Green shoots of New Economy

SUBHEAD: A replacement economy – a green economy – is now emerging.

By John Thackara on 2 November 2009 in Worldchanging - 

Image above: Tokyo building atrium with mirrored escalators. Not so green. From,8599,1900344,00.html

When I first came to Tokyo, fashionable parts of the city would be lined with hundreds of heavy taxis sitting in queues with their engines running, for hours on end. Every powered item was always on, 24/7. Tokyo Metropolitan Government has passed a law against idling cars - but this hall of mirrors atrium is a reminder that high entropy Tokyo will not disappear without a struggle.

This picture is by way of context for my lecture yesterday at the International Design Symposium which was held to mark Musashino Art University's 80th anniversary.

Here below is what I said. [I've borrowed here from a fantastic book I read on the way here: The New Economics: A Bigger Picture by David Boyle and Andrew Simms. Review of that to follow - but buy it now.]

Kosa-san, esteemed colleagues, I will talk today about the emerging green economy - and, within that, the role of art and design. But first, a word of background.

Peak energy. Peak credit. Peak climate change. Each of these challenges is daunting on its own. Taken together, they mean that business- as-usual is over - for good. The old ways will not return. Yes, there are “green shoots” - but they are not the same old plants. They are the first sign that new economic and social life forms are emerging.

I believe that we have arrived at what complexity researchers call an “inflection point”. After forty years of talk and prevarication, we have arrived at a moment of profound transformation in the economy. I believe our instinct for survival is taking hold.

I say survival, because the old economy - the economy in which Gross Domestic Product is the only measure of success – has become, in the words of the True Cost campaign, a "doomsday machine". The traditional economy can only survive if it keeps growing, to infinity; and yet it wants to grow to infinity in a biosphere whose carrying capacity is finite.

That’s what makes the old economy a doomsday machine. Running after GDP, we ensure the destruction of the biosphere for economic reasons. It’s madness. The economist Lord Nicholas Stern was talking at the People's University of Beijing last week.

Stern, an insider’s insider, a key architect of the global status quo, stated the unthinkable:

“We have to question whether we can afford future growth.”

Can’t afford to grow! What an extraordinary thing for a former World Bank chairman to say! But what choice did he have? Do we all have? The basic operating system of the economy is broken.

The good news is that a replacement economy – a green economy – is now emerging. It has a new operating system. Rather than strive to make the most profit, regardless of the consequences, the green economy sets out meet human needs, whilst also protecting the capacity of natural systems to support life.

For business, and design, this new economic framework changes everything. Before this financial crisis, a new product or service was launched, somewhere in the world, every three minutes.

Nearly all these new products involved the in-efficient use of energy, water, and natural resources. Each product – remember: a new one every three minutes - contributed to the 70 million tonnes of C02 that is emitted into the earth’s atmosphere, every 24 hours, as a result of human activity.

Most of these products, and the environmental impacts that accompanied them, involved input from designers and the creative industries: concepts, artifacts, communications, packaging, shops, malls.

All these had, as their direct outcome, un-sustainable consumption. Without the creative industries, the economic doomsday machine could not function.

Design is not uniquely responsible, of course. The digital revolution, too, has played a part. The digital economy was added to, but did not replace, the industrial economy. The result of adding a digital layer to the industrial economy was to amplify energy and resource use in the global economy - tenfold. Digital communications also added a new layer of insulation – a kind of blindfold - between human beings and the biosphere.

Thanks to the the internet, and later with social networking, we became more connected to each other - but less connected to the natural systems on which all our lives depend. Technology separates us from direct experience of the world. It therefore blinds us to the consequences of our destructive economic behaviour.

So: If we can no longer carry on designing and producing stuff mindless of the consequences, what, then, should our focus be?

The emerging 'green economy' is based on a simple principle: We all live and work within a system whose carrying capacity is finite. The business opportunity, in this context, is develop the new services and infrastructures to meet daily life needs in radically lighter ways.

A key concept here is Ezio Manzini's idea of enabling solutions - solutions that re-assert human agency in our systems-filled world. A core task of design, in this emerging green economy, is to make it easier to share resources – resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software, space, or food.

This green economy, you will note, is not principally about smart machines, such as electric vehicles, or wind turbines. The most important resources in the green economy are people. Even when machines are part of a green solution, people matter.

For example, efficiency in buildings, or in transport systems is determined by intensity of use, and by load factors - for example, of vehicles - not just by energy and material costs. Shared patterns of use are as important as low energy propulsion systems.

A huge design effort is also needed to create and optimize tools. Tools are needed to help us for perceive, understand the world in new ways.

The aim, in the green economy, is "radical transparency"- a situation in which we all know the true environmental, health, and social costs of what we buy.

The keyword here: True Cost.

Another keyword here is Social Innovation.

The green economy I am describing is not a future dream. It already exists. Social innovation is all around us. Even if the old economy, the market economy, does not recognize them, every community contains assets in the form of people and their skills and their culture.

By some accounts, there are one million grassroots environmental organizations out there. The website WiserEarth, alone, lists 120,000 of them all over the world.

The better-known examples have names like “Post-Carbon Cities” or “Transition Towns." The Transition Towns movement, especially, is, for me, hugely significant.

Transition initiatives, which only started to emerge a couple of years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 200 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns - or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest. A further 800 communities around the world are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of starting their own Transition Initiative. Transition groups have started to appear in Japan, too. Check them out.

The transition model - I'm quoting their website - “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye." But they don't just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.

They develop practical to-do lists; put those items in an agreed order of priority; and then start to work on the priority tasks they’ve agreed on. Their focus is the notion of resilience.

“Fui so” in Chinese is the capacity of a system to adapt to change, to rejuvenate.

In a green economy, resilience means the capacity of a place-based community to survive without the profligate energy and resource consumption we have become used to.

Transition groups deal with this in a most practical way. Each group asks a simple question: "for all those aspects of life that our community needs, in order to sustain itself and thrive, how will we do, if the worst case scenarios, that we fear, come to pass?

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people have different interests and capabilities, but are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

A second reason the Transition model works is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities - the "open space" method - that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view. The green economy is not being made by clever guys staring at computer screens. The green economy is not being made in shiny expensive buildings protected by guards. No: the green economy is being made wherever people are growing food in cities.

The green economy is where people opening seed banks, or teaching young people how to forge links direct with farmers in Community Supported Agriculture schemes. It’s being made where communities are removing dams, and restoring watersheds.

Anywhere you find car-share schemes, or off-grid energy pilots – there is a green economy hotspot. You’ll find the green economy wherever people are launching local currencies – nine thousand examples at last count. In their own version of the green economy, 70 million Africans are exchanging airtime - not cash. Non-money trading is exploding. Thousands of groups, Thousands of experiments.

For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now - food, health, shelter, journeying – alternatives are being tried. In the green economy now emerging, some aspects of resilience are technological solutions.

Other solutions are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution – fir example, using plants to clean water. But most resilience attributes are social practices - some of them very old ones, that have evolved in other societies and in other times.

So, before we start designing new services and systems from scratch, we need to ask first: has anyone addressed a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, adapt, and piggyback on their success? or failure, come to think of it.

Last week, for example, I received a new book by Azby Brown – Just Enough - which describes how Japanese society confronted multiple crises of energy, water, fuels, food, and population – 200 years ago.

Japanese society in the Edo period met these challenges because it was conservation-minded, waste-free, and valued wellbeing with the minimum of resource consumption. I do not propose that we try to go backwards in time. And I am not promoting Edo as a lifestyle choice, a product you buy from a catalogue. No: as Azby Brown writes in his book, Just Enough is valuable as a mentality, as a framework for acting in the world - not a list or rules and prohibitions.

The green economy is not a prison camp. It’s a garden.

Advanced Design Education
I have spoken about the emerging green economy. I have talked about the necessity to account for the True Cost of a whole system in everything we design. I have spoke about the concept of “resilience” as a keyword in the society now emerging. I have also argued that social innovation – and especially Transition Towns – are more important sites of innovation than technology labs - or design studios.

If these ideas sound a long way from the traditional concerns of art and design – well, that’s because they are! But it’s not just design that’s facing profound change. A green economy means profound change for all professions, all businesses, all cities and regions.

But a question has been posed to us: what is an “Advanced Design Education” and how to we deliver it? My first response to this question is that “Advanced Design Education” already exists – only not by that name, and not in one place.

In my travels around the world, I have been encountering what Im tempted to describe as “transition design schools!” Some of these schools, or research sites, have an environmental agenda, but also have art and design in their culture.

In parallel, so-called “green MBAs” are beginning to be offered, which also have a design component. Two interesting examples, again in the US, are Bainbridge Graduate Institute and the Dominican University. Other ventures are further ahead of traditional design.

What these all have in common is that they operate in three complementary modes: • the mode of the live project in a real place; • the creation of a marketplace to connect ideas and projects together in viable enterprise; • the cross-pollination of models, tools and experiences from other places, and other times.

I would also mention my own organization, Doors of Perception, in this context.

Five years ago, we stopped organizing big international conferences to focus on in-situ events.

For a city or region, we: • scope for and map resources, especially people and natural resources who would not otherwise be visible; • we bring the most interesting projects together, and run design clinics to find out how each project can be helped; • finally, we often help each project pitch for support in a kind of Dragon’s Den game, with the aim of launching them as a social enterprise.

Our model, City Eco Lab helps a regions speed up its engagement in the green economy. This, for me, is one new form of advanced design education.

Until recently, it has been it’s too hard to try these experiments in mainstream universities, or business.

But as I said at the start today, these are new times. The moment is right for what Eugenio Barba calls “the dance of the big and the small.” Big institutions need fresh input and thinking. Small, edgy projects yearn for scale, reach, and impact

For me, “advanced design education” is about making new connections, and starting new conversations. Advanced design education is not much about dreaming up original content in a lab, or studio. Advanced design education, for me, is about getting out of the tent – going to where the action is. Art and design have a lot to offer.

The ability of the artist to help us all perceive the unseen, or the invisible, is vital as we reframe the tasks and priorities of the economy.

Artists can sensitize us to systems, and their behaviour, and thereby help us engage with the biosphere as a systemic whole - in which human beings are a co-dependent part.

In many cultures, this has been the work of artists for thousands of years. The idea of art separated off from daily life is literally unknown in so-called “un-developed” cultures.

Design skills, too, are needed, right now, out there where the green economy action is. Design is needed to help create tools. Tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing. Tools for sharing resources, organizing people, and exchanging time.

As Professor Tony Jones reminded us yesterday, artists and designers are workers!

So, put them to work!


Critique of Critique of Transition

SUBHEAD: The Transition movement holds fast to the principle that it’s not all about the technology or doomsday.

 By Rob Hopkins on 3 November 2009 in Transition Culture -

Image above: Entry into the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. From  

I have been following with interest the discussions surrounding Alex Steffen’s piece at WorldChanging in which he critiques Transition. I am honoured that someone so widely respected as a writer on sustainability issues saw fit to engage in discussions around Transition, but, as a critique of Transition, it leaves a lot to be desired.

It is a confusing piece in which, in spite of Alex’s protestations in the comments thread to have read everything about Transition that is out there, seems to have somewhat missed the point. I’ll go through some of Alex’s main points, but an overall reflection is that it appears to me that what Alex does is to describe Transition as something it isn’t, criticize it for being that, and then propose something to replace Transition which is actually what Transition was all along. An odd approach. Carolyn Baker has already posted an articulate response to Alex’s piece, but here’s mine.
What Transition is Not

It might be useful to start by clarifying a few beliefs and characteristics which Alex erroneously attributes to Transition.
  • Transition does not focus exclusively on towns and ignore cities. Although the term ‘Transition Towns’ alliterates nicely, we now use the term Transition Initiatives (and have done so for at least 2 years), given that there are now Transition cities, islands, hamlets, streets, districts, Universities and more. In fact, many of the most fascinating Transition projects are happening in cities, projects like the Brixton Pound are one such example.
  • There are 239 ‘formal’ Transition initiatives… but thousands of ‘mullers’ or unofficial initiatives across the world.
  • Transition does not suggest that people “just go ahead and do something, anything’. It suggests a community-led design project, to consciously and creatively design for the transition away from oil dependency. Although it encourages people to get started with taking action in whatever way they feel moved to and feel passionate about, it proposes that this take place within a wider framework of being strategic, hence the concept of Energy Descent Planning being Step 12 of the 12 Step approach.
  • It does not suggest that “the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level”. It is stated very clearly in the Transition Handbook that we need a hierarchy of responses; we need local and national government responses, we need international agreements such as that being discussed soon in Copenhagen, but without vibrant, creative, positive local level engagement, all of those will be less well informed, slower and less inclusive. The drive can come from communities, but they can’t do it alone. I often talk about Transition as having the potential to be the lubricant that re-oils the wheels of political engagement that have, for many, become rusted to the stage of inaction.
  • Alex writes “all over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse… and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap”. This is enormously patronizing as well as factually incorrect, and I will explore why in what follows.
Collapse or Descent?
Much of Alex’s piece revolves around his belief that Transition is obsessed with collapse and its inevitability. Some of what Alex writes here goes beyond being factually incorrect and is actually quite deeply insulting. I find it extremely suprising to be accused of having a “casual eagerness for the death of others”. I have met no-one involved in Transition who would display such an eagerness, and I would be deeply shocked if I did. At the heart of this is the difference between the concept of energy descent and of collapse.

For me, as I have articulated in the Transition Handbook and elsewhere, the motivation for Transition is that of responding to peak oil and climate change, and to the notion of energy descent. Energy descent, as articulated originally by Howard Odum and later by David Holmgren, and given a rigorous energetic basis by Ted Trainer’s analysis in ‘Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society‘, is based on the observation that the world is passing the peak in fossil fuels, and that we need to be designing for the declining availability of both oil itself and of net energy.

As I also set out in the book, there are many scenarios that then emerge as to what happens now, of which collapse is one, but the clearly stated desire of Transition is to be able to create a safe, intentional way through energy descent, avoiding collapse, shifting the focus to local economies and increased resilience, what Odum called ‘A Prosperous Way Down’.

Alex writes that I talk “almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly”. What I actually do is to stress that the passing of peak oil, the entering of the age of energy descent, could be, given the successful mobilizing of what we call ‘engaged optimism’ and of communities seeing the possibilities within this rather than just the challenges, need not be dreaded.

The reskilling that would accompany relocalization, the move away from fossil fuel dependence, the rebuilding of local food networks, the rediscovery of local building materials, all have huge potential for a cultural renaissance and could, I argue, actually be the thing that revives local economies in the face of the world’s recent financial woes,and could lead to a way of life which is an improvement on the present.

It is this that I work for, and I think that it will only happen if people see it as a positive and desirable future, which is why I talk about it ‘cheerfully’. I talk about it cheerfully because the potential it holds is genuinely thrilling, what we could become is exhilarating and because, it seems to me, there don’t seem to be a whole pile of more appealing options on the table.

Transition observes that most of the large-scale systems that we have, and on which we depend, are highly oil dependent and therefore vulnerable. It is therefore not a case of somehow longing for Helter Skelter, for the collapse of the evil behemoth of Western Capitalism, rather an observation that we had better get real and serious about designing something better and more appropriate to a world of energy descent.

The extent to which Transition should also be preparing for impending collapse rather than a prolonged descent is one that Richard Heinberg and myself have debated and take different positions on. If the ‘dark side’ Alex writes of exists, I have yet to come across it.

It is also interesting to note that alongside Alex’s criticism of Transition for craving collapse, there are many other critiques out there that criticize it for the opposite, for not taking collapse seriously enough, and for being naive about humanity being able to design its way out of it. Given that, as I have stated here, the intention of Transition is to design proactively for the safe and productive navigation of energy descent, I am puzzled by Alex accusing Transition of being “engineered to solve the wrong problem”.

What Transition is
As I mentioned in my opening, Alex creates what seems to me be to be a false explanation of what Transition is and then slates it, proposing instead something he sees as being more relevant and workable. This is best seen in his sentence:

“Indeed, if anything, places that are by global standards rich and well-educated need to be preparing to be bulwarks of stability in a chaotic world, to be more deeply invested in making things work for everyone”.

That is exactly what Transition initiatives are doing. What they do though, is to assert that those ‘bulwarks of stability’ are based on realistic assumptions about the future. The creation of such bulwarks based on the idea of perpetual economic growth, endless availability of cheap energy, and no need to respond to climate change will not be of much use to anyone.

The rebuilding of resilience, as discussed in my recent article in Resurgence, is the aim of Transition initiatives. Within resilience is the idea of modularity, that rather than the highly networked systems of today, what is needed is for communities, settlements and nations to have more, in effect, surge breakers, in the form of local food systems, local energy generation and more robust local economies, to enable them to better withstand shocks.

Alex’s list of what should replace Transition is in fact, a list of what Transition initiatives are already doing, and of the thinking that underpins their work. This is especially evident in his final suggestion;
"Above all else, re-imagining the future. Since we can’t build what we can’t imagine, and visions of the future dominate our ability to understand the present, how can we embrace future-making tools to redefine the possible in our communities? Because the powers that be have one gigantic weakness: they offer us no future, none at all, and every time we shift the debate to be about where we’re going, we win."
As numerous commenters below Alex’s list have pointed out, re-imagining the future is one of the key elements of Transition, as set out in ‘Who We Are and What We Do’, as well as in pretty much every written piece on Transition ever produced. Personally speaking, I think the work Transition initiatives do around this, and the tools they are developing are exceptional. If Alex has any better ones, I’m sure they would be only too eager to get their hands on them to try them out as well.
Civic Engagement
Alex stresses that what distinguishes his ‘Bright Green’ approach from Transition is that Transition is somehow mired in inconsequential local noodlings and obsessing about collapse, and thereby neglects to seek engagement in the political process. He argues that we need an ‘organized, educated, passionate democracy’ capable of overcoming the ‘pervasive cynicism’ which currently inhibits action.

Here again, there is a misunderstanding as to what Transition groups are actually doing out there. Many are engaging with their local governments, some Transitioners even standing for election. Transition Stroud has been very actively involved with their local Council, to the extent that the former deputy head of the Council said that “if Transition Stroud didn’t exist, we’d have had to make them up”, or words to that effect.

Across the UK, Councils are seeing local Transition initiatives as a key part of engaging communities in action around climate change, and the Scottish Government is funding Transition Scotland Support, seeing the value of their work. Alexis Rowell, a Councillor in Camden in London, is currently writing “Local Communities and Local Councils: working together to make things happen”, due out next March, which is explicitly about how people involved in Transition can better engage with the political process. Working with institutions is also the work of Transition Training and Consulting, and also with the emerging Transition Universities work, seeking to draw the principles of resilience and carbon reduction into institutions.

Alex writes that “we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be”. Of course. I struggle to imagine that anyone involved in Transition would disagree. Transition is not about rejecting political engagement, or blanking existing structures, of somehow longing for collapse in order to sweep away all that is unwholesome and corrupt.

We argue that we are all in the same boat, facing the same challenges, and that a large part of our work is to take engagement in the kind of community-wide planning process that we need to a far deeper level than the green movement has thus far managed. This is exactly what Transition groups are currently doing.

Some Final Thoughts… ‘Bright Green’ or ‘Dark Green’?
The discussion thread that follows Alex’s piece is very interesting, with many people from Transition initiatives writing to state that Transition, as it is described in Alex’s piece, is not the Transition that they know and that they dedicate their time to. Some readers may be puzzled by the ‘bright green’ reference in the title. Delving a bit deeper on his website, it seems that he has come to his analysis of Transition bearing his model for defining environmental initiatives as ‘bright green’, ‘deep green’, ‘light green’ and grey’, what he calls the ‘new environmental spectrum’ (for more detail as to what those mean, click here).

In brief, ‘bright green’ asserts that no-one will want to give up current luxuries, and that the only way to move to sustainability is to harness prosperity, wellbeing and entrepreneurial zeal, whereas dark green is mired in doomerism, localism, bioregionalism, and a rejection of consumerism.

I think this spectrum is unhelpful. Of course there is always a range of views on green thinking, which is well documented in the sustainability literature. However, my sense is that Transition does not fit neatly into the “mostly judgemental” Deep Green category in which Alex places it, indeed having as much in common with his ‘Bright Green’ approach.

Transition is about bringing insights and observations from the ‘deep green’ into the ‘bright green’ (although I think this classification is clumsy), arguing that the rebuilding of local economies is not about a retreat into survivalism (regular readers will know the regular kickings I get from survivalist commenters), but is actually the only practical (in the context of energy descent) way of realising the kind of entrepreneurial zeal he is so keen on. As I said in the TED talk I gave this year;
Then there is response that suggests that technology will come riding to our rescue, one, I would observe, is rather prevalent at these TED Talks. The idea that we can invent our way out of a profound economic and energy crisis, that the move to a knowledge economy can allow us to neatly sidestep the very real energy constraints we are facing. The idea that we will discover some extraordinary new source of energy that will sweep aside any concerns about energy security. That we can make a seamless step across onto renewables. It is perhaps because we have shown such great creativity all the way up the mountain, that we assume we can do the same thing all the way down again.
However, the real world is not Second Life. We cannot create new land, new energy systems at the click of a mouse. We live in a world of very real constraints. As we sit at our laptops exchanging ‘free’ ideas with each other, collaboratively building new ideas and concepts, there are still people in China mining coal to power the servers our web access relies on, processing the materials for our new devices, and the breakfast we eat before we start work has been sourced from great distances, with a huge energy and carbon debt, and usually at the expense of the resilient local food systems we have so effectively devalued and discarded over the past forty years. While we can be astonishingly inventive and brilliant about this, we also live in a very real world with very real demands and constraints.

Rather than toss Transition into a corner, Alex could do better to consider how the values of entrepreneurship, increased wellbeing and business acumen which he espouses (as does Transition) would best be harnessed in an energy descent context. He might find, by so doing, that a great deal of creative thinking has already emerged from the Transition movement.

Alex writes that “what we need is a movement of local efforts aimed at changing things that matter at scales that matter, based on the politics of optimism”. Absolutely. I sat at the end of reading Alex’s piece feeling somewhat puzzled and bewildered. Isn’t that exactly what we’ve been doing for the last four years? Perhaps if he manages to miss what Transition is about in such a way, his piece bats the challenge back to Transition; how well are we communicating what we are doing?

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Emerald City vs Transition Town 10/27/09


Lu Guang’s China

SUBHEAD: Guang’s images document the industrial pollution that is devastating the Chinese countryside and poisoning those who have to live there.

By Garry Peterson on 2 November 2009 in Resilience Science -

Image above: A family of five children who emigrated to Inner Mongolia from the nearby Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to find work in the Heilonggui Industrial District, April 10, 2005. The oldest child is nine years old; the youngest is less than two. Photographs by Lu Guang

Chinese environmental photographer Lu Guang won the 2009 W. Eugene Smith grant in humanistic photography for his for his project, “Pollution in China.” (For more information and photos see NYTime’s Lens blog , and China Hush).

The W. Eugene Smith award recognizes photographers; 
“who have demonstrated a deep commitment to documenting the human condition in the formidable tradition of compassionate dedication that W. Eugene Smith exhibited”
Image above: Tianjin Steel Plant, She County, Hebei Province, China, March 18, 2008

China scholar, Orville Schell describes Lu Guang’s photos in China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos:
I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless documentary photographer who lives in China’s southern province of Zhejiang and runs a photo studio and lab that funds his myriad trips around China, Lu photographs the dark consequences of China’s booming but environmentally destructive economic development in ways that stay with you. Evidently Chinese officials seem to agree, because they often try to censor his photography, forcing him to use an alias. …

Some of his arresting images show plumes of pitch black and garishly colored yellow and red smoke belching out of factory and power plant chimneys - almost all caused by the burning of soft coal. They are reminiscent of the eerie, unnatural images and colors that blink out of a television set when the tint controls are turned all the way to one side.

His pictures of open-pit coal mines that have been illegally gouged into the Mongolian steppe, and the attendant mountains of tailings that tower beside them, bespeak a landscape so despoiled that millions of years of restoration will not be enough to heal it.

Everything you see in Lu’s photographs—whether desolate mines, gritty plants spewing out toxic smoke, grimy miners, poisoned bodies of water or tundras of trash—grows out of China’s use of coal. In fact, 80 percent of China’s electricity comes from coal (in contrast to about 50 percent for the US). And electrical power has provided the Chinese economy with the energy it needs to maintain 10 percent growth rates for more than a decade.

In other words, coal has been China’s bounty and salvation, enabling tens of millions of people to rise up from grinding poverty, and allowing the government to build a whole new system of ports, highways, airports, railroads, bridges, buildings, and tunnels. It has also helped to create a prosperous middle class; and contributed to China’s emergence as a world power.

However, China’s reliance on coal has been polluting the country’s air and water, depleting its resource base and despoiling its landscape in ways that are difficult to imagine without actually visiting the Chinese countryside. Yet the photography of Lu Guang gives us a glimpse of this landscape, reminding us that these scenes of devastation are not isolated phenomena. They are ubiquitous. Above all, it also reminds us that there is a steep cost to such rapacious and high-speed development, something the Chinese government has started to understand and to try and remedy.
See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Photographs of Oil 11/1/09
The Story of Stuff


Day of the Dead

SUBHEAD: Are we about to enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past?

By Albert Bates on 02 November 2009 in Culture Change - 

Image above: Graphic celebrating Mexico's Day of the Dead. From 

The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Humankind has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.

"We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones.

If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past." - Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004)

Late October’s stock market crash was forecast so broadly that anyone who was surprised by it has not been noticing. Those green shoots the government was jiving about in the Spring did not yield fruit, and now comes the Winter of Great Discontent.


We are still being told this will not be an “L” shaped depression, but don’t believe it. The shape is more like a long back-slash, pixel-bit-mapped by resting steps. If you back down the enlargement, it smoothes. Enjoy the slide. Like us, you may find you have more time on your hands.

We have been skipping more conferences than we have been attending lately, and fortunately for us, those meetings have been getting more web-savvy and posting the presentations for the non-attendee audience. That used to mean not getting to hear the illuminating conversations that happened around the coffee urn, or in sponsored hotel suites and piano bars, but even that part is now being web-cast.

See, for instance, the conversation <> between Euan Mearns and Rembrant Loppelaar, of The Oil Drum: Europe, <> and Stoneleigh, of The Automatic Earth <> as they un-jet-lagged in the Rocky Mountains National Park in the run-up to the ASPO meeting in Denver <>. We could call ourselves a fly-on-the-wall, but from the photo, there was way much too much snow for that.

Speaking of flies, here in Mexico it is very, very quiet. This past weekend the children were all in Halloween costumes and parties and parades for the Day of the Dead were temporarily festive, but now it is Sunday morning, and the quiet has returned. Calling up ghosts, the newspaper Por Esto! <> daily reports the number of people getting off airplanes in Cancun and Acapulco and the numbers of flight cancellations. Numbers, what numbers? It’s a cargo-cult for the vanishing tourism industry. Fewer than twenty percent of the hotels and restaurants in this part of the Mayan Riviera are even bothering to open.


The Diebold presidente here, Felipe Calderón, proposes to privatize the national oil company, Pemex. The elected but excluded actual presidente, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with his pot-bagging street crowds, controls enough of the national assembly to thwart that move, but the seriousness of the proposal exemplifies the degree of official desperation.

The largest single source of both national exports and government tax revenues is the state-owned oil and gas resource, which is in production free-fall after desperate attempts at tertiary recovery using nitrogen injection and lateral drilling. Mexico is the US’s third largest supplier, in case we had forgotten.

With the tax base falling, services are being curtailed at all levels, business taxes have tripled in six months, there are rolling blackouts and brownouts every day, the peso has slid and the price of food (most of it now imported) has skyrocketed. On January 1, 2010, the federal government will raise the price of gasoline, diesel, electricity and LP and LNG gas by 17%. It will also levy a “holding tax” on any bank deposit of 3% per year on everything over $1500. That comes on top of a 16% addition to the VAT.

This week they came with trucks and stopped at city halls in rural towns and gave out rice, beans, and corn flour for anyone who needed it. This is normally something they do after a hurricane. The hurricane now is economic. The government doesn't like people banging pots.

Mexico is getting hit with a triple whammy — its other two largest sources of income are remittances (which are down and people are returning from the north in search of employment) and tourism (which is being killed by the swine flu and violent crime rumors, both overblown, and by the financial belt-tightening upstream where tourists are begat — the US, EU, and Japan).


Calderón’s solution to privatize Pemex is not even so much a proposal as a bullying threat. It would mean Mexico would not get $86 billion/yr in oil revenues to run the government, but it would get a one-time purchase price, and the government could run on that until Calderón leaves office.

Seriously, that's the president’s plan. It only amazes us that no-one in the US is considering doing what an earlier presidente of Mexico, Lazaro Cardénas, <> did, which was to nationalize the oil companies. Since 2007, Exxon’s profits alone could have gone a long way towards balancing the deficit. Instead, they are being squandered on high-priced condos in Dubai with 50-meter private boat docks that spell out Koranic verses that can be viewed by orbiting billionaires.

Rather than nationalize the oil companies, the US jumped off on Afghanistan to take back its poppy trade, which had been successfully eradicated in the 1990s by the Islamic fundamentalist local Talibans, despite the CIA’s best efforts. That is really the only reason the Western Alliance is in Afghanistan. We watched Joe Biden listening to “God Bless America” being played at the seventh inning stretch during the third game of the World Series and we wondered, does he know?


Is that why our Nobel Peace Prize-winning Shogun is raining hellfire missiles on Pakistan’s tribal territories from predator drones controlled from windowless buildings in Las Vegas — a completely outlaw move under international treaties going back two centuries — to take back control of our former guys (they are called Al Qaeda) from the Koran-readers? To ramp that production back up? The heroin trade envoys — largely private contractors — have been doing spectacularly well at their assigned mission, despite the blow-back from the human rights community. Afghani Brown <> is now ratcheting up close its earlier production records. The Opium Empire is secure, or at least so it might appear to the heir of Kissinger’s Nobel House.


Unfortunately, whether it is poppies or tulips, the global economy had other plans. It was overdue for correction, and Peak Everything was both the trigger and the bullet through its brain. We are in a civilization collapse of unprecedented proportions now: Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond cubed; the Club of Rome on steroids.


Here in the Yucatán they still speak Yukatek, and the local government, at its incense-burning base, is managed by a class of white shamans, who call themselves that formally, and cleave to many of the rituals that have remained in these parts since the Ah Itzá left, including the occasional ayahuasca ceremony to communicate with the spirit world and cleanse demons. Dia de los Muertos is all about that.

Historically the Itzá were a fierce Mesoamerican people who remained in the Yucatán long after other Mayan dynasties collapsed. In the classic period they erected the cities around Tikal near lake Peten Itzá in Guatemala, then abandoned those to migrate north into the Yucatán during the classic period collapse. From their new capital at Chichén Itzá, which resembles Tikal in its monumental architecture arranged as an astronomical calendar, they established a sail-powered trade empire reaching as far south as Honduras. Collapse? What collapse? Image

Eventually the Itzá got sacked in a power struggle between three Yucatekan lineages all claiming to have descended from the Toltecs. The Itzá said that dark sorcery was at work in their defeat and these local governments of white shamans are making sure that won’t happen again. In 1331 the Itzá royal lineage abandoned Chichén Itzá and returned south to the Petén, constructing a new fortress city, Noh Petén (also called Tah Itzá or Tayasal), on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itzá, today part of Guatemala, near the western border of Belize.

There they successfully resisted many military expeditions by the Spanish until finally surrendering in 1697 to a diplomatic delegation led by Martín de Ursua, governor of Yucatán. The terms of surrender allowed them to retain the Mayan shamanic culture that continues today. Image

To the Maya the oil that seeped from the ground was useful for tarring canoes and sailing craft, but little else. It was too stinky and smoky to burn for heat or light, and you couldn’t eat it.

Their black gold was soil, and the milpa system still practiced in the Petén and elsewhere, with chinampas<>; the black earths within the pyramid city walls attest to their skill as scientific soil-builders. They had learned the hard way what happens when you cut your trees to roast lime and let the good soil run off the land. By changing their soil management practices, they had improved their diet, moderated their climate, and changed their fortunes.

When we glance at the downloadable audio files and powerpoints from another meeting, “4 Degrees and Beyond” held September 28-30 in Oxford, England, <> we can easily see that once humans break through the 2°C striped yellow caution tape, tacked up by the EU a few years ago, we’ll enter what the Potsdam Institute <> now calls Terra Quasi-Incognita, complete with sea levels rising back to the Oligocene (+100m), a 90% population die-off, and tipping points that could take us to Venus.

Standing along the path to Copenhagen, offering handfuls of soil to the passing delegates, are the Yucatán shamans.

* * * * *

Albert Bates is a permaculture and appropriate technology instructor at the Ecovillage Training Center ( in Summertown,Tennessee and in rural Mexico and Belize. He will next be teaching a full Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Center in Belize <> in March 2010 after he returns from Copenhagen, where he will attend the climate talks as a UN representative for the Global Ecovillage Network. His next book, The Tao of Biochar, will be published by New Society in 2010. Albert blogs at See Culture Change articles by or on Albert at <>



Hard Times in Sin City

SUBHEAD: The financial crisis has mauled Las Vegas like no other city. What was once the land of luxury and excess is now the home of empty houses and broken dreams.

By Thomas Schulz on 30 October 2009 in Spiegel -,1518,657616,00.html

Image above: Photo from inside the Neon Museum sign graveyard in Las Vegas is big tourist draw. From

[IB Publisher's note: This is a long and detailed article on the tremendous negative impact of the current financial situation on Las Vegas. It does not mention the connection between Hawaii and Vegas, and why about 100,000 Hawaiians would choose to live there. Will there now be a reverse migration?]

The bar on the 64th floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel offers what could arguably be the best view of Las Vegas at night. A mile-long strip of brightly colored neon lights and gigantic, floodlit casinos glitters through the bar's floor-to-ceiling windows. Still, as you survey the otherwise dazzling city of nocturnal light, you can see conspicuous patches of darkness dotting the landscape.
One of these black craters is the construction site for the Fontainebleau Hotel casino and the 4,000 rooms it is supposed to offer.

When the investors ran out of money, 70 percent of the project had already been completed. If you look diagonally across the street, you can see the site of what is supposed to be the Echelon complex. Only eight of its planned 57 stories were completed before the construction cranes pulled out.

There is even a dark, gaping hole next to the Trump Tower. A twin had been planned for the site, but it will most likely never be built. Las Vegas, the global symbol of gambling and glitz, is hurting.

Super-Sizing Paradise
Over the last two decades, no other American city grew as quickly as Las Vegas. In 1980, it had 460,000 inhabitants; now it has 2 million.

Nowhere else was the boom wilder, consumption more excessive and the delusions of grandeur more extreme. New houses and apartment complexes shot up by the tens of thousands. Dozens of new casino hotels were built, many of which boasted 2,000, 3,000 or even 4,000 rooms. Celebrity chefs came to the city to open satellites of their famous restaurants, while junk shops gave way to stores offering exclusive fashion labels.

During that era, the strip was crowded until even 4 a.m., mainly with drunk, carefree Americans who could hardly believe they could walk around outside with a beer in their hand, that they could still smoke in public establishments and that there were swimming pools where women could go topless.

In a country notorious for its puritanical bent, Las Vegas is an anything-and-everything-goes kind of place. But now, the recession has blasted open one of its deepest craters here in this city surrounded by the Mojave Desert. Las Vegas now has the country's highest rate of home foreclosures, and more than 70 percent of homeowners here owe more on their mortgages than their houses or condos are worth. Since 2006, the average home price has dropped by a half.

Unemployment, on the other hand, has risen -- from about only 3 percent to over 13 percent. The city's luxury hotels have seen tens of thousands of reservations cancelled. Major casino operators are deeply in debt. In the spring, one of them, the MGM, barely escaped from having to declare bankruptcy.

In the meantime, economists are already warning that the collapse of the US residential real estate market could be followed by a similar disaster in commercial real estate. And if that bubble bursts, it will hit Las Vegas first.

Migrating Money  
For more than two decades, banks, investment funds and financials firms attracted by the chance to make hefty profits and a seemingly limitless boom pumped billions of dollars into the city. They supplied the financing for casinos, shopping centers and entertainment venues. One of Las Vegas's biggest investors was Deutsche Bank.
Germany's largest bank is seen as one of the three major players in the local construction industry and in the financing of casinos and hotel complexes worth billions. Indeed, the Frankfurt-based banking giant is mentioned as an investor in connection with many major projects in the city.

To almost everyone -- and especially the Germans -- Las Vegas seemed recession-proof. But now, since the summer of 2008, gambling revenues have dropped by more than 10 percent after having plunged to as much as 25 percent in the months immediately following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

The city's future is now uncertain. There are still plans on the table to add 40,000 new hotel rooms to the 140,000 ones that already exist by 2012. The pending development projects are valued at $20 billion. But now people are wondering who needs all the additional rooms anymore and who will provide the financing for them. Even the city's wealthiest residents, who have consistently topped the lists of America's richest people, must now keep a close eye on the assets they have left.

For example, Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, whose assets include the luxury Venetian Resort, has seen his company's stock value plummet from $149 to $1.38 a share. Kirk Kerkorian, who has been one of the most important investors in Las Vegas since 1955, has been forced to sell many of his holdings in industrial companies, such as the automaker Ford. MGM Mirage, the city's largest casino operator, is almost $14 billion in debt and has only staved off bankruptcy with difficulty.

The banks, which once fueled the city's growth with attractive loans, are now much less willing to part with their money. "Ownership structure on the Strip five years from now is going to look different from now," says Rich Moriarty, director of the Union Gaming Group, which advises financial investors, hedge funds and banks on investing in Las Vegas.

Re-Branding a City
At first glance, Vegas doesn't seem to be particularly hard-hit by the crisis. The casinos resonate with the incessant "ding-ding-ding" of thousands of betting machines. Gambling and alcohol go hand-in-hand, and some gamblers are already drinking at 11 am. The casinos are windowless in order to deliberately keep out daylight and, consequently, a sense of time.

Lured by drastically reduced hotel rates, the curious are returning to Vegas; but they are spending less. Double rooms in famous luxury hotels -- such as the Mirage, which was home to the entertainment duo Siegfried and Roy for many years -- can now be had for less than $100 a night.

Many hotels are renting their rooms at prices below cost -- which is better than not renting them at all. The visitors who are coming to Las Vegas now don't go out to dinner in the casino, Moriarty says. "It is a lower quality customer. They go across the street to the mall to have dinner rather than stay on the property."

Ironically, over the last decade, the trend in Las Vegas has put an increased focus on luxury. In some restaurants, appetizers go for $30, while the hottest nightclubs regularly won't let people in who aren't willing to fork over $400 for a bottle of liquor.

With its new foray into luxury tourism, Las Vegas has moved miles away from its first few successful decades. Those were the wild years. Since banks and corporations didn't want to be associated with gambling, only the Mafia was willing to invest in casino development. Those were the years when criminals like Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Anthony Spilotro openly controlled the city and when crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin performed in relatively shabby venues, such as the Desert Inn.

It wasn't until the 1980s, when Wall Street discovered the gambling oasis in the Mojave Desert, that the casinos and hotels became not only flashier, but also more sophisticated. "The entire amount of new supply is all high-end, luxury rooms," says Moriarty.

For Alan Feldman, the head of communications at MGM Mirage, there is only one option: "We have to expand the market." Feldman wants to attract people from new target groups, including the "cosmopolitans" and "urban elites" -- in other words, those for whom Las Vegas has always been, as Feldmen says, "too kitschy" or "unreal". If only a small percentage of Americans can be convinced to come to Las Vegas, as Feldman hopes they will be, even the new hotel rooms will soon be full.

At the same time, the city's tourism officials have stepped up their efforts to attract visitors from abroad, who have traditionally only accounted for about 15 percent of guests. For example, tourists from Germany have almost no effect on the city's total number of visitors. The few that do come to Las Vegas are usually on their way to the nearby Grand Canyon.

Deutsche Bank to the Rescue?
Things look much different in the city's financial world. Deutsche Bank has "massive exposure" in Las Vegas, to the tune of a figure of double-digit billions, says Moriarty, who launched his own business with a partner this spring after having managed Deutsche Bank's investment banking arm in Las Vegas for years.

Since the end of 2008, Deutsche Bank has even been in direct control of one of the city's largest construction projects. At the time, the developer of the Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino could no longer service a $760 million loan, so Deutsche Bank acquired the 3,000-room behemoth for $1 billion.

"They are even picking out the wallpaper," themselves, says one insider. The banks are doing everything not to lose their investments.

Even so, the bankers will still not be able to operate the casino themselves. Instead, they will have to hire a professional with a license to run a gaming operation. The resort is scheduled to open in 2010. Deutsche Bank already took a$741 million write-off on the property in the second quarter of 2009.

Financing Competitors
Likewise, as a result of its other lending projects in the city, the bank actually has a hand in financing its competitors. For example, the owners of the Fontainebleau Hotel Corporation were convinced that the Germans wanted to "destroy" their Las Vegas development project. Construction was halted in the summer on the 3,800-room complex, which was 75 percent complete, after an $800 million loan, of which Deutsche Bank held a significant portion, was withdrawn.

In May, the owners of the Fontainebleau sued Deutsche Bank, accusing it of trying to "minimize competition with the Cosmopolitan." It was for this reason, they claim, that the bank "aggressively pushed for" other lenders, including the crisis-shaken German bank HSH Nordbank, to back out of the deal.

Deutsche Bank calls the allegations "baseless." Meanwhile, Fontainebleau, struggling with a possible bankruptcy, has withdrawn some of its charges, but it hasn't abandoned its lawsuit.

Even without the Fontainebleau suit, the Frankfurt-based bankers are already likely to encounter major problems with their casino. The CityCenter, which is the largest private development project in the United States, is being built right near the Cosmopolitan. Designed by a number of famous architects, including Daniel Libeskind, Helmut Jahn and Norman Foster, the CityCenter comprises three luxury hotels with a total of 6,000 rooms, thousands of condominiums, dozens of restaurants and a number of gambling facilities.

The huge development, a joint venture of MGM Mirage and investors from Dubai, will cost $8 billion. The plan almost imploded in the spring for lack of funds, but now the center is slated to open after all next spring.

To fill the mammoth developments, the owners hope to attract more trade fairs and corporate events. Las Vegas is the world's largest meeting and convention city. In 2008, more than 22,000 events took place there, ranging from large-scale affairs, such as the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with its 140,000 visitors, to the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

 And then there are thousands of company meetings large and small, many of them little more than trips meant to reward deserving employees who, after a meeting in the morning, can spend the rest of the day gambling and drinking
Mafia Vegas vs. Vegas Inc. 
For years, such meetings helped sustain the city. And that was the case until a new president came on the scene and -- in a single sentence -- declared Las Vegas the country's most dangerous spot for companies. "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime," President Barack Obama said at a televised town hall meeting in February. A short time earlier, details had emerged about how Wells Fargo, a major US bank, had booked a 12-day company event in the city -- after having been saved from bankruptcy with billions in government bailout funds.

In the end, Wells Fargo canceled the event -- and many other organizations followed suit. "They are trying to make it out that Las Vegas has become this toxic city you can't even go to," complains Phil Cooper, a leading event manager. In the first quarter of 2009 alone, more than 400 conferences and trade fairs were cancelled.

"I certainly was not happy about it. What it did is put the imprimatur on Las Vegas being a place of excess," says Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a lawyer who became a celebrity while defending the city's most notorious gangsters. In fact, Goodman plays himself in "Casino," Martin Scorsese's 1995 Oscar-nominated film about the Las Vegas underworld. But this hasn't stopped city residents from electing him to three terms as mayor.

Can today's Vegas even be compared with the city in its wild years, when it was dominated by the Mafia rather than Wall Street? The big corporations have made it more impersonal, says Goodman, as he glances at the hundreds of photos on his office wall that show him with famous people, such as Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson.

"I liked life in the old days better," says Goodman. "I'd like to be able to shake a person's hand and have a deal rather than have a contract in writing. I think with the shakeout we are having now, many of those corporate properties will go into private hands and that will be more like the old Las Vegas."

If you're looking for the old Las Vegas, it can still be found north of "the Strip," in neighborhoods beyond the sparkle of the casinos. These are the neighborhoods where run-down wedding chapels advertise their services by claiming that Elvis Presley got married there once, and where the gamblers seem as seedy as the decades-old small gambling houses, where old people with pale faces and empty-looking eyes spend hours in front of slot machines that cost only two cents a game.

But the new, modern Vegas demands a different clientele. It needs companies and businesspeople, the kind who burn through their expense accounts and spend a few days having fun on the company's dime.

Desperate Times
Since this spring, the city has invested millions in an advertising campaign that also focuses directly on businesses. For example, according to a 10-page ad the city placed in the Wall Street Journal, "Business meetings in Las Vegas offer the best value proposition on the planet." It sounds a little desperate.

And no wonder: With each empty room, more and more jobs in Las Vegas are threatened. The rule of thumb is that each hotel room equals two and a half jobs. Tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost.

Las Vegas is now surrounded by empty developments with names like Azure Canyon and abandoned bedroom communities in the "Mediterranean style." Richard Plaster, one of the city's top developers, says that 30,000 houses -- or the equivalent of a new small city -- were built every 12 months. Parts of Las Vegas are only five or six years old.

The houses were all built along roughly the same lines: five rooms, three baths and two garages. There is plenty of space around Las Vegas. Most are now dark and empty -- either because they were never lived in or were quickly abandoned. Every month, there are foreclosures on an average of 2,000 buildings.

It's eerily quiet on the freshly paved streets. They have names like "Evening Melody" and "Dancing Breeze," names meant to evoke a pleasant life in a place where it never gets cold. Here and there, empty or half-developed properties form voids in the endless rows of houses, like gaps in a row of teeth. Plaster is convinced that "there are long, hard times ahead.

See also:
LAS VEGAS: Living in underground tunnels

Thinking the Unthinkable

SUBHEAD: The failure of government to address economic misdeeds and collapse could bring the military into play to "solve" the problem.

By James Howard Kunstler on 2 November 2009 in -

Image above: Illuminated inflatable Xmas Grinch decorates American yard. From 

A side-trip to the local mall - where else to buy ammo around here? - evinced an epic struggle for supremacy of the chain stores between the Great Pumpkin and Santa Claus, with both fat-assed icons trying to shove the other out of the primary display sites as if the store aisle were a WWF ring in some grubby forsaken Palookaville far far from the salons of Washington decision-making, which, I guess, this is.

This is the kind of place that a Jimmy Stewart character would have called home in 1946; only today it looks like a place taken over by a certain species of space aliens, slovenly in mind as well as body.

Our gods are not happy. Anyway, that third fat-assed icon, the Thanksgiving Turkey, was nowhere in sight, perhaps due to the recognition that there is far more grievance than gratitude 'out here' in the fly-over zone.
America still does everything possible except prepare to become a different America, perhaps even a better America than the current release, and this is unfortunate because history is merciless.

History doesn't care if the dog peed on your homework... or you had car trouble this morning... or the tattoo on your neck got infected... or (to take this in another direction), you justified robbing scores of billions of dollars out of the mortgage sector because your too-big-to-fail company came down with the financial equivalent of swine flu and the top executives were hallucinating that they lived in a world with no boundaries of law or common decency.
We're at another one of those weird inflection points of "current events" -- a momentous eddy in the larger stream of history.

 A good deal of the already-proclaimed return to normality ("normalcy" in WGHarding-speak) depends on something close to a normal holiday shopping season, when so much of the nation's merchandise inventory moves from WalMart to under the Christmas tree. Of course, even if it were to turn out like a year-2005-type credit card binge, the result would surely be a sort of hemorrhagic fever of buyer's remorse afterward.

An aerial view of the Heartland long about February 1st would show households blowing up like individual kernels of popcorn at an accelerating rate until the terrain itself was obscured by an evil fluff of financial woe suffocating the poor folks trapped under it.

Over the weekend, the The Huffington Post ran a McClatchy news service story about Godman Sachs's misdeeds around the issuance of mortgage backed securities. The basic idea in it was that GS was aggressively gathering trash mortgages from fly-by-night "originators" all over America to bundle into tradable security paper, which they then pawned off on feckless, inattentive investors (pension funds, foreign banks, etc) seeking miracle returns -- at the same time that GS was buying credit default swap "insurance" by the bale, knowing full well that the collateral backing their own issuance of MBS was of a quality somewhere between dead carp and dog poop.

In other words, they were shoveling shit investments out of one window, and betting against the value of them from another window. Thus a picture resolves of GS's "true opinion" of the securities it paddled, and the question arises whether failure to inform the peddled of this opinion constitutes fraud. I certainly think it does.
I've been making substantially the same case in this column for two years now, so it is interesting to see the mainstream media awaken to a story-line that an ambitious nine-year-old could have pulled off the Web over recent months.

I also continue to assert that a flurry of bonuses paid out this holiday season by Goldman Sachs and its other amigos at the top of the banking food chain will be greeted by violence - which will be the natural outcome of a society whose government fails to even give the appearance of protecting its citizens from organized crime. How did a sock puppet get appointed head of the US Department of Justice, folks will wonder.
How bad is the situation 'out there' really? In my view, things are veering toward such extreme desperation that the US government might fall under the sway, by extra-electoral means, of an ambitious military officer, or a group of such, sometime in the near future.

I'm not promoting a coup d'etat, you understand, but I am raising it as a realistic possibility as elected officials prove utterly unwilling to cope with a mounting crisis of capital and resources.

The 'corn-pone Hitler' scenario is still another possibility - Glen Beck and Sarah Palin vying for the hearts and minds of the morons who want 'to keep gubmint out of Medicare!' - but I suspect that there is a growing cadre of concerned officers around the Pentagon who will not brook that fucking nonsense for a Crystal City minute and, what's more, would be very impatient to begin correcting the many fiascos currently blowing the nation apart from within.

Remember, today's US military elite is battle-hardened after eight years of war in Asia. No doubt they love their country, as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte loved theirs. It may pain them to stand by and watch it dissolve like a castle made of sugar in a winter gale.
I raise this possibility because no one else has, and I think we ought to be aware that all kinds of strange outcomes are possible in a society under severe stress. History is a harsh mistress.

For all his 'star quality' and likable personality, President Obama is increasingly perceived as impotent where the real ongoing disasters of public life are concerned, and he has made the tragic choice to appear to be hostage to the bankers who are systematically draining the life-blood from the middle class.

Whatever we are seeing on the S & P ticker these days does not register the agony of ordinary people losing everything they worked for and even believed in. In a leadership vacuum, centers don't hold, things come apart, and rough beasts slouch toward Wall Street.

New Book on Alakai Wilderness

SUBHEAD: A review of Fernando Penalosa’s new book on Kauai’s Alakai Swamp. image above: Detail of cover photograph of The Alakai: Kauai’s Unique Wilderness by Fernando Penalosa By Linda Pascatore on 1 November 2009 - We recently received a copy of Fernando Penalosa’s wonderful new book, "The Alakai: Kauai’s Unique Wilderness". This is a fascinating and comprehensive book about the Alakai. The book covers the history, culture, geography, and native flora and fauna of this preserve. It also provides a practical guide for visitors to fully experience the Alakai Wilderness Preserve and Kokee State Park. According to Penalosa: "The Alakai Plateau, sometimes referred to by geologists as the Olokele Plateau, is one of the most spectacular places on earth. Situated on northwestern Kauai, high up in the clouds, it is like no other place in the world, featuring an incredibly beautiful rain forest with some two dozen bogs, manifesting a great diversity of plants, insects, and birds, many found nowhere else. It has been called Kauai’s greatest biological treasure. It may very well be Kauai’s greatest treasure, period. Like all treasures, it needs protection, a major theme of this book." The author, Fernando Penalosa, has written several other nature books. He first visited Kauai’s Alakai Swamp in 1997, while on an Elderhostel trip. It was the beginning of a ten year love affair with this beautiful wilderness, and a desire to help to preserve it. image above: Detail of color plate of native birds from The Alakai: Kauai’s Unique Wilderness by Fernando Penalosa Over 40 pages of color illustrations document native flora and fauna, and include both historical and current maps of the area. There are also many unique historical black and white photographs included in the book. The History chapter of the book documents pre-contact Hawaiian uses of the highland resources. There are anecdotes involving the Hawaiin Queen Emma’s historic trip into the Alakai, which is reenacted each year at the Emalani i Alakai Festival. The book also covers many prominent western personalities and their deeds and accomplishments in Kokee and the Alaka, as well as military activity there during World War II and later. “Experiencing the Alakai” gives practical information about the location, conditions, and characteristics of the hiking trails. “Protecting the Alakai” relates the environmental history. The loss of native species and introduction of aliens is also included, as well as conservation and preservation efforts. Penalosa devotes separate chapters to Native Flora, Introduced Flora, Birds, and Other Fauna. “The Alakai in Song and Story” is dedicated to the legends, stories and cultural referents to the spiritual beauty of the area. The following is an excerpt from “A Kilohana O Kalani, a chant honoring Queen Emma”: Difficult was the ascent Up Kukalaakamanu The queen rested Among the lehue maka noe Then wondrous lehua made into leis Interwoven with pa iniu The birds scattered about To gather mokihana berrires To make a lei for the lady Emalani is her name. The book is 205 pages. The table of contents lists: 1) Introduction 2) History 3) Native Flora 4) Introduced Flora 5) Birds 6) Other Fauna 7) Protecting the Alaka`i 8) Experienceing the Alaka`i 9) The Alaka`i in Song & Story Notes Bibliography Index "The Alakai: Kauai’s Unique Wilderness" is a beautiful book and a valuable resource for Hawaii residents, Alakai visitors, and nature lovers. We highly recommend this book. The book is currently on sale at the Kauai Museum, the Kokee Natural History Museum, Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe and the National Tropical Botanical Garden gift shop at Lawai. It is distributed on Kauai by the Kokee Resource Conservation Program, an organization which provides Conservation Service Projects in Northwest Kauai, Hawaii. These are supervised service-learning projects to remove aggressive alien species from native Hawaiian forests. All proceeds of this book go to the Program. Kokee Resource Conservation Program PO Box 1108 Waimea, HI 96796 Phone: 808-335-0045 email: Distribution on other islands and on the Mainland will be handled by the author: Fernando Peñalosa Quaking Aspen Books 3520 Coolheights Dr. Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275-6231 office & fax: (310) 377-8763 home phone: (310) 377-7603 web: email:

BLNR Hearing on Kauai Parks

SUBHEAD: Kauai cannot allow its cultural resources, community work and parks to be hijacked by the DLNR! image above: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror Disney Experience coming to Kokee. From By Maka'ala Ka'aumoana, Community Advocate 1 November 2009 - The Board of Land and Natural Resources will hold a public hearing on November 3, 2009, 6 pm at Chiefess Kamakahelei School in Puhi to discuss and make decisions on the DLNR Recreational Renaissance Plan B. I have copied the meeting notice at the end of this message which includes the proposed rule changes. At its last meeting, the Board agreed to the concept of a policy allowing a fee to be charged for parking in Koke’e and Ha’ena State Parks. The fee would only apply to visitors and is intended to provide funding for parks statewide. The money would not stay on Kaua’i. For Kaua’i, both Ha’ena and Koke’e are in the process of developing Master Plans for their respective parks. Any Board decisions now would circumvent that process and negate any plans these communities have for their places. The “Plan B” includes a proposal to utilize two parks on each island to collect fees to fund the entire system. This is a time to “show up” and record your position on this issue. There are alternatives! It is understood that the BLNR must identify funds to keep the State Parks Division open, they will run completely out of money by March 2010. They are looking for help and good ideas. What if… a surcharge was added to rental car rates to fund a State Park fund…. What if….visitors paid a fee at their accommodations to fund a state park fund…. What if…..please bring your best ideas and energy to this meeting! We cannot allow our cultural resources, community work and parks to be hijacked! A hui hou, Makaala Here is the meeting notice and Plan B proposal. “Proposed amendment of Chapter 13-146, HAR, Rules Regulating the Hawaii State Park System are to clarify some definitions, allow for internet camping and lodging reservations, payment by credit card, update penalties, issue special use permits for commercial tours, and establish entry fee authority for all State Parks to provide increased revenue for improved operations, repair, and maintenance at State Park facilities.” A copy of the rules packet may be obtained from: see also: Island Breath: DLNR Preliminary Kokee Master Plan 11/24/04 Island Breath: DLNR doesn't review public testimony 1//11/05 Island Breath: Kokee will never be the same 7 7/26/06 Island Breath: Destruction of Kokee 9/15/06 Island Breath: DLNR Betrays Kokee on Master Plan 12/29/06 Ea O Ka Aina: Meeting to Save Kokee 6/26/09

Climate Generation Gap

SUBHEAD: Meeting of the Elders, of 20th Century leaders, acknowledge failure on tackling climate issue.

By Sebnem Arsu & James Kanter 0n 31 October 2009 in New York Times -

Image above: Jimmy Carter with two grandsons at Elder conference. From NYT.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 3-year-old granddaughter, Onalenna, was puzzled. Her older cousin, Mungi, had just deflated a large, blow-up globe to demonstrate the imminent danger of climate change.

“Are we going to go the moon then?” Onalenna asked her grandfather.

“I don’t know, I will not be here,” Archbishop Tutu, 78, whispered in his granddaughter’s ear.

The rapid march of climate change up the global agenda has prompted a new, and often poignant, conversation between the generations and, in public, among a self-appointed elite.

At its core, that conversation is about whether some of the first beneficiaries of the wonders developed during the past century — like electricity at the flick of a switch — have the means, or the will, to help their descendants with the consequences of burning vast quantities of fossil fuels.

The conversation also is playing itself out across the planet as leaders, industrialists and citizens confront issues too costly for any single nation or generation to tackle alone.

For a group of 20th-century leaders called the Elders — whose members include Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, former President Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson, a former Irish president — it also was a conversation with their families that they felt would be most usefully conducted before the cameras.

On Thursday, seeking to highlight the responsibility that older generations bear for climate change, members of the group traveled to Istanbul for a symbolic photo shoot accompanied by young relatives.

“This is a rather late wake-up call for all humanity to behave in a more responsible manner,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, 75, a veteran United Nations envoy who helped broker an agreement ending civil war in Lebanon, and who was accompanied by his grandchildren, Balthazar, 5, and Basile, 3. “It is the responsibility of today’s generations to act,” he said.

The Elders group was founded in 2007 with the help of Nelson Mandela. Its chairman, Archbishop Tutu, acknowledged that his generation bore the blame for not making tough choices sooner.

“We should have long ago used recyclable energy,” said Archbishop Tutu, who danced on a lawn as he entertained his grandchildren before the cameras.

“If we had used solar energy or wind power, we wouldn’t have been in this predicament.”

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist who found fame as the author of the provocative book “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” said that by campaigning for swift agreement at a global climate conference in December in Copenhagen, the Elders risked backing expensive and ineffective solutions that might divert money from more effective measures to save lives and protect the planet.

“I have no doubt the Elders care deeply about their grandchildren,” Mr. Lomborg said, “but we should be concerned about all the other grandchildren who were not at the event and who run the risk of dying tomorrow from lack of sanitation, starvation and disease.”

Ms. Robinson, 65, said she sympathized with that view, but she added that coming generations would not have a planet to enjoy unless action was taken now to resolve the problem.

“Living in New York, I can see the preoccupation with issues like the health care debate, Afghanistan and Iraq, so it’s difficult to keep the issue on the front burner,” she said. “However, we should make it absolutely clear that it is the supreme political issue of our time.”

The Elders have in the past sought to raise consciousness about conflicts in the Middle East and in Sudan by using their access to high-level figures and staging publicity events.

“We are not restrained by timidity or political niceties or diplomatic propriety,” said Mr. Carter, 85. Many of the Elders praised the virtues of hybrid cars and, paradoxically for such a mobile group, they described advantages of using technology for virtual conferences rather than using airplanes to attend meetings.

Mr. Carter recounted the story of his wearing a sweater during the energy crisis of the 1970s, an act that prompted mockery from critics, who accused him of ineffectiveness in the face of rising energy prices. But from the perspective of a new generation, wearing the sweater looked prescient, he said.

“It got people to register thermostats in their homes and save electricity,” Mr. Carter said. “I never have been very afraid of people making fun. I do what I think is right, and I was right in the end.”