Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Land of Make-Believe

When I first started driving my own $150 car, gas was 26c a gallon. For all of us in postwar America, paved roads, cars and cheap fuel meant freedom of movement and choice -- things most of humanity never had. Good times. Except, the affordable and plentiful energy that thrilled us will kill us.
We assumed that growth (the baby boom, suburban sprawl, new technologies and jobs, and an expanded educated middle class) was the new permanent paradigm, our just reward for surviving fifteen years of depression and war. A population bouyed by optimism, freed by the interstates from the isolation of packed cities and forlorn countryside went on to improve civil rights, land humans on the moon, and exuberantly waste excess wealth on foreign wars, not realizing that all this was totally dependent on that huge amount of affordable fossil fuel, which allowed us to exploit finite resources as if they were infinite.
When in school, did you ever learn about Dr. Hubbert's 1956 prediction that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in 1970? Or have a discussion about how dependence on oil imports would affect our economy and leave us vulnerable to dangerous global entanglements?
After the OPEC oil embargo of the early '70s, exploration and production went off the charts, resulting in an oil glut and radically falling prices (remember the devastation of a formerly booming Houston?). Fuel efficiency (especially under the Reagan regime, which was fully paid for by the oil industry) was thrown out the window -- exemplified by Ronnie gleefully tearing Carter's solar panels off the White House roof. Giant SUVs and pickup trucks followed -- good times again. But look at the chart, above right, showing how worldwide availability of affordable fossil energy stimulated astonishingly rapid overpopulation. 1 billion to 7 billion in a century -- all consuming more and more of a diminishing resource, and in the industrialized part of the world, totally dependent on it.
With every product on our farms, industries and homes made from or powered by fossil fuel, what will happen when this huge, unnatural, unsustainable population has to compete for ever less, but ever more expensive energy? The endless growth paradigm the we, our economists and government believe in won't work any more. As with the boom-and-bust "bubble" cycles that are always in process (they are not just "market adjustments"), the descent will not be prepared for, and it will be steep and calamitous. We won't have the oil and gas to build the infrastructure of smart grids, wind farms, nuclear plants or remote solar farms. All this concrete, steel, cable, and a hundred thousand other things must be made and transported using gas and diesel. We won't have the resources to hold back worldwide rising water levels -- or even the finances, for that matter.
Growth becomes impossible to maintain when more "bads" are produced than goods.
The global economy has grown five times its size 50 years ago. That's amazingly good performance, isn't it? Since that is unprecedented in the history of life on Earth, does common sense tell you that it's an aberration, and like any "bubble," it's one that will be corrected just as quickly? Action/equal and opposite reaction, and all that. I wish people would take the Second Law of Thermodynamics more seriously than the ravings of John the Divine in Revelations. Just guess what a survey of our fellow citizens would reveal on that.
We used 1/2 our current level of energy in 1960 and did all right. France uses 1/2 what we do right now (and I can't agree with the conservative ignorati that life is obviously bad there). We believed that Thatcher's ideology saved the United Kingdom when it was really a large and temporary influx of money from North Sea oil production; similarly, it wasn't Reagan's brilliance but disastrously falling oil prices that destabilized and put paid to the Soviet Union (other than arms sales, their one cash cow). We believed in all that, and we believed in glorious unlimited growth, borrowing trillions to keep it going -- it was nothing more real than a Ponzi scheme.
The cost of one B-2 bomber could, instead, have provided 150,510 clean water wells, or 35.5 million chickens. What do 7 billion people need to survive the rapid depletion of the one thing the modern world runs on? Which would make us more friends in the scary decade to come? I would think food and water.
A civilization hell-bent on growth, when growth ends and reverses, will be like an individual going on an involuntary starvation crash diet. We refuse to believe that vast quantities of everything will not be available forever...until they aren't. Too late. We could have seen that the predictions about oil production peaking and declining (chart above left) conform almost exactly to the classic bell curve, a very reliable modeling device.
If we had started on a correction course after the 1973 oil embargo, and prepared for the inevitable decline of cheap energy, we could still have some reasonable level of prosperity to look forward to -- if we define that as quality of life instead of a wretched excess of material wealth.
Cassandra, none pay heed today either.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dumpster Diving on

Giggling and looking over our shoulders, we went Dumpster diving twice, once near here in Lemoyne and once in California, both times coming up with excellent items, which we gave away or, believe it or not, sold. We joined the crowd to visit a thrift store on the main street of Ventura just on its opening day, and Nancy found a unique (but good) looking pair of shoes that she wears every week now. There's treasure and trash everywhere.
Click on the "next blog" spot at the top of this or your blog page, and you will find, as you explore, strangers' viewpoints and experiences, both delightful and dismaying. I wonder what is the mechanism for choosing which sites show up, since they do seem to follow a theme each time: travel and thought, gardening and nature, or, heaven help us, Mommy Blogs. What is dreadful about pictures of munchkins with food smeared on their faces, looking up brightly at the camera? Or a hundred entries about someone's wedding followed by their rapid reproduction, all on sunny days of boundless possibility, tightly wrapped in a greeting card aesthetic? Come on, most of us are poor writers or philosophers on our best days, but you've got to have something to say!
And then, you find the treasure. One lady in Vancouver, WA, is so sharp and funny she ought to be improving TV fare (she indicates that before family, her ambition was in that direction). Her latest piece on her husband's overenthusiastic response to her desire to pursue ballroom dancing had my sides hurting. And she's right on with the photos and illustrations, which add to the mayhem.
Another young lady in South Africa, in her autobiographical blog, is wise beyond her twentysomething years. Some young writers whine about being lost and directionless, but this tart-tounged lass has no doubt about her worth and the lengths she goes to to prove it.
And today, I ran across one with no profile, so I can't tell you more than that he seems to be a British or Irish expat, is studying Dutch, and has been to and taken alarmingly beautiful photos of mountainous south-cental France. He's also pursuing Buddhism. He makes you want his life; his writing is of that ice-clear type that pulls you in. You don't skim it, you re-read the sentences. Only your very favorite authors do that. That's his photo above, of a cliff on the Mediterranean coast which has been carved by nature to resemble a ruined castle strewn with gargoyle carvings.
It's worth digging through the trash to find something like that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Give 'Em What They Want


During the four terms of Reagan and Dubya we ironically had people in the highest offices of national government who believed that government doesn't work and should be starved, hogtied and pecked to death.
Because the best way to change the system is to ride in the limos, then enjoy a rich retirement paid by it, right? Were they bright enough to see that in not responding to a nonpolitical emergency like Katrina, it would send a deep emotional message that, uh, government doesn't work? I doubt if the neocons will be eager for us to conclude that the Gulf oil disaster proves that big business doesn't work -- because their whole brief is that a federal government that looks out for everyone equally (admittedly an ideal, but one that can be striven for) should be replaced by big business.
What if we just closed up the shop and let them have what they say they want? Events may make that come about, as one Igor Panarin, former KGB analyst, predicted long before the economic crisis (which he and others also saw coming in the 1990s). His map (lower left) delineates how, probably after much turmoil, six regions will replace the current federal union, and they may come under the influence of other powers who generally were wise enough not to believe in "something for nothing/borrowing your way to prosperity," like we did.
He sees wealthier states hoarding their funds, withholding them from the Fed, then seceding. Not inconceivable. Will these regions each form a retro Articles of Confederation-type union that would warm the hearts of the teabaggers? I wonder if thousands of changes to our complex system, like tolls on the inherited sections of the interstate highways, no FAA, import tariffs at the borders or the loss of the CODIS criminal DNA database would disrupt commerce and greatly expand our population of serial killers. Or will these secessionist states, in the context of pervasive insecurity and fear, spin out of orbit and become thugdoms, kleptocracies, or medieval throw-backs like some of the so-called republics created out of the former Soviet Union? They may find out how getting government off the backs of plutocrats has worked out for Haiti.
Would Wall Street run the Atlantic America segment? Big Oil be the boss of the Texas Republic? Monsanto Corporation rule the Central Republic? Will conservative real-estate developers and agribusiness billionaries in extended California be at the throats of coastal liberals with good libraries but no armed retainers? Think what the unrestrained timber and coal industries did to Pennsylvania and the Virginias, and are capable of doing with 21st century technology in a weak-government situation.
The "Jesusland" map on the right has been around a while, illustrating the possible outcome of an apocalyptic cultural split resulting in an expanded Canada absorbing the blue states and the red ones forming a lovely new Confederacy with no public schools, no FDA or SEC, no estate taxes on the insanely wealthy, dirt roads and employment consisting only of police, prison guards and sharecroppers. At least they won't have Wall Street; but the Carolina coast will be all privately owned.
Government is like a big, dumb dog on your porch. You think it eats too much for what it does, but it keeps the salesmen and missionaries away. It needs discipline, for sure, but think twice about exchanging it for one that will turn around and eat you.
"If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
-- Abraham Lincoln
(Credits: New Zealand blog, "Thinking Shift")

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Craziness We Can Believe In

And it's whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.
(The upcoming, much needed, Rally to Restore Sanity prompted this.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Noise, Old Noise

"...And the Tea Party aims to fix all this, to make things right again. I listen to their blather about "freedom" and all I can imagine is the sound of boots outside the door, and men in badly-fitting camo uniforms and buzzcut hair commanding me to accept John Boehner as my personal savior. Pardon me, but I don't see how this will really improve anybody's lot in life."
--James Howard Kunstler's blog for 9/12/2010.

As Alexander Solzenitsyn said after long experience with an incompetent, fearful, repressive "punisher" regime: don't listen to them, don't acknowledge them, don't cooperate with them.

"Benedict warned against 'agressive forms' of secularism. The German pope recalled how Britain had stood against 'Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society.' "

--Wire report from Scotland in today's newspaper.

I can understand that Teabag blowhards who disdain education, science and logic would be all confused, but Benedict is an educated man who has spent his life in central Europe and knows the score. Hitler stated he was, and always would be, a Catholic. The uniforms, the required unquestioning obedience and murkily powerful symbology of fascism is a mirror of that other 2000-year Reich. The Odessa network funneled Nazis out of postwar Europe into safe havens through church facilities in Austria and Italy; neither Hitler, Franco nor Mussolini put the death squeeze on the Vatican like their counterpart Stalin would have -- they all worked out amicable arrangements. How can secularism even be "agressive?" It is not an institution or an organized movement. It is just the desire of evolved people to live, and let live, rationally.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Swept Away (2012)

The stars align,
call us -- a
tight lipped

Time brakes, shuddering.

A Libris

In Rus' latest blog on litrashur reminded me that while many people know their minds, some are liberal, or to use an older term, catholic in their approach and some are narrowly focused and project bad qualities on that which does not appeal to them.

Is the difference education, which, like travel, generally broadens minds and moderates black-and-white (non)thinking? Sometimes, but there are far too many reasonably intelligent and educated dogmatists. I think it's just personality type; whichever path you travel in life, upwards, backwards or sideways, you end up pretty much the same, inside, as when you started. It's your choices along the way that result in your becoming older and a little wiser or older, meaner and dumber.
Does everything have some value to someone out there? I'm thinking of the overwhelming preponderance of romance and thriller novels in the mass marketplace -- that's all you see at the discount store, grocery, drugstore, and it makes up the bulk of circulation at libraries. In the yin and yang balance between what is good/worthwhile and what people "like," I think this dominating component of current literature resides on the negative side of the value meter. Not that anything should, or could, be done about it; it suits the majority of the personality types and you might as well rail against the excessive amount of rock in the earth's surface.
You might be concerned when the meter moves from harmless time-wasting reading to lies and propaganda. Think of the media campaigns of the communists, fascists, and the McCarthyites. Imbibing 150 volumes of Danielle Steel will just soften your brain, but taking Mein Kampf or John Birch Society publications or Ayn Rand seriously can and will result in misery and destruction for millions of others.
We have, as I've mentioned, a big beautiful new library in Camp Hill. There is a section up front of several long shelf units of new books, which is usually as disappointing as receiving underwear for your birthday. I move through different genres as the years go by (not romance or thriller, at least not yet), and right now I'm into memoir/autobiography. Imagine my delight at finding both Patti Smith's and Rosanne Cash's new volumes yesterday -- the subgenre of artists' life stories has been a favorite for a while now. Despite the reduction of the county library system's budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars this year and the last, the director of this branch continues to purchase every right-wing screed that becomes available. Think of all the worthwhile volumes that don't show up on the shelves while she pursues this personal agenda -- justified, I'll bet, by the old excuse "that's what the public wants." And some of the public does: Camp Hill is no San Francisco, believe me. But the outrageousness of some of the new titles makes that argument look convenient and weak: "How The Environmentalists are Destroying America," "How the Left Swiftboated America," (what???) "The Liberal War on Talk Radio." This is toxic mold, not just a little unsightly dust.
Just because a sizable majority likes something doesn't mean it is good or bad. 1 million murdering Mongols on the horizon can be wrong. The crowd has wisdom, and it has destructive craziness too. We can live with lots of bad taste --sometimes it is amusing or a guilty pleasure -- but we need the freedom to live better, according to our own lights, with some quality choices. The danger is not the preponderance of dreck, it's the possibility that choice can be taken away in the name of some fevered dogma.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vegetables With Attitude

Angelo Pellegrini wrote of Italian immigrants in America, "the pleasure of eating what he raises is inseparably fused with the pleasure of raising what he eats." The Japanese did the same, and the Hmong and Vietnamese now have brought this closer-to-the-earth mentality to urban and suburban locales which until the recent economic tribulation shunned productive earth for inedible grass and "green meatball" shrubs.
We're familiar with the extensive, but temporary, gardening mania associated with the food shortages of the two world wars. It's said a million young people returned to the land in the '70s, and forgotten lore on homesteading and husbandry was republished for this considerable audience (the Nearings' books come to mind, of course, but my favorite is the now again rare The Five Acre Plan); without The Whole Earth Catalogue what would they have done? For suburban kids with no practical knowledge at all, and rural ones used to mechanized farming, that volume was invaluable, and introduced people to such a variety of obscure books and theories not ever found in school or library as well as gadgets not seen in the mass-market chain stores. Again, my favorite was the hand-operated "Amish" washing machine, which is still available. I ordered a big chrome hand-cranked grain mill which was immortalized in an article I wrote about it complete with gleaming photo; I got rid of all the grinding, cutting and canning stuff at one of our yard sales due to lack of a garage kitchen like my grandfather and grandmother had for performing such satisfying work. Again, suburbia just strangles the life out of things.
When we decamped for several weeks to California, the weather here changed from pleasant and rainy to hot and dry. The garden box in Zach's yard burnt up, but it was not doing that well since this year I just used up all the seeds we had, planting them directly and probably not at the exact right time. At home here, the plants in various pots were made of tougher stuff, and are to this day producing beyond all expectations. Two bean plants have been harvested four times; a grape tomato "volunteer" plant that grew from some stray seed in the compost is now huge and yields up a handful of perfect little tomatolets every few days. On the kitchen counter we have lined up a dozen perfect round fruits from the full-size "Early Girl" plant out back, and it currently has three more ready to pick. The lettuce out front bolted while we were away, but until then provided salads twice a day with those red rascals proudly nestled in the center of each one. I didn't anticipate much from these plants tucked into spots here and there, but they have been a delight. We missed a beat and didn't plant basil -- won't forget next year!
They say men plan and the gods just laugh; Nature is amused by our efforts too, but she takes a little pity on us and provides some sweet surprises.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It's a Dela-Bration

Since our anniversary coincides with the almost-end of summer, we normally plan a little adventure so the silly season ends with a bang, not a whimper. And a plus is a few days away from the ever-worsening traffic (I know, it doesn't even compare with major cities, but that's one main reason we have no desire for the big time). In the depths of winter it's free fun to plan ambitious warm weather vacations; this one is like a little dessert.
For some reason we have only been to the Delaware beaches once; since they are excellent and not far away I don't know why it didn't become a regular destination. Most people head for the Jersey Shore or Ocean City, MD, but that lovely stretch of Diamond State coast has neither the frantic or the trashy aspects of those more popular spots. We picked Rehoboth based on what looked like a good hotel (on an internet search) and took off with Zach in tow (he really needed a vacation for the same work-related reasons Nancy did). And I had a mission.
Years ago we got a nasty sunburn constructing a sand castle complex at Topsail Island, North Carolina, but the burn healed and although the sand toys had been on a basement shelf for many years, I thought it was time to dust them off and play architect again. (Pictures of this year's production above). Being older and a little wiser, we rented an umbrella and saved some skin from poaching.
In the evenings, the brand new boardwalk was fine entertainment, and there was music on the bandstand as well as in many bistros and watering holes. I practiced my chords on the hotel room's balcony, but the noise on the street fortunately drowned out the sound, thus sparing strangers any unnecessary misery. There is fine dining to complement the usual beach fare; we enjoyed a chat with chef and owner Gretchen at her delightfully arty Hobo's, and on our last night went to Zoggo's Raw Bar to hear old Jim the tin pan drum player. Of course, "Margaritaville" was in his repretory. And a huge red snapper sandwich for $10, well, that just made the evening perfect.
We took a break from the sand, but not the water, at Jungle Jim's Water Park, where a waterfall on the Lazy River knocked my sunglasses off and then all of me off the float. Believe it or not, I found them on the bottom at the opposite side, so all that was lost was a little dignity.
So that closes the book on this year's travels, unless certain reprobates gather in Richmond again before winter. Might get the urge for goin' again.