Archive | January 2015

No Age of Limits in 2015

On Facebook, KMO relayed a message from Orren Whiddon about Age of Limits:

Hello All
I wanted to let you know that we have made the decision not to host The Age of Limits Conference in 2015.

There are a number of reasons for our staff having made this choice, and the relative break even status of the finances is actually a minor reason. More important is that our volunteer staff has come to the realization that they have simply taken on too much with our packed schedule, and AoL is very demanding of our volunteer resources.

Here on the Land we need to tend to our own growing list of collapse mitigation projects, some of which I spoke to in my presentations. The Water Works is large on that list with its integrated windmill pumping, distribution, catchment basins and fish ponds. And we are considering expanding the land holdings of our income-sharing community. Last year we harvested our first large crop of rye and have now earnestly begun a regular cover cropping program. And our construction projects are never ending. All of this takes time, a commodity that for us is more precious than money.

Many of our presenters also feel the pressure to “take care of business.” The pace of change quickens and as I like to say, once you understand the science of collapse, there you are! At some point we start repeating ourselves, and many of us prefer to be engaged in our own personal preparations. The specific techniques of mitigating collapse in ones personal life are well known and broadly disseminated, it simply remains to begin.

As for action on a national or global scale, certainly there is room for that, but I suspect it is a small room. My own opinion is that we human primates are hard wired, for a host of good evolutionary reasons, to dissipate energy and resources as quickly as possible, turning those resources into as many chattering, charming and hopelessly flawed replication units as time and resources allow.

It may well be we will return to The Age of Limits Conference in three years or so. That would allow time to sharpen your own interest, and allow for our presenters to refresh their ideas on the accelerating unfolding of events. So pencil in the date, sometime in 2017. Until then I thank you for your support and offer my best wish that you may “Collapse Now and Avoid The Rush!”

Orren Whiddon
The Age of Limits

This announcement is disappointing for those of us that attended AoL 2014, and were looking forward to another session, but not entirely surprising in light of recent events.

The Oppressively Open Office

My eldest posted an Economist article called, How Workers ended up in cubes and how they could break free :

The march of the cubicle continues. Around 40m North Americans now work in cubicles and they are being installed from Bangalore to Beijing. In 2012 Meg Whitman, the boss of Hewlett-Packard, turfed executives out of corner offices and into cubicles. Even publishers are converting. Last year Hachette installed 520 cubes in its pricey Manhattan headquarters. The boss has one, too, albeit, with a window.

At first, chopping bullpens up into boxes seemed to fit with a new egalitarian mood. Some management theorists regarded cubicles as an uprising against the old order, where the desks of office serfs were lined up for inspection, factory-style, by managers who emerged from plush private domains. But not everyone agreed. George Nelson, a famed designer for Herman Miller, wrote to a colleague in 1970 that cubicles were “dehumanising” and suited for “corporate zombies, the walking dead”. The Dilbert cartoons of Scott Adams have long espoused the cause of the dispirited cubicle denizen and branded cubicles a sign of an uncaring employer.

And as they have become near-ubiquitous, it has become increasingly clear that far from offering a clever compromise between the economy of open-plan and the privacy of individual offices, cubicles are in many ways worse than either. In particular, they cause a number of health problems, some less obvious than others.

The article first reminded me of factory farming, but it also reminded me of something I wrote almost exactly a year ago, Cubbyhole-itis, based on a similar article in The New Yorker:

What is driving open layouts is status and money. Employees with higher status, or a demonstrable need for privacy to do their jobs, get private offices. Providing individual offices doesn’t necessarily cost that much more than a good quality modular work station, but a firm can write off the depreciation of a modular system on its taxes in a way that it can’t write off permanent improvements. They can also move and bring their investment along to a new space.

Peak Car, Split Cities

Is this the end of the automobile-dominated era? Resilience reposted this On The Commons article, Way To Go!, by Jay Walljasper:

Americans made 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013–the highest number since 1956 when the massive mobilization to build highways and push suburban development began.

These numbers represent a 37 percent transit increase since 1995. Meanwhile bike commuting is up 60 percent over the past decade, according to census figures. And people are walking 6 percent more than in 2005, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Significantly, the number of miles Americans travel in cars and trucks per capita has dropped nine percent since 2005.

Walljasper paints a rosy picture of the automobile-depleted future:

It’s good news for everybody because broader transportation choices are linked to a bounty of social and economic benefits, including expanded economic development, revitalized urban and suburban communities, increased social equity, reduced household transportation costs, improved public health, decreased traffic congestion, and improved environmental conditions.

But in, 3 Big Challenges for Planning Multi-Modal Cities, David King of CityLab sees more complexity:

As the cost of driving increases through higher gas prices, tolls, and parking charges, more people will look toward alternatives. Yet less driving does not necessarily mean more transit use. When people drive less they travel by all alternatives more; they also telecommute and use home deliveries. Greater use of alternative modes to driving adds bikes, pedestrians, trucks, transit, and taxis to already crowded streets. New thinking about the design and use of street space is needed as new modes, actors, technologies, and uses change the function of public roads.

And in, Atlanta Hopes a Three-Mile Streetcar Route Will Help Foster a New Urban Image, are two unusually frank quotes about whom this new mass transit is intended to serve:

“The streetcar just goes round and round,” said C. T. Martin, a member of the City Council. “At best, it’s a tourist attraction, but it doesn’t touch the bigger issue of regional transportation.”

“To all of those who may still have a slight doubt of the significance of the Atlanta streetcar, I say to you, frankly, ‘We did not build it for you,’ ” said A. J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. “We are building it because Atlanta is in a global competition for attracting future human capital. This beginning step of streetcar infrastructure is a critical tool in that competition.”

The Atlanta Journal Constitution blogged, Trolling for millennials with the Atlanta Streetcar:

… if the streetcar system succeeds, we may someday look at the tail end of 2014 as the serious beginning of regional competition for the hearts and souls of Georgia’s millennial generation.

If A.J. Robinson is right, if a generation of Georgians less smitten with cars and home ownership is in fact on the rise, millennials could become the anchor babies behind the revival of downtown Atlanta as an economic and political force.

“Millennials are definitely coming into the city of Atlanta. The recent census data verifies that,” a very happy Mayor Kasim Reed said after the ribbon-cutting. “Our population numbers are moving in a very competitive direction with the suburbs for the first time in a long time.”

Eight Hundred Words feels present Atlanta residents are being slighted:

As I read this comment, the people who live in Atlanta are not  important. Those who do matter are the hypothetical out-of-town Millenial “knowledge workers” who might consider living here if the city can meet their desire for quaint urban trappings and the businesses who might someday employ them. It is hard not to feel dismissed by Mr. Robinson’s statements which hopefully do not reflect the priorities of the city.

In, Globalization and Atlanta’s Gated Urban Core, PSMag’s Jim Russell sees a future with Atlanta breaking along class lines:

Our cities are splitting into two: One for the privileged and one for the poor. … For the poor moving out to the suburbs, aspirationally or otherwise, public transit does not extend far enough away from the city center. The folklore typically used to explain this infrastructure oversight is that affluent whites wanted to keep the riffraff in town, away from the suburban idyll. [but now that is inverting] … In the city of Atlanta, transit is a luxury good used to attract and retain talent. The urban core is a gated community for one Atlanta, but not the other.

It seems clear that the urban tension over the Eric Garner choking has its roots in an effort to gentrify NYC streets through aggressive and racially-profiled policing. If cities are going to split along class lines, expect the police to be at the front lines of efforts to make the urban cores attractive and safe for the privileged. Expect the homeless and scary-looking people of color to be chased away or rounded up.

How Much Pain?

The top article at Rigzone is a repost of a Reuters piece, As Oil Plummets, How Much Pain Still Looms for US Energy Firms:

With nearly a quarter of U.S. energy shares’ value wiped out by oil’s six-month slide, investors are wondering if the sector has taken enough punishment and whether it is time to pile back in ahead of earnings reports later this month.

In her latest post, Oil and the Economy – Where We Are Headed?, Gail Tverberg has qualified her claims of increased inefficiency from the post before:

The low oil prices we are seeing are a symptom of serious problems within the economy – what I have called “increased inefficiency” (really diminishing returns) leading to low wages. … While wages have been stagnating, the cost of oil extraction has been increasing by about ten percent a year …

That makes more sense to me, but I still think that speculation and profit-taking have been playing a role.

A few other financial sites have challenged the claim that Saudi production is the primary factor driving down oil prices, pointing out that the prices started dropping just as the Fed stopped propping up a cheap dollar by ending Qualitative Easing 3 in October 2014. Tverberg also points out that the Chinese government began to scale back their spending on infrastructure early in 2014.

Too bad the US government didn’t also invest in infrastructure. At least the Chinese have the infrastructure – all we have are wealthier plutocrats.

Gunmen Kill 12 in Shooting at Frederick Newspaper

Masked gunmen wielding AR-15s and a shotgun killed at least 12 people and injured 10 more at the offices of the Frederick News-Post on Wednesday before escaping. Frederick’s Mayor Randy McClement called the shooting, “unquestionably a terrorist attack.”

The attack is believed to be in response to the paper’s somewhat satirical article, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter. Apparently ignorant of the first amendment, Councilman Delauter had threatened a lawsuit, accusing the paper of using his name without permission. “We had no idea that Delauter’s followers were so militant,” said a source close to the paper who refused to be identified.

A video from the scene shows at least two gunmen shooting in Ballenger Center Drive and shouting what might be, “Git ‘Er Done!”


Update: Apparently the shootings occurred in Paris. Such attacks on freedom of the press could never happen in the US.

Is Cheap Oil Really Bad News?

Remember when Matt Simmons was betting a whole lot of money on high-priced oil? In August of 2005, oil exec and peak oil guru Matthew Simmons bet New York Times columnist and avowed techno-cornucopian John Tierney $10,000 that the, “year-end average of the daily price-per-barrel of crude oil for the entire calendar year of 2010 adjusted for inflation,” would be at least $200. Simmons died four months before that year’s end, but probably knew he would lose the bet.

In those days I was following The Oil Drum and Life After the Oil Crash and a few other sites. It was clear that the energy depletion crowd saw high oil prices and high fuel prices as a reliable bellwether of a severe economic collapse scenario, or what they called TSHTF. But while Simmons and others anticipated a price spike, few anticipated the subsequent price collapse and recovery to a wide range above and below $100/bbl. Few of them anticipated the boomlet in unconventional liquids (tar sands, tight oil, fracking, etc) enabled by those higher prices. The world economy absorbed a lot of big hits, but although a lot of people suffered, protested and were killed, the world economy did not collapse.

Today, Bloomberg tells us that the WTI per barrel price is $48.98 while the Brent per barrel price of oil is $51.99. A lot of folk in the US are very happy with lower fuel prices, but some of the same energy depletion gurus are telling us that falling oil prices are a bellwether of an economic collapse scenario. Does the last part of that sound familiar?

While it may sound funny to now fear low oil prices, I do believe that in a real sense the oil prices are low only because a lot of other folk – in the US and around the world – are persistently out of work. Whether those low prices will plunge us into chaos sooner rather than later is another matter. Here are three takes on lower oil prices. In, The peak oil crisis, Tom Whipple explains that too much was too much:

The reason for the current fall in prices is still in debate. The “oil” supply has continued to creep up in recent years, but starting last June the demand for $100+ oil was no longer there. While demand in the “rich” OECD countries has been down since the 2008 oil price spike, this year it seems to be the slowing Chinese economy and its reduced demand for raw materials that has been behind the sinking demand. Many of the developing economies have been growing and using more oil each year due to growing trade with the Chinese.

Someday conventional wisdom will conclude that oil at circa $100+ a barrel was simply too much to sustain high rates of economic growth and so the growth fell taking oil demand along with it. As nearly every action has a reactive feedback, we now are likely to see some sort of economic revival in those countries that have had to import a large share of their energy during the time of higher prices. Conversely the many states that have benefited from having large quantities of excess oil to export will not be doing so well for a while.

That sounds like good short-term news for the business-as-usual crowd in the US and Western nations, but lousy news in the third world. But since they make and buy a lot of our stuff, bad news for the rest of the world has a way of catching up with the West.

In, How increased inefficiency explains falling oil prices, Gail Tverberg asserts that expensive oil made almost everything else less efficient:

Since about 2001, several sectors of the economy have become increasingly inefficient, in the sense that it takes more resources to produce a given output, such as 1000 barrels of oil. I believe that this growing inefficiency explains both slowing world economic growth and the sharp recent drop in prices of many commodities, including oil.

The mechanism at work is what I would call the crowding out effect. As more resources are required for the increasingly inefficient sectors of the economy, fewer resources are available to the rest of the economy. As a result, wages stagnate or decline. Central banks find it necessary lower interest rates, to keep the economy going.

Unfortunately, with stagnant or lower wages, consumers find that goods from the increasingly inefficiently sectors are increasingly unaffordable, especially if prices rise to cover the resource requirements of these inefficient sectors. For most periods in the past, commodities prices have stayed close to the cost of production (at least for the “marginal producer”). What we seem to be seeing recently is a drop in price to what consumers can afford for some of these increasingly unaffordable sectors. Unless this situation can be turned around quickly, the whole system risks collapse.

Everything I read claims that US workers are more efficient than ever (when we’re not browsing the internet) but are still paid like it was the 1980s. Gail is blaming inefficiency for stuff being too expensive, but I think the income gap plays a large part. Maybe we can’t afford to be that efficient anymore.

In, This Oil Thing Is The Real Deal, Ilargi at The Automatic Earth predicts devalued currencies and war:

Well! WTI below $50 and Brent below $53 when I start writing this. Who knows where they’ll be by the time I’m finished?! The euro down below $1.20, US stocks flirting with -2%, major European ones off -3%, Italy and Greece over -5%. Welcome to the real world, baby! Didn’t think you’d see it again so soon, did you? Welcome to the world where the Kool-Aid recovery does not reign supreme.

Not that you’re not going to hear that anymore, and 24/7 incessantly so, but there’s no recovery with these oil prices, no matter what anybody says. The damage must be gargantuan by now. Everybody’s invested in oil. Sure, lots of shorts and stuff by now, but that’s not going to do much good. Not for pensions funds, or for governments. This thing will not blow up or over softly.

There’s not an oil major or minor or a producing country left that makes a profit at these prices, and there’s no sign anywhere to be seen that the drop will stop. If this keeps going, someday soon somebody’s going to go to war. Maybe domestically, maybe across a border, but it’ll happen.

Frankly I feel like we already are at war. We’re already dropping drones (whenever the secret courts allow – which means whenever we want). And third worlders are forming armies, exploding bombs, cutting off heads and advocating terrorism in the West. Another proxy war won’t be a big surprise, but I don’t think it will drag the economy down.

I’ve become leery of predictions that the world will collapse next week. My feeling is that it will be a painfully drawn out process.

Palermo Ride

On Dec 31st, I stopped into Light Street Cycles. Penny Troutner asked if I was going on the New Year’s Day memorial ride for Tom Palermo. I winced a bit. I had read that the popular local cyclist had been killed after being struck from behind by a small SUV driven by a newly-minted Episcopal Bishop. I commute by bike to work, but I hardly know anyone in the Baltimore recreational cycling community. I was noncommittal, but the feeling that I should go began gnawing at me.

Police are continuing to investigate the 2:40 p.m. Dec. 27 crash on the 5700 block of Roland Ave. Episcopal officials have identified the driver of the car as Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, the second-ranking official in the Diocese of Maryland. Cook initially drove away from the scene but returned a short time later, according to the diocese and witnesses at the scene. Another bicyclist followed her to a gated apartment complex. No charges have been filed.

Even though cold, Jan 1st was a perfect day for a ride. And the meetup site was only five miles away. As the time approached I dragged out my summer bike, pumped up the tires, and found my new bike shoes. Tired of dragging toe clips, I broke down and bought cleated bike shoes last summer, but I am still not at all good at getting both cleats and pedals locked together. I passed a crowd assembling at Joe’s Bike Shop. After climbing Bellemore Road, I joined the tail end of twenty or thirty cyclists headed down University. A lot of guys wore green jerseys reading, ‘Kelly’.

The group grew larger and larger, and when we got to the Episcopal Diocese I figured that I wouldn’t be finding Penny or Bernie in the crowd. 724 people had RSVP’d on facebook, and even more showed up. I walked the bike up on the grass and checked out the spandex. There was another group wearing team jerseys, but most guys wore a yellow or red or blue jacket with black gloves and leggings. I saw one other guy with a Bern helmet. My folding commuter bike would have stuck out among all the 26″ and 700c wheelers.

I chatted with a young woman holding a maroon bike, and we traded the bits we had heard about the crash. Neither of us cared that the woman had used pot or alcohol, unless she was using it while driving that day. She heard the driver had been rushing to a wedding. I wondered if she only came back because a cyclist had tailed her to her house. She was dismayed that the first woman bishop in this area had failed her first pastoral challenge by leaving the scene.

At some point everybody started North on Roland Avenue to the crash site. We filled all three lanes as well as the non-separated bike lane. I didn’t see it, but I read later that we passed by the ghost bike of Nathan Krasnopoler, who was also killed in a bike lane. My wife is always worried about me being hit by a car, but I was more worried about being knocked over in the crowd of cyclists. Most people rode carefully but some hotshots were darting in and out so they could catch up to the lead group that had made the green light. I saw police watching us, but we didn’t have an escort.

When we got there, I found an open spot behind a retaining wall sign. I was lucky because Nate Evans of BikeMaryland, Jed Weeks of Bikemore and Palermo’s brother-in-law Jeff Hulting decided to stand just in front of that wall to speak, and I could actually hear them. I considered suggesting the people’s microphone, but it didn’t seem like an Occupy crowd. Evans and Weeks spoke briefly about being patient with authorities and riding safely, but wanted the day to be about Tom. Hulting expressed hope:

“Last Saturday was a beautiful day and Rachel, realizing how busy they had been, suggested to Tom that he do what he loved and and go out for a ride.” … “As tragic as this accident was and the grief that our family feels, it is our hope that the awareness caused by this horrible event will ultimately result in the saving tens, if not hundreds, of cyclists’ lives in the future.”

Bike Maryland and Baltimore Brew have articles.