and look at them.
Fact One: Fossil fuels are finite. They will run out.
Fact Two: Our entire civilization is based on fossil fuels, as well as on the massive use of other nonrenewable resources and the use of renewable resources at rates too great to be sustained.
Fact Three: Global warming is real and the effects are starting to be felt. Among these effects will be a progressive drying of arid and semi-arid areas while wetter areas will tend to get more wet. (That’s according to the best projections I’ve seen.)
Fact Four: Our economy is a house of cards.
Fact Five: We have seriously overshot our carrying capacity on this planet and, thanks to said overshoot, are currently degrading our environment severely.
Fact Six: No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to keep operating our civilization in the way to which we have become accustomed.

There are those who would argue with some of these, but they are all well supported by the evidence.
If you doubt fact six, take a look at fact two again. The problem is not just energy, and even if it was, all the alternative fuels depend on a fossil-fuel based infrastructure to make them work.

Okay, I’m going to start with facts one and two. Fossil fuels will run out. Period. All right, I’ll give a nod to the tech buffs and say that technically they won’t run out because we can’t extract every last drop, we will just run out of the ability to extract meaningful amounts. Satisfied? I didn’t think so. There are different kinds of fossil fuels and of course they will run out at different rates. The three most important are natural gas, oil, and coal.
1.) Natural gas is used for heating and electricity generation primarily. The U.S. peaked in natural gas production several years ago and production has been going down since. North America as a whole has also peaked but production hasn’t dropped too much yet. In twenty years there won’t be much meaningful NG production on the continent and what there is will be expensive. Importing NG is a tricky proposition at best. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is no one wants to blow up a port (and hence a city) when the inevitable accident happens.
2.) Oil is the biggie. Oil is used in literally everything in our society, from driving to work to the food we eat to the clothes we wear. It has a thousand different names and you it many of them every day. Not just gasoline but medication, plumbing, your electronics, everything in your life is either made directly from oil or has oil embedded in it at some point. Oil has either peaked or will do so shortly. This includes all the forms of oil: liquid, sands, shale, etc. We are either on the plateau of the peak or will reach it shortly and after that it is all downhill. Oil production will decline inexorably every year. You can drill anywhere you want but it won’t change that fact. In fifty years most people won’t have access to oil; in another century there won’t be any meaningful production to speak of. Oh, some I’m sure but not a lot.
3.) Coal is the other biggie. Coal is used to provide most of our electricity and also a lot of people’s heat. But there’s no problem with coal, is there? We have enough to last several centuries. Actually, no. According to the recent projections (see Richard Heinburg) coal will peak in, at most, 50 years and decline from there. Probably less as we attempt to substitute oil for coal.

So let’s see what we have right now: the entire underlying infrastructure of industrial civilization is going to disappear within the next century.
But no problem…none of us will be here in a 100 years. It will be our kids’ problem, right? No, because the effects of the depletion are all ready being felt and will only get worse. By the time I am a grandmother fossil fuels will not play a meaningful role in most people’s lives; by the time my future granddaughter has grandchildren of her own, they will be a distant memory. That’s what will happen in the next hundred years: fossil fuels will go from being an integral part of our lives to being a distant memory.

Even if we had an unlimited supply of fossil fuels, we are running out of everything else needed to sustain industrial civilization: water, topsoil, metals, wood, every single resource has been depleted. Nor can we say we weren’t warned. The Limits to Growth was dead on, right down to the timeframe effects would first be felt: 2000-2010. Let’s add in the effects of the other four facts and it is quite obvious that the next 100 years are going to be interesting. In the sense of the old Chinese curse, that is.

It should be obvious that some major crises and a lot of upheavals are going to be coming our way. And I’m talking about the next twenty years here. No, barring a nuclear war or an asteroid strike civilization will not collapse overnight but we are going to be facing crises. I expect that in the short term most cities will contract and densify while their populations expand. Why? Because a lot of people are not going to be able to afford gas over the next few years and are going to move inward where they don’t have to pay so much for transportation. This is all ready happening. At the same time, food prices are going up, as are utility bills. Climate change will begin to be felt. The economy will keep teetering and many of the jobs people move to the city for will disappear. At the same time, some manufacturing jobs may move back and so things may even out for a while.

The cities will have to change as things get worse. I expect most of the high-rises will either be abandoned or be taken down for scrap. These huge buildings are completely dependent on fossil fuels for everything –power, heating, cooling, ventilation, elevators. As utility prices climb or become sporadic it will make these behemoths less and less attractive as places to live and work. Most don’t even have opening windows. Sure, you could convert the windows but only at great expensive. Now let’s imagine what happens when the power goes or the elevators can no longer be maintained. Do you want to walk 30 or 40 stories one-way to your apartment or job everyday? If you try to stay in the city avoid the high-rises if you can.

As I said before, long-term I think the cities will lose population. Population numbers will decline everywhere (as they always do in the decline of a society), but people will move out of a lot of cities over next 100 years. Oh, the cities will still be there and people will still live in them–most cities are sited where they are for a reason and that will continue to be true. But as fossil-powered agriculture decline, more people are going to have to get involved in agriculture in some fashion. We’ll have enough oil to power industrial agriculture for some time, but what about the tools and machines? Will we have the parts and such to maintain them? The transition will not happen all at once but over time and at different rates in different areas.

Farmers need to have access to land, so this will result in more leaving the city centers. More farmers also means more of the people necessary to support them –blacksmiths, carpenters, general merchants, even pastors. Basically, entire villages. No, I’m not suggesting this many people are going to decamp from a city en masse and move to the country. Many of them are all ready there and others will transition over time. Plus, the flip side of the coin of most cities gaining population over the short term means that our rural population will continue to decline for a while. Eventually the pattern will reverse as people need to become more involved in food production. This is an organic process, not a mechanical one. I fully expect the suburbs ringing most cities will eventually evolve into small farming villages and many small towns will be revitalized. Others will be abandoned completely as they discover they are too far from the city centers or have other disadvantages.

I am not going to try and tell anyone where to live. Far from it. Each possible type of location –farm, small town, small, medium, or large city –has its own problems and advantages, as does each specific location. I’m going to list some advantages of each kind. If you are interested in my own biases, here they are: I don’t like cities. I think they are dirty, smelly, and crowded. I prefer elbow room. That said, I understand the allure and the appeal. I have visited big cities many times and like the convenience and the range of options. They are just not places I personally would want to live. Your mileage may vary. Okay, here are the lists.

Crime: Everyone mentions this, so I put it at the top. Crime will go up everywhere during the coming downturn, as will hate crimes. I do not believe the marauding hordes will ever come to pass but cities are much more prone to riots and gang violence than rural areas. But rural areas are much more prone to drugs (believe it or not) and burglaries and those living there have less capability of calling for help. Plus, hate crimes can be higher in rural areas, at least here in the south.

Power: this is a big one. If and when the grid starts to go down, guess who will lose it first? That’s right, the rural areas. On the other hand, guess who will have higher bills while it does last? The city. And if your city is like mine, they’ll evict you if you can’t pay your power bills.

Shipping: Cities win hands down on this. People in cities will have access to reliable shipping of goods and services and mail for longer than those in the country.

Transportation: Cities win again, thanks to the nearness of most things and mass transit. At least most cities –Houston and its sibs are obvious exceptions.

Population –it should be obvious that more people live in the cities than small towns and the country. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on how you look at it. There’s more and more diverse people in a city, but they also have to have services. You may know everyone in a small town but you won’t in a city. If a disease breaks out its more likely to hit the city harder, given the close proximity of such a large number of people. Remember this also: until the early 1900s, most American cities were not nice place to live. Crowded tenements, filthy air, open-air sewers. We may be returning to those days for all but the rich.

Food –there’s more land in small towns and on farms to grow food, so they will probably have more while the city has shortfalls. Yes, some will be sent to the city but can you imagine feeding NYC’s teeming millions from the surrounding farms? Some people will grow food in the cities themselves of course, but the question is how much.

Water –it depends. Cities will be able to pay for processing and such longer, but small towns may be able to depend on cisterns or local streams.

Community –it also depends greatly on the type of small town or city.

Economics –diversified economies are the key. Any town or city that depends on only one industry –be it tourism or manufacturing –is going to be hurting in the years ahead. Small, isolated tourist towns are going to hurt as badly as Detroit and will probably hemorrhage population the same way. The only thing I feel comfortable predicting about any specific location is this: the Southwest will not do well. There is not enough water there to keep the current population going at even subsistence levels when the underlying base of fossil fuels begins to give way. A lot of people will be moving out of those areas, driven by need rather than desire.

So…how does all of this pertain to decision making in risky times? These are some of the variables you have to play with in making your decisions. This is not actuarial science; there are no risk tables to go to. All we can do is make the best decision possible and hope. And remember the cardinal rule: hedge your bets.

I’ll post more next time.