3 Reasons the Standing Rock Sioux Can Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline

Originally posted on yesmagazine.com

Written by Mark Trahant

America has more than 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines crossing the country in every direction. So plans to construct the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline from oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Patoka, Illinois, were supposed to be a nonevent. The regulatory process was largely through state commissions and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and far less stringent than the successfully opposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Just one more pipeline.

On July 25, the Army Corps granted authorization for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, and developers hoped to open the pipeline sometime later this year. It would transport some 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day—roughly half of the Bakken daily oil production—on treaty lands a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objected. The pipeline route threatens the tribe’s drinking water and would disturb sacred and cultural sites, and so the tribal government has opposed the project since 2014.

A couple hundred tribal members went to the construction site on Aug. 12 with a vow to stop the pipeline. And to make that point clear, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault chose to be arrested after crossing into the construction zone. Since that day, hundreds of Native Americans and allies from across the country have been camped near the Missouri River to join the protest. For now, construction has ceased while a court hears the tribe’s suit against the Army Corps for failing to comply with environmental and historic preservation laws.

The tribe makes a strong case based on its treaty and U.S. policy. But no matter what happens in court, there are three reasons the tribe and its allies can stop this pipeline.

First, people are more powerful than dollars.

Through social media, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people from Indian Country and beyond are making plans to travel to Standing Rock to be on that defense line. This is the power of social media, of people in numbers: There will always be more allies. One Facebook post goes up and more people arrive. Everyone who shows up knows that they could be arrested and are willing to be. How many arrests, and how much will that cost the state and the developer? A local county sheriff has warned of violence. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple already issued an emergency declaration to give state agencies funding for “public safety,” which is estimated to cost as much as a million dollars.

But the state is missing the point; this protest is about a competing idea for the future of the planet—and waves of people will show up to make that point.

Second, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe clearly has the moral high ground. An earlier proposal for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota, was scrapped because it threatened the capital's water supply. So the very decision to move the route south was to sacrifice Native communities. A decade ago, even a couple of years ago, that might have worked. But not in the era of social media. People of goodwill easily recognize this injustice.

Third, the most important reason the tribe and its allies can stop this pipeline, is that this is The Moment. There has been for a long time a growing recognition that more oil, gas, and coal need to be left in the ground. Although Keystone was defeated by popular resistance, there were many opportunities in its regulatory path for that to happen. The Dakota Access pipeline is different because the government so easily flipped on the green light. Standing Rock represents the first opportunity people have to take a stand and disrupt business-as-usual.

Once there was a case to be made for pipelines, but that moment was in our history and is now irrelevant. Many hoped there would be an easy transition away from fossil fuels to future sources. But easy transitions rarely happen in history. Instead, industry is hit by a disruptive force that changes everything, and today its name is the Standing Rock Sioux.

 

 

Limitless imagination and physical limits

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

Humans can imagine lots of things. They can imagine angels and demons. They can imagine whole worlds unlike ours with beings unlike us. They can convey these products of imagination in art, in literature and in film.

They can imagine flying machines, armored cars, diving suits, machine guns and human-like robots. Leonardo da Vinci imagined all of them hundreds of years before they became everyday reality. Hero of Alexandria, a Roman citizen and engineer, described a steam engine 1700 years before Thomas Savery obtained the first patent for one.

It didn't occur to the ancient Romans to refine the idea of the steam engine for transport or industrial work. They lacked the imagination for such a move and perhaps the necessity. After all, they had built a thriving empire without the steam engine, and the Mediterranean already offered quick, wind-powered transport to practically any part of the empire.

How do we distinguish those ideas that are forever going to remain in the realm of fiction and those that can become concrete reality? Of those that are possible how do we determine which won't destroy us? Both questions are very difficult ones indeed.

We are "moderns". We believe we have thrown off the burden of superstition and can now see in the clear light of day all the rational possibilities in the world that were previously hidden from our understanding. In this era of enlightenment the rush of invention and the power it has given us have resulted in the conceit that there is no limit to the power we can ultimately have.

That has given rise to an entire genre of fiction we call science fiction. Much of it concerns itself with space travel, particularly encounters with faraway alien civilizations. And, there is some reason to believe, just based on the immense size of the universe, that such civilizations exist even though we have never heard from them.

The science fiction genre and the enormous technological flowering of our age has encouraged the notion that anything we can imagine, we can achieve or invent. With regard to invention, the trouble with imagination as prediction is that if our imagination were vivid enough to detail the workings of a futuristic invention, those details would be tantamount to having created the invention itself.

All too often, we have objects with mere capabilities, but with no specifications. We have energy-matter transporters, but no specifications and no reason to believe based on the laws of physics that there could be any. We have ships that travel faster than the speed of light. There are theories about how to achieve such speeds. But, the amount of energy required is so enormous--by one calculation the energy contained in all the matter of the planet Jupiter to propel a 1,000 cubic meter ship--that it is hard to imagine how such an energy burst, if achieved, would not destroy the object it was trying to propel.

And, here we get to the crux of the matter. The above illustration is probably the most extreme one we could conjure of what actually constitutes technical prowess. Technology requires energy to run. What we've essentially been doing so far is substituting fossil fuel energy for human labor to run the technology that makes us feel so powerful. This has allowed productivity per person to skyrocket in the industrial age, but at a cost. That cost is the rapid depletion of fossil fuels and the climate effects of burning them.

Technology has given us the illusion of increasing "efficiency" in labor, when, in fact, this "efficiency" has been achieved through the wildly inefficient use of energy from the burning of fossil fuels. That inefficiency is the reason we are burning through so much fossil fuel so fast and creating climate change and depletion problems. (I am indebted to Nate Hagens for this insight.)

So, here I would like to propose a check on every "miracle" technology we are expecting in the future to do everything from making work optional (robots) to solving the climate problem (scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide). If the proponent of any yet-to-be-invented or yet-to-be-widely-deployed technology cannot explain where he or she will get all the energy needed to run it at scale in ways that 1) won't destroy the climate and 2) are in accordance with the known laws of physics, you should be very skeptical that it will ever be widely used.

A society that is ruined by climate change will cease to be technologically adept. So far, the best information we have about how to avoid a climate catastrophe is summed up in two principles: 1) Stop emitting greenhouse gases and 2) stop destroying things such as forests which absorb them.

Many of the technofixes which I've seen such as scrubbing the atmosphere of excess carbon involve enormous energy use. I know that the fantasists will protest that we will do all the things we want to do with "clean" energy. They must believe we have a lot longer for such an energy transition than we actually do. And, they likely don't understand the vast differences in energy density between fossil fuels and renewable energy. So far, "clean" renewable energy is only adding to our capacity rather than replacing our existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

The human imagination is an amazing thing. Its expression in literature, music and art can delight us and also be a mirror for our deepest selves. But it can lead us as well to mistake all our internal yearnings--for love, power and excitement--for external possibilities that have technological solutions which may not be possible or which may have serious downsides.

I am not trying to stop innovation. I am only trying to distinguish helpful innovation that betters our chances of survival and increases our overall quality of life from that which only sends us further down the road of climate instability and resource depletion and thus puts our very survival as a species at stake.

Fracking and health: What we know from Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom

Originally posted on theconversation.com

Written by Sara G. RasmussenBrian S. Schwartz, and Joan A. Casey

The fracking industry has been an energy success story: Natural gas prices have decreased as fracking has skyrocketed, and natural gas now produces more electricity than coal does, which has resulted in improved air quality. The first states to begin unconventional natural gas development with fracking have cited potential economic, energy and community benefits.

Yet early on, communities where fracking spread raised doubts. Nearby residents reported a variety of common symptoms and sources of stress. Public health professionals trumpeted their concerns, and epidemiologists launched health studies of the industry. States like Pennsylvania, where almost 10,000 wells have been drilled since 2005, continued development. But other states, including Maryland and New York, have not permitted drilling because of the potential for environmental and health impacts.

Tensions between economic development, energy policy and environmental and health concerns are common in public health’s history. Often, economic and energy development trump environmental and health concerns, leaving public health playing “catch-up.”

Indeed, only recently have rigorous health studies on the impact of unconventional natural gas development on health been completed. We have published three studies, which evaluated birth outcomesasthma exacerbations and symptoms, including nasal and sinus, fatigue and migraine headache symptoms. These, together with other studies, form a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas development is having detrimental effects on health. Not unexpectedly, the oil and gas industry has countered our findings with pointed criticism.

Which exposures and health outcomes to study?

The process of fracking involves vertical and horizontal drilling, often for more than 10,000 feet below the surface, followed by the injection of millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand at high pressures. The liquids create fissures that release the natural gas in the shale rock.

As fracking became commercially viable, oil and gas drilling companies entered communities with shale gas resources, which can have a number of local effects. Communities near fracking operations can experience noise, light, vibration and truck traffic, as well as airwater and soil pollution. The rapid development of the industry can also lead to social disruptionhigher crime rates and anxiety.

These vary during the different phases of well development and have different scales of impact: Vibration may affect only people very close to wells, whereas stress from, for example, concerns about possible water contamination may have a wider reach. Other sources of stress can be an influx of temporary workers, seeing industrial development in what used to be a rural area, heavy truck traffic and concerns about declining home prices.

 

A study found higher rates of asthma for people who lived near bigger or a larger number of unconventional gas wells. asthma via www.shutterstock.com

We have now completed several health studies in partnership with the Geisinger Health System, which provides primary care to over 450,000 patients in Pennsylvania, including many residing in fracking areas. Geisinger has used an electronic health record system since 2001, allowing us to get detailed health data from all patient encounters, including diagnoses, tests, procedures, medications and other treatments during the same time frame as fracking developed.

For our first electronic health record-based studies, we selected adverse birth outcomes and asthma exacerbations. These are important, are common, have short latencies and are conditions patients seek care for, so they are thus well-documented in the electronic health record.

We studied over 8,000 mother-child pairs and 35,000 asthma patients. In our symptom study, we obtained questionnaires from 7,847 patients about nasal, sinus and other health symptoms. Because symptoms are subjective, they are not well-captured by an electronic health record and are better ascertained by questionnaire.

In all studies, we assigned patients measures of unconventional natural gas development activity. These were calculated using distance from the patient’s home to the well, well depth and production, and dates and duration of the different phases.

Our findings and how confident we are in them

In the birth outcome study, we found increased odds of preterm birth and suggestive evidence for reduced birth weight among women with higher unconventional natural gas development activity (those closer to more and bigger unconventional wells), compared with women with lower unconventional natural gas development activity during pregnancy.

In the asthma study, we found increased odds among asthma patients of asthma hospitalizations, emergency department visits and a medication used for mild asthma attacks with higher unconventional natural gas development activity, compared to those with lower activity. Finally, in our study of symptoms, we found patients with higher unconventional natural gas development activity had higher odds of nasal and sinus, migraine headache and fatigue symptoms compared to those with lower activity. In each analysis, we controlled for other risk factors for the outcome, including smoking, obesity, and comorbid conditions.

 

Flaring at a fracked well in northwestern Pennsylvania. One potential cause of health problems, such as asthma, in communities with fracking is higher rates of air pollution. wcn247/flickrCC BY-NC

Psychosocial stress, exposure to air pollution including truck traffic, sleep disruption and changes to socioeconomic status are all biologically plausible pathways for unconventional natural gas development to affect health. We hypothesize that stress and air pollution are the two primary pathways, but in our studies, we cannot yet determine which are responsible for the associations we observed.

As epidemiologists, our data can rarely prove that an exposure caused a health outcome. We do, however, perform additional analyses to test if our findings are robust and eliminate the possibility that another factor we did not include was the actual cause.

In our studies, we looked at differences by county to understand whether there were just differences in the people who live in counties with and without fracking. And we repeated our studies with other health outcomes we would not expect to be affected by the fracking industry. In no analyses did we find results that suggested to us that our primary findings were likely to be biased, which gives us confidence in our results.

Other research groups have published on pregnancy and birth outcomesand symptoms, and the evidence suggests that the fracking industry may be affecting health in a range of ways. Over time, the body of evidence has gotten clearer, more consistent and concerning. However, we would not expect all studies to exactly agree, because, for example, the drilling practices, underlying health conditions and other factors likely differ in different study areas.

How has the industry responded?

Often the industry states that unconventional natural gas development has improved air quality. When describing emissions for the entire United States, this may be true. However, such statements ignore studies that suggest fracking has worsened local air quality in areas undergoing unconventional natural gas development.

A common retort by the industry is that rates of the health outcome studied – whether it’s asthma or preterm birth – are lower in fracking areas than in areas without fracking, or that the rate of the outcome is decreasing over time.

A study of increases or decreases in rates of a disease across years, calculated for groups of people, is called an ecologic study. Ecologic studies are less informative than studies with data on individual people because relationships can exist at the group level that do not exist among individuals. This is called the ecologic fallacyFor example, ecologic studies show a negative association between county-level average radon levels and lung cancer rates, but studies of individuals show strong positive associations between exposure to radon gas and lung cancer.

One reason we used individual-level data in our peer-reviewed studies was to avoid the problem of the ecologic fallacy. So the rates highlighted by industry do not provide any evidence that our findings are invalid.

It’s worth noting that the fracking industry’s practices have improved. One example is the flaring of wells, which is a source of air, noise and light pollution, and has decreased dramatically in recent years. Drilling has also substantially slowed because of the dramatic decline in natural gas prices.

What to consider for the future

All energy choices have positive and negative aspects. Maryland in particular has a decision to make, as its moratorium on fracking ends in October 2017.

We must monitor the industry with ongoing health studies and perform more detailed exposure measurements by, for example, measuring noise and air pollution levels. If we understand why we are seeing associations between the fracking industry and health problems, then we can better inform patients and policymakers.

In the meantime, we would advise careful deliberation about future decisions about the industry to balance energy needs with environmental and public health considerations.

Surplus, Part 3: How Surplus (Wealth) is Created

Originally posted on transitionmilwaukee.org 

Written by Conference Speaker Erik Lindberg

This is Part 3 of a 3 part series on the concept of surplus.  Surplus is one of the most central features of modern industrial and democratic societies.  In fact it is so central and its permanence so taken for granted that it is scarcely noticed and even less understood.  The following installations are my attempt to discuss several of its facets, for the slow disappearance of surpluses, I think,is the cause of great bewilderment.

Overshoot

A few weeks ago I came home from work one day feeling utterly defeated, oppressed by a life-weight that was buckling my knees.  Money was short, jobs seemed ready to go off the rails, and there was no way I could stay on top of all the moving parts.  The driver’s side door of my truck would no longer open due to some sort of malfunction and a day of scooting over a passenger seat full of job folders, miscellaneous tools, and the other refuse of a contractor/carpenter life was making a previously broken wrist ache. 

I looked around at our house and yard and saw the wreckage of a half-completed life.  I’m a third done with a home restoration project that starts when some money comes in and stops when it doesn’t, but going on year three I leave things set up and un-tidied as if to tell myself (and my restive neighbors) that the work is in permanent progress.  The sink was full of dishes, the garbage overflowing, and the living room an explosion of Legos, Lincoln Logs, sticker-books and crumpled artwork.  Dust-bunnies, dirty socks and cheerios huddled along the walls.  Only a fire or a flood. . . (I thought to myself) could solve this problem.  All of this was the results of two overworked parents who, already running large deficits on our own time, also can’t afford the hired help that would be necessary to keep everything put together in the wake of our twin four year olds and their boundless entropy.  This is not what I expected.  This is now how I grew up.

This scene is of course also our own doing and is indicative of quirks and weaknesses that my wife and I share.  But there are aspects in it that also represents a unique moment in American (and probably European) culture today.  For it is not just about a messy house and overwhelmed parents, but a greater sense of a botched life, of having not lived up to our potential, of grinding ourselves into nubs of our former selves without the prospect of relief; we fight our way through the tangled underbrush without hope of finding a clearing or a vista.  This moment is marked by a place where shrinking paychecks cross paths with our expanding hopes and aspirations, leaving so many of us frustrated, angry, looking for answers.  Though  usually misnamed, this moment and its trajectory seems to be all that we talk about, at least during a political season, though without any real understanding.  Because I have been a student of this moment for almost a decade (let’s keep things general for now and call it the changing wealth of nations) I know not to compare my life with the life of my parents, for the wealth of their nation was far different than is ours.   This difference will be my eventual topic, but I think the lived experience of it is a crucial groundwork.

I know not to make this comparison, then but there are moments of defeat or frustration, when everything seems such a hopeless and uncleanable mess, and I look around and feel like a failure as old images from my childhood--of clean and sparkling success--sneak out from their hiding place.

These images represent not only what I lived as a child, they were additionally pounded into the crevices of my being by years simply of living in America, the land of high expectations, where we walk to the uniform drumbeat of forced want and desire.  You can turn away from all this unfortunate cultural training.  You can know that success is not the same thing as having, and that simplicity can be beautiful, and imagine a beautiful and simple life for yourself.  You can read and write and march and protest in order to dislodge these images, bury them in community gardens dug until your fingers bleed;  but some are so deeply embossed on our emotional backdrops, ready always to remake their mark—ready, in my case, for the moment when the façade of my life appears to crumbling.  For when I came home that afternoon I suddenly recalled in the most vivid crystalline light an image of my childhood home, always tidy and well-kept, my parents relaxing in the shade, tendingthe flower garden and reading quietly after supper.  It was an ordered life, lived well and well within its means.  But virtue of this order, it seemed a modest life; and compared to many portrayed on TV and movies as the most idealized kind of American wealth, it was a modest life--comfortable, yes, but without a hint of ostentation.  Their life, in any case, was the opposite of our frantic overshoot.

“Everything I wanted”

My parents did live extraordinary lives of the kind that could only happen in America and during a short and extraordinary time.  From relatively humble, evangelical origins they marched together away from that past to the top of academic ultra-success--my father writing the books, giving the papers, and directing the institutes, my mother hosting the parties and providing a welcoming place for graduate students and new faculty.  They did this without Ivy League credentials or any insider-edge.  In fact they struggled in the early years of academic life to discard their old inherited evangelical bumpkinisms, like confusing sherry for white wine, a crime against humanity in 1960s Ann Arbor.  They were sensitive, honest, and forthright--and faultlessly dependable.  They worked hard and with spectacular diligence.  And, as my father always emphasized, they were lucky.  Especially when two years into his Michigan appointment, a position opened up in the History of Science department at the University of Wisconsin, where he was to spend the rest of his days.

By the time he was my age, he had published a shelfful of books, many translated into dozens of languages; he lectured widely around the world, and was positioning himself for his end-of-career glory, in which he was bestowed with all the honors available in his field.  He was soon to publish the standard textbook on “the origins of Western science.”  He was awarded a Vilas Professorship from the University of Wisconsin and had countless life-time achievement awards from various scholarly societies in the decade before his death.  He was smart, of course, and very hard working.  He was disciplined, organized, a revered teacher and trusted colleague.  He never missed a deadline and his constant productivity was rewarded with a lifetime of summer grants and other funding that allowed us to spend a year in Princeton when I was four, and a year in Oxford when I was a pre-teen, along with countless other stays in various global academic hotspots.[i] 

Because of the accompanying material comfort and stability, theirs was not just the picture-perfect academic life.  It was an upper-middle class life as well, even though we, like most people in America, felt ourselves to be closer to the middle than we actually were.  It was, to be honest about it, a comfortable life of bourgeois consumption, despite the high-culture and socially critical hue to it—entirely ecologically unsustainable despite its ordinary and modest lack of anything considered excessive.  True, we were more frugal than most of our family friends and neighbors, adopting new middle class conveniences like central air-conditioning, color TV, snow blowers, and automatic garage door openers after everyone else we knew had.  And true, as I noted, our consumption often had an edifying angle to it—Europe rather than Disney World, camping rather than amusement parks.  But the sort of “headwinds” that many experienced during the 1970s energy crisis and economic slow-down had no apparent effect on our lives.  The two week summer vacations never ceased, we bought new (if very modest) cars whenever they were needed.  We upgraded from a modest ranch to a larger cape cod style house in 1973, and we took a 5 week European vacation in 1974.  Despite the years of “stagflation,” the research grants (in the humanities no less!) and summer funding never missed a beat during the seventies, nor, for that matter over the course of at least five presidential administrations.  We were nothing if not economically secure.  If life in America might be called super-abundant, it was also ultra-secure.  That we might have a routine crisis (a car breakdown, the need for a new furnace or washing machine, even a kitchen no longer suited to our position in life) and not have the savings to address it immediately was unthinkable.  Life could be well-ordered and tidy in so many inner and external ways because, like a balanced ecosystem (though that it was not) the flows and supplies, the inputs and outputs all seemed to work according to a well-proportioned logic.

I would write a history of the structural tectonics of the 1980s in a much different way than I would describe lived-experience during the Reagan years.  Although my parents believed Reagan was a scourge on the Republic, they also enjoyed rising possibilities at the same time, though without ever understanding the connection.  The vacations became more frequent and more luxurious, the artwork real, the personal indulgences less reserved.  But still they saved staggering amounts of money—at least from my perspective--had long-term care insurance, a place reserved at a very nice retirement village, and were still able to put two children through private college and then graduate school, help with our home purchases, and still maintain large reserves.  My children, sadly (or not), will have none of these privileges.

Like every life, theirs had its turmoil and tragedies and our family had the normal mix of pathologies and dysfunction, resentments and disappointments.   But, at least in my mind, these never characterized the sum of their life.  As my father once commented to my mother, he had managed to get everything he had wanted in life.  This is an extraordinary feat.  The wants were not extravagant, but they were in many ways highly ambitious.  It was a beautiful life that combined hard work and discipline with leisure and enjoyment, intensive days of research and writing, and relaxing strolls by the Madison lakes.  Their access to money is alien to my experience, but even more befuddling is how much spare time they had—time to pursue hobbies, art, culture, and an active social life.  How did my dad write the books, paint the house himself, never miss one of my soccer games, read every night, exercise, entertain, work for hours in his woodshop?  Where did all that time come from?  And where has it gone?

What I Have

I learned a lot from my parents and consider my childhood to have been good training for my current life.  They modeled good parenting, and I always felt loved.  I was granted remarkable intellectual privileges, for we talked and debated and thought for hours on end as a family.  But beyond this, none of what I have been describing is available to me and my family.  To be clear, compared to most of the world, I still enjoy unwarranted privileges, but not with as much ease and regularity as many of my parent’s generations.  Although I have worked hard, especially over the past decade, to curtail my wants and redefine success, there are days in which I feel like a complete failure.  I have not, to put it bluntly, gotten very much of what I wanted, or at least I sometimes feel like that, and I probably should have more trepidation than I do about my family’s material insecurity.

When I set out in 1990 in pursuit of my own Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature, I believed that I had every reason to expect that my future might bear some resemblance to my past.  We could of course quibble with the details but it is safe to say that my father and I have roughly the same general range of natural talent and I benefitted from a life-long academic acculturation that he did not have.  He was more disciplined than I am, but I am probably a bit more creative.  He was more focused on the end-product, while I am probably more attracted to the ideas themselves. He was moderate where I tend to be radical.  But the same sort of life in the academy was not ruled out by some major break in in aptitude, intensity, or motivation. 

As some of my readers are aware, I am a carpenter rather than a professor.  I had some successes in the academic world, including a number or articles in refereed journals and a page full of conference presentations.  But no job.  The life of a carpenter and small business owner, into which I fell backwards, has some marvelous features and it initially provided an interesting sort of relief from the very different competition and status-based world of an academic aspirant.  It allowed me to pursue urban farming, and perhaps a more radical and free-ranging sort of social activism and intellectual work.   I like working with my hands and my body, and have an interesting niche in the local restoration market.  The life of a carpenter has allowed me to feel strong, resilient, and capable.  If I can’t fix it, I know someone who can.  This is a gift in a world where most of us grow increasingly dependent on high-priced experts.  There is much to be grateful here, especially as the University of Wisconsin inches towards systemic collapse.

But this career path was only partially chosen.  There was a time in which I very much wanted an academic job and worked furiously to secure one.  I am at heart more interested in ideas, language, and concepts than anything else, and for the first time in fifteen years yearn for a life that would allow complete dedication to ideas. In graduate school I wrote a very long and intense dissertation on the history of the idea of the unconscious.  Into it was packed all sorts of social and political philosophy, literature, and a focused study on cultural narratives.  I lived and breathed this stuff, and after a few years of practical respite in carpentry, still do.   I had some job interviews after finishing the dissertation—good jobs that I would have been thrilled to accept.  But, for a number of reasons, none of the jobs panned out and I was soon swept away, for a time, by the excitement of building things that pushed the limits of my knowledge and experience almost every day.

The usual path for a graduate student in the humanities looking for a tenure-track job is to become a “lecturer,” which, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a step below the coveted “adjunct professor” position.  The mis-named “lecturer” is a transitional position that, for many, becomes permanent.  It even has a version of tenure, aptly named “indefinite status.”  That means they will probably keep you around as long as enrollments remain high, while those who are not given indefinite status by default have “definite status,” which means they are definitely not going to be kept around for very long.  Marx referred to the industrial equivalent of this as “mobile army of surplus labor,” and the lecturer (or whatever else it is called in other universities) is indeed the university proletariat, the caste my wife belongs to.  

A lecturer in the English department teaches up to four classes (often, because of the low pay, supplemented by another class or two at a community college).  Lecturers do some of the most labor-intensive teaching in the university and often that which requires a level of teaching talent not required to deliver the weekly lecture that many high-ranking professors are permitted; in the English department they work with entry-level students in basic writing classes that involve thousands of pages of writing to be graded and commented-upon each semester.  Although it can be fulfilling (as it is for my wife who loves her students and is revered by them), this is work in the trenches in an institution that is supposed to only have high and broad vistas, and where only merit trumps equality but never at the expense of fairness and respect.  For reasons I will be discussing, the university in America today cannot afford its high principles, nor its lavish grants and light teaching loads.  The low cost of temporary and disposable labor is becoming the financial backbone of the university, just as outsourced labor is used to keep corporate profits aloft.  The wave of retirements (that made job prospects appear promising for my generation of graduate students) resulted less in new tenure-track hires, and more lower-paid and easily eliminated lecturers and adjuncts.  Professors bemoan this situation, but, I should add, are equally unprepared to share their privilege.  They too feel under fire from above.

I opted out of the lecturer track, falling back on my experience as a roofer (where speed, endurance, and focus are proportionally rewarded and at a much higher pay rate than the itinerant intellectual worker) while also finding promise in the growing remodeling industry of the late 90s.  About 8 years later, by which time I had built a small but solid company called Community Building and Restoration, we in the construction industry were beginning to realize that we had been banking on a system of borrowed home-equity money. and had been floating untethered within an exploding bubble economy.

Like most people in my position, I was almost wiped out when the housing bubble popped, found myself laden with unpayable debt, and came out the other side barely limping.  Things have never been the same since.  This isn’t to say that some business models aren’t performing well, as least for now.  But I have given up all former dreams of an upwardly mobile life of a small business man, where I might settle into leisure and comfort as I get older and hand off the harder physical labor work to underlings.  I don’t aspire to this anymore, because I don’t think it is an ethically responsible life, but I couldn’t have it if I wanted it.  There is neither a path from where I am to a parallel version of the life my parents made for themselves, nor for a university-based one secured by my wife, despite her rare talent as a teacher. In fact, there is scarcely much chance for basic economic security in our future.  I hope the university survives and that my body doesn’t break down too soon.  I worry about the next popping bubble, but probably not as much as I should.    

My main purpose in sharing these personal reflections is, perhaps contrary to appearances, to explain the structural tectonics that have fractured the roads to success upon which many in my generation once set out.  My experience, I think, is not entirely unique.  The comparison between me and my parents is largely a generational one.   On a whole, my generation does not live as securely as our parents did and our opportunities are shrinking.  This is born out in the statistics and in the life experiences of many of my peers.  There are of course exceptions.  Those who went into “financial services” live with excessive comfort, as do many physicians and lawyers and people in the “tech industry.”  But for most of the rest of us, whether we work in retail, the trades, manufacturing, as teachers, in most government jobs (the list could go on), the fact that wages have “stagnated” tell only part of the story of slow decline. 

The life of a young university professor, one who did manage to find a foothold into the world in which my father thrived, also provides a good insight into a world I know well, while reinforcing my sense of generational differences.  The university is not funded the way it used to be, and, in addition to the truly beleaguered lecturers and adjuncts, tenured professors are also feeling a pinch.  They can live very comfortable lives, it is true, but the expansive opportunities enjoyed by my father’s cohort have largely dried up.  In the humanities, summer funding is rare, teaching loads are increasing, departments are shrinking, and even tenure is being questioned as the university is being “run more like a business.”

If I am honest with myself, these personal reflections are flavored with own bitter aftertaste.  I admit it—I do have a chip on my shoulder about the university and about the amount of unpaid research and writing I perform in my scarce free-time and for no compensation.  Living in a different generation, my father had more free time to do what he wished after he was done writing, lecturing, and leading seminars than I have to do any reading and writing in the first place.  There is some self-pity (since I’m already opening myself up for dissection, I might as well admit it all) in my moments of defeat, when I just don’t have the time I need to pursue what I value and what might get give me pleasure.  I do, as I have said, sometimes feel like a failure when life has run me down, and when I feel like a failure, I also feel a bit sorry for myself.  So there you have it.  This might all be read as an attempt to come to grips with my own pathetic little feelings.

But this may make it all the more significant, if for no reason other than the wayI have spent the last eight years on what I now think of as a spiritual journey—one bent on understanding not interms of personal entitlement and disappointment, but in structural and historical ones, the changing course of the wealth of nations and especially the American nation.  I don’t believe the world owes me a growing economy and increased consumption.  Just the opposite, in fact—for an economy the size of our current one has already overshot the planet’s biological capacity for production and regeneration.  I know this--and still the lived experience of decline and contraction is more than I can gracefully accept or emotionally process when my back is up against the wall.  My wife and are still only beginning to adjust the reality of our material lives so that we might live within the means we can expect.  We, too, are still in a position of overshoot.

So I’m getting personal, here, because I think the struggles I am able to articulate are ones that others will, though each in their own way, also be required to confront as well—if not now, then in the future.  Feelings, hopes, expectations, disappointments—this is where politics and the economy are lived.  And the changing wealth of our nation will give us a difficult journey.  Or maybe it is not so difficult, per se; perhaps we as a people are unprepared for minor challenges of a certain sort.  In either case,  my own unfinished journey to a new acceptance has taken lots of painful and persistent work and I still have a long way to go.

 And when I see the supporters of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump acting as if their candidate could possibly remake the America that my parents and their generation enjoyed, I see denial and postponement of the inevitable real revolution—one of expectations.  When I see faculty at the University of Wisconsin view their current struggles almost exclusively in personal terms of a bad governor and an indifferent state legislature, I see people who have neither begun to understand nor integrate at the level of lived-experience the great structural and systemic changes in the wealth of nations that are afoot.

I know I risk coming off as smug, here, but that is not my intention, even though (to be honest again) I do feel smug at times.  But I am also afraid.  For if the most educated and most adept at structural and historical thinking among us are not able to translate their own lived-crises into a broader systemic one, then what hope is there for the angry, frustrated and increasingly violent supporters of someone like Trump and all that they represent and portend in a world of decreasing surplus?

 For those readers who have made it this far, I would only ask this: listen to my coming systemic explanation for the sorts of frustrations, worries, and disappointments that so many Americans are experiencing today.  See if it makes more sense than the usual explanation, in which America is suffering a temporary setback at the hands of bad governance or a false ideology or those on the other side of the political divide.

Wild Democracy: A Biodiversity of Resistance and Renewal

Written by Community Solutions fellow Samuel Alexander

Originally posted on simplicitycollective.com

I’ve just published a new Simplicity Institute Report, called “Wild Democracy: Resistance and Renewal”. The introduction is available below and the full report is available here

With characteristic insight, the great American philosopher, John Dewey, once wrote: ‘Every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself.’ His point was that, at each moment in history, citizens and nations inevitably face unique challenges and problems, so we should not assume the democratic institutions and practices inherited from the past will be adequate for the conditions of today. Our ongoing political challenge, therefore, is to ‘accomplish’ democracy anew, every generation. 

It seems we have forgotten Dewey’s lesson. Too often we assume instead that democracy is something that has been achieved already, once and for all. Why do we need to reinvent it? Indeed, in the wake of a recent federal election (in Australia), it is easy to be seduced back to the comfortable unfreedom of the shopping mall or withdraw into the existential numbness of social media or television, believing that, having voted, our political work is done. The task of governing is now in the hands of our so-called ‘representatives’. That’s what political participation means in a market capitalist society, doesn’t it?

This is, of course, an impoverished, even dangerous, conception of democracy, which we propagate by way of casual apathy at our own peril. It is government of the people, certainly, but not government by the people and increasingly not for the people. Accordingly, with a deferential nod to Dewey, below I offer an outline of a new political orientation, sensibility, and practice – a position I call ‘wild democracy’. In a global tide that seems to be drifting enthusiastically toward ecocide and fascism, wild democracy signifies a radical and participatory eco-egalitarian politics that seeks to take root beyond the tired parliamentary distinctions of Left and Right, but also beyond (and yet between) the antagonistic but enriching poles of anarchism and Marxism. As I will explain, wild democracy is a localised politics with a global perspective, positioning itself ‘in the wild’ beyond the state and yet, at times, pragmatically engaged with the state. In short, wild democracy is a revolutionary politics without a Revolution, as such – a paradox I will unpack and defend below.

The full report is available here.

Climate Change Begins Now (Even if We are Unprepared)

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

Written by Community Salutations fellow Kurt Cobb

As record floods swept away whole villages in China and India in the month just past, I was reminded that climate change activist Bill McKibben likes to say, there is Earth and then there is Earth.

The first planet is the one most of us grew up on. It had a stable climate, generally friendly to bumper harvests; it was usually safe because of reasonable precautions against floods and droughts; and it was conducive to persistent economic growth that was supposed to lead to material prosperity for all.

Then there is Eaarth, a forbidding planet with a climate in chaos, one shifting constantly in ways that threaten life and property with too much rain or not enough--with drought that makes Western forests mere tinder and rainfall that makes Chinese and Indian farms and cities into lakes.

Climate change used to be about the future. Its bad effects were going to be visited upon those who come after us. But we have consistently underestimated the pace and impact of human-caused climate change from the day in 1896 when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first theorized about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

Now, climate change has arrived. Some like to call it climate chaos because it changes the climate in different places in different ways and at different rates. One thing we do know. The climate we grew up with is no longer.

That implies that our entire infrastructure of roads, rails, cities, farms, dams, in fact, nearly everything may be inadequate to the challenges posed by climate change. Our first priority ought to be securing the food we will need. That will mean developing better drought and flood resistant crops. In fact, it will mean rethinking all of agriculture which is now based on an industrial model implemented during a period of exceptional climate stability from the end of World War II through the end the last century.

This one task is daunting all by itself. And yet, we must also now think anew about rivers and levees; seawalls and relocation of cities; the viability of water sources including the sea itself (through desalinization).

We imagine wrongly that this rethinking is a mere engineering problem. We believe we will simply find technology that overcomes the problems created by climate change. But even if we do--and that is by no means certain since those problems aren't presenting themselves in an orderly and timely fashion--technology is not free. We will find it very, very expensive simply to protect our current ways of doing things rather than change them to accommodate climate change.

Let's look at some examples:

Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from one source, Lake Mead, the lake formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada-Arizona border. Because of an ongoing drought in the southwestern United States, one that began 15 years ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority came to fear that Lake Mead would fall below the authority's current two intakes leaving Las Vegas largely without water.

The cost of a now-completed third intake tunnel was $817 million. A companion pumping station scheduled for completion in 2020 will cost an additional $650 million. That's $1.47 billion for one additional intake for one city.

Despite this, water may be rationed starting next year if lake levels don't stabilize.

Oh, but wait, there's more. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the operators of Hoover Dam, are replacing turbines that generate much of Las Vegas's electricity because the current ones might not work as the lake level continues to decline. No cost estimate was provided.

When it comes to taking the train, you may decide not to if a climate change enhanced heat wave is in progress and likely to cause "sun kinks"in the tracks. These are deformations or bucklings resulting from exceptionally high heat. Derailments from this cause are already on the rise. What would it cost to make existing railroad tracks kinkproof? We don't know, but it's bound to be a lot. (By the way, taking the car won't be a solution as similar suddenly appearing buckling in roads can send cars flying. Not all kinks are as benign as the one I've linked to.)

Of course, sea level rise will be an enormously costly problem for the more than 2 billion people who live within 60 miles of a coastline. The Dutch have been holding the sea at back for centuries and have the most advanced and nuanced plan for addressing ongoing sea level rise. It isn't one that just holds the water back, but rather, in part, works with nature to provide for the natural ebb and flow of water.

The Dutch are good at engineering, too. They invested $3 billion in the so-called Europoort (sic) barrier that protects Rotterdam. That was 20 years ago, and so costs would be much higher today.

All these costs are in addition to mere maintenance of existing infrastructure for which the United States, for example, has already gotten a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ASCE estimated that just restoring the existing U.S. infrastructure to acceptable working order would cost $3.6 trillion by 2020. Many other countries have done a better job. But it's hard to see how the world's poor countries could both keep up with necessary maintenance AND build additional or enhanced infrastructure to meet the rigors of climate change.

Understandably, it's hard to plan when you have a wall of water coming at you as villagers in China and India experienced in recent floods. Both countries are faced with huge bills for an emergency response to what are turning out to be historic floods.

Right now humanity is like a patient without medical insurance or a doctor, one who visits the emergency room every time something serious goes wrong. That's a costly practice as is merely reacting to the inevitable catastrophes that climate change is now inflicting and will inflict upon us in the future. That said, it may be just as costly, though wiser, to prepare for climate change.

An Updated Version of the "Peak Oil" Story

Originally posted on ourfiniteworld.com

Written by Gail Tverberg

Reprinted with permission

The Peak Oil story got some things right. Back in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote an article published in Scientific American called, “The End of Cheap Oil.” In it they said:

Our analysis of the discovery and production of oil fields around the world suggests that within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand.

There is no single definition for conventional oil. According to one view, conventional oil is oil that can be extracted by conventional methods. Another holds it to be oil that can be extracted inexpensively. Other authors list specific types of oil that require specialized techniques, such as very heavy oil and oil from shale formations, that are considered unconventional.

Figure 1 shows the growth in unconventional oil supply for three parts of the world:

  1. Oil from shale formations in the US.
  2. Oil from the Oil Sands in Canada.
  3. Oil characterized as unconventional in China, in a recent academic paper of which I was a co-author. (Temporarily available for free here.)
Figure 1. Approximate unconventional oil production in the United States, Canada, and China. US amounts estimated from EIA data; Canadian amounts from CAPP. Oil prices are yearly average Brent oil prices in $2015, from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Approximate unconventional oil production in the United States, Canada, and China. US amounts estimated from EIA data; Canadian amounts from CAPP. Oil prices are yearly average Brent oil prices in $2015, from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Oil prices in 1998, which is when the above quote was written, were very low, averaging $12.72 per barrel in money of the day–equivalent to $18.49 per barrel in 2015 dollars. From the view of the authors, even today’s oil prices in the low $40s per barrel would be quite high. Since the above chart shows only yearly average prices, it doesn’t really show how high prices rose in 2008, or how low they fell that same year. But even when oil prices fell very low in December 2008, they remained well above $18.49 per barrel.

Clearly, if oil prices briefly exceeded six times 1998 prices in 2008, and remained in the range of six times 1998 prices in the 2011 to 2013 period, companies had an incentive to use techniques that were much higher-cost than those used in the 1998 time-period. If we subtract from total crude oil production only the production of the three types of unconventional oil shown in Figure 1, we find that a bumpy plateau of conventional oil started in 2005. In fact, conventional oil production in 2005 is slightly higher than the later values.

Figure 2. World conventional crude oil production, if our definition of unconventional is defined as in Figure 1.

Figure 2. World conventional crude oil production, if our definition of unconventional is defined as in Figure 1.

I would argue that far more crude oil production was enabled by high oil prices than I subtracted out in Figure 2. For example, Daqing Oil Field in China is a conventional oil field, but greater extraction has been enabled in recent years by polymer flooding and other advanced (and thus, high-cost) techniques. In the academic paper referenced earlier, we found that the amount of unconventional oil extracted in China in 2014 would be increased by about 55%, if we broadened the definition of unconventional oil to include oil made available by polymer flooding in Daqing, plus some other types of Chinese oil extraction that became more feasible because of higher prices.

Clearly, this same kind of shift to more expensive extraction methods has occurred around the world. For example, Brazil has been attempting to extract oil from below the salt layer of the ocean using advanced techniques. According to this article, Brazil’s “pre-salt” oil production was expected to exceed 600,000 barrels per day by the end of 2014. This oil should count, in some sense, as unconventional oil.

Massive investments in the Kashagan Oil Field in Kazakhstan were enabled by high oil prices. Some initial production began, but was discontinued, in September 2013. Production is expected to resume in October 2016.

There are clearly many smaller fields where higher extraction was made possible by high oil prices that allowed oil companies to utilize more advanced techniques. Deepwater drilling also became more feasible because of higher prices. Another example is Russia, which is reported to have heavy oil extraction that would not be commercially feasible if oil prices were below $40 to $45 per barrel. If we were to add up all of the extra oil production in many areas of the world that was enabled by higher prices, the total amount would no doubt be substantial. Subtracting this higher estimate of unconventional oil in Figure 2 (instead of the three-country total) would likely result in more of a “peak” in conventional oil production, starting about 2005.

Thus, if we think of conventional oil production as that which is possible at low oil prices, the forecast by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère was pretty much correct. Production of conventional oil did seem to peak about 2005 or shortly thereafter. We simply don’t have the data to estimate how much we could have extracted, if oil prices had remained low. Furthermore, oil prices did rise substantially, relative to 1998 prices, making Campbell’s and Laherrère’s forecast of higher prices correct.

I suppose that we could even say that if conventional oil were all that we had in 2005 and subsequent years, supply would have fallen far short of demand, based on Figure 2. This last statement is somewhat debatable, however, because there would have been other feedbacks, as well. It is possible that if total supply were very short, oil prices would have spiked to an even higher level than they really did. The resulting recession would likely have brought prices down, and temporarily brought demand back in line with supply. If prices had stayed low, there might have been a second round of shortages, with an even greater supply problem. This, too, might have been resolved by another price spike, quickly followed by another recession that brought world demand back down to the level of supply.

Of course, conventional crude oil isn’t the only type of liquid fuel that we use. When we add all of the pieces together, including substitutes, what we find is that since 1998, broadly defined oil production (“liquids”) has been rising quite rapidly.

Figure 3. World Liquids by Type. Unconventional oil is from Exhibit 1. Conventional oil is total crude oil from EIA, and other amounts are estimated from EIA International Petroleum Monthly amounts through October 2015. (EIA’s category “Other Liquids” is referred to as Biofuels in Figure 3, since this is its primary component. Other liquids also include coal and gas to liquids and other small categories.

Figure 3. World Liquids by Type. Unconventional oil is from Exhibit 1. Conventional oil is total crude oil from EIA, and other amounts are estimated from EIA International Petroleum Monthly amounts through October 2015. (EIA’s category “Other Liquids” is referred to as Biofuels in Figure 3, since this is its primary component. Other liquids also include coal and gas to liquids and other small categories.

In fact, since 2005, Figure 4 shows that the single highest year of growth in oil production (broadly defined) was 2014, with 2.47 million barrels per day. (This is based on crude oil data from EIA Beta Report Table 11.b, plus values for other liquids from EIA’s International Energy Statistics. Annual amounts for 2015 were estimated based on data through October.)

Figure 4. Increase over prior year in total oil liquids production, based on EIA data. 2015 other liquids amounts estimated based on data through October 2015.

Figure 4. Increase over prior year in total oil liquids production, based on EIA data. 2015 other liquids amounts estimated based on data through October 2015.

Figure 4 shows that the increase in oil supply in 2015 is almost as high as in 2014. The 2005 to 2015 period shown indicates a lot of “ups and downs.” The only two high years in a row are 2014 and 2015. This would seem to be at least part of our “oil glut” problem.

Exactly by how much oil production needs to increase to stay even with demand depends upon price–the higher the price, the smaller the quantity that buyers can afford. At a price of $100 per barrel, a reasonable guess might be that about 1 million barrels per day in consumption might be added. If categories other than crude oil are increasing by an average of 440,000 barrels per day, per year (based on data underlying Figure 4), then crude oil production only needs to increase by 560,000 barrels per day to provide an adequate supply of fuel on a total liquids basis.

If production of crude oil is actually increasing by more than 2.0 million barrels per day  when only 560,000 barrels per day are needed at a price level of $100 per barrel, clearly something is badly out of balance. According to EIA data, the countries with the five largest increases in crude oil production in 2015 were (1) US  723,000 bpd, (2) Iraq 686,000 bpd, (3) Saudi Arabia 310,000 bpd, (4) Russia 146,000 bpd, and (5) UK 106,000 bpd. Thus, US and Iraq were the biggest contributors to the global glut in 2015.

What Is Going Wrong?

Not only did a lot of people hear the Peak Oil story, a great many responded at once. Governments added requirements for more efficient vehicles. This tended to lower the quantity of additional oil supply needed. At the same time, governments added mandates for the use of biofuels, also reducing the need for crude oil. Arguably, the US-led Iraq war, which began in 2003, was also about getting more crude oil.

Oil companies also rushed in and developed oil resources that might be profitable at a higher price. These new developments often take more than ten years to produce oil. Once companies have started the long path to development, they are unlikely to stop, no matter how low oil prices drop.

It is becoming apparent that if oil prices can be raised to a high enough level, a lot more oil is available. Figure 5 shows how I see this as happening. We start at the top of the triangle, where there is a relatively small quantity of inexpensive oil, and we gradually work toward the expensive oil at the bottom.

Figure 5. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

Figure 5. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

The amount of oil (or for that matter, any other resource) isn’t a fixed amount. If the price can be made to rise to a very high level, the quantity that can be extracted will also tend to rise–in fact, by a rather large amount. The “catch” is that wages for the vast majority of workers don’t rise at the same time. As a result, goods made with high-priced oil soon become too expensive for workers to afford, and the economy falls into recession. The result is prices that fall below the cost of production. Thus, the limit on oil supply is not the amount of oil in the ground; instead, it is how high oil prices can rise, without causing serious recession.

While wages don’t rise with spiking oil prices, increasing debt can be used to hide the problem, at least temporarily. For example, cars and homes become less affordable with higher oil prices, since oil is used in making them. If governments can lower interest rates, monthly payments for new homes and cars can be lowered sufficiently that new car and home sales don’t fall too far. Eventually, this cover-up reaches limits. This happens when interest rates start turning negative, as they now are in some parts of the world.

Thus, by ramping up buying power with low interest rates and more debt, governments were able to get oil prices to stay above $100 per barrel for long enough for producers to start adding production that might be profitable at that price. Unfortunately, the amount of additional oil demand isn’t really very high at that price. So, instead of running out of oil, we ran into the reverse problem–too much oil relative to the amount that the world economy can afford when oil prices are $100+ per barrel.

The attempt by governments to fix the oil shortage problem didn’t really work. Instead, it led to the opposite mismatch from the one we were expecting. We got an oversupply problem–a problem of finding enough space for all our extra supply (Figure 6). Unless we have infinite storage, this pattern clearly cannot continue forever.

Figure 6. Weekly ending stocks of crude oil and petroleum products through July 29. Chart by EIA.

Figure 6. Weekly ending stocks of crude oil and petroleum products through July 29. Chart by EIA.

Eventually, this oversupply problem is likely to result in “mother nature” cutting off oil production in whatever way it sees fit–oil prices dropping to close to zero, bankruptcies of oil companies, or collapses of oil exporters. With lower oil supply, we can expect recession.

Misunderstanding the Real Problem

In the early 2000s, the story that Peak Oilers came up with (or perhaps the way it was interpreted in the press) was that the world was “running out” of conventional oil, and that this would lead to all kinds of problems. Oil prices would rise very high, and oil depletion would take place over a long period, as shown in a symmetric Hubbert Curve. As a result, at least small quantities of additional energy products with high “Energy Returned on Energy Invested” (EROI) were needed to supplement the energy products that would be produced based on the slowly depleting Hubbert Curve. Our oil supply problems were viewed as a unique situation, calling for new and unique solutions.

In my view, this story came about through over-reliance on models that likely were accurate for some purposes, but not for the purpose that they later were being used. One of these over-extended models was the supply and demand curve of economists.

Figure 7. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

Figure 7. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

This model “works” when the goods being modeled are widgets, or some other type of goods that does not have a material impact on the economy as a whole. Substituting high-priced oil for low-priced oil tends to make the economies of oil importing countries contract. This effect indirectly reduces demand (and thus prices) for many products (not just oil), an impact not considered in the simplified Supply and Demand model shown in Figure 7. Also, the very long lead times of the oil industry are not reflected in Figure 7.

Two other models that were used beyond the limits for which they were originally designed were the Hubbert Curve and the 1972 Limits to Growth model. Both of these models are suitable for determining approximately when limits might be hit. Even though Peak Oilers have believed that these models can accurately determine the shape of the decline in oil supply and in other variables after reaching limits, there is no reason why this should be the case. I talk about this problem in my recent post, Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers. Thus, for example, there is no reason to believe that 50% of oil will be extracted post-peak. This is only an artifact of an overly simple model. The actual down slope may be much steeper.

The Real Story of Resource Limits that We Are Reaching

Instead of the scenario envisioned by Peak Oilers, I think that it is likely that we will in the very near future hit a limit similar to the collapse scenarios that many early civilizations encountered when they hit resource limits. We don’t think about our situation as being similar to early economies, but we too are reaching a situation of decreasing resources per capita (especially energy resources). The resource we are most concerned about is oil, but there are other resources in short supply, including fresh water and some minerals.

Research by Joseph Tainter and by Peter Turchin indicates that some of the issues involved in previous resource-based collapses are the following:

Growing Complexity. Citizens who discovered they were reaching resource limits typically tried to work around this problem. For example, hunter-gatherers turned to agriculture when their population grew too large. Later, civilizations facing limits added irrigation to raise food output, or raised large armies so that they could attack neighboring countries. Making these changes required greater job specialization and more of a hierarchical system–two aspects of growing complexity.

This increased complexity used part of the resources that were in short supply, since people at the top of the hierarchy were paid more, and since building new capital goods (today’s example might be wind turbines and solar panels) takes resources that might be used elsewhere in the economy. Eventually, growing complexity reaches limits because costs rise faster than the benefits of growing complexity.

Growing Wage Disparity. With growing complexity, wage disparity became more of a problem.

Figure 8. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

Figure 8. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

I have described this problem as “Falling Return on Human Labor Invested.” Ultimately, this seems to be a major cause of collapse. Workers use machines and other tools, so this return on human labor has been leveraged by fossil fuels and other energy resources used by the system.

Spiking Resource Prices. Initially, when there is a shortage of food or fuel, prices are likely to spike. A major impediment to long-term high prices is the large number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy (Figure 8) who cannot afford high-priced goods. Thus, the belief that prices can permanently rise to high levels is probably false. Also, Revelation 18: 11-13 indicates that when ancient Babylon collapsed, the problem was a lack of demand and low prices. Merchants found no one to sell their cargos to; no one would even buy human slaves–an energy product.

Rising Debt. Debt was used to enable complexity and to hide the problems that people at the bottom of the resource triangle were having in purchasing goods. Ultimately, increased debt was not successful in solving the many problems the economies faced.

Ultimately, Failing Governments. Governments need resources for their purposes, whether hiring armies or making transfer payments to the elderly. The way governments get their share of resources is through the use of tax revenue. When people at the bottom of the hierarchy were cut out of receiving adequate resources (through low wages), the amounts they could afford to pay in taxes fell. Governments would sometimes collapse directly from lack of tax revenue; other times collapses occurred because governments could no longer afford large enough armies to defend their borders.

Ultimately, Falling Population. With low wages and governments requiring higher tax levels to fund their programs, people at the bottom of the hierarchy found it difficult to afford adequate nutrition. They became more susceptible to plagues. Loss of battles to neighboring countries could at times play a role as well.

Lessons We Should Be Learning

Even if we made it past peak conventional oil, there is likely a different, very real collapse ahead. This collapse will occur because the economy cannot really afford high-priced energy products. There are too many adverse feedbacks, including increasing wealth disparity and the likelihood of not enough revenue for governments.

We can’t count on long-term high prices. The idea that fossil-fuel prices will gradually rise, and because of this, we will be able to substitute high-priced renewables, seems very unlikely. In the United States, our infrastructure was mostly built on oil that cost less than $20 per barrel (in  2015 dollars). We know that with added debt and greater complexity, we were temporarily able to get oil to a high-price level, but now we are having a hard time getting the price level back up again. We really don’t know how high a price the economy can afford for oil for the long term. The top price may not be more than $50 per barrel; in fact, it may not be more than $20 per barrel.

We need to look for inexpensive replacements for both oil and electricity. Many substitutes are being made to produce electricity, since indirectly, electricity might act to replace some oil usage. There is considerable confusion as to how low these prices need to be. In my opinion, we can’t really raise electricity prices without pushing economies toward recession. Thus, we need to be comparing the cost of proposed replacements, including long distance transport costs and the cost of adjustments needed to match electric grid requirements, to wholesale electricity prices. In both the US and Europe (Figure 9), this is typically less than 5 cents per kWh. (In Figure 9, “Germany spot” is the wholesale electricity price in Germany–the single largest market.) At this price level, producers need to be profitable and to pay taxes to help support governments.

Figure 9. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from http://pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/references/pfb_towards_50_pct_wind_in_denmark_2016_03_30.pdf

Figure 9. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from http://pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/references/pfb_towards_50_pct_wind_in_denmark_2016_03_30.pdf

Replacements for oil need to be profitable and be able to pay taxes, at currently available price levels–low $40s per barrel, or less.

We need to be careful in aiming for high-tech solutions, because of the complexity they add to the system. High-tech solutions look wonderful, but they are very difficult to evaluate. How much do they really add in costs, when everything is included? How much do they add in debt? How much do they add (or subtract) in tax revenue? What are their indirect effects, such as the need for more education for workers?

We need to be alert to the possibility that solar PV and most wind energy may be energy sinks, rather than true energy sources. The two hallmarks of providing true net energy to society are (1) being able to provide energy cheaply, and (2) being able to provide tax revenue to support the government. When actually integrated into the electric grid, electricity generated by wind or by solar generally requires subsidies–the opposite of providing tax revenue. Total costs tend to be high because of many unforeseen issues, including improper siting, long-distance transport costs, and costs associated with mitigating intermittency.

Unless EROI studies are specially tailored (such as this one and this one), they are likely to overstate the benefit of intermittent renewables to the system. This problem is related to the issues discussed in my recent post, Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers. My experience is that researchers tend to overlook the special studies that point out problems. Instead, they rely on the results of meta-analyses of estimates using very narrow boundaries, thus perpetuating the myth that solar PV and wind can somehow save our current economy.

Too much debt, and too low a return on debt, are likely to be part of the limit we will be reaching. Investment in complexity requires debt, because complexity requires capital goods such as wind turbines, solar panels, computers and the internet. The return on this additional debt is likely to drop lower and lower, as complex solutions are added that have less and less true value to society.

We need to remember that as far as the economy is concerned, it is total consumption of energy resources that is important, not just oil. Wages reflect the leveraging impact of all energy sources, not just oil. If energy consumption per capita is rising, more and better machines can help raise output per capita, making workers more productive. If energy consumption per capita is falling, the world economy is likely moving in the direction of contraction. In fact, we may be headed in the direction of early economies that eventually collapsed.

When we look at the data, we see that world energy consumption per capita appears to have peaked about 2013. In fact, the big drop in oil and other commodity prices began in 2014, not long after energy consumption per capita hit a peak.

Figure 10. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

Figure 10. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

The world seems to have hit peak coal, because of low coal prices. In fact, falling coal consumption seems to be the cause of falling world energy consumption per capita. Whether or not most people regard coal highly, coal is pretty much essential to the world economy. A recent decrease in coal consumption is what is pulling world energy consumption per capita down. We do not have any other cheap fuel to make up the shortfall, suggesting that our current downturn in energy consumption (shown in Figure 10) may be permanent.

Figure 11. World and China appear to be reaching peak coal.

Figure 11. World and China appear to be reaching peak coal.

We should not be surprised if the financial problems that the world is now encountering will eventually resolve badly. This seems to be how the Peak Oil story will finally play out. Without rising energy per capita, the world economy tends to shrink. Without economic growth, it becomes very difficult to repay debt with interest. Wealth disparity becomes more and more of a problem, and it becomes increasingly difficult for governments to collect enough revenue to support their needs. Our problems begin to look more and more like those of earlier economies that hit resource limits, and eventually collapsed.

The New System Series: Volume 3

Written by Gus Speth

Originally posted on thenextsystem.org

In The New Economy: A Living Earth System Model,David Korten contrasts what he calls the self-destructing “suicide economy” we have and a “living Earth economy” that self-organizes toward ecosystem health and balance, shared prosperity, and living democracy. He calls for a system transformation that shifts power from global corporations to largely self-reliant and deeply democratic, self-governing, bio-regional living communities. Korten further argues that we cannot look to the corporations that created and benefit from the failed system to now transform that system. His priorities for system transformation include a new story of human possibility and purpose, a new economics that values life over money, a legal system that secures the rights of nature and people over the presumed rights of corporations, and a radical restructuring and redistribution of ownership. He sees leadership coming, as he believes it must, from social movements with a shared vision of unrealized human possibility.

In The Good Society, Henning Meyer argues that a values-based, social democratic system, with a mixed economy, holds considerable promise as a new model, and as the mechanism to change the current system. Meyer’s envisioned system “seeks to combine an activist cosmopolitan outlook on global issues with a re-foundation of social democracy’s communitarian roots.” At the core of the proposed changes is how policies are created. According to Meyer, we need to adopt a “transformative policy approach,” one that places politics over economic interests and focuses on transparency, inclusivity, democratic decision making, and global connectivity and solidarity. At the economic level, Meyer advocates for the adoption of diverse ownership models, including models that better fit the production of public goods. Financial markets and institutions must also be transformed to serve social purposes, explains Meyer. In addition to the values-based approach, Meyer claims that a “conducive regulatory environment,” along with trade unions, is crucial to combat economic inequality and the challenges of a digital era.

In Democratizing Wealth in the U.S. South, Ed Whitfield presents the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) vision for a next system based on communal ownership of productive assets. As Whitfield explains, the goal of the new system must be total economic democracy and community control over production, in order to place “the wealth created by human labor back into the commons for the benefit of all.” Focusing on the grassroots level, Whitfield advocates for a structural change in ownership, with cooperative associations and democratically managed community groups owning productive assets, and public financial institutions controlling and owning surplus values and investments. Examples of F4DC’s proposed system include experiments in community ownership and community-as-developer in the US South, site for past and ongoing crisis, along with reparations to be paid to communities that have been “systemically stripped of the wealth produced within them,” outlines Whitfield.

Finally, in Start With Worker Self-Directed Enterprises, Richard Wolff describes a next economic system centered on worker-directed cooperatives. According to Wolff, to transition to a non-capitalist system we must change the “who and the why of key economic decision making.” To do so, Wolff proposes changes at the “basic enterprise level” by “making workers their own bosses.” Through the creation of Worker Self Directed Enterprises (WSDE), workers become responsible for democratically deciding – one worker, one vote – how to divide up the tasks to be performed, what, how, and where it is to be produced, and how to use and distribute net revenues or profits. In making these decisions, WSDEs – working along with democratic organizations of residential communities – would consider matters in addition to just profit such as health, community wealth, and solidarity. According to Wolff, the “growth and proliferation” of WSDEs represents both the goal for the next system and the mechanism through which we will transition to it.

The Next System Project’s “New Systems” paper series seeks to publicize comprehensive alternative political-economic system models and approaches that are different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present, and capable of delivering superior social, economic, and ecological outcomes. The introduction to the series and a full list of New Systems papers published to date can be found here.

Gus Speth

Co-Chair, Next System Project

On Surplus--What is Wealth?

Originally posted on transitionmilwaukee.org

Written by conference speaker Eric Lindberg

Community Solutions is featuring the writing of several conference speakers in the lead up to the Charting a New Course Conference! This is part two of a series. Read part one here!

I want to start with a couple of images. 

In late autumn of 1620, the Europeans we now celebrate as the Pilgrims stumbled on to shore near what is now Provincetown Massachusetts after over two months at sea.  Were it not for the additional stumbling that led to fresh burial mounds festooned with maize, the settlers would likely have starved to death right there and then.  But a little grave-robbing is always justified under extreme conditions.  Bellies filled, and seeds gathered in an impressive act of foresight, the Pilgrims then proceeded to “Plymouth.” There they worked for a few months to build a half-dozen ramshackle European style cabins, ordered all the single men and women in the group to marry so they might bunk-up and save cabin space, and proceeded to hunker-down for the remainder of an unhappy winter.  By spring, when “friendly Indians” finally decided to make contact, half of these settlers were dead.  Weak in body but still strong in spirit, or so we are likely to assume, the survivors had somehow managed to secure a second European foothold along the East coast of North America.

Natives of the area were by then already acquainted with Europeans from decades of trading along the Eastern seaboard.  They were aware of the Europeans’ basic incompetence with a number of remedial life-skills, and with their awful stench.  The undignified manners of these pale and hairy people, as well their unpredictable temper, had been impressed on the native population, who must have been puzzled at their uncanny ability to nevertheless survive repeat-trips into a netherworld beyond the horizon and back, or with their inexplicable competence at making copper pots, sailing ships, and muskets.

I imagine the wonder and amazement, touched perhaps with a bit of compassion, as the locals looked on in horrified curiosity as this maladapted settlement of smelly, hairy, human-like beasts attempted to survive a winter with almost no food or provisions—and of their disbelief that they would rather attempt another go-around than return to the land of copper pots and explosive weaponry.  The God’s, indeed, must be crazy.  As Charles Mann has suggested, the reason that this group was permitted to stay--in violation of a newly-formed practice of the various East-coast tribal confederates of sending Europeans on their way after the trading was done--had to do mainly with local inter-tribal politics. After wave upon wave of these stealing, lying, and cheating people continued use the Pilgrims’ initial foothold to stumble across the beaches and into the woods so that they might extend their cluster of strange and ill-adapted houses, allowing them stay was probably seen as a mistake. Everyone would have been far better-off if this sick and emaciated band of the half-living were pushed back into the sea from whence they came.[i]

History hardly has time to blink and it is 1900.  The whole continent has been swept-free of its natives along great trails of tears, leaving only small groups living in “reservations,” often far from their native hunting grounds, barely more healthy than the first settlers must have appeared when they staggered into the spring sun after their long winter of misery and death.   America, by now, is settled by white people from coast to coast, and is entirely ruled by their laws.  Wars have been fought, the buffalo is gone, and a canal is to be dug across the American isthmus so that, what?--that the same show might go on, only at a more frantic and restless pace?  My home, Milwaukee, is one of the new nation’s great industrial centers, where the wondrous successor technologies of copper pots and misfiring muskets is produced with great noise, smell, and fury.  Milwaukee was, by then, was sometimes to be referred to as “the machine shop to the world,” where the precise tools of the global industrial machine were crafted.

Where I more specifically have my home, now the adjacent suburb of Shorewood, is still mainly unsettled in 1900, but its population of thee-hundred votes then to split off from Milwaukee, then calling itself East Milwaukee.  By 1924, when our strangely small 800 square foot Dutch Colonial was built, Shorewood had received its current name and many of its current houses.  These, mainly larger and far more luxurious than ours, were the destination of a growing owner and managerial class from Milwaukee’s many tool and die makers, fabricators, and other industrialists, in addition to the upper echelons managers from some of its larger corporations who are looking to move out of the noisier and smellier confines of the city.

For as part of Shorewood’s 1917 charter, when it received its current, more pastoral name, is the promise of a “place to live and relax, free from any reminders of agriculture and industry.” It is a place where one goes to forget.  Shorewood was a wealthy place, and, like today, it doesn’t want to think about where its wealth came from.  Then, its residents were hiding from the smells, the noise and disruption, and the babble of foreign voices from the factories floor.  Now, perhaps under the guise of “good schools,” even the most “progressive” among us are here are keeping Milwaukee’s racial divide at arm’s length, perhaps imagining that we live in some sort of creative global knowledge economy where anyone can become a tech wizard or an internet entrepreneur.  Shorewood is effortlessly wealthy--wealthy without pretension.  From the larger mansions directly on the lake, it is true, one might witness the crisp and punctual early-morning emergence of shimmering BMW SUVs and polished exotic sports car, heading off to some private parking lot somewhere near downtown.  But myShorewood is more a haven for computer programmers and other “tech” people living in some permanent “casual Friday” fantasy, the home of middle-management on its way up, dignified professors, liberal doctors and lawyers, all living in what TV or the movies portray as very normal and modest American lives.  Of course we don’t want to be reminded of where our wealth comes from.  We are embarrassed even to be called wealthy; that this is one of the most “liberal” communities in all of Wisconsin is a far more appealing justification for our way of life.

And just as our garbage cans, toddler toys, and lawn care implements are, according to well-enforced village codes, kept neatly out of sight, so also does Shorewood still aspire in its mainly unwritten social codes to be free from all reminders of industry and agriculture.  Global capitalism is a brutal and ugly business, unless you stick closely to its glittering packaging and carefully penned copy.  No one wants to be reminded of it these days--even while at work, where offices are now modeled after a high-end coffee shop; nor do its higher-achievers want to gaze from front porch or patio towards the service economy that stands ready and waiting to help, but preferably just out of view.

Enough people like me and my wife have managed to sneak in (and we are reproducing!)—by this I mean the sort of people who may have had a nerve touched by the description of disappointment and decline that I offered in Part 1.  There are, after all, apartment buildings and duplexes in Shorewood, and one can never control all the variables there.  Most of this lumpen-bourgeoisie fringe is able to keep up appearances well enough to blend in without too much notice, our quiet desperation hidden behind taupe vinyl siding and second hand shabby-sheik clothing.  The middle-class in America is a strange designation: while more than half of all Americans consider themselves middle-class, the life they aspire to is preserved for a far more exclusive top 20% or so. That of course leaves a tremendous rank of our citizenry living in a way far beneath what it believes itself entitled to.   Shorewood is a haven for the 20%, but with just enough of us high expectation aspirants mixed in to keep things interesting.

Where Did All the Money Go?

One of the comforting upshots of the response to Part 1 of this series “On Surplus” was to hear how many others feel in some general way or another like I do.  No one likes truly to be alone.  For most of us, the actual feelings of failure are only periodic or episodic; but a sense of not living up to our dreams or expectations still plays a substantial role in the happiness and wellbeing of many Americans in the generations following the baby-boomers.  One particularly thoughtful comment came from my friend and colleague and Transition Milwaukee, Jessica Cohodes, who noted that while millennials still live in their parents’ basement with more or less self-acceptance, our generation straddles the gap between millennials and their parents.  Because I am in the midst of a home renovation and addition project, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d rather live in my parents’ basement than work myself to death trying to build my own version of it for my kids.

While the emotions I discussed in Part 1 are difficult in their own way, and involve some dedicated life-work, this installment will demand a different sort of difficult work for those not already familiar with the discourse surrounding the limits to growth or peak oil—namely conceptual work.  I will contrast these new concepts to the ones we are familiar with—namely the standard set of concepts and assumptions that we in the industrialized West use to explain wealth and poverty.  We use the same concepts and assumptions to predict the future, as well as control it with policies or investments.  While these familiar concepts are complex in their own way, our knowledge of them has seeped into our consciousness over years and years.  Like compound interest (or lead from our drinking water), our assumptions about wealth and abundance accrue gradually and without much work. 

The luxury of slow accrual is not available, here.  For in a relatively short space, I’m going to argue that these--let’s call them “mainstream concepts”--are mainly mistaken, and, at the same time, introduce a better, alternative set, that will explain where we are today and where we might go tomorrow.  In thirty years these new concepts will, I think, have seeped into general consciousness, but for now this sort of conceptual change involves some focus and work.

If our general question is What is Wealth and Where Did it Go?  We might approach the conceptual change I’m discussing in two steps.  First is the general question we ask when we are feeling like it is harder get by these days or when we are feeling that many of our childhood dreams have become impossible to obtain; second is the more specific terms we use to ask and answer these questions.  The most common way of addressing this frame of mind today is to ask, “Where has all the money gone?”  And this is a perfectly expected sort of question that a young auto-worker might ask when he or she enter the assembly line, today, with less than half the pay that senior workers enjoy; or that young university professors might ask when it is announced that they have to teach an extra class for the same pay, or when they realize mid-semester that they covering the cost of their own photocopying out of pocket.  This isn’t how things used to be.  “Why the change?  Where has all the money gone?”  But this, it turns out, is the wrong question.

Before I suggest an alternative question that we might instead ask, and propose an alternative set of terms we might use to ask it, I’d like to first note that that our contemporary political debate is, if you think about it, largely focused on the question, “where did all the money go?”  That, after all, is what Donald Trump is getting at when he promises “to make America Great Again,” or what Bernie Sanders is referring to with his talk of a “rigged economy” (which it may, nevertheless be) that is directing increasing wealth towards the already rich.  Both sides ask the same question, but each gets a very different answer and, importantly, an answer that makes discussion and compromise all the more difficult.  Republicans and conservatives, for their part, tend to argue that all our riches have been taxed away and put into wasteful government programs.  Liberals, in contrast, argue that instead of investing our money in useful things (like education, research, and infrastructure), so that we might enjoy a profitable return, it has been put in the hands of an economic elite--one who lives in shameful luxury while risking the national treasure on foolish investment schemes. 

But this description of the divide refers to our current politics as its best.  For the relatively civil question: “where did all the money go?” all too easily becomes the more irascible: “who took my money?”  Then we are off to the races, whether your answer is welfare mothers or Mexican immigrants, or Wall Street Bankers and Washington insiders.

American politics, in other words, feeds on the resentment and confusion caused by the sense that our previous, and normal, level of wealth has disappeared—that money we are entitled to as hard working Americans who are playing by the rules is now in someone else’s pocket.  With ever-increasing threat to our Republic, our politics preys upon a belief that has come to be considered almost a law of nature: that each generation should be wealthier and have more opportunity than the previous one.  Only a great heist or near complete lapse in public morals of the most terrible kind, the reasoning goes, could tip the earth from its axis of permanent progress.

One of the many advantages to the new way of seeing that I will be presenting is that it might just get us beyond contemporary political gridlock.  I am often struck by the way our political gridlock is blamed on the “other” side.  “If only they would see how ridiculous their beliefs are, we could all move forward according to sensible policies.”  Rare are the moments when anyone stops to consider that our gridlock may be explained by a more simple explanation—that neither side has a useful answer, nor is their one lying ready in the middle ground lying between them.  Both sides remain equally confident, nonetheless, that their shared questionis the right one—some version of, “where did all the money go?”  Neither side is stupid.  But both sides do lack the political imagination to get beyond the historical crossroads we passed miles ago—and perhaps for the simple reason that this crossroad marked the end of the two sides as they have been divided for the past century.  Keeping the show going, apparently, has been more important than reflecting upon our changing times.

This, however, may change as more people are in fact articulating their feelings of loss and disappointment in mature and reflective ways.  Though so, too, are more people ready to become armed and dangerous.

The Right Question

But what if we ask this question instead: “Where did all the money come from in the first place?”  What paid for all those opportunities and growing luxuries that seemed to fall into our parents’ laps, but not ours?  Not, then: “Why do new autoworkers only make $15/hour?”;  but: “What permitted their predecessors to make so much more (adjusted for inflation) in 1970?  Not: “Why do I have to teach three classes every semester?”  But: What stroke of magic, good luck, or unexpected windfall made it possible for a $70,000 a year professor to be assigned, for a time, only two classes per semester? Who paid for this, and why?  Asking such questions is not to say that I believe in a simple way that the past privileges enjoyed by the generations preceding mine were necessarily ill-begotten.  But it is to remind us that there is no law of nature saying that a 2/2 teaching load is an inherent promise of an evolving humanity.   In any case of current or former prosperity, the money to pay for it came from somewhere.   And now, for many ordinary white people in Europe and America, it doesn’t appear to be “there” anymore.  This “somewhere” was, and mainly remains, invisible and forgotten--and invisible or forgotten origins have a tendency to make a state of affairs seem natural or inevitable.  But if we look closely at where the great wealth that my parents’ generation had (and still maintains) came from in the first place, only then might we get a good sense where it may have “gone” and whether we should expect to repeat past achievements.

Changing the question from “where did all the money go?,” to “where did it come fromin the first place?,” is an improvement, to be sure.  But we’re still not all the way there.  To push us further, I’m going to make a suggestion that may be initially difficult to comprehend, for I’m going to propose that we stop talking about wealth in terms of money; to talk about wealth and its disappearance in terms of money, I will later show, is misleading.  Money is not the same thing as wealth and the very concept of money creates a fog that obscures a much longer and clearer view of history.  As long as we talk about the wealth of nations in terms of how much money there is to pay workers, to finance infrastructure, service debt, spend on vacations, mortgages, and new cars, or to invest in the future, we will be stuck with the sort of answers we see coming out of American politics today—“who took my money?” 

What other way is there to discuss such things except in terms of money?  This is where we get to the title of my series, for I propose that we talk about the wealth of nations, and also intergenerational change and disappointments, as well as all the other things we tend to think about in monetary terms, with another word—namely, surplus.  To answer the question of Part II’s specific title, wealth is surplus.

The Long View of Things

So let’s talk about surplus.  As a sort of heads up, note that it may not be immediately apparent what advantage is gained by talking about surplus instead of money, as the term money might be substituted back into many of my examples without much obvious effect; though with some careful reflection the difference may begin to take shape.  The advantage gained by a change in terms will truly reveal itself when we start re-posing questions about change and ask “where did all the surpluscome from and where did it all go?”  This will be the main subject of our third installment, so we’re going to have to wait a little while to see the full value of the concept of surplus while we explore it here in a more preliminary way and according to a “long view” of history. [ii]   One main advantages of using the concept of surplus (rather than money) that becomes visible right up front, however, is that it allows us a broader historical range:  using the concept of surplus allows us to compare the modern condition to past ones.  It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to say that the Mayan empire collapsed because they didn’t have enough money.   The Mayans did not have a financial crisis and a boatload of cash would not have helped them with their soil fertility problems; nor would we say that the inhabitants of the Easter Islands spent too much of their money on elaborate statues.  But both civilizations did, however, have a crisis of declining surplus.  The same sort of crisis of declining surplus, many will be surprised to learn, is occurring in the industrialized world today, even as we are unable to see this clearly through the cloud of money we are throwing at it, with so much vitriol and fanfare.

One of the main lessons of Anthropology 101 is that societies become wealthy, and then complex (and ultimately modern), only when they learn how to amass and store large amounts of food, and eventually other things.  This usually involves the storage of grain.  The grain that was stored, in turn, was always a surplus--not needed, in other words, for immediate, day to day, survival.   Once a group of people had stored and saved food at-the-ready, everything changes. 

In a pre-agricultural society, in contrast to the ones we call “advanced”—namely, hunting and gathering societies—obtaining food was a daily challenge that required the successful effort of almost every one of society’s members.  Sure, some days the hunt may have gone well and rest may have begun earlier, while on other days the best hunters may have toiled late into the evening.  But quick and successful hunts did not generally result in wealth as we understand it, but more likely a few extra hours of leisure.   For wealth involves the accumulation of a surplus.  There were relatively few ways to store food before the transition to a grain-based diet; storage was something impractical, moreover, for nomadic hunters and gatherers.  Wealth would have been considered a burden, which, perhaps, it is.  Without surpluses, nonetheless, there was little opportunity for personal ambition or social stratification into elites and non-elites, for ambition and stratification require the ability to distribute (or not) stored wealth.  

The historical record supports this explanation.  Prior to the development of complex societies with accumulated surplus a mere ten thousand years ago, human cultures were generally egalitarian and internally homogeneous.  Everyone lived in a pretty uniform way; there were no classes or castes, no rich and no poor; no lawyers, house cleaners, professors, minimum wage workers, or regional supply managers, nor was there a fashion industry designed to help us identify ourselves as rich or poor, traditional or irreverent, liberal or conservative, prudish or adventurous.  There were no Democrats and no Republicans arguing whether society should share more or less of its surplus across its social stratifications and amongst its various occupations, nor debating whether we needed to “move forward” towards increased social heterogeneity, or instead “look back” and honor some our previous forms of stratification.

This contrast between an egalitarian low-surplus society and a hierarchical high-surplus one can often be made only by studying a single civilization evolving across history, or at least by viewing two very different time-periods.  However, and quite recently, two “eras” of human development crossed paths on a mass scale on our own continent of North America, and with the awful results I hinted at above.  Although earlier inhabitants of what we now call “New England” combined agriculture with hunting and gathering, they were not interested in amassing surplus.  The whole European experiment in North America, starting with our humble Pilgrims, in contrast, has been an exercise in cornering an increasing percentage of the whole world’s surplus.

Diana Muir nicely describes the difference in Reflections on Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England.  On the one hand, she explains, “here was a people who hunted, or picked, or raised everything they needed.  Indians lived secure in the knowledge that so long as rivers flowed to the sea and trees grew in the forests, they and their children would have warm lodges to live in, warm skins to wrap themselves against the cold, and plenty to eat.  Accumulating more coats than a family could wear or more pots than were needed for cooking was worse than pointless: it was burdensome.”  In contrast to this simple[iii] and highly-adapted ecology-based economy, on the other hand, were the white settlers coming ashore in increasing numbers, bringing with them ship after ship full of stuff: “Englishmen viewed the world in a quite a different light.  Against life’s vicissitudes, with the ever pressing need to provide for one’s children, the constant striving for social position, the always threatening possibilities of financial loss, a bad harvest, or an investment gone sour, one could never pile up too many goods.  Wealth was the shining prospect that beckoned every man forward; sufficiency, a thing no Englishman could attain.”[iv]  Even though one can draw a pretty straight line from these white settlers to Walmart, or the 2008 financial collapse, or the life-threatening emission of greenhouse gasses, it is widely believed that theirs was the superior way of life.

This, of course, is not to say that starving white settlers had an easy go of it, nor that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture automatically ensured societal or individual wealth—an imperial and colonial mindset, however, certainly helped things along, as would the regular appearance ofsailingships from over the horizon.  But, especially with its focus on the production of dried grains, agriculture did make wealth possible for a simple reason: now surplus could be stored, and from here a whole chain of causal accumulation might be anchored.  If your relatives back in Europe are hunters and gatherers, you can pretty much know in advance that they will not have much to send you.  When environmental or technological conditions were favorable and a people were able to grow more food than they needed, all sorts of new options are suddenly available.  With increased agricultural productivity, the food and fiber required for subsistence might, in effect, be grown in half a day.  The other half-day could be devoted to the production of storable or tradable food, or to devising better ploughing techniques or selecting hardier cultivars or building better ships and sending supplies to your more adventurous kinfolk.  Or the surplus time could be devoted to art, song, astronomy and mathematics, or even hours frittered away playing Grand Theft Auto or writing a blog with a readership of a few dozen. 

This is a nice image of an egalitarian division of labor and leisure split equally across a society so that everyone may work only half a day on necessities and spend the other half pursuing leisure, study, or ambition.  It probably only existed in Marx’s vision of communist society, in which, as he dreamily put it, I might “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic” (The German Ideology 160).  Needless to say, though Marx says it anyways, such a paradise of self-actualization requires “an existing world of wealth and culture,” which, in turn, “presupposes a great increase in productive power” (161).  This fantasy is not the stuff of a subsistence culture, which may nevertheless provide some bucolic images for Marx’s model, but certainly not the optional nature of it it which only existed in Marx’s pliant mind.  Historically, as Marx is well aware, with the rise of surpluses most people ended up working all day (and in many cases far more hours than their ancestors) in order to provide enough surplus so that another section of society might be free to spend their entire day on astronomy, with their concubines, managing grain production and distribution, breaking away from the Church of England, or coming up with fanciful stories that would keep the workers willingly at work.  Without these workers and their “surplus labor,” moreover, we would not have seen the rise of the modern university nor academic institutions like sabbatical, which is designed to give the over-worked professoriate an opportunity to periodically refresh mind, spirit, and curriculum vitae.

 What we proudly think of as advanced industrial societies are ones in which a decreasing percentage of the population is responsible for procuring the food and energy required by the rest of society.

When an extreme few can produce enough surplus so that their whole society can enjoy a degree of security against hunger and destitution, there is no telling what wonders and terrors the remainder of society might be able to produce.  Such a society, we might imagine, could even save its brave Pilgrims with a fully televised helicopter rescue the moment their pangs of hunger begin in earnest[v].  It takes a lot of surplus, at any rate, to devote a substantial sector of society to waiting around in a comfortable hangar in case anyone runs amuck in some or another self-imposed adventure.

We are at the point, now, where we can replace the usual definition of wealth as having lots of money, with a definition based on surplus.  A wealthy society is one with a large surplus at its disposal, and the larger the surplus the wealthier the society.  Societal wealth always begins with efficient or super-abundant agriculture, as Betty Meggers pointed out long ago. [vi]   A similar definition could be applied to individuals or families as well.  A wealthy person is one who has a lot left over after basic requirements for living have been squared away.   Wealth, then, refers to all the goods, services, knowledge, social practices, and refinement that a society or a person is able to amass or consume after basic necessities have been met.   The objects of wealth, themselves, are also surplus objects in that they are not necessary, whether we are talking about elaborate burial rites, separate bedrooms for each family member, a special suit of clothes set aside for special occasions, regular access to entertainment, a new BMW matching all the other ones in your law firm’s parking lot, or even a safety and security industry devoted to saving members of society not necessary for its ongoing survival as a whole. 

Vacations and retirement, both of which are assumed in our society as a sort of basic human right, are two of the more interesting examples of surplus.  Vacations, for their part, require an entire “tourism industry,” which doesn’t actually produce anything, but rather helps collect and redistribute a society’s surplus (the very notion of a “global service economy” is silly at best; without having the language to describe it, it imagines even more expansion in surplus to the point where almost no one is required to produce necessities and everyone else is free to service each other).  But even more basic than the existence of a tourism industry is this: the ability to take time away from work implies that your work is productive enough to support your needs for the time you spend away from it.  We take this for granted, but as for any hunters and gatherers, most nineteenth-century farmers could scarcely afford to go a week without working (even as their work helps support a nascent “leisure class”).  Of course the same goes for a larger underclass of contemporary Americans than most of us are likely to keep in mind.  On the farm there was always too much to do, and for workers working pay-check to pay-check, today, the ability to stay a half-step ahead of rent, grocery costs, and car payments is all that most can manage. 

Retirement--an extended multi-year vacation if you think about it--is even a more pronounced expression of surplus.  Looked at without its air of normalcy in our high-surplus society, retirement is an astonishing feat: to be able to stop working and yet still have enough stored grain (so to speak), or the means to buy it from others, for five, ten, now even twenty or thirty years, requires a substantial amount of surplus production during working years.  Those who enjoy long and comfortable retirements are able to live, and often live lavishly, by setting aside perhaps as much as half of what they “produced” while working.   Again, the idea of a hunter-gatherer, or even a farmer prior to the last century or so, being able to simply stop pursuing game or producing food for a decade or more would have been inconceivable, even as the extended family structure may have compensated for the slowing production of older members of society.  Or to put it another way, without a societal surplus, as well as a personal one, the large savings account which affords years of leisure become implausible.

Surplus Morality

The existence of a large societal surplus also creates a new set of values, as well as life goals.  The difficulties I wrote of in Part 1 referred, when it comes down to it, merely to the adjustments one has to make as society goes from one of increasing surpluses to ever-so slightly decreasing ones.[vii]  The constant creation of “more” is the opiate of Liberal societies.  At any rate, something similar to the previous transition from frontier subsistence farming nation to our leisure society is occurring, now in reverse, in contemporary society.  My parents had to work fewer hours than I to gain access to more.  The nation’s surplus was, at that time achieved more easily and required less work than it does today, and this surplus was consequently doled out more freely to Americans as part of some “great society.”[viii] For my grain elevators to be as full as my parents’ would require an inconceivable amount of work at my current rate of production.  It seems that they must have had hundreds of slaves to create so much long-term stored bounty.  I’m lucky if I have a few weeks’ extra supply, while they could keep an entire village from hunger for years.

 Why this change is occurring will be the subject of the next installment.  Here, we might note that in our society there are a wide and rarely questioned set of social norms, a sense of fashion, even a moral code surrounding the appearance and manifestation of surplus.  Simple things, like the suntan as a fashion statement has been a way of saying “I don’t have work all the time,” while what we used to call “a farmer’s tan,” the sort of markings a sensible person who was hard at work with a shirt on might receive from the sun, was an object of scorn.[ix]  Indeed most modern social and aesthetic norms are meant to mark someone’s relative freedom from labor and access to surplus.  The manicured lawn is another such statement with distinct moral overtones: I don’t have to grow food; I can control nature; I have time or money enough to hunt down lone dandelions. 

These moral overtones are made more explicitly visible if you contrast the row after row of thoughtful and creative landscaping in my village of Shorewood with the look of a poor semi-rural neighborhood, perhaps in Appalachia (as our stereotypes might have it) that might be strewn with washing machines, rusty trucks, and piles of defunct machinery.  Are these people just ill-kempt or lazy?  Are they lacking all sense of decorum or aesthetics? Have they no self-respect?  Such questions, implicit in our judgments about us and them, make sense only from within dialect of high-surplus.  A more general vocabulary sees the differences of surplus.  For as the owner of the junkiest house in Shorewood, I can say with some first-hand knowledge that waste disposal costs money and clean-up takes time; after a back-breaking day of physical labor, neither moving that old tractor nor landscaping the lawn has as much appeal as a cold Budweiser.  If, on the other hand, you sit at a desk all day managing complexity, and come home from work at 4:00, garden work might provide a nice and simple transition to the evening pleasures of a good meal and a nice glass of wine.  And if your high-powered job has too many demands, there is always the lawn service (peopled by an invisible set of low-surplus workers whose lawns might resemble mine).  Both the time to do it yourself or have someone do it are of course signs of a surplus, while the junky front yard may a symptom of having little time or money left-over after first order necessities have been paid for.

It is no wonder, then, that my own urban homestead, and others like it, cause an occasional stir.  And to be fair, I should note that part of the controversy surrounding our landscaping may have to do not only with the relatively minor disarray I bring into the neighborhood, but my focus on growing food in front and back yards.  Our front yard, a gently terraced hill, is given over to a large strawberry patch, two apple trees, and two pear trees.  The area just in front of the house normally reserved for decorative shrubs is used for tomatoes, kale, carrots, and green beans.  I’ve been meaning to build a stone retaining on our side of the neighbor’s retaining wall, but who has $500 for a load of rocks?  At one point some of my neighbors may have been pleased to see the arrival of some large decorative boulders (salvaged from some excavation)—the start, perhaps, of some serious hardscaping.  But these are scattered on the hill to create warm microclimates with their solar mass for my crop of squash and pumpkin, which are allowed to spread across the grassy/weedy areas from their warm compost-filled holes and mounds.

Urban agriculture has, since we helped introduce it here some eight or so years ago, become nearly as hip as the Starbucks coffee grounds made conspicuously available for our compost piles.  But no one has yet to prettify a rusting pickup truck with only one operable door.  Though one rarely thinks consciously of it like this, I believe it goads people mainly because it is a reminder of the world that is supposed to halt at Milwaukee’s city limits (though some neighborhoods to our south would certainly be as inhospitable as my Shorewood one)—a reminder of agriculture and industry, and, in short, of where surplus comes from (and who has the most of it).  Shorewood trades in clean and discrete monetary transactions, and ones with more zeros than average or than the world can sustain. From this tidy and well-kept perspective, there is little incentive to think much about where the money really comes from, other than the standard “good job,” “hard work,” “smart investment,” upon which a good liberal might maintain some pride.

As evidence, consider the way I have arrived at work at least four times only to be greeted by a message on my company answering machine (the number taken off my truck door) complaining that my truck was parked in front of their house, usually just around the corner from ours (and only when someone has a party or celebration and the street parking right in front of us fills up).   The emphasis, regardless of the complainer, has always been that it is a “commercial truck.”  This was true even ten years ago, when it was new-looking and rust-free.  Currently (indignity upon indignity), I have two giant sixty-gallon tanks of spray foam insulation and two nitrogen tanks of pressurizer standing upright in the bed of my truck.  Even I have to admit that it all looks ungainly out of place, even when partially shielded behind the front yard sprawl of pumpkin and squash, the overgrowing strawberry patch, and scattered edible weeds like lambsquarters run wild.  Spray foam insulation is a centerpiece of the “green economy” that is furiously, if somewhat desperately, promoted in places like this.  But chemical tanks just plain look ugly.   No one wants to see these, any more than an oil storage depot, as part of their immediate landscape.  This is more than some of my neighbors can take: the timing with which I have become the object of at least one neighbor’s silent fury is a bit too exact to be a matter of coincidence.

It occurred to me, as I was trying to wrap this installment up, that I have a strange sort of reverse identification with the Pilgrims.  They were trying to begin a higher-surplus life amidst the wildness of a sprawling continent for which, at the time, they were entirely unsuited.  They would have been far better-off with fewer copper pots and more foraging skill.  They and their descendants turned the wilderness into surplus so that they would not have to adapt.  In contrast, my wife and I are trying (with more or less consciousness) to live a low-surplus life amidst a high-surplus community.  There are times in which we seem as ill-adapted to our local ecology as the Pilgrims were to theirs.  They nearly killed themselves off trying to build silly wood-frame houses during their first winter, when a hand-woven hut would have done much better; we live in a silly wood-frame house (which I amkilling myself to enlarge) when all we can really afford is a hand-woven hut.  This is grossly hyperbolic, to be sure, but there is a sense in which my time spent picking squash-borer eggs off my pumpkin plants would be far better spent making “real” money—in ways with both practical and symbolic consequences.  Having the highest soil fertility on the block does not pay the village taxes, for it does not create surplus—and surplus, not sufficiency, is clearly the local currency.

As part of my reverse-identification with the Pilgrims, then, here’s a final image.  Just as they emerged stumbling from the ocean, I imagine the original (pre 2006) Shorewood population pushing me and my kind into Lake Michigan as a sort of reverse reenactment of the all-American Thanksgiving tale of the friendly and helpful natives.  This, of course, is what Native Americans should have done to the Pilgrims before they destroyed everyone’s peace and tranquility, as well as the pleasing sight-lines of the local landscape. Perhaps I’ll suggest this dramatic (re)enactment for our annual neighborhood Thanksgiving pageant. I might also mention that as the economic world tips further off its previous access, there may be a more general landslide in this direction.

[i] See Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[ii] In the meantime, we might begin by noting that modern economics has proceeded without much consideration of surplus, even though high surplus is one of the most significant conditions of the modern era that modern economics has attempted to explain.  The same is true of our politics and well nearly all our primary cultural assumptions, including what it means to live a good, happy, or moral life.  Adam Smith, it is true, did argue that the wealth of nations has little to do with how much gold was held in the royal coffers.  Instead, he suggested, wealth had to do with how much in the way of goods and services a nation could produce.  Though he doesn’t discuss this issue explicitly, he is in a sense suggesting we talk about surplus rather than money.  But after Smith “solved” the basic problem of wealth, a high and growing level of surplus is assumed in subsequent political and economic discourse, to the point that no one feels too compelled to talk much about the general conditions making a high level of surplus possible (this being the starting point), focusing instead on tweaking the system or bettering our predictive abilities.  Or to put it in reverse, modern technology, we assume, has solved the problem of scarcity—as experienced, for instance, by the Pilgrims, who today would enjoy a televised helicopter rescue.

Marx presents a rather interesting semi-alternative to the assumption of permanent and invisible surplus.  Marx found great perspective by standing on the shoulders of Smith and Ricardo, but was, in so doing, handed a great number of their assumptions, especially the belief that we might permanently expect high aggregate surplus.   Marx, unlike his “bourgeois” counterparts was not willing to permit this surplus to be invisible.  He was very concerned with the “surplus labor” of the worker, and thus thought a great deal about value and its distribution in general.  Surplus labor was the amount of value (goods and services) workers created beyond that necessary to sustain themselves.  Marx’s point, of course, is that the worker was not permitted by the rules of capitalism to keep much, if any, of this surplus—only enough to “reproduce himself,” as Marx would put it.  Owners, in other words, would pay the bare minimum necessary to make sure there would be living and breathing workers the next day.    The surplus created by the worker was, instead, used to make the capitalist wealthy and provide for him his luxury and finery.  

Marx of course wanted to redistribute our social surpluses in ways, we need to admit, that have been partially accomplished by liberal society, especially during its mid twentieth-century peak.  But like the most doctrinaire capitalist, Marx never waivers from the assumption that we might take for granted an extremely high level of surplus in modern society and that this level of surplus might be permanent.  At heart, he was a progressive, and believed that humanity had solved the problem of scarcity once and for all by way of a few eternal technical leaps.  The common belief that poverty is indicative of a heist (and only a heist), or at least a rigged economy, owes much to Marx, one of the great theorists of modernity operating from its inside.

But as I have mentioned a few times, one of the characteristics that makes modern society “modern” is the assumption of high surplus and, importantly, an inability to doubt its permanence.  In order to gain perspective on this feature of the present, and thus think about surplus in a more basic way, we need to get beyond modern economics and its handmaidens, and turn to archaeology and anthropology.  Here, the rise of the surplus society that most everyone considers permanent and beyond question is a major point of discussion. As an aside, let me say that I am grateful to my high-modernist education, for I am able to clearly see its flaws up close and personally; but if I were to do it again, I would study anthropology for the sake of its long view of history, where we are able to consider the rise of civilization, per se, and imagine its possible fall

[iii] In the sense of simplicity and complexity used by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies—namely homogenous lifestyles and occuptions in a non-stratified fairly egalitarian society.

[iv] Muir, Diana.  Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (Lebanon NH: The University Press of New England, 2000), p. 32.

[v] Of course to be realistic about it, we have to admit that any such Pilgrims would be characters in some reality TV show with some contractual clause about mandated conditions of rescue.

[vi] “The level to which a culture can develop is dependent on the agricultural potentiality of the environment it occupies.” Quoted in Mann, p. 332.

[vii] Which is why we need not only to buck-up, but pay attention too, so that we might prepare ourselves for a steeper decline.

[viii] Of course it is not as simple as this and there is no easy algorithm by which we can make comparisons.  We have less than my parents, even though I can perhaps put more computing power in my pocket than my father’s first university had at its entire disposal.  Our expectations have changed, and we have more digital information, more crappy stuff from Target that will last only a year than my parents ever might have had.  Yet they were able to save enough of their surplus to have all this plus their memories of more simple times in which a new black and white TV receiving four channels was a great technological leap.

 

[ix] Before the modern outdoor leisure culture, a suntan of any sort was a sign, in contrast, of having to work and was something people tried to avoid.  The social statement that a suntan makes might be attributed to the decline of agricultural labor and the rise of indoor labor, such that a low-surplus person who worked a lot was likely working inside and thus was pale.  The rich kids, in other words, were able to hang out on the beach all summer, while those of lesser means might take a summer job in a factory or office.

 In all honesty, I have taken some dramatic liberties with my descriptions, here.  A great many of my Shorewood neighbors are lovely people, and a great number of my low-brow friends do just fine in these environs.  However, though some of my descriptions may not fully represent the larger picture, none are fabricated and there is, at the very least, a serious undertow of surplus morality as I depict it here.

Oil Price and Economic Growth Get Married

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

It used to be that when it came to the world economy, oil prices and economic growth were more like distant cousins who disliked each other rather than a happily married couple always seen nuzzling together in public. The received wisdom was that low oil prices are good for the overall economy even if they are bad for the oil industry and for countries that are heavily dependent on oil for their revenues.

That's what many believed when suggesting that even though high oil prices and an attendant oil boom had underpinned economic recovery in the United States after the 2008 financial crash, low oil prices would now somehow on balance deliver even more recovery. And, low prices would also benefit the rest of the world as well.

Nowadays, as the oil price dips into the low $40 range again and economic growth weakens simultaneously, we must re-evaluate. U.S. economic growth declined significantly after oil prices began to fall in 2014. Only last week, U.S. growth for the second quarter of 2016 came in at 1.2 percent (annualized), less than half the forecast of 2.5 percent. First quarter growth was revised down to 0.8 percent from a previous estimate of 1.1 percent. That's down significantly from a peak of 5 percent growth for the third quarter of 2014, the last quarter during which the price of oil was over $100 per barrel.

World economic growth instead of speeding up, slowed down slightly from 2.6 percent in 2014 to 2.5 percent in 2015 according to the World Bank.

There are many reasons for the subpar growth of the world economy since the Great Recession. Record average daily prices for oil four years running from 2011 through 2014 helped sap the world economy of its strength by siphoning funds from the non-energy economy.

Of the other causes, chief of among them is the heavy buildup of private and public debt which may be hindering growth by siphoning funds from consumption and investment into debt service. In the first quarter of this year, U.S. credit growth was $644.9 billion. U.S. gross domestic product growth was $64.7 billion. It took $10 of credit growth for every $1 of GDP growth. There was a time long, long ago when the ratio was 1 to 1.

China's credit growth had been running twice its GDP growth through the end of last year. (I don't have dollar or yuan amounts.)

Debt isn't necessarily a bad thing if one uses it to invest in something that will produce goods or services rather than merely to consume. But much of our debt creation has been exactly for consumption. That isn't particularly bad either if we as individuals, nations or a world society can afford to service that debt. But there is a level we cannot afford and it stunts growth. To get a better understanding of how too much debt is affecting economic growth around the world, listen to economist Steve Keen explain why debt matters and how the rate of credit creation affects growth. You may need to watch it twice before you get the "aha" moment.

But let's look further now into the relationship between debt and energy to find out more about why oil prices seem much more correlated to the health of the overall economy than they used to be.

First, oil remains the central energy source for the world economy, especially critical as transportation fuel. It provides 33 percent of total energy according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Second, our desperation for additional sources of oil led to a debt-fueled boom in the United States, debt used by drilling companies to reach deep shale deposits and release oil found in them through a new version of hydraulic fracturing called high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing.

It turns out that the low oil prices of today make these deposits largely unprofitable and production has been falling. Many of the high-flying drillers during the boom are now in or headed for bankruptcy.

Debt, it must be remembered, is simply a way to bring what would be future consumption into the present. We have brought energy consumption from the future into the present with debt through the fracking boom in the United States and to a certain extent the boom in oil sands in Canada. And, we've shifted consumption of so many other natural resources and finished goods from the future to the present through the vast expansion of private and public debt.

Still, we are faced with slower world economic growth than in the past despite our herculean financial efforts. The simple explanation is that cheap energy was the cornerstone of growth of the industrial economy. As long as that energy was cheap, we could grow at a relatively rapid pace. Once it becomes expensive, growth must decline for most sectors of the economy as more and more resources are sent to the energy sector.

By this logic then today's low prices should be providing substantial stimulus to the global economy. Why are we not feeling it? The short answer would be that the debt we built up procuring expensive energy during a period of high and rising energy prices over the last 15 years is holding back economic growth. We are experiencing the hangover.

The hangover manifests itself as slow growth which is a reflection of the difficulty consumers are having maintaining their growth in spending in a high-debt world. That means everything is less affordable at the margin, and this has led to a creeping slowdown in the world economy.

Now, here's the kicker. If we as a global society can no longer afford high-priced oil--and that's what's left to get out of the ground--then as long as oil remains the central energy component of our economy, we will be trapped in a low- or no-growth economy where oil prices can't rise high enough to make new drilling in high-cost deposits profitable; and, when prices do rise, they simply squeeze the life out of economic growth and send the economy back into a stall or near stall. (Gail Tverberg has explained this phenomenon in detail on her blog, Our Finite World.)

Far from a sign of good things for the economy as whole, recently declining oil prices now tend to indicate a weakening economy that was already in a weak state. It turns out that the oil price and the economy are now in a very tight relationship, and we are going to be seeing them together a lot for a long time to come. But I don't think their marriage will be the happy one I alluded to at the beginning of this piece.

You Can't Handle the Truth

Written by Richard Heinberg

Originally posted on resilience.org

Movie buffs will recognize this title as the most memorable line from “A Few Good Men” (1992), spoken by the character Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson (“You can’t handle the truth!” is #29 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top movie quotes).

I hereby propose it as the subtext of the recently concluded Republican and Democratic national conventions.

At this point most people appear to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong in the United States of America. But like the proverbial blind man describing the elephant, Americans tend to characterize the problem according to their economic status, their education and interests, and the way that the problem is impacting their peer group. So we hear that the biggest crisis facing America today is:

  • Corruption
  • Immigration
  • Economic inequality
  • Climate change
  • Lack of respect for law enforcement
  • Institutionalized racism
  • Islamic terrorism
  • The greed and recklessness of Wall Street banks
  • Those damned far-right Republicans
  • Those damned liberal Democrats
  • Political polarization

The list could easily be lengthened, but you get the drift. Pick your devil and prepare to get really, really angry at it.

In reality, these are all symptoms of an entirely foreseeable systemic crisis. The basic outlines of that crisis were traced over 40 years ago in a book titled The Limits to Growth. Today we are hitting the limits of net energy, environmental pollution, and debt, and the experience is uncomfortable for just about everyone. The solution that’s being proposed by our political leaders? Find someone to blame.

The Republicans really do seem to get the apocalyptic tenor of the moment: their convention was all about dread, doom, and rage. But they don’t have the foggiest understanding of the actual causes and dynamics of what’s making them angry, and just about everything they propose doing will make matters worse. Call them the party of fear and fury.

The Democrats are more idealistic: if we just distribute wealth more fairly, rein in the greedy banks, and respect everyone’s differences, we can all return to the 1990s when the economy was humming and there were jobs for everyone. No, we can do even better than that, with universal health care and free college tuition. Call the Democrats the party of hope.

But here’s the real deal: a few generations ago we started using fossil fuels for energy; the result was an explosion of production and consumption, which (as a byproduct) enabled enormous and rapid increase in human population. Burning all that coal, oil, and natural gas made a few people very rich and enabled a lot more people to enjoy middle-class lifestyles. But it also polluted air, water, and soil, and released so much carbon dioxide that the planet’s climate is now going haywire. Due to large-scale industrial agriculture, topsoil is disappearing at a rate of 25 billion tons a year; at the same time, expanded population and land use is driving thousands, maybe millions of species of plants and animals to extinction.

We extracted non-renewable fossil fuels using the low-hanging fruit principle, so that just about all the affordable petroleum (which is the basis for nearly all transport) has already been found and most of has already been burned. Since we can’t afford most of the oil that’s left (either in terms of the required financial investment or the energy required to extract and refine it), the petroleum industry is in the process of going bankrupt. There are alternative energy sources, but transitioning to them will require not just building an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels, but replacing most of the world’s energy-using infrastructure.

We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)

Hence the political primaries generated lots of feelings (anger, hope, fear), but revealed or conveyed almost no understanding of what’s actually going on, what’s in store, or what to do about it.

Now, I’m not proposing that the two parties are equivalent. There are some substantive differences between them. And in dangerous times, hope usually yields better outcomes than fear and rage (though hope is vulnerable to disillusionment and recrimination, which in turn lead back to fear and rage). Some of the Democrats’ ideas may help as we embark on our Great Slide down the steep slope of the Seneca cliff: for example, a universal basic income (not in the Democratic Party’s platform but consistent with its ideals) could provide a temporary safety net as the economy enters its inevitable long nosedive. Democrats at least acknowledge the problem of climate change, though they have few plans to do much about it (on this issue, the Republicans almost literally reside on a different planet). Meanwhile the Republicans’ reflex toward tribalism and division has the potential to turn social relations between America’s historically dominant European descendants and the nation’s various other ethnic groupings into a seething cauldron of hatred and violence.

But Democrats’ inability to provide a credible response to the zeitgeist of imperial decline could play into electoral defeat or failure either this time around or next. Trump offers a politics of isolationism and the image of the Strong Man, which may better fit the spirit of the times. True, any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast.

Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution. The decline of the British Empire was the backdrop for World War I, which led to an even bloodier reprise a couple of decades later. Today the foreign policy establishment in Washington appears eager to pick a fight with Russia, and Hillary Clinton has a track record of dangerous interventionism (she’s won the endorsement of neoconservative hawks—both Republican and Democrat—who pushed for the Iraq invasion of 2003). Trump, for all his rhetorical belligerence, seems perhaps a bit less bellicose internationally, though his eventual foreign policies are currently about as easy to read as a Rorschach ink blot.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is playing a peculiar role in the current contest. Trump and Putin have publicly complimented one another (one can only speculate as to the motives on both sides), while Hillary Clinton hews closely to the neocon-formulated State Department line that Putin is a dangerous strongman who threatens his neighbors. In fact, it is the US and NATO that have surrounded Russia with advanced weapons, reneged on agreements, and instigated regime change in Ukraine.

The Western powers’ ongoing provocation and demonization of Russia is pushing the world closer perhaps to nuclear war than was the case even during some decades of the Cold War. Against this frightening backdrop Trump has proposed (perhaps jokingly) that Russia hack Clinton’s emails. For her part, Clinton gives no indication that she will ratchet down the anti-Putin rhetoric; just the opposite appears to be in store—both during the campaign and the next four crucial years, when we are likely to face another (perhaps much worse) financial crisis along with escalating international tensions.

Could “we the people” handle a bit more of the truth? One would certainly like to think so. As it is, the US and the rest of the world appear to be sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm (a somewhat more geeky and less scatological way to describe it would be as the mother of all Dragon Kings). Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Bernie Sanders offered the best climate policies of any of the pre-convention candidates, but even he shied away from describing what’s really at stake. The times call for a candidate more in the mold of Winston Churchill, who famously promised only “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” in enlisting his people in a great, protracted struggle in which all would be called upon to work tirelessly and set aside personal wants and expectations. The candidates we have instead bode ill for the immediate future. Given the absence of helpful leadership at the national level, our main opportunity for effective preparation and response to the wolf at our doorstep appears to lie in local community resilience building.

It’s the truth. Can you handle it?

 

In Memory of William Beale

Our friend, mentor, and benefactor William Beale died on Sunday, July 24th, 2016.  It was a great privilege to know William, and to be uplifted by his passionate commitment,  his indefatigable creativity, and his intelligent humor. William was the first recipient of the Arthur Morgan Award, and a frequent contributor to our website under the name wimbi. You can read his last blog post, Poppy’s Dream, as well as other posts including, Fracked to Death, The (Bigger) Garden of EdenWE GOT PLENTY OF NOTHIN', ROI: Love of Money, The Future Speaks, Plenty of Oil, So What's the Story Here?, and Wimbi's Wedges. William Beale also appeared in videos for the Community Solutions Climate Solutions Video channel, speaking about electric cars and his work.   We’ll be including a tribute to William in our October conference, and would be glad to share our members’ memories with his family. 

ATHENS - William Taylor Beale, 88, died peacefully at home Sunday 24 July 2016 attended by his immediate surviving family – wife Carol and children Faith, Dan and John – and loving friends.  A lifelong inventor and philosophizer, it was William’s driving ambition to leave the world a better place on the basis of sound engineering and innovative thought.  Although he claimed never to have achieved the full extent of his intentions, his inventions were essential components of products on Earth and in Space, his company and its spinouts employed hundreds, and his philanthropic funding enabled local, regional and global extension and continuation of his visions.

Born to Katherine and David Beale on 17 April 1928 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the third of five siblings and the eldest of the three brothers. Self-described as a youth who was a “loner, a dreamer, and an inventor of usually warlike things,” William segued from homemade artisan-well-diving equipment and road-asphalt bombs to early employment as a Naval radar technician during the final year of World War II.  He discovered in this engagement “the bloody waste of war games,” an assessment that carried through his educational career.  After achieving an MS from Caltech, including engaging in the study of intercontinental ballistic missiles, he “resolved, deep in his muddled soul, never to use this knowledge for its original intended purpose.”  He adhered absolutely to these principles, including strong activism and support of disengagement in military conflict during the Vietnam War; and later in rejection of a potential weapons development contract that would have succored his struggling small business, but ran against his deepest convictions regarding the essential role of rational and peaceful engagement between nations.

While achieving his second MS from MIT in Boston in 1958, William met and married Harvard graduate Carol Brand Beale, with whom he moved to Athens, Ohio in 1961 as a faculty member in Ohio University’s engineering department.  With family support, the couple purchased an old farmhouse on 300 acres of rolling, rural Appalachian woodland.  William aided Carol’s tireless maintenance and development of gardens and multiple livestock while himself maintaining the underlying technology, including the well and roof-water systems, the many generations of VW bugs, rabbits and buses, the 200-year-old barn and other outbuildings, and continually remodeling and improving the 100-year-old farmhouse.  The couple dedicated themselves to a carbon-free existence, and for the final decade of his life William continued to maintain and improve their woodstove-fired, hot-water-circulation system as well as their all-solar electrical system (which powered, in addition to the homestead, their proudly-so-labeled ‘Runs on the Sun’ electric Leaf vehicle).

William was an early member and literal builder of Athens Unitarian Fellowship, which for decades served, and continues to serve, as a welcoming location for lectures, plays, thoughts, and communal sharing by generations of families like his own.  

William’s 1964 invention of the free-piston Stirling engine was the impetus for founding Sunpower, Inc., a company dedicated to the before-its-time principle that engineering innovation in renewable-energy-derived power is a world-saving opportunity.  In perennial search of financial support for Sunpower’s rich intellectual property and multiple technical innovations, William traveled frequently to Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent, gaining and incorporating lessons- learned from international experts and experience.  In his Athens home office, Sunpower attracted global expertise to a strong young technical team and expanded its influence, over three and a half decades of continuing R&D, into cooling and cryocooling as well as continued engine development, prior to the family’s sale of the business in 2011.  

The business exit enabled William’s distribution of philanthropic dollars to local groups engaged in carbon footprint reduction business and research and outreach; to regional non-profits dedicated to community development and environmental conservation; and to multiple individual technology start-ups.

William always delighted in the education and encouragement of the next generation.  He included among his many mentorships a Saturday Science Seminar for local youth, several of whom went on to join the current generation of young technology startup entrepreneurs.  Many of William’s mentees cite his marked influence on their own sense of innate curiosity about the mathematical, physical and mechanical principles at work in the world around them.  Many also remember William’s perennial ‘kid test:’ the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and ensure continued success for all, or to compete and destroy one another.  William’s instructional game was, for many mentees and young relatives, a formative moment in their own perception of the role of cooperation and conflict resolution as favored tools in a fraught social fabric.  

William’s ‘Fables for our Time,’ published in local newspapers and online with Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio, perennially reinforced his messages that straightforward engineering and high-minded conservation are the basic underlying principles of a visionary life well-led.  William was a voracious reader and participant in vigorous ongoing conversations with friends, family, associates and passersby on these and related topics.  His favorite publication, re-read during his last days, was E.O. Wilson’s “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” a book incorporating many of William’s most passionate beliefs about the duties incumbent upon humans, as the greatest Earthly change factor, to preserve and protect the globe under their dominion. His most recent essays are accessible at http://www.visioningthefuture.org.

William is survived by his wife and three children and their spouses and partners, six grandchildren, two siblings Inez Harrell and David Beale and a broad local, regional and global network of family, friends and followers.  A public memorial service will be hosted by the Athens Friends Meeting in September. Contributions in William’s memory would be welcomed by organizations working on Carbon reduction goals such as Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio at http://www.communitysolution.org/ ,  Union of Concerned Scientists at www.uscusa.org,  and Rural Action of Athens, Ohio at http://ruralaction.org/ .

Poppy's Dream

Written by Community Solutions fellow wimbi

“Poppy’s Dream,” as narrated on the morning of July 24th 2016

Edited for written presentation by his daughter

I dreamt I went to a foreign country with my grandchild, who was teaching there, and everything I saw around me had a band of color on it. So I asked the young foreign person who was escorting us: 

“What is the color band?”  

She said: “You don’t have those?” 

“If I do, I never noticed.  What *is* the color band?” 

“That is the “Level of Requirement” for something really needed. So if some silly little object is not really needed, it’s got a color band close to black.  If it is needed - and we are talking about really needed, as in survival-needed – it’s banded with a lighter color, to easily identify it in the case of a catastrophe.  But if it’s banded black, then there’s no real need for it, and there’s no concern about what happens to it.”  

And I said:  “Oh, well, that’s very clever!”  And just from curiosity I went around look looking for these color bands.  I was surprised to note that many that were brightest had some sort of association with electricity.  I asked why that would be, and my guide said:

“If you have no electricity, you are desperate for just a little bit of it. In a real catastrophe, without electricity, you need even a small electrical source in order to communicate with other survivors.” 

I asked: “So in a catastrophe, what is your implementation plan for light-banded technology like electricity-producing items?” 

“Our people are trained to use primitive sources of electricity.  For example, high-tech solar photovoltaic panels works just fine to produce electricity, but the very primitive old Stirling engines of the last Century can turn even little sticks of wood into heat, and hence turn your woodfire into a source of electricity.”   

“That’s excellent thinking.  I don’t know how to make a photovoltaic cell, because it’s not on the level of village technology, but I do know how to make a very good steam engine, better than James Watt did -   or, in fact, a Stirling engine that will heat into electricity. Actually, I used to write lots of papers on free-piston Stirling engines that were made of nothing but ordinary things you could find in the trash pile.” 

And she said: “Yes; we can do that too!”

“So in that case, a trash pile should be marked with a light-colored band?” 

She laughed and pointed.  “There’s one, look at it.”

Sure enough, the trash pile was banded with a light color.

She explained: “We have done a lot of research about the situation, and for us, what you call a “trash pile” is, in fact, a treasure.” 

I said: “My gracious, that’s something I believe, but I didn’t think anyone else did.”

“Oh, they will when they think about it. Actually, an American trash pile is as good as gold; it has everything under the sun in it.  You can get a fridge, or a fully-functioning gen set, or any manner of useful things.” 

“Well that’s true, but in America people don’t realize that.  They have no concern for a trash pile.  People just throw away anything at all without thinking about it.  So overall, this banding is an excellent thing.  Tell me: how do you actually do this here; who decides how to color-band items?”  

“Every community has a Council of Experts who write down all the things they could do with each thing and decide on colors.” 

And I said, just out of the blue because I thought of it: “How do you band-color a cooking pot?”  

She laughed and said:  “Oh, a cooking pot.  There are so many cooking pots that we put them somewhere in the middle of the color-banding, not because they’re not extremely valuable, but because they’re so many being made.  In other words: if today a catastrophe happens, and I need cooking pots, I think I could say that everyone in our country has a cooking pot.” 

“Hmm.  I suppose you could said the same thing for the American automobile.  Outside every American house, there’s a car, and when they get old, people just get a new one.” 

“Here there would be a car remodeling place; cars would not be a throw-away item.  Here, we can easily last decades without any new manufacture, just remodeling, recycling and - very important - restructuring old items scientifically.” 

“Well that’s all wonderful. What I’m realizing is that what you people are doing now is what we should be doing in the near future.  And besides that, I said, I am no judge for any of this. I have a limited experience.

She said “Yes, it’s perfectly clear that you do!” 

I laughed, and suggested: “How about this idea: your little village in your country get together with some equivalent little village in America, and we match communities into an ‘adopted towns’ scheme.”

She got pretty enthusiastic about this and said: “Yes, that would work for us!  And partnering communities can make joint decisions on whether a cooking pot is a grey or a green or a black band.  And this way we can all hope not only to become friends and share experiences, but to become the future.”

I nodded and added:  “It would be super-great if my grandchild came back from your country with some sort of long-living interaction between the first two villages.”

She agreed: “Absolutely!  How exactly should we work together to do this?” 

And I said:  “Over to you.”

Beyond the Zombie Economy

Written by Johanna Montgomerie

Originally published on resilience.org

Economic metaphors are important to illustrate the distinct features of specific economic systems that exist at particular times. The Great Depression, for instance, uses a psychological framing of ‘depression’ to depict the dynamics of an economic system incapable of recovering from financial collapse. The present day metaphor is the ‘Zombie’ economy depicting the economic system as an unthinking monster in relentless pursuit of a single objective – here, short-term profits are synonymous with human brains. This builds on from the well-used ‘Zombie Banks’ metaphor made popular in the 2000s to describe the Japanese financial system, in which endless public subsidies to banks resulted in systemic erosion of economic vitality - the lesson was feeding the Zombie only breeds more.

There are, of course, other metaphors used to describe contemporary capitalism; like the ‘Vampire Squid’ used to illustrate the role of financial institutions in sucking the life out of the global economy. Sanguineous metaphors are very popular historically for depicting the role of finance within the economy as ‘bleeding it dry’; the Vampire, like the Zombie, is a monster with a singular rational objective ‘to feed’ and the humans are always its prey. Of course, Keynes preferred the ‘animal spirits’ metaphor to explain the same inhumane aspects of markets that must be controlled to sustain a market civilization.

Two books in particular articulate different aspects of the Zombie economy metaphor. The fist is John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics: how dead ideas still walk among us, which systematically unpicks how defunct economic theories are clung to by policy makers and politicians. Here, what is dead is the ideas and theories that created our current economic malaise; yet despite all the evidence to show these ideas don’t work, they do not die, they stay alive animated by the mystical power of the Central Bank. The second book by Kerry-Anne Mendoza, Austerity: the demolition of the welfare state and rise of the Zombie economy, uses the Zombie metaphor to explain how banks are feasting on interest payments from mounting debt stock and eventually consumers, tax-payers and the nation state will eventually exist solely to service these loans. What is dead is the securitization food chain, because it creates no value, and its dependence on a single-food source – our interest payments – means the Zombies must seek out new food sources in the welfare state using Private Finance Initiatives.

What we see in both Quiggin and Mendoza is the Zombie Economy as both dead idea and dead business model. Together they articulate the profound structural crisis that manifests as the Zombie Economy created by unfettered financialised expansion. Whether it’s the unfeeling monster in pursuit of its prey or homoeconomicus – the singular focus on short-term profit maximization means the Zombie apocalypse will not end with spontaneous growth or a moment of enlighted self-interest.

As Chuck Prince, then CEO of Citigroup, said in July 2007: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” These words are the rallying cry of the Zombie army, as long as Central Banks keep interest rates low to negative and there is a blank cheque or a bazooka option (a public ‘unquantified’ risk guarantee) and governments remain committed to step-in and provide direct bailouts, asset buy-back schemes and support rounds of Quantitative Easing then all financial actors - from the ‘originate and distribute’ banks, to investment banks, to new financial actors like Private Equity funds - will keep on making short-term profits regardless of the wider structural crisis going in on the wider economy. 

The reality is the Zombie economy is firmly entrenched by the vested interests that benefit most from it, however it is still fighting for its survival. Nancy Fraser puts it plainly that contemporary global capitalism is facing a ‘triple crises’: “It is the convergence of these three strands – the ecological, the financial and the social – that constitutes the distinctive character, and special severity, of the present crisis.” Zombies in pursuit of short-term profit, whether it’s the algorithmic trader trying to make a profits in a millisecond or the CEO seeking to pump and dump his stock options to make a better bonus, cannot solve the very real problems our economy and society face. Nor do they want to!

Therefore, to move beyond the Zombie Economy we must begin with financialised growth, which like all growth models, has absolute limits. The first limit is ecological, the absolute carrying capacity of the earth cannot support ever-expanding growth. This stark reality is simply ignored by the Zombie hoards because it will not happen in the short-term, if it won’t affect quarterly earnings or yearly bonuses it does not register as relevant.

The second limit is financial, the business model of endlessly supplying cheap credit to generate more interest payments to securitize onto global markets and inflate asset prices did work for a decade or so, but now the problems of non-performing loans and hugely over-valued fictional assets are clear: the 2008 financial crisis was triggered by a tiny fraction of global lending – the US subprime market – which set off a maelstrom across global financial markets. A more heavily indebted global economy than 2008 makes finding outlets for more performing loans ever more difficult, this ensures that financialisation cannot keep going without more frequent financial crises followed by ever-larger bailouts.

The final limit is the social or how much the overall population is capable of reproducing the economic and cultural conditions that facilitate financialised economic activity. For example, are debtors (those providing the interest payments to Zombies) able to work and earn enough to service their debts? Are taxpayers willing to keep subsidizing an unreformed financial sector while accepting real-terms cuts to services and transfers from the government? Are people willing to go into ever more debt to get a University education and/or buy a home, or just to consume and live in an economy where average earnings are the same as two decades ago? What happens when the global consumers-of-last-resort in North America and Europe can no longer take on debt to buy every new product emitted from the global supply chain?

The answers to these questions could inform the political route out of this mess. Otherwise the Zombie Apocalypse will not just be a movie title it will be the economic metaphor of our time.

It’s not just that the evidence shows the Zombie economy does not work or that it is causing more problems than it solves; it is the unrecognised threat from how the ideas and metaphors that inform the Zombie Economy live on despite of their abject failures. Concepts like ‘trickle down economics’, ‘privatization’ and ‘efficient markets’ are all still prolific within elite policy and political circles – this is a very real problem. Without new ideas and concepts to move beyond the Zombie economy we are left only to fight the unfeeling, unthinking hoard only with more appeals to reason, logic and evidence. 

A new set of ideas and proposals are needed to address the triple crisis we face today; this requires a great deal more than simply reviving old models of industrialised expansion that solved the crises of yesteryear. Crafting an alternative set of ideas and politics begins by building a shared agenda to dismantle financialisation and build an inclusive economy capable of overcoming the ecological, economic and social threats created by the Zombie Economy.

GMO Industry: The dumbest guys in the room

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

I am now convinced the GMO industry has managed to hire the worst public relations strategists in human history. By supporting a deeply flawed GMO labeling bill in the U.S. Congress--some would say intentionally deeply flawed--the industry is about to open a Pandora's Box of PR nightmares for years to come.

First, a little background. GMO, of course, means genetically modified organism which more properly refers to genetically engineered crops and animals. GMO industry leader Monsanto and its competitors such as Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical and Sygenta have all been fighting a fierce battle in the United States against labeling foodstuffs derived from genetically engineered crops. After defeating statewide labeling referendums in California, Oregon and Washington, they failed to stop the implementation of Vermont's GMO labeling law which went into effect July 1.

In desperation the companies have been trying to get the U.S. Congress to pass a nationwide labeling law--one that is considerably less stringent and also riddled with loopholes--that would pre-empt Vermont's law. Just last week the Senate approved its version of the labeling law. If the House and Senate can work out their differences, we may see such a law signed by President Obama before too long.

The industry's main complaint has been that labeling GMOs would unfairly stigmatize them in the minds of consumers. Some 64 countries already require such labeling. What concerns the industry is that increased consumer awareness could create a movement that would lead to a ban on the cultivation of GMO crops, a ban already implemented by 19 countries in Europe.

Opponents of the GMO labeling law currently moving through the U.S. Congress believe it is so poorly drafted that almost no commonly consumed genetically modified foods will actually be covered. In addition, food derived from newer gene-editing techniques as opposed to transgene processes--the ones that transfer genes from one species to another--may be excluded as well. The fact that agricultural trade groups are praising the labeling bill--after fighting labeling for years--tells you something about how effective they believe the law will be at informing consumers, namely, not very.

The Senate bill allows food manufacturers to use a symbol, a statement or a so-called QR code that shoppers would have to scan using a cellphone to obtain information on genetically engineered ingredients. Small companies could simply list a phone number or website address.

If you were selling GMO-derived foods, which would you use? Probably the options that provide the least information and which make it most difficult for consumers to access that information. This assumes that anything in your product actually turns out to be covered by the law which looks like it will exclude great swaths of foodstuffs containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Given what we know now, the final bill is likely to be vague and riddled with exceptions and confusing directives. The GMO-friendly U.S. Department of Agriculture will then be tasked with writing the actual labeling regulations.

We are thus assured of months and perhaps years of wrangling over the labeling rules, every step of which will be given wide and probably negative coverage by the anti-GMO activist community. The pending federal labeling law is more likely to assist opponents in sowing mistrust of major food companies than alleviate it. When the rules go into effect, if they are every bit as lax as the law seems to promise, the activists will make a sport out of spotting and telling on companies that are cheating or that are cleverly thwarting the purposes of the law.

The anti-GMO groups will likely put out lists of the worst labeling violators and lists of their products containing GMOs. And, of course, there will be lists based on those enigmatic QR codes. Perhaps those codes will become the equivalent of the skull and crossbones feared by one GMO executive.

The whole shopping experience will be treated like an reverse Easter egg hunt. Can you spot the GMO foods? Can you identify the alleged cheaters on the grocery store shelves and punish them by refusing to buy their products?

Perhaps some enterprising activist, one not afraid of incarceration, will surreptitiously slap GMO cheater labels on various products on the store shelves that are not labeled properly. Any subsequent arrest will then lead to more coverage as some in the public cheer the civil disobedience while others simply shrug their shoulders.

Acquiescence to the Vermont law or acceptance of a federal law with Vermont's straightforward labeling rules would have saved the GMO industry from what will almost surely be a years-long PR debacle if the labeling law before Congress passes.

There will doubtless be many more creative ways than I've listed for GMO opponents to tweak the industry and keep the issue of honest labeling alive and before the public. If only the industry had accepted Vermont's labeling law as the de facto standard for the country, the industry would have in one stroke taken the issue away from its opponents!

But the industry's business and public relations strategists are the same ones who made a colossal marketing error--while believing they had achieved a regulatory coup--when they steamrolled the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into ruling that GMOs are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GMO counterparts and therefore require no testing. The FDA did this despite their own scientists' concerns that these novel life forms might have unanticipated effects on the environment and on humans who consume them. Some of those scientists thought extensive testing similar to what a new drug must go through was advisable to rule out such risks.

The reason this strategy has turned out to be a colossal marketing error is that as the attacks on GMOs have mounted during the intervening couple of decades, the industry finds itself unable to pivot and point to any advantages that GMO foods have for consumers over non-GMO foods. This is because the industry has been saying for more than 20 years that GMOs have no advantages for consumers. After all, GMO foods are said to be "substantially equivalent." That means that the industry cannot give consumers any reasons to prefer GMO foods over their non-GMO counterparts. Any claims of superiority over conventional foods made now will ring hollow and bring down an avalanche of public derision from GMO opponents.

(The industry may cite supposed advantages for farmers and for the environment. But those advantages are sharply and publicly disputed by anti-GMO activists and have nothing to do with taste, nutrition or appearance which are what matters to consumers. While the GMO industry tells us that GMO crops with enhanced nutrition are coming, I can find only one that has been brought to market under a cloud of concerns. So far genetic engineering has focused on creating plants the produce insecticides internally--not a pleasant thought for those eating them--and which are immune to herbicides made by, you guessed it, the companies producing the GMO seeds.)

These same industry strategists have directed a campaign of fear aimed at farmers to prevent supposed intellectual property theft through the use of saved GMO seeds. Even those into whose fields GMO seeds have been swept by wind have been sued. Since farmers growing in areas where other farmers grow genetically engineered crops may be subject to windblown "thefts," they have an incentive to grow GMO crops on their land and pay the royalties to avoid being sued for such "theft." Essentially, it's, "Buy from us or we'll sue you--and we're a lot richer than you are."

Aggressive tactics including smear campaigns have also been used against critics who question the safety and social utility of GMOs and associated farm chemicals. (Click here, here and here.) Mostly, those campaigns have backfired by creating extensive media coverage of the smear campaigns themselves.

These aggressive tactics have made the company most associated with the GMO industry, Monsanto, one of the most hated corporations in America.

All of this would make for an enviable record for anti-GMO activists, and yet it comes from business and public relations strategists in the industry itself. In most industries, a record like this would lead to a rash of sackings.

Instead, the bunglers have managed to bungle into yet another long-term public relations disaster of their own making. They seem not to have learned anything from their repeated failures.

All this should be pleasing to GMO opponents who must be thinking these continuing debacles couldn't be happening to nicer people.

On Surplus

Originally posted on transitionmilwaukee.org

Written by conference speaker Eric Lindberg

Community Solutions is featuring the writing of several conference speakers in the lead up to the Charting a New Course Conference!

This is Part 1 of a 2 or 3 part series on the concept of surplus.  Surplus is one of the most central features of modern industrial and democratic societies.  In fact it is so central and its permanence so taken for granted that it is scarcely noticed and even less understood.  The following installations are my attempt to discuss several of its facets, for the slow disappearance of surpluses, I think,is the cause of great bewilderment.

Overshoot

A few weeks ago I came home from work one day feeling utterly defeated, oppressed by a life-weight that was buckling my knees.  Money was short, jobs seemed ready to go off the rails, and there was no way I could stay on top of all the moving parts.  The driver’s side door of my truck would no longer open due to some sort of malfunction and a day of scooting over a passenger seat full of job folders, miscellaneous tools, and the other refuse of a contractor/carpenter life was making a previously broken wrist ache. 

I looked around at our house and yard and saw the wreckage of a half-completed life.  I’m a third done with a home restoration project that starts when some money comes in and stops when it doesn’t, but going on year three I leave things set up and un-tidied as if to tell myself (and my restive neighbors) that the work is in permanent progress.  The sink was full of dishes, the garbage overflowing, and the living room an explosion of Legos, Lincoln Logs, sticker-books and crumpled artwork.  Dust-bunnies, dirty socks and cheerios huddled along the walls.  Only a fire or a flood. . . (I thought to myself) could solve this problem.  All of this was the results of two overworked parents who, already running large deficits on our own time, also can’t afford the hired help that would be necessary to keep everything put together in the wake of our twin four year olds and their boundless entropy.  This is not what I expected.  This is now how I grew up.

This scene is of course also our own doing and is indicative of quirks and weaknesses that my wife and I share.  But there are aspects in it that also represents a unique moment in American (and probably European) culture today.  For it is not just about a messy house and overwhelmed parents, but a greater sense of a botched life, of having not lived up to our potential, of grinding ourselves into nubs of our former selves without the prospect of relief; we fight our way through the tangled underbrush without hope of finding a clearing or a vista.  This moment is marked by a place where shrinking paychecks cross paths with our expanding hopes and aspirations, leaving so many of us frustrated, angry, looking for answers.  Though  usually misnamed, this moment and its trajectory seems to be all that we talk about, at least during a political season, though without any real understanding.  Because I have been a student of this moment for almost a decade (let’s keep things general for now and call it the changing wealth of nations) I know not to compare my life with the life of my parents, for the wealth of their nation was far different than is ours.   This difference will be my eventual topic, but I think the lived experience of it is a crucial groundwork.

I know not to make this comparison, then but there are moments of defeat or frustration, when everything seems such a hopeless and uncleanable mess, and I look around and feel like a failure as old images from my childhood--of clean and sparkling success--sneak out from their hiding place.

These images represent not only what I lived as a child, they were additionally pounded into the crevices of my being by years simply of living in America, the land of high expectations, where we walk to the uniform drumbeat of forced want and desire.  You can turn away from all this unfortunate cultural training.  You can know that success is not the same thing as having, and that simplicity can be beautiful, and imagine a beautiful and simple life for yourself.  You can read and write and march and protest in order to dislodge these images, bury them in community gardens dug until your fingers bleed;  but some are so deeply embossed on our emotional backdrops, ready always to remake their mark—ready, in my case, for the moment when the façade of my life appears to crumbling.  For when I came home that afternoon I suddenly recalled in the most vivid crystalline light an image of my childhood home, always tidy and well-kept, my parents relaxing in the shade, tendingthe flower garden and reading quietly after supper.  It was an ordered life, lived well and well within its means.  But virtue of this order, it seemed a modest life; and compared to many portrayed on TV and movies as the most idealized kind of American wealth, it was a modest life--comfortable, yes, but without a hint of ostentation.  Their life, in any case, was the opposite of our frantic overshoot.

“Everything I wanted”

My parents did live extraordinary lives of the kind that could only happen in America and during a short and extraordinary time.  From relatively humble, evangelical origins they marched together away from that past to the top of academic ultra-success--my father writing the books, giving the papers, and directing the institutes, my mother hosting the parties and providing a welcoming place for graduate students and new faculty.  They did this without Ivy League credentials or any insider-edge.  In fact they struggled in the early years of academic life to discard their old inherited evangelical bumpkinisms, like confusing sherry for white wine, a crime against humanity in 1960s Ann Arbor.  They were sensitive, honest, and forthright--and faultlessly dependable.  They worked hard and with spectacular diligence.  And, as my father always emphasized, they were lucky.  Especially when two years into his Michigan appointment, a position opened up in the History of Science department at the University of Wisconsin, where he was to spend the rest of his days.

By the time he was my age, he had published a shelfful of books, many translated into dozens of languages; he lectured widely around the world, and was positioning himself for his end-of-career glory, in which he was bestowed with all the honors available in his field.  He was soon to publish the standard textbook on “the origins of Western science.”  He was awarded a Vilas Professorship from the University of Wisconsin and had countless life-time achievement awards from various scholarly societies in the decade before his death.  He was smart, of course, and very hard working.  He was disciplined, organized, a revered teacher and trusted colleague.  He never missed a deadline and his constant productivity was rewarded with a lifetime of summer grants and other funding that allowed us to spend a year in Princeton when I was four, and a year in Oxford when I was a pre-teen, along with countless other stays in various global academic hotspots.[i] 

Because of the accompanying material comfort and stability, theirs was not just the picture-perfect academic life.  It was an upper-middle class life as well, even though we, like most people in America, felt ourselves to be closer to the middle than we actually were.  It was, to be honest about it, a comfortable life of bourgeois consumption, despite the high-culture and socially critical hue to it—entirely ecologically unsustainable despite its ordinary and modest lack of anything considered excessive.  True, we were more frugal than most of our family friends and neighbors, adopting new middle class conveniences like central air-conditioning, color TV, snow blowers, and automatic garage door openers after everyone else we knew had.  And true, as I noted, our consumption often had an edifying angle to it—Europe rather than Disney World, camping rather than amusement parks.  But the sort of “headwinds” that many experienced during the 1970s energy crisis and economic slow-down had no apparent effect on our lives.  The two week summer vacations never ceased, we bought new (if very modest) cars whenever they were needed.  We upgraded from a modest ranch to a larger cape cod style house in 1973, and we took a 5 week European vacation in 1974.  Despite the years of “stagflation,” the research grants (in the humanities no less!) and summer funding never missed a beat during the seventies, nor, for that matter over the course of at least five presidential administrations.  We were nothing if not economically secure.  If life in America might be called super-abundant, it was also ultra-secure.  That we might have a routine crisis (a car breakdown, the need for a new furnace or washing machine, even a kitchen no longer suited to our position in life) and not have the savings to address it immediately was unthinkable.  Life could be well-ordered and tidy in so many inner and external ways because, like a balanced ecosystem (though that it was not) the flows and supplies, the inputs and outputs all seemed to work according to a well-proportioned logic.

I would write a history of the structural tectonics of the 1980s in a much different way than I would describe lived-experience during the Reagan years.  Although my parents believed Reagan was a scourge on the Republic, they also enjoyed rising possibilities at the same time, though without ever understanding the connection.  The vacations became more frequent and more luxurious, the artwork real, the personal indulgences less reserved.  But still they saved staggering amounts of money—at least from my perspective--had long-term care insurance, a place reserved at a very nice retirement village, and were still able to put two children through private college and then graduate school, help with our home purchases, and still maintain large reserves.  My children, sadly (or not), will have none of these privileges.

Like every life, theirs had its turmoil and tragedies and our family had the normal mix of pathologies and dysfunction, resentments and disappointments.   But, at least in my mind, these never characterized the sum of their life.  As my father once commented to my mother, he had managed to get everything he had wanted in life.  This is an extraordinary feat.  The wants were not extravagant, but they were in many ways highly ambitious.  It was a beautiful life that combined hard work and discipline with leisure and enjoyment, intensive days of research and writing, and relaxing strolls by the Madison lakes.  Their access to money is alien to my experience, but even more befuddling is how much spare time they had—time to pursue hobbies, art, culture, and an active social life.  How did my dad write the books, paint the house himself, never miss one of my soccer games, read every night, exercise, entertain, work for hours in his woodshop?  Where did all that time come from?  And where has it gone?

What I Have

I learned a lot from my parents and consider my childhood to have been good training for my current life.  They modeled good parenting, and I always felt loved.  I was granted remarkable intellectual privileges, for we talked and debated and thought for hours on end as a family.  But beyond this, none of what I have been describing is available to me and my family.  To be clear, compared to most of the world, I still enjoy unwarranted privileges, but not with as much ease and regularity as many of my parent’s generations.  Although I have worked hard, especially over the past decade, to curtail my wants and redefine success, there are days in which I feel like a complete failure.  I have not, to put it bluntly, gotten very much of what I wanted, or at least I sometimes feel like that, and I probably should have more trepidation than I do about my family’s material insecurity.

When I set out in 1990 in pursuit of my own Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature, I believed that I had every reason to expect that my future might bear some resemblance to my past.  We could of course quibble with the details but it is safe to say that my father and I have roughly the same general range of natural talent and I benefitted from a life-long academic acculturation that he did not have.  He was more disciplined than I am, but I am probably a bit more creative.  He was more focused on the end-product, while I am probably more attracted to the ideas themselves. He was moderate where I tend to be radical.  But the same sort of life in the academy was not ruled out by some major break in in aptitude, intensity, or motivation. 

As some of my readers are aware, I am a carpenter rather than a professor.  I had some successes in the academic world, including a number or articles in refereed journals and a page full of conference presentations.  But no job.  The life of a carpenter and small business owner, into which I fell backwards, has some marvelous features and it initially provided an interesting sort of relief from the very different competition and status-based world of an academic aspirant.  It allowed me to pursue urban farming, and perhaps a more radical and free-ranging sort of social activism and intellectual work.   I like working with my hands and my body, and have an interesting niche in the local restoration market.  The life of a carpenter has allowed me to feel strong, resilient, and capable.  If I can’t fix it, I know someone who can.  This is a gift in a world where most of us grow increasingly dependent on high-priced experts.  There is much to be grateful here, especially as the University of Wisconsin inches towards systemic collapse.

But this career path was only partially chosen.  There was a time in which I very much wanted an academic job and worked furiously to secure one.  I am at heart more interested in ideas, language, and concepts than anything else, and for the first time in fifteen years yearn for a life that would allow complete dedication to ideas. In graduate school I wrote a very long and intense dissertation on the history of the idea of the unconscious.  Into it was packed all sorts of social and political philosophy, literature, and a focused study on cultural narratives.  I lived and breathed this stuff, and after a few years of practical respite in carpentry, still do.   I had some job interviews after finishing the dissertation—good jobs that I would have been thrilled to accept.  But, for a number of reasons, none of the jobs panned out and I was soon swept away, for a time, by the excitement of building things that pushed the limits of my knowledge and experience almost every day.

The usual path for a graduate student in the humanities looking for a tenure-track job is to become a “lecturer,” which, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a step below the coveted “adjunct professor” position.  The mis-named “lecturer” is a transitional position that, for many, becomes permanent.  It even has a version of tenure, aptly named “indefinite status.”  That means they will probably keep you around as long as enrollments remain high, while those who are not given indefinite status by default have “definite status,” which means they are definitely not going to be kept around for very long.  Marx referred to the industrial equivalent of this as “mobile army of surplus labor,” and the lecturer (or whatever else it is called in other universities) is indeed the university proletariat, the caste my wife belongs to.  

A lecturer in the English department teaches up to four classes (often, because of the low pay, supplemented by another class or two at a community college).  Lecturers do some of the most labor-intensive teaching in the university and often that which requires a level of teaching talent not required to deliver the weekly lecture that many high-ranking professors are permitted; in the English department they work with entry-level students in basic writing classes that involve thousands of pages of writing to be graded and commented-upon each semester.  Although it can be fulfilling (as it is for my wife who loves her students and is revered by them), this is work in the trenches in an institution that is supposed to only have high and broad vistas, and where only merit trumps equality but never at the expense of fairness and respect.  For reasons I will be discussing, the university in America today cannot afford its high principles, nor its lavish grants and light teaching loads.  The low cost of temporary and disposable labor is becoming the financial backbone of the university, just as outsourced labor is used to keep corporate profits aloft.  The wave of retirements (that made job prospects appear promising for my generation of graduate students) resulted less in new tenure-track hires, and more lower-paid and easily eliminated lecturers and adjuncts.  Professors bemoan this situation, but, I should add, are equally unprepared to share their privilege.  They too feel under fire from above.

I opted out of the lecturer track, falling back on my experience as a roofer (where speed, endurance, and focus are proportionally rewarded and at a much higher pay rate than the itinerant intellectual worker) while also finding promise in the growing remodeling industry of the late 90s.  About 8 years later, by which time I had built a small but solid company called Community Building and Restoration, we in the construction industry were beginning to realize that we had been banking on a system of borrowed home-equity money. and had been floating untethered within an exploding bubble economy.

Like most people in my position, I was almost wiped out when the housing bubble popped, found myself laden with unpayable debt, and came out the other side barely limping.  Things have never been the same since.  This isn’t to say that some business models aren’t performing well, as least for now.  But I have given up all former dreams of an upwardly mobile life of a small business man, where I might settle into leisure and comfort as I get older and hand off the harder physical labor work to underlings.  I don’t aspire to this anymore, because I don’t think it is an ethically responsible life, but I couldn’t have it if I wanted it.  There is neither a path from where I am to a parallel version of the life my parents made for themselves, nor for a university-based one secured by my wife, despite her rare talent as a teacher. In fact, there is scarcely much chance for basic economic security in our future.  I hope the university survives and that my body doesn’t break down too soon.  I worry about the next popping bubble, but probably not as much as I should.    

My main purpose in sharing these personal reflections is, perhaps contrary to appearances, to explain the structural tectonics that have fractured the roads to success upon which many in my generation once set out.  My experience, I think, is not entirely unique.  The comparison between me and my parents is largely a generational one.   On a whole, my generation does not live as securely as our parents did and our opportunities are shrinking.  This is born out in the statistics and in the life experiences of many of my peers.  There are of course exceptions.  Those who went into “financial services” live with excessive comfort, as do many physicians and lawyers and people in the “tech industry.”  But for most of the rest of us, whether we work in retail, the trades, manufacturing, as teachers, in most government jobs (the list could go on), the fact that wages have “stagnated” tell only part of the story of slow decline. 

The life of a young university professor, one who did manage to find a foothold into the world in which my father thrived, also provides a good insight into a world I know well, while reinforcing my sense of generational differences.  The university is not funded the way it used to be, and, in addition to the truly beleaguered lecturers and adjuncts, tenured professors are also feeling a pinch.  They can live very comfortable lives, it is true, but the expansive opportunities enjoyed by my father’s cohort have largely dried up.  In the humanities, summer funding is rare, teaching loads are increasing, departments are shrinking, and even tenure is being questioned as the university is being “run more like a business.”

If I am honest with myself, these personal reflections are flavored with own bitter aftertaste.  I admit it—I do have a chip on my shoulder about the university and about the amount of unpaid research and writing I perform in my scarce free-time and for no compensation.  Living in a different generation, my father had more free time to do what he wished after he was done writing, lecturing, and leading seminars than I have to do any reading and writing in the first place.  There is some self-pity (since I’m already opening myself up for dissection, I might as well admit it all) in my moments of defeat, when I just don’t have the time I need to pursue what I value and what might get give me pleasure.  I do, as I have said, sometimes feel like a failure when life has run me down, and when I feel like a failure, I also feel a bit sorry for myself.  So there you have it.  This might all be read as an attempt to come to grips with my own pathetic little feelings.

But this may make it all the more significant, if for no reason other than the wayI have spent the last eight years on what I now think of as a spiritual journey—one bent on understanding not interms of personal entitlement and disappointment, but in structural and historical ones, the changing course of the wealth of nations and especially the American nation.  I don’tbelieve the world owes me a growing economy and increased consumption.  Just the opposite, in fact—for an economy the size of our current one has already overshot the planet’s biological capacity for production and regeneration.  I know this--and still the lived experience of decline and contraction is more than I can gracefully accept or emotionally process when my back is up against the wall.  My wife and are still only beginning to adjust the reality of our material lives so that we might live within the means we can expect.  We, too, are still in a position of overshoot.

So I’m getting personal, here, because I think the struggles I am able to articulate are ones that others will, though each in their own way, also be required to confront as well—if not now, then in the future.  Feelings, hopes, expectations, disappointments—this is where politics and the economy are lived.  And the changing wealth of our nation will give us a difficult journey.  Or maybe it is not so difficult, per se; perhaps we as a people are unprepared for minor challenges of a certain sort.  In either case,  my own unfinished journey to a new acceptance has taken lots of painful and persistent work and I still have a long way to go.

 And when I see the supporters of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump acting as if their candidate could possibly remake the America that my parents and their generation enjoyed, I see denial and postponement of the inevitable real revolution—one of expectations.  When I see faculty at the University of Wisconsin view their current struggles almost exclusively in personal terms of a bad governor and an indifferent state legislature, I see people who have neither begun to understand nor integrate at the level of lived-experience the great structural and systemic changes in the wealth of nations that are afoot.

I know I risk coming off as smug, here, but that is not my intention, even though (to be honest again) I do feel smug at times.  But I am also afraid.  For if the most educated and most adept at structural and historical thinking among us are not able to translate their own lived-crises into a broader systemic one, then what hope is there for the angry, frustrated and increasingly violent supporters of someone like Trump and all that they represent and portend in a world of decreasing surplus?

 For those readers who have made it this far, I would only ask this: listen to my coming systemic explanation for the sorts of frustrations, worries, and disappointments that so many Americans are experiencing today.  See if it makes more sense than the usual explanation, in which America is suffering a temporary setback at the hands of bad governance or a false ideology or those on the other side of the political divide.

In Conversation: Consumerism After Fossil Fuels

Originally posted on resilience.org

Written by Richard HeinbergAnnie LeonardAsher MillerJohn de Graaf

The creation of the consumer economy—a complex, interconnected system of institutions, goals, rewards, and punishments—was one of the great social projects of the twentieth century, when energy was cheaply abundant and two of our chief economic problems were overproduction and unemployment. The transition to 100% renewable energy raises some key questions for the future of consumer culture and consumption-based economies. For instance:

  • What are the prospects of the consumer economy in this century, when we are changing our energy sources and also dealing with climate change, water scarcity, resource depletion, and overpopulation?
  • How will we create jobs if we’re not constantly expanding consumption?
  • What’s the future of advertising?
  • What are some of the best practices related to reducing consumption and waste that can serve as models as we move forward?

Watch the webinar in its entirety here!

It's Time for a Land Reform Movement: An Interview with Cooperative Property Specialist Cassandra Ferrera

Originally posted on occupy.com

Written by Matt Stanard

(Leading up to the Charting a New Course Conference Community Solutions will be featuring the writing of speakers at the conference.)

Cassandra Ferrera is Chief Community Officer at Green Key Real Estate, a sustainability-oriented real estate company in Northern California’s Bay Area. The company is clearly in the real estate business, selling everything from villas to tracts of land, all pretty attractive. If you just briefly glance at Green Key’s web site and property listings, you might just see the company as another hip and green business enterprise. But if you look more closely, you notice Green Key also helps buyers transition into cooperative and semi-cooperative communities.

As you might surmise from her job title, Ferrera facilitates these transitions. In helping people find cooperative and sustainable housing arrangements through land trusts and other collectives, she leads people away from traditional property-owning capitalism into very different models of living. Ferrera and Green Key help people find homes in ecovillages, properties utilizing permaculture and natural systems, and similar communal arrangements.

In a community land trust, a nonprofit organization owns the land and leases it to home and building owners. The ownership and management model is shaped to constitute common ownership of the land – shared space with both private and community buildings, often utilizing communally-owned vehicles and other shared resources. Members may build their own houses or rent living space. Some may run small businesses in accordance with the rules of the trust, which can be fashioned to limit income inequality. Because the community may limit profitability on home sales and business practices, members’ business or home sale decisions aren't motivated primarily by money.

Why support land trusts, cooperatives and ecovillages? These arrangements can save amazing amounts of money, allowing people to live on far fewer resources at a far less cost than “mainstream” society. Communities can choose to live in conditions of near-absolute ecological sustainability, using the same scaling and organizational efficiency that makes these communities so inexpensive. It is no exaggeration to say that in building and facilitating entry into these communities, Cassandra and others like her are building the model communities of a sustainable and cooperative future. If you’re guessing I had a fascinating conversation with her, you’re correct.

Matt Stannard: Most people think of real estate as something individually owned or owned with family, just very closely knit private ownership. Your work points to something different. Can you talk about that?

Cassandra Ferrara: Real estate has certainly evolved to reflect our societal notions of “private property ownership.” Common practice of real estate and home finance is designed with this cultural assumption deeply embedded in the design of how we transact parcels of the Earth. However, we know that water, air, animals and all of the living world do not obey private property lines. Our parcels of the Earth are connected in an un-divisible whole.

MS: How does your practice in real estate transactions reflect this knowledge?

CF: The kind of real estate we practice acknowledges that there is a fundamental re-establishment of this interconnection of the health of our watersheds, our foodsheds and our human communities. More than ever before, it seems that people are ready to band together to collectively steward the Earth. We have huge indoctrinated systems to hack, heal and transform.

We call it cooperative real estate because it points to the fact that we are cooperating amongst ourselves as humans, and with the non-human world that is the ecosystem that we are embedded in. On a practical level, this means we work a lot with groups of people desiring to live together in a deeply committed relationship to their place. This drive toward collective stewardship is taking many different forms.

MS: What specific regulations and laws, or categories or types of regulation and law, stand in the way of your “perfect world” in terms of sustainable, community ownership?

CF: Unfortunately, sustainability and collective stewardship are not as “legal” as they will eventually be. We are going to need to work on our zoning laws to allow for greater, clustered housing density to provide for affordable, modest homes for people who are committed to living in a more sustainable lifestyle.

MS: If you could change a few laws or regulations, what would they be?

CF: If I could, I would change zoning laws to allow for different development capacities for land that was held in a protected community land trust context. It’s important in rural lands to protect that higher housing density from getting in the hands of subdivision developers. So, maybe new zoning for land held in trust is a good solution.

In certain areas, there are laws about how many non-related people can live together. That seems archaic and just plain weird. So we need to update that to reflect the current complexity that many family systems are evolving into. People need to be able to legally find and live with their found family.

MS: What about financing? What needs to change about money?

CF: On a financial level, we need lending institutions to be willing to work with groups of people sharing “ownership” of un-dividable land. Banks generally can’t wrap their heads around the group “buyer.” And that is growing niche in today’s world.

MS: Any other changes?

CF:Composting toilets. We need to legalize alternative and healthier systems for dealing with human waste so that we stop contaminating clean water and provide more economic and ecological, small scale solutions. We need to stop pooping in drinking water; it’s just too precious and it’s unnecessary. This will go a long way to helping with higher density in rural lands if we don’t have to do standard septic systems. It will change our understanding of what the true carrying capacity of our land is.

If I could wave a magic wand, schools would also be educating everyone in a more permacultural way of design with, and as members of, the ecosystems so we could actually establish better feedback loops for how we settle land together.

MS: There’s a predatory attribute to capitalism, where it tends to “consume” or overwhelm cooperativism. Is your intent to disrupt and challenge this? How do you seek to subvert the system?

CF: Well, I do love to disrupt this system by being a truth-seeking, honest and transparent person who works collaboratively in an otherwise competitive and defensive system. So, just clearing a field within real estate in which we say, we work with people who are working together to steward the earth, is in and of itself subversive. Other real estate agents don’t know what to do with those clients, but they are my inspiration.

On a systems level, I am most excited about community land trusts as a way to move land out of the speculative real estate market and into the public trust. This solves so many problems when it comes to establishing permanent affordability for homes that can be cooperatively managed by the people who live there. So we also get more self-governance.

Through the community land trust [movement], we can establish an ethos at the local level of how we hold those lands in trust and re-learn how to care for the land and each other in a way that is not just about “me and mine.” This is positively disruptive on lots of levels. From the personal to the systemic, I sense great promise in it. It is so important that we provide a counterbalance to the continuous land grab that provokes a seemingly endless housing crisis. It’s time for a land reform movement.

The Startup Turning Locals Into Entrepreneurs in Cincinnati’s Gentrifying Economy

Originally Posted on yesmagazine.org

Written by Araz Hachadourian

When neighborhoods develop, longtime residents are often left out of the boom. This incubator helps local entrepreneurs turn big ideas into businesses.

When Jasmine Ford sold her first cheesecake to a colleague at the Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati two years ago, she didn’t think anything of it. Even as word of her pastries spread and orders rolled in over the months, Ford didn’t imagine she’d one day own a business.

While MORTAR is open to all, the majority of students are low-income women.

But in just a few weeks, after two years of working out of her home, Ford, 24, will be opening her own storefront bakery, Jazzy Sweeties, a space she secured with the help of a local business-incubator called MORTAR. To start, she’ll get help from her brother and husband, but hopes to hire an employee soon after the doors open.

“I was so nervous about how I would get the money,” Ford said. “I knew when I got accepted to [MORTAR], this is what I was supposed to do.”

MORTAR is a nine-week business course designed to provide local entrepreneurs like Ford with the information and resources they need to start businesses, from a T-shirt printer to a paleo catering company. While MORTAR is open to all, the majority of students are low-income women.

The idea sprung from founders Derrick Braziel and Allen Woods, who live in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Once a working-class neighborhood made up mostly of German immigrants, the area was later populated by African Americans arriving during the Great Migration. Most businesses then were bars and small shops.

Over the years, tech firms moved in and more than $843 million was invested in Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding downtown area, bringing an onslaught of development and new residents. Braziel says the neighborhood still has small businesses, “but they’re serving a different demographic now.” 

Allen and Braziel realized their neighborhood was changing and the new businesses didn’t represent the community. But it wasn’t for the community members’ lack of entrepreneurial spirit.

“A lot of the entrepreneurs that we work with operate out of the underground cash economy,” Braziel said. “They’re running businesses out of their living room or they’re doing business out of their trunk or they’re hustling in some way, shape, or form. There’s talent all around, what’s lacking is the know-how.”

A recently released report from the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City suggested incubators are in a prime position to support the creation of more minority-owned businesses, which currently make up only 18 percent of businesses in the United States. “Incubators provide the type of help that all entrepreneurs can use: business training, access to capital, and access to networks for customers, suppliers, etc.,” said Kim Zeuli, director of research at the Initiative. “If you’re a low-income entrepreneur, incubators can help fill that need.”

In addition to the training, MORTAR gives each student a business coach and connects students to networks that can help them take their ideas to the next level. A local commercial kitchen, for example, lets students with food-related businesses use its facilities, while students from a nearby college volunteer to help participants create a social media presence for their companies. Throughout the year, MORTAR also hosts pop-up shops—opportunities for entrepreneurs to occupy a storefront on a bustling street to test the popularity of their ideas. 

“You want neighbors to have a stake in their neighborhood.”

Funding, though, is still an issue. At the moment, MORTAR isn’t able to finance the businesses in their program, which is why Braziel hopes that someday MORTAR can access a loan fund or operate its own. It helped two students raise money through crowdfunding platforms, including Jasmine Ford, who raised $10,000 through a Kiva Zip campaign. But Braziel says it’s not a reliable process: Ford had to raise $3,000 on her last day in order to reach her goal, and some students just don’t have the networks to raise the money they need.

Still, the demand for MORTAR’s services is high: In the two years since it began, 76 people have gone through the program and 25 have gone on to launch businesses. Currently, MORTAR has a waiting list of about 100.

Kathy Schwab, a member of MORTAR’s board of directors and director of the Cincinnati office of Local Initiatives Support Corp., a neighborhood revitalization group, said that as the city rapidly develops, it’s important that residents have a role in this new wave of business. 

“You want neighbors to have a stake in their neighborhood,” Schwab said. “You can’t leave the longtime residents behind—they have to be part of this new economy.”

Ford’s looking forward to her store’s opening, and to swapping a long series of business meetings for more time in her new kitchen. Facebook recently reminded her of the day she started her MORTAR program a year ago. “I posted a picture with the caption, ‘Watch me make my dream a reality,’” she said. “It happened. I’ve come a long way.”

The Faux Insurgency of the Climate Change Deniers and the Need for Closure

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

Climate change deniers like to style themselves as latter-day Copernicuses and Galileos, lone visionaries bucking the established wisdom of the ages embodied back then in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

There is a certain appeal to imagining oneself as isolated and embattled but unbowed. The analogy, however, is specious on its face. For neither Copernicus nor Galileo had giant international oil and coal companies supporting them with tens of millions of dollars of annual public relations expenditures and scores of fake think tanks which would have provided them comfortable and profitable sinecures while shielding them from the attacks of the church.

No, the climate change deniers actually work for the established church of our age, wealthy corporate interests opposed to doing anything to mitigate the ongoing carnage of climate change--the very interests that continue to have a stranglehold on the legislative bodies of the world to such an extent that relatively little has actually been done to address climate. The most compelling evidence is the steady march upward of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels measured at the world's best known measuring station, the Mauna Loa Observatory.

To hear the deniers one would think that we are already groaning under the weight of carbon taxes across the globe. The reality is that only a handful of countries and jurisdictions have bothered with such taxes, and one of them, Australia, repealed its tax. Yes, yes, there are cap-and-trade emissions schemes in the European Union, northeastern United States, California and Quebec. None of these jurisdictions has collapsed economically as a result. In fact, all are becoming leaders in a technological revolution that is moving us away from dependence on finite, climate-changing fossil fuels.

The real insurgents, the real Copernicuses and Galileos, then are the pioneers in climate research including the originator of the aforementioned measuring station at Mauna Loa, Charles Keeling. Keeling began taking measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in 1958, observations which constitute the longest series of carbon dioxide measurements available and which are now called the Keeling Curve. In the early years, Keeling had difficulty maintaining funding for measuring something that seemed unimportant at the time.

Strangely, we now know that much excellent research on climate change was done by Exxon Corp., the world's largest oil company, in the 1970s and 1980s. Later the company chose to bury that research and deny the importance of climate change, thus switching sides from climate pioneer to climate change denier. The company threw its enormous financial resources behind a network of advocacy organizations and fake think tanks acting as front groups for its agenda to forestall action on climate change. Talk about inconvenient truths!

What group of well-intentioned Galileos actively tries to thwart discovery, inquiry and debate when that group already knows from its own research that the truth is the opposite of what it is saying? We now know that is what the climate change deniers have done for more than two decades.

What they are sore about is that they've been exposed and they've lost the fight, at least over whether climate change is real and whether humans have the lion's share of the blame for it.

Commenters on my climate-related pieces often include deniers who get upset when I refuse to post their comments or delete their comments when they do get through. Deniers protest that I am censoring them and that I'm not interested in a discussion with people holding opposing views. (Never mind that many of those people are paid to hold and propagate those views.)

It is a common tactic to claim that all publications ought to be billboards for climate change denialism and that those that refuse to make themselves available for this purpose are not interested in genuine inquiry and debate.

First, privately-owned publications in the United States and many other countries have the right to publish whatever they please and not to publish whatever doesn't please them. This is the very essence of freedom of the press--not to be coerced by anyone.

Censorship then cannot emanate from a privately-run publication, broadcast or video service.  It can only come from the government coercing such media outlets to run or NOT to run something.

The deniers have their own websites, their own publications, even their own cable news network, namely Fox. No one is preventing these media from denying the human role in climate change. They do it every day.

The second charge, that those who refuse to engage with deniers are not interested in genuine inquiry and debate, is also a trick. There is nothing in my right to free speech and inquiry which obliges me to engage with people I do not wish to engage with. Nothing! Freedom of speech and freedom of association mean that I'm free to research and write about topics in any lawful way that I see fit.

Genuine engagement presupposes one very important thing: that both sides are open to logic and evidence and the possibility of changing their minds. Where that is not the case, the only result can be stalemate.

I would be greatly relieved if bona fide climate scientists discovered compelling and convincing scientific evidence that countermands all that we currently understand about climate change and that shows we are, in fact, about to experience a regression to the climate I grew up with. This is always a possibility even though it seems highly unlikely given what we already know. I am, of course, not talking about cherry-picked data taken out of context from the very climate scientists that deniers despise, but a profound alteration of the contours of climate science as we know it.

A denier never admits the possibility of changing his or her mind. Just ask a climate change denier what will convince him or her that climate change is real and caused by humans. I guarantee that he or she will not have a response. Evidence simply doesn't matter, so they have never considered what evidence would convince them to change their minds.

The deniers are free to try get people to listen to them. If I were physically to prevent others from listening to them (unless those others are minors under my guardianship), then I would be guilty of coercion. But I haven't done that and won't do that. I'm already quite good at convincing the people I can reach not to bother listening to deniers.

Here are the crux of the deniers' strategy and the horrible implications of it: The deniers want to convince the world that no policy action can be taken so long as there is any disagreement. They somehow pretend that there must be 100 percent consensus one way or the other.

The hypocrisy of this, of course, is that there is no 100 percent consensus that we should continue to burn fossil fuels; yet, by policy we continue to do so in large quantities every day. Would the deniers consent to a moratorium on burning fossil fuels so long as there is a debate about the consequences of burning them? When the shoe is on the other foot, it doesn't fit so comfortably, does it?

I'm sure deniers will be shocked, SHOCKED, to find out that public policy is always made without 100 percent certainty. Were it not so, there would be no public policy at all. Deniers know this, and that's what they want, public policy paralysis.

But there is something else that is disturbing about the deniers' tactics when we look at such tactics through an historical lens.

No doubt there are those who even today might argue that slavery ought to be legal. After all, the Bible, the holiest of books in the Christian world, sanctions slavery. And, the Bible was a frequently used weapon by the slaveholders and their apologists. Perhaps in the interests of honest inquiry we should engage those who argue for the reimposition of slavery.

Too farfetched? How about those who continue to argue for segregation of the races? Today we call them white supremacists. Shall we give them our ear in order to make sense out of the debate over segregation? Should we withhold our judgment about segregation until all the facts are in? (I am generously presuming that a white supremacist could actually give me facts.)

How about women's suffrage? There are cultures yet today that do not believe women should have a role in governing their own societies. Women, they say, are too immature and weak-minded to participate in such a lofty enterprise. Perhaps we should listen to those advocating the end of women's suffrage (or its prevention where it does not already exist) so we can try to discern whether we should take the vote away from women in our own societies.

As hard as it is to believe, some debates are actually closed. Yes, there may be a few dissenters left, but they are almost exclusively talking among themselves.

But those are social issues, you may say. Scientific inquiry is never closed off. Ideally, that's true (although one should note that in the cases cited above scientific arguments were made supporting slavery, the superiority of whites and the inferiority of women).

Scientific inquiry should and does go on even after policy decisions are made. But as a practical matter, we as a society through industry associations, for example, come to common understandings leading to product standards. It would be impossible to produce and use a cellphone without such standards. We could not do such a thing if we insisted that no cellphone be produced as long as there is not absolute agreement about all the aspects of physics thought to touch even remotely on their function (which there isn't since the science of physics is an open enterprise always subject to change). We do the same through government with regard to clean water and clear air regulations. Our understanding continues to evolve in both areas. But that does not prevent us from making needed policy and product standard decisions.

Keep in mind that the same people who brought us the full-throated defense of cigarettes as a harmless pastime have brought us the well-appointed packaging of climate denialism. I can only say that if they are true to their convictions, they should now all be chain-smoking cigarettes without any mental reservation or fear.

Society as a whole through its government cannot be effective if it must wait for every dissenter to quiet down. In fact, waiting for all dissent to dissipate would be the equivalent of not governing at all.

Representative government is a mechanism for debate, for letting those who dissent from the majority to be heard and possibly persuade. But then it's time for action, and those on the losing side are not asked to relinquish their free speech rights, but rather asked to accept the will of the majority (at least until such time as the issue is properly placed before the legislature to reconsider).

Those who deny human-caused climate change have been and continue to be free in most countries to say whatever they please. The real problem the deniers are having is that their audiences are getting smaller and smaller. That's what happens when you don't have a very compelling argument and the total weight of the evidence is so lopsided against you.