Goodbye to Bad Knowledge

SUBHEAD: What are the nuts and bolts of organizing a “small is beautiful” health system?

 By Dan Bednarz on 30 May 2012 for Health After Oil -  

Image above: Andy Lackow envisions the future of nursing in an illustration for Johns Hopkins Nursing Magazine. Not likely. “From (
A year ago I asked, “How to understand health care’s inability to recognize that modern society has reached the limits to growth?”[i] Since then I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to write on the urgent and bedeviling question, “What are the nuts and bolts of organizing a “small is beautiful” health system?” Here I want to lay the ground for exploring this second question while weaving in final comments on the first question.

One trouble with this second question is identifying and mapping the welter of dynamic forces at work. Equally significant, the question implies that we can rationally transition to an end-state of a viable health system. This may still be possible, but it becomes less likely the longer the current culture of over-consuming/toxic waste-dumping/unequally distributing finite and overexploited resources hangs on.

In the lower energy, resource constrained, ecosystem degraded/destroyed and environmentally hazardous world we are entering complex high-tech medicine will contract or collapse, and modern public health is challenged to reorganize –it actually must in some senses expand!- or collapse. Of this there is no doubt.

Socioeconomically, reaching the limits to growth means the impossibility of repaying accumulated debt and that massive unemployment will worsen under current institutional conditions. Politically we are witnessing governments not only caught up in a contraction of tax and revenue bases, but utterly failing and concomitantly repressing their citizens so as to maintain –and deepen- class inequalities and support for too big to fail private entities. This is the antithesis of resilience.

One looks in vain at mainstream health journals –JAMA, NEJM, The Lancet, American J. of Public Health, etc.- for discussion and analysis of how the thermodynamic, ecological, political, financial, and socioeconomic/class conflict predicaments in which humanity is enmeshed affect health systems. To the extent these issues are considered in these journals, they are treated separately –like boutique items- and as matters of risk management in the context of weathering the Great Recession (hoping growth will restart).

Virtually nowhere in these journals are the primal issues of protecting the health of the public and maintaining the viability of health systems in a wealth-destroying[ii] industrial economy so much as broached. For example, recent treatments of the health system collapse ongoing in Greece imply the cause is the so-called Great Recession that has led governments to choose to impose austerity. In realpolitik, the European Union, ECB and IMF are shaking their pepper spray cans to douse Greece as a (futile) intimidation of Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. To posit austerity as a manifestation of a class conflict response to ecological overshoot in health policy analysis is to guarantee being ignored by “serious” analysts and policy makers, all of whom are devoted to incremental change and never questioning governments’ utilitarian pretensions. But this status quo framing of the issues will become irrelevant as Greece et al. are cannibalized to preserve current distributions of wealth, status and power –albeit to no lasting avail.

The health sciences fail to recognize that –like all modern institutions during the 20th century- they have expanded and become socially and technologically complex upon a foundation of natural resource abundance and the earth’s ability to absorb waste and toxic insults from modern society. This growth was anomalous, not irrepressible and infinite; indeed, it tracks in unison with the availability of fossil fuels, especially oil. Until recently energy was cheap and seemed limitless, as did other natural resources; climate change risks remain “political,” not corporeal and existential. The overexploitation of natural resources and population growth should be apparent and frightening, but they are not; and wastes and pollution continue to be –from a grossly misguided economic growth point of view- “externalized” or “discounted” for future generations to gag on.

What would the institutional leaders of public health, nursing and medicine do if they were to recognize that our culture is at the climax stage[iii] of resource consumption and beginning to enter the collapse/release phase of ecological overshoot? It has finally sunk into my being that they would view this as a threat to their grip on power, not as a spur to courageous action. They have one-track minds, which means no experiential knowledge, intellectual rationale, ethical foundation or incentive/reward structure to contemplate reducing complexity and conserving resources (efficiency is purposefully left off this list as inadequate and in many instances counterproductive). In fact, most will find the arrantly imperative ideas of massive conservation and complexity reductions abhorrent signs of failure –again, a threat to their power and sense of their legacy.

These leaders have been educated in inwardly focused decision sciences and socialized in the Game Theory version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, topped off with a heaping portion of Machiavellian bureaucratic politics. These bodies of knowledge are reflections of a social construction of reality that prevents them from considering, let alone coming to terms with thermodynamic and ecological realities that underlie the functioning of all modern institutions. The further we descend into crisis the less germane and more pernicious such socially constructed bodies of knowledge become.

Is this a hopeless situation? No, but it is a dire one because those with institutional power, who control the distribution of human and natural resources, lack the worldview (intellectual and experiential knowledge, ethics, sensibilities, intuition) to do the right thing.

To summarize, the current growth-centered paradigm in the health sciences –and modern industrial culture- produces knowledge and ethics designed for dominion over nature, social control exercised through class conflict and perpetual economic growth. This knowledge has always been absurd, but now it is bad knowledge because the natural resource base, waste sinks and ostensibly vast ecosystem services that allowed it to flourish have become limiting factors. On the other hand, reaching the limits to growth is the root metaphor of knowledge and ethics based upon a realistic appreciation of humanity’s place in nature. This is the good knowledge upon which to reorganize modern culture. Put differently, there is a mismatch between the institutional power vested in the bad knowledge of growth-based systems and the embryonic power of good knowledge organized around such metaphors as reaching the limits to growth and “Small Is Beautiful.”

Mutatis mutandis, a commenter on the world of philanthropy describes the dilemma of the health sciences:
“In the end, philanthropy wants the wrong thing. It may think that it ought to want what the lovers-of-nature want, but its actions reveal that, come what may, it loves other things first: the maintenance of its privileges, the survival of its self-identity, and the stability of the social and economic systems that made it possible in the first place.”[iv]

That’s enough about why those running the health sciences will lose their grip as the forces of nature destroy and then reshape human institutions. I am hopeful (well, it’s more like a spiritually sustaining fantasy) that health systems and the master political and economic institutions that control them deteriorate at the right pace to make our collective situation desperate enough that citizens realize that we’re in a post-growth world and take action before large-scale collapse occurs.

Other narratives are in competition with the end of growth/ecological overshoot one I’m proffering. They are typified, on the one hand, by a plethora of new books on how “in a few short years” all our energy, socioeconomic and environmental problems will be resolved by the market and technological breakthroughs and, on the other hand, by appeals to the divisionary and insidious scapegoating and xenophobic propensities of humanity.

Above all else, human adaptability and decency should not be discounted, especially as the phase change from climax to collapse –however dimly perceived or intuited- spreads the insight/gut feeling that there are no mainstream, incremental, conventional problems solutions for the gyre of predicaments we face. Bluntly, people do stupid, lazy, vengeful, wicked, self-destructive, self-interested and delusional things; nonetheless, they are capable of incredible feats of collective action, creativity, insight and survival. To oversimplify a bit, it all depends upon how they define the situations they are in.

The nascent paradigmatic and mythological revolution (a new social construction of reality) in health care and public health largely is coming from below and from outside, and not at all from the top. It is taking place in a larger context of the de-legitimization and failure of existing institutional arrangements. This paradigm shift is what I want to contribute to in future essays.

[i] Bednarz, Dan. “As health care fails, Part I: Power, knowledge and resistance.” Energy Bulletin, May 12, 2011.
[ii] It’s in one sense a fiction to speak of wealth destruction when money is involved because money is a claim on the goods, services, and material stuff wealth can purchase. Furthermore, wealth can be defined beyond the confines of monetary valuation.
[iii] Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations In Human And Natural Systems. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. 2002.
[iv] White, Curtis. “The Philanthropic Complex.” Jacobin, Spring 2012.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Post Collapse Healthcare
Ea O Ka Aina: It's Not the Economy Stupid! 1/28/09 .

Mongoose on Kauai

SUBHEAD: A live male mongoose was captured on Kauai on 23 May 2012. By Dennis Fujimoto on 24 May 2012 for the Garden Island News - ( Image above: Pat Gmelin, KISC Mongoose Response Technician, holds up the trap containing a live mature male mongoose 5/23/12. From original article. A live mongoose, believed to be the first captured on Kauai, was caught in a mongoose trap Wednesday by the Kaua‘i Invasive Species Committee at the Marriott Kaua‘i Lagoons.

Keren Gundersen, project manager of the KISC, said Pat Gmelin, the KISC Mongoose Response Technician, made the discovery while conducting his daily trap checks Wednesday morning.

“I am happy that now it is proven that the mongoose reports are actually confirmed and that my hard work has paid off, but I’m sad to think that Kaua‘i now has a very real threat to our native bird populations,” Gmelin said in a KISC release. “With the help of Bill Bukoski of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, we determined the captured mongoose was a mature male.”

KISC said traps were initially set in the Nawiliwili Harbor area following a credible sighting which was reported in Niumalu on Mar. 24.

Within 10 days, another nine reports came in of mongoose sightings in the Nawiliwili area, including at Kaua‘i Lagoons and the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort and Beach Club.

KISC officials said mongooses can travel up to five miles a day.

“We want to thank the citizens who promptly reported the sightings,” Gundersen said. “We were able to get traps in place rapidly and finally capture the animal. We really rely on the public to alet us when they see dangerous pests, especially mongoose, because these animals can quickly leave an area.”

Mongooses were brought to Hawaii by the sugar industry in 1883 in a failed attempt to control rats in the sugar cane fields, the KISC release states. Mongooses prey on turtle eggs, birds and other animals and can be carriers of deadly diseases like leptospirosis. They currently have no natural predators in Hawai‘i to keep their numbers in check.

“Kaua‘i is the only island where mongoose were not intentionally introduced, which is why we have been successful in building populations of ground-nesting birds like the nene,” said Thomas Kaiakapu, the Kauai manager of the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, in the release. “Mongoose eat eggs and chicks so they can have a devastating affect on wildlife, domestic fowl and game cocks.”

Kaua‘i wildlife managers have worried about mongooses getting established on Kauai for a long time.

A lactating female was discovered dead on Kaumualii Highway in Kalaheo in 1976, but none of the invasive animals have been found since then. Gundersen said there have been more than 160 credible reports of mongoose sightings in the past 44 years, with more than 70 in the last decade. These sightings have been reported from Mana to Lumahai, including Koke‘e, with the highest concentration being in the Lihu‘e and Puhi areas.

Gundersen said KISC and the DOFAW have been engaged in active trapping and detection efforts in the recent years. The USDA Wildlife Services traps within the Lihue Airport fence and Rana Biological Consulting, Inc., overseeing the endangered bird protection at Kauai Lagoons, has been monitoring the resort grounds for avian predators.

Because funding for mongoose control is spotty, the various entities have been working together, Gundersen said. KISC is coordinating the partnerships because it currently has a Mongoose Response Technician on staff and is taking the lead in following up on sighting reports.

“Catching a live mongoose is a definite game-changer because it increases the likelihood they are already established here,” Gundersen said. “We are appealing to everyone to call us at 821-1490 and let us know about any encounter they have had with a mongoose, even if it is not recent, so we can map historical and current sightings.”

Gundersen said the reports will help KISC paint a more accurate picture of what the status of the mongoose on Kauai might be.

“We really need to have this information before we can develop a sensible management plan,” she said. “The most logical and immediate reaction is to beef up predator control in high-value areas such as wildlife refuges and bird sanctuaries.”

The captured mongoose has been euthanized, and more tests will be conducted to determine its age, possibly its diet and conduct DNA tests.

If a mongoose is sighted, call KISC at 821-1490 immediately.


They're Here!

SUBHEAD: Beekeeper discovers the dreaded small hive beetle on Kauai. HDOA confirms they're on island. By Leo Azambuja on 31 May 2912 for Garden Island News - ( Image above: A Kauai Community College Apiary intern, holds a trap with small hive beetles from KCC hives. From original article. Kaua‘i beekeepers could sleep in peace, knowing the Garden Isle is the only major Hawaiian island free of the small hive beetle, a serious pest to honeybees. Until last week.

On May 24, the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture confirmed what Francis Takahashi, assistant professor at Kaua‘i Community College, already knew for a few days.

“Just taking a look at it, you could tell it was small hive beetle,” said Takahashi of a sample taken by Craig Kaneshige from the Ag Department’s Plant Pest Control Branch.

The beetles were found May 21 at a home in the Pua Loke neighborhood of Lihu‘e, Takahashi said. Kaneshige took hive samples and sent them to HDOA entomologists in Honolulu, who confirmed the pest was the small hive beetle.

The beetle may have spread to the Lihu‘e area, and potentially to other places on the island. Takahashi said more beetles were found in the apiary at KCC, but not before an infected hive was moved to Kapahi.

The small hive beetle was first detected on the Big Island in April 2010, and has since spread to O‘ahu, Maui and Moloka‘i.

Kaua‘i is still considered free of the varroa mite, another serious pest that threatens honeybees. Takahashi said the small hive beetle is more difficult to control because the beetles can live in fruit, while the mite needs bees to survive.

“(Small hive beetle) is not like the varroa mite, that can’t live without the bees,” he said.

Today HDOA officials will come to KCC, and from there they will begin an islandwide survey to try to determine how far the pest has spread on Kaua‘i, Takahashi said.

Meanwhile, Kaua‘i beekeepers are being instructed to take precautions.

“I’ve been calling everybody,” Kilauea beekeeper Debbie Erickson said.

On March 21, Jimmy Trujillo, the head of the Kaua‘i Beekeepers Association, called Erickson to give her a heads-up that the pest may have been found on Kaua‘i.

Erickson said she is building new boxes for her bees and moving her existing hives around in the sun. She said one of the Big Island beekeepers told her that they are using boxes with one side made out of Plexiglas, because the beetle does not like light.

“That’s really scary,” said Erickson, adding that people need to know how important it is to prevent infection and report potential sites.

She said beekeepers can register their hives with HDOA, so state officials can track them and also contact them in case of threats.

As soon as the pest was confirmed, HDOA Apiary Planner Jacquie Robson sent an email to all registered beekeepers on Kaua‘i, providing several links related to the small hive beetle, including one containing control guidelines.

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) adults are about four to five millimeters in length and are yellowish-brown in color, turning brownish, then to black at maturity. They feed on most anything inside a bee hive, including honey, pollen and wax, as well as honeybee eggs and larvae.

As they feed, they tunnel through the hive, damaging or destroying the honeycomb and contaminating the honey, according to HDOA.

Symptoms of small hive beetle infestation include discolored honey, an odor of decaying oranges, and fermentation and frothiness in the honey. Heavy infestations may cause honeybee colonies to abandon hives.

The beetle is native to sub-Saharan Africa and was first detected in the United States in 1996 in South Carolina. It was subsequently detected in Florida in 1998 and is currently found in many states in the south and central areas of the U.S. and California.

Besides being honey producers, bees are critical pollinators for many food crops, including melons, watermelons, cucumbers, squash, lychee, mango, macadamia nut, coffee, eggplant, avocado, guava, herbs and some flowering plants, such as sunflowers. HDOA estimated in 2007 that about 70 percent of Hawai‘i’s food crops depend on pollination by bees.

Visit for more information.

Rumbling of Distant Thunder

SUBHEAD: The sound of thunder far off indicates the storm it’s heralding is going to be a whopper. By John Michael Greer on 30 May 2012 for Archdruid Report - ( Image above: Severe thunderstorm squall line at sunset. From (
I think most of my regular readers are aware that I spent last weekend at a peak oil event. There have been plenty of those over the last decade or so, but this one, The Age of Limits, was a bit unusual: it started from from the place where most other peak oil events stop, with the recognition that the decline and fall of industrial civilization is the defining fact of our time.
It’s ironic, to use no stronger term, that this should be the point at which so much discussion of peak oil stops, because it’s also the place where that conversation began some fifteen years ago, at the very dawn of today’s peak oil movement. Back then, as conversations about the limits to growth were getting started again for the first time since the twilight of the 1970s, most participants in those early discussions seem to have grasped that the industrial world would either rise to the challenge of peak oil and undergo the wrenching process of shortage and reallocation that a successful downshift of energy consumption would demand, or plow face first into the brick wall of resource limits and crash to ruin. The debates then were over which of these would be chosen. At this point it’s painfully clear which way the decision has gone, but the discourse of peak oil by and large remains the same.
If you go to most peak oil events, as a result, you can count on a flurry of panels and lectures pointing out the reasons why our civilization’s attempt to extract limitless resources out of a finite planet won’t work, can’t work, and isn’t working. Depending on the event, you will also get either a flurry of panels and lectures talking about how to make buckets of money profiteering off the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures bickering about who’s to blame for the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures airily insisting that the inevitable failure of that attempt isn’t inevitable at all so long as we all have faith in whatever the fashionable alternative energy du jour or the equally fashionable movement du jour happens to be. (You might also get two or three of these at once, in which case the effect is even more schizoid than usual.)
What you won’t get is any serious discussion about what can be expected to happen on the downside of Hubbert’s curve, and how individuals, families and communities might be able to respond to that. At most, you might be lucky enough to find a late night discussion among three or four presenters and a dozen attendees at the hotel bar, sitting there with drinks in hand and talking about the uncomfortable and unfashionable realities that the event organizers have carefully excluded from the agenda. It was those late night discussions that provided part of the inspiration for The Age of Limits conference. What would happen, several of us wondered, if the themes central to those discussions were brought out of exile and put at the center of a collective conversation?
That’s more or less what The Age of Limits set out to do. How did it work? By and large, remarkably well. Even on a quantitative level, it exceeded expectations; the organizers set their sights sensibly low, aiming for sixty attendees this first year, and kept publicity at an accordingly modest level. In the event, though, more than twice that number showed up, and launched a rolling conversation about decline, resilience, and survival that filled two full days and parts of two others. The practical side of the conference ran smoothly, despite a couple of impressive spring thunderstorms, and the quality of the discussions was generally high; for me, certainly, it was a relief not to have to deal with more of the usual fearful insistence that X or Y or Z will let the current possessors of middle class privilege cling to their comfortable lifestyles, and to have the chance to talk instead about how those lifestyles are going to go away and what might be done to deal constructively with their departure.
Thinking back over the weekend, three points of crucial relevance for the project of this blog stand out.
The first and most basic is precisely the number of people who are ready to grapple with the end of industrial civilization: not as an abstract possibility to be shoved off on a conveniently distant future, not as an inkblot pattern on which to project one’s favorite apocalyptic fantasies, not as a bogeyman that can be used to stampede recruits into signing up for the greater glory of some movement or other, but as a simple and inescapable fact that is already shaping our lives. Down the years since I first started trying to talk to other people about where our civilization is headed, that last attitude has been far and away the least common, and the frantic writhings with which so many people squirm away from thinking about that unthinkable reality have become wearily familiar.
One of the repeated pleasures of peak oil events is precisely that those of us who take that recognition seriously have the chance to share a meal or a couple of mugs of beer and talk openly about all the things you can’t discuss usefully with those who are still in the squirming stage. I mentioned in a post last fall the way that peak oil events function as a gathering of the tribe, but it would be more precise to call it a gathering of several tribes—the peak oil investment tribe, the environmental activism tribe, the alternative energy tribe, and so on. It’s one of the oddities of the tribe to which I belong that it’s hard to give it a simple, straightforward name of that kind, just a clear sense of the trajectory our age is tracing out against the background of deep time, and it’s one of the less heavily represented tribes at most peak oil events. What set The Age of Limits apart is that it was specifically for this latter tribe, and the enthusiastic turnout in response to very muted publicity—little more than a few posts on blogs—shows me that the audience for such discussions is a good deal larger than I had any reason to think.
The second point that stands out is the extent to which people in that tribe—and, I suspect, across a broader spectrum of society as well—are hungry for meaningful discussions of one of the taboo topics of our age, the relation of spirituality to the shape of our future. That hunger came as a surprise to our hosts; Orren Whiddon, the founder and general factotum of the retreat center where the conference took place, responded with noticeable discomfort to my proposal to give a talk on peak oil and spirituality, and his mood was not improved when two of the other speakers, Carolyn Baker and Dmitry Orlov, wanted to address the same topic. Still, all three talks went forward; I talked about the lessons that traditional spiritualities offer for understanding our predicament, Dmitry discussed religion as a mode of social organization that can sustain itself for millennia, and Carolyn explored collapse as an initiatory experience—and all three talks drew large and enthusiastic audiences.
It’s among the major failures of contemporary Western culture that the keepers of its religious traditions have so signally failed to deal with the core issues of our time. There’s a history behind that failure, of course. In what used to be the religious mainstream, well-meaning but clueless attempts to become relevant in the 1960s and 1970s led clergy to replace authentic spirituality with a new definition of religious institutions as some sort of awkward hybrid of amateur social service agencies and moral lobbying firms, deriving their values from the contemporary nonreligious left rather than from any coherent sense of their own traditional spiritual commitments. Since the vast majority of Americans then and now are on the moderate-to-conservative end of the political spectrum, and have next to no patience with the liberal ideologies that drove this shift, the formerly mainstream denominations ended up with a fraction of their old membership and influence as parishioners abandoned them in droves for more conservative churches and synagogues.
Those latter, meanwhile, had just completed the same transformation in the other direction, surrendering their own traditional commitments in order to embrace the political ideologies of the contemporary right. This is why so many of today’s supposedly conservative clergy are out there right now urging their congregations to vote for a Republican party whose platform could not be further from the explicit teachings of Jesus if somebody had set out to do that on purpose. Very few American religious groups have avoided falling into one or the other of these pitfalls.
That has had any number of unhelpful consequences, but the one relevant here is that either choice makes it effectively impossible for those who speak for religious institutions to say anything at all about the reality of our nation’s and civilization’s decline. The denominations of theold mainstream are committed to what, without too much satire, could be described as the belief that everyone in the world deserves a middle class American lifestyle; those of the new conservative religiosity are just as rigidly committed to the claim that middle class Americans deserve, and ought to be able to keep, that lifestyle. Neither can begin to address the hard fact that this lifestyle and nearly everything associated with it are going away forever.
That’s the vacuum into which Carolyn, Dmitry and I ventured over this weekend. For two of us, it wasn’t a first venture by any means; Carolyn has been discussing the spiritual dimensions of collapse for years now, on her website and in several worthwhile books; as for me, after some years of uneasy avoidance and sidelong references, I let myself be lured into discussing the interface between my own far from mainstream spirituality and the realities of the age of peak oil, and that discussion ended up turning into a book of its own. For all I know, Dmitry has been working on his own take on religion and peak oil for longer still, but it was a surprise to me, just as I noted with interest that Jim Kunstler’s latest post includes an uneasy discussion of the potential role of emerging minority religions (that’s spelled "cults" in today’s standard English, which Jim uses) in reinventing a coherent society in the wake of our decline and fall.
There is a good deal more that can be said about the religious dimensions of peak oil, and a familiar sinking feeling tells me that I’m probably going to be saying some of it, once the current sequence of posts on the fate of American empire has been completed. My readers outside North America—particularly in Europe, where religion by and large plays a negligible role in public life—may be puzzled by that focus, but there it is; when European countries encouraged their religious minorities to cross the Atlantic, as a good many of them did in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they pretty much guaranteed that North America would have a much livelier religious history from then on than they would. Religion is a major organizing force in American public life; each of the great shifts in American politics and society have been paralleled, and often preceded, by a corresponding shift in the religious sphere; that pattern is highly unlikely to be broken by the traumatic redefinitions of American public life looming up ahead in the near future, and there are good reasons to think that the religious shift this time around is going to be on the grand scale.
So that’s the second point that struck me this weekend. The third was subtler. It didn’t get any space on the agenda, and rarely had a central role in the conversations, but it kept on popping up here and there in casual talk. One woman, for example, noted that the farm families in her area, conservative down to their bones, watched the bizarre spring weather this year with increasingly nervous faces and suddenly weren’t talking any more about how global warming was a myth; three other people nodded and chimed in with similar stories of their own. A man commented in passing that people who used to dismiss his efforts toward personal sustainability as a waste of time aren’t doing that any more, and some of them are asking for gardening tips. Quite a few attendees mentioned their sense that more and more people seem to be aware, however vaguely, that the troubles of the present time cut deeper and offer fewer options than those of years and decades past.
Something has gone very wrong. That’s the message that’s rumbling like distant thunder through the crawlspaces of the American imagination just now. Something has gone very wrong, and those whose public claim to power is their supposed ability to manage things so that they don’t go wrong—the captains of finance and brokers of political power who move from photo op to press conference to high-level meeting and back again—don’t know how to fix it.
I don’t expect that sense to reach anything close to critical mass in the near future—though it will be interesting to note whether this year’s version of the traditional American game of electoral charades, in which two indistinguishably airbrushed Demublican politicians pretend to be as different as possible until the moment the last voting booths close on Election Day, is able to whip up the same level of canned enthusiasm recent exercises of the same sort have managed. It could well take some years before the loss of faith in the institutions that define contemporary American life grows to the point at which it will become an unavoidable political fact. For that matter, I have no hard evidence that this is happening at all, just stray bits of conversation heard in passing. Still, those of my readers who have the opportunity might want to listen for the sound of thunder far off; if I’m right, the storm it’s heralding is going to be a whopper.

Revive Nuclear or Go Green?

SUBHEAD: Japan's aging society at a crossroads could be sprinting toward a green sustainable future. By Andrew DeWitt on 29 May 2012 for Yale Environment 360 - ( Image above: Protesters gathered in Tokyo to call on the government to abandon nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster. From ( In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan has idled all 50 of its nuclear reactors. While the central government and business leaders are warning a prolonged shutdown could spell economic doom, many Japanese and local officials see the opportunity for a renewable energy revolution. May 5 marked the shutdown of the last of Japan’s 50 viable nuclear reactors, with poor prospects for any restarts before the summer. The central government, the nuclear industry, most big business associations, and many international observers seem convinced that this will invite chaos through escalating fossil fuel costs and the risk of blackouts. But polls suggest a growing segment of the Japanese population see things differently. Indeed, many believe that the current crisis presents the nation with a powerful spur to go green. The long dominance of nuclear-centered power monopolies has constrained Japan’s ample capacity to ramp up efficiency, conservation, renewables, smart grids, storage innovations, and other core aspects of a sustainable, 21st-century power-generating economy. Now, led by the charismatic and highly popular right-wing mayor of Osaka, Japan’s local governments are keen to move forward in this direction, and fast. And they have eager support among the public and innovative businesses. So more than a year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan is at a crossroads, and there is a profound division of opinion about what is going on. A suddenly nuclear-free Japan might be heading for yet another big fall, consistent with the sorry pattern of the past two decades. Or this aging society could be sprinting toward green growth and a sustainable future, leading the way for the rest of the world. We are likely to have an indication of the outcome this summer, when Japan could either face widespread power outages or avert disaster via aggressive conservation and efficiency efforts. One thing is clear: In a world beset by economic and environmental crises, and confronting several tough, seemingly mutually exclusive choices on energy and climate change, Japan is a key country to watch. Japan is the world’s third-largest power-generating nation. Its economy is dominated by 10 regional monopolies, of which the biggest and best known is Tokyo Electric Power, or “Tepco.” Until last year, Tepco was also one of the triumvirate that ran Japan’s most powerful business association, Nippon Keidanren, which negotiates crucial energy and growth policies with the political and bureaucratic elite. These collusive interests have been pro-nuclear for decades. So it was no surprise in recent years when they took advantage of the rising costs and risks of fossil fuels and declared that the best balance of cost, national security, and environmental protection would be a power economy centered even more on nuclear assets. Their goal was to raise the share of nuclear-generated electricity from roughly 30 percent in 2010 to at least 53 percent by 2030. That target, codified in the government’s 2010 “Basic Energy Plan,” became unquestioned conventional wisdom until last year. That plan melted down with the reactors at Fukushima. Fukushima has made nuclear power unacceptable to the majority of the Japanese public, especially older citizens, who vote in the largest numbers. These voters oppose nuclear not just because its sobering costs and risks in earthquake-prone Japan are a staple of the daily news. Anti-nuclear sentiment also runs deep because the face of nuclear power is Tepco, easily the country’s most vilified company. Tepco’s continued obstinacy and irresponsibility are breathtaking, especially for a company alive only through taxpayer bailouts. So while the regime of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda keeps trying to scare voters into acquiescing to nuclear restarts, voters’ steadfast opposition has convinced local governments to block the Noda regime’s efforts. But taking this non-nuclear path is a leap in the dark. Prior to last year, Japan’s pro-renewable policymaking community had no serious scenario for abruptly withdrawing from nuclear power. The core position was to block new construction of nuclear plants and impose age limits on existing plants. Galvanized by the public’s rejection of nuclear power, green power advocates are now working to cut power demand in the short run through conservation and efficiency and then ramp up renewables over the medium- and long-term. Compulsory 15-percent power cuts in Tokyo last summer kept the lights on and also eliminated much of its “heat island” difference with the surrounding suburbs. But doing anything like that again, voluntarily and nearly nationwide, will be a tall order. So will expanding the renewable energy sector, which at present produces only 10 percent of power generation, and just over one percent if hydropower is excluded. Not surprisingly, pro-nuclear factions are predicting economic mayhem. Nobuo Tanaka, the former head of the International Energy Agency, has declared that a non-nuclear Japan would be a “disaster” since he sees no serious alternative beyond fossil fuels. And the would-be kingmaker of the governing Democratic Party, Yoshito Sengoku, warned in April that shutting down nuclear power plants is “mass suicide.” For its part, Nippon Keidanren has repeatedly and stridently claimed that uncertainty about power supplies and price increases due to greater reliance on gas, coal, and oil will accelerate the hollowing out of Japan’s industry. On May 22, Fitch ratings agency added to the overall impression of sheer recklessness with a downgrade of Japan’s debt to A+, ranking it just one grade above Spain. Critics of the swift retreat from nuclear power also note that about 90 percent of Japan’s power is now generated with fossil fuels, compared to roughly 60 percent before Fukushima. In addition, they point out that Japan’s liquid natural gas imports rose a whopping 52 percent from March 2011 to March 2012. Yet the pro-renewables sector also responds with compelling arguments. It stresses that Japan has ample financial, human, and material resources to make efficiency and renewable energy a cornerstone of its economy. Advocates of a shift to sustainable power have long envisioned a role for natural gas in this process. They point out that imported energy costs today are roughly equivalent to early 2008, when oil was above $100 and analysts were saying Japan would just get increasingly more efficient. On the policy front, the central government’s energy plan is unraveling, and the earliest we can expect a new road map is autumn. In the meantime, the government is riven by the conflicting goals of maintaining the status quo, versus making full use of increasingly potent incentives to maximize energy efficiency and deploy sustainable energy. It is determined to coddle Tepco, having so far pumped 3.5 trillion yen ($44 billion) of public funds into a firm effectively bankrupted by the still-mushrooming costs of multiple meltdowns. The government also seeks to restart nuclear assets even though it missed its own April 1 deadline to set up an independent regulator and thus has no credible safety regime in place. At the same time, the central government is pouring funds into sustainable cities programs, focusing on renewable power and smart grids, especially in the rebuilding of the devastated Tohoku region. In recent weeks, central agencies have introduced well over 100 deregulation measures meant to speed the diffusion of renewables, conservation, smart grids, and other initiatives. And thanks to the stubbornness of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the government will implement the world’s most robust feed-in tariff on July 1,aimed at stimulating investment in alternative energy by guaranteeing the market for renewably produced power. The feed-in-tariff requires utilities to purchase electricity generated by solar, wind, small hydro, geothermal, and biomass. It will pass on the extra costs to consumers through what is projected to be a modest increase of 100 yen — about $1.25 — in their monthly utility bills. In contrast to the divisions in the central government, Japan’s prefectures (states), big cities, and other local governments are virtually all committed to a shift to sustainable energy. This fact matters a great deal because local governments represent about two-thirds of total government-sector spending in Japan. They are investing 52 billion yen ($654 million) of their own funds directly into renewable energy in this fiscal year, while their investments in conservation and energy efficiency are many multiples of that. They are also introducing an array of indirect supports to encourage citizen power cooperatives, bulk-buying of solar panels, and other policies to promote the diffusion of renewables. In addition, Japan’s prefectures and cities are organizing themselves into regions, or blocs, and pressing with increasing effectiveness on the central state for energy deregulation and decentralization. They see the green economy as a source of sustainable growth, good jobs, local resilience, and reduced reliance on the power monopolies. Their initiatives to cope with power and related crises have bolstered an increasingly broad-based social movement that, among other things, mobilized for the feed-in tariff and continues to press recalcitrant or lethargic local governments to emphasize efficiency. Together, these forces may overthrow the vested energy interests that have hindered Japan from reaching its full potential in pursuing green jobs and a green economy. In the wake of last year’s crisis, a vast, constantly expanding number of energy-related collaborative institutions have sprung up within and among local governments. These institutions organize and assist local residents and small business with conservation programs, launch renewable energy projects, set up their own power firms, diffuse energy management systems more rapidly, introduce dynamic pricing and other innovations, and work to open up more land and facilities for deploying renewables. First among local leaders — and the biggest threat to the entrenched political class — is the charismatic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto. He is not only deeply committed to a sustainable energy revolution and has national political ambitions, but he outpolls every other politician in the country. Japan has a solid green-economy base on which to build quickly in a dash to conservation, renewables, efficiency, storage, and smart grids. A report this month by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment showed that the green economy in 2010 was already worth 69 trillion yen ($868 billion) and boasted 1.85 million jobs. And in one possible indication of the acceleration of green growth, high-efficiency LED (Light-Emitting Diode) ceiling lamps in the Japanese household market went from 2.2 percent of sales in February 2011 to 57.7 percent this May. Many other countries want to lead the green revolution, but are handicapped by vested interests, political dysfunction, poor capacity, and insufficient incentives. Japan now has plenty of advantages — most notably the spur of adversity created by the Fukushima disaster — that could push it to the front of the pack. With the nuclear lobby severely weakened and its generating capacity taken offline, Japan might be in trouble. But it is also possible that it has lucked out, just as it did in the 1970s when its incentives to ramp up efficiency, cut oil use in electricity production, and build smaller cars helped it emerge from the oil shock faster than other countries. Perhaps now the nuclear shock will drive Japan much faster than anyone expected toward a renewable energy future. .

Sustainable Living as Religion

SUBHEAD: By practicing sustainable living as a spiritual observance we may protect ourselves from bad politics.  

By Dmitry Orlov on 29 May 2012 for Club Orlov -

Image above: Detail of painting of "The Rapture of Psyche" by Bouguereau, 1895. From (

I have spent the last few days at a conference organized by the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania. Titled “The Age of Limits,” it was well attended and promises to be one of a series of annual conferences to address the waning of the industrial age and the social adaptation it makes necessary.

This conference was quite different from all the others I have attended.

First, the venue is a campground; a beautiful one, consisting of lush meadows surrounded by an equally lush but passable forest girded on three sides by a fast-flowing creek of cold, clean water. This sanctuary is dedicated to nature spirituality, and includes a very impressive stone circle and a multitude of little shrines, altars, charms and amulets hung on trees. (Also included is an assortment of cheerful hippies skinny-dipping in the creek.)

Second, spirituality was prominently featured in the presentations: the question of spiritual and emotional adaptation to fast-changing, unsettled times was very much on the agenda. Third, the campground is owned by a church; one of undefined denomination, theological bent or specific set of beliefs, but a church nevertheless.

 Lastly, the campground is run by a monastery that is at the heart of this church; the monks and nuns do not wear habits, do not seem to have not taken any specific vows other than those of loyalty, poverty and obedience, but in substance not too different from, say, the Benedictine Order: work is seven days a week, there is a meeting at eight sharp every morning, all meals are prepared and eaten together, and, except for insignificant personal effects, all property is shared.

 To see the rest of this long article go to ( .

Oil Addiction Denial

SUBHEAD: Yet many young people in particular seem to be culturally rejecting car ownership as a lifestyle goal.  

By Roger Baker on 23 May 2012 for The Rag Blog -  
Image above: Political cartoon of oil drum syringe in L.A. Progressive. From original article.
It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled. -- Mark Twain
The major sin of the big oil companies was to get their customers addicted, to set up lobbies to keep them addicted, and to deny the looming shortage problem, including the threat of global warming. Denial is a basic symptom of addiction that involves hiding the truth, refusing to talk about the problem, rationalizing, or dismissing the situation -- defensive patterns of behavior that the addicted employ to avoid facing reality.

This same principle of denial holds true whether the addiction applies to an individual or to an entire nation.

  It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the United States has been a nation addicted to a continuous supply of cheap imported oil for at least the last 35 years. This has been so ever since President Jimmy Carter promised to take a leadership role in breaking our oil habit in 1976. At that time he characterized the U.S. energy crisis as the "moral equivalent of war." 

 The USA has been in denial ever since. By 2006, our imported oil habit was still growing and caused about 35% of our trade deficit. (See Figure 1 in this link.) Since then, we have been able to produce more oil and cut back on our oil imports (see Figure 3), but now it has risen so much in price that it constitutes about 60% of the total U.S. trade deficit. Transportation, mostly driving, still accounts for about 70% of U.S. Oil consumption, despite the fact that driving has declined slightly after peaking in 2007. 

Oilman and President George W Bush, who was in an excellent position to understand such things, openly declared our national addiction in his state of the union address in 2006:
Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
From President Carter to President Bush Jr., our imported oil habit became progressively less sustainable, as the cheap oil was used up. If the continuous stream of tankers that export oil from the Persian Gulf region should be interrupted now, the price would immediately rise to a level that would make fuel unaffordable to many U.S. drivers, and to a degree much more painful and disruptive than we experienced in 2008, or in recent months. Our continuing addiction to Mideast oil accounts for the vast U.S. military force that we have stationed in the Persian Gulf, which region provides a large and growing portion of the world's total oil supply. It is sometimes claimed that because the United States gets most of its oil from sources closer than the Gulf region, we are not highly dependent on this region. However, since the oil market is global, any oil supply interruption in the Gulf region would soon translate to high prices everywhere else. The Chinese would soon bid against the USA for the fuel produced from the Canadian tar sands, etc. Europe, by comparison, has been been largely shielded from big fuel cost increases by its already much higher fuel taxes. These taxes have forced its drivers to adopt lifestyles that minimize their fuel consumption, and thus protect them more from a global oil price rise. Whenever the U.S. supply of imported oil is threatened with interruption (or if the U.S. economy should recover much), the global marketplace bids up the oil price, and the politically sensitive price of gasoline will rise in step and depress consumer spending . Whenever the world oil price is high enough, it can cause an economic crisis. In this case global demand may contract sharply, as it did in 2009. The price can never rise for long above what the global oil market can bear.
In 2008 we found that limit as we approached $120 a barrel for oil and $4 a gallon for gasoline. Prices are once again beginning to kill demand in the U.S., but under a slightly lower ceiling, because the economy isn’t nearly as strong as it was in the first half of 2008. Now the ceiling is closer to $100 a barrel.
Young people are more inclined to kick their oil habit The lower third of the U.S. population by income increasingly cannot afford to drive at all. As a result, many young people in particular seem to be culturally rejecting car ownership as a lifestyle goal, and are arranging their lives so as not to require cars. According to a new report ,
The average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) in the U.S. decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, falling from 10,300 miles per capita to just 7,900 miles per capita in 2009. The share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased by five percentage points, rising from 21 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
The road lobby, sprawl developers, and climate change denial lobbies all have a dog in the fight and are happy to support groups that help perpetuate oil addiction denial. The Antiplanner, funded by the Cato Institute, is one prominent voice of denial. This Libertarian think tank, founded by one of the Koch Brothers, is still a bit too independent and they are trying to regain control again. In fact there is now a wealth of evidence for a deep shift in driving behavior.
America’s transportation policies have long been predicated on the assumption that driving will continue to increase. The changing transportation preferences of young people -- and Americans overall -- throw that assumption into doubt. Transportation decision-makers at all levels -- federal, state and local -- need to understand the trends that are leading to the reduction in driving among young people and engage in a thorough reconsideration of America’s transportation policy-making...
In accord with the nature of politics, unhappy voters tend to seek political scapegoats to blame for their pain at the gas pump. As a nation in denial of addiction, we seek external causes other than our own behavior, dependent as it is on this unsustainable resource. As a nation, we uniquely depend on private vehicles for commuting as an integral part of the U.S. lifestyle. Given all the media attention it has attracted over the past few years, the public seems to understand that maintaining the U.S. oil supply is important. They also believe that their driving dependency is tied to political policy. This leads to the false hope that, by choosing the right president, their driving might remain more affordable. Given this situation, it is easy to understand why the recent rapid rise in the cost of fuel has become a political issue. Likewise, the recent modest decline in fuel price might seem to indicate that some kind of mysterious factor other than a natural oil shortage is at play. It is hard for the average driver to understand that the price of gasoline is closely tied to oil demand on a global scale; that the cost of domestic gasoline is closely linked to the global market price of crude oil, and that its price rises and falls accordingly. Here we can see that the average U.S. gasoline price closely tracks the price of Brent crude, the global benchmark standard, even more closely than it tracks the price of the WTI grade of crude oil still produced in the USA. Other factors can be important too, like transportation and refining bottlenecks, but the cost of crude oil is primary. Global supply and demand, including our domestic demand that uses more than 20% of the world's crude oil production, are the basic factors that determine what we will pay for our gasoline and diesel fuel. Because of our addiction , we seek scapegoats and seek to deny the need to change our own behavior. 

 Scapegoats for the right Republicans make the absurd claim that the federal government and environmentalists have prevented the U.S. oil industry from producing enough oil to lower the price of gasoline. The attempt to portray any possible increase in domestic oil production as being sufficient to significantly lower the global price of oil is ridiculous but certainly attracts media attention. The truth is that we are in the middle of an oil and gas “fracking” boom widely opposed by environmentalists. This drilling boom has indeed lowered our domestic natural gas price confined to areas within easy reach of gas pipelines, but it cannot much affect the price of oil, since oil is relatively cheaply transported by transoceanic tanker to the highest bidder. The Republicans still contend that enough of an increase in petroleum could be obtained by increased domestic drilling so that it could lower the price of fuel, even down to the $2.50 a gallon gasoline that Gingrich was promising. Few in the oil industry seriously take these claims seriously, but it is the sort of talk that draws a lot of political attention. Mitt Romney has even called Obama to fire his three top energy advisors. To be realistic about our current situation, the formerly cheap "conventional oil" that was produced by onshore drilling, which helped the USA win WWII, has nearly all been pumped up and is gone forever outside the Mideast. We now have to rely on much more expensive and hard to produce “unconventional oil" sources, like deepwater offshore wells -- especially since 2005. In the current global market, the reality is that the fruits of increased domestic production will be sold to the highest global bidder by the multinational corporations like Exxon. The price of crude oil has increased globally by a factor of five from $20 to $100 in only about the last decade. In terms of the physical infrastructure appropriate to lubricating and growing a profitable world economy, this has had a profound and deep-seated economic effect, an global economic shock that has been felt everywhere as reduced profits throughout the global economy. Scapegoats for the left Democrats and critics of the business community naturally choose different scapegoats than Republicans, often on grounds that sometimes seem almost as far-fetched. These scapegoats tend to be the big oil companies, Wall Street oil speculators, and the oil refiners. There is little that Exxon can now do to reverse the chronic oil dependence that they have done so much to help create and perpetuate. They are in effect the beneficiaries of a once-abundant, but now increasingly scarce resource in an era in which the production cost is steadily rising. As Exxon's own reserves of cheap oil run short, they want to stay in business as middlemen, brokers, refiners, and producers of this increasingly scarce fluid vital to the continued functioning of the U.S. economy. The major sin of the big oil companies like Exxon Mobil was actually, in large part, to get their customers addicted to their products in the first place, to set up lobbies to keep them addicted, and to deny the looming shortage problem, including the threat of global warming. This was recently detailed in the New Yorker. Obama's response to being blamed for high oil prices has been more political than focused on informing the public of their addiction:
The President’s policies toward the oil industry are not easy to categorize. His actions -- attacking oil-company profits while proposing more oil drilling -- can best be understood as political responses to rising gasoline prices.
Obama is quite willing to take advantage of the unpopularity of speculators as scapegoats . The Democrats don't have a coherent position on energy, but as politicians they still have to represent a public angry about fuel costs. What Democrat could resist blaming Wall Street and commodity speculators for driving up oil prices?
With gas prices continuing to soar, 70 members of Congress on Monday pushed federal regulators to stop excessive oil speculation. The House and Senate lawmakers -- all Democrats -- wrote to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to urge the agency to immediately put in place limits on traders in crude oil markets and take whatever steps necessary to rein in prices at the pump. "It is one of your primary duties -- indeed, perhaps your most important -- to ensure that the prices Americans pay for gasoline and heating oil are fair, and that the markets in which prices are discovered operate free from fraud, abuse, and manipulation," the lawmakers wrote in a letter organized by Sen. Bernard Sanders...
The problem with blaming Wall Street speculators is that so much of the oil market is global, like the London exchange. In any case, price hedging is a legal and intrinsic part of a normal market involving buyers and sellers. Nailing down future delivery is the natural inclination of commodity dealers operating in a tight market. The successful speculators tend to amplify price trends, rather than changing market direction. Speculation is a normal part of the business of airlines, for example, who do a service by anticipating and evaluating future fuel price risk. By anticipating future shortages, they make it hard to deny that there are looming oil supply problems that we urgently need to face.
"The fact is that there really are logistic challenges for Europe to replace Iran as a source of oil, and those challenges are going to translate into a higher price," said James Hamilton, an economist at UC San Diego who has studied past oil-price spikes.
Reasonable voices are no match for addiction denial 

Not everyone in Congress has been in denial of our precarious U.S. oil import position. Republican Senator Dick Lugar recently posted an article -- "High gas prices threaten recovery" -- which explained that there is practically no global spare reserve capacity left to cushion a sharp oil price rise, due to an inflexible and increasing global oil demand in conflict with a fixed global oil supply.
Price stability depends on a cushion of excess oil production capacity that could be brought online within 30 days or so if needed. A good rule of thumb is 5 percent of the market -- now about 4.5 million barrels per day -- is a sufficient cushion. Drop much below that, and the market cannot easily cope with planned or unplanned outages...

The cushion today is just 1.4 million barrels per day of spare capacity in a global market of approximately 89 million barrels, according to analyst Bob McNally, of the Rapidan Group. Some estimates are even lower. That thin margin already inflates prices, but it also puts global oil markets on the edge of massive upheaval.
Senator Lugar offered his "Practical energy Plan," which amounts to taking a lot of simultaneous emergency measures to expand domestic fuel production, while reducing consumption. While this is good advice, it would certainly take more time and require more political will than we have available. However even these kinds of sensible warnings by a moderate Republican Senator are apparently too much for the right-wing oil addiction deniers to tolerate. The Koch brothers, who became super-rich from petrochemicals, helped fund FreedomWorks, part of the opposition that successfully knocked Sen. Lugar out of the Republican primary, and thus removed a respected political moderate. 

 Little time left to deal with our addiction 
Rising gasoline prices should ideally be welcomed as a warning of what is soon to come. One of the keenest observers of the geopolitics of oil and the precarious nature of our U.S. oil dependence is Michael Klare.
Because the American economy is so closely tied to oil, it is especially vulnerable to oil’s growing scarcity, price volatility, and the relative paucity of its suppliers. Consider this: at present, the United States obtains about 40% of its total energy supply from oil, far more than any other major economic power.
We will now have to prepare for major economic changes and high gas prices. Oil and politically sensitive gasoline prices have receded in price the last month, but this is in no way a sign that our lives can return to the cheap oil era of the past. We are busily preparing to fight Iran. The energy wars are heating up globally . The hour is getting late. Klare now calls on Obama to be honest about the true gravity of our current situation.
President Obama has to be honest with the public. There is no solution to high prices, other than a change in the behavior of our energy use, because there is no cheap oil left on the planet. We have to begin a process of converting to alternative forms of energy or alternative forms of transportation. And he has to be honest.
Will we wake up and face our oil addiction denial in time? As they wisely say, you can evade reality, but you cannot evade the consequences of evading reality. Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Association and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.


Ponzi's End

SUBHEAD: A snapshot of the much smaller-scale and local economy of America's future, techno-narcissistic fantasies aside. By James Kunstler on 28 May 2012 for - ( Image above: Lawn Sale on Venice Boulevard in mar Vista. California. From ( Way up here in the heartland, far from the craft beer parlors, Facebook stock bucket shops, and gender obsessions of the mythical Urban Edge People, the detritus of your country is up for sale. The lawns are strewn with the plastic effluvia of lives lived through humankind's weirdest moment: Pee Wee Herman action figures, creeping tot tables, failed kitchen appliances that created more labor than they were designed to save, extruded plastic this-and-that, unidentifiable knick-knacks of forgotten sitcoms, Jimmy Carter Halloween masks, trikes brittle and faded from ultraviolet exposure, artworks conceived in a Zoloft fog, pre-owned cat litter boxes, someone's deceased mother's lawn fanny, the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, a savings bank in the shape of an outhouse....
The puzzling part is that every lawn sale contains exactly the same array of useless and pathetic objects. Is this how a Ponzi culture meets its end: the terminal swap-meet beyond which no horrifying object meets any mystifying desire for acquisition? If this is where consumer culture crawled off to die, then what possible zeitgeist awaits a people left so hopelessly de-cultured on aspiration's lowest ladder-rung?
I dropped by a religious cult commune in the next town over on Saturday. Some of the guys who dwell there have been helping me out on hire with the physical labor of the rather ambitious garden construction here at Clusterfuck Farm, so I was informed about their weekend festival. The group occupies a former "gentleman's estate" built in the 1920s when the economic growth machine operated at full Ponzi steam. The buildings are quite beautiful; the main house is a Greco-Roman beaux arts mansion; a massive horse barn has large and graceful arched windows; and there are other houses and barns on the large property, which occupies a sweetly enfolding dell of land in this county of hills and valleys.
The weather couldn't have been more beautiful and the property was maximally groomed for the festival. There were several tents up, nice ones, decorated with colorful medieval-looking swags. One was a big circular tent set up for the folk-dances that are part of their subculture. You got a very clear picture of the demographic shape of the outfit: at the core of it were vital and healthy-looking young adults, median age around 30, I figured, who were running things, doing most of the work, organizing the daily routines. Then there were the old Boomers turned white-haired grandparents (many times), seekers from the 1970s who had signed on with the outfit long ago, reproduced mightily, and now played a background role in the scheme of things.
There was a costuming motif that was not too intense but allowed for visual self-identification among the members: long skirts for women; beards and pony-tails on the men, who all otherwise dressed in ordinary catalog casuals of the day. It set them apart without making them look too kooky. It also reinforced gender differences (the horror!) in a micro-society not dedicated to erasing and transgressing them. I didn't know much about the group's internal workings, but it seemed to me that the men were in charge, and I got the impression that far from representing some clich├ęd notion of "patriarchal oppression," it produced a reassuring tone of confidence in clear lines of responsibility - a quality now completely absent in outer America's culture of incessant lying, systematic fraud, and consensual evasion of reality.
I was especially interested to observe the behavior of the children, of which there were very many. For one thing, they appeared fully integrated into their society, not ring-fenced into some special ghetto of juvenile disempowerment palliated with manufactured video power fantasies and endless snacks. They were unperturbed and self-possessed. None were screaming, quarreling or carrying on. They were not hopped up on Big Gulps and Twinkies. They did not require constant monitoring. They danced along with the adults, or circulated confidently on their own, and with their friends, in the crowd.
I was a keen student of religious cults in the 1970s when I was a young newspaper reporter. The blowback from the Age of Aquarius had propelled a lot of lost souls into quests for meaning and especially communion beyond the sordid precincts of the idiotic common culture of the day. They were also seeking structure in chaotic young lives unable to get traction in a bad economy. I was interested in what the cult scene had to say about America generally and, I confess, attracted to the melodrama of fringe lunacy I found there, including a lot of colorful unbalanced personalities among the various founders and poobahs. I poked around a number of religious cults, including some accused of maliciously coercive practices, and I eventually even wrote a novel based on my experience ("Blood Solstice," Doubleday, 1988).
All this is to say that I retain a broad skepticism about organized religion in general and about American Utopian endeavor in particular. But the country and its baleful culture are now in an even more advanced state of entropic degeneration than was the case in the last days of Vietnam and Watergate. Those two awful conditions were at least settled and the nation moved on. The troubles that now afflict us guarantee a much broader systemic collapse that will surely require great changes in everything that we do and everything that we are. The demoralization of the larger American public is so stark and pronounced that you can smell it in the rising heat.
What I saw on Saturday on this farm was a wholly different group demeanor: purposeful, earnest, confident, energetic, and cheerful. It mattered too, I think, that this small community's economy was centered on agriculture and value-added production of common household products (they make soaps and cosmetics for the natural foods market). This was a snapshot of the much smaller-scale and local economy of America's future, techno-narcissistic fantasies aside. I don't know whether these people represent a lifeboat, or if these qualities of character can be enacted in a wider consensual culture, and one not necessarily based on religious doctrine, which I am not so avid about.

Boomer on Getting Old

SUBHEAD: Sage advise - Take it easy. Take it slow. Make it happen. Make it paradise.  

By Juan Wilson on 27 May 2012 for Island Breath - 

Image above: Cover photo for "Changing Horses" 1969 LP showing the members of the Incredible String in England. From (

Time is a funny weave of elements. After emerging from nowhere some strands disappear and stay under the surface for a long time, only to surprise you in the here and now later on. Tomorrow is my birthday and I'll be 67 years old... in human years. That's about age 470 in dog years. That's sounds old. On the other hand, in giant tortoise years, I'm still in my twenties.

Back in the spring of 1968 when I was actually in my twenties I was just finishing my first year architectural school at the Cooper Union College in New York City. I lived in Lower East Side and that summer was going to be steaming. I had no prospects for a job. There was poverty and much heroin addiction in Alphabet Town (between avenues A and D, above Houston and below 14th Street).

Lots of muggings and burglaries. The Vietnam war was at a raging peak. On top of that, Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and the inner cities were ready to blow. One afternoon an official looking yellow Western Union Telegram envelope was slid under the door of my 4th floor tenement apartment. It was the genuine article from a architect I had drafted for the prior summer. He had moved to Hawaii and was offering me a job in Honolulu. The telegram specified that the all the arrangements would be made and paid for by his office. It was the only telegram I'd ever received and I jumped at the chance to leave New York. I spent the summer on Oahu.

Fell in love with Hawaii... but I went back to NY in the fall for more study at Cooper Union. After few more years of the school the administration at Cooper got tired of me and asked me to take a year off. It was for their good and mine. NYC was still in the shithole. Con Edison was burning high-sulphur coal. Each tenement building was burning its own garbage in incinerators. There was no sewer treatment plant in Manhattan and all raw waste was simply dumped into the Hudson and East River - at 20 block intervals.

My longing was to get back to Hawaii. I convinced my partner Diane to take a chance with me and take off to the islands. After a month or two living with Diane, on Oahu, in a VW Beetle, we got lucky and scored a job on a project on Kauai. After getting paid for completing the work we stepped up to living in a VW Bus. I remember a hit playing through its mono speaker on AM radio was Neil Young's hit "Old Man". Some of the words were:

Old man look at my life,
Twenty four
and there's so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two...
...I've been first and last

Look at how the time goes past.
But I'm all alone at last.
Rolling home to you.
The song was haunting in some way. In 1972 when I heard the song I thought of it entirely from the point of view of the 24 year old singer. Today when I hear the song I'm the Old Man listening to my younger self through a haze of time. Diane and I returned to New York City to finish school at Cooper Union.

Then, just as I was graduating in 1974, the effects of the OPEC oil crunch came and we tasted a preview of what's happening now, "Peak Oil". New York faced bankruptcy and jobs were hard to find. I remember listening to WNEW-FM, the album oriented radio station that played, without interruption, Jackson Brown's concept LP "For Everyman". The album ends with the title song:

Everybody I talk to is ready to leave
with the light of the morning.
They've seen the end coming down long enough to believe
That they've heard their last warning.

Standing alone
each has his own ticket in his hand
And as the evening descends
I sit thinking 'bout Everyman.

Seems like I've always been looking for some other place
to get it together
Where with a few of my friends I could give up the race
And maybe find something better.

But all my fine dreams
well thought out schemes to gain the motherland
have all eventually come down to waiting for Everyman.

Waiting here for Everyman--
Make it on your own if you think you can.
If you see somewhere to go I understand.

Waiting here for Everyman--
Don't ask me if he'll show -- baby I don't know.

Make it on your own if you think you can.
Somewhere later on you'll have to take a stand
then you're going to need a hand.

Everybody's just waiting to hear from the one
who can give them the answers
and lead them back to that place in the warmth of the sun
where sweet childhood still dances.

Who'll come along
and hold out that strong and gentle father's hand?
Long ago I heard someone say something 'bout Everyman

Waiting here for Everyman--
make it on your own if you think you can
If you see somewhere to go I understand

I'm not trying to tell you that I've seen the plan
turn and walk away if you think I am--
But don't think too badly of one who's left holding sand
He's just another dreamer, dreaming 'bout Everyman.
I finally did get a job with a big firm in the city, but the economy was falling apart. Instead of leaving the rat-race and returning to Kauai - I carried on. Soon I married my first wife, Margo, and began a family life. I moved to the suburbs along the shores of Connecticut and began to experience midlife. I remember Margo, getting me a card for my 35th birthday. On the front was a close-up of a disheveled cowboy with a black-eye and missing tooth. The greeting inside was:

If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself. 

That struck home. By my 40th birthday the economy was clawing its way back to normal. I still felt like twenty-something on the inside, but I observed that on waking up I felt like I had a low grade hangover, whether I drank anything or not. It would disappear quickly with the morning sun and I'd be off into my commuter life. Maybe it was the Reagan years, or maybe it was just middle age. Who knew or cared. It was the late eighties and in 1986 John Fogerty gave us his warning with "Change in the Weather".
Change in the weather, change in the weather
Something's happening here
Change in the weather, change in the weather
People walkin' 'round in fear

Ah, huh, you better duck and run
Get under cover 'cause a change is come
Storm warnings and it looks like rain
Be nothin' left after the hurricane

This here's a jungle, it ain't no lie
Look at the people, terror in their eyes
Bad wind is comin' and can't be denied
They're runnin' with the dogs and afraid to die...
I took the cue and relocated to the Appalachian, Amish settled landscape at the western end of New York State. The old farmhouse had been my grandparent's and then my mother's. There I met my second (and last) wife, Linda, and we spent the 90's at that farm. We had 100 acres of woods to take care of. I was in my late forties, and early fifties. I could push myself hard all day long in order to do it. If I leaned too hard on a shovel or rake it would brake. I didn't worry about myself. In 1997, after a quarter century away from Hawaii, I returned for a visit to Kauai with Linda.

Soon after that, we determined to live out our lives on here. In 2001, just before 9-11, we came to live in Hanapepe Valley on a half-acre. I was in my mid-fifties. Soon after moving to Kauai, I rediscovered a song I had first heard in 1968 by the Incredible String Band. It was released the same year as my first visit to Hawaii, that was coincidentally when I was 24 years old. It's title is "The Circle is Unbroken". How true:

Seasons they change while cold blood is raining
I have been waiting beyond the years
Now over the skyline I see you're traveling
Brothers from all time gathering here

Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far
Come let us set sail for the always island
Through seas of leaving to the summer stars

Seasons they change but with gaze unchanging
O deep eyed sisters is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty ye bear within you
Of unborn children glad and free

Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking
But in the bright morning converse again.

Audio above: Click on the "Play" triangle at left to hear "The Circle is Unbroken" by the Incredible String Band

Hearing it again thrilled me. It had been written and performed back at the time of my first visit to the islands. It is a song that can still bring tears to my eyes. It conveys some message that was in my heart back in the 1960s that is still relevant to me today. It is why I live on Kauai. Now, in my late sixties I wake up in the morning with a bit of feeling like I'd been in a fight the night before, or maybe taken a roll down the stairs.

By that I mean with some stiffness and soreness. It takes till after breakfast to get limbered up. That's the time I spend on this website. After the morning sun does its magic, I go to the garden or to whatever project is at hand. I still push my tools, but not so long and not so hard. If I lean hard on a tool today I'll break before it does. Turning back to the 1960's I remember another song by the Incredible String Band, from 1967, titled "Way Back in the 1960's". I vividly remember listening to that song and wondering how true what they sang might be when I was not just old, but ancient. I still hope I have a chance to find out.

I was a young man back in the 1960s.
Yes, you made your own amusements then,
Going to the pictures;
Well, the travel was hard, and I mean
We still used the wheel.
But you could sit down at your table
And eat a real food meal.

But hey, you young people, well I just do not know,
And I can't even understand you
When you try to talk slow.

There was one fellow singing in those days,
And he was quite good, and I mean to say that
His name was Bob Dylan, and I used to do gigs too
Before I made my first million.
That was way, way back before,
before wild World War Three,
When England went missing,
And we moved to Paraguayee.

Well, I got a secret, and don't give us away.
I got some real food tins for my 91st birthday,
And your grandmother bought them
Way down in the new antique food store,
And for beans and for bacon, I will open up my door.

But hey, you young people, well I just do not know,
And I can't even understand you
When you try to talk slow.

Well, I was a young man back in the 1960s. 
Now that I'm officially old, I get senior discounts. I'm on Social Security. I'm on MediCare. As such I can now dispense some bonafide wisdom. My sage advice to all is - keep working, with your mind and your body:

Take it easy. Take it slow. Make it happen. Make it paradise.