October 24, 2006

My son had his pre-kindergarten screeing test yesterday and handily passed. While we think he’s a smart little guy, he’s right on the cusp of the age range for going to school in fall 2007, and we were not sure if he’d be ready or not. He may still not be ready from a maturity standpoint, but at least in the school district’s eyes he’s shown all of the prequisite skills needed for entry. In light of this, we decided to celebrate last night an took him to his favorite restaurant (the Rainforest Cafe at the Mall of Mammon) as a surprise.

He was thrilled. I personally think the food is mediocre and overpriced, and the anti-consumerist in me hates going to the temple of materialism that is the MOA, but in the eyes of one special little 4 year-old, that place is a slice of heaven. I still winced when I got the bill, but seeing the joy on my son’s face made me remember that there’s more to life than money.

After enjoying a loud, racuous meal, we got back out into the main area of the mall when the missus declared that she had “a few things that she needed to pick up while we’re out here.” So we ambled down one of the concourses towards a soap shop. We both noticed that a sizeable percentage of the mall patrons that night were Muslim… maybe forty percent or more of the people. This seemed rather odd to us, until I remembered that we were getting towards the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. In fact last night was the holiday of Eid ul-Fitr if my dates are correct, which is a major holiday in Islam. There were many Somali families out and about that night, dressed nicely and looking to enjoy themselves. The amusement park was busy, and the sounds of laughing children filled the air. An unusual Monday night in Minnesota for many of us, but a special night for some.

While I tend to do more ranting on this blog than anything, there’s much more to life than simply wringing one’s hands about the future. What comes will come, and while it’s important to be aware of the changes that are coming in life, that’s no reason to not celebrate the joys that happen in the here and now. Yesterday was a particularly good day for people in my circle of acquaintances; we had one child pass a milestone on his path to maturity, my brother-in-law got a new job with a hefty raise that will help him support his family better, and some close friends had a healthy baby. If that day isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.


The Real Stakes

October 23, 2006

The Republican party has launched a new political television ad named “The Stakes” that’s highly reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 “Daisy” ad. The new ad, if you haven’t heard, is a montage of various terrorists vowing to attack the USA, and ends with a bomb (nuclear? Not sure) explosion and a simple message: “These are the stakes. Vote November 7th.” It’s not a shock to anyone that the ad has caused much outrage among Democrats, and rightly so, since there’s no sugarcoating the basic message here.

Of course, the “stakes” being discussed only touch on the surface of the real problem. The real “stakes” are something more along these lines:

  • Our industrial economy consumes massive amounts of petroleum every day. It is the lifeblood of society and enables most if not all of the systems that we are totally dependent on.
  • We are currently discovering only 1 barrel of oil for every 6 that we use, and that ratio is increasing every year.
  • Living in a finite system as we do, there are limits on how much oil there is to be discovered, and on the rate of extraction.
  • Estimates vary, but many geologists and other scientists agree that we are either near or at the limits for both of these rates. At the most we have about 10 years before global decline truly sets in.
  • Americans are not only dependent on oil, but we are dependent on cheap oil. While we have shown a willingness to pay $4 per gallon of gasoline, economists theorize that the wheels will come off the economy as the price nears $7-$10 per gallon. It will only take a few major hurricanes in the right spot or a regional Middle East war to quickly reach that threshold.
  • Since we have already depleted a good portion of our domestic oil reserves, we must import larger and larger quantities of oil from overseas to keep our economy going.
  • In order to keep the price of that oil (relatively) low, we will use whatever tools we have at our disposal to both acquire and set the price we need. This includes financial policies, diplomacy, or outright military action. We have declared the Middle East to be a strategic theater of national interest with the Carter Doctrine, and woe be unto whatever country dares try and thwart us.
  • Nothing is more important to us than access to cheap oil. We will deal with whomever we must and manufacture a casus belli if need be. In the battle between acquiring oil and moral/ethical principles, oil will always win. The US public will support this as well whether most of them realize this or not.
  • We are staking our entire future on winning the battle for the world’s remaining supplies of petroleum and natural gas. We have no “plan B”, and we have no money for pay for a transition to a more sustainable economy. We have sacrificed our blood and treasure for decades to serve a faulty proposition, namely that the supply of oil is limitless.
  • While we are broke, we still are the world’s mightiest empire. The odds of the USA quietly morphing into a poor, energy-starved nation are low. Empires collapse; they do not voluntarily disband. And until that point is reached, they expend their entire vigor on maintaining their position any which way they can. In a nuclear age, that is a frightening proposition.

These are the stakes, people.

Lurching Toward November

October 20, 2006

The USA continues its inexorable grind towards the elections on November 7th. Here in the land of 10,000 lakes we are constantly bombarded with political campaign ads representing the only two major parties that can actually afford a sustained media blitz. It’s interesting that the new trend appears to be using either state or national political parties to sponsor the negative attack ads while the candidates themselves usually take the higher road in ads they directly fund. I’m not sure who they are expecting to fool, but I seem to overestimate the collective interest and intelligence of the US citizenry on a regular basis.

While I’m very interested in all things political, my reservoir of patience for the constant drone of the elections is long-since exhausted. It appears the Republicans may lose control of one or both branches of Congress. While some commentators are positively giddy about this, I could really care less. The only advantage of having the Democrats controlling either the House or the Senate is that they can throw up some roadblocks for the more egregious examples of Republican legislation that contain either fiscal irresponsibility or yet another assault on our personal freedoms in the name of security.

On the really big-picture problems, the Democrats either are offering little in the way of fresh thinking. The main reason for this is that they too are almost totally beholden to special interests and big business, which are their main sources of funding for the political advertisements you and I are subjected to daily. Without their money, the media machine that makes up the engine of a modern political campaign will grind to a halt. With the dwindling membership and influence of the Labor unions, the Democrats have had little choice but to embrace the corporations.

The net result of this Faustian bargain is pretty easy to see. In the last six years, the Democrats have put up only token opposition to most bills not relating directly to one of the side-show social issues that both parties use equally to energize their respective bases. The real issues that loom over us are either used to incite fear in the populace without offering any real solutions, or they are simply ignored.

As President Bush often states, we are “at war.” An undeclared war against a nebulous enemy perhaps, but since the defense industry is cleaning up all the same, it doesn’t really matter. In the past, wartime meant sacrifice. Stories abound about paying higher taxes, mass drafts of young men, rationing, and general belt-tightening. Not this time, though. We have note been asked to do much of anything as a society as a whole, other than to keep shopping, as Mr. Bush famously told us in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Recent history would seem to indicate that we needn’t have sacrificed anything, since the Dow Jones average has stayed up (ignoring inflation, of course), taxes have stayed flat or gone down, and life has more or less returned to normal for most people. That’s not the complete picture, though. The sacrifice is there, but like most everything else in America, it’s not evenly distributed.

Military families have sacrificed much, whether through the loss of a loved one, extended or repeated tours of duty overseas via a back-door draft (“stop-loss”) and financial trouble. They make up a relatively small percentage of the population though, so it’s OK to publicly lionize these folks while privately screwing them through loss of benefits, among other ways.

The poor have seen their social services cut. Regardless of one’s position on the necessity of welfare, it is a fact that many people today rely on the safety nets the government has provided in lieu of actually taking any action to help people rise out of poverty. When it makes financial sense to be on the dole instead of working, many people will do so. The cutting of these benefits further punishes poor children who are put into bad situations through no fault of their own. For a nation as rich as the US is, the way we treat the poor, and especially poor children, is appalling. But, since poor kids can’t vote, they can be ignored.

The US economy consumes way more than its fair share of goods and resources. We have used our military, political and financial might to appropriate what resources we need from other countries that are still mired in abject poverty. Thus the majority of the world involuntarily sacrifices so that we Americans may benefit.

It’s this imbalance that is the crux of our war on terrorism, I think. We cut deals with despots and dictators, who live well while the majority of their people suffer. This is the case in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and most of the other second/third-world nations we deal with. If I lived in a nation that had abundant natural resources and had to watch foreign companies strip them out at bargain prices, I’d be mad as hell too. It’s said that a certain amount of terrorism is the price we pay to live well and dominate the world political scene. As the meme of oil depletion slowly reveals itself to the world, I expect that anti-Americanism will only intensify.

We have set up a Pax Americana of sorts, and like ancient Rome, we are stripping our border provinces to feed the mob and keep them happy. Like all previous empires, this is an unsustainable course of action, and eventually the global imbalance we currently thrive on will swing the other way, and it’s unlikely that most of us will be able to get out of the way. Jim Willie succinctly points out valid reasons for why the US is acting the way it is now, and how it will act in the future, and it doesn’t bode well for anyone:

Among the main certainties of life are death, taxes, poverty, pestilence, reproduction, and war. Malthus makes sense. The United States leaders want war. Many question why. The answer might be as simple as:

– They own oil & gas, the lifeblood of economic vitality, and we do not

– We have enormous debts which we cannot repay, and they hold many debts

– We have flooded the world with USDollars, choosing inflation over work

– We are free people who rushed into bankruptcy through profligate lifestyle

– We own powerful weapons, and choose not to go quietly into the night

We are locked into our energy-intensive economy, and both major parties will do nothing to upset the apple cart while we still can extract the world’s goods and resources in exchange for paper dollars. I will vote, and will vote for Democrats and Independents, if only to slow down the erosion of both personal liberty and the dollar. I don’t expect any major sea-changes in policy on anything vitally important to our future. Perhaps they will re-instate habeas corpus for American citizens, but beyond that, it’ll just be more of the same.

In the meantime, I’m waiting impatiently for November 8th. Regardless of the election results, the return of ads for cars, erectile dysfunction medications and alcohol will be a marked improvement over the dreck that we’re seeing now. Both parties claim the other one is full of immoral liars… tell me something I don’t already know.

Sanity in Urban Design

October 18, 2006

Via Mobjectivist, here’s another example for how our monomanical love of automobiles is helping us make very bad choices for the future of our cities, especially for an era where driving is for the privileged few and not the masses. I’m not surprised at all that such words of sanity don’t come from a US politician:


And who else but David Byrne should provide us the latest thinking in bicycle transportation. Mr. Byrne went to a talk by the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia:

One common measure of the cleanliness of a mountain stream is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.When I was elected mayor of Bogotá and got to city hall, I was handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. [more than 20km!] It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren’t even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, “You are important — not because you’re rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human.” If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society….

“If a bike lane that isn’t safe for an 8 year old child it isn’t a bike lane.”

“Traffic jams are not always bad. The priority is not always to relieve them. They will force people to use public transportation.”

“Building more highways never relieves congestion.” (This was not his insight, but he reminded us how true it is.)

“Transportation is not an end — it is a means to having a better life, a more enjoyable life — the real goal is not to improve transportation but to improve the quality of life.”

“A place without sidewalks privileges the automobile, and therefore the richer people in cars have more rights; this is undemocratic.”


October 17, 2006

I’ve been noticing more and more signs by the roadside advertsing auctions for homes & townhomes here in the East Metro. Since this is a pretty unusual way to sell a home, I’m thinking that these are foreclosed properties that are being liquidated. A year ago or less, you wouldn’t see this in realtively affluent suburbs around here, but now I’ve seen a handful in the last few months.

As the housing glut continues around here, I’ll be very curious to see if the number of signs like this proliferate, since there are still many, many houses and townhomes for sale out here, and townhome prices seem to always get slaughtered whenever there’s a glut of them like there is now. I’m more and more thankful every day that I was able to sell my house when I did earlier this year.

The Road to What’s Next 2

October 16, 2006

Apologies for the long delay in posting. Life has been busy, and I’ve been having a lot of trouble trying to organize a long post I was planning to write about. I was planning “The Road to What’s Next”, an examination of different methodologies being presented to either bring about the powerdown to a low-energy society (either voluntarily or otherwise), and ways to try and raise consciousness about the issues and help illuminate a way forward by which we can start the transition. While formulating this post, several things happened:

First, there have been a few excellent series of posts by John Michael Greer and Zachary Nowak have covered the same material I was examining, and I felt I couldn’t add a whole lot that their articles didn’t already cover.

Second, as Matt Savinar ably pointed out on his LATOC forum, most of the people who issue strident calls for action probably can’t mobilize their immediate family to take preventative action for energy descent. Seeing that, I’m guilty as charged, and as such, have no business offering up a plan for anything.

With these things in mind, I took a step back and have been thinking a lot about our current situation and how it will affect the coming decades. The crux of the problem is that we live in a finite system with limited resources, and these resources are not shared equally. The USA in particular consumes way more than it’s fair share of these resources as our monthly import/export numbers show. The rest of the world sends their food, wares, and energy our way in order to feed Leviathan, and in return, we give them IOU’s (dollars) that are based on nothing. This is only possible due to our military-industrial complex, through which we are able to more or less dominate world financial transactions and have a say in regional politics far away from our shores, thanks to mostly to our massive nuclear arsenal, along with our leading role in high technology (both military and otherwise).

Western corporate interests have long been increasing their reach globally, and recent innovations in communication and transportation, combined with very cheap energy costs had fuelled the movement colloquially known as “globalization.” The stated premise is that by moving manufacturing and service jobs to other areas of the world where labor is cheaper, the ‘balanced playing field’ will allow the rest of the world to grow their standard of living to something close to the “American Dream” that we Americans currently enjoy as our birthright. This is an outright lie. There aren’t enough natural resources of any kind to have billions more people living a high-energy lifestyle. One of the goals of globalization is to balance the playing field, but it will happen due to American standards of living falling, not the other way around.
As energy prices continue to rise over time, less and less people will be able to afford the trappings of modern industrial life. It appears that $60 is the new floor for the oil market, and that already will make our most prized resource unaffordable for billions of people around the planet. As the price of oil reaches $80 and then $100 per barrel, more and more people will join the ranks of the “have-nots”, including more people here in America. We haven’t reached that point yet, and until we do, I think there is little that can be done to organize people to prepare for what’s coming. We don’t like to hear bad news, and the reality of our situation will continue to get worse and worse over time, so most people will do their best to ignore things and “live for today” as long as possible. There are some small areas where organization can and is taking place, but they are all very limited in their size and scope. Making a serious change in our policy requires a national effort, which I don’t see happening until things have already degraded to the point that few people can deny there’s trouble.

Peak oil is often compared to a religious cult by naysayers. In some ways I think the analogy is correct. We hold a view of the future that is much different than that of mainstream society and the powers that be. Like the biblical prophets of yore, we see trouble and decry it to little avail, and the day of judgment continues to draw nearer. And, in the same vein, I think that a large-scale energy-transition movement will only appeal to those people who have already been affected by it and are suddenly poor, hungry and desperate, much in the same way that Christianity started as a movement among the poor and dispossessed of ancient Israel, persecuted and ridiculed by the wealthy and powerful.

One of the ways we early adopters of the ‘movement’ can best serve our neighbors by learning as many “survival” skills as possible. Many of the essential skills needed to simply live a century or two ago are now relegated to the sideline as curious “hobbies” taken up more of the pure pleasure of creating something with our own bare hands. A local group of peak oilers could do a lot worse than having different members deciding to pick up different ‘hobbies’ like beer brewing, soapmaking, food canning, sewing, leatherwork, gardening, etc. As the cost of imported goods becomes more and more expensive, there will be a continue to be strong demand for the essentials that will need a more localized network of manufacturers to supply it. We will always need clothes, food, shelter, shoes, and other goods regardless of how expensive electricity and petroleum becomes. This is the heart of the relocalization movement that is starting as an offshoot of peak oil and sustainability efforts. While hobbies such as the ones I listed above could form the start of a new business for someone, these knowledgeable people can also become the teachers/craftspeople of a new generation, passing on such knowledge and broadening the base of people who can actively contribute to society. In future generations, we will not have the luxury of paying people to not work and contribute to society (I’m talking about both welfare and retirement), and the low-energy society will have many more opportunities for people from all classes of society to both make a living and contribute to the greater good.

For the time being, I think trying to organize middle- and upper-class Americans will mostly be an exercise in futility. Activists will be compared to the nutty campus preachers that inhabit most college campuses, and will get an even frostier reception. It’s one thing to tell people the end is near and they’re going to burn for eternity due to their wicked ways. It’s another to tell them that soon they won’t be able to watch 30 hours of TV every week, drive wherever they want, and live in oversized houses packed to the rafters with crap they don’t really need. I’ve been reading the book “God’s Politics” by Jim Wallis recently, (a very interesting book even for non-religious people), and he makes an interesting point about the biblical prophets. Most of the Old Testament prophets rail against the wealthy and powerful for how they treat the poor ( a subject I personally never hear about at my local suburban church, by the way). Biblical archaeologists have made an interesting correlation based around this. Excavations of cities from biblical times show that in different levels of building, some generations have house foundations that are all more or less the same sized, indicating people who were all living with more or less the same class of society, whereas other levels show wide disparities with some very large houses surrounded by many more smaller ones, indicating large gaps between the wealthy and the masses. Archaeologists have shown that the latter building patterns line up chronologically with the times when the prophets were writing their diatribes, whereas they are silent during periods where everyone lives more or less the same lifestyle.

To transplant that analogy on the global scale, the USA lives in the largest house on the block, surrounded by a few smaller houses and a lot of shanties. The difference is one of scale. Americans are so far removed from the living situation elsewhere on the world that the only time we experience it is usually either via a 30-second TV commercial begging for money for starving children overseas, or possibly at a church service. In both cases, we are told that if we donate a pittance towards helping these people their lives will benefit greatly, and we can continue living our waste-filled lifestyles without guilt. The day is coming where we’ll have more trouble feeding our own children, and that’s when those of us who know about the problem now can step up to the plate and start making a real difference. Everything that happens until then will only affect small numbers of people who were probably friendly to the idea of energy constraints already. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make an effort to let more people know, but we should be realistic about our goals and plan our energy and time commitments accordingly.

Strib: Twin Cities Home Building down by 50%

October 5, 2006


If anyone was still thinking the local housing market was bubble-proof, the StarTribune has done a pretty good job of dispelling that. According to the Strib, housing starts have fallen by nearly fifty percent since last year. This is also tied in to the slowdown in existing homes, since more homeowners can’t sell their current place to pay for the new McMansion they’ve always dreamed of building. Why this couldn’t have happened a year or two ago is beyond me, but apparently it was my fate to buy in at the top of the bubble…. sigh.

The Fed is doing a good job of keeping mortgage rates low, which is probably the only thing keeping house prices from sharply correcting. How much longer they can keep that up remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m glad I don’t work in any profession connected to the housing market, since a lot of part-time or short-term realtors & loan officers will likely be looking for alternate employment, and in an economy that’s mostly cranking out low-paying service jobs, that’s not a pleasant prospect.

The development I live in has different ‘neighborhoods’, if you can call them that, where house prices differ dramatically, in some cases over $200,000. The more tony streets have empty lots that show no sign of moving, and the existing houses that are for sale show no sign of moving anytime soon. I’ll be interested to see how much both the builders and the existing homeowners panic in the coming months in an attempt to get out of from under property they don’t want to keep.