Wood burning cars

SUBHEAD: During the Second World War, almost every motorized vehicle in continental Europe was converted to use firewood.  

By Kris De Decker on 18 January 2010 in Lo-Tech Magazine -  

Image above: A 1940 Peugot 402 Gazogene Adventure. From (http://www.passionautomobile.com/retromobile/aventure-peugeot-retromobile-2009.html)  

[IB Editor's note: The original article is richly illustrated with examples of this technology and worth the visit.]

During the Second World War, almost every motorised vehicle in continental Europe was converted to use firewood.

Wood gas cars (also known as producer gas cars) are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.

Rising fuel prices and global warming have caused renewed interest in this almost-forgotten technology: worldwide, dozens of handymen drive around in their home-made woodmobiles.

Wood gasification is a process whereby organic material is converted into a combustible gas under the influence of heat - the process reaches a temperature of 1,400 °C (2,550 °F). The first use of wood gasification dates back to 1870s, when it was used as a forerunner of natural gas for street lighting and cooking.

The first use of wood gasification dates back to 1870s, when it was used as a forerunner of natural gas for street lighting and cooking. In the 1920s, German engineer Georges Imbert developed a wood gas generator for mobile use.

The gases were cleaned and dried and then fed into the vehicle's combustion engine, which barely needs to be adapted. The Imbert generator was mass produced from 1931 on. At the end of the 1930s, about 9,000 wood gas vehicles were in use, almost exclusively in Europe.  
In the 1920s, German engineer Georges Imbert developed a wood gas generator for mobile use. The gases were cleaned and dried and then fed into the vehicle's combustion engine, which barely needs to be adapted. The Imbert generator was mass produced from 1931 on. At the end of the 1930s, about 9,000 wood gas vehicles were in use, almost exclusively in Europe.

Second World War The technology became commonplace in many European countries during the Second World War, as a consequence of the rationing of fossil fuels. In Germany alone, around 500,000 producer gas vehicles were in operation by the end of the war.

A network of some 3,000 "petrol stations" was set up, where drivers could stock up on firewood. Not only private cars but also trucks, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships and trains were equipped with a wood gasification unit. Some tanks were driven on wood gas, too, but for military use the Germans preferred the production of liquid synthetic fuels (made out of wood or coal).

In 1942 (when the technology had not yet reached the height of its popularity), there were about 73,000 producer gas vehicles in Sweden, 65,000 in France, 10,000 in Denmark, 9,000 in both Austria and Norway, and almost 8,000 in Switzerland. Finland had 43,000 "woodmobiles" in 1944, of which 30,000 were buses and trucks, 7,000 private vehicles, 4,000 tractors and 600 boats. (source)

Woodmobiles also appeared in the US, Asia and, particularly, Australia, which had 72,000 vehicles running on woodgas (source). Altogether, more than one million producer gas vehicles were used during World War Two. After the war, with gasoline once again available, the technology fell into oblivion almost instantaneously. At the beginning of the 1950s, the then West-Germany only had some 20,000 woodmobiles left.  

Research programme in Sweden
 Rising fuel prices and global warming have resulted in renewed interest in firewood as a direct fuel. Dozens of amateur engineers around the world have converted standard production cars into producer gas vehicles, with most of these modern woodmobiles being built in Scandinavia. In 1957, the Swedish government set up a research programme to prepare for a fast transition to wood gas cars in case of a sudden oil shortage. Sweden has no oil reserves, but it does have vast woodlands it can use for fuel.

The goals of this research was to develop an improved, standardised installation that could be adapted for use in all kinds of vehicles. This investigation, supported by car manufacturer Volvo, led to a great deal of theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience with several road vehicles (one seen above) and tractors over a total distance of more than 100,000 kilometres (62,000 miles). The results are summarized in a FAO document from 1986, which also discusses some experiments in other countries.

Swedish (overview) and, particularly Finnish amateur engineers have used this data to further develop the technology (overview, below a vehicle of Juha Sipilä). A wood gas generator - which looks like a large water heater - can be placed on a trailer (although this makes the vehicle difficult to park), in the boot (trunk) of a car (although this uses up nearly all the luggage space), or on a platform at the front or the back of the vehicle (the most popular option in Europe). In the case of an American pickup, the generator is placed in the truck bed.

During WWII, some vehicles were equipped with a built-in generator, entirely hidden from view.

Dave nichols woodgas car The fuel for a wood gas car consists of wood or wood chips (see picture on the left). Charcoal can also be used, but this leads to a 50 percent loss in the available energy contained in the original biomass. On the other hand, charcoal contains more energy, so that the range of the car can be extended. In principle, any organic material can be used. During the Second World War, coal and peat were also used, but wood was the main fuel.

One of the more successful wood gas cars was built last year by Dutch John. While many recent producer gas vehicles seem to come straight out of Mad Max, the Dutchman's Volvo 240 is equipped with a very modern-looking system made of stainless steel. "Producing wood gas is not that hard", says John. "Producing clean wood gas is another thing. I have objections to some woodmobiles. Often, the produced gas is as clean as the appearance of the construction".

Dutch John strongly believes in wood gas generators, mainly for stationary uses such as heating, electricity generation or even the production of plastics. The Volvo is meant to demonstrate the possibilities of the technology. "Park an Italian sports car next to a wood gas car and the crowd gathers around the woodmobile. Nevertheless, wood gas cars are only for idealists and for times of crisis."  

The Volvo reaches a maximum speed of 120 kilometres per hour (75 mph) and can maintain a cruising speed of 110 km/h (68 mph). The "fuel tank" can contain 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of wood, good for a range of 100 kilometres (62 miles), comparable to that of an electric car. If the back seat is loaded with sacks of wood, the range is extended to 400 kilometres (250 miles).

Again, this is comparable to the range of an electric car if the passenger space is sacrificed for a larger battery, as is the case with the Tesla Roadster or the electric Mini Cooper. The difference is, of course, that John has to stop regularly to grab a sack of wood from the back seat and refill the tank.  

As is the case with other cars, the range of a wood gas car is also dependent on the vehicle itself. This is shown by the different cars that were converted by Vesa Mikkonen. The Fin places all his generators on a trailer. His most recently-converted car is a 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V, a large, heavy American coupe. It consumes 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of wood every 100 kilometres (62 miles) and is thus considerably less efficient than John's Volvo.

Mikkonen has also converted a Toyota Camry, a much more efficient car. This vehicle only consumes 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of wood over the same distance. However, the trailer is almost as large as the car itself. The range of electric cars can be considerably improved by making them smaller and lighter. However, this is not an option with their wood gas cousins because of the weight and the volume of the machinery. The smaller cars from World War Two only had a range of 20 to 50 kilometres (12 to 31 miles), in spite of their much lower speed and acceleration.

Enlarging the "fuel tank" is the only option to improve the range further (except for reducing one's speed, of course, but that is another story). American Dave Nichols (the man who shows the wood on one of the pictures above) can load 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of wood into the back of his 1989 Ford pickup truck. This takes him 965 kilometres (600 miles) far, a range that is comparable to a fossil fuel powered car.

The merit of this is discussable, of course, as to do this Nichols has to stop regularly to refill the tank: if he loaded the back of his pickup with gasoline, then he could drive even further. According to Nichols, one pound of wood (half a kilogram) is sufficient to drive 1 mile (1.6 kilometres), which tallies with the Volvo's 30 kilograms of wood per 100 kilometres.

The American has set up a company (21st Century Motor Works) and plans to sell his technology on a larger scale. When he arrives home, he uses his truck to heat his house and generate electricity. His story has caught on in the US, and the reason can be summed up by his license plate: "Freedom". "You can go around the world with a saw and an axe", as John Dutch puts it.

His compatriot, Joost Conijn, grabbed this opportunity to take a two-month trip throughout Europe, without worrying about the proximity of the closest of gas stations (which are not always easy to find in a country like Romania). The locals gave him wood to continue his journey - with the supply stored on a trailer. Conijn not only used wood as a fuel, but also as a construction material for the car itself (picture above - video here). For another trip with a wood gas car, see "Around Sweden with wood in the tank".  

Does the woodmobile have a future?
During the 1990s, hydrogen was seen as the alternative fuel of the future. Then, biofuels and compressed air took over its mantle role, whilst today all the attention is focused on electric cars. If this technology fails, too (and we have expressed our doubts about it several times), can we go back to the wood gas car?

Despite its industrial appearance, a wood gas car scores rather well from an ecological viewpoint when compared to other alternative fuels. Wood gasification is slightly more effiicient than wood burning, as only 25 percent of the energy content of the fuel is lost. The energy consumption of a woodmobile is around 1.5 times higher than the energy consumption of a similar car powered by gasoline (including the energy lost during the pre-heating of the system and the extra weight of the machinery). If the energy required to mine, transport and refine oil is also taken into account, however, then wood gas is at least as efficient as gasoline. And, of course, wood is a renewable fuel. Gasoline is not.  

The advantages of wood gas cars
The greatest advantage of producer gas vehicles is that an accessible and renewable fuel can be used directly without any previous treatment. Converting biomass to a liquid fuel like ethanol or biodiesel can consume more energy (and CO2) than the fuel delivers. In the case of a wood gas car, no further energy is used in producing or refining the fuel, except for the felling and cutting of the wood. This means that a woodmobile is practically carbon neutral, especially when the felling and cutting is done by hand.

Moreover, a wood gas car does not require a chemical battery, and this is an important advantage over an electric car. All too often, the embodied energy of the latter's enormous battery is forgotten. In fact, in the case of a producer gas vehicle, the wood behaves like a natural battery. There is no need for high-tech recycling: the ash that remains, can be used as a fertilizer. A properly-operating wood gas generator also produces less air pollution than a gasoline or diesel powered car.

Wood gasification is considerably cleaner than wood burning: emissions are comparable to those of burning natural gas. An electric car has the potential to do better, but then the energy it uses should be generated by renewable sources, which is not a realistic scenario.  

The drawbacks of wood gas cars
In spite of all these advantages, it takes just one look at a woodmobile to realize that it is anything but an ideal solution. The mobile gas factory takes up a lot of space and can easily weigh a few hundred kilograms - empty. The size of the equipment is due to the fact that wood gas has a low energy content. The energetic value of of wood gas is around 5.7 MJ per kg, compared to 44 MJ/kg for gasoline and 56 MJ/kg for natural gas (source).

Furthermore, the use of wood gas limits the output of the combustion engine, which means that the speed and acceleration of the converted car are cut. Wood gas consists roughly of 50 percent nitrogen, 20 percent carbon monoxide, 18 percent hydrogen, 8 percent carbon dioxide and 4 percent methane. Nitrogen does not contribute to the combustion, while coal monoxide is a slow burning gas. Because of this high nitrogen content, the engine receives less fuel, which leads to a 35 to 50 percent lower output. Because the gas burns slowly, a high number of revolutions is not possible. A producer gas vehicle is no sports car.

 Even though some smaller cars have been equipped with wood gas generators (see for instance this Opel Kadett), the technology is better suited to a larger, heavier car with a powerful engine. If not, engine output and range might not be sufficient. Even though the installation can be made smaller for a smaller vehicle, its size and weight do not decrease proportionately with the decreasing size and weight of the car. Some have built wood gas-powered motorcycles, but their range is limited (a motorcycle with sidecar does better, though).

Of course, the weight and size of the mobile gas factory is less an issue with buses, trucks, trains or ships.  

Ease of use
Another problem of wood gas cars is that they are not particularly user-friendly, although this has improved compared to the technology used in the Second World War. See the second part of this pdf document (page 17 and further) for a description of what it was like to drive a wood gas car back then: "...experience at the Wurlitzer organ could be a distinct advantage". Still, in spite of the improvements, even a modern woodmobile requires up to 10 minutes to get up to working temperature, so you cannot jump in your car and drive away immediately.

Furthermore, before every refill, the ashes of the last gasification process have to be shovelled out. The forming of tar in the installation is less problematic than it was 70 years ago, but the filters still have to be cleaned regularly. And then there is the limited range of the vehicle. All in all, it is a far cry from the familiar ease of use of a gasoline car.

The large amount of (deadly) carbon monoxide produced calls for some precautions, too, since a leak in the piping is not impossible. If the machinery is placed in the trunk, the instalment of a CO-detector in the passenger compartment is by no means a luxury. Moreover, a wood gas car must not be parked in an enclosed space unless the gas is flared first (picture above).  

Mass-produced woodmobiles
VW beetle woodgas Of course, all the vehicles described above are built by amateur engineers. If we built cars especially designed to be powered by wood, and produce them in factories, chances are that the drawbacks would become somewhat less significant and the advantages would become even greater. Such woodmobiles would also look more elegant. The Volkswagen Beetles that rolled off the assembly line during World War Two had the whole wood gasification mechanism built in (sources: 1 / 2 / 3). From the outside, the wood gas generator and the rest of the installation was invisible. Refilling was done through a hole in the bonnet (hood).  

Woodgas station Unfortunately, wood gas shares an important disadvantage with other biofuels. Mass producing woodmobiles would not solve this. Quite the contrary, in fact: if we were to convert every vehicle, or even just a significant number, to wood gas, all the trees in the world would be gone and we would die of hunger because all agricultural land would be sacrificed for energy crops.

Indeed, the woodmobile caused severe deforestation in France during the Second World War (source). Just as with many other biofuels, the technology is not scalable. Yet, while biofuel-powered car is as user-friendly as a gasoline rival, wood gas has to be the most user-unfriendly alternative fuel that exists. This can be an advantage: a switch to wood gas cars can only mean that we would drive less, and that would of course be a good thing from an environmental viewpoint.

If you need to preheat your car for 10 minutes, chances are you will decide not to use it to drive a few miles to pick up some groceries. A bicycle would do the job faster. If you had to cut wood for three hours just to make a trip to the beach, you would probably decide to take the train.  

Refilling a woodgas car
 In any case, the woodmobile demonstrates (again) that the modern car is a product of fossil fuels. Whatever alternative fuel you believe in, none of them comes even close to the convenience of gasoline or diesel. If, one day, the availability of (cheap) oil comes to an end, the omnipresence of the automobile will be history. But the individual vehicle will never die.


Horse-Drawn Hummer

SUBHEAD: This Horse Drawn Hummer is equipped with chrome "CEO" badges on the roof rack to remind the starving masses of your status. Image above: Mashup of horse drawn Hummer in the tropics. From (http://www.theequinest.com/photoshop-horses-pt-2) By Wes Siler on 28 March 2010 in Jalopnik - (http://jalopnik.com/5502804/the-inside-story-of-the-horse+drawn-hummer)

In Jeremy's post-apocalyptic America, the wealthy will still crave ownership of all things desirable and scarce, but they'll be unable to drive traditional cars because Wall Street's greed will have caused a collapse permanently destroying our economy and ability to buy oil from the Middle East. So what do you do if you still want to lord it over the little people with the ultimate symbol of consumerism gone wrong? You commission your mechanic to convert your Hummer to horse power.

This Horse Drawn Hummer is equipped with chrome "CEO" badges on the roof rack to remind the starving masses of your status, tinted windows so they can't look at you with their shifty eyes and three interior flat screen televisions to distract you from their misery.

To debut the vehicle, which he built in Florida, Jeremy loaded it on to a flat bed trailer and dropped it off in New York's Central Park where he rendezvoused with a couple of draft horses from Connecticut. Turns out the Hummer isn't approved for use of as a Horse Cart in the park and a couple of very angry cops, likely acting on orders from The Man, kicked them out after a single lap. Still, that was enough time to prove the Hummer's merit as a wagon. Most central park horse carts weigh 1,800 Lbs and are pulled by a single horse. Chopped up like this, the Hummer weighs just under 2,000 Lbs and accommodates two horses. It's bigger, more comfortable and requires more resources than a standard wagon, just like the car it's based on.

Why an H2? "For me the symbol that best personifies the arrogant, unsustainable, indulgence of the last era and the inevitable downfall, is the Hummer H2," says Jeremy. "This military vehicle turned 9 MPG grocery getter has been called ‘An indictment of the American psyche on wheels,' and is clearly consumerism at its peak."

But Jeremy isn't pointing a finger at GM or the car industry for producing wasteful excess, saying, "they were after all giving us what we wanted." But he is using the car industry as a symbol of the collapse of the American Dream.

"As the country began to emerge from the Depression, Americans were obsessed with making grandiose predictions about the future," writes Jeremy. "At the 1939 World's Fair in NYC GM unveiled their exhibit entitled ‘The Futurama' which was a large scale model of their vision of the future world we would all inhabit and how the automobile would make it all possible. And in a way, they were right. After WWII the automobile made this country. Massive government investment in the highway interstate system (which was basically the largest subsidy ever handed out to business) created suburbia, and led to the very American Dream of a two car family, the house, picket fence, dog named Spot. At one point the 1950's 1 in 7 jobs were directly related to the auto industry. AAAAhhhh the golden age of America. In 1953 the slogan ‘As General Motors goes, so goes America' was said with pride."

Jeremy has cut a video from that Futurama exhibition together with the Ludachris video and displayed it on the in-cart monitors to highlight the journey from idealized consumerism to its ultimate reality.

"As the current economic crisis has unfolded, GM, Ford and Chrysler have run their companies into the ground by producing these cars, yet they requested billions of taxpayer dollars in bailouts. When GM rolled out its new 2009 line up of cars, it still includes the HUMMER at 9 MPG and the Cadillac Escalade at 12 MPG. HUMMER has since been sold to the Chinese (no small irony there) and GM is in bankruptcy. ‘As GM goes, so goes America.'"

The Inside Story of the Horse-Drawn Hummer

The idea to convert a car into a cart came from The Great Depression, which saw many Americans add horses to their cars because they were unable to afford gasoline. The resulting contraptions were called "Hoover Carts" after President Hoover who was largely blamed for the depression.

To realize his project, Jeremy bought a used Hummer H2 for $15,000, drove it straight into a borrowed Florida garage and started cutting pieces off of it. The resulting vehicle is actually surprisingly well made. All the modifications have been made out of converted parts already on the car. The bottom of the driver's area is the upside down hood, the vertical piece behind that is a section of the roof, complete with yellow running lights. Jeremy fitted electric trailer brakes to prevent the horses from running out of control and the horses steer the front wheels through a tow bar connected to fabricated A-arms. When the economy does collapse, Jeremy could be one of the lucky few to find a job, he could build vehicles like these for the rich and powerful.

The Horse Drawn Hummer was displayed at the Pulse NYC art show and will likely make future appearances here in New York. We'd love to see it roll through next week's New York Auto Show and even asked if it could be the official Jalopnik staff car. Alas, no, it was not to be.

Hawaiian Government Meetings

SUBHEAD: Bimonthly meetings of the Lawful Hawaiian Government, District 2 on 1st & 3rd Monday's in Kalaheo. Image above: GoogleEarth aerial view of Kaumualii highway near Brick Oven Pizza and Harvey's Flooring. By Kekane Pa on 25 March 2010 - Aloha, All are welcome to our Lawful Hawaiian Government meetings. WHAT: Meetings for District 2, Kauai, Hawaii WHEN: First and Third Mondays of the Month 7:00pm. WHERE: At Harvey's Flooring above and behind Brick Oven Pizza off the Kaumualii Highway in Kalaheo, Kauai. CONCERNS: • Hawaiian National citizenship package • Register to vote, Independent Elections • Right to travel • Vehicle license plates We'll also discuss upcoming events in each district. CONTACT: Kekane Pa: Kauai Representative Phone: 808- 645-1838 Email: kekanepa@hotmail.com Website: http://lawfulhawaiiangovernment.net .

Missing Kauai County Charter

SUBHEAD: Kauai County still does not have the language of the its current Charter online. Image above: Portion of screen shot from homepage of Kauai County website. It is not easy to find the County Charter from here. From (http://www.kauai.gov). By Andy Parx on 24 March 2010 in Parx News Daily - (http://parxnewsdaily.blogspot.com/2010/03/disbelieving-is-seeing.html) We actually enjoy ridiculing the all too easy to mock Kauai administration and council for their ability to keep us guessing whether they are just totally incompetent or simply so addicted to secrecy that it just seems that way. Once again the ability to play the game of public policy and related public relation has taken a pie in the face with the county’s press release announcing “County Charter now available online”. The previously available but now defunct on-line version of the charter - http://www.kauai.gov/portals/0/county_attorney/kauai_county_charter.pdf was woefully out of date with recent charter amendments not just missing from the charter but unavailable anywhere at the county’s web site. So it was with hope we that we read: In response to numerous requests, the codified version of the County Charter is now available online. To access the charter, please go to www.kauai.gov/CountyCharter. Originally adopted by voters in 1969, there have been many amendments to the County Charter over the years. Codified? Sounds good. Sounds like it might just be the actual words passed by the voters- all of them up through those passed in 2008. So will the real charter final please stand up? Will we be able to cease having to do a search of our own files in order to find the language of, oh say, the seemingly forgotten, still unenforced, citizen-petitioned, general plan enforcement amendment and others passed recently? Yeah, right, just read the penultimate line for a clue:
"The official document remains in the County Clerk’s office."
And it was worse when we went to the new and improved posting where it says:
"Disclaimer: This is the Unofficial Charter of the County of Kauai, and as such MAY NOT represent the law in its current form (no warranties are made regarding its accuracy or completeness). It is being provided as a courtesy while the official edition is being finalized.
Please Note: This information is being provided as a public service. Users should confirm the accuracy of the information with the handcopy available at the Office of the County Clerk. While the County of Kauai will strive to keep this material accurate and up-to-date, those people needing an official, accurate, and up-to-date edition of the Charter will be able to obtain hard copies of those documents and other pertinent information from the Office of the County Clerk."
So the first result of the change is that no one who previously bookmarked the charter and never saw the release or the The Garden Island News regurgitation story will be able to find it without jumping through who knows how many hoops. But if you do find it what you’ll find is the long missing index (inaccurate when used with the pdf pages) but just the same tired old lack of amendments- with the exception of the addition of the “County Auditor” amendment but without any of the other 2008 changes and sans some earlier ones- notable the general plan amendment. It’d be nice if it was even one step forward two steps backward with these dolts now and again but instead we have three steps sideways with a moonwalk thrown in to boot. No wonder we ask so often “can’t anyone here play this game?” See also: Island Breath: Kauai Charter Codified (PDF 287k archived file) .

The Battle Over Bottled Water

SUBHEAD: The bottled water industry’s attacks on tap water and its use of seductive, environmental-themed advertising to cover up the mountains of plastic waste it produces. Image above: Demonstration of using bottled instead of tap water is parodied. From (http://greenairradio.com/?p=1892) By Sindya N. Bhanoo on 24 March 2010 in The New York Times - (http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/the-battle-over-bottled-water)

Published in recognition of World Water Day, a video called The Story of Bottled Water , made its debut on YouTube this week, using animation and snappy narration to convey what its makers consider to be the evils of bottled water. (It comes from the same folks who produced ”The Story of Stuff” — an eco-themed viral video sensation from last year.)

Not missing a beat, the International Bottled Water Association, declared the new video to be sensational, and quickly posted its own minifilm, highlighting the sustainability practices of its members, which include major brands like Nestlé.

“The Story of Bottled Water,” in a nutshell, accuses bottled water companies of scaring consumers by saying that tap water is dirty and contaminated, while they themselves simply bottle tap water. “Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani are two of the many brands that are really filtered tap water,” the star of the video, Annie Leonard, says.

She goes on to say that 80 percent of plastic bottles end up in landfills or are burned in incinerators.

But the International Bottled Water Association, using different statistics, says that water bottles are the nation’s most recycled plastic container, with a 30.9 percent recycling rate.

“Consumers are really quite thoughtful in selecting and enjoying a safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice,” said Tom Lauria, the association’s vice president of communications in a press release. “That’s the real story of bottled water.”

The association says that bottled water is a necessity — particularly in emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes.

“Lifesaving bottled water cannot be available in times of pressing need without a viable, functioning industry to produce it,” the association wrote.

But the United Nations, in a report released on Tuesday, emphasized that bottled water was not sustainable.

The report that found producing bottled water for the United States market consumed 17 million barrels of oil annually.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Leonard’s video had been viewed more than 120,000 times. The I.B.W.A.’s had received about 250 visitors.

Video above: "The Story of Bottled Water" by Annie Leonard. From (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se12y9hSOM0)

New Storytelling & New Story

SUBHEAD: The collapse of journalism and the journalism of collapse. Commitment to truth-telling in difficult times, and times have never been more difficult. Image above: AdWorld chart on newspaper ad revenue as percentage of total. From (http://2ohreally.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/the-2doh-weekly-roundup-2) By Robert Jensen on 25 March 2010 in Counter Currents - (http://www.countercurrents.org/jensen250310.htm)

There is considerable attention paid in the United States to the collapse of journalism -- both in terms of the demise of the business model for corporate commercial news media, and the evermore superficial, shallow, and senseless content that is inadequate for citizens concerned with self-governance. This collapse is part of larger crises in the political and economic spheres, crises rooted in the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. New journalistic vehicles for storytelling are desperately needed.

There has been far less discussion of the need for a journalism of collapse -- the challenge to tell the story of a world facing multiple crises in the realms of social justice and sustainability. This collapse of the basic political and economic systems of the modern world, with dramatic consequences on the human and ecological fronts, demands not only new storytelling vehicles but a new story.

In this essay I want to review the failure of existing systems and suggest ideas for how to think about something radically different, through the lens of journalists’ work. The phrase “how to think about” should not be interpreted to mean “provide a well-developed plan for”; I don’t have magical answers to these difficult questions, and neither does anyone else. The first task is to face the fact that every problem we encounter does not necessarily have a solution that we can identify, or even imagine, in the moment; that identifying how existing systems have failed does not guarantee we have the capacity to devise new systems that will succeed.

This is a realistic attitude, not a defeatist one. The lack of a guarantee of success does not mean the inevitability of failure, and it does not absolve us of our responsibility to struggle to understand what is happening and to act as moral agents in a difficult world. In fact, I think such realism is required for serious attempts at fashioning a response to the crises. The eventual solutions, if there are to be solutions, may come in frameworks so different from our current understanding that we can’t yet see even their outlines, let alone the details. This is a time when we should be focused on “questions that go beyond the available answers,” to borrow a phrase from sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson.

The Old Story

Before taking up that challenge, I want to identify the story that dominates our era, what we might call the story of perpetual progress and endless expansion. This is the larger cultural narrative in which specific stories that appear in journalistic outlets are set. Charting the whole history of this story is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will confine myself to the post-WWII era in which I have lived, when this progress/expansion story has dominated not only in the United States and other developed countries but most of the world.

This story goes like this: In the modern world, human beings have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the natural world works, allowing us not only to control and exploit the resources of the non-human world but also to find ways to distribute those resources in a more just and democratic fashion. The progress/expansion story assumes we have knowledge -- or the capacity to acquire knowledge -- that is adequate to run the world competently, and that the application of that knowledge will produce a constantly expanding bounty that, in theory, can provide for all.

The two great systems of the post-WWII era that were in direct conflict -- the capitalist West led by the United States and the communist East led by the Soviet Union -- shared an allegiance to this story, that humans had the ability to understand and control, to shape the future, to become God-like in some sense. Even in places that carved out some independence in the Cold War, such as India, the same philosophy dominated, evidenced most clearly in big dam projects and the Green Revolution’s model of water-intensive, chemical farming.

The failure of the communist challenge was said to be “the end of history,” a point where the only work remaining was the application of our technical knowledge to lingering problems within a system of global capitalism and liberal democracy. Even with the widening of inequality and the clear threats to the ecosystem from human intervention, the progress/expansion story continues to dominate, bolstered by a widely held technological fundamentalism (more on that later).

The bumper-sticker version of this philosophy: More and bigger is better, forever and ever.

There’s one slight problem: If we continue to believe this story, and to base individual decisions and collective policies on it, we will dramatically accelerate the drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet, hastening the point at which the ecosystem will no longer be able to sustain human life as we know it at this level. In the process, we can expect not only more inequality, but in times of intense competition for resources, a dramatic increase in social conflict.

This critique cannot be dismissed as hysteric apocalypticism; it is a reasonable judgment, given all the evidence. The progress/expansion story has left us with enduring levels of human inequality that violate our moral principles and threaten to undermine any social stability, and an endangered ecosystem that threatens our very survival. Whatever systems and institutions we devise to replace those at the root of these problems, the underlying progress/expansion narrative has to change.

The Collapse of Journalism

In the United States, it is clear that at least in the short term, there will be fewer professional journalists working in fewer outlets with fewer resources for reporting. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism sums it up in its 2010 State of the News Media report:

“We estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30 percent. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.”

Newspapers are hurting the worst, but there is no good news from any news media.

That loss of capacity comes from plunging ad revenues: In 2009, ad revenue fell 26 percent for U.S. newspapers, including online, bringing the total loss over the past three years to 43 percent. Local television ad revenue fell 22 percent, triple the decline the year before. Other media also saw a decline in ad revenue: radio, 22 percent; magazine, 17 percent; network TV, 8 percent (for network news alone, probably more). Online ad revenue overall fell 5 percent, and revenue to news sites most likely also fared much worse. Cable news was the only commercial news sector keeping its head above water, barely, according to the report.

Revenue is down, and so are audiences. The PEJ study reports audience growth only in digital and cable news, with declines in local TV and network news. Print newspaper circulation fell 10.6 percent in 2009, and since 2000, daily circulation has fallen 25.6 percent.

This decline is also reflected in employment. According to a report by UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., there was a 22 percent increase in the journalism jobs lost from September 2008 through August 2009, compared with a general job loss rate of 8 percent. The news industry shed 35,885 jobs in a one-year period straddling 2008 and 2009.

Despite experiments with new ways to organize and support journalists -- including grant-funded news operations such as Pro Publica, university/newsroom partnerships, citizen journalism collaborations with professional newsrooms, and various web projects -- it is clear that, at least in the short term, there simply will be less journalism created by professional journalists.

It also seems clear that of the journalism remaining, a growing percentage is of less value to the project of enhancing democracy. I don’t want to pretend there was a golden age when professional journalism provided the critical and independent inquiry that citizens need to function as citizens. For reasons articulated by critics such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, contemporary professional journalism is hamstrung by institutional and ideological constraints that have been built into professional practices. As a result, corporate news owners rarely have to discipline mainstream journalists, who are socialized to accept the ideological prison in which they work and police other inmates.

But even with that rather large caveat, the slide of much of contemporary journalism into banality is frightening. Of public affairs journalism, we might paraphrase an old joke about hard-to-please restaurant patrons: “The food is awful here,” one says, and the friend replies, “Yes, and they’ve reduced the portions.”

The markers of this slide in quality are clear enough: An obsession with entertainment and sports, especially large-scale spectacles; routine exploitation of sexuality and violence in ways corrosive to human dignity; an endless fascination with celebrity, with the standards of what constitutes celebrity continually dropping; and a growing imposition of those spectacle and celebrity values on public affairs.

This is not a screed against entertainment, pleasure, fun, or the people’s desire to gain pleasure from fun entertainment. It is not an attempt to glorify the rational and devalue the emotional. It is not a self-indulgent lament that the kind of journalism I prefer is losing out. It’s an accurate description of our increasing numbed-out and intellectually vapid culture.

How much of this collapse of journalism is driven by the explosion of news outlets in a 24-hour news cycle, as an ever-larger media beast demands to be fed? How much is a product of bottom-line-focused news managers’ longstanding obsession with producing the extraordinary profits demanded by top-floor-dwelling executives? How much is panic caused by these dramatic drops in audience and revenue by so-called legacy media, leading to desperation in programming?

Whatever the relative weight of these causes, the effect is clear: In the mainstream outlets through which most people in the United States get their news, there is less journalism relevant to citizens’ role in a democracy and more journalism-like material that dulls our collective capacity for independent critical thinking. If journalists had only to struggle to return to some previous state in which they did a better job, that would be hard enough. But journalists can’t be satisfied with striving toward standards from the past. A new journalism is needed.

The Journalism of Collapse

The immediate crises that journalism and journalists face -- some rooted in the pathology of professionalism and its illusory claims to neutrality, and some rooted in the predatory nature of capitalism and its illusory commitment to democracy -- are serious, but in some sense trivial compared to the long-term crises in a profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable world. We have to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also must begin to fashion a journalism of collapse.

To reiterate my basic premise: Whatever the specific story being told in modern journalism, those stories typically are set in that larger narrative of perpetual progress and endless expansion. What kind of story is needed for a world that desperately needs to rethink its idea of progress in a world that is no longer expanding?

Here’s the story:

On March 17, 2051, the world will pump its last easily accessible barrel of usable oil. By that time, cancer directly attributable to human-created toxicity will kill 125 million people per year, while major disruptions in the hydrological cycle will so dramatically reduce the amount of fresh water that 18.9 percent of the human population will die each year as a direct result. On June 14, 2047, exactly half of the area of the world’s oceans will be dead zones, incapable of supporting significant marine life. Three and a half years later, topsoil losses will have reached the point where even with petrochemical based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, yields will drop by 50 percent on the most fertile soil and fall to zero on soil that has effectively gone sterile due to contamination and compaction. But there won’t be any petrochemicals anyway, because there won’t be any oil. And there won’t be enough water. And so there won’t be enough food. And getting reliable broadband internet service will be difficult.

OK, that was all meant to be funny. That, of course, is not the story. The story we need to tell won’t be focused on predictions about specific aspects of collapse. I have no doubt that if the human community continues on its present trajectory, such statistics will be all too real. I have no doubt that if the human community does not change that trajectory in substantial ways fairly soon, the future will be grim. But rather than scurrying to make specific predictions, journalism should struggle to help people understand the processes that make that preceding paragraph plausible, and hence not funny at all. There’s little humor in the recognition that continued commitment to an ideology of perpetual progress and endless expansion -- operationally defined as ever greater human consumption of the ecological capital of the planet -- is a dead end. More and bigger not only is not better, it is not possible.

The response I often get to this view is the assertion that we need not worry about the physical limits of the planet because human ingenuity will invent increasingly clever ways of exploiting those resources. This technological fundamentalism -- the belief that the use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology -- is more prevalent, and more dangerous, than religious fundamentalism. History teaches that we should be more cautious and pay attention to the unintended effects of such technology with an eye on the long term.

The fundamentalists believe the future is always bright, apparently because they wish it to be so. But the desire to live in an endless expanding world of bounty -- a desire found both in those who currently have access to that bounty and those who don’t but crave it -- is not a guarantee of it. We certainly know this at the individual level, that “you can’t always get what you want,” as the song goes, and what holds for us as individuals is also true for us as a species.

Those of us who question such declarations are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult designed to derail serious discussion. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge to control the larger world.

So the first step in crafting a new narrative for journalists is to reject technological fundamentalism and deal with a harsh reality: In the future we will have to make due with far less energy, which means less high-technology and a need for more creative ways of coping. Journalists have to tell stories about what that kind of creativity looks like. They have to reject the gee-whizzery of much of the contemporary science and technology reporting and emphasize the activities of those with a deeper ecological worldview.

There also is a corresponding need to tell stories about redefining our concept of the good life. Again, the basics are in pop songs: “all you need is love,” and “money can’t buy you love.” We all agree, yet that narrative of progress/expansion is rooted in the belief that acquisition and consumption are consistent with a good life, or perhaps even required for it.

Central to that redefinition is accepting that collectively we have to learn to live with less. In a world with grotesque inequalities in the distribution of wealth, some of our sisters and brothers are already living with less -- less than what is required for a decent life, which reflects the unjust nature of our social systems. For those of us in the more affluent sectors, the question is not only whether we will work for a more just distribution within the human family, but how we respond when the world imposes stricter limits on us all.

Living with less is crucial not only to ecological survival but to long-term human fulfillment. People in the United States live with an abundance of most everything -- except meaning. The people who defend the existing system most aggressively are typically either in the deepest denial, refusing to acknowledge their culture’s spiritual emptiness, or else have been the privileged beneficiaries of the system. This is not to suggest that poverty produces virtue, but to recognize that affluence tends to erode it.

A world that steps back from high-energy, high-technology answers to all questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope without such technological “solutions” can help create and solidify human bonds. Indeed, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished relationships as well as the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the information those practices transmit. Stepping back from this fundamentalism is not simply a sacrifice but an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy amusement for a different set of rewards. We need not romanticize community life or ignore the inequalities that structure our communities to recognize that human flourishing takes place in community and progressive social change doesn’t happen when people are isolated.

Telling this story is important in a world in which people have come to believe the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology. The specific stories told in the journalism of collapse will reject technological fundamentalism and aid people in the struggle to redefine the good life. Journalists need not merely speculate about these things; across the United States people are actively engaged in such projects. Though not yet a majority, these people are planning transition towns, developing permaculture systems, creating community gardens, reclaiming domestic arts that have atrophied, organizing worker-owned cooperative businesses. They are experimenting with alternatives to the dominant culture, and in doing so they are, implicitly or explicitly, rejecting technological fundamentalism and redefining the good life.

This journalism of collapse I am proposing would include stories about the problems we face, the harsh reality of a contracting world of less energy. But it also would include stories about people’s experiments with new definitions of progress and the good life. Such an approach to journalism would not only highlight the threats but also shine a light on the way people are coping with the threats.

Journalism in the prophetic voice

I would call this kind of storytelling “journalism in the prophetic voice,” borrowing a theological term for secular purposes. I prefer to speak about the prophetic voice rather than prophets because everyone is capable of speaking in the voice; the prophetic is not the exclusive property of particular people labeled as prophets. I also avoid the term prophecy, which is often used to describe a claim to be able to see the future. The complexity of these crises makes any claim to predict the details of what lies ahead absurd . All we can say is that, absent a radical change in our relationship to each other and the non-human world, we’re in for a rough ride in the coming decades. Though the consequences of that ride are likely to be more overwhelming than anything humans have faced, certainly people at other crucial historical moments have faced crises without clear paths or knowledge of the outcome. A twenty-five-year-old Karl Marx wrote about this in a letter to a friend in1843:

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. … Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.

We should understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly -- both how our world is structured by illegitimate authority that causes suffering beyond the telling, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in that suffering. In that same letter, Marx went on to discuss the need for this kind of “ruthless criticism”:

But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover about the injustice of the world. It is to name the wars of empire as unjust; to name an economic system that leaves half the world in abject poverty as unjust; to name the dominance of men, of heterosexuals, of white people as unjust. And it is to name the human destruction of Creation as our most profound failure. At the same time, to speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.

Another prominent historical figure put it this way in 1909: “One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and to give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.” That was Mohandas Gandhi, on the first page of Hind Swaraj.

Those tasks -- attempting to understand and give expression to what ordinary people feel, and then advocating progressive goals, while at the same time exposing problems in the culture -- are not likely to make one’s life easy. Journalists willing to take this position will find themselves in a tense place, between a ruling elite that is not interested in seriously changing the distribution of power and a general public that typically does not want to confront these difficult realities of collapse. To speak from a prophetic position is to guarantee that one will find little rest and small comfort. Such is the fate of a commitment to truth-telling in difficult times, and times have never been more difficult.

But others have faced similar challenges. Looking to the tradition in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets condemned corrupt leaders and also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.

That phrase, few are guilty but all are responsible, captures the challenge of the journalism of collapse. We can easily identify those powerful figures guilty of specific crimes. Who is guilty in perpetrating the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq? That’s easy -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice. Who is guilty in the bailout of Wall Street and the big banks: That’s easy, too -- Bush and Obama, Paulsen and Geithner, Bernanke and the boys. One task of journalists is to pursue the guilty, perhaps with a bit more fervor than contemporary U.S. news media; our journalists are too polite in handling war criminals and servants of the wealthy.

But when we look at the fragile state of the world, in some sense our future depends on recognizing that we all are responsible, depending on our status in society and resources available to us. Those of us in affluent sectors of society have the most to answer for, and the task of journalists is to raise questions uncomfortable for us all. This will rarely make journalists popular, but that also is not new. In each of the four Gospels, Jesus reminds us: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4)

Since journalism has never really been an honorable profession, perhaps that makes us the perfect candidates for raising our voices prophetically.


Age of Technofascism

SUBHEAD: The objective is to cultivate dependence on and unquestioning loyalty to the technological system--a key doctrine in classical fascism.

By Peter Crabb on 21 March 2010 in Culture Change -  

Image above: Still from Verizon ad envisioning "army" of technical support staff following a customer everywhere. From (http://www.whoscreative.com/jessenewman/3/65)  
"If every age has its own characteristic doctrine, there are a thousand signs which point to Fascism as the characteristic doctrine of our time.” - Benito Mussolini, Italian Encyclopedia (1932)

I sat down at my kitchen table a few days ago to pay my monthly bills. It was that time of year when several insurance bills were due. While writing the checks I fumed about the large proportion of my income that is sucked up by the insurance industry and the other corporate puppet masters.

How do they do it? They do it by the decidedly undemocratic practice of writing laws that government passes and enforces and that benefit them and them alone. For instance, everyone wants to drive a car, right? To drive that car of your corporate-cultivated dreams, you must first pay the insurance industry, or you could end up in jail. Everyone wants to own their own home, right? That’s the American dream. Here too, you must first pay the insurance industry--private mortgage insurance and homeowner’s insurance. It’s right there in the fine print of your mortgage. Insurance companies, banks, and government--helping each other out to screw you over.

There are so many aspects of our everyday lives that are coercive collaborations between business and government. After you buy that car that you absolutely must have because the construction industry has built roads and stores and schools and businesses in such far-flung, decentralized patterns that you couldn’t possibly walk anywhere, plus all of that insurance, the law in most states requires an annual safety inspection at the service center. You must pay the automotive repair industry and the state to pass Go.

Want to shrink your footprint on the land and live in a yurt? Sorry, no can do. The construction industry wrote the zoning laws that prohibit any housing that isn’t built by the construction industry. You pay taxes to your municipal government so that they can enforce those laws.

Want to live like a real ecofreak without any electricity? I sure do. But, nope. The electric utility companies wrote the zoning laws that force you to be on their landscape-destroying, bird-killing, EMF-emitting grid and to pay their ever-skyrocketing rates. Like it or not, you are paying for that upwind nuke plant or coal plant, along with the mining and air pollution and irradiation that go along with those saurian centralized technologies. By law, you don’t have a choice.

The business community would call this merger of the interests of industry and government just darn smart business. Here on Main Street, we prefer to call it corporatism or fascism. As Mussolini envisioned it, fascism eliminates the importance of individual freedom and choice in favor of a totalitarian (he coined that term, too!) corporatist industrial state.

In a fascist state, you and I are nothings that merely support the larger entity. Only the corporatist state can achieve the great, glorious technical accomplishments that are mythologized as our heroic collective destiny (recall the industry pimp Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City upon a Hill”).

Being coerced by law to tie into the electric grid--and the many other stick-ups--might more properly be called “technofascism” because it is the subjugation of the individual and the empowerment of the corporatist state using technologies as both vehicle for profit-making and tool for controlling the masses.

Mobile cell phones and service, for example, are enormously profitable for the telecommunications industry. My students tell me their average phone bill is about $80 per month. By comparison, when I was in college, my phone bill was virtually $0 per month--I very rarely used the pay phone at the end of the hall in my dormitory.

Cell phones are also an ingenious device for social control. What is your typical person in the industrialized world paying attention to at this very moment? His or her cell phone, that’s what. That’s mighty impressive social control, thanks to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and the rest, all of whom legislated their way into our lives and landscapes with their industry-authored 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by the industry pimp Bill Clinton.

Technofascism isn’t new. The Romans practiced it when they enslaved people to build their roads and aqueducts. More recently, electrification projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Depression of the 1930s, were built on the backs of taxpayers who were forced to pay for the dams and powers lines that wrecked the Appalachian landscape and then were thrust without any choice into the sparkling new world of toasters, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and monthly electric bills.

In the 1940s and 50s, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan conspired to purchase and dismantle the public transit systems in major U.S. cities and replace the relatively less noxious electric rail streetcars with diesel-burning buses--built by GM. Together with Standard Oil and tire and construction companies, Sloan succeeded in filling city streets with buses and private cars and vastly expanded the paving-over of the countryside.

The demonic height of the mid-century car frenzy was the construction of the interstate highway system, a.k.a. the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (emphasis added). Ruinous dependence on the automobile was brought to us care of the corporate masters and their government flunkies.

The telecommunications industry today is also a pernicious technofascist enterprise. Back in the 1990s, I crusaded against the deployment of Caller ID in my state, on the grounds that it radically changed the conditions of individual privacy. The telecom industry lost the first round of their attempt to get the state legislature to mandate Caller ID, but a year later, no doubt after many campaign contributions, and free golf trips to St. Andrews, the state legislature changed its mind and a new era was born.

In retrospect, my concerns about Caller ID seem quaint. Today, people voluntarily carry around iPhones with GPS systems that enable some technocrat somewhere to track their every move through space and time. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Recently I spoke with a former student about the increase in surveillance everywhere. A bright 25 year old who just completed a master’s degree in philosophy, he replied that he was not concerned about surveillance because he has nothing to hide. Just what they want everyone to think!

Indoctrination into accepting the technofascist reality begins shortly after birth, when parents substitute video screens for human company for their toddlers. The objective is to cultivate dependence on and unquestioning loyalty to the technological system--a key doctrine in classical fascism. Today, most people in the U.S. voluntarily spend about 4 hours per day immersed in propaganda displayed on their TV screens. Children now spend about 8 hours per day using various electronic technotoys, including TV, videogames, computers, and cell phones. These devices are like cherished friends to them.

At a recent faculty meeting on the university campus where I teach, I proposed a policy to ban cell phone use in classrooms. Many students are addicted to texting and checking their phones to the point that it impairs their ability to learn and is exasperatingly disruptive. Older faculty members were extremely supportive of the proposal, while younger faculty, with cell phones strapped to their belts like .45s, said they felt a campus-wide ban on cell phones would violate their academic freedom to set their own classroom standards. The technofascists are winning the hearts and minds of all incoming members of society.

Indoctrination into the distorted technofascist worldview doesn’t just affect young people. Ask any airline passenger as he or she is being “processed” through airport “security” whether all of this seems excessive, and you will probably hear, “Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry.” Just what they want everyone to think! But is all that surveillance and crowd control and profiling and hazardous full-body X-raying really about “being safe”? Or is it the corporatist state at work protecting expensive corporate property (aircraft) from the whims of dangerous individual human beings? We can’t have mere people blowing up valuable machines.

And, of course, there is the central technofascist theme of perpetual war. The development, purchase, and sales of technologies of war drive the corporate state economy. President Obama (yet another industry pimp) has proposed a record $708 billion defense budget for 2011 to fund what are now his imperialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The very framing of an imperialist war budget as a “defense” budget is technofascist Newspeak at its most ingenious.

Seven hundred and eight billion dollars for high-tech murder and destruction and poisoning of the planet. Private armies like Xe Services LLC (formerly Blackwater), who will get a huge cut of that budget, echo the secret police and militias of all the nasty totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. (For excellent dramatizations of the technofascist police state, see Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here and Frank Capra’s 1941 film "Meet John Doe".)

The future looks bright for technofascism. According to a preposterous editorial in The New York Times, spreading global cell phone service will save developing countries from poverty--whether they want to be saved or not. Also according to the Times, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has proposed a 10-year plan to make broadband internet service the nation’s main channel of communication--paid for, of course, by taxpayers, whether they want this or not.

This plan reeks of technofascist mythology about the future promise of the shining industrial state at the expense of what the people want or need: “the United States is lagging far behind other countries in broadband adoption and speed. About a third of Americans have no access to high-speed Internet service, cannot afford it or choose not to have it” [emphasis added].

Promises of a glorious technology-enchanted future, suppression of the individual for the greater good of the corporatist industrial state, mass engineering spectacles, perpetual high-tech war, and rapacious disregard for the Earth’s ecosystems. That’s our culture.

See also:
“Technology Traps” by Peter Crabb. Culture Change, Nov. 10, 2008: CultureChange.org
“Taken for a Ride” documentary about the corporate dismantling of public transit, reviewed with filmaker interview in the Auto-Free Times (now CultureChange.org)
“What is Fascism?” fordham.edu
“The Revolution Has Gone Mobilenytimes.com
“Effort to Widen U.S. Internet Access Sets Up Battle” the battle is between corporate entities; the people have no say - Culture Change editor nytimes.com

The Logic of Abundance

SUBHEAD: Take steps to insure that any interruption in electrical power from the grid becomes an inconvenience rather than a threat to survival. Image above: The Central Dispatching Unit in Moscow is in charge of electric power supply for all Russia. From (http://www.barco.com/reference/2438) By John Michael Greer on 24 March 2010 in The Archdruid Report - (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/03/logic-of-abundance.html) The last several posts here on The Archdruid Report have focused on the ramifications of a single concept – the importance of energy concentration, as distinct from the raw quantity of energy, in the economics of the future. This concept has implications that go well beyond the obvious, because three centuries of unthinking dependence on highly concentrated fossil fuels have reshaped not only the economies and the cultures of the industrial West, but some of our most fundamental assumptions about the universe, in ways all too likely to be disastrously counterproductive in the decades and centuries ahead of us. Ironically enough, given the modern world’s obsession with economic issues, one of the best examples of this reshaping of assumptions by the implications of cheap concentrated energy has been the forceful resistance so many of us put up nowadays to thinking about technology in economic terms. It should be obvious that whether or not a given technology or suite of technologies continues to exist in a world of depleting resources depends first and foremost on three essentially economic factors. The first is whether the things done by that technology are necessities or luxuries, and if they are necessities, just how necessary they are; the second is whether the same things, or at least the portion of them that must be done, can be done by another technology at a lower cost in scarce resources; the third is how the benefits gained by keeping the technology supplied with the scarce resources it needs measures up to the benefits gained by putting those same resources to other uses. Nowadays, though, this fairly straightforward calculus of needs and costs is anything but obvious. If I suggest in a post here, for example, that the internet will fail on all three counts in the years ahead of us – very little of what it does is necessary; most of the things it does can be done with much less energy and resource use, albeit at a slower pace, by other means; and the resources needed to keep it running would in many cases produce a better payback elsewhere – you can bet your bottom dollar that a good many of the responses will ignore this analysis entirely, and insist that since it’s technically possible to keep the internet in existence, and a fraction of today’s economic and social arrangements currently depend on (or at least use) the internet, the internet must continue to exist. Now it’s relevant to point out that the world adapted very quickly to using email and Google in place of postage stamps and public libraries, and will doubtless adapt just as quickly to using postage stamps and libraries in place of email and Google if that becomes necessary, but this sort of thinking – necessary as it will be in the years to come – finds few takers these days. This notion that technological progress is a one-way street not subject to economic limits invites satire, to be sure, and I’ve tried to fill that need more than once in the past. Still, there are deep issues at work that also need to be addressed. One of them, which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, is the way that progress has taken on an essentially religious value in the modern world, especially but not only among those who reject every other kind of religious thinking. Still, there’s another side to it, which is that for the last three hundred years those who believed in the possibilities of progress have generally been right. There have been some stunning failures to put alongside the successes, to be sure, but the trajectory that reached its climax with human footprints on the Moon has provided a potent argument supporting the idea that technological complexity is cumulative, irreversible, and immune to economic concerns. The problem with that argument is that it takes the experience of an exceptional epoch in human history as a measure for human history as a whole. The three centuries of exponential growth that put those bootprints on the gray dust of the Sea of Tranquillity were made possible by the conjunction of historical accidents and geological laws that allowed a handful of nations to seize the fantastic treasure of highly concentrated energy buried in the Earth’s fossil fuels and burn through it at ever-increasing rates, flooding their economies with almost unimaginable amounts of cheap and highly concentrated energy. It’s been fashionable to assume that the arc of progress was what made all that energy available, but there’s very good reason to think that this puts the cart well in front of the horse. Rather, it was the huge surpluses of available energy that made technological progress both possible and economically viable, as inventors, industrialists, and ordinary people all discovered that it really was cheaper to have machines powered by fossil fuels take over jobs that had been done for millennia by human and animal muscles, fueled by solar energy in the form of food. The logic of abundance that was made plausible as well as possible by those surpluses has had impacts on our society that very few people in the peak oil scene have yet begun to confront. For example, many of the most basic ways that modern industrial societies handle energy make sense only if fossil fuel energy is so cheap and abundant that waste simply isn’t something to worry about. One of this blog’s readers, Sebastien Bongard, pointed out to me in a recent email that on average, only a third of the energy that comes out of electrical power plants reaches an end user; the other two-thirds are converted to heat by the electrical resistance of the power lines and transformers that make up the electrical grid. For the sake of having electricity instantly available from sockets on nearly every wall in the industrial world, in other words, we accept unthinkingly a system that requires us to generate three times as much electricity as we actually use. In a world where concentrated energy sources are scarce and expensive, many extravagances of this kind will stop being possible, and most of them will stop being economically feasible. In a certain sense, this is a good thing, because it points to ways in which nations facing crisis because of a shortage of concentrated energy sources can cut their losses and maintain vital systems. It’s been pointed out repeatedly, for example, that the electrical grids that supply power to homes and businesses across the industrial world will very likely stop being viable early on in the process of contraction, and some peak oil thinkers have accordingly drawn up nightmare scenarios around the sudden and irreversible collapse of national power grids. Like most doomsday scenarios, though, these rest on the unstated and unexamined assumption that everybody involved will sit on their hands and do nothing as the collapse unfolds. In this case, that assumption rests in turn on a very widespread unwillingness to think through the consequences of an age of contracting energy supplies. The managers of a power grid facing collapse due to a shortage of generation capacity have one obvious alternative to hand: cutting nonessential sectors out of the grid for as long as necessary, so the load on the grid decreases to a level that the available generation capacity can handle. In an emergency, for example, many American suburbs and a large part of the country’s nonagricultural rural land could have electrical service shut off completely, and an even larger portion of both could be put on the kind of intermittent electrical service common in the Third World, without catastrophic results. Of course there would be an economic impact, but it would be modest in comparison to the results of simply letting the whole grid crash. Over the longer term, just as the twentieth century was the era of rural electrification, the twenty-first promises to be the era of rural de-electrification. The amount of electricity lost to resistance is partly a function of the total amount of wiring through which the current has to pass, and those long power lines running along rural highways to scattered homes in the country thus account for a disproportionate share of the losses. A nation facing prolonged or permanent shortages of electrical generating capacity could make its available power go further by cutting its rural hinterlands off the power grid, and leaving them to generate whatever power they can by local means. Less than a century ago, nearly every prosperous farmhouse in the Great Plains had a windmill nearby, generating 12 or 24 volts for home use whenever the wind blew; the same approach will be just as viable in the future, not least because windmills on the home scale – unlike the huge turbines central to most current notions of windpower – can be built by hand from readily available materials. (Skeptics take note: I helped build one in college in the early 1980s using, among other things, an old truck alternator and a propeller handcarved from wood. Yes, it worked.) Steps like this have seen very little discussion in the peak oil scene, and even less outside it, because the assumptions about technology discussed earlier in this post make them, in every sense of the word, unthinkable. Most people in the industrial world today seem to have lost the ability to imagine a future that doesn’t have electricity coming out of a socket in every wall, without going to the other extreme and leaning on Hollywood clichés of universal destruction. The idea that some of the most familiar technologies of today may simply become too expensive and inefficient to maintain tomorrow is alien to ways of thought dominated by the logic of abundance. That blindness, however, comes with a huge price tag. As the age of abundance made possible by fossil fuels comes to its inevitable end, a great many things could be done to cushion the impact. Quite a few of these things could be done by individuals, families, and local communities – to continue with the example under discussion, it would not be that hard for people who live in rural areas or suburbs to provide themselves with backup systems using local renewable energy to keep their homes viable in the event of a prolonged, or even a permanent, electrical outage. None of the steps involved are hugely expensive, most of them have immediate payback in the form of lower energy bills, and local and national governments in much of the industrial world are currently offering financial incentives – some of them very robust – to those who do them. Despite this, very few people are doing them, and most of the attention and effort that goes into responses to a future of energy constraints focuses on finding new ways to pump electricity into a hugely inefficient electrical grid, without ever asking whether this will be a viable response to an age when the extravagance of the present day is no longer an option. This is why attention to the economics of energy in the wake of Peak Oil is so crucial. Could an electrical grid of the sort we have today, with its centralized power plants and its vast network of wires bringing power to sockets on every wall, remain a feature of life throughout the industrial world in an energy-constrained future? If attempts to make sense of that future assume that this will happen as a matter of course, or start with the unexamined assumption that such a grid is the best (or only) possible way to handle scarce energy, and fixate on technical debates about whether and how that can be made to happen, the core issues that need to be examined slip out of sight. The question that has to be asked instead is whether a power grid of the sort we take for granted will be economically viable in such a future – that is, whether such a grid is as necessary as it seems to us today; whether the benefits of having it will cover the costs of maintaining and operating it; and whether the scarce resources it uses could produce a better return if put to work in some other way. Local conditions might provide any number of answers to that question. In some countries and regions, where people live close together and renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric power promise a stable supply of electricity for the relatively long term, a national grid of the current type may prove viable. In others, as suggested above, it might be much more viable to have restricted power grids supplying urban areas and critical infrastructure, while rural hinterlands return to locally generated power or to non-electrified lifestyles. In still others, a power grid of any kind might prove to be economically impossible. Under all these conditions, even the first, it makes sense for governments to encourage citizens and businesses to provide as much of their own energy needs as possible from locally available, diffuse energy sources such as sunlight and wind. (It probably needs to be said, given current notions about the innate malevolence of government, that whatever advantages might be gained from having people dependent on the electrical grid would be more than outweighed by the advantages of having a work force, and thus an economy, that can continue to function on at least a minimal level if the grid goes down.) Under all these conditions, it makes even more sense for individuals, families, and local communities to take such steps themselves, so that any interruption in electrical power from the grid – temporary or permanent – becomes an inconvenience rather than a threat to survival. A case could easily be made that in the face of a future of very uncertain energy supplies, alternative off-grid sources of space heating, hot water, and other basic necessities are as important in a modern city as life jackets are in a boat. An even stronger case could be made that individuals and groups who hope to foster local resilience in the face of such a future probably ought to make such simple and readily available technologies as solar water heating, solar space heating, home-scale wind power, and the like central themes in their planning. Up to now, this has rarely happened, and the hold of the logic of abundance on our collective imagination is, I think, a good part of the reason why. What makes this even more important is that the electrical power grid is only one example, if an important one, of a system that plays a crucial role in the way people live in the industrial world today, but that only makes sense in a world where energy is so abundant that even huge inefficiencies don’t matter. It’s hardly a difficult matter to think of others. To think in these terms, though, and to begin to explore more economical options for meeting individual and community needs in an age of scarce energy, is to venture into a nearly unexplored region where most of the rules that govern contemporary life are stood on their heads. We’ll map out one of the more challenging parts of that territory in next week’s post. .

California Marijuana Initiative

SUBHEAD: California is poised to decide on decriminalizing marijuana and treating it like alcohol. Image above: A specimen of good weed. By Stephen Gutwillig on 24 March 2010 in Huffington Post - (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-gutwillig/ca-marijuana-legalization_b_511484.html) Today, an initiative that would legalize personal marijuana possession and allow regulated sales of marijuana to adults will qualify for California's November general election ballot. A win at the ballot would be a first of its kind in U.S. history. This is a remarkable moment in the struggle to change our decades-old marijuana policies. Marijuana was prohibited in 1937 before most Americans had ever heard of it. Today the U.S. leads the world in marijuana consumption. Nearly 26 million Americans used marijuana last year and more than 100 million have tried it in their lifetimes. A huge commodity of the underground economy, marijuana is the nation's top cash crop, valued at $14 billion in California alone. Our state Board of Equalization has estimated we would generate $1.4 billion a year by taxing marijuana like alcohol. Like it or not, marijuana has become a mainstream recreational drug. It is second only to alcohol and cigarettes in popularity and is objectively far less harmful than either. Marijuana is drastically less addictive and cannot cause an overdose. Every major independent study has debunked the gateway myth; for the profound majority of users, marijuana is the only drug people sample not the first. Children across the country consistently report that marijuana is easy for them to get from their peers and the black market while significant barriers exist to buying alcohol and cigarettes. Unthinkable carnage in Mexico has claimed 15,000 lives since the Calderon government declared war on drug cartels three years ago. Our government estimates the cartels generate at least 60% of their profits from marijuana alone. Following the murders of several U.S. consular workers, Secretary of State Clinton returned to Mexico this week, acknowledging that demand in the U.S. dominates these markets. But she didn't acknowledge that rampant violence is not a byproduct of the cannabis plant itself but of the prohibition that creates a profit motive people are willing to kill for. Americans are increasingly turning against the prohibition that fails to protect our kids and guarantees a monopoly of profits to violent criminal syndicates on both sides of the border. While polls have long confirmed that large majorities favor treating marijuana possession as an infraction without arrest let alone jail, support for ending marijuana prohibition outright is quickly gaining speed. A Gallup poll last year reported that a historic 44 percent of Americans favor legalization, a 10-point jump since 2001. Meanwhile, sizable majorities of Californians are ahead of that curve, giving rise to the historic initiative we'll vote on this fall. With this cultural transition underway, you might think enforcement of our marijuana laws would reflect their unpopularity. Sadly, quite the opposite is the case. Arrests for marijuana offenses have actually tripled nationwide since 1991. In California, which decriminalized low-level possession in 1975, arrests have jumped 127 percent in the same two decades the arrest rate for crime in general fell by 40 percent. Police made nearly 850,000 marijuana arrests across the country last year, half of all drug arrests and more than all violent crime arrests combined. No law in the United States is enforced so widely yet deemed so unnecessary. Worse still, marijuana laws are enforced selectively with racist results. In California, African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana offense despite comparable or even lower rates of consumption. An expose by the Pasadena Weekly found that blacks, who represent 14 percent of that city's population, accounted for more than half all marijuana arrests in the last five years. It's hard to overstate the significance of the vote this November. Banning marijuana outright has been a disaster, fueling a massive, increasingly brutal, underground economy, wasting billions in scarce law enforcement resources, and making criminals of countless law-abiding citizens. Elected officials haven't stopped these punitive, profligate policies. Now voters can bring the reality check of sensible marijuana regulation to California. • Stephen Gutwillig is the California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization working to promote alternatives to the failed war on drugs. See also: Ea O Ka Aina: California Marijuana Legislation 1/13/10 Ea O Ka Aina: Marijuana or Gambling 2/21/10 Ea O KA Aina: Marijuana trial ends in smiles 2/2/09 .