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No Predictions

We’re getting close to that time of the year. Some of us resolve to lose weight, find love, change jobs. Some pundits tell us how best to do all that; others tell us it is futile. Others just advise us on what recipes will make people happy – or unhappy.

I was amused to read that lifestyle diva Martha Stewart and aspiring lifestyle diva Gwyneth Paltrow were feuding through recipe columns. Stewart poked at Paltrow’s recent breakup with a “consciously coupled” dish. Paltrow retaliated with a “jailbird” cake – calling to mind Stewart’s time in the slammer. Classy stuff.

For a few years I could count on doomers of various stripes – curmudgeon Jim Kunstler, Dr Doom Nouriel Roubini, ArchDruid John Michael Greer, Kollapsnik Dmitry Orlov, retired CIA analyst Tom Whipple and even farmer/mother Sharon Astyk – posting their predictions for energy depletion for the coming year. I occasionally read Ilargi and Stoneleigh at The Automatic Earth and various folk at The Oil Drum as well. I was not a reader of the embattled Mike Ruppert – who took his own life last Spring – or Carolyn Baker or Guy MacPherson, the three of whom were even more certain of our demise.

Kunstler is still predicting imminent chaos next week, as are Raul and Nicole at TAE. Former Oil Drum editor Gail Tverberg at Our Finite World seems to have a slightly longer horizon. Tom Whipple still dutifully reports on international crises, though he hopes for the hail mary pass of cold fusion to score a touchdown against a low energy future for our grandchildren. I’m still not conversant with Baker or MacPherson, but the rest have drifted into a general feeling that we are now living through the early stages of a post-peak collapse with increasingly severe climate emergencies. Greer posts at length about how we should adapt as tinpot warlords duke it out over the next few centuries. Orlov sees America’s attempt to use Ukraine against the Russians as a sign of imperial decline and urges us to be more like Roma gypsies. Astyk seems too busy with her adopted foster children to bother with the rest of us. And good on her.

I don’t have any predictions except that things will keep getting a little worse – particularly the climate. Some of us are still insulated from the effects of a contracting economy, but many of us know people who have fallen out. Some of them are still trying to follow the American Dream; others are living with parents or friends; the most desperate have turned to dealing meth. We read about people going bankrupt from going to the wrong damn hospital. The ubiquity of phone cameras has revealed that our police are nothing like the stolid or lovable actors on television. Cameras also reveal that rich people laugh to each other at exploiting poorer people. Last night even 60 Minutes noticed that our infrastructure isn’t being maintained. We’re too busy building weapons and casinos to fix our bridges.

Thanks, Short-Term Brains!

There’s a joke – popular among conservatives and libertarians – wherein two guys are running away from a bear. One guy asks the other if they can outrun the bear; the other says, no, but I can outrun you. (haha). I heard it again on the news a few weeks ago. It occurred to me that the joke has to feature a bear because they are often solitary hunters. The joke just doesn’t work with a pack of wolves.

The idea that you can survive by outcompeting your peers has some validity in some situations, but against more comprehensive threats cooperation is a much better survival strategy. Particularly if you have aged parents or small children that can’t even outwalk the bear.

In Politico, a Seattle entrepreneur named Nick Hanauer – a wealthy 0.1 percenter – argues for long-term thinking with The Pitchforks Are Coming For Us Plutocrats. First, he wants to pay the middle class enough to buy his products. Second, he thinks Occupy could be a lot worse next time around:

Here’s what I say to you: You’re living in a dream world. What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time. Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens. Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand. That’s the way it always happens. If inequality keeps rising as it has been, eventually it will happen. We will not be able to predict when, and it will be terrible for everybody. But especially for us.

I keep thinking back to Galápagos. In his 1985 novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator (a ghost) notes that he had thought himself to be smart because of his big primate brain, but then relates all the bad decisions he and his fellow primates made as their civilization collapsed. For example, he explains how a ship captain should have recognized a dangerous situation brewing in port, but since he had just enjoyed a good meal, and was looking forward to making love with his woman, the reptilian part of his brain instead chose to believe that the situation would work itself out. Somehow. “Thanks, big brain,” snickered Vonnegut after every poor and ultimately fatal decision.

Will the ghosts of plutocrats some day sarcastically thank their big brains as their heads are paraded on pitchforks? For a long time I was completely on board with Hanauer’s argument that we need a strong, stable middle class for both economic prosperity and political stability. In the short term, I still believe that to be true. But in the long term, it is exactly wrong.

Over a decade ago, I read arguments by Julian Darley to the effect that the earth simply doesn’t have the resources to support a large middle class with all the water and oil and meat that it consumes, and all the carbon and waste it generates. It can’t even support the US and European middle classes much longer, much less the rising middle classes of China, India, Brazil, and so on.

At about the same time I began reading The Oil Drum, and was exposed to other examples of short-term thinking. Many TOD commenters saw Peak Oil as the bear, and bragged about how they were going to get their ten acres of crops and firewood, and maybe some solar panels, but definitely plenty of rifles and ammo. They warned that they would shoot anyone that came to their door. In the short term, they recognized that cold, starving neighbors might be the initial threat. But how would they survive the local foraging gangs (the pack of wolves) that were bound to organize? Would they have neighbors that could help them with medical problems or other emergencies? And what of climate change? If you just shoot at everyone, who is going to pull your family out of a mudslide? Thanks, short-term brain!

Dmitry Orlov has looked a little further down the road and in Communities That Abide, advises us that certain groups have tended to survive through difficult times. But as I’ve mentioned before, those of us in the US middle class don’t much resemble the Amish or Roma folk that Dmitry implies we should emulate – whether by education, temperament or expectations. In such a community, to want more out of life than being expendable once you reproduce would be yet another flavor of short-term thinking. Perhaps Vonnegut was right about our big brains.

It is tremendously hard to think long-term about everything. Do Hanauer’s fellow 0.1%ers simply enjoy being rich too much to change? Or do they already know the risks they are running, but have no options? I look at myself and see that I have made small changes to my middle class life – less driving, no a/c, a smaller house – but nothing like joining an eco-village or transition town. Essentially I enjoy being middle class, and my family and friends and employers expect me to keep up appearances. Can I expect the rich to give up being rich when I don’t give up being middle-class?

We haven’t looked after our infrastructure, or provided for energy once the oil is gone. Our healthcare system is increasingly predatory. We are overfishing and overfarming. As I see it, the middle class faces a future of dwindling into relative poverty and insecurity, while the rich face a future where being rich isn’t as comfortable or secure as being middle class is now.


In a New York Times OpEd, They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To – Inferior Products and Labor Drive Modern Construction, Henry Petroski rants about materials and workers:

Workmanship has declined in parallel. There continue to be expert craftsmen — carpenters, roofers, painters — who work with precision and pride, but they are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills (which is, of course, why the labor is cheaper). …

As an architect, I see good and bad work all the time. I have swum in old pools with playful, elegant ceramic tile curbs that I know I could never hope to have duplicated today. I have taken measurements in old buildings with tight brick joints and expertly-mitred woodwork the sort of which I never see when I do punch lists today. I have been to project meetings where an electrical subcontractor objected to the difficulty of the work – running utility outlets in a furniture store – by claiming to be installers, not designers.

As pointed out in the Times comments section, many great old buildings survive and many shoddy old buildings don’t. But that argument only works if there are great new buildings with excellent craftsmanship. Even the most costly of today’s buildings should probably be called assemblages or installs because to a great extent, builders do a lot more assembling and installing today than cutting, molding, fitting and building.

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and Realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

As pointed out in the Times comment section, cheapskate homeowners are just as complicit as anyone else. But as also pointed out, homeowners have less and less money to spend on quality work. Petroski goes on:

I can’t help but think that this experience, multiplied by those of millions of homeowners, affects how we as a country view our public infrastructure. We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

I’m running across that hyphenated word, short-term, in more and more articles. We have short-term energy policy, politics, and attention spans, but long-term climate, water, healthcare and employment problems that we are hoping will just go away. Unfortunately it may be our infrastructure that just goes away.

It’s going to fall

Architects always squirm a bit when we hear about a building collapse, especially when people are injured or killed. The 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse, in Kansas City, was a big deal because all the professionals involved probably thought they had exercised due diligence – but changes that subtly weakened the structure had slipped by during construction.

In Philadelphia a building under demolition collapsed onto a neighboring thrift store that was still occupied. Talking Points Memo reports that several workers nearby were worried by what they saw:

For weeks, people working nearby had watched with growing concern as a demolition crew took down a vacant four-story building next to a thrift store at the edge of downtown Philadelphia.

A roofer atop another building didn’t think the operation looked safe. A pair of window washers across the street spotted an unbraced, 30-foot section of wall and predicted among themselves the whole building would simply fall down.

On Wednesday, that’s what happened. The unstable shell of a building collapsed into a massive heap of bricks and splintered wood, taking part of the Salvation Army thrift store with it and killing six people. Fourteen others were injured.

But no one reported their fears. Every morning on the light rail I hear, “If you see something, say something,” meaning suspicious-looking people or packages. I wonder what would have happened if one of those workers, or a passing engineer, had called the authorities to express their concerns. Would they have been ignored, as were the engineers at Dhaka, or would they have been thanked for their vigilance? Or would they have been told to mind their own business?

In light of the Ag-Gag bills, do we now have to stop and wonder who we might be reporting to the authorities, lest we be charged as a whistleblower? With revelations about wiretapping of journalists, monitoring of phone records and increasingly pervasive video surveillance, can we afford to even voice our fears to each other?

TV a la carte

Mavericky John McCain tried to clean up cable TV with the CHOICE Act back in 2006. That didn’t happen, but as described in The Hill, he’s trying again:

McCain working on bill to allow for ‘a la carte’ cable TV packages

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is working on legislation that would pressure cable and satellite TV providers to allow their customers to pick and choose the channels they pay for, his office confirmed on Wednesday. …

In addition to pressuring cable providers to offer channels a la carte, McCain’s new bill would bar TV networks from bundling their broadcast stations with cable channels they own during negotiations with the cable companies, according to industry sources. So for example, the Disney Company, which owns both ABC and ESPN, could not force a cable provider to pay for ESPN in order to carry ABC.

The industry officials said the bill would also end the sports blackout rule, which prohibits cable companies from carrying a sports event if the game is blacked out on local broadcast television stations.

No matter what bills get passed, I find it hard to believe that cable providers won’t find a way to charge a lot for a little. Their main obstacle is not legislation, though, it is the poor quality of their product and the inflexible way they deliver it. I used to come home and hear all about 1001 Ways to Die or House Hunters or some Lifetime movie because there wasn’t anything else on during the day. Then I’d try to find something worthwhile among the Entertainment Tonight wasteland from 6 to 8 PM. Then we’d have to stay awake until 10 or 11 PM to watch the shows we actually enjoyed.

Having canceled cable, we are enjoying the Netflix business model. We watch older shows on no particular schedule. I watched the UK House of Cards, and will get around to the US version. I watched all of Foyle’s War from the beginning, to get my Sam Stewart fix, and got my wife hooked, too. She can now go back to the early episodes. She added Frasier to the instant queue. For whatever reason, I had only seen a dozen episodes or so of that series.

Some seasons of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise were broadcast at odd times, so I’ve started from the beginning on them, too. I only discovered Louie last year, so I’ve gone back to his pilot episode, too. I plan to watch The West Wing, a phenomenon that somehow passed me by.

At some point Netflix may run out of decent older shows, but by then they may have more access to newer content. We do watch a handful of current shows on the websites of CBS, ABC and NBC, and I watch TeamCoco for Conan – again, exactly when we have the time. No more appointment TV. My wife no longer sits down in front of the tube to watch whatever is on. If there’s nothing she really wants to see, she plays the radio instead.

Revolution: NYC

Like the world of the television show Revolution, much of New York City is suddenly without electrical power. Unlike the show, this was a Predictable Result. Unlike the show, Big Apple residents will not be uniformly affected, because many will have backup generators or homes in unaffected areas. Unlike the show, most will not be wearing stylish outerwear, though some already do. Unlike the show, most will not be learning to use crossbows and machetes, though some already do. And unlike the show, New York will recover power within a few weeks, and most people will think that everything is back to normal.

A dark NYC is a powerful symbol, though, and as on Discover, a lot of pundits are discussing whether the Frankenstorm will push anyone – the public, the media, the politicians – from Denial of climate change into Acceptance. They are, however, skipping over Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. I think the Red Staters have been waffling between Denial and Anger for years, and I don’t see that changing soon. Some Blue Staters and many Greens have progressed to Bargaining, as in, “I’ll drive a hybrid car, reuse grocery bags and buy organic foods … OK? I’ll support wind and solar … OK?” Essentially bargainers want to go on doing the same things while making only symbolic changes to their unsustainable lifestyles. We’re a long way from Acceptance.

Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief correspond very roughly with Bodhi Paul Chefurka’s Ladder of Awareness, which I learned of recently, in that it is a five step progression to full realization:

Dead asleep
Awareness of one fundamental problem
Awareness of many problems
Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems
Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life

Again, most people are dead asleep, abetted by the sleight-of-hand of media and denial of government. Many young people became aware of one problem – looming unemployment in their age bracket – and rushed to join the Arab Spring, the Indignados or Occupy. Many adults have joined Bill McKibben to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The question is whether a large number will realize that solving their one problem will not get them out of the long range predicament.

Perhaps when large swaths of the US starts having an intense, rainy season every year, will people climb a few more rungs up the ladder. I suspect that only widespread deprivation and death will make situation clear, but even then there will always be scapegoats.

Electing Austerity

With the current administration authorizing predator drone strikes, supporting NDAA, enabling megabanks and opposing legalization of marijuana, many left-leaning pundits observe that President Obama is not sufficiently progressive to deserve their votes. Some suggest not voting, voting third party, and some even suggest voting for Romney instead.

Only Nixon can go to China, and in Defeat Romney, Without Illusions about Obama, Daniel Ellsberg explains why he urges liberal progressives to vote to reelect Barack Obama despite their disappointments :

It’s not merely understandable, it’s entirely appropriate to be enraged at Barack Obama. As I am. He has often acted outrageously, not merely timidly or “disappointingly.” If impeachment were politically imaginable on constitutional grounds, he’s earned it (like George W. Bush, and many of his predecessors!) It is entirely human to want to punish him, not to “reward” him with another term or a vote that might be taken to express trust, hope or approval.

But rage is not generally conducive to clear thinking. And it often gets worked out against innocent victims, as would be the case here domestically, if refusals to vote for him resulted in Romney’s taking key battleground states that decide the outcome of this election.

To punish Obama in this particular way, on Election Day — by depriving him of votes in swing states and hence of office in favor of Romney and Ryan — would punish most of all the poor and marginal in society, and workers and middle class as well: not only in the U.S. but worldwide in terms of the economy (I believe the Republicans could still convert this recession to a Great Depression), the environment and climate change. It could well lead to war with Iran (which Obama has been creditably resisting, against pressure from within his own party). And it would spell, via Supreme Court appointments, the end of Roe v. Wade and of the occasional five to four decisions in favor of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Republicans and Democrats alike promise that there is a bright energy future if only we can A – pillage the land for unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and fracked natural gas or B – invest in clean energy including “clean” coal and nuclear power. The Green Party and Justice Party have made a response to climate change and energy depletion some part of their campaign platforms.

Republicans and Democrats alike predict that their economic policies will stimulate growth, create jobs and return morning to America. The Green Party suggests that measures like their proposed Superfund for Workers will stave off further economic recession. The Justice Party suggests green jobs and infrastructure programs to keep people employed. I don’t believe any of them can deliver growth.

My belief is that austerity is coming, and that who we elect determines how it will be allocated. Much as I liked Dr Jill Stein, common sense tells me that only Obama and Romney have the chance to win and govern. It is very clear that Romney’s mission is to protect the very wealthy from any effects of austerity while Obama’s mission is to prop up as much of the middle class as he can for as long as possible while still satisfying his wealthy donors. From a selfish standpoint, I have to agree with Ellsberg about this election.

As austerity sets in, however, the choices will become less clear.