Stubborn Facts in Bizarro

SUBHEAD: Do we as a nation now fear the truth so much that we prefer deception and lies?  

By John Schettler on 30 September 2009 in The Writing Shop -

Image above: On the planet Htrae in the Bizarro universe everything is backwards. From

A job is more than a simple source of income. A livelihood forms the strong underpinning of one’s identity. It knits people into society and allows them to make a contribution of their individual abilities and talents while providing them the wherewithal to sustain their lives and families.

Unfortunately, job loss has been the greatest calamity of this economic decline, with as many as half a million filing first time claims for unemployment insurance each month.

Analysts have determined that virtually all the new jobs created in the last decade have now been lost. We are back at early 1990s levels for total jobs available, and there are now six unemployed people for each new job created in this economy. The Telegraph reported the ongoing contraction in so many key industries in the US job market:  
“Since the end of 2008, job openings have diminished 47 percent in manufacturing, 37 percent in construction and 22 percent in retail. Even in education and health services — faster-growing areas in which many unemployed people have trained for new careers — job openings have dropped 21 percent this year.” 
The statistics, cleverly masked and watered down by the Bureau of Labor, tell the cold hard tale in mathematics if looked at honestly.

The job market remains dismal, with the few industries still adding positions slowly becoming saturated. In the age group of the youngest workers, (16-24) , there is now an appalling unemployment rate of 52.2%--more than half of all people who are not students in that category cannot find work! And a third of all people without jobs now have gone unemployed for over 26 weeks.

On top of that, companies have scaled back work weeks to an average of only 33 hours, and many workers have been forced to take time off without pay in order to retain their position. When will this reverse?

Not soon, say analysts in virtually any forum you read about unemployment. What would it take to just get back to where we were in terms of employment during the boom times? In order to get back to employment levels at the peak of the housing boom in 2005-2006, we would have to create a quarter million new jobs every month, for 60 consecutive months. In the last decade the average number of new jobs created per month equaled only 50,000.

And instead of job growth we continue to have a net loss of jobs in the hundreds of thousands each month, and have sustained these losses for over 20 consecutive months so far. In effect, to simply break even the economy would have to perform better than it has in the last 75 years—significantly better. I defy any rational person to assert we are going to have a speedy recovery at that clip when they look at current employment numbers.

Where will the new jobs come from? They are still being lost each month! We have yet to have a single month of positive job growth in the last two years. This single fact, that we have a growing population while we are undergoing severe job loss, with no substantial job creation, means that the “Great Recession” is far from over. If it will take a positive job growth rate of +250,000 per month just to break even by 2014, and we still have not come out of the job loss nose dive we have been in, then don’t expect “recovery” on Main Street for many, many years.

In fact, it would take a positive GDP growth rate between 5% and 10% to create those jobs. We are nowhere near that. The anemic 1% projected growth rate that has all the “economists” carping about the recession being over was largely, if not entirely, created by government subsidies in housing, auto sales and the backstopping of banks in the trillions through TARP and Federal Reserve programs.

In effect, the real economy did not grow at all. Remove this government life support and it would have sustained a remarkable 8.9% decrease in GDP over the last 12 months. And we get no help from the fabled “Small Business” sector, which has long been a backbone of employment and job creation. Stated simply, business startups are reaching new lows.

The Wall Street Journal reported: “Business starts fell 14% from the third quarter of 2007 to the third quarter of 2008; the 187,000 businesses launched in that quarter were the fewest in a quarter since 1995. The number ticked up slightly in the fourth quarter, the latest data available. But those new establishments created only 794,000 jobs, the fewest since the government began tracking the data in 1993.” The Wall Street Journal reported:  
“So far, much of the government's response to long-term unemployment has been to extend jobless benefits, a support that keeps workers off the streets but can lead some to languish in unemployment instead of searching for work as if it were a full-time job. The federal government extended the standard 26 weeks of benefits by 20 weeks, and to as much as a total of 79 weeks for some workers in high-unemployment states.”  
Now even those extended benefits are slowly running out. People don’t realize just how bad the situation is, because all these government programs and safety nets have softened the pain. But the government cannot replace the real economy indefinitely. There is a limit to how much money and debt it can create to try and infuse new life into an otherwise dead mainstream economy. Congress is again talking about raising that debt limit, even as the FDIC is loudly whispering that it is practically broke. Yet, in spite of these glaring realities people prefer to believe things are fine and recovery, particularly for the consumer, is nigh at hand. Henry Blodget of the Business Insider hits a simple note of common sense with this quote: 
“In order for consumer spending to come roaring back, however, one critical thing has to happen: Consumers have to be employed.” 
Mark Twain was fond of saying: “Get your facts first. Then you can distort them as much as you please!” So for those of you that prefer reality to fantasy, and have a pragmatic view of life, these are the facts:
  • Job loss continues and we have no positive job creation to lead us out of the recession. 
  • We will need positive job creation at record breaking levels for 60 months just to break even. 
  • The real economy is therefore not growing at all, but remains severely depressed.
  • Retail sales are down year over year. The consumer is not coming back any time soon.
  • Business startups are down 14%
  • Excess capacity in manufacturing is now over 60% 
  • Shipping is idled all over the world with indexes at all time lows. 
  • Production is down in double digit numbers in all the world’s major manufacturing sectors. 
  • The US housing market is NOT recovering. Prices are continuing to erode. 
  • 7 million foreclosures are being held off the market by banks. 
  • $685 Billion in new mortgages were issued this year thru August. (Now look at the next point) • The Fed bought $722 billion in mortgage paper thru August—in effect it backstops the whole RE market! 
  • Loan default rates at banks have reached an average of 14% 
  • Loan losses in the commercial sector are just getting started. 
  • Alt-A and Option ARM loans are facing a huge wave of problems as loans reset to higher payments. • Delinquency rates are now at all time highs, and getting worse each month.
  • Credit card default rates exceed 10% 
  • Debt remain catastrophically high at every level of our society—states, cities, banks, and families. Stated simply, the stubborn fact of the matter is that there is no recovery underway. Period. The media can distort that fact, as Twain so eloquently put it, as much as they please. 

Any real recovery must be robust enough to offset job loss, create new jobs, and stimulate new business growth and investment. It is simply not happening. Yet the mainstream media continues to shill for the notion that the recession has ended. Why? Are they stupid? Hardly.

It is simply not in their interest to present the truth to the public, because if people know what is really happening they may demand real change—not the change we have see thus far from the new administration and congress, which has amounted to the greatest continued supplication to the large banking and financial centers in all our history to date—and we have committed more public funds than all national endeavors ever undertaken by this nation combined, including all our wars and major social programs. Yet nothing has changed.

Consider that as you listen to congressmen and senators wrangling over where they’ll find money for your health care. What was good enough for Bank of America and Citigroup is clearly not good enough for you. Blogger Charles Hugh Smith asks a very relevant question in his last post for September:  
“Do we as a nation now fear the truth so much that we prefer deception and lies?” 
 I might add that at one point Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, stolidly resisting attempts to audit the Federal Reserve, spelled out the situation in no uncertain terms. In its effort to maintain the cloak of secrecy that conceals financial wheeling and dealing at the Fed, the consortium of private bankers won a temporary stay of execution on the order to reveal who they’ve been lending money to. In its argument at court the Fed pleaded: 
"Immediate release of these documents will cause irreparable harm to these institutions and to the board's ability to effectively manage the current, and any future, financial crisis."  
So what we have been told, in effect, is that if we tell the truth about the banks the system will suffer "irreparable harm". If we know why banks need Fed funds, which banks need Fed funds, the damage would be so severe that is could not be reversed. That's pretty sobering talk.

The argument itself is blatant testimony to all I have been saying about the inherent insolvency of the banking system. It is a system that has been running on liberal loans from Fed programs, government bailout money, and a healthy dose of secrecy and lies. Yet all this money, in trillion dollar truckloads, has failed to really restore balance or solvency. According to the Fed's own admission the mere knowledge of the real condition of bank balance sheets would cause “irreparable harm.” Charles Hugh Smith again comments:  
“The Fed is terrified of transparency for the exact same reason: that the citizenry will be outraged by the squandering of trillions of dollars, the machinations to protect the wealthy few at the expense of the many, and perhaps most damning of all, the utter failure of the Fed's manipulations, prevarications and obfuscations…Thus the current preference for lies, deception, propaganda, magical thinking and denial is deeply troubling, for it suggests America has lost its faith and confidence that it can solve its pressing financial/fiscal problems.” 

Note that in all of this I have not even mentioned the fact that stocks are up 50% from their lows in this sustained bear rally—up 15% in the third quarter alone. This rally has been manipulated time and time again, and simply cannot be sustained given the real data from Main Street reported above. The markets have become entirely disconnected from the real economy, in fact, entirely disconnected from “fundamentals” that normally guide wise investing. Blogger Karl Denninger’s take on the market is quoted here. Can the rally continue?  
“In the short term, perhaps. One can lie, cheat and steal for quite some time, and the famous saying 'the market can remain illogical for longer than you can remain solvent' is absolutely true…. But in the end the math always wins and fraud is always exposed. It may take years to happen, but it always does….Proceed at your own risk.” 

Bizarro World - It’s a strange world we live in these days. When I was a kid we used to look forward to Superman comic book episodes in "Bizarro World." It was a place where you had to do everything ass backwards, a cubed shaped planet called "Htrae," (which is earth spelled backwards). First appearing in DC Action Comics issue #263, Wikipedia reminds us:  
"In the Bizarro world society is ruled by the Bizarro Code which states 'Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!' In one episode, for example, a salesman is doing a brisk trade selling Bizarro bonds: 'Guaranteed to lose money for you!' Later, the mayor appoints Bizarro No. 1 to investigate a crime, 'Because you are stupider than the entire Bizarro police force put together.' This is intended and taken as a great compliment." 
 Lately I've come to the feeling that we are living on the bizarro world of Htrae instead of Earth. It's apparently a big crime now for a bank to make a loan that is safe and sound all on its own, and doesn't require government backing from the FHA, or packaging into a risk avoiding "security."

What a strange world to think that the government now owns and guarantees 80% of the mortgages issued in the former "free market" we call the real estate industry. Yet like the demise of Fannnie & Freddie, the former backers of shaky mortgage paper, the FHA is now seeing a 23% default/delinquency rate in its "portfolio." They might as well just borrow the line from Action Comics: FHA - "Guaranteed to lose money for you!"

And consider the stock market again, where the play de jour is to try and make money by "shorting" stocks in a bad economy--making money from declining fortunes of the companies that issue the stocks. Bizarro indeed! But lately the short sellers have taken a big hit because, in the midst of the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, the stock market has put in a Bizarro Bear rally. All this while real earnings in companies that make up the S & P 500 have fallen off a cliff. Here's a chart from the folks at "Chart of the Day."

Wow! Talk about some nasty fundamentals! Real earnings have taken the worst plunge in the history of the market since 1935! This is the situation behind the big Bear rally we’ve been astounded by. Time to buy stocks in Bizarro world ! And while everyone stands in awe, insiders, those with the big money in the know, are busy selling their stock shares like there was no tomorrow.

So what a world we live in here on Htrae, where public money from the weakest goes to support the bad bets and private investment losses of the wealthiest. And all of this happens with the willing aid of the government that is supposed to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people"... you know, all of the folks out there on Main Street with no jobs or health care.

No money for health care in Bizarro World! We spent it all to bail out the big banks. And all this goes on because our regulators, congressmen and government leaders appear to be stupider than the entire Bizarro police force put together! BIZARRO NEWS!

Unemployment continues unabated, foreclosures are at an all time high, credit is contracting at record levels, banks are failing everywhere, the FDIC is out of money, commerce is slowing to a crawl! It's a recovery! Excuse me. I have to go practice walking backwards.

Democracy & Civilization at odds

SUBHEAD: Few people are going to vote for leaders who tell them the truth about sacrifice in the near run for the long term. By George Mobus on 29 September 2009 in Question Everything - image above: abandoned power pole near Drawbridge, California. From

A number of articles have appeared in the popular press, mainstream media, and even science magazines or journals, suggesting that we could produce all of our energy needs from renewable energy sources such as solar (photovoltaics and concentrated solar generation), wind, and some tidal and geothermal thrown in for good measure.

I am always profoundly amazed at these claims because they hinge on the substance of what our energy needs actually are or will be by the time the requisite infrastructure is in place.

Those needs are generally predicated (or certainly implied to be) on our current economic systems and a consumer-oriented civilization. Even with a massive effort to improve process efficiencies across the board (e.g. the Smart Grid for delivering electricity, electrifying transportation, insulating houses and office buildings, switching to low power per lumen lighting, etc.) the total required energy needs of the US and the world (remember we have to think of this as a global problem) are so vastly huge compared with the current output of installed alternative energy systems that one has to take pause.

If we want a civilization that is essentially equivalent to what we have today, only run on alternative, renewable energy sources, the scale of the needed energy capture and conversion equipment is literally mind blowing (for those with some technical background and interested in seeing the numbers, this Wikipedia article is reasonable, though contested in some areas - keep in mind it isn't the estimates of total available energy from each source, but the rate of capture and conversion, or extraction, that is what we should focus on).

The basic problem is one of energy density of the source, and power (energy per unit time) recoverable for useful work. Fossil fuels are high density with respect to weight. They combust at high temperatures so that they can deliver power required to run our engines and appliances, etc. Sunlight and winds (except for hurricanes, maybe) have a very low power density meaning that you need very large collection surfaces to capture enough energy to be equivalent to what is generated by fossil fuels burning.

So the scale of building out an infrastructure, which would also include nuclear power, equivalent to the energy infrastructure that we presume we will need (due to population and economic growth and development of underdeveloped countries) that does not depend on fossil fuels is so large that it would probably take 50 to 100 years to accomplish with an all out (WWII-style) effort.

If you've never been involved in a large and complex building program (and note that assumes that we don't have any basic new technology to invent along the way) you will have great difficulty imagining the problems involved. Deploying just-developed industrial-grade technology is a slow painful process. Among other problems you have to address is what to do with the sunk costs in existing infrastructure.

Financially-minded folks (the owners of existing infrastructure) won't consider tossing installed capital unless the new capital promises to pay extraordinarily high profits to offset the losses from capital write offs. This where capitalism will be the enemy of the future, even more so than it has been the enemy of the present in the sense that it created this dilemma in the first place. Under market economy rules with profit-motivated free agent firms doing the work, no one is going to step up to the plate to start investing in the kinds of projects needed to accomplish the goal, even in a longer time frame.

There is a closely related issue in that we are going into a rapidly declining energy available from fossil fuels regime. That means, simply stated, we have less and less energy available to do economic work; to create real wealth. As things stand, all solar panels and wind generators are built using fossil fuel based energy (small exceptions for hydroelectric inputs in some parts of the world). They are transported to the sites with oil. In the foreseeable future the massive infrastructure we are talking about will be almost completely dependent on fossil fuel inputs for construction.

We could imagine a 'bootstrapping' approach in which we build a huge solar panel array to power a solar panel production plant which would build more panels to power electric transport vehicles, and then more to power the suppliers of materials and services to the plant, and then more panels to electrify farms that grow the food to nourish the plant employees, and... You can see where this is going. By the time we did all of that we might have a self-sustaining solar power production capability but we haven't yet addressed the need to supply excess energy to the society that needs the energy.

I honestly think that something like a bootstrapping operation is called for. But it won't happen with private enterprise and market economics. From a political philosophy point of view, since energy is the most fundamental resource people need to live let alone have a civilization I think there is a strong argument for nationalizing (actually globalizing) energy production and distribution.

Take the profit motive out of the equation and by directive make the necessary investments to get this working before we run out of fossil fuel energy resources completely. I realize this raises all kinds of issues (aside from the fact that libertarians and Republicans will go ape shit). Managing such an enterprise efficiently and effectively is a daunting task. But a little judicious application of hierarchical control theory (see the series Sapient Governance might go a long way in the hands of competent leadership.

Which brings up the other major hurdle that could prevent even getting started on such a project: democracy. Very few people are going to vote for the leaders who tell them the truth, that they are going to have to make huge sacrifices in the near (and not so short) term in order to make this feasible. People want to hear how the politicos are going to create jobs and wealth and profits. Those are the ones they will vote for.

So you see it comes down to some pretty fundamental barriers for which there is no consensus basis for overcoming. The scale is too big to accomplish and not have a downturn in our level of material wealth, the energy to do the work needed would have to be siphoned off from other consumption-directed work, it cannot be even contemplated as a profit-making venture so our market economy won't go for it, and no one (except possibly the Chinese) will be in a politically powerful position to make it happen.

I hate this role of being a Cassandra. Oh, I know there are a few readers out there who actually do see this, so it isn't completely the case that no one believes any of this doomish stuff. But it is frustrating to see how things are going down while knowing it doesn't have to be this way. There is a way to salvage a future for our grandchildren or maybe great grandchildren if we could but wise up.

But I just don't see that happening. There are a lot of far more eloquent writers and speakers than me out there who are pitching similar messages or warnings already. Some are nearly household names or at least have been recognized by the media. And still, very few of the masses or the media are paying attention. Contraction and depression don't sell.

So I continue to write in my meager way, pointing out what would work, yet knowing it won't even be considered. And I think about the future, after the crash of civilization and population. What kind of world might we prepare for in that time by understanding what we are doing wrong now?

And my research continues in spite of this schizophrenic (a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements) mindfulness because there is always hope.

Hapa Trail Court Decision

SUBHEAD: Goodfellows, working to destroy Poipu, has been fined, in stone, for desecrating the Hapa Trail.  

By Terrie Hayes on 30 September 2009 in Island Breath -
Aloha Hapa Trail supporters, In February Goodfellow Brothers plowed through a portion of Hapa Trail while grubbing at "The Village at Poipu" project. They were cited by the County and the State and plead guilty.

Yesterday, in the court of Judge Trudy Senda they were fined 2,200 cubic yards of pohaku which will be used to restore the Hapa Trail walls. Together with the 2,000 linear feet Knudsen Trust must provide, this should be enough pohaku to restore both sides of the trail all the way to St Raphael's Church, as they were in 1975.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to our County Prosecutor, Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho for her diligence and hard work on behalf of Kaua`i's citizens.The pohaku will be stored on the site of Honu Group's prosective shopping center, thanks to Mona Abadir. It is a small but important victory in a long battle. Your support is appreciated and very much needed.

Image above: A pohaku with petroglyph from the Big Island displaying a man. From  

Comment by Sharon Pomeroy ( - What a wonderful and precedent setting sentence! Next time any of those obnoxious developers damage any historical, cultural site their pockets will certainly feel the pinch.

Couple of things I see as potentially adverse. The least is... I'm thinking if I were the developer I would appeal such an unusual sentence. Most bothersome is the pohaku. Where do you get that much pohaku with out any of it coming from another cultural site?

Who is going to monitor the gathering of the pohaku? What was the actual wording of the fine? Did She say "pohaku" or "Stone"? Most important is what kind of pohaku will they supply? If the judge meant the traditional lava pohaku that is used for traditional dry stacked wall construction ok. If she said 2,200cy of STONE then that's basalt or any type rock and easy enough to get.

They could be farts about it and bring in 50 big boulders that measure out to 2,200 cys. For me Terrie, it's been decades of "judgments/settlements" that have gone awry because of a definition squabble. Because of an appeal reversal. You still gotta watch those baskeds.

All you folks have done a fantastic job on Hapa Trail restoration. It is indeed an excellent decision. Hoorah! Lani Ha'a ha'a!

What Have We Done to Democracy?

SUBHEAD: Report from India - Democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism.  

By Arundhati Roy on 27 September 2009 in TomDispatch -

[IB Publisher's note: This is a portion of the original article.. To see the whole article click on the link above.]

Image above: A shopping mall in Dheli, India looks much like one of ours. From An Indian writes: "But after hours of chatting and roaming every corner of such a big mall, teenagers relax their tastebuds by having delicious food prepared here, by sharing the few bucks they have to afford the expensive food.That’s the reason why these malls are most preferred by teenagers." 

So, is there life after democracy?

Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defense of democracy. It's flawed, we say. It isn't perfect, but it's better than everything else that's on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: "Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia... is that what you would prefer?"

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all "developing" societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies.

It isn't meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It's meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy -- too much representation, too little democracy -- needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?
Is it possible to reverse this process?

Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision.

Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this?

Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?

Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly -- our nearsightedness?

Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do), combined with our inability to see very far into the future, makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. It would be conceit to pretend I have the answers to any of these questions. But it does look as if the beacon could be failing and democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.

A Clerk of Resistance
As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.

Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, "apply-through-proper-channels" nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world's favorite new superpower. Repression "through proper channels" sometimes engenders resistance "through proper channels."

As resistance goes this isn't enough, I know. But for now, it's all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.

Today, words like "progress" and "development" have become interchangeable with economic "reforms," "deregulation," and "privatization." Freedom has come to mean choice. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. Market no longer means a place where you buy provisions. The "market" is a de-territorialized space where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling "futures." Justice has come to mean human rights (and of those, as they say, "a few will do").

This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being "anti-progress," "anti-development," "anti-reform," and of course "anti-national" -- negativists of the worst sort.

Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, "Don't you believe in progress?" To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs, and whose homes are being bulldozed, they say, "Do you have an alternative development model?" To those who believe that a government is duty bound to provide people with basic education, health care, and social security, they say, "You're against the market." And who except a cretin could be against markets?

To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.

Two decades of "Progress" in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it -- and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts, and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines, and Special Economic Zones. All developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

The hoary institutions of Indian democracy -- the judiciary, the police, the "free" press, and, of course, elections -- far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite. They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colorful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.

Musing on Transition Towns

SUBHEAD: Ted Trainer's response to the recent discussions and critiques of the Transition movement. By Ted Trainer on 29 Spetmeber 2009 in Transition Culture - [Editor's Note: This is a portion of the original article runs over 3600 words. To see the whole article click on the link above.]

image above: A physical scale model at Ted Trainer's place demonstrating Pre-Peal Oil a suburban English town. From

... There are two basic positions one can take on the global situation. The first, which most people hold, is that some version of consumer-capitalist society can be made viable, i.e., that this society can be reformed so that it does not cause problems like greenhouse and poverty but it still provides affluence and runs on market forces, competition, production for profit, and economic growth, etc. etc.

The second position is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed; that you cannot have a sustainable and just world unless you scrap many of the fundamental structures of this society and build radically different systems. In my very firm view the second position is right, and I make no apology for asserting this strongly, but that doesn’t mean I go around telling people they are stupid if they don’t agree.

It follows that I am very keen to see the Transition Towns movement not be merely for reforming, taming, humanizing consumer-capitalist society. I worry that there is a high probability the movement will only be about reforms within the system. Thus I wrote the critique in the hope that it would influence people in the movement to think carefully about their goals and vision, and in the hope that they would be persuaded to agree with me about what the goals should be. My concern derives from the fact that almost all initiatives for “environmentally sustainable development” have not challenged the fundamental premises of growth and affluence society. (For instance Australia’s peak environmental agency doesn’t see any sustainability problem with economic growth; its CEO has scolded me for thinking it does.)

Rob, please remember that my paper was addressed to people centrally involved in the movement with the intention of stimulating discussion of goals and visions. It was not addressed to townspeople, with whom one would obviously avoid the use of words like “anarchism” and “capitalism”, and one would try to introduce these themes in mild and inoffensive ways as perspectives to be considered. Let me restate some elements from the paper indicating the reasons for my “extreme” view of the situation. (For more detail on the case for this perspective see here. It is quite possible for instance to develop a highly localized food supply without making much if any difference to an overall economy that allows market forces and profit to determine what is done, ignores the most urgent needs, has unemployment and homelessness, imports hardware and clothes from the Third World, requires support of dictatorships in poor countries, and grows all the time.

There is in other words a big difference between just making your town more resilient and doing that as a step in a process which you can show is designed to eventually fix the world.

Re Anarchism - Rob thinks there’s room for debate about whether Anarchism is the form of government we have to endorse. I have argued in some detail that the situation we are heading into, essentially involving intense global resource scarcity, will determine that viable communities will have to be small, self governing and highly participatory. Big centralized states cannot run a satisfactory society that must be localized and must have very low resource use. Such communities will not work well, or at all, unless they are driven by aware, conscientious, responsible, skilled, empowered and happy citizens. So this is not a matter of preference; whether we like it or not the form of “government” will have to be Anarchist. I think this is delightful, but that’s not important. What Rob has to work out is whether I’m right in thinking that there will be no choice about this.

Of course as Rob says one has to be careful in using terms like “Anarchist” because that would put most people off, but technically it is the right one for the form of government I am referring to here. It’s important to keep goals distinct from processes. My concern is to get people who are central in the movement to think about questions like goals, anarchism and reformism, but that does not mean I am saying we have to go around town shouting that we are for Anarchism.

I think it is admirable the way the Transition Towns literature tries to avoid prescribing. Rob’s politeness is a great asset for the movement. But that does not mean there is no place for “leadership”, in the sense of putting forward and arguing for ideas about what to do. The main problem I have with the Transition Town literature is that it gives almost no guidance as to what to do to make the town “resilient”. It gives a great deal of advice about how to proceed, how to organise a local movement, but people inspired to join the movement will find almost no information or suggestions as to what to try to build or set up, what to do first, what to avoid…and why these steps will have what effects on town self-sufficiency or resilience. The strategy just seems to be to encourage anyone to do anything they like and we’ll see where that takes us. What I am pleading for here is planning, for the formation of priorities, and monitoring so we can get clearer about what works, what is more difficult than we thought, and what not to do. People from new towns eager to get into the movement need to be given as much guidance as much as possible about goals and sub-goals, what to start trying to do.

It could be that none of us knows the right answers to these questions at this stage, but we should be thinking hard about what are probably the best initial goals and priorities, and forming and making available more confident experience-based strategies as soon as experience accumulates. For instance, my guess is that trying to produce local energy should not be a top priority in the early stages (it’s too difficult to make a significant difference), but that forming co-operative gardens and workshops and little firms (bakeries, fish tanks, poultry…) enabling unemployed people to immediately become productive, is a very desirable early step, especially as it gets us started on building a new economy under our control…but let’s debate this, and grope towards a (loose, indicative, non-prescriptive) plan of action that will help the many towns now flocking to the Transition idea to get off to an effective start.

At present it is disturbing that the many towns racing to join the movement will find little or no information on what to actually develop or build in the town to make it more resilient. Unless we can give this guidance I think it is likely that there will be a lot of confused thrashing around that does not achieve much, followed by disenchantment the waste of an extremely important opportunity.

image above: Ted Trainer showing scale model of Transition Town transformation by permaculture. From

The currency issue - Finally, it is very important that careful critical thought be given to the role of local currencies. (My attempt to nut this out is here) Unfortunately most of the schemes I know about are in my view next to worthless, because there is no rationale showing how they are supposed to have desirable social effects. It is extremely important to introduce a money system that will give the town the power to build or organise desirable effects.

It is easy to see how LETS or Time Dollars results in good effects. Both enable people with no jobs or money to engage in work, trade, meeting needs and mutually beneficial economic activity. But in systems where for instance the new notes are bought using old notes, as seems to be the case with Berkshares, that’s just substituting one kind of money for another with no apparent significant benefits in terms of better community economic structures.

So, ask those proposing a new currency how will using it increase the production of needed things aground here, how will it get dumped people into jobs and livelihoods, how will it make this town more self-sufficient, how will it give us more power to determine the development of this town? If clear and convincing answers can’t be given to questions like this then what’s the point? Yes printing and selling a novel note might be an effective publicity device, and might raise money from tourists, but those are not important outcomes compared with for instance eliminating unemployment in the town, which is what the scheme I outline at the above site is centrally aimed at doing. Its core is as follows.

We set up cooperative productive ventures such as gardens and bakeries and record “work” time contributions. These entitle people to a proportion of the produce corresponding to their input. Whether the payments are in the form of a note or just a record they are a new form of money. If I earn this money in the garden I can spend it on bread from that co-op. Thus we have created a new economy. The money has been a device helping to connect idle people (and others) to available but unused productive capacity. You can see how the system has very desirable social effects, but the creation of the money is not the important part – setting up the cooperative firms is. It is then important to develop economic interactions between our new economy and the old one, e.g., by using the new money to pay for meals from its restaurants, which can spend the money paying for vegetables and labour from us in the new cooperative economic sector.

Conclusions - My main point is that it is important for us to discuss desirable goals. I don’t think our attitude should be to just facilitate the Transition Towns phenomenon. I am arguing that we should try to move it in directions that will maximize the chance of transition from consumer-capitalist society. It will not inevitably do that. In fact I think it is more likely to become an alternative path enabling some to live somewhat more sustainably within consumer-capitalist society. I am not assuming I or we can influence it, maybe we can’t have any effect at all, but I am arguing that it is important to try.

Whether or not you agree will depend on your view of the global situation, and you might not share mine. But I believe we are very likely to see catastrophic global breakdown before long so it is of the utmost importance to try to push/lead/persuade the Transition movement in the direction one believes has to be taken if disaster is to be avoided. If we ever make it to a sustainable and just world it will have been via a Transition Towns process of some kind. It is extremely encouraging that a potentially miraculous movement has emerged and therefore it is very important to try to ensure that it is a means to achieving the big global structural changes required.

see also: Ea O Ka Aina: PEak Oil in Transiton 9/24/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Brixton Pound introduced 9/16/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Disaster Transitionism 6/29/09 Island Breath: Rocky Road to Real Transition 4/19/08 Island Breath: The Waking Up Syndrome 4/19/08

City farming with livestock

SUBHEAD: Animal proteins can compensate for shortages of available starches if supplies are delayed or costs rise.  

By Sharon Astyk on 27 September 2009 in Casaubon's Book -

Image above: An contemporary urbanized goat. From

In many ways, I’m a city girl. I grew up in and around a number of small to large cities in the Northeast - I was born in East Hartford, I spent my childhood playing in grubby and decaying mill cities like Lynn MA and Waterbury CT, and my early adulthood living in Boston.

Unlike a lot of rural dwellers, I don’t dislike cities - I rather enjoy them. Every so often I pass by a decrepit row house in Albany or visit my old haunts in Lowell MA, or friends in Newark, NJ, or Queens NY, and think seriously about whether I could get my goats on the roof. I don’t miss the traffic and pollution, but I do miss the funky culture, the diversity and the energies of city life at times.

Reading Novella Carpenter’s "Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer", I found myself a little jealous - sure, I’ve got 27 acres, but she has Buddhist monks across the street who help her recapture her escaped pigs. Life is full of tradeoffs .

More seriously, what I really liked about this book was its emphasis on urban animal agriculture. Carpenter has rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens and pigs during the course of the books. And when she writes about eating from her garden and neighborhood for a month, she realized something important - she was suffering from a dearth of calorie crops. If it weren’t for her meat production, she’d have starved.

This is the reality of urban farming today in much of the poor world - look around for statistics and you’ll see that most cities grow only a small portion of their staple starches - but often a shockingly large portion of their meat and vegetables. For example, in 1981, Hong Kong had 5 million people and 1,060 km2, and was using 10% of that land to produce 45% of the fresh vegetables, 15% of the pigs and 68% of the live chickens eaten in the city, according to I. Wade’s essay “Fertile Cities.”

I use Hong Kong as an example of what is possible because it is an extremely densely populated city, has extremely high property values, and a comparatively affluent population, so it is a pretty good comparative to a city like New York City. In 2002, the city had 6.3 million people in it, and had seen much of its good land developed (for example, between 1981 and 2000, all rice farming, even on the outer islands, ceased) but they were still producing 33% of the produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and farming 20% of the fish consumed within the city. The animals were raised for the most part on 160,000 tons annually of food waste were being recycled into meat and egg production.

Now this should not be mistaken for a claim that the cities will feed themselves - they won’t. There is no question that only small cities surrounded by rural land will probably ever feed themselves - and cities that have no waterways or well maintained rail lines may not do well in the coming decades.

But the production of vegetables and meat in cities is also not a trivial thing - and livestock production in cities is particularly important because as Carpenter found, animal proteins can compensate for shortages of available starches if supplies are delayed or costs rise, and they can provide an improvement in nutrition over the typical poor world diet, which includes grains and vegetables only.

Yes, I know that it is perfectly possible to be a healthy vegan, and would never argue otherwise - but most of the world’s vegans-by-choice do not come from the poorest places in the world, nor do most poor-near vegans have access to the high quality proteins shipped from a distance that American vegans do now. This is not a criticism of anyone’s choice, but I believe that cities that maximize localized calorie production will have to do so with animal agriculture, including meat production, and that in more difficult situations, comparatively fewer Americans may choose to voluntarily restrict their protein sources.

Moreover, in cities that are importing grains and other foods, meat animals can be raised on food that would otherwise be wasted. Carpenter raises her pigs, rabbits and poultry entirely on dumpster dived food that she scavenges for them. Aaron Newton, my partner in "A Nation of Farmers" raises his chickens, in the small city of Concord NC, almost entirely on scraps.

While urban poultry raising has gotten trendy, most urban farmers are still raising their poultry on expensive grains that could be fed to people - but have an ample supply of food scraps at nearby houses and restaurants that could fill the same needs with lower impact.

This is much harder to do in less-dense settings - we’ve tried several times to work out a good system for transporting food scraps, without the use of additional oil, to our poultry, but haven’t found something wholly satisfactory (although my husband is negotiating with the SUNY cafeteria right now, so that might change) - we simply don’t have a lot of restaurants out here. But for city dwellers, this is a no-brainer.

Meat is problematic on our society because of ethical considerations - most of it is raised in factory farmed conditions - and also because it is often raised by feeding animals grain that could be used for human consumption. If we take as basic premises that we should and must eat less meat, eat only meat raised ethically and also, in order to feed a hungry world, raise our animal products with little or no grain suitable for human consumption, it becomes clear that pasture raising on marginal lands that are steep, erodible, rocky or wet in the countryside, or raising meat, egg and dairy animals in cities on a small scale on food wastes are probably the two best possible options for raising animal products in our world.

Many city dwellers grow gardens, and it would be wrong to understate their importance - they provide caloric and nutritional benefits, allow people access to high value, nutritionally necessary and high-flavor foods they might not be able to afford, can provide some calorically dense vegetable and a few grain crops like sweet potatoes, potatoes, popcorn, etc….

We know that urban gardening can make an enormous difference in a city - for example in Paris, in the 19th century, 3600 acres of garden plots produced 100,000 tons of vegetables, more than the city itself could consume. In 1944, US Victory gardens produced as much produce as all US produce farms combined - half the nation’s total. So yes, your five raised beds, as part of an urban aggregate make a huge difference.

But add in livestock raising and the picture of urban food security gets much richer - those weeds growing the vacant lots can be eaten by miniature goats or rabbits - cut an armful as you walk by. Those gardens require manures, and most urbanites lack a place for safe composting of human waste, so rabbit and poultry manures are essential to a sustainable garden.

Stop by your neighborhood coffee shop and pick up a big bucket full of stale bread and salad leaves for the bunnies, or the leftovers from the takeout chinese place to the chickens (why Carpenter and her partner never actually make arrangements for places to save food for them rather than dumpster diving was one thing I couldn’t figure out). And then turn that into nutritious people food, adding fat and dense protein to your diet. Moreover, they can reduce dependency on feedlots, not just for urban dwellers, but for their carnivorous pets.

Bees can sit on a balcony, rabbits on a back porch. Chickens are content in small backyards and as Carpenter proves, you can even raise pigs there, although she does get some complaints about the smell towards the end - she does observes that in 1943, London had 4,000 pig raising clubs in the city limits, with 105,000 pigs kept within the city limits. Guinea pigs and quail, pigeons and fish in tanks can also supplement urban dwellers protein needs. Given the amount of imported dairy, I’d also suggest the consideration of very small goats for milk and meat.

Cities will never be wholly sustainably by themselves - but neither will most rural areas, which will continue to rely on cities for the manufacture of goods from cloth to tools, and as import and transport centers from around the world. We may relocalize, but it would be foolish to imagine that all trade and all cities will disappear.

What cities must be, if they are to have a future, is as food self-sufficient as possible, and they must be part of a larger project of wide food access. We will find ways, over the long term, to transport dry goods like grains into many cities - that doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptions, or much more important, poverty - but there will be reciprocal relations between cities and countryside.

But vegetables and animal products are another thing altogether - they often require refrigeration, and without refrigerated trucking or train transport, those things are likely to become less available - or more expensive and more out of reach of many.

Moreover, we cannot permit the wasting of food in the scale that we presently do to continue - that’s why we need eggs, meat and milk that can be raised on food scraps in urban centers.

Our own livestock breeding projects will focus on small bred livestock for densely populated areas - small goats, angora and meat rabbits, chickens with good foraging ability, even small sheep.

Not all of these will be suitable to the most densely populated areas, nor do I expect my farm to be definitive on the subject. But if you can take the girl out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the girl - and that’s a good thing. We need urban agriculture, and ties between city girls and country girls (and boys, of course) that help both places raise all the food they can, as ethically and wisely as they can.

GMO seed crops taking root

SUBHEAD: Hawaii is increasingly dependent on GMO research and seed production for survival. Image above: Ratekin's Seed House corn ad using Uncle Sam as the shill who is wearing the company logo. From By Nanea Kalani on 31 July 2009 in Pacific Business Journal - (

As Hawaii’s agricultural industry continues to decline, a sub-industry is growing in size and work force.

The state’s seed crop industry hit $146 million in value for the 2007-2008 season, surpassing pineapple and sugar, crops that were once Hawaii’s agricultural staples.

The seed crop industry’s value has grown at an average annual rate of 33 percent over the past five years. It makes up about 30 percent of the total value of all crops produced in Hawaii, according to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.

The trade group commissioned a study earlier this month to gauge the economic impact of Hawaii’s seed crop industry. The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation performed the study using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The seed crop industry’s main players are five companies that grow crops on a total of 10 farms making up 6,010 acres. The companies mostly grow seed corn, as well as soybean, sunflower, wheat and rice varieties.

Forty other companies make up the rest of the industry and are spread over the agricultural, neutraceutical, environmental bioremediation, human therapeutics and marine sciences subsectors. The industry as a whole shipped a total of 16,140 pounds of seed last year to Mainland and South American markets for further development and distribution.

The approximate value of seed corn was $140.5 million and other seed crops accounted for $5.7 million, up from $103 million in the previous season.

The value of seed crops isn’t measured just by sales because the product is not sold like traditional crops. The seed industry’s $146 million value includes $68 million in labor, according to the study.

Counting direct and indirect expenditures, the study said the industry’s economic impact is at least $342 million, including $53 million in salaries outside the seed industry and $167 million in economic activity from sources such as equipment suppliers, utilities and contract research. These activities are estimated to generate $13.8 million in annual tax revenues for the state.

Despite the economic activity, some communities oppose the industry because of its use of genetic engineering to modify plants and their seeds. The study said about half of the acreage under seed crop cultivation employs genetic engineering and half uses conventional breeding practices.

As more sugar and pineapple lands become available, seed companies that find Hawaii an ideal climate for year-round crops are buying or leasing hundreds of acres.

For example, in 2007, Monsanto Co. acquired 2,300 acres of agricultural land in Kunia from the James Campbell Co. after Del Monte Fresh Produce Hawaii pulled out of its pineapple operations.

Monsanto, which produces seed corn, has about 4,800 acres in the Islands in leased and owned land, said spokesman Paul Koehler.

Meanwhile, last fall, Syngenta Seeds Inc. bought 848 acres from Campbell for approximately $14 million, also in Kunia, said branch manager Michael Austin.

The company, which has corn and soybean seed operations, previously had leased nearby land from Monsanto.

Earlier this year, Dow AgroSciences signed a multiyear lease for 3,400 acres from Gay & Robinson in West Kauai for corn seed, soybean and sunflower crops.

German company BASF Plant Science uses its Kauai facility as a continuous pass-through nursery, said seed activities manager Lee Stromberg. He said corn harvested in the Midwest is shipped to Kauai for planting in November. Once harvested, the seeds are returned to the Midwest for spring planting.

“This speeds up development time by allowing BASF Plant Science to grow two or more generations of a crop in one year,” Stromberg said.

The company’s corn research focuses on improving the nutritional qualities of maize as feed for poultry, swine and dairy cattle. Its modified techniques have created plants with improved agronomic characteristics, a higher content of vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids for preventing cardiovascular diseases, as well as plants with a higher nutritional value for animals, Stromberg said.

He said BASF is investing $430 million to expand its plant biotechnology operations at eight sites in five countries in Europe and the U.S.

The research and farm expansions have led to job growth for the local seed industry. Hawaii seed companies collectively employ 1,863 workers, and the number of full-time jobs in the sector has increased 268.5 percent over the past three years, according to the study.

Overall job growth has increased by 73 percent since 2006, and about 14 percent of seed industry jobs are classified as “highly skilled” in the areas of science and research.

Meanwhile, the overall agricultural sector saw a 16.7 percent decline in jobs during the same time period. The seed industry accounts for 23 percent of agricultural jobs in the state.

“Over the last five years the seed industry has continued to grow at an exponential rate and is a significant driver of the life sciences biotechnology industry in Hawaii,” the study said. “It remains the primary driver of overall growth in Hawaii’s agricultural sector.”

Hawaii seed crop companies:
• Monsanto Co. (Farms on Oahu, Molokai and Maui) • Syngenta Seeds Inc. (Farms on Oahu and Kauai) • Pioneer Hi-Bred International (Farm on Kauai) • Dow AgroSciences (Farms on Kauai and Molokai) • BASF Plant Science (Farm on Kauai) see also: Ea O Ka Aina: Kauai's last sugar harvest 9/28/09 .

Kauai's last sugar harvest

SUBHEAD: Dow GMO seed corn operations to follow 117 years of sugar cane growing.

By staff on 23 September 2009 in Pacific Business Journal -

Image above: From DOW chemical company "sustainability presentation on its website. From

Gay & Robinson will process its last sugar crops in October, ending 117 years in the sugar business on Kauai.

The private, family-owned company had announced last September that it was leaving the raw sugar business, but had not given a timetable for ending production.

Several plans for the land and mill that were announced last year have stalled.

Gay & Robinson had planned to grow crops for the production of ethanol, but it says high energy prices have scrapped those plans. It also had planned to lease its Kaumakani mill, terminal and other assets to Pacific West Energy LLC, with which it has partnered to develop an ethanol production plant. But those plans have been delayed by difficulties in finding financing.

“There is still hope that sugar cane growing might continue on the west side of Kauai should Pacific West Energy put together its plans for energy and ethanol production,” Gay & Robinson said in a statement.

In the meantime, it has leased some of its lands in west Kauai, including 3,400 acres to Dow AgroSciences, which grows corn seed, soybean and sunflower crops on Kauai and Molokai.

[Publisher's Note: DOW is the company that provided Agent Orange and Napalm to the US military for use in Vietnam to deforest jungle and burn people.]

Gay & Robinson said its G&R Ranch operations are not affected by the mill’s shutdown.

The shutdown of the sugar operation leaves only one remaining sugar plantation and mill in Hawaii — Alexander & Baldwin’s Hawaii Commercial and Sugar Co. on Maui, which posted $13 million in operating losses in 2008.

See also: 

Gay & Robinson Future

SUBHEAD: As it ends on Kauai the hangover from the sugarcane binge should not be massive soil runoff or more GMO acres.  

By Andy Parx on 25 September 2009 in Parx News Daily -

Image above: The edge of a Gay & Robinson canefield near Baldwin Monument and looking to Hanapepe Heights. Photo by Juan Wilson.

Our drive to Waimea yesterday was spent behind a raw sugar delivery truck on its way back from a Nawiliwili drop-off, spewing noxious diesel exhaust until it turned off into one of the soon to be abandoned cane fields of Gay and Robinson.

As we drove through the cross hatching of soon to be harvested and already barren fields destined for abandonment it was hard not to imagine what the next 10 years will reap if the paths of the rest of the abandoned cane fields from Kilauea to Kalaheo is the same for the G&R, massive runoff for the next few years, fouling reefs with chemically poisoned dirt as each heavy downpour washes away what’s left of top soil in waves of gooky mud. It’s hard to cry about the last cane harvest on the island.

All the good stuff of plantation life- idealized as it is ignoring the near slave-like conditions, plantation mentality and environmental degradation- hasn’t really existed for about 50 years now.

But for once, if we do it right, the aftermath doesn’t have to include the deposit of millions of cubic feet of soil in the ocean or leave ugly scarred land left to be a massive breeding ground for the spread of the invasive species that will accumulate if nothing is done now to stop it. It’s time to put Keith Robinson’s title of “Mr. Environmentalist” to the acid test. Tinkering with native species is nice- for him.

But if he really cares he’ll be remediating the land and restoring it as closely as possible to the condition his family found it in 120 years ago by nurturing a program growing and planting those native species he’s been propagating for years, stabilizing the land and letting it breath for a generation until it becomes living soil once again.

And then of course instead of turning it over to the GMO frankenfood industry developing diversified ag-only, non residential lots to supply the food -and energy- the island needs in anticipation of the increasingly likely post-peak-oil day when “da boat no mo’ come”.

Perhaps he’ll even return the water to the streams and rivers from which it was stolen as the irrigation systems were put in place and restoring the native ecosystems that existed before G&R tore up the place for King Cane. No laugh, eh. It could happen.

See also:
Island Breath: Kauai Sustainability Land Use Plan 11/1/07
Island Breath: Barca Reforestation Plan 12/20/07

The End of Oil?

SUBHEAD: A book review of “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil” .  

By Michael Hirsh on 25 September2009 in The New York Times -

Image above: Detail of paperback book cover. From

Oil is the curse of the modern world; it is “the devil’s excrement,” in the words of the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, who is considered to be the father of OPEC and should know. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China, the world’s biggest consumers of petroleum, into greedy, irresponsible addicts that can’t see beyond their next fix.

With a few exceptions, like Norway and the United Arab Emirates, oil doesn’t even benefit the nations from which it is extracted. On the contrary: Most oil-rich states have been doomed to a seemingly permanent condition of kleptocracy by a few, poverty for the rest, chronic backwardness and, worst of all, the loss of a national soul.

We can’t be rid of the stuff soon enough.

Such is the message of Peter Maass’s slender but powerfully written new book, “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.” Unquestionably, by fueling better and faster transportation and powering cities and factories, oil has been critical to modern economies. But oil has also made possible the most destructive wars in history, and it has left human society in a historical cul-de-sac. Despite much hue and cry today, Maass argues, we seem unable to move beyond an oil-based global economy, and we are going to hit a wall soon.

Maass, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, tends to endorse the predictions of industry skeptics like Matthew Simmons, who argues the earth is about to surpass “peak oil” supplies. Even with the recent fallback in prices, the petroleum that’s left to discover will be harder and more expensive to extract. Last year’s $147-a-barrel oil was just a “foretaste of what awaits us,” Maass writes.

Maass is less interested in crunching oil-supply numbers, however, than in exposing the cruelty and soullessness of human­kind’s lust for this “violence-­inducing intoxicant,” as he calls it. His book teaches us an old lesson anew: that the true wealth of nations is not discovered in the ground, but created by the ingenuity and sweat of citizens.

It’s the same lesson the Spanish learned centuries ago when they discovered gold, the oil of their time, in the New World. They piled up bullion but squandered it on imperial fantasies and failed to build enduring prosperity, while destroying the civilizations from which they seized it.

Destruction, or at least a lack of progress, has been the fate of most of the nations unlucky enough to sit on top of large pools of “black gold” today. They have grown corrupted by it, their leaders relieved of the need to show accountability as long as they can buy off well-connected foreigners and pay for the security and protection they need from their own angry, disenfranchised citizens.

In starkly titled chapters — “Fear,” “Greed,” “Empire,” “Alienation” and so on — Maass shows how each oil state has found its own way to failure. “Just as every un­happy family is unhappy in its own way, every dysfunctional oil country is dysfunctional in its own way,” he writes.

Equatorial Guinea’s savage leader, Teodoro Obiang, plunders virtually every cent of his nation’s wealth, aided by Riggs Bank of Washington, which sometimes sent employees to the embassy to pick up bulging suitcases of cash. Locals don’t even get the benefit of jobs because the manual labor is supplied by Indians and Filipinos brought in by Marathon Oil.

Walking around the capital, Malabo, one night, Maass does manage to find a booming source of local employment: young Guinean girls called “night fighters” because they jostle for a chance to sell their bodies to the oilmen from Texas or Oklahoma. “The men in Malabo might not find jobs in the oil industry, but it is clearly possible for their desperate sisters to earn a few dollars,” he writes.

Traveling to Ecuador, Maass discovers graffiti on one of the pipelines that cut through what was once pristine Amazonian rain forest: “Más Petróleo = Más Pobreza” - "More oil = More Poverty". For him, it sums up the confiscatory approach that Texaco took to that country, leaving it a stripped land oozing with toxic pollutants.

The major oil producing nations have fared little better:
  • Saudi Arabia, seventy years after the discovery of its first great reservoir, remains a medieval principality with a bare patina of modernity. The country’s long reign as the world’s No. 1 oil supplier has been good for the Saudi princes but a Faustian bargain for the rest of us, having led to the petrodollar-funded spread of extremism and the rise of Osama bin Laden.
  • Post-Soviet Russia has become a kind of petro-fascist state where the head of Lukoil slavishly keeps a picture of Vladimir Putin on his desk rather than photos of his family.
  • Venezuela is resurrecting socialism, this time as farce, under the buffoonish Hugo Chávez, who hosts a TV talk show called “Aló Presidente” while turning his national oil company into a “development agency with oil wells” that furthers his hold on power.
  • Iran’s whole modern history has been twisted out of shape by its oil riches, starting with the American-British coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and restored Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
The unhappiest countries are those where oil has led to war, none more so than Iraq, even if no one will acknowledge the truth about America’s 2003 invasion. “The refining process transforms this black swill into a clear fluid without which our civilization would collapse,”

Maass writes:
“Quite often a corollary process of political refining occurs to sanitize the truth of what’s done to keep oil in the hands of friendly governments. Just as cars cannot run on unrefined crude, political systems choke at the unfiltered mention of war for oil.”
He cites George W. Bush’s claims that the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with oil. Still, the question hangs out there: Why was the Oil Ministry one of the only places guarded by United States troops in the early days of looting?

By the end of Maass’s long indictment, one wants the horror to end. Let’s all move on from oil already. Indeed, it is tempting to imagine what sort of globalization we might have today if Max Steineke and his exploratory team from Standard Oil of California hadn’t discovered quite so much petroleum when they pierced Saudi Arabia’s first great reservoir in 1938.

If less human ingenuity had been applied to finding oil over the last 70 years, and more to developing other sources of energy, the world economy — and the environment — might be far healthier. The World Trade Center might even still be standing. [Publisher's Note: The World Trade Center would likely never have been built.]

But Maass doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of his subtitle. Is this really the twilight of the oil economy? We still seem utterly drenched in the gunk, and the author’s occasional hints at the alternative history that might have been — if only Ronald Reagan hadn’t dismantled those solar panels that Jimmy Carter put on the White House roof! — are not terribly satisfying.

He says that the combined technologies exist to move beyond oil, but he doesn’t go into any real detail. In his final chapter, Maass gives us an evocative glimpse of one future alternative he would prefer — a giant wind farm he discovers along Interstate 10 in California. “Set against the blue sky and the brown desert, in rows of rotating white arms that glint in the sun, the turbines have the appearance of futuristic totems waving at us, luring us forward,” Maass observes, before driving on in his car.

Interview with Paul Hawken

SUBHEAD: Paul Hawken shares his thoughts with about optimism, doomers and what's next.  

By Kamal Patel on 25 September 2009 in Worldchanging -

Image above: Paul Hawken at the lecturn at Shambala Sun. From (

 From the 2009 Sustainable Industries Economic Forum, Seattle, WA.

To the sustainability and the social justice crowd, environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, Paul Hawken, requires little introduction. He has written six books, including "Natural Capitalism:

Creating the Next Industrial Revolution," a book Bill Clinton calls 'the fifth most important book in the world today.'

Hawken was this year's Sustainable Industries: Economic Forum keynote speaker. During the event, Hawken asked the 300 plus sustainably-minded business leaders, entrepreneurs and political heads to truly look at the data: dangerous levels of atmospheric CO2, peak oil, peak soil - peak everything.

Despite this, he said he remains optimistic. He focused much of his talk on solutions such as innovative solar design and collaborations, like linking green banking with affordable, green housing, food and transportation. I was given the opportunity to sit with Hawken, and ask him a few questions about his thoughts on optimism, doomers and what's next.  

At the end of the Beginning chapter of "Blessed Unrest," you say you didn't intend it, but optimism had found you. To our readers who may have not found optimism yet, or vice versa, could you talk a little about what you had discovered in writing "Blessed Unrest" and how optimism found you?

What I discovered was people, themselves. And really just the number, and the breath, and depth of the ingenuity and authenticity in which people really applied themselves to being problem solvers and alleviate suffering, to addressing the ills of the world, and innovating and re-imagining what was possible. And they are organizing around different ways and different issues around different cultures and different manners.

And when you stand back and you really get to see, if you will, not visually, not directly, but see it in a conceptual way, how large and diverse this movement is, then you just have to either laugh, or grin or smile.

That's why I did the appendix for "Blessed Unrest." It wasn't just the number of people, it's what they were doing. If everyone was just trying to save panda bears and dolphins we would be in big trouble. But they aren't choosing just the sentimental, charismatic species. Of course people are doing that and that's what gets the money. But the fact is that there is a level of granulation in terms of policy and issues that was to me, the most sophisticated map of the coming world that I have ever seen.

And I didn't make it, I drew it out of the 100s of thousands of NGO's and non-profit organizations. I was blown away by what I found, and saying, my God humanity has a hold on this. We have a handle on this, we really do. Now then, you know what we pay attention to instead? All the institutional obstacles, and the resistance, and corruption, and financial chicanery, and on and on and on. And you look at that and you want to just jump off a bridge. And because you just see that, humans seem self serving, greedy, short sighted and violent. And if you just look at that, you just drink that potion, its toxic.

Personally, I was a pessimist. It wasn't until I learned about the idea of natural capitalism and heard your speech at Bioneers about "Blessed Unrest", did I connect with optimism. I must admit, that the word capitalism wasn't the easiest word to fit with my understandings of fairness in the world much alone optimism. I've heard you say that you used the word capitalism on purpose. What can you say about people who struggle with the concept or word, capitalism. And could you maybe help them better understand what you mean by "Natural Capitalism?"

Three years before the book came out, I had written an article called "Natural Capitalism," and coined the term. And what I was writing about was Natural Capital, and that was (coined) by E. F. Schumacher. And what he was trying to say, as an economist, was (take a) look at this form of capital -- living systems and ecosystems services, what we call resources. We don't put this on the balance sheet of the world. We count it as zero, until we cut it down, extract it, mine it, kill it. And then it has value. But before we do that, it has zero value. That's crazy. It has more value before we touch it.

So, then it goes to Herman Daly, and what Herman Daly was saying is that the limiting factor to human prosperity to the world wasn't human productivity, but the productivity of our resources because we are in a resource restrained world caused by our industrial systems taking so much, so often and for so long. Therefore, when you have an economy and you see what the limiting factors are to development, then you work on maximizing what is limiting. And what is limiting to us isn't people, we have lots of people, too many some may say.

 So my reason for writing the piece in "Mother Jones", which was written in '96 and published in '97 (and the book in '99), was to say what kind of economy would it be if we were to maximize the production of natural capital, rather than maximizing the capital of people? When you maximize the productivity of people, you use less people. Well we have more people than there are jobs.

Basically we are using less and less of what we have more of, and with natural capital, using more and more of what we have less of. And we are using more of it (natural capital) to make people more productive, to use less people. So this is upside down and backwards, we should be using more and more people to use less and less natural capital.

So when it came to titling it for the magazine, we called it Natural Capital -- "ism." It had nothing to do with capitalism, as such. It was actually meant to tweak the Mother Jones readers. And some of them were really mad, and my editor was fired for it. And was fired by people who had not really read the article. They felt like it was just about granola capitalism, or we were justifying capitalism. And it had nothing to do with capitalism, and it still doesn't.

Now Amory (Lovins) and Hunter (Lovins) interpret it that way. But as a coiner of the term, and as one of the two authors of the book, I can tell you that "Natural Capitalism" is in no way meant to imply or be a justification or bull work to capitalist systems, which I think, are basically pathological. I believe in commerce, I believe in entrepreneurship, I believe in business, I mean I want to make it really clear. But capitalism? No. I don't hold trump with that at all. It was meant to be a double entendre. A pun, a pun.

Continuing along this line of pessimism vs optimism, I'd like to explore ideologues. In David Holmgren's book, "Future Scenarios," he talks about four different scenarios that could happen as we hit the peak of the Industrial Ascent: The 'Techno Explosion,' or continued growth of industry and current day capitalism; 'Techno Stability,' which is a seamless transition into sustainable consumption and a massive change towards renewable energy; 'Energy Descent,' a future brought on by a reduction of economic activity and complexity, as well as population as fossil fuels deplete; and lastly 'Collapse,' subscribed to by peak oil-ers and doomsayers who talk about our unpreparedness to the peaking industrial age and a massive die off. Could you please speak about your thoughts on Holmgren's future scenarios as well as if these, sometimes contrasting ideologues, are finding common ground?

I do a lot of scenario work with Peter Schwarz at Stanford Research Institute, and wrote a book with him. One thing you discover with scenarios is you figure out what's not going to happen. In other words, they never happen. What happens instead, is almost more surprising and unpredictable.
How so many smart people can have so much info and so much data and so many resources, and come up with scenarios that are never true, is one of the fascinating things. Its not a slam, I'm just saying that its one the fascinating things about change. Which is, change is fundamentally unpredictable. And because it involves people, makings choices and human behavior, on a minute by minute bases, we are dealing with an organism here, human civilization, that is innately unpredictable.

Even though there are tendencies and the sweep of history, and things we can go back on when we say this is what people do when they are starving, this is what people do when they do that, when you are talking about these scenarios you are basically reaching from science fiction to basically apocalypse.

The only thing I can say about the future is that its really going to surprise us. And so you can put those on the board and say well, in 20 years from now or 30 or even 10 -- where are we in those? It will probably be all four in certain ways. It wont be one. There would be parts of the world that may be in the worst. There would be parts in the third one, by choice, and islands of the first. You just don't know.

I don't think it will be one size fits all. And the things is, the rate of social technology and other technology, and the rate of technological breakthrough right now, is stupefying. And the rate of the way new information is coming along and being made available and accessed, to that rate of real time feed back due to Twitter and other things, is trying to be incorporated into political decisions and commercial decisions, and so forth.

You saw the H1N1 virus now is being Twittered and tracked, and boom boom boom, it's better than anything we had every had in terms of NHS or with CDC, of whats happening, where and who had been admitted, and this and that. And so we are entering into a time, and this is what I was trying to say in the speech, that no one can know, it's really unknown. And that's the exciting part. And for people who don't like that, its anxiety producing. This is where leadership will be important. I don't mean charismatic leaders, but I mean in terms of a community basis, neighborhood basis, friendship basis. We don't need a few great leaders in the world, we need about a million leaders in this world. It's a really exciting time. And we do have a clock ticking, the ppm clock on the upper stratosphere, no question about that.

But, I'll just say, with the new SIG technology or solar technology, if you were to run all the news presses of the world -- and they were printing SIG solar panels for five and half days -- you could (meet) all the energy (needs) in the world. What I'm saying, is that there are resources, and abilities that we have here, that are phenomenal. The fact that they are not being enlivened yet is because people don't think there is a reason to. And should they, and when they do, change can happen in a way that is really astonishing.

With the seemingly agreed upon idea of Peak Everything, what do you think about the future of globalism and organizations like the WTO?

I think we are peaking. I don't see peak as associated with doom and gloom, by the way. But I think we are peaking and its a rolling peak and the peaks play upon each other, of course. Peaking oil and peaking fossil energy causes the inability to afford other types of commodities. The energy required to get them is greater than the energy released or value released or you get a peak production. In terms of the WTO, I think some consumerism is over. I see export economies basically having peaked. Exports will still happen and I see the WTO as sort of being residual.

But it really is related to energetics, which is when energy becomes more expensive. It doesn't make sense to make things elsewhere. The logistics of the modern industrial system is definitely going to be challenged. The problem I think we face there is what we faced in '08 when we had a sharp drop off of manufacturing when people panicked and people stopped buying. That just throws it, and a lot of manufacturing went offline, and it's hard to start it up again. All the more reason it's important to make the transition in terms of localization.

Make local bigger, make it broader, go into areas where you wouldn't even imagine, like making things like cars and transportation and making clothes again. There is no reason why the Northwest shouldn't be completely self sufficient. Really, it has everything, there's not one thing missing and thus becoming exemplary in its own way.

Doesn't mean there isn't going to be apples and blackberries or salmon coming out of here. There still will be imports, exports. There still will be cinnamon and pepper from India and things like that, but the most important exports would be culture and ideas, and music and literature.

You were talking a little bit about collaborations downstairs. I heard a great word the other day, coop-etition. Any new "radical collaborations" you've been seeing in the business world that excites you? 

I wouldn't suggest radical ones, I would just suggest more of them. I think that we need the end run around conventional business. Business associations tend to take the lowest common denominator and parlay it into a congress. And I think we need to start to organize in ways where we want the highest denominator in change and policy, taxation and subsidies.

We need a different business lobby than the one that gets there now. We (NGOs, non profits, sustainable businesses, etc) need to, like I say, get above our horizon, to be seen, to be heard and to know we exist. It goes back to "Blessed Unrest," it's one thing to have 2 million organizations, but its kind of time to have them come together, too, and stop being heroes. You gotta work together.

Whats next for you? Are you in the midst of another book?
Nah, I'm just working on my solar technology. I'd rather fail at something important than succeed at something trivial. It really is important. There's some 516 million people with no electricity in places like India. We have a clear goal, we know where we are going with our product. The thing about it is, it can be made in Africa, by Africans, with African materials, for African people.

Instead of it being made and shipped in containers from China. So that people can make their own stuff. Made in Haiti for Haitians. It can be made in Nairobi for Kenyans. It can be made in our townships, so people feel like they have something. That's a green job: non toxic, low input, high skill, their own distribution, their own implementation.

I don't care if they sell for cost, it's up to that region. They can make it even less expensive if they want. But our goal is to have the cheapest electricity for the poor. We think other people want it too, but it will be the cheapest electricity.