End of Guitar Center

SUBHEAD: Why would anyone finance a chain of guitar stores each the size of a Big Box outlet?

By Eric Garland on 3 February 2015 for EricGarland.co -
(http://www.ericgarland.co/2015/02/03/end-guitar-center/)


Image above: Interior of Guitar Center with staff assembled in Somerville Circle at 401 Route 28 Raritan, NJ. From (http://www.clynemedia.com/guitarcenter/SomervilleCircle/GC_SomervilleCircle.html).

[IB Publisher's note: I've only been in a Guitar Center once. Back in 2012 my wife Linda and I were visiting family in upstate New York. My brother-in-law, Dave, wanted to buy his daughter, Sara, a guitar. There were a couple of instrument stores in our town but they just didn't have the depth of choice Dave sought. So we all drove - for over an hour - to the nearest Guitar Center that was on a strip outside of Buffalo. I was amazed to see so much musical equipment for sale in one place. I don't think I even saw all the store, but I recall thinking there might be more staff in the store than customers. It occured to me that there were not enough up and coming teens in all of "Wayne's World" to keep that place afloat. I guess that was true.]

This is an obituary for Guitar Center, a chain of big box musical instrument stores that was captured and infected by private equity during a national trend of greed and reckless expansionism in the late-1990s and early-2000s.

The company started as a Los Angeles organ store, became a successful purveyor of guitars after the Beatles arrived in the United States, evolved into a national competitor over a period of decades, and shall finish, with sad poetry, as the symbol of everything dysfunctional about American corporate finance, management, and retail in the modern age. Its demise is really the end of a generation of business managers, illustrating how they lost their moral compass as well as any ability to lead individual companies or national economies into a stable, rational, prosperous future.

This story will focus on the final days of this one company, but it is really about our painful transition to an economic system that obeys objective reality and serves people in a durable, holistic manner.

The original sin, and events leading to collapse
I have been tracking the evolution of this company for over a year now, and the evidence is incontrovertible: the corporate entity known as Guitar Center, Inc. is in the midst of irreversible collapse dynamics and will cease to hold its position as the industry leader in the short-term.

In the mid-term, the company may cease to operate as a going concern and will be reduced to a group of trademarks, service marks and patents that will be sold to a buyer with considerably different plans for the company. Its days as the national industry leader are over.

I shall support my thesis with easily accessible public information, though I also possess considerable insights from industry insiders who prefer not to be named. The idea that this is a doomed entity which can only submerge deeper into dysfunction and, ultimately, oblivion is not widely held.

The vast majority of the musical instrument industry exhibits what we intelligence analysts call “normalcy bias,” the attraction to a worldview that things are normal and will remain normal, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

People refer to Guitar Center as “too big to fail,” despite the fact that the firm shares absolutely no characteristics with companies that normally acquire that moniker, such as Citibank, ExxonMobil, or General Electric. They assume that another buyer will emerge to make a simple change of ownership behind the scenes without considering the financial complexities that make such a transaction nearly impossible.

Most often, stakeholders in the musical instrument industry assume that the mechanics behind Guitar Center are more complex than they can easily grasp, and so they simple ignore the matter despite its potential impact. As a result, when I visited the NAMM Show in Anaheim, California only days ago, I found that the overwhelming majority of industry figures with whom I spoke spent very little time or energy on the critical analysis of a firm which represents 28% of the industry, a total $2.1 billion out of $7 billion.

As a result, we can assume that few people will have contingency plans for potentially disruptive scenarios resulting from Guitar Center’s fate, but that is hardly unprecedented in the history of business. Reality does not need our permission to have its way with our destiny.

Moreover, the media which covers the musical instrument industry is deeply uncritical. Nearly everything I have read regarding the current situation has been either a regurgitation of corporate press releases or a subjective analysis riddled with factual errors and shallow knowledge of business in general and finance in particular.

I am told that the tight budgets and intimate nature of the industry make some publishers afraid to engage with controversial subjects that might jeopardize a customer relationship. Either way, many industry professionals are basing their assessment of the market on dangerously incomplete information.

I am not going to provide a long-hand analysis of Guitar Center’s capital structure and every gruesome event in the company’s recent history; if you are so inclined, you may review my past work and browse Google.

A quick summary tells the tale of how close we are to the end, but first we should revisit the beginning. Guitar Center grew with the help of private equity firm Weston Presidio to become a national competitor and, eventually, a publicly-traded company.

With the leadership of Marty Albertson, Larry Thomas, and others, the company continued to grow and prosper as a public company until leaders enlisted the help of Bain Capital to take the company private through massive leverage just prior to the largest financial crisis in a century. As you consider any of the other events associated with the present, this Original Sin of the past is the very root of the problem.

Private equity firms like Bain take mid-sized companies and pump them full of debt with the express intent of making them industry-dominating competitors, selling them to the stock market as a candidate for massive growth, and cashing in.

To make this possible, private equity’s stake in the company is usually represented by “payment in kind” (PIK) notes, a type of bond that pays crushing interest – in this case 14.09% – but requires no cash outlay until the bond’s maturity.

So that 14.09% is accruing, but it isn’t due for years, ideally after the company has been sold to what is often charmingly referred to as “the dumb money,” the retail investors who buy a stock without knowing the company’s true financial position.

Before any of the company’s real problems are revealed, the private equity firm receives its payback in the form of stock, since PIK notes can be paid back in any medium of exchange. If all goes to plan, the stock price shoots up after the IPO and the PE firm makes a tidy profit – all in about three to five years.

Bain made two critical mistakes from which it cannot recover. First, it attempted to run this playbook on a company that had just done this very thing with Weston Presidio five years prior. Second, it did so just as the housing fraud and financial insanity which characterized the late 1990s and early 2000s nearly destroyed the U.S. dollar and left us with martial law.

Every business maneuver that follows this initial error is too little, too late. Compound interest on debt is the strongest force in the universe, and retail has changed too much for any predictable corporate management technique to have a noticeable effect. The rest of this story is details.

To explain how close the company is to collapse, consider the following timeline:

December 2013:
My blog post “Guitar Center and the End of Big Box Retail” goes unexpectedly viral just as GC management is negotiating with its creditors to deal with the fact that it does not expect to be able to honor its financial covenants in the near-term. In response, management claims that the firm is stronger than ever, that every single store is profitable, and that the $1.6 billion in debt with short-term liabilities of over $1 billion is manageable. The company has $25 million in cash going into the Christmas season. The Securities and Exchange Commission begins to investigate irregularities in how GC considers the interest on its bonds to be outside of expenses that would impact EBITDA.

March 2014:
The company reaches an agreement with its largest bondholder, Ares Management, to exchange the latter’s PIK notes for equity. $401.8 million in PIK notes are retired in exchange for holding company preferred stock. In a statement by Standard & Poors, the agency expects to lower the corporate credit rating to “SD” which is “selective default” and considered tantamount to bankruptcy because it is a “distressed exchange” in which investors receive less than what they are promised.

April 2014:
Bain and Ares offer the bond markets two new bonds to pay back existing bondholders, a $615 million offering of Senior Secured notes with a coupon of 6.5% maturing in 2019, and a $325 million offering of Senior Unsecured notes with a coupon of 9.625% maturing in 2020. These securities are purchased by institutional investors such as LeggMason, GoldmanSachs, and Prudential for their high-yield income funds which go to round out the assets of pension funds, ETFs and other, more conservative portfolios.

They produce less than $50 million in free capital for Guitar Center and will still require an all-in coupon payment of around $35 million every six months. Guitar Center press officers attempt to portray this as a dramatic improvement of its financial situation in what is probably the best possible example of the Yiddish word “chutzpah.” Moody’s and Standard & Poors assess the company’s family rating as subprime and its unsecured bonds as junk, with outlook negative.

Bond covenant analyses note that the restructuring will only produce enough free cash to pay for the interest on these instruments- there would still be little chance that the company could make strategic moves in the industry. This view assumes that business condition will remain the same or improve. If they get worse, all bets are off.

August 2014:
Guitar Center secures a lease in the most expense real estate on earth – Times Square, Midtown Manhattan, New York. CFO Tim Martin claims that not only will this not be a drain on finances, they would make “a lot of money.” He also announces that then-CEO Mike Pratt’s “2020 Vision” was to achieve $3 billion in revenue in just five years – a 20% year-over-year growth in a slow-growing industry.

The Times Square Guitar Center debut was accompanied by a 36-second video (http://youtu.be/qIgiYvis3OY) from the grand opening described as “a new gateway to hell,” featuring fifteen metal guitarists and three drummers playing nonsense simultaneously. It received 500,000 views in the first 48 hours.

November 2014:
Guitar Center is forced to admit to bondholders that despite its promises to thrive from its new capital structure, its EBIDTA has slipped 35%, same store sales are down, and total revenue is flat. Secondary debt markets double the yield on its bonds overnight. Investors who committed to the bond months before are willing to take a 10-35% loss in a few short weeks rather than commit to the company’s future.

CEO Mike Pratt resigns and is replaced by Darrell Webb, a retired executive whose most recent experience is as CEO of JoAnn Fabrics and the Sports Authority, two companies that also answer to private equity.

December 2014:
Guitar Center fires Gene Joly, longtime executive and current president of the Musician’s Friend unit, two days before Christmas.

January 2015:
Citing a bloated cost structure that keeps the company from achieving historical profitability, new CEO Darrell Webb fires 42 corporate executives, including the last remnant of Mike Pratt’s team, as well as 28 regional managers. Music Trades reports that the company is down to $10 million in available cash after Christmas.

The constant, smarmy mantra of impenetrability and infallibility has finally been dispelled. Their new executives have, at long last, ceased the comedy routine about how Guitar Center’s stores are always profitable no matter how many times Standard & Poor’s declares them technically in default, or that a billion dollar of debt is totally normal and wonderful and manageable.

In a recent email, Webb explains the firings with the dry rationale of needing to be profitable, and foreshadowed that the company will “continue to seek efficiencies.” We seem to be hearing much less about that $3 billion in future revenue and much more about the jobs yet to be cut.

After all the noise, we are entering the final phase.

This is the end, my friends
Nobody can manage this situation, much less lead the organization out of chaos. All reports indicate that Darrell Webb is not there to save a thing – he reportedly has less knowledge of the music business than the Canadian who was just warming his chair. You would think that if Ares Management was serious about saving this company, they would choose a younger, more innovative executive able to lead Guitar Center into a disruptive future, but instead they hired a man who wouldn’t know a Marshall Plexi from a nuclear submarine.

I submit that Webb is the perfect choice for his likely mission: to lead the company into an orderly bankruptcy. Should the company achieve Chapter 11 reorganization instead of the final, fatal Chapter 7 liquidation, it must be on good terms with vendors and bondholders. They can lie to employees all they want, but accounts must be in order if there is to be value salvaged from this doomed structure.

Thus, the new CEO has been chosen based on a cold-blooded ability to shuffle the books for private equity financiers, not for his ability to lead a musical instrument organization into a disruptive future.
 
I have already read analyses of Webb’s recruitment as a way for Ares to get somebody more capable of achieving “their” vision. This is a mass hallucination that stems from the old PR team’s attempt to recast the financial failure of 2014 as the addition of a smart, valuable partner with expertise in retail based on that company’s recent takeover of Neiman Marcus alongside their partners, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Commenters in the musical instrument industry seem to understand little about Ares Management, a very large, serious firm that has, since taking equity in Guitar Center, gone public and engaged in a strategy that would put it more in the category of the JP Morgan Chases and Goldman Sachs of the world.

There has not been a single public comment from an Ares employee since 2014 about the future vision for Guitar Center and I suspect that one does not exist. Go look through Ares’ quarterly reports and press releases and search for the word “guitar.” Perhaps that will provide a perspective on the relative importance of this transaction to a company with a much larger financial play in the works.

This is pure speculation, but given the size of their investment I imagine they see Guitar Center as a deal they made back in the mid-2000s before the crisis, one that Bain screwed up. They probably took the equity as the best way to perhaps get something instead of pennies on the dollar.

These days, they’re more busy reopening factories in Europe along with national partners. They have better things to worry about than this sad scene, but this is a conclusion that will be very uncomfortable for members of the musical instrument industry who will not want to feel quite so unimportant.
 
The fact is, the die is cast. In a couple of weeks, Guitar Center will need to report its Christmas performance to its bondholders. If things do not look good, its bonds will be ripped apart like Radio Shack’s.

Moreover, if I had to guess, the $10 million in Guitar Center’s coffers will not be enough to make the payment to their bondholders due in April 2015. In advance of that, they will need to seek protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code.

Maybe they have another ultra-complex trick to bring out of the private equity playbook, but this whole thing is a waste of time. None of this sells guitars or inspires kids to be better musicians in a world where laptops play the tunes.

We’re all analyzing the most mundane details of the terminal symptoms of this sickness that has seized American business culture in the past twenty years. Perhaps we need to heal that disease before we can back to fun things such as playing guitar and running profitable companies.

Here’s what this really means: it’s the end of big box retail, an irrational addiction to growth, and the scourge of unregulated structured finance. For a few years, unwise urban planning and unregulated banks created a new bubble in the American suburbs.

People bought homes they could not afford and turned their houses into lines of credit. This swindle eventually brought the economy to its knees and has taken most a decade to regain some state of uneasy equilibrium.

Still, it was particularly stimulating to a certain type of retail that also depended on constant growth and financial trickery. The objective truth is that the growth of the last decade was financed by banking fraud, and that financial trickery of this sort only fools people in the short-term. Eventually, you must have a product people demand, sold by competent people who care about the business, financed in a way that makes sense.

This unforgiving reality will work great for local stores and entrepreneurs with a classic, cautious approach to business management. For a while, suspending our disbelief in reality allowed standard-issue corporate financiers to run a pump-and-dump scheme on all kinds of retail, selling risky ventures to “dumb money” and reaping the rewards for a select few. We are all wiser now, and the market conditions simply will not support that behavior.

This is not a moral judgment, merely an assessment of market engineering. Small and smart will carry the future while big, dumb, complex, and dishonest will bite the dust.

These conclusions were my instincts before I conducted research into the example of Guitar Center. I was reasonably sure then, and I am entirely convinced now. The only remaining question is where the industry will go from here.

Go ask the good people at Behringer for a preview. Representatives from their company have informed me that since they parted ways with Guitar Center they discovered a network of smaller, more focused retailers who were more than excited to form a stronger relationship with their company, and in turn delight customers even more.

This resulted in the company’s greatest annual revenue in history, both in the United States and throughout the world. Behringer seems to think that a world without a single, corporate, banker-driven industry hegemon is not only possible, it’s preferable.

That’s a bright future, if you choose to share that vision. But whether you believe in it or not, this scenario is unavoidable. Guitar Center is finished. Now the musical instrument industry can get back to business.


Image above: A Big Box retail space that recently became available. From original article.

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Greece blew up the debt Death Star

SUBHEAD: The Greek Elites and kleptocrats are terrified of the discipline that leaving the euro will impose.

By Charles Hugh Smith on 1 February 2015 for of Two Minds -
(http://charleshughsmith.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/greece-just-blew-up-empires-death-star.html)


Image above: Death Star destroyed. From (http://reachingutopia.com/white-house-denies-petition-to-construct-death-star/big-death-star/).

The Greek Elites and kleptocrats are terrified of the discipline that leaving the euro will impose, but the general public should welcome the transition to an economy and society that has been freed from the shackles of Imperial debt and the kleptocracy that has bled the nation dry.

Although the financial media is blathering about negotiations and gamesmanship, the truth is Greece just blew up the Empire's Death Star of debt. There's nothing left to negotiate except the official admission that the Imperial Death Star of debt, the most fearsome threat in the galaxy, has been blown to smithereens.

There are three fundamental points that need to be emphasized, mostly because they've been lost in handwringing, fearmongering and the ceaseless chatter of propaganda shills.

ONE:
Impaired debt and defaults result from imprudent underwriting and lender incompetence/ greed. Since when did it become accepted policy to reward imprudent lending, incompetence and greed?

Classical Capitalism is very clear on what should happen to lenders who ignored risk management; they get destroyed. As imprudently issued loans default, the losses pile up and the lender become insolvent. At that point, Capitalism kicks in and the management is fired, the stock goes to zero, the lender's assets are auctioned off and the creditors are issued whatever remains after wages, taxes, accounts payable, etc. are paid.

There's nothing complicated about it: Capitalism requires the discipline of losses being taken by those responsible, the firing of incompetents and the destruction of imprudent lenders.

Yet somehow the dominant narrative has reversed this essential core of Capitalism into blaming the borrower for the losses.

Look, if someone offers to loan me a billion dollars with no collateral and no assessment of the risks that I might not be able to pay the interest or principal, then who's the fool? The idiot who wants to give me $1 billion without any risk assessment, or the borrower who takes the "free money" being offered?

Yes, no one should borrow money that they can't pay back, blah blah blah, but the primary fiduciary responsibility is on the lender to not offer loans to marginal borrowers and those at high risk of defaulting on their debts.

Yet the official line on debt is "the lenders are blameless, the borrowers are at fault and should pay." The borrowers were imprudent to take on debt they couldn't service, but it is the lenders who made the bad loans who are ultimately are at fault and who should suck all the losses.

Let's set aside the propaganda for a moment and get real: anyone with the slightest knowledge of Greek finances and the power structure of the Greek economy/society knew it was insanely risky to loan Greece billions of euros. No one can deny this, yet somehow the lenders deserve to be paid for their avarice, stupidity, incompetence and total disregard for the standards of prudent lending? No, they deserve to be destroyed--closed down and their assets auctioned off.

TWO:
Greece will not be wiped out by leaving the euro currency--it will be freed to rebuilt itself with prudent fiscal management and policies that reward investment and penalize risky borrowing, speculation and corruption.

Here's the thing about Greece issuing its own fiat currency--it will force fiscal discipline in a way that the euro did not and could not. This is why the Greek Status Quo is quivering with fear--the gravy train of irresponsibility enabled by the euro is ending, and they are terrified of living within their means and having to face the discipline that the market will impose on the Greek fiat currency.

If there's one thing Greece needs more than anything, it's the discipline and the rewards of the market. Any nation that issues its own fiat currency has a choice: it can exercise fiscal prudence and enforce policies that reward entrepreneurism, prudent lending, savings, wise investments, fair taxation, etc., or it can try to prop up its bloated, corrupt kleptocracy by printing rivers of fiat money.

If it chooses the Dark Side and prints money in excess, it will soon drive the value of that currency to near-zero. The kleptocracy that hoped to benefit from money-printing is impoverished or forced to move their capital elsewhere.

In other words, Greece returning to being responsible for its own currency is a good thing. The new currency will be valued cheaply relative to other currencies at first, and this is also a good thing, as imports will be unaffordable for all but the wealthy (kiss BMW sales in Greece good-bye) and everything produced in Greece becomes a bargain globally.

This will attract capital seeking places where it can make a profit and is treated fairly, and it will enable Greece to rebuild its export sector and boost its substantial tourist trade.

The promise that marginal borrowers would be transformed into sterling-credit borrowers by adopting the euro was always a fantasy--and a painfully visible fantasy at that. Anyone with their eyes even partially open could see that the vast differences in productivity, credit, risk and culture between the eurozone nations made the euro unworkable from the start.

It was equally visible that the eurozone's inept policies and loose lending standards would obscure these fundamental differences until the damage would be too great to hide--which is exactly what transpired.

THREE:
The hundreds of billions of euros in so-called bailouts did not help Greece--all they did was bail out imprudent lenders and Euroland Elites. Virtually none of these vast sums helped the Greek nation or its people; what little did stay in Greece flowed to the kleptocrats that continued to rule Greece.

The harsh reality of misrule and corruption was recently spelled out in Misrule of the Few: How the Oligarchs Ruined Greece:

"Greece has failed to address (rising wealth/income inequality) because the country’s elites have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. Since the early 1990s, a handful of wealthy families -- an oligarchy in all but name -- has dominated Greek politics.

These elites have preserved their positions through control of the media and through old-fashioned favoritism, sharing the spoils of power with the country’s politicians. Greek legislators, in turn, have held on to power by rewarding a small number of professional associations and public-sector unions that support the status quo. Even as European lenders have put the country’s finances under a microscope, this arrangement has held."

Greece just blew up the Death Star of debt, and now the threat has been lifted from other debtor nations suffering from the yoke of Imperial misrule. The Greek Elites and kleptocrats are terrified of the discipline that leaving the euro will impose, but the general public should welcome the transition to an economy and society that has been freed from the shackles of Imperial debt and the kleptocracy that has bled the nation dry.
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As Night Closes In

SUBHEAD: Technical knowledge is a necessary condition for economic growth but not a sufficient one.

By John Michael Greer on 4 February 2015 for the Archdruid Report
(http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2015/02/as-night-closes-in.html)


Image above: Still from the title sequence to CBS TV soap opera "The Edge of Night". From (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ_w5f1bXmI).

I was saddened to learn a few days ago, via a phone call from a fellow author, that William R. Catton Jr. died early last month, just short of his 89th birthday. Some of my readers will have no idea who he was; others may dimly recall that I’ve mentioned him and his most important book, Overshoot, repeatedly in these essays.

Those who’ve taken the time to read the book just named may be wondering why none of the sites in the peak oil blogosphere has put up an obituary, or even noted the man’s passing. I don’t happen to know the answer to that last question, though I have my suspicions.

I encountered Overshoot for the first time in a college bookstore in Bellingham, Washington in 1983. Red letters on a stark yellow spine spelled out the title, a word I already knew from my classes in ecology and systems theory; I pulled it off the shelf, and found the future staring me in the face. This is what’s on the front cover below the title:
  • carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load.
  • cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resources.
  • drawdown: stealing resources from the future.
  • cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us from
  • overshoot: growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, leading to
  • crash: die-off.
If you want to know where I got the core ideas I’ve been exploring in these essays for the last eight-going-on-nine years, in other words, now you know. I still have that copy of Overshoot; it’s sitting on the desk in front of me right now, reminding me yet again just how many chances we had to turn away from the bleak future that’s closing in around us now, like the night at the end of a long day.

Plenty of books in the 1970s and early 1980s applied the lessons of ecology to the future of industrial civilization and picked up at least part of the bad news that results. Overshoot was arguably the best of the lot, but it was pretty much guaranteed to land even deeper in the memory hole than the others.

The difficulty was that Catton’s book didn’t pander to the standard mythologies that still beset any attempt to make sense of the predicament we’ve made for ourselves; it provided no encouragement to what he called cargoism, the claim that technological progress will inevitably allow us to have our planet and eat it too, without falling off the other side of the balance into the sort of apocalyptic daydreams that Hollywood loves to make into bad movies.

Instead, in calm, crisp, thoughtful prose, he explained how industrial civilization was cutting its own throat, how far past the point of no return we’d already gone, and what had to be done in order to salvage anything from the approaching wreck.

As I noted in a post here in 2011, I had the chance to meet Catton at an ASPO conference, and tried to give him some idea of how much his book had meant to me. I did my best not to act like a fourteen-year-old fan meeting a rock star, but I’m by no means sure that I succeeded.

We talked for fifteen minutes over dinner; he was very gracious; then things moved on, each of us left the conference to carry on with our lives, and now he’s gone. As the old song says, that’s the way it goes.

There’s much more that could be said about William Catton, but that task should probably be left for someone who knew the man as a teacher, a scholar, and a human being. I didn’t; except for that one fifteen-minute conversation, I knew him solely as the mind behind one of the books that helped me make sense of the world, and then kept me going on the long desert journey through the Reagan era, when most of those who claimed to be environmentalists over the previous decade cashed in their ideals and waved around the cornucopian myth as their excuse for that act.

Thus I’m simply going to urge all of my readers who haven’t yet read Overshoot to do so as soon as possible, even if they have to crawl on their bare hands and knees over abandoned fracking equipment to get a copy. Having said that, I’d like to go on to the sort of tribute I think he would have appreciated most: an attempt to take certain of his ideas a little further than he did.

The core of Overshoot, which is also the core of the entire world of appropriate technology and green alternatives that got shot through the head and shoved into an unmarked grave in the Reagan years, is the recognition that the principles of ecology apply to industrial society just as much as they do to other communities of living things. It’s odd, all things considered, that this is such a controversial proposal.

Most of us have no trouble grasping the fact that the law of gravity affects human beings the same way it affects rocks; most of us understand that other laws of nature really do apply to us; but quite a few of us seem to be incapable of extending that same sensible reasoning to one particular set of laws, the ones that govern how communities of living things relate to their environments.

If people treated gravity the way they treat ecology, you could visit a news website any day of the week and read someone insisting with a straight face that while it’s true that rocks fall down when dropped, human beings don’t—no, no, they fall straight up into the sky, and anyone who thinks otherwise is so obviously wrong that there’s no point even discussing the matter. That degree of absurdity appears every single day in the American media, and in ordinary conversations as well, whenever ecological issues come up.

Suggest that a finite planet must by definition contain a finite amount of fossil fuels, that dumping billions of tons of gaseous trash into the air every single year for centuries might change the way that the atmosphere retains heat, or that the law of diminishing returns might apply to technology the way it applies to everything else, and you can pretty much count on being shouted down by those who, for all practical purposes, might as well believe that the world is flat.

Still, as part of the ongoing voyage into the unspeakable in which this blog is currently engaged, I’d like to propose that, in fact, human societies are as subject to the laws of ecology as they are to every other dimension of natural law.

That act of intellectual heresy implies certain conclusions that are acutely unwelcome in most circles just now; still, as my regular readers will have noticed long since, that’s just one of the services this blog offers.

Let’s start with the basics. Every ecosystem, in thermodynamic terms, is a process by which relatively concentrated energy is dispersed into diffuse background heat. Here on Earth, at least, the concentrated energy mostly comes from the Sun, in the form of solar radiation—there are a few ecosystems, in deep oceans and underground, that get their energy from chemical reactions driven by the Earth’s internal heat instead.

Ilya Prigogine showed some decades back that the flow of energy through a system of this sort tends to increase the complexity of the system; Jeremy England, a MIT physicist, has recently shown that the same process accounts neatly for the origin of life itself. The steady flow of energy from source to sink is the foundation on which everything else rests.

The complexity of the system, in turn, is limited by the rate at which energy flows through the system, and this in turn depends on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters the system, on the one hand, and the background into which waste heat diffuses when it leaves the system, on the other. That shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp.

Not only is it basic thermodynamics, it’s basic physics—it’s precisely equivalent, in fact, to pointing out that the rate at which water flows through any section of a stream depends on the difference in height between the place where the water flows into that section and the place where it flows out.

Simple as it is, it’s a point that an astonishing number of people—including some who are scientifically literate—routinely miss. A while back on this blog, for example, I noted that one of the core reasons you can’t power a modern industrial civilization on solar energy is that sunlight is relatively diffuse as an energy source, compared to the extremely concentrated energy we get from fossil fuels.

I still field rants from people insisting that this is utter hogwash, since photons have exactly the same amount of energy they did when they left the Sun, and so the energy they carry is just as concentrated as it was when it left the Sun.

You’ll notice, though, that if this was the only variable that mattered, Neptune would be just as warm as Mercury, since each of the photons hitting the one planet pack on average the same energetic punch as those that hit the other.

It’s hard to think of a better example of the blindness to whole systems that’s pandemic in today’s geek culture.

Obviously, the difference between the temperatures of Neptune and Mercury isn’t a function of the energy of individual photons hitting the two worlds; it’s a function of differing concentrations of photons—the number of them, let’s say, hitting a square meter of each planet’s surface. This is also one of the two figures that matter when we’re talking about solar energy here on Earth. The other? That’s the background heat into which waste energy disperses when the system, eco- or solar, is done with it.

On the broadest scale, that’s deep space, but ecosystems don’t funnel their waste heat straight into orbit, you know. Rather, they diffuse it into the ambient temperature at whatever height above or below sea level, and whatever latitude closer or further from the equator, they happen to be—and since that’s heated by the Sun, too, the difference between input and output concentrations isn’t very substantial.

Nature has done astonishing things with that very modest difference in concentration.

People who insist that photosynthesis is horribly inefficient, and of course we can improve its efficiency, are missing a crucial point: something like half the energy that reaches the leaves of a green plant from the Sun is put to work lifting water up from the roots by an ingenious form of evaporative pumping, in which water sucked out through the leaf pores as vapor draws up more water through a network of tiny tubes in the plant’s stems.

Another few per cent goes into the manufacture of sugars by photosynthesis, and a variety of minor processes, such as the chemical reactions that ripen fruit, also depend to some extent on light or heat from the Sun; all told, a green plant is probably about as efficient in its total use of solar energy as the laws of thermodynamics will permit.

What’s more, the Earth’s ecosystems take the energy that flows through the green engines of plant life and put it to work in an extraordinary diversity of ways. The water pumped into the sky by what botanists call evapotranspiration—that’s the evaporative pumping I mentioned a moment ago—plays critical roles in local, regional, and global water cycles.

The production of sugars to store solar energy in chemical form kicks off an even more intricate set of changes, as the plant’s cells are eaten by something, which is eaten by something, and so on through the lively but precise dance of the food web.

Eventually all the energy the original plant scooped up from the Sun turns into diffuse waste heat and permeates slowly up through the atmosphere to its ultimate destiny warming some corner of deep space a bit above absolute zero, but by the time it gets there, it’s usually had quite a ride.

That said, there are hard upper limits to the complexity of the ecosystem that these intricate processes can support. You can see that clearly enough by comparing a tropical rain forest to a polar tundra. The two environments may have approximately equal amounts of precipitation over the course of a year; they may have an equally rich or poor supply of nutrients in the soil; even so, the tropical rain forest can easily support fifteen or twenty thousand species of plants and animals, and the tundra will be lucky to support a few hundred.

Why? The same reason Mercury is warmer than Neptune: the rate at which photons from the sun arrive in each place per square meter of surface.

Near the equator, the sun’s rays fall almost vertically. Close to the poles, since the Earth is round, the Sun’s rays come in at a sharp angle, and thus are spread out over more surface area. The ambient temperature’s quite a bit warmer in the rain forest than it is on the tundra, but because the vast heat engine we call the atmosphere pumps heat from the equator to the poles, the difference in ambient temperature is not as great as the difference in solar input per cubic meter.

Thus ecosystems near the equator have a greater difference in energy concentration between input and output than those near the poles, and the complexity of the two systems varies accordingly.

All this should be common knowledge. Of course it isn’t, because the industrial world’s notions of education consistently ignore what William Catton called “the processes that matter”—that is, the fundamental laws of ecology that frame our existence on this planet—and approach a great many of those subjects that do make it into the curriculum in ways that encourage the most embarrassing sort of ignorance about the natural processes that keep us all alive.

Down the road a bit, we’ll be discussing that in much more detail. For now, though, I want to take the points just made and apply them systematically, in much the way Catton did, to the predicament of industrial civilization.

A human society is an ecosystem. Like any other ecosystem, it depends for its existence on flows of energy, and as with any other ecosystem, the upper limit on its complexity depends ultimately on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters it and the background into which its waste heat disperses.

(This last point is a corollary of White’s Law, one of the fundamental principles of human ecology, which holds that a society’s economic development is directly proportional to its consumption of energy per capita.)

Until the beginning of the industrial revolution, that upper limit was not much higher than the upper limit of complexity in other ecosystems, since human ecosystems drew most of their energy from the same source as nonhuman ones: sunlight falling on green plants.

As human societies figured out how to tap other flows of solar energy—windpower to drive windmills and send ships coursing over the seas, water power to turn mills, and so on—that upper limit crept higher, but not dramatically so.

The discoveries that made it possible to turn fossil fuels into mechanical energy transformed that equation completely. The geological processes that stockpiled half a billion years of sunlight into coal, oil, and natural gas boosted the concentration of the energy inputs available to industrial societies by an almost unimaginable factor, without warming the ambient temperature of the planet more than a few degrees, and the huge differentials in energy concentration that resulted drove an equally unimaginable increase in complexity.

Choose any measure of complexity you wish—number of discrete occupational categories, average number of human beings involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of any given good or service, or what have you—and in the wake of the industrial revolution, it soared right off the charts. Thermodynamically, that’s exactly what you’d expect.

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could.

Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential.

The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

That belief only seemed to work, though, as long as the concentration differential between energy inputs and the background remained very high. Once easily accessible fossil fuels started to become scarce, and more and more energy and other resources had to be invested in the extraction of what remained, problems started to crop up.

Tar sands and oil shales in their natural form are not as concentrated an energy source as light sweet crude—once they’re refined, sure, the differences are minimal, but a whole system analysis of energy concentration has to start at the moment each energy source enters the system.

Take a cubic yard of tar sand fresh from the pit mine, with the sand still in it, or a cubic yard of oil shale with the oil still trapped in the rock, and you’ve simply got less energy per unit volume than you do if you’ve got a cubic yard of light sweet crude fresh from the well, or even a cubic yard of good permeable sandstone with light sweet crude oozing out of every pore.

It’s an article of faith in contemporary culture that such differences don’t matter, but that’s just another aspect of our cornucopian myth. The energy needed to get the sand out of the tar sands or the oil out of the shale oil has to come from somewhere, and that energy, in turn, is not available for other uses. The result, however you slice it conceptually, is that the upper limit of complexity begins moving down.

That sounds abstract, but it adds up to a great deal of very concrete misery, because as already noted, the complexity of a society determines such things as the number of different occupational specialties it can support, the number of employees who are involved in the production and distribution of a given good or service, and so on.

There’s a useful phrase for a sustained contraction in the usual measures of complexity in a human ecosystem: “economic depression.”

The economic troubles that are shaking the industrial world more and more often these days, in other words, are symptoms of a disastrous mismatch between the level of complexity that our remaining concentration differential can support, and the level of complexity that our preferred ideologies insist we ought to have. As those two things collide, there’s no question which of them is going to win.

Adding to our total stock of knowledge won’t change that result, since knowledge is a necessary condition for economic expansion but not a sufficient one: if the upper limit of complexity set by the laws of thermodynamics drops below the level that your knowledge base would otherwise support, further additions to the knowledge base simply mean that there will be a growing number of things that people know how to do in theory, but that nobody has the resources to do in practice.

Knowledge, in other words, is not a magic wand, a surrogate messiah, or a source of miracles. It can open the way to exploiting energy more efficiently than otherwise, and it can figure out how to use energy resources that were not previously being used at all, but it can’t conjure energy out of thin air.

Even if the energy resources are there, for that matter, if other factors prevent them from being used, the knowledge of how they might be used offers no consolation—quite the contrary.

That latter point, I think, sums up the tragedy of William Catton’s career. He knew, and could explain with great clarity, why industrialism would bring about its own downfall, and what could be done to salvage something from its wreck.

That knowledge, however, was not enough to make things happen; only a few people ever listened, most of them promptly plugged their ears and started chanting “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” once Reagan made that fashionable, and the actions that might have spared all of us a vast amount of misery never happened.

When I spoke to him in 2011, he was perfectly aware that his life’s work had done essentially nothing to turn industrial society aside from its rush toward the abyss.

That’s got to be a bitter thing to contemplate in your final hours, and I hope his thoughts were on something else last month as the night closed in at last.

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Fukushima MOX fuel crossed Pacific

SUBHEAD: West Coast and Hawaii were hit by radioactive plumes of uranium/plutonium from Fukushima explosion.

By Admin on 3 February 2015 for ENE News -
(http://enenews.com/japan-govt-experts-west-coast-hit-radioactive-plumes-both-massive-explosions-fukushima-maps-showing-la-san-francisco-covered-red-cloud-removed)


Image above: Animated GIF simulation of Fukushima Daiichi #3 Reactor explosion releasing contents of reactor into atmosphere superimposed on actual video. From (http://iangoddard.com/fukushima01.html).

The West Coast was hit by radioactive plumes from both massive Fukushima explosions — Maps of L.A. and San Francisco covered in red clouds removed from latest paper — Total releases ‘clearly larger’ than previously claimed — ‘Significantly’ higher discharges flowed toward U.S.

 
Image above: Mapping of western Pacific Ocean and California showing Cesium surface distribution in late March 2011. From original article.

Excerpts from study by scientists from Japan Atomic Energy Agency, Japan Meteorological Agency, NOAA, UK Met Office, Canadian Meteorological Centre, 2014-2015 (emphasis added):
  • We estimate a detailed time trend of atmospheric releases during the [Fukushima] accident by combining environmental monitoring data with atmospheric model simulations from WSPEEDI-II (Worldwide version of System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information)
  • The plume movement over the Pacific Ocean [is shown in] the WSPEEDI simulation
  • 12 March: The WSPEEDI simulation showed that the plume discharged by the hydrogen explosionreached the west coast of the United States on 18–19 and 21–22 March, Sand Point in Alaska on 20–21 March, and Oahu in Hawaii on 20–21 March. [The highest release rate over the course of the disaster occurred Mar. 12 at 15:30 JST, see Table 5]
  • 13 March – evening of 14 March: The plume discharged… over the Pacific Ocean and increased air concentration at Sacramento California, Melbourne Florida, Sand Point Alaska, and Oahu Hawaii… a hydrogen explosion also occurred [during this time period] at Unit 3 at 11:01 on 14 March.
  • Noon of 16 March – early morning of 20 March: WSPEEDI simulation shows that the plume primarily flowed toward the Pacific… this plume affected the air concentrations… in Alaska and Oahu… [T]he release rate is revised by using recently obtained monitoring data. The release rates [are] several times larger than those estimated previously for the afternoon on 16 March to the noon on 19 March.
  • Interestingly, when the plume flowed toward the Pacific Ocean, our new source term often agreed well with that of Stohl et al. (2012) [the Stohl et al. cesium-137 release estimate by is far the highest of any included in this study, see Table 9]
  • The total release amounts of 131I and 137Cs…  are clearly larger than those of Terada et al. (2012). These increases were mainly due to an increase of the release rate when the plume flowed over the ocean
  • The total amounts of released 131I and 137Cs estimated in this work… were clearly larger than those of the previous work for both radionuclides. The major reason for this increase was that when the plume flowed toward the Pacific Ocean we directly computed a significantly larger release amount
Note that another version of this study published on Jan 30, 2015 is missing the WSPEEDI maps (Fig. 6), as well as nearly all references to Fukushima fallout reaching North America


Video above: Explosion at Fukushima Daiichi Reactor #3 appears to eject massive amounts of nuclear fuel. From (http://youtu.be/1Q3ljfLvHww). UPDATE from Ian Goddard on 4/21/11: I now believe the best explanation for Unit 3 is an ex-vessel steam explosion (http://iangoddard.com/fukushima01.html). A steam explosion does not exclude a nuclear criticality as considered in this video (in fact the explosion of the Borax test reactor was both a criticality and a steam explosion (http://youtu.be/8WfNzJVxVz4?t=13m27s), but at the same time a steam explosion does not require a criticality because interactions of molten fuel and water are sufficient to generate a steam explosion. 
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Fuku-Undo

SUBHEAD: Bacteria exposed to radionuclides may become resistant to and capable of detoxifying soil.

By Albert Bates on 1 February 2015 for The Great Change -
(http://peaksurfer.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/fuke-undo.html)


Image above: Microscopic view of diatomaceous earth. It  is essentially the crushed fossilized remains of microscopic sea creatures.  These tiny jagged shells also have incredible absorptive properties. From (http://outdoorblogging.com/use-diatomaceous-earth-deter-garden-pests-safelyfor.html).

In "The Biochar Solution" we suggested that biochar's highest purpose might lie less in its capacity to increase global food security and more in its power to restore Earth's ecological balance and return us to the comfortable Holocene that was the cradle of civilization — the only Earth we have known until very recently.

Now that our sciences have cracked the ancient code for "Terra Preta" — the Amazonian Dark Earths — and discovered the miraculous quantum entanglement of a microverse below our feet, in our guts, in the transfers between ocean and atmosphere, in the flow of nutrients from sunlight to cells there are a great many new biochar solutions that are rapidly coming into view. One of these solutions may be remediation of radioactively damaged soils.

That story can be found amid a remarkable collection of science articles recently published by CRC Press under the catchy title, "Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase", edited by Thomas J. Goreau, Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe.

Chapter 31 of "Geotherapy" is an insightful look at the Fukushima disaster and the reaction and response of soil microbes (Kazue Tazaki, Teruaki Takehara, Yasuhito Ishigaki, Hideaki Nakagawa, and Masayuki Okuno, "SEM-EDX Observation of Diatomaceous Earth at Radioactive Paddy Soils in Fukushima, Japan"). In case you were thinking, after reading our post last month, that all hope for Japan is lost, hold on. It ain't necessarily so.

A small group of Japanese scientists began using diatomaceous earth, which as a soil amendment works essentially the same way that biochar does. Diatomaceous earth is a white powder made from the remnant shells of fossil diatoms and clay minerals. It has long been useful to organic gardeners because of its calcium content, micropore structure and abrasive shell edges that can deter ants and termites. It is widely used for soil improvement, compost, fertilizer with oyster shells, as a desiccant, or for filtration and other purposes.

Diatomaceous earth works to increase soil bacteria and fungi in the same way biochar does. Biochar, however, can be made anywhere, by anyone, and diatomaceous earth must be mined and transported from places, such as coastal areas, where it can be economically recovered.

According to Tazaki, et al., diatomaceous earth collected from coastal rice paddies around Fukushima in the months following the accident showed, at first, a concentration of radionuclides such as I, Cs, Ba, Nd, Th, U, Np, and Pu, "suggesting absorption of both radionuclide and stable isotope elements from radioactive polluted paddy soils."
Coastal areas in Minamisoma City, Fukushima, Japan, were seriously damaged by the radioactive contamination from FDNPP accident that caused multiple pollutions by the tsunami and radionuclide exposure, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, on March 11 and 12, 2011. FDNPP leaked 17 kinds of radionuclides, such as 134Cs (1.8 × 1016 Bq; half-life time 2.1 years), 137Cs (1.5 × 1016 Bq; half-life time 30.0 years), 90Sr (1.4 × 1014 Bq; half-life time 29.1 years), and 95Zr (1.7 × 1013 Bq; half-life time 64.0 days) to the atmosphere and seawater in Japan (Atomic Energy Safety Agency, 2011). The paddy soils in Fukushima Prefecture have heavily been contaminated by radionuclides, especially by Cs (134Cs, 137Cs) and Sr (89Sr, 90Sr), even though more than 30 km north of the FDNPP.
Tazaki's group took samples from several of the most heavily contaminated Fukushima soils and transported them to test plots. There the group set up more than 20 control garden beds measuring 2m x 2m, filled them with radioactive soils (averaging 1135 "cpm" or gamma counts per minute); and then applied different materials, such as zeolite, fossil shell, and chaff. The most effective reduction in radiation cpm were in the radioactive soils sprinkled with diatomaceous earth. What the group observed, over the course of 13 months (from August 8, 2011 to September 24, 2012) was a gradual down-migration into the soil profile for the radioactivity, and then a gradual elimination (equal to background) beginning at around 6 cm.

See (http://peaksurfer.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/fuke-undo.html).

In case you are saying, "Well that is to be expected with the decay of radionuclides," or "Must have just washed away in the rain," think again. Some nuclides, like 1-131 or Zr-95, are short lived, but others have half-lives of 30 years and more. Also, the scientists controlled for rain transport and measured that.

The radiation decreased by about half in the first 3 months as the radionuclides migrated from the surface to 2 cm deep. It decreased by half again as it reached 4-6 cm. Nothing survived to reach 8 cm. The thicker the sprinking of diatomaceous earth (2 cm vs. 1 cm) at the surface, the more rapid the decrease in dose rate.

What is the mechanism?

Looking for possible explanations, Tazaki looked to see if it might have to do with chemical reactions. Diatom shells, 10–100 μm size, are mainly made of hydrous amorphous silica (SiO2 94% and H2O 6%). Diatomaceous clay is mostly SiO2 (67–75 mass%), Al2O3 (8.0–13 mass%), Fe2O3 (3.0–5.0 mass%), TiO2 (0.35–0.60 mass%), CaO (0.9–1.4 mass%), MgO (0.15–1.5 mass%), K2O (1.2–1.9 mass%), and Na2O (0.6–1.0 mass%), with pH of 3.5–4.5 (acidic).

However, the chemical components of the diatomaceous earth were not significantly different than some of the other rock powder treatments used as controls, without any similar effect. Chemistry and ionic attraction could not explain the drop in radioactivity.

Then Tazaki looked at the biology, and here is where we start to glimpse the potential for a biochar solution in the offing. "Abundant organic bubbles were found after H2O2 treatment, suggesting large amounts of microorganisms and organic materials" in the diatomaceous earth, the group reported. Moreover, when a chunk of biologically "charged" diatomaceous earth was dunked in muddy water containing 1135 cpm fallout from Fukushima, it sponged up radionuclides.

The chunk of diatomaceous earth dipped in the muddy water absorbed large amount of dosage which transferred from the bottom (15 cm) to the surface (0–5 cm). … The diatomaceous earth showed high capabilities to adsorb radioactivity.
In the soils, Takasi concluded, due to elemental similarity of K+ and Cs+, both ions are taken up by the same biological-metabolism-dependent transport systems. Bacteria, eukaryotic algae, fungi, and moss plants are known to absorb most radionuclides. Cs-137 and Sr-90 are partially adsorbed on the surface of clay minerals and fixed by microbiota, reacting the same as might potassium and ammonium. The stability of Cs-137 and Sr-90 depends on coexisting cations in the soils. Some radionuclides will move more quickly through the soil profile with rainfall, others more slowly.
Microorganisms can interact with radionuclides via several mechanisms, some of which may be used as the basis of potential bioremediation strategies. Mechanisms of radionuclides–microbe interactions are biological sorption, bioaccumulation, biomineralization, biotransformation, and microbiologically enhanced chemical sorption.

So, this explains how and why soil microbes concentrate radioactivity, and from what we already know of the "soil reef" effect, we can say that diatomaceous earth, like biochar, serves to give the microbes a conducive habitat in which to flourish, thereby speeding the sequestration process. But how does that explain the acceleration of decay in long-lived radionuclides?

According to Takasi, bacteria exposed to radionuclides may become resistant to or even capable of chemically transforming and detoxifying radionuclides. He compares what is going on in the Fukushima soils to the microbial mats that biomineralize radiation in the radioactive natural hot springs in Japan, something that he studied and reported from 2003 to 2009.

The bacteria produce extracellular polymers around the cells, which form capsules and slime layers, defending them from radiation. It is possible that radioactive biofilms and microbial mats are capable of immobilization of radioactive materials and can be used to counteract the disastrous effects of radionuclides polluted water and soils.

So what apparently happens is that not only are radioactive materials concentrated by bacteria and fungi, but they are also absorbed into biofilms and microbial mats, where they are digested and made part of a slime layer that apparently absorbs errant electrons, neutron/proton-pairs, gamma and x-rays so that they cannot escape to be detected by radiation metering equipment, or for that matter, to damage healthy cells or disrupt delicate DNA/RNA exchanges.

You can set your atomic clock by the standardized rate of decay (as the Navy's Bureau of Standards does), and that will never change. Once set in motion, only time can defuse a nuclear decay chain. Takasi does not suggest that the radiation has vanished. What his study suggests is nonetheless hopeful, because it says biological systems, given the right conditions, can safely entrap radionuclides and their emissions in a slime that keeps them inert and unable to harm anyone.

In "Mycelium Running", mycologist Paul Stamets describes a similar process, where fungi excrete a digestive fluid that entombs toxic salts inside a waxy coating so that the toxins are incapable of solubilizing or being transported up the food chain. This is precisely what Geoff Lawton observed and reported in Greening the Desert, when he was able, through the magic of the soil-food-web, to "desalinate" (actually entrain) a swath of Jordanian desert and turn it back into a garden.

We are surrounded by allies who want nothing more than to heal the planet and take us back to the garden. It is time we got out of their way and stopped giving them more work than they can reasonably handle all at one time.

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Black Ops Golden Age

SUBHEAD: During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 133 countries.

By Michael Krieger on 2 February 2015 for Liberty Blitzkrieg -
(http://libertyblitzkrieg.com/2015/02/02/the-golden-age-of-black-ops-in-fiscal-2015-u-s-special-forces-have-already-deployed-to-105-nations/)


Image above: Graphic illustration from game Call of Duty Black Ops 2. Team Fariko Impact wins inaugural championship game competition taking home $400,000 presented by Xbox - for playing a game. Note, the street sign under the barrel of the gun reads Mariposa. The palm trees and high rise in the background could indicate this is Mariposa Boulevard in Anaheim, California, under attack. From (http://game-insider.com/tag/call-of-duty-black-ops-2/feed/).

From Nick Turse’s article in the Huffington Post: The Golden Age of Black Ops
During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). 
This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total. 
Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans…”We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt.
The following article is one I’ve wanted to highlight for over a week, but the news has been so overwhelming I simply haven’t had a chance. Until now.

As someone who spends much of his time trying to understand the world around him, I’m always astounded to be floored by something I read. While regular readers of this site are well aware of how aggressively and irresponsibly the U.S. empire deploys military assets abroad, I think some of the following information will still shock you.

From the Huffington Post:
During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.

Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans. Unlike the December debacle in Yemen, the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny. In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, officialWhite House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.

“The command is at its absolute zenith. And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.” Those were the words of Army General Joseph Votel III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, as he assumed command of SOCOM last August.

And don’t think that’s the end of it, either. As a result of McRaven’s push to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners,” Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019. The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among others.

Special Operations Command’s global reach extends further still, with smaller, more agile elements operating in the shadows from bases in the United States to remote parts of Southeast Asia, from Middle Eastern outposts to austere African camps. Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. Take, for instance, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) which, at its peak, had roughly 600 U.S. personnel supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf. After more than a decade spent battling that group, its numbers have been diminished, but it continues to be active, while violence in the region remains virtually unaltered.

Africa has, in fact, become a prime locale for shadowy covert missions by America’s special operators. “This particular unit has done impressive things. Whether it’s across Europe or Africa taking on a variety of contingencies, you are all contributing in a very significant way,” SOCOM’s commander, General Votel, told members of the 352nd Special Operations Group at their base in England last fall.

A clandestine Special Ops training effort in Libya imploded when militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided its camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment, hundreds of weapons — including Glock pistols, and M4 rifles — as well as night vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment. As a result, the mission was scuttled and the camp was abandoned. It was then reportedly taken over by a militia.
In February of last year, elite troops traveled to Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise that brought together the forces of the host nation, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Burkina Faso.

Several months later, an officer from Burkina Faso, who received counterterrorism training in the U.S. under the auspices of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University in 2012, seized power in a coup.

Special Ops forces, however, remained undaunted. Late last year, for example, under the auspices of SOC FWD West Africa, members of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, partnered with elite Moroccan troops for training at a base outside of Marrakech.

Deployments to African nations have, however, been just a part of the rapid growth of the Special Operations Command’s overseas reach. In the waning days of the Bush presidency, under then-SOCOM chief Admiral Eric Olson, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world. By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of theWashington Post.

In 2011, SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatchthat the total would reach 120 by the end of the year. With Admiral William McRaven in charge in 2013, then-Major Robert Bockholt told TomDispatch that the number had jumped to 134. Under the command of McRaven and Votel in 2014, according to Bockholt, the total slipped ever-so-slightly to 133.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted, however, that under McRaven’s command — which lasted from August 2011 to August 2014 — special ops forces deployed to more than 150 different countries. “In fact, SOCOM and the entire U.S. military are more engaged internationally than ever before — in more places and with a wider variety of missions,” he said in an August 2014 speech.

SOCOM refused to comment on the nature of its missions or the benefits of operating in so many nations. The command would not even name a single country where U.S. special operations forces deployed in the last three years. A glance at just some of the operations, exercises, and activities that have come to light, however, paints a picture of a globetrotting command in constant churn with alliances in every corner of the planet.

In September, about 1,200 U.S. special operators and support personnel joined with elite troops from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia for Jackal Stone, a training exercise that focused on everything from close quarters combat and sniper tactics to small boat operations and hostage rescue missions.

To America’s black ops chiefs, the globe is as unstable as it is interconnected. “I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told last year’s Geolnt, an annual gathering of surveillance-industry executives and military personnel. Their solution to interlocked instability?

More missions in more nations — in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries, in fact — during McRaven’s tenure. And the stage appears set for yet more of the same in the years ahead. “We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt. His forces are already well on their way in 2015.

“Our nation has very high expectations of SOF,” he told special operators in England last fall. “They look to us to do the very hard missions in very difficult conditions.” The nature and whereabouts of most of those “hard missions,” however, remain unknown to Americans.

And Votel apparently isn’t interested in shedding light on them. “Sorry, but no,” was SOCOM’s response to TomDispatch’s request for an interview with the special ops chief about current and future operations. In fact, the command refused to make any personnel available for a discussion of what it’s doing in America’s name and with taxpayer dollars. It’s not hard to guess why.

Through a deft combination of bravado and secrecy, well-placed leaks, adroit marketing and public relations efforts, the skillful cultivation of a superman mystique (with a dollop of tortured fragility on the side), and one extremely popular, high-profile, targeted killing, Special Operations forces have become the darlings ofAmerican popular culture, while the command has been a consistent winner in Washington’s bare-knuckled budget battles.

This is particularly striking given what’s actually occurred in the field: in Africa, the arming and outfitting of militants and the training of a coup leader; in Iraq, America’s most elite forces were implicated in torture, the destruction of homes, and the killing and wounding of innocents; in Afghanistan, it was a similar story,

with repeated reports of civilian deaths; while in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia it’s been more of thesame. And this only scratches the surface of special ops miscues.

So not only does the American public have no idea what is going on, what is going on often ends in disaster. See more below.

After more than a decade of secret wars, massive surveillance, untold numbers of night raids, detentions, and assassinations, not to mention billions upon billions of dollars spent, the results speak for themselves. SOCOM has more than doubled in size and the secretive JSOC may be almost as large as SOCOM was in 2001.

Since September of that year, 36 new terror groups have sprung up, including multiple al-Qaeda franchises, offshoots, and allies. Today, these groups still operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan — there are now 11 recognized al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter nation, five in the former — as well as in Mali and Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen, among other countries.

One offshoot was born of the American invasion of Iraq, was nurtured in a U.S. prison camp, and, now known as the Islamic State, controls a wide swath of that country and neighboring Syria, a proto-caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that was only the stuff of jihadi dreams back in 2001. That group, alone, has an estimated strength of around 30,000 and managed to take over a huge swath of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, despite being relentlessly targeted in its infancy by JSOC.

“We need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe,” says Votel. “We all need to be synched up, coordinated, and prepared throughout the command.” Left out of sync are the American people who have consistently been kept in the dark about what America’s special operators are doing and where they’re doing it, not to mention the checkered results of, and blowback from, what they’ve done.

But if history is any guide, the black ops blackout will help ensure that this continues to be a “golden age” for U.S. Special Operations Command.

Repeat after me: USA! USA!

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Apocalypse Now and Forever

SUBHEAD:  Ukraine is solidly within Russia’s sphere of influence, and has been for more than 500 years.

By James Kunstler on 2 February 2015 for Kunstler.com -
(http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/apocalypse-now-and-forever/)


Image above: Throughout the 10th century, small bodies of Scandinavian/Rus warriors took military service under the Byzantines; mostly serving as marines. From (https://deadliestblogpage.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/elite-warriors-of-history-2/).

A s a political psychoanalyst I find the Super-bowl halftime show the best concise index of how psychotic American culture is becoming from year to year, and the 2015 version signaled a complete break from reality, a nightmare of twerking robots in a hall of mirrors, as if America had utterly surrendered its tattered soul to some rogue motherboard pulsing deep within Dr. Evil’s subterranean palace of sin. 

Hence it is the perfect analog for understanding otherwise incomprehensible happenings such as the USA’s role in fomenting further chaos and mayhem in Ukraine.

How otherwise to explain things like this morning’s New York Times report that the USA “now supports providing defensive weapons and equipment to Kiev’s beleaguered forces, and an array of administration and military officials appear to be edging toward that position….”

Earth calling New York Times readers: I regret to inform you that this decision was already reached a year ago when we paid for the coup d’état against the elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, after the poor sap decided to not sign up with EU but rather the Russian-backed Eurasian Customs Union. Whoops! You’re so out of here, Bub, State Department Under Secretary Victoria Nuland burbled in a clandestinely recorded phone call to the American ambassador. 

Will somebody please find Yats! Yes Yats! [UKR politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk] and plug the Bluetooth earpiece of power into his skull!

And so it went this past year with a cabal of the USA, the EU, and the IMF shoveling financial support (billions!), armaments, and surely boots-on-the ground into the Ukrainian morass. Last week, a reporter in eastern Ukraine approached a soldier in UKR army battle garb only to be told, in pitch perfect American English, to “get out of my face.” Say what??? 

The You-tube clip was seen all over the world and to this minute no agent of the US government has been called to account over it. Like I said, a hall of mirrors.

But anyway, we get a little ahead of ourselves because all this really begs the question: what business do we have in Ukraine in the first place and why should it matter to us that they align with Russia? 

And more to the point: why is it not transparently obvious that Ukraine is solidly within Russia’s sphere of influence, and has been, really, for more than 500 years, and for an excellent reason that has been demonstrated most recently in Napoleon’s invasion of 1812 and then Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of 1941.

In both cases, Russia owed it survival to the vast expanse of flat geography represented by Ukraine where “General Winter” was able to carry out his own defensive operations of relentless howling wind, snow, sub-zero temperatures, and frostbite that eventually vanquished the invaders. 

Through most of modern times Ukraine has been under the explicit “protection” of the Russian Czars or has been an outright province under the former USSR. Hundreds of years before that, Kievan Rus was the center of an emerging Russian culture and kingdom that only later picked up and moved to Moscow.

You get the picture: Ukraine has a long association with Russia, a principal association, not always happy, sometimes tragic, but a fact of life and history that the US and its foolish stooges in the EU bureaucracy now wish to challenge for absolutely no good reason. 

Does anybody who is not whacked out of his/her head on crack, or focused like a laser beam on the gender schism within the Kardashian Klan, remember when the US ever challenged the Soviets over Ukraine? No. And for the excellent reason that we accepted the relationship for reasons stated above. 

So, whose idea is it now that we should start World War Three over this remote region where so many other reckless adventurers came to grief? And what, by the way, do our people mean by “defensive weapons?” Are not most modern weapons designed to work both ways? 

Anyway, I see the list includes “anti-armor missiles” (i.e. tank-killers) and “drones,” the latter presumably guided by comfortable American military gamers effortlessly targeting pixelated “bad guys” between Slurpee gulps and taco bites, not exactly American Sniper style.

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