Orbiting Planet Serious

SUBHEAD: For now, acting outside the common narrative in the US is simply too scary for the multitudes to rationally consider.  

By Steve Ludlum on 22 January 2011 in Economic Undertow

Image above: The Middle east from 250 miles altitude over Saudi Arabia with the Red Sea on the horizon. From Island Breath: The Dead Zone (http://islandbreath.org/2006Year/03-environment/0603-02TheDeadZone.html).
From the 'Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off fruit vendor' Department we have this:
By KAREEM FAHIM SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Mohamed Bouazizi spent his whole life on a dusty, narrow street here, in a tiny, three-room house with a concrete patio where his mother hung the laundry and the red chilis to dry. By the time Mr. Bouazizi was 26, his work as a fruit vendor had earned him just enough money to feed his mother, uncle and five brothers and sisters at home.
He dreamed about owning a van. Faida Hamdy, a 45-year-old municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid, a police officer’s daughter, was single, had a “strong personality” and an unblemished record, her supervisor said. She inspected buildings, investigated noise complaints and fined vendors like Mr. Bouazizi, whose itinerant trade may or may not have been legal; no one seems to know. On the morning of Dec. 17th, when other vendors say Ms. Hamdy tried to confiscate
Mr. Bouazizi’s fruit, and then slapped him in the face for trying to yank back his apples, he became the hero — now the martyred hero — and she became the villain in a remarkable swirl of events in which Tunisians have risen up to topple a 23-year dictatorship and march on, demanding radical change in their government. The revolution has rippled beyond Tunisia, shaking other authoritarian Arab states, whose frustrated young people are often written off as complacent when faced with stifling bureaucracy and an impenetrable and intimidating security apparatus. That assumption was badly shaken with Mr. Bouazizi’s reaction to his slap, and now a picture of him, in a black jacket with a wry smile, has become the revolution’s icon.
Frustrated by a Kafka- esque Tunisian bureaucracy Bouazizi doused himself with solvent and set himself on fire. There is a lesson here for the 'splendid little recovery' we are all enjoying so much: a tense and brittle social/economic environment needs little in the way of a catalyst to bring the established order to its knees.

The stock, and futures, based economic recovery of the US is built on a phantom foundation of make-believe money. Another gunman blasting an Establishment figure or a burning fruit vendor in St Louis would have unpredictable consequences. What saves America while placing it in grave danger at the same time is that its pop-culture narrative does not include anarchists. Anarchists in America are painted in the media as Hollywood-styled crazed lunatics scratching at invisible spiders crawling all over their bodies.

Meanwhile, Bouazizi's immolation of himself and the Tunis government is placed by the same media in the absolute center of the 'Progress Narrative' sales pitch! 'Unresponsive' governments are replaced by Clinton/Bush-like democracies with neo-liberal economic platforms. These in turn promise the fulfillment of American-style dreams of high powered vehicles and hot chicks for the deserving and frustrated masses. All it takes is a few enraged fruit vendors, a gallon or two of gasoline ... and Facebook.

Even as American anarchists are labeled insane outsiders, foreign anarchists are conjured into pop art versions of 'Joe Everyman' and made safe for commercial consumption. Contrast media hero Bouazizi who is useful to American business interests and the subversive Loughner who is not. Loughner isn't a good marketing tool for anyone, not even the firearms industry: he is too serious. The canned, anti-establishment version of the progress narrative has produced the 'gaily colored' revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia (along with subsequent political irrelevance). It is morphing into unrest in diverse countries from Greece to Bangladesh, Algeria to Oman, Chile to Great Britain. The unifying theme is the displeasure of the wannabe haves with inflexible Establishments. Riots in Bangladesh were triggered by large drops in the stock exchange.

Unrest in Chile has been the result of higher fuel prices. Right now the anarchy is a diversion. Security forces haven't fired into crowds with rockets or machine guns. There has been no air power or artillery nor a great loss of life. There are no pitched battles in European cities as there was in the Slav republics or in Tibet a few years ago. There are no car bombs or civil wars. These are not far away: it would take little to spark open warfare in Mexico, Lebanon, Venezuela, Syria or Iran ... or China.

All that is necessary is another rise of ten dollars to the price of oil along with a proportionate rise in the price of food. Much of the food shortages orbit water problems such as exhausted aquifers, diverted rivers, shrinking glaciers and diminished river flows along with deforestation leading to ruinous floods and soil erosion. Water has been a warfare catalyst for centuries. This is a vicious cycle amplified by fossil fuel overuse which requires water resources to be treated as industrial loss leaders alongside the fuel itself. A percentage of the food price increase reflects the repricing of both fuel and water inputs. 'Worthless' water and fuel are incentives for over- exploitation and waste.

The wasting process is central to industrial-scale 'progress' which cannot profit without near-zero cost inputs. Resource exhaustion transforms by way of market forces the once worthless into the unaffordable ... which leads in turn to riots. The progress narrative that worked in Kiev doesn't work in the United States because anarchist revolutions by the Yankee masses during the Depression and Civil Rights era were co-opted by the neo-liberal establishment. A replay within the narrative would simply produce more of Einstein's the same.

Anarchy in the US must run outside the progress narrative. This is one reason why there is so little outrage in the public sphere. 'Progress' taken literally can only promise more material goods and 'well being'. Dissatisfaction is transformed into a market 'product'. This is made accessible by means of stage managed 'pseudo-anarchy' in the watered down form of the neo-liberal Tea Party. Acting outside the narrative in the US is simply too scary for the multitudes to rationally consider. Americans are stranded to the point of inaction by their sunk capital investments.

Just like the banks which overvalue worthless investments, the ex-middle class citizens are convinced by faulty economics and 'recovery' propaganda to do the same thing. This is so even as their only chance at post-peak success is to think and act outside the progress narrative box. The high social and economic cost of repudiating 'the future' short-circuits action before it can get underway. Americans would become activists except their Facebook 'friends' like Apple Computer and Pizza Hut might not like them anymore. This is the quandary that Peak Oil is forcing upon the consumption meme and the Waste-Based Economy: increased fuel demand is self-limiting and will make the outcome of shortages of vital goods something other than a pop-culture phenomenon. We are closely orbiting 'Planet Serious'.

While Middle America social anxiety plays out, the 'Happy for Me, Me, Me!' bull market in food/fuel futures indicates no letup in the desperation of the starving classes. As Zero Hedge points out to the geographically challenged, the epicenter of unrest is the world's primary fuel producing region. What happens if/when there are food riots in United Arab Emirates, Kuwait or Iran? The entire region is suffering from an intense, multi-year drought. 'Agriculture' in Saudi Arabia is entirely dependent upon fuel production and import strategies.
From 25th to 29th November about 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world made the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The event triggered a man-made animal migration to feed the pilgrims. For the first time in nine years, some of the livestock was supplied by Somalia, as Saudi Arabia lifted its long term ban on imports of Somali livestock, which it had imposed due to concerns over health screening of the animals.
The lifting of the ban meant that Somalia’s monthly livestock exports could double to 1 million animals, with 60,000 ready to be exported within a few days, for the Hajj. This is indicative of the scale of food imports to the Middle East for the burgeoning population and tourism, and the dependence on food exports for some poor African countries. Livestock exports make up 40 per cent of Somalia’s GDP, whilst Saudi Arabia spends $6 billion per year on food imports.
Along with sourcing more food from abroad, Saudi Arabia has long standing ambitious programs attempting to increase its own food production, up against the ecological constraint of desert conditions unsuitable for agriculture and depending on gargantuan irrigation schemes. This article by Kelly McEvers is about the environmental cost of producing milk in the desert, in temperatures of up to nearly 50°C in the summer. The Afu-Safi diary farm in Saudi Arabia originated in the 1970’s. It was modeled on a dairy farm in California, but is twice the size holding 38,000 cows. Each cow requires over 100 litres of water per day and oil drilling technology was used to reach aquifers beneath the desert and.
The aquifer is running dry and the dairy has been given permission to drill deeper underground to another aquifer 1.6 kilometres underground. But the wheat growing which was also dependent on this source of water is being phased out. Saudi Arabia’s Hail Agricultural Development Company (Hadco) stopped producing wheat in 2008 and is purchasing land abroad.
... Which is 'Colonialism 2.0' but who cares? Saudia can export its food unrest to Somalia making it the Red Sea version of Ireland during the years leading to the Potato Famine. As modernity reaches the end of the gangplank its contradictions lose maneuvering room. The nexus of fuel and food prices became apparent during the 2008 Great Price Spike. As the needs grow, agriculture becomes more centralized and industrial which in turn requires more expensive fuel.

Food outcomes are held hostage to the twin evils of the auto industry and the 'oil- to- hamburger' trade. A sizable and increasing proportion of the US corn crop is being diverted toward biofuels such as corn ethanol. Good farmland is being sacrificed for tract houses, parking lots and other developments. The increase in 'wealth' increases the demand for the USA-style 'meat heavy' diet which in turn increases demand for cattle, hogs and chickens raised in 'death camp' conditions, all of this running on diesel fuel and petro-based fertilizer.

The meat-heavy USA hamburger diet leads to a parallel increase in lifestyle illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and coronary artery disease. This is amplified by auto dependency, the decline and fall of physical activity along with the industrial dynamic of efficiency taking place at the expense of full employment. Increased agriculture demand for fuel pushes prices higher even as farming becomes more fuel- dependent. The 'options' begin feeding on themselves.

The petroleum-based fuel 'subsitute' for food becomes more more expensive than the old-school diversified agriculture that the fuel intensive version was intended to replace. Like SUVs and giant pickup trucks, the American Way of eating or 'Green Revolution' is fatally dependent upon cheap fuel. The logical approach is to preemptively make food production less fuel dependent and rein in meat production.

The first step is to eliminate the 'Auschwitz- style' concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which plunder water resources, waste fuel and are inherently inhumane. Position disclosure: Economic Undertow is 'short' meat as a 30+ year vegetarian. Meanwhile, a thought provoking article over @ the Energy Bulletin:
The notion that America can drill its way out of crisis would be funny if the situation was not so serious; despite dizzyingly huge government subsidies and the best oil exploration and extraction technology on Earth, US oil production has been in decline since 1972. As the first nation to develop a commercial petroleum industry, it was probably inevitable that we would be among the very first to hit the limits to production and begin slipping down the arc of decline.
As for coal and natural gas, the abundance of the former and the glut of the latter are the product of short term factors; while press releases aimed mostly at boosting stock prices insist that we’ll have supplies of both for centuries to come, more sober analysts have gotten past the hype and the hugely inflated reserve figures and predicted hard peaks for both fuels within thirty years, and quite possibly sooner.
That being the case, the question is simply when to place the first wave of catabolism in America – the point at which crises bring a temporary end to business as usual, access to real wealth becomes a much more challenging thing for a large fraction of the population, and significant amounts of the national infrastructure are abandoned or stripped for salvage. It’s not a difficult question to answer, either.
The date in question is 1974. That was the year when the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America’s then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond.
Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I’ve suggested in this post, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.
The United States was not alone in embracing catabolism in the mid-1970s. Britain abandoned most of its own heavy industry at the same time, plunging large parts of the industrial Midlands and Scotland into permanent depression, and set about catabolizing its own North Sea oil reserves with the same misplaced enthusiasm that American politicians lavished on the North Slope. The result was exactly what history would suggest; by embracing catabolism, the US and Britain both staggered through the crisis years of the 1970s and came out the other side into a breathing space of relative stability in the Reagan and Thatcher years,.
That breathing space was extended significantly when the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, beginning in 1989, allowed American and British economic interests and their local surrogates to snap up wealth across Eurasia for pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, in the process imposing the same sort of economic collapse on most of a continent that had previously been inflicted on the steelworkers of Pittsburgh and the shipbuilders of Glasgow.
The rust-belt industries didn't die but merely shifted location from high-cost America to cheap- labor Mexico then China. The decline of the region(s) meant growth in the Sunbelt and far west. The artifacts of abandonment remained as reminders in places such as Detroit and Camden, New Jersey.

New artifacts of a different and greater form and scale rose out of the massive subdivisions in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and ... Manhattan, Singapore and the City of London! Out with the Swingline staplers and Westinghouse refrigerators. In with the Apple iPhones and Goldman- Sachs. There are more refrigerators worldwide than ever -- this is a source of the energy problem -- as well as too much of the 'Squid'.

 If the industrial migrations that began in the early 1970s are catabolic, what was the Depression? This was a worldwide conflict between the regional commerce and labor-intensive agriculture on one hand and centralized, debt-based industrial cartels on the other. The victory of the cartels is represented by the blight of Gary, Indiana along with the rise of CAFO feedlots and poisoned Chinese dog food.

 Fifty years has left the cartels triumphant and the centralizing regime exhausted. This is from the standpoint of resources but also intellectually. How many new management ideas are emerging from the Establishment outside of endless 'en blanc' bailouts of ruined businesses by the taxpayers' grandchildren? More debt, more 'free' trade, more capital flight, more centralized 'bossism' and more 'one-size- fits-all' output has reached the level of diminishing returns. What is taking place right now is old-fashioned collapse without catabolic modifiers.

The Key Men are propped by the establishment along with a few obsolete neo-liberal propaganda slogans in a desperate, rear-guard action. The progress narrative is self-conflicted and bankrupt. All that remains is a few more food riots to kick out the key man props and house of cards will blow over. Run this by stock-picker David Rosenberg and he comes up with a list of alternatives to fiasco. David is an 'Insider's outsider' so he never strays too far from orthodoxy (by way of Zero Hedge):
By DAVID ROSENBERG - An energy policy that truly removes U.S. dependence on foreign oil (shale casein, coal, nuclear)...
We can quit right here! David acknowledges energy constraints as the problem within the problem. Modernity's 'progress narrative' is bankrupt because it has efficiently raped its resource base to the point where it doesn't allow a return. Dave's solution? Rape what remains of the resource base even MORE efficiently! How about tossing the bankrupt idea of 'progress' in the trash and coming up with a new one? It can't be that hard since the narrative with its canned anarchy and comic book villains is failing all by itself.  


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