Attention Deficit

SUBHEAD: In short, it is self-evident that Russians have an abiding interest in the Crimea and we have none.

By James Kunstler on 31 march 2014 for -

Image above: Ukrainian soldiers transport their tanks to Ukrania from their base outside Simferopol, Crimea, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. From (

Apparently someone at the US State Department put out the fire in John Kerry’s magnificent head of hair, because he has stopped declaiming (for now) on the urgent need to start World War Three over Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. 

In my lifetime, there has never been a more pointless and unnecessary international crisis than the current rumble over Ukraine, and it’s pretty much all our doing.

After all, we kicked it off by financing the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government. How do you suppose the US would feel if Moscow engineered the overthrow of the Mexican government? Perhaps a little insecure? Perhaps even tempted to post some troops on the border?

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has engaged in a nonstop projection of power around the world with grievous results in every case except in the breakup of Yugoslavia. 

The latest adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been the most expensive — at least a trillion dollars — and mayhem still rules in both places. In fact, news reports out of Kabul on NPR this morning raised doubts that the scheduled elections could take place later this week. 

The country’s so-called Independent Election Commission has been under rocket attack for days, the most popular hotel for foreign journalists was the site of a massacre two weeks ago, and the Taliban remains active slaughtering civilians in the lawless territory outside of the Afghan capital.

Of course, even those dreadful incidents raise the rather fundamental question as to why anything about Afghanistan really matters to the USA. How many years will it take for us to get over the fact that Osama bin Laden ran a training camp for jihadists there? 

Right now you can be sure that somewhere between Casablanca and East Timor there are training camps for religious maniacs and thousands more casual meet-ups among aggrieved young men with testosterone boiling in their brains and nothing else to occupy their time but playing with guns. Are we going to invade every land where this goes on?

One part of our ever-evolving reality is that the global economy is in the process of cracking up. Despite the claims of one Tom Friedman at The New York Times, Globalism was not a permanent installation in the human condition. Rather, it was a set of transient economic relations brought about by special circumstances in a particular time of history — namely, a hundred years of cheap energy and about fifty years of relative peace between the larger nations. 

That’s all it was. And now it’s dissolving because energy is increasingly non-cheap and that is causing a lot of friction between nations utterly addicted to high flows of cheap oil and gas.

The friction is manifesting especially in the realm of money and finance. The high energy addicted nations have been trying to offset the rising cost of their addiction, and the absence of conventional economic “growth,” by borrowing ever more money, that is, generating ever more debt. This ends up expressing itself in “money printing,” that range of computerized banking activities that pumps more and more “liquidity” into “advanced” economies. 

The result of all that is the mis-pricing of just about everything (including especially the cost of borrowing money), and an increasingly antagonistic climate of currency war as all players vie for the supposed advantages of devaluation — most particularly the ability to dissolve their own sovereign debts via inflation.

The finer points of all that are debatable as to eventual consequences but we can easily draw some larger conclusions about the macro trends. The global orgy of cheap goods and bubble finance is ending. Nations and indeed regions within nations are going to have to find a new way of making a living on the smaller scale. 

This is sure to include new arrangements for governance. The breakup of nation states is well underway and is moving from the margins inward to the political center — from the hopeless scrublands of overpopulated nations that will never “develop” to the increasingly sclerotic giants.

The USA is exhibiting pretty severe signs of that sclerosis in the demented behavior of its leaders in episodes such as the current unnecessary manufactured fiasco over Ukraine to the physical deterioration of our towns, roads, bridges, and all the plastic crap we managed to smear over the mutilated landscape to the comportment of our demoralized, mentally inert, drugged-up, tattoo-bedizened populace of twerking slobs.

In short, it is self-evident that Russians have an abiding interest in the Crimea and we have none, while both the material and cultural life of the US is in a shambles and much more worthy of our own attention.


Anarchy and Minecraft

SUBHEAD: When it's running for free the participants "play nice" and build a world to their own liking.

By Juan Wilson on 31 March 2014 for Island Breath -
Image above: Aerial view of a landscape built with computer game Minecraft. From ( Click to embiggen.

The recent announcement by the Kauai Department of Water to abandon the project to drill a horizontal well sent me to thinking about how we rule ourselves and how we as a community make decisions.

In my mind this seriously flawed proposal was essentially to tap into Mount Waialeale to drain the Alakai fresh water aquifer for the sake of money and development.

The various dog and pony shows put on by the DOW to sell the project  - and appear to go through the motions of consulting the community were disasters. All the green smoke rosey blather from the DOW's management and their consultants hit a brick wall.

Blow by Blow 
People who attended these scripted events were not going to be polite and follow the presenter's rules. They spoke up and pushed back. They implored and bullied. They would have no part in the fiasco.
  • This was similar to what Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho recently faced when he vetoed the GMO regulation Bill 2491. It passed with the concerted and in-your-face effort of a populist uprising. Carvalho, under pressure from the chemical companies in control of our ag land, put Kauai's health and well being  behind corporate interest and vetoed the bill. To his dismay his veto was overturned.  
  • This was like what our Governor Neil Abercrombie faced in April 2012 with his attempt to create the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC) that would be the means of privitizing Hawaii's public land and getting around environmental restrictions and local community interests in the pursuit of real estate speculation. Massive stone faced opposition.
  • This is also what ex Governor Linda Lingle experienced as the point woman for the Superferry. This was in reality a military experiment in crowd sourcing the R&D of navel craft, in the guise of public transportation. It and Lingle lost its traction in September 2007 when she faced the people of Kauai at the Peace & Freedom Convention Center in Lihue and could not intimidate us.
  • It is what the Navy Commander of the PMRF faced at Kalaheo School in Novermber of 2003 when presenting a plan to greatly expand the area of PMRF control of the Mana Plain that included a lease arrangement that would be free and forever. Two hundred Kauai residents showed up on short unpublicized notice. All testified strongly against the proposed arrangement.
Pitchforks and Torches
These kinds of responses to government have been seen by some as "mob rule".  But I would say they are really the heart of what democracy can achieve. Sure, democracy can quickly dissolve into mob rule. A summary lynching can be a thoroughly democratic process. The whims and blood fever of a hungry crowd that senses injustice produce ugly results.

All political forces have their dark sides. Enlightened personal leadership without selfish interest is key in all governing situations.

The United States has never been - and was never intended - to be a democracy. It was designed to be a republic. A people ruled by selected representatives. It was meant to be a federation of semi-sovereign states that were too unwieldy to be make decisions the votes of all its constituent citizens.

On a day to day basis, even running a large town by up-or-down votes by majority rule is to too cumbersome for practical operations. Not only is democracy impractical but the results can be quite undesirable. Think of a public lynching.

But when corporate interests take control of representative government and public and corporate employment passes through a revolving door - then somebody has to break the cycle. Put their body in front of the door. So what works.

For democracy to work the cost must be to the participant.

Less is More
Recently the Kauai County Charter Review Commission rejected three proposals that would have given voters the chance to split the island into districts for electing council members rather than having them elected at-large.

My opinion is that this was a halfway measure that really did not address the issue of properly representing the interests of Kauai. The district scale (moku) were too big and unequal in scale and resources.

Closer to the heart would be town (ahupuaa) representatives. It always seemed odd to me that Kauai's executive leader was a "mayor". In my past mayorships were the role of town or city leaders, not rural county counterparts.

I recommend that Kauai would be better off with a mayor in each of its towns. Let's start with trwenty-two mayors for Wainiha, Hanalei, (I don't count Princeville as a public town but a private resort), Anini, Kilauea, Moloaa, Anahola, Kealea, Kawaihau, Kapaa, Wailua, Waipouli, Hanamaulu, Lihue, Puhi, Omau, Lawai, Koloa, Poipu, Kalaheo, Hanapepe, Waimea, Kekaha.

Moreover, I suggest that each town should also have its own elementary school, park, library, fire department, peace officer and public works operation.

The less you have to deal with the county, state or federal government the better off you are. An even though all government has become a form of mafia operation, it seems to me that the smaller that operation is the less harm it will do in the long run.

Anarchy and Minecraft! 
We will need a lot of faith and a lot of good will to get through the approaching maelstrom of change needed to sort out the future. The powers that be have short term vested interests in the continuity of current arrangements. You don't. I recommend finding a situation where one won't need cable TV, a car or a job.

Accepting this take on authority is to a degree accepting anarchy: A situation where you are best suited to be your own regulator. For anarchy to work it requires an informed, moral and responsible citizenry... But that's the case with democracy and even representative government as well. With anarchy you cut out the middleman.

Have you seen the computer game Minecraft? It's kind of a electronic Lego system on steroids with 3D block elements representing everything from lava to grassy lawn. You can create and you can destroy - as needed to achieve your goals.

When it's running on a free server you'll find the overwhelming number the participants "play nice" and build a place in the world to their own liking. It's a kind of anarchy rarely achieved in reality. But one that should be attempted.  

Once again I urge you to produce your own food; clean up your own shit; collect your own water; provide your own power; repair your own tools; play your own music; write your own editorials and love your own people.


Fighting the Militarized State

SUBHEAD: This law, if it is not struck down, will essentially replace our civilian judiciary with a military one.

By Chris Hedges on 30 March 2014 for TruthDig -

Image above: An photo example of the militarization of the American local police forces. From (

The Barack Obama administration, determined to thwart the attempt by other plaintiffs and myself to have the courts void a law that permits the military to arrest U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and indefinitely detain them, has filed a detailed brief with the Supreme Court asking the justices to refuse to accept our petition to hear our appeal. We will respond within 10 days.

“The administration’s unstated goal appears to be to get court to agree that [the administration] has the authority to use the military to detain U.S. citizens,” Bruce Afran, one of two attorneys handling the case, said when I spoke with him Sunday. “It appears to be asking the court to go against nearly 150 years of repeated decisions in which the court has refused to give the military such power.

No court in U.S. history has ever recognized the right of the government to use the military to detain citizens. It would be very easy for the government to state in the brief that citizens and permanent residents are not within the scope of this law. But once again, it will not do this. It says the opposite. It argues that the activities of the plaintiffs do not fall within the scope of the law, but it clearly is reserving for itself the right to use the statute to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely.”

The lawsuit, Hedges v. Obama, challenges Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It was signed into law the last day of 2011. Afran and fellow attorney Carl Mayer filed the lawsuit in January 2012. I was later joined by co-plaintiffs Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, journalist Alexa O’Brien, Tangerine Bolen, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir and Occupy London activist Kai Wargalla.

U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the Southern District of New York, in a rare act of courage on the American bench today, declared Section 1021(b)(2) unconstitutional. The Obama administration immediately asked Forrest to lift her injunction and thereby put the law back into effect until it could appeal her decision. She rebuffed the government’s request.

The government went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit to ask it to stay the district court’s injunction until the government’s appeal could be heard. The 2nd Circuit consented to the request. The law went back on the books.

Afran, Mayer and I expected the Obama administration to appeal, but we did not expect the government to mount such an aggressive response to Judge Forrest’s ruling. The law had to be restored because, our attorneys and I suspect, the administration well might be holding U.S. citizens who are dual nationals in some of our black sites.

If Forrest’s ruling was allowed to stand, the administration would be in contempt of court if it was detaining U.S. citizens under the statute. This suspicion was buttressed during the trial. Government attorneys, when asked by the judge, refused to say whether or not the government was already using the law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned Forrest’s ruling last July. It cited the Supreme Court ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, another case in which I was a plaintiff. The Clapper v. Amnesty International case challenged the secret wiretapping of U.S. citizens under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

The Supreme Court in Clapper v. Amnesty International ruled that our concern about government surveillance was “speculation.” It said we were required to prove to the court that the FISA Act would be used to monitor those we interviewed.

But we could never offer the court proof of anyone being monitored because the government does not disclose whom it is targeting. It was only later, because of Edward Snowden, that we discovered that not only were those we interviewed being monitored but so was everyone else, including ourselves.

The 2nd Circuit relied on the spurious Supreme Court ruling to say that because we could not show the indefinite-detention law was about to be used against us we could not challenge it.

After the Obama administration won its appeal in the 2nd Circuit we petitioned the Supreme Court in what is known as a certiorari, or cert, to hear our appeal. The Supreme Court takes between 80 and 100 cases a year from about 8,000 requests. The court is likely to make a decision in a few months.

The government, whose open defiance of the Constitution is brazen, has tacked back and forth before the courts as to why we have no right to bring the suit. It has, throughout the case, contradicted itself.

In its current brief, for example, it claims that we as plaintiffs have nothing to fear from the indefinite-detention law. This assertion is at odds with the refusal by the government attorneys in the Southern District Court of New York to provide assurances that my co-plaintiffs and I would not be affected by the law.

The government brief charges that because none of us has been threatened with imminent arrest we have no credible fear and no right to bring the case. But anyone arrested under this law would disappear into a black hole. A seized person would not have access to a lawyer or the courts.

By the time you were detained under this provision all avenues of judicial appeal would be closed.

The brief also says that the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act (AUMF) already gives the president power to take such actions. This is a gross misinterpretation of the limited powers authorized under the AUMF. It also raises the question of why, if that statute does give the state this power, as the lawyers claim, the government would need to pass a new law as it did when it approved the AUMF.

The brief argues that journalists are already protected under Article 79 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. This protocol calls for journalists to be treated as civilians. But this last assurance has no legal weight. The United States never ratified Additional Protocol I.

Finally, the government attorneys selectively use the case Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which permits the detention of a U.S. citizen only if he or she is an enemy combatant engaged in an active armed conflict with U.S. forces. They cite the Hamdi case to argue that the government has the legal authority to order the military to detain U.S. citizens who “substantially support” a terrorist group.

The government in the brief makes it plain that all of us can be subject to this law:
Petitioners further assert that at the initial hearing in the district court, the government declined to offer assurances that they would not be detained under any circumstances. Pet. 14, 34-38. But no legal principle requires the government to provide litigants with such advance assurances or otherwise to delineate the bounds of its authority—particularly in the context of armed conflict—in response to speculative fears of harm asserted in litigation.

“The brief argues that the government reserves the right to use the military to detain and indefinitely hold journalists under this law, although the 2nd Circuit stated that the law did not apply to U.S. citizens,” Mayer told me Sunday.

“We have already seen journalists such as [you] and Laura Poitras detained and denied access to a lawyer and due process. This law will make legal any such detentions. It will permit the military, on American soil, to throw journalists and activists in a military prison without trial or due process.”

If Section 1021(b)(2) is not struck down by the Supreme Court it will effectively overturn nearly 150 years of case law that repeatedly holds that the military has no jurisdiction over civilians. A U.S. citizen charged by the government with “substantially supporting” al-Qaida, the Taliban or those in the nebulous category of “associated forces” will be lawfully subject to extraordinary rendition on U.S. soil.

Arrested citizens will languish in military jails, in the language of Section 1021(b)(2), until “the end of hostilities.”

This obliteration of the right to due process and a fair hearing in a court of law, along with the mass surveillance that has abolished our right to privacy, will be the legal foundation of our militarized, corporate state. Judge Forrest warned in her 112-page opinion that whole categories of Americans could, under this law, be subject to seizure by the military.

She drew parallels between Section 1021(b)(2) and Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court ruling that supported the government’s use of the military to detain 110,00 Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.

Our case offers the court an opportunity, as several lawyers have pointed out, to not only protect almost 150 years of domestic law that forbids the military to carry out domestic policing but to repudiate the shameful Korematsu decision.

Once arbitrary and indefinite detention by the military is lawful, the government will use it. If we do not win this case, all those deemed to be hostile or critical of the state, including some Muslims, journalists, dissidents and activists, will find themselves under threat.

I spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent, 15 of them with The New York Times. I interviewed numerous individuals deemed by the U.S. government to be terrorists and traveled with armed groups, including units of al-Qaida, labeled as terrorist organizations.

When I reported the statements and activities of these individuals and groups, U.S. officialdom often made little distinction between them and me. This was true during the wars in Central America. It was true in the Middle East.

And it was true when I covered global terrorism. There was no law at the time that permitted the government, because of my work as a reporter, to order the military to seize and detain me. Now there is.

This law, if it is not struck down, will essentially replace our civilian judiciary with a military one.

Those targeted under this law will not be warned beforehand that they will be arrested. They will not have a chance to get a lawyer. They will not see the inside of a courtroom. They will simply vanish.


Golden Era of the 1950-60s

SUBHEAD: The 1950s and 60s were not "normal". They were a one-off period -  an extraordinary anomaly.

By Charles Hugh Smith on 28 March 2014 for Of Two Minds -

Image above: The 1968 Roadrunner was built for heavy duty street racing. A favorite of moonshiners. Illustration oby Ed Big Daddy Roth. From (

If there is one thing that unites trade unionists, Keynesian Cargo Cultists, free-market fans and believers in American exceptionalism, it's a misty-eyed nostalgia for the Golden Era of the 1950s and 60s, when one wage-earner earned enough to buy all the goodies of a middle-class lifestyle because everything was cheap. Food was cheap, land was cheap, houses were cheap, college was cheap and most importantly, oil was cheap.

The entire political spectrum looks back at this Golden Age with longing because it was an era of "the rising tide raises all ships:" essentially full employment, a strong U.S. dollar and overseas demand for U.S. goods combined to raise wages while keeping inflation low.

The nostalgic punditry quite naturally think of this full-employment golden age of their youth as the default setting, i.e. the economy of the 1950s/60s was "normal." But it wasn't normal--it was a one-off anomaly, never to be repeated. Consider the backdrop of this Golden Era:
  1. Our industrial competitors had been flattened and/or bled dry in World War II, leaving the U.S. with the largest pool of capital and intact industrial base. Very little was imported from other nations.
  2. The pent-up consumer demand after 15 years of Depression and rationing during 1942-45 drove strong demand for virtually everything, boosting employment and wages.
  3. The Federal government had put tens of millions of people to work (12 million in the military alone) during the war, and with few consumer items to spend money on, these wages piled up into a mountain of savings/capital.
  4. These conditions created a massive pool of qualified borrowers for mortgages, auto loans, etc.
  5. The Federal government guaranteed low-interest mortgages and college education for the 12 million veterans.
  6. The U.S. dollar was institutionalized as the reserve currency, backed by gold at a fixed price.

  7. Oil was cheap--incredibly cheap.
All those conditions went away as global competition heated up and the demand for dollars outstripped supply. I won't rehash Triffin's Paradox again, but please read The Big-Picture Economy, Part 1: Labor, Imports and the Dollar (September 23, 2013).

In essence, the industrial nations flattened during World War II needed dollars to fund their own rebuilding. Printing their own currencies simply weakened those currencies, so they needed hard money, i.e. dollars. The U.S. funded the initial spurt of rebuilding with Marshall Plan loans, but these were relatively modest in size.

Though all sorts of alternative global currency schemes had been discussed in academic circles (the bancor, etc.), the reality on the ground was the dollar functioned as a reserve currency that everyone knew and trusted.

But to fund our Allies' continued growth (recall the U.S. was in a political, military, cultural, economic and propaganda Cold War with the Soviet Union), the U.S. had to provide them with more dollars--a lot more dollars.

Federally issued Marshall Plan loans provided only a small percentage of the capital needed. As Triffin pointed out, the "normal" mechanism to provide capital overseas is to import goods and export dollars, which is precisely what the U.S. did.

This trend increased as industrial competitors' products improved in quality and their price remained low in an era of the strong dollar.

Long story short: you can't issue a reserve currency, export that currency in size and peg it to gold. As the U.S. shifted (by necessity, as noted above) from an exporter to an importer, a percentage of those holding dollars overseas chose to trade their dollars for gold. That cycle of exporting dollars/importing goods to provide capital to the world would lead to all the U.S. gold being transferred overseas, so the dollar was unpegged from gold in 1971.

Since then, the U.S. has attempted to square the circle: continue to issue the reserve currency, i.e. export dollars to the world by running trade deficits, but also compete in the global market for goods and services, which requires weakening the dollar to be competitive.

In a global marketplace for goods and services, all sorts of things become tradable, including labor. The misty-eyed folks who are nostalgic for the 1950s/60s want a contradictory set of goodies: they want a gold-backed currency that is still the reserve currency, and they want trade surpluses, i.e. they want to export goods and import others' currencies. They want full employment, protectionist walls that enable high wages in the U.S. and they want to be free to export U.S. goods and services abroad with no restrictions.

All those goodies are contradictory. You can't have high wages protected by steep tariffs and also have the privilege of exporting your surplus goods to other markets. That's only possible in an Imperial colonialist model where the Imperial center can coerce its colonial periphery into buying its exports in trade for the colonies' raw commodities.

And very importantly, oil is no longer cheap. The primary fuel for industrial and consumerist economies is no longer cheap. That reality sets all sorts of constraints on growth that central states and banks have tried to get around by blowing credit bubbles. That works for a while and then ends very badly.

The 1950s/60s were not "normal"--they were a one-off, extraordinary anomaly. Pining for an impossible set of contradictory conditions is not helpful. We have to deal with the "real normal," which is a global economy in which no one can square the circle for long.


Captain Erikson's Equation

SUBHEAD: Windjammers were huge—up to 400 feet long, steel-hulled ships, fitted out with more than an acre of canvas.

By John Michael Greer on 26 March 2014 for the Archdruid Report-

Image above: Erikson's Herzogin Cecilie and a British liner bound for the far east. From (

I have yet to hear anyone in the peak oil blogosphere mention the name of Captain Gustaf Erikson of the Åland Islands and his fleet of windjammers. For all I know, he’s been completely forgotten now, his name and accomplishments packed away in the same dustbin of forgotten history as solar steam-engine pioneer Augustin Mouchot, his near contemporary.

If so, it’s high time that his footsteps sounded again on the quarterdeck of our collective imagination, because his story—and the core insight that committed him to his lifelong struggle—both have plenty to teach about the realities framing the future of technology in the wake of today’s era of fossil-fueled abundance.

Erikson, born in 1872, grew up in a seafaring family and went to sea as a ship’s boy at the age of nine. At 19 he was the skipper of a coastal freighter working the Baltic and North Sea ports; two years later he shipped out as mate on a windjammer for deepwater runs to Chile and Australia, and eight years after that he was captain again, sailing three- and four-masted cargo ships to the far reaches of the planet.

A bad fall from the rigging in 1913 left his right leg crippled, and he left the sea to become a shipowner instead, buying the first of what would become the 20th century’s last major fleet of windpowered commercial cargo vessels.

It’s too rarely remembered these days that the arrival of steam power didn’t make commercial sailing vessels obsolete across the board.

The ability to chug along at eight knots or so without benefit of wind was a major advantage in some contexts—naval vessels and passenger transport, for example—but coal was never cheap, and the long stretches between coaling stations on some of the world’s most important trade routes meant that a significant fraction of a steamship’s total tonnage had to be devoted to coal, cutting into the capacity to haul paying cargoes.

For bulk cargoes over long distances, in particular, sailing ships were a good deal more economical all through the second half of the 19th century, and some runs remained a paying proposition for sail well into the 20th.

That was the niche that the windjammers of the era exploited. They were huge—up to 400 feet from stem to stern—square-sided, steel-hulled ships, fitted out with more than an acre of canvas and miles of steel-wire rigging.

They could be crewed by a few dozen sailors, and hauled prodigious cargoes: up to 8,000 tons of Australian grain, Chilean nitrate—or, for that matter, coal; it was among the ironies of the age that the coaling stations that allowed steamships to refuel on long voyages were very often kept stocked by tall ships, which could do the job more economically than steamships themselves could.

The markets where wind could outbid steam were lucrative enough that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were still thousands of working windjammers hauling cargoes across the world’s oceans.

That didn’t change until bunker oil refined from petroleum ousted coal as the standard fuel for powered ships. Petroleum products carry much more energy per pound than even the best grade of coal, and the better grades of coal were beginning to run short and rise accordingly in price well before the heyday of the windjammers was over. A diesel-powered vessel had to refuel less often, devote less of its tonnage to fuel, and cost much less to operate than its coal-fired equivalent.

That’s why Winston Churchill, as head of Britain’s Admiralty, ordered the entire British Navy converted from coal to oil in the years just before the First World War, and why coal-burning steamships became hard to find anywhere on the seven seas once the petroleum revolution took place. That’s also why most windjammers went out of use around the same time; they could compete against coal, but not against dirt-cheap diesel fuel.

Gustav Erikson went into business as a shipowner just as that transformation was getting under way. The rush to diesel power allowed him to buy up windjammers at a fraction of their former price—his first ship, a 1,500-ton bark, cost him less than $10,000, and the pride of his fleet, the four-masted Herzogin Cecilie, set him back only $20,000. A tight rein on operating expenses and a careful eye on which routes were profitable kept his firm solidly in the black.

The bread and butter of his business came from shipping wheat from southern Australia to Europe; Erikson’s fleet and the few other windjammers still in the running would leave European ports in the northern hemisphere’s autumn and sail for Spencer Gulf on Australia’s southern coast, load up with thousands of tons of wheat, and then race each other home, arriving in the spring—a good skipper with a good crew could make the return trip in less than 100 days, hitting speeds upwards of 15 knots when the winds were right.

There was money to be made that way, but Erikson’s commitment to the windjammers wasn’t just a matter of profit. A sentimental attachment to tall ships was arguably part of the equation, but there was another factor as well.

In his latter years, Erikson was fond of telling anyone who would listen that a new golden age for sailing ships was on the horizon: sooner or later, he insisted, the world’s supply of coal and oil would run out, steam and diesel engines would become so many lumps of metal fit only for salvage, and those who still knew how to haul freight across the ocean with only the wind for power would have the seas, and the world’s cargoes, all to themselves.

Those few books that mention Erikson at all like to portray him as the last holdout of a departed age, a man born after his time.

On the contrary, he was born before his time, and lived too soon. When he died in 1947, the industrial world’s first round of energy crises were still a quarter century away, and only a few lonely prophets had begun to grasp the absurdity of trying to build an enduring civilization on the ever-accelerating consumption of a finite and irreplaceable fuel supply.

He had hoped that his sons would keep the windjammers running, and finish the task of getting the traditions and technology of the tall ships through the age of fossil fuels and into the hands of the seafarers of the future.

I’m sorry to say that that didn’t happen; the profits to be made from modern freighters were too tempting, and once the old man was gone, his heirs sold off the windjammers and replaced them with diesel-powered craft.

Erikson’s story is worth remembering, though, and not simply because he was an early prophet of what we now call peak oil. He was also one of the very first people in our age to see past the mythology of technological progress that dominated the collective imagination of his time and ours, and glimpse the potentials of one of the core strategies this blog has been advocating for the last eight years.

We can use the example that would have been dearest to his heart, the old technology of windpowered maritime cargo transport, to explore those potentials. To begin with, it’s crucial to remember that the only thing that made tall ships obsolete as a transport technology was cheap abundant petroleum. The age of coal-powered steamships left plenty of market niches in which windjammers were economically more viable than steamers.

The difference, as already noted, was a matter of energy density—that’s the technical term for how much energy you get out of each pound of fuel; the best grades of coal have only about half the energy density of petroleum distillates, and as you go down the scale of coal grades, energy density drops steadily. The brown coal that’s commonly used for fuel these days provides, per pound, rather less than a quarter the heat energy you get from a comparable weight of bunker oil.

As the world’s petroleum reserves keep sliding down the remorseless curve of depletion, in turn, the price of bunker oil—like that of all other petroleum products—will continue to move raggedly upward. If Erikson’s tall ships were still in service, it’s quite possible that they would already be expanding their market share; as it is, it’s going to be a while yet before rising fuel costs will make it economical for shipping firms to start investing in the construction of a new generation of windjammers.

Nonetheless, as the price of bunker oil keeps rising, it’s eventually going to cross the line at which sail becomes the more profitable option, and when that happens, those firms that invest in tall ships will profit at the expense of their old-fahioned, oil-burning rivals.

Yes, I’m aware that this last claim flies in the face of one of the most pervasive superstitions of our time, the faith-based insistence that whatever technology we happen to use today must always and forever be better, in every sense but a purely sentimental one, than whatever technology it replaced.

The fact remains that what made diesel-powered maritime transport standard across the world’s oceans was not some abstract superiority of bunker oil over wind and canvas, but the simple reality that for a while, during the heyday of cheap abundant petroleum, diesel-powered freighters were more profitable to operate than any of the other options. It was always a matter of economics, and as petroleum depletion tilts the playing field the other way, the economics will change accordingly.

All else being equal, if a shipping company can make larger profits moving cargoes by sailing ships than by diesel freighters, coal-burning steamships, or some other option, the sailing ships will get the business and the other options will be left to rust in port. It really is that simple. The point at which sailing vessels become economically viable, in turn, is determined partly by fuel prices and partly by the cost of building and outfitting a new generation of sailing ships.

Erikson’s plan was to do an end run around the second half of that equation, by keeping a working fleet of windjammers in operation on niche routes until rising fuel prices made it profitable to expand into other markets. Since that didn’t happen, the lag time will be significantly longer, and bunker fuel may have to price itself entirely out of certain markets—causing significant disruptions to maritime trade and to national and regional economies—before it makes economic sense to start building windjammers again.

It’s a source of wry amusement to me that when the prospect of sail transport gets raised, even in the greenest of peak oil circles, the immediate reaction from most people is to try to find some way to smuggle engines back onto the tall ships.

Here again, though, the issue that matters is economics, not our current superstitious reverence for loud metal objects. There were plenty of ships in the 19th century that combined steam engines and sails in various combinations, and plenty of ships in the early 20th century that combined diesel engines and sails the same way.

Windjammers powered by sails alone were more economical than either of these for long-range bulk transport, because engines and their fuel supplies cost money, they take up tonnage that can otherwise be used for paying cargo, and their fuel costs cut substantially into profits as well.

For that matter, I’ve speculated in posts here about the possibility that Augustin Mouchot’s solar steam engines, or something like them, could be used as a backup power source for the windjammers of the deindustrial future.

It’s interesting to note that the use of renewable energy sources for shipping in Erikson’s time wasn’t limited to the motive power provided by sails; coastal freighters of the kind Erikson skippered when he was nineteen were called “onkers” in Baltic Sea slang, because their windmill-powered deck pumps made a repetitive “onk-urrr, onk-urrr” noise.

Still, the same rule applies; enticing as it might be to imagine sailors on a becalmed windjammer hauling the wooden cover off a solar steam generator, expanding the folding reflector, and sending steam down below decks to drive a propeller, whether such a technology came into use would depend on whether the cost of buying and installing a solar steam engine, and the lost earning capacity due to hold space being taken up by the engine, was less than the profit to be made by getting to port a few days sooner.

Are there applications where engines are worth having despite their drawbacks? Of course. Unless the price of biodiesel ends up at astronomical levels, or the disruptions ahead along the curve of the Long Descent cause diesel technology to be lost entirely, tugboats will probably have diesel engines for the imaginable future, and so will naval vessels; the number of major naval battles won or lost in the days of sail because the wind blew one way or another will doubtless be on the minds of many as the age of petroleum winds down.

Barring a complete collapse in technology, in turn, naval vessels will no doubt still be made of steel—once cannons started firing explosive shells instead of solid shot, wooden ships became deathtraps in naval combat—but most others won’t be; large-scale steel production requires ample supplies of coke, which is produced by roasting coal, and depletion of coal supplies in a post-petroleum future guarantees that steel will be much more expensive compared to other materials than it is today, or than it was during the heyday of the windjammers.

Note that here again, the limits to technology and resource use are far more likely to be economic than technical. In purely technical terms, a maritime nation could put much of its arable land into oil crops and use that to keep its merchant marine fueled with biodiesel.

In economic terms, that’s a nonstarter, since the advantages to be gained by it are much smaller than the social and financial costs that would be imposed by the increase in costs for food, animal fodder, and all other agricultural products. In the same way, the technical ability to build an all-steel merchant fleet will likely still exist straight through the deindustrial future; what won’t exist is the ability to do so without facing prompt bankruptcy.

That’s what happens when you have to live on the product of each year’s sunlight, rather than drawing down half a billion years of fossil photosynthesis: there are hard economic limits to how much of anything you can produce, and increasing production of one thing pretty consistently requires cutting production of something else. People in today’s industrial world don’t have to think like that, but their descendants in the deindustrial world will either learn how to do so or perish.

This point deserves careful study, as it’s almost always missed by people trying to think their way through the technological consequences of the deindustrial future. One reader of mine who objected to talk about abandoned technologies in a previous post quoted with approval the claim, made on another website, that if a deindustrial society can make one gallon of biodiesel, it can make as many thousands or millions of gallons as it wants.

Technically, maybe; economically, not a chance. It’s as though you made $500 a week and someone claimed you could buy as many bottles of $100-a-bottle scotch as you wanted; in any given week, your ability to buy expensive scotch would be limited by your need to meet other expenses such as food and rent, and some purchase plans would be out of reach even if you ignored all those other expenses and spent your entire paycheck at the liquor store.

The same rule applies to societies that don’t have the windfall of fossil fuels at their disposal—and once we finish burning through the fossil fuels we can afford to extract, every human society for the rest of our species’ time on earth will be effectively described in those terms.

The one readily available way around the harsh economic impacts of fossil fuel depletion is the one that Gunnar Erikson tried, but did not live to complete—the strategy of keeping an older technology in use, or bringing a defunct technology back into service, while there’s still enough wealth sloshing across the decks of the industrial economy to make it relatively easy to do so.

I’ve suggested above that if his firm had kept the windjammers sailing, scraping out a living on whatever narrow market niche they could find, the rising cost of bunker oil might already have made it profitable to expand into new niches; there wouldn’t have been the additional challenge of finding the money to build new windjammers from the keel up, train crews to sail them, and get ships and crews through the learning curve that’s inevitably a part of bringing an unfamiliar technology on line.

That same principle has been central to quite a few of this blog’s projects. One small example is the encouragement I’ve tried to give to the rediscovery of the slide rule as an effective calculating device.

There are still plenty of people alive today who know how to use slide rules, plenty of books that teach how to crunch numbers with a slipstick, and plenty of slide rules around.

A century down the line, when slide rules will almost certainly be much more economically viable than pocket calculators, those helpful conditions might not be in place—but if people take up slide rules now for much the same reasons that Erikson kept the tall ships sailing, and make an effort to pass skills and slipsticks on to another generation, no one will have to revive or reinvent a dead technology in order to have quick accurate calculations for practical tasks such as engineering, salvage, and renewable energy technology.

The collection of sustainable-living skills I somewhat jocularly termed “green wizardry,” which I learned back in the heyday of the appropriate tech movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, passed on to the readers of this blog in a series of posts a couple of years ago, and have now explored in book form as well, is another case in point.

Some of that knowledge, more of the attitudes that undergirded it, and nearly all the small-scale, hands-on, basement-workshop sensibility of the movement in question has vanished from our collective consciousness in the years since the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution foreclosed any hope of a viable future for the industrial world.

There are still enough books on appropriate tech gathering dust in used book shops, and enough in the way of living memory among those of us who were there, to make it possible to recover those things; another generation and that hope would have gone out the window.

There are plenty of other possibilities along the same lines. For that matter, it’s by no means unreasonable to plan on investing in technologies that may not be able to survive all the way through the decline and fall of the industrial age, if those technologies can help cushion the way down.

Whether or not it will still be possible to manufacture PV cells at the bottom of the deindustrial dark ages, as I’ve been pointing out since the earliest days of this blog, getting them in place now on a home or local community scale is likely to pay off handsomely when grid-based electricity becomes unreliable, as it will. The modest amounts of electricity you can expect to get from this and other renewable sources can provide critical services (for example, refrigeration and long-distance communication) that will be worth having as the Long Descent unwinds.

That said, all such strategies depend on having enough economic surplus on hand to get useful technologies in place before the darkness closes in.

As things stand right now, as many of my readers will have had opportunity to notice already, that surplus is trickling away.

Those of us who want to help make a contribution to the future along those lines had better get a move on.


Busy getting ready

SUBHEAD: In a way we are all Noah. We toil to get ready for a change that will allow as much to thrive as possible.

By Juan Wilson on 28 March 2014 for Island Breath -

Image above: Scene from "Noah" of animals approaching the Arc two-by-two. From (

Today the movie "Noah" opens nationwide.

Sorry for the the recent absence from this site. I've been very busy with other work recently and have been concentrating on that. In the last few weeks I've been trying to complete a phase of a plan for the eventual development of a sustainable permaculture community on what was once sugar cane fields.

It is a complicated problem because of the site conditions as well as the history and resource restrictions of those who might eventually live there. As with many complicated problems it requires simultaneous solutions to conflicting elements.

As for the Island Breath website and the attempt to daily deliver pertinent material that is useful to you - (especially those of you on Kauai or in Hawaii) -  it can get in the way of getting what I shoud get done on a little half acre in Hanapepe Valley.

As of this writing there are about 1,700 website posts on Island Breath between 2004 and 2008 with many posts containing multiple articles on a subject. Since we initiated the blog based format in 2009 there have been another 4,958 articles posted.

I was thinking of retiring the daily blog responsibility after 5,000 articles. If I did so that would be in about a month.   There are many garden chores, maintenance tasks, repairs and new projects done done... in fact the list seems to just grow longer.

Moreover, I have said just about everything I'm likely to say - in a number of cases more than once. What the message boils down to is that:
  • big changes and disruptions are coming
  • they will make the usual way of doing business impossible
  • the larger and most complicated systems will fail
  • we will be more isolated in our current locations and communities
  • we will be responsible for our own food, energy, health and entertainment
  • you will be responsible for enhancing and saving as much of the local living environment as you can
For the rich and powerful the parable of the day is the Titanic. For the rest of us it is Noah and the Arc.

Get to work! Go permaculture!

Noah v. Kitschy Jesus
SUBHEAD: Today the movie "Noah" opens nationwide.  Looks like one to watch.

By Jay Michaelson on 27 March 2014 for Religious Dispatches -

Image above: Billboard for movie "Noah" in rain starved Los Angles, California. From (

I was around nineteen years old when I understood that kitsch was stupid.  Maybe it’s the other way around: it was then that I understood that the clichés, conventions, and other intellectually clunky tropes with which I had largely grown up had a name—kitsch—and that smart people had gotten beyond them. The adolescent alienation that I shared with, I’ll wager, many readers of this magazine was a temporary phase. It did, in fact, get better, precisely when one saw through and transcended what had once felt like absolutes.

Many of these clichés were aesthetic: football quarterbacks and lettermen, pickup trucks and teased hair. Others were ethical: the ‘common sense’ notions we took apart in philosophy class, the simplistic myths of religion. Others, for lack of a better word, were questions of style. Sentiment, saccharine, Hallmark Cards, kitties with big eyes, immaculate suburban lawns, patriotism, douchey fashion accessories, believing in the bromides of politicians—I can’t quite pinpoint what all of these had in common, except that they were cheap, over-simplified, and kitschy.

And thanks to Walter Benjamin, Clement Greenberg, the Frankfurt School, and a legion of writers and musicians allergic to the cliché, I came to reject kitsch and its quasi-fascistic associations. Feel this way, think this way, act this way—no!

It took another several years before I really understood that some people, perhaps most people, never went through this quintessentially sophomoric phase. Oddly, they seemed not to have read Clement Greenberg. They liked Norman Rockwell unironically. They still looked at “abstract” art and said “my pet could do that.” They listened to Richard Marx.

This was especially true in America, where clichés ruled the political airwaves, as well as the radio dial, back when such a thing mattered. And it was especially true of religious people.
Son of God, the latest cultural product aimed at the supposedly burgeoning Christian consumer public, embodies this mode of kitsch religiosity. Of course Jesus is hot, white, and soulful.  Of course he is just absolutely perfect. That’s what a religious person should aspire to be: nice, clean, square, entirely in major key.

More than the Biblical literalism of the film—a term which is hardly deserved, given the contradictions between the Gospels and the inevitable selection of which stories to tell—what is striking about Son of God and its marketing campaign is how straightforward it actually is. The film is the opposite of irony and afraid of nuance.

Of course, we’ve already had nuance and complexity in the Jesus story—the Scorsese/Kazantakis Last Temptation of Christ—and we saw how well that went.

One could object that Jesus, being Divine, is a special case. But how different is the milquetoast Jesus from the milquetoast teens meant to ask WWJD?, or commit to virginity at the Purity Ball? This isn’t the Emergent Church; this is unreconstructed pabulum.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is, in contrast, an exercise is complexity. Its title character is being marketed as your standard Russell Crowe action hero—Gladiator, the Prequel. In fact, he is tortured, obsessive, wounded, and deeply flawed. He ends up being the villain of his own story, eager for humanity to be wiped out.

Press coverage of the “Christian reaction” to Noah has focused on its often outlandish elaboration on the Biblical tale. As I’ve described elsewhere, many of its additions—the fallen angels called the Watchers, for example—have precedent in Christian and Jewish legend.  Many others are just made up.

But these embellishments of the Biblical story seem secondary to a different conception of what a Biblical story should be in the first place. Is the point of myth to provide a relatable character, full of human flaws, to whom we might relate and from whom we might learn? Or is myth about paragons of virtue, well beyond ordinary folks like us, to whom we might aspire?

Alan Dershowitz and others have argued that this is a Jewish/Christian difference. The flawed heroes of Genesis versus the Christian martyrs and saints. But Jews are every bit as capable of whitewashing and idealization as Christians are. Plenty of rabbinic exegetes have idealized every complicated character from the Bible. Jacob’s not a conniving thief with masculinity issues; he’s pure and saintly. Moses doesn’t have an anger management problem; he’s pure and saintly. In fact, every hero is pure and saintly because that’s what heroes are.

No, this kind of hero—corny, shallow, stupid, unrelatable, and flattening of the beautiful and horrible complexity of the human experience—is not specific to any religious tradition. It is specific, rather, to a particular unsophistication of taste and simplicity of intellect, both attributes that are affirmatively praised by many religious fundamentalists. Simple faith, simple values, common sense, old time religion.

In this reading, Noah has to be a good, simple guy because he’s a hero (in Christian readings of the Bible anyway—Jews were always more ambivalent about him) and therefore he can’t be seen getting in knock-down, drag-out fights with his sons. Good people don’t do that. And of course, Jesus can’t be tempted by sins of the flesh—even though the Bible itself suggests that he might’ve been.
I don’t think it’s because Aronofsky’s Noah has a mixture of admirable and flawed elements that he raises fundamentalist suspicions. It’s because he has a mixture of any kind at all.  Progressive religion values complexity and nuance; traditional religion values simplicity. Noah’s character flaws, which make him interesting to progressives, hit sour notes for traditionalists— indeed, like blue notes corrupting the C-major harmony, or complex flavors messing up the meal.

And the fact that Aronofsky gives serious consideration to Noah’s nemesis, the (invented) Tubal-Cain, pushes it over the line. Villains are supposed to be bad—not interesting.

Question everything, undermine everything, nothing is as simple as it seems, put scarequotes around clichés—these are some of the values I was taught at my corrupting, secularist, humanist university. Yet they have always seemed consonant with my religious consciousness, which itself is hybridized, postmodern, and self-reflexive in the extreme—as well as informed by mystical and ethical traditions which resist oversimplification.

Son of God and Noah don’t just represent two different ways to read Scripture, two different ways to make films, and two different marketing demographics. They also represent two sharply different ways to believe, to be in the world: one inspired by the pure and the simple, another suspicious, if not contemptuous, of them. These different modes of relation to complexity include politics, art, taste, style, culture, morality, and ethics within them. And while I feel certain that the tendency toward simplicity slides toward cruelty, I wonder if the basis for that certainty is, itself, ethical—or something else.

Noah's Arc of Triumph

SUBHEAD: An enthusiastic review of the movie Noah.

By Kathleen Parker on 28 March 2014 for the Washington Post -

Video above: Official trailer for the movie Noah. From (

There’s nothing quite so helpful as a fatwa and threats of a Christian boycott to create buzz in advance of a new movie.

Noah,” scheduled for its U.S. release on March 28, has become such a target. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have banned the movie because it depicts a prophet, which, as Danish cartoonists will attest, isn’t the peachiest of ideas in certain circles.

Even here in the land of religious tolerance, the National Religious Broadcasters threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount, the film’s distributor and co-financier with New Regency, issued a disclaimer that the movie isn’t a literal interpretation of the Genesis story. It is good to have fundamentalist literalists explain exactly what the Bible’s authors intended, especially since a literal interpretation would keep moviegoers away or put them to sleep.

To wit: In the literal tale, no one speaks until after (spoiler alert) a dove sent to find land returns with an olive twig in its beak, indicating the flood is over and the world is saved. In the movie version, people talk, which is awfully helpful in following the narrative.

Alas, under pressure, Paramount altered its advertising to say the movie was “inspired” by the Bible story and is not the Bible story.

Note the frequent use of the word “movie” in the preceding paragraphs. This is because “Noah” is a movie. It is not a sermon or a call to prayer. It cost $130 million to make and is intended to entertain, inspire and — bear with me, I know this is crazy — make money. It does not presume to encourage religious conversion, disrespect a prophet or evangelize a snake, though it does glorify virtue in the highest.

I recently viewed the film and can confidently report the following: If you liked “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Indiana Jones” or “Titanic,” you will like “Noah.” If you liked two or more of the above, you will love “Noah.” Your enjoyment increases exponentially with each movie checked above, though I should warn that “Titanic” made the cut for only one reason, the major difference between it and “Noah” being obvious. “Noah” also includes the essential love story or two, without which no story floats.

“Noah,” in other words, is a big movie. There’s plenty of action and enough gore and guts to leave young children at home. It’s a morality play/spiritual journey without being preachy, except occasionally by the protagonist. Noah the man can be a tad over the top at times, but this is an obvious plus when you’re being instructed by the Creator to build an ark and fill it with snakes, among other creatures.

And, let’s face it, Noah is Russell Crowe, from whom one wouldn’t mind hearing: “Would you like to see my ark?” We’ve come a long way, baby, from Charlton Heston as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments.” Add to the cast Anthony Hopkins playing Methuselah, Yoda-esque in his ancient wisdom; Jennifer Connelly, who plays Noah’s wife; and Emma Watson as his adopted daughter. There are also Noah’s three heart-stopping sons, whom we witness evolving from innocence to self-knowledge as they question their father’s authority (sound familiar?) and try to resist Oedipal urges that surge to the surface with the terrifying brutality of a serpent’s strike.

Poor Noah, alienated from a world consumed by evil, aspires to goodness and justice even as he questions his qualifications to the task. Moviegoers are treated to a short course in original sin, magically presented with zoom lenses, a pulsating apple and, shall we say, reptilian dispatch. (“Anaconda” probably deserves an honorable mention on the list.)

This is all to say, the film is art, neither executed nor to be taken literally. And who are these experts who know precisely what the Bible’s authors intended? Among other criticisms are the implications that evolution and creation might be mutually inclusive and that man and beast are equal in the eyes of the Creator. Noah and his family are vegetarian and demonstrate respect for the Earth’s fragile balance.

Pure heresy. Next thing you know, we’ll all be driving Teslas and eating basil burgers.

To each his own interpretation, but at least one conclusion seems self-evident: The Bible’s authors were far more literary than we. They clearly had a keen appreciation for parable and metaphor as well as a profound understanding that truth is better revealed than instructed.

If the literalists prevail, we just might need another flood.

Ginger Beer Recipe

SUBHEAD: Instructions for how to make alcoholic ginger beer from scratch.

By Catherine Lamb on 14 March 2014 for -

Image above: Finished ginger beer can be drunk plain or with a dash of local rum. All photos by Catherine Lamb from original article. More images there.

There are two types of people in this world: people who like their ginger beer sweet, subtle, and unassuming, and people who like their ginger beer to kick them hard in the back of the throat. (I guess there are also people out there who don't like ginger beer, but for now I'm going to pretend they don't exist.)

You know real ginger beer if you've tasted it. The second you take a sip, it stomps on your tongue with steel-toed boots, taking glee in reminding you how spicy raw ginger truly is.
My version of ginger beer is like the unfiltered, uncensored, hardcore stuff, but with a teensy little bonus: alcohol. While England has been sipping on alcoholic ginger beer for hundreds of years, America has just begun to discover this gem. Well, Brits, your secret's out.

More: If you want to booze up classic ginger beer, look no further than the Dark 'n Stormy.

In addition to its spicy, addictive taste and its boozy bonus, alcoholic ginger beer is also plain-old fun to make. If you dream of being a full-fledged brewmaster but lack the time, equipment, and beard, ginger beer is the perfect starting point. With only a jar, some pantry staples, and a few clean soda bottles, you can have a solidly delicious brew in only three weeks. It might take some experimenting to get it right, but the journey is half the fun. This recipe is really more like a set of guidelines -- you must follow your instincts.

Image above: Ingredients needed to make ginger beer.

Alcoholic Ginger Beer
Makes several liters of ginger beer
2 1/2 cups (600 milliliters) warm, filtered (or pre-boiled) water 
1 1/2 teaspoons champagne yeast (available at your local brewing store or on the Internet)
Freshly grated ginger
Granulated sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
1 jalapeño, sliced (optional)
1 large glass jar
2 to 3 clean plastic soda bottles
First thing's first: Start by making a "plant" for your ginger beer. Stir the yeast into the water until dissolved. Add in 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger, 1 tablespoon sugar, the lemon juice, and the sliced jalapeño, if you're using it. Stir to combine. (The jalapeño will give your ginger beer that kick you can feel in the back of your throat -- if you don't want it that strong, feel free to omit it.)
More: Here's a nifty trick for peeling ginger with a spoon.

Pour the mixture into a glass jar -- one that's large enough for the liquid to fit comfortably, with a bit of extra space. Cover with a clean, dry kitchen towel and secure it with a rubber band. Place the jar in the warmest place in your house: next to your heater, near the refrigerator, or by a heat vent.

Every day for the next week you'll have to "feed" your plant. First off, feel the bottle -- it should be slightly warm. If it's too cold, your yeast will go into hibernation and stop working, and if it's too hot your yeast could die. They're a very temperamental bunch.

Image above: Mixing the ingredients into the brewing bottle.

Take the towel off your jar and add another tablespoon of grated ginger and another tablespoon of sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then replace the towel and put your plant back in a warm place. Do this every day for a week -- just think of it as a babysitting job.

After about a week, you should see small bubbles floating to the surface of your plant. You can keep your plant at this stage longer: The more you feed it, the more concentrated the ginger flavor will become. Don't stress too much about measurements -- you can adjust your flavors later.

Now it's time to bottle! Think ahead to how many bottles of ginger beer you'll want to make. Make sure to use plastic soda bottles -- glass bottles could explode from carbonation.

Estimate how much water you'll need to fill these bottles two-thirds of the way full. Then, dissolve enough sugar into the water so that it tastes very sweet -- as sweet as soda. Don't worry about overdoing it; the sugar is there to act as food for the yeast, so most of it will get eaten up and turned into alcohol. You can always adjust the sugar content later.

More: Got extra ginger left over? Candy it!

Image above: Straining the ginger beer through cheesecloth.

Using a cheesecloth, strain the plant out into a large measuring cup or bowl. Next, use a funnel to add the sweetened water to the bottles until they are two-thirds of the way full. Add about a cup of the plant liquid to each clean, dry soda bottle -- more if you want your ginger beer stronger, less if you want it less intense. Stir with a chopstick to combine. You can dip your finger in and taste here to see if the flavor concentration is to your liking. If it tastes watery, add more plant liquid.

Seal the bottles tightly with their caps and put them back in the same warm place where you once kept the plant. Squeeze the bottles daily to test how they're carbonating.

After a few days, they should become difficult to compress; when they feel like a rock and are impossible to squeeze at all, slowly start to unscrew the cap just until you hear hissing, but do not open it all the way. Whenever the bottle is impossible to compress, let out the carbonation, then seal it back tightly.

In a week and a half to two weeks, the yeast should have eaten up most of the sugar in the bottle. This means your ginger beer is ready to open up and taste! There's not a hard and fast rule for how to tell when this is done -- you've got to go by intuition and trial and error. If you have multiple bottles, open one up and taste test after a week and a half. Add more sugar or lemon juice if you think your ginger beer needs it.

Serve ice cold with citrus wedges and a rum float if you're feeling dangerous. Make sure to consume the whole bottle within 24 hours after opening -- feel free to enlist a friend or two for help. You should probably throw a party to show off your incredible brewing skills.

More: Top-notch ginger beer deserves top-notch ice -- here'

It's impossible to gauge the alcohol content of your ginger beer, but it should be a bit less than that of a light beer. Enjoy!

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.


Regional Food Commons

SUBHEAD: Food is treated as a private good in today’s industrial food system, but it must be re-conceived as a common good.

By David Bollier on 18 March 2014 for -

Image above: Photo of a local food market. From second article below. (

Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live. And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.

A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality. It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons.

By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.

Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:
“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food.  This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one.  A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food.  Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”
Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran. Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years. Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.

In 2012, Larry Yee told me in a phone conversation, the leaders of Fresno’s business, academic and social justice communities invited the Food Commons to develop its first prototype/proof of concept in Fresno. Fresno leaders see the idea as a way to foster economic development, create jobs and provide access to healthy foods -- this in a region that has the most impoverished congressional district in the nation, along with all the nutritional deficiencies that this entails. Last November, the Food Commons Trust in Fresno finished its business plan; it plans to launch the first phase of Food Commons business operations by 2014.

Strictly speaking, Food Commons is not a commons – it is a project that seeks to launch and support regional food commons, which it defines as an integrated regional structure of production, governance and distribution benefits everyone. As the project’s website puts it, “Food Commons is developing a new physical, financial and organizational infrastructure for localized food economies that are fair, just and sustainable for the health and well-being of our people, our communities and the planet.”

The project consists of three components:
Food Commons Trusts is a nonprofit “quasi-public entity to acquire and steward critical foodshed assets such as land and physical infrastructure.  It holds those assets in perpetual trust, which are then used to benefit everyone.  The Trust would lease land and facilities to participating small farms and businesses at affordable rates, giving entrepreneurs opportunities that they might not have in more concentrated markets.
Food Commons Banks are community-owned financial institutions that provides capital and financial services to all parties in the regional food chain.  This would allow eco-minded farmers and specialty agriculture to obtain the financing that they might need to succeed.

Food Commons Hubs are locally owned, cooperatively integrated businesses that help deal with the complex logistics of aggregating and distributing food and the various players in the regional food system.  The Hubs would also help small food businesses “achieve economies of scale in their administrative, marketing, and human resources and other business functions” and provide technical assistance and specialized vocational training.
The stated goal of the project is to build “a networked system of physical, financial and organizational infrastructure that allows new local and regional markets to operate efficiently, and small to mid-sized food enterprises – from farms to processors, distributors, and retailers – to compete and thrive according to principles of sustainability, fairness, and public accountability.”

As a sign of its values and ambitions, Food Commons invokes the democratic and cooperative models of the Mondragon Co-operative network in Spain, the Organic Valley Co-op in the U.S., and the VISA International financial services network. To fulfill itsvision, Food Commons has set up a governance structure revolves around two core principles:
Preservation of common benefit along the value chain.The governing boards of entities within the Food Commons system will be tasked with balancing the needs of the whole system, from the environment, to workers, to farmers and fishers, to aggregators/processors, to retailers, and to consumers.

Sustainable, steady-state profitability.  The governing boards will establish goals, incentive structures, and checks and balances that drive efficient use of resources and sustainable positive economic value creation, not unlimited growth and maximization of shareholder profit at the expense of other stakeholders, including future generations.
The watchwords of the new system is “accountability, economic viability and social equity.” The Fresno project aims to be "a proof of concept and as an engine for economic development, job creation, and healthy food access in a region characterized by the paradox of great wealth and agricultural resources existing side by side with entrenched poverty, food insecurity, and diet-related chronic disease.”

Besides Fresno, another regional Food Commons project is underway in Atlanta, Georgia, both at the largest regional scale as well as in neighborhood-scale community food systems, which the project calls “Fertile Crescent.”

In Auckland, New Zealand, Food Commons has been developing a third project – an online marketplace “where food growers and producers of any scale can sell directly to customers online via a super low cost distribution system. The idea is to short circuit the standard long supply chains so that the growers are paid more and the customers pay less.”

One cannot help but be impressed by the ambition, rigor and scope of the Food Commons project. If you’d like to learn more, download a pdf file of its 2011 annual report.

Food - A Commons not Commodity
By Jose Luis Vivero Pol on 13 October 2013 for OurWorld -

Food is treated as a private good in today’s industrial food system, but it must be re-conceived as a common good in the transition toward a more sustainable food system that is fairer to food producers and consumers.

If we were to treat food as a commons, it could be better produced and distributed by hybrid tri-centric governance systems implemented at the local level and compounded by market rules, public regulations, and collective actions. This change would have enormous ethical, legal, economic, and nutritional implications for the global food system.

A common resource versus a commodity
Food, a limited yet renewable resource that comes in both wild and cultivated forms, is essential for human existence. Over time, it has evolved from a local resource held in common into a private, transnational commodity.

This process of commodification has involved the development of certain traits within food to fit the mechanized processes and regulations put in practice by the industrial food system, and it is also the latest stage in the objectification of food—a social phenomenon that has deprived food of all its non-economic attributes. As a result, the value of food is no longer based on the many dimensions that bring us security and health, including the fact that food is a:
  • Basic human need and should be available to all
  • Fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to every citizen
  • Pillar of our culture for producers and consumers alike
  • Natural, renewable resource that can be controlled by humans
  • Marketable product subject to fair trade and sustainable production
  • Global common good that should be enjoyed by all
This multidimensional view of food diverges from the mainstream industrial food system’s approach to food as a one-dimensional commodity. Even so, the industrial food system has yet to enclose, or to convert into private property, all aspects of our food commons, including:
  • Traditional knowledge of agriculture that has been accumulated over thousands of years
  • Modern, science-based agricultural knowledge accumulated within national institutions
  • Cuisine, recipes, and national gastronomy
  • Edible plants and animals created in the natural world (e.g., fish stocks and wild fruits)
  • Genetic resources for food and agriculture
  • Food safety considerations (e.g., Codex Alimentarius)
  • Public nutrition, including hunger and obesity imbalances
  • Extreme food price fluctuations in global and national markets
Our most basic human need, privatizedThe industrial food system’s enclosure of food through the privatization of seeds and land, legislation, excessive pricing, and patents, has played a large role in limiting our access to food as a public good. The system now feeds the majority of people living on the planet and has created a market of mass consumption where eaters become mere consumers.

As such, the industrial food system’s goal is to accumulate under-priced food resources while maximizing the profit of food enterprises, instead of ensuring food’s most important non-economic qualities, such as nutrition. Many believe this has resulted in the failure of the global food system.

We can’t rely on the market
Within the mainstream “no money no food” worldview, hunger still prevails in a world of abundance. Globally speaking, the industrial food system is increasingly failing to fulfill its basic goals of producing food in a sustainable manner, feeding people adequately, and avoiding hunger. The irony is that half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food go hungry today.

 Most believed that a market-led food system would finally lead to a healthier global population, yet none of the recent analyses of the connection between our global food system and hunger have questioned the privatization of food. As a result, most people believe food access to be the main problem of global hunger.

But reality proves otherwise. Unregulated markets simply cannot provide the necessary quantity of food for everyone — even if low-income groups were given the means to procure it. An industrial food system that views food as a commodity to be distributed according to market rules will never achieve food security for all.

There won’t be a market-driven panacea for our unsustainable and unjust food system; rather the solution will require experimentation at all levels — personal, local, national, and international — and diverse approaches to governance — market-led, state-led, and collective action-led. We need to bring unconventional and radical perspectives into the food transition debate to develop a different narrative for our food system.

Practical implications of a common food system
A “re-commonification” of food — or, in other words, a transition where we work toward considering food as a commons — is an essential paradigm shift in light of our broken global food system. However, there would of course be practical consequences of this paradigm shift. Food would need to be dealt with outside of trade agreements made for pure private goods, and, as a result, we would need to establish a particular system of governance for the production, distribution, and access to food at a global level. That system might involve binding legal frameworks to fight hunger and guarantee everyone the right to food, cosmopolitan global policies, ethical and legal frameworks, universal Basic Food Entitlements or Food Security Floors guaranteed by the state, minimum salaries matched to food prices, bans on the financial speculation of food, or limits on alternative uses of food, such as biofuels.

Agricultural research and locally adapted, evidence-based technologies would highly benefit from crowdsourcing and creative-commons licensing systems to improve the sustainability and fairness of the global food system as well. When millions of people innovate, we have a far greater capacity to find adaptive and appropriate solutions than when a few thousand scientists innovate in private labs.

There is more and more evidence today that the copyrighted agricultural sector is actually deterring food security innovations from scaling up, and that the freedom to copy actually promotes creativity and innovation, such as with open-source software.

What it might take to “re-commonify” of our food system
Collective civic actions, or alternative food networks, are key in the transition toward a more sustainable and fairer food system because they are built on the socio-ecological practices of civic engagement, community, and the celebration of local food.

Based on Elinor Ostrom’s polycentric governance, food can be produced, consumed, and distributed by tri-centric governance schemes comprised of collective actions initially implemented at the local level; governments whose main goal is to maximize the well-being of their citizens and to provide a framework enabling people to enjoy their right to food; and a private sector that can prosper under state regulations and incentives.

Today, in different parts of the world, there are many initiatives that demonstrate how such a combination yields good results for food producers, consumers, the environment, and society in general.

The challenge now is to scale up those local initiatives. Self-governing collective actions cannot create the transition by themselves, thus there will be space for local governments, entrepreneurs, and self-organized communities to coexist, giving the state a leading role in the initial stage of the transition period to guarantee food for all.

We are just starting to reconsider the food narrative to guide the transition from the industrial food system toward an attainable and desirable utopia. It may take us several generations to achieve, but, as Mario Benedetti rightly pointed out, utopias keep us moving forward.