Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interesting Comments

To this post on Naked Capitalism:
Toby says:
It is a fact that the relationship you describe is an inevitable consequence of double entry bookkeeping, a medieval (how pertinent!) invention for keeping track of assets and cash flow. What is not a fact is that money must be issued as debt along double entry bookkeeping lines. That is merely a convention, a convention, furthermore, which addicts us systemically to perpetual linear growth. That this system is unsustainable is clear to a child.

Here’s a passage from economics Professor Franz Hoermann (from “Das Ende des Geldes”):

“When this secret knowledge—that accountancy is not an empirical science but a medieval art form similar to the above mentioned theological debate about angels—becomes broadly known, then the interrelationships of the financial world and the wider economy will be clear to population and politician alike. Obviously theological discussion is important and necessary, and we have no intention here of devaluing it. But its methodology is simply not suited to running an economy, since its claims and counterclaims are always vague and therefore manipulatable. Small groups of insiders can twist the interpretation of the various meanings to their own unfair advantage as they please.

We fear that genuine, foundational reforms, precisely for this reason, have remained underground and fringe all this time. This core reason, the unscientific nature, and high susceptibility to manipulation, of bookkeeping and accountancy, leads like an arrow directly to political lobbying, which is nothing more than targeted manipulation of commercial and other law in the interest of minority social groups. The damaging belief in bookkeeping and accountancy will be with us for as long students in schools and colleges are taught by rote the rules of accounting processes and legal texts. Learning by rote is of course not learning in an academic sense, in the sense of mentally free education. It is far more a mental manipulation tool of a narrow minded religion, repressing its flock for centuries. Those who are trained by rote learning have no way of recognizing the deeper context of the subject at hand. A deep belief is burned into them, without their active awareness and often against their wills. This process is called brain washing by psychology.” [My translation.]

Hoermann, who is both economist and accountant, calls economics propaganda, as does Professor of Philosophy John McMurtry. Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef points out that economics sees nature as a subsystem of the economy, an obviously absurd inversion of the truth. This sham discipline is not only unscientific, it is rotten to its core. A little tidbit from Keen’s “Debunking Economics”:

“Economic theory argues that productivity falls as output rises, so that higher levels of output result in higher prices. The ‘supply curve’ therefore slopes upwards: a higher price has to be offered to entice firms to produce a higher output.

Though this sounds intuitively plausible, when this theory was put to those who do know how factories are designed and managed, they rejected it as “the product of the itching imaginations of uninformed and inexperienced arm-chair theorizers” (Lee 1998, citing Tucker).”

Hoermann describes the “Law of Supply and Demand” as a fairy tale. I am not aware of a single component of economic theory that holds up to scrutiny. Why treat it with anything other than contempt?

rednek says:

If only it were linear!

Creating money as debt at interest commits us to exponential growth. Malthus, one of the first economists, clearly saw the contradiction between exponential growth and finite resources. The only way around this has been finding cheaper more abundant substitute resources (in the last round, fossil fuels) when the previous ones run low.

Toby says:
May 31, 2011 at 9:15 am
Very true, but I meant linear in the sense of “no recycling protocols or procedures, the implicit assumption of infinite resources, and no concern about the nature of waste.” And yes, yes, yes! usury foists on us a systemic addiction to exponential growth. A point most people simply don’t want to address. It may be the death of us. The denial is profoundly stubborn.

readerOfTeaLeaves says:
May 31, 2011 at 4:40 pm
There used to be a field called ‘political economy’.

In the 20th century, as social and political life became more complex, the field split into two strands: political ‘science’ and economics (just as physics separated more and more from chemistry as the amount of information within each field became more complex).

All the status was in the ‘sciences’.
But some things are SOCIAL sciences, and in those fields, it’s much harder to do the kind of hypotheses backed up by experimental design and testing that is normally done in chem and biology.

By adopting claims to ‘science’, both political studies and also economic studies sought to wrap themselves in a sort of Intellectual Invincibility that neither field merited.

Because neither economics or politics are ‘hard’ sciences, they are particularly vulnerable to the seductions of ideology — in the absence of genuine, verifiable testable methods, they easily fall prey to whoever funds tenured positions, whoever is appointed to journal editorships, etc, etc.

Biology and chem are not subject to the predation of ideology in the same way that the social sciences (political studies, economics) are so easily bent to the needs and requirements of existing power structures.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Peak Coffee?

Guatemalans grow some of the best coffee in the world, but most can't buy it at home. Neither can tourists. When I was there last I had to wake up on freeze-dried Mexican Nescafe, even though I can buy bags of freshly roasted Guatemalan coffee beans two blocks from my house in Seattle. Less well known than the story of how Europe carved out global empires is how the way Europeans treated their soils helped launch the exploration and history of the New World. Today's globalized agriculture that ships local produce overseas to wealthier markets reflects the legacy of colonial plantations established to help feed European cities.
from Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery

There is an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the troubles beseiging the worldwide coffee trade. If Peak Oil, Peak Copper, Peak Phosphorus and Peak Water haven't got you down, it looks like we've reached Peak Coffee:


Coffee, with it's cousins sugar, tobacco, tea and chocolate, are the ultimate export food crops. They are desired in wealthy European countires but can only be grown in the tropics. The appetite for these foodstuffs (and cotton), drove European mercantalism leading to the first global economy powered by wind. Basically, the best agricultural land in tropical countries is devoted to growing export crops for Europe and North America, which is why the people in these countries are starving and dependant upon foreign aid, i.e. imported grain. Basically, they send us coffee and chocolate and we dump on them all the excess grain US farmers are paid to grow. Imported subsidized grain puts local small farmers out of business, and their land is bought up by multinational corporations to grow food for the export market. Because the land is owned by foreign corporations, governments of these countries cannot even derive tax revenue from the productivity of their own land. Any foreign leader questioning this arrangment will find himself summarily overthrown. They are called Banana Republics for a reason.

In any case, the reason coffee is getting rarer is the same reason every resource on earth is getting rarer. Get used to hearing the following factors for every commodity, with different items being substituted:

1. Lowered supplies due to Climate Change.
2. Increased demand from China, India, and Brazil (among others).
3. Speculative bubbles driven by wealthy investors looking for high returns.

How long can this continue? As Jeremy Grantham proclaimed, we need to wake up, the era of cheap commodities is over forever. We are up against the earth's limits, and it's likely we will need to adjust our lifestyles accordingly.


There was a post on Marginal Revolution today about self driving cars. Tyler Cowen argues in the New York Times that we should not regulate them out of existence, rather we should be encouraging the technology and see if it takes off.

I agree with that to a degree. Driving is about the most dangerous activity we undertake. As I pointed out in an earlier post, driving is more dangerous to the average person than a nuclear reactor, and the streets of the third world especially are slaughterhouses. More people are killed in collisions on a daily basis that the world's various wars and famines.

Driving is notoriously prone to human error. Where I live in the alcohol-soaked state of Wisconsin, drunken driving seems to be unpreventable no matter how severe the penalties, and the results are tragic. Plus, you have to add in the fact that the only requirements to drive a car seem to be a pulse, we let children drive cars (sixteen years old is a child), and we have all the electronic distractions we can't bear to pull our selves away from even for a second (cell phones, texting, etc.) causing drivers to not pay attention to the road. Finally the aging of the suburban population means people too old to drive will drive rather than be stranded, no matter what. Driverless cars seems like an ideal solution to a lot of this stuff.

Personally, I never understood the love obsession with cars. Cars are the worst money pits imaginable. Between the loan, interest, gas, insurance and maintenance, they eat up half your income. Driving is the most stressful activity I can imagine. Most people on the road or mentally disturbed or worse. Studies have shown that cortisol starts pumping into your bloodstream the minute you turn the ignition. Your fight-or-flight response is constantly on high alert while you are locked stationary inside your metal box, and you are unable to lower your cortisol levels by moving the way evolution intended. Certainly all the time spent in cars is a major reason for Americans poor levels of overall physical and mental health.

In my comments to the article, I pointed out that the most intelligent and most efficient way to deal with excessive commutes is by eliminating the need to commute in the first place. Commuting is stupid on so many levels. It makes sense to live close to where you work, and for most of human history, this was a necessity. Initially short commutes have given way to mega-commutes of several hours as suburban sprawl, traffic jams, etc. have made commuting a major time waster. Suburban sprawl is immensely wasteful of both time and energy, and has to do with the horrible way we have used our space in our cities.

Being an economics blog, I made sure to point out the economics behind sprawl - the fact that these lifestyles are heavily subsidized, and that suburbanites do not pay for all the externalities for their way of life. I don't wish to get into this in great detail; entire books have been written about this, most notably by James Howard Kunstler. Check out his books and podcast in particular for discussion about this topic. I wrote my comments rather quickly, not by best writing by a long shot.

Anyway, I like the comments by one poster who pointed out the folly of indivisual car ownership. His comments were:

A great benefit of the self-driving car, is that it should bring an end to the ‘self-owned car’ – which is a horribly inefficient way for society to distribute expensive machinery.

Already, the internet has allowed companies such as i-go or zipcar, to be profitable in urban areas – despite the numerous inefficiencies of the system. Currently you have to know you are using a car hours or days in advance – then you have to somehow get yourself to the car.

Now imagine a city of 30k, and add 8000 self-driving cars under the zipcar model. You decide to take a trip – so you pick up your iphone and hit the “request car button”. The phone gps knows where your car is located, and by the time you’ve put on your shoes, a car has driven around the corner and is sitting in your driveway. Put in your destination on the car gps, and you’re on your way.

The efficiency gains will be spectacular. Almost all American families own at least one van/truck/SUV – despite the fact that 98% of the time, the extra space is entirely unnecessary. Under the shared car model – some number (perhaps 80%) of the vehicles would fit one passenger only. You can easily request much larger vehicles, if your needs demand it.

These developments could also reshape cities. Parking centers will barely be necessary in downtown areas (electronic cars can position themselves into extremely dense clusters – since we don’t care about what order the cars come out in).

But his comments have nothing to do with self-driving cars, really. The central point is that everyone needing to own their own car is a tremendous financial burden that most people can ill-afford. Most of the time the car sits idle. The financial burden of owning a car takes money out of the pockets of people that would be better spent elsewhere in the economy. When cars ffirst began, few people owned them, and indeed few needed them. The first buyers were actually farm families who could finally escape the farm on weekends and go into town. Eventually, the car companies were able to leverage the government to make sure everyone needed a car - GM executives got into government and spent money on massive road-building schemes, and bought up public transportation systems around the country simply to shut them down and rip out the tracks.

Then came the suburban sprawl detailed so well in many books, including The Geography of Nowhere. There are many causes of suburban sprawl, but I think the major unacknowledged reason is race. The bussing of the 1970's caused white flight, and businesses followed suit. To this day public transportation is a resource for minorities, while upstanding middle-class whites fetishize their cars. This unfortunate attitude toward public transportation is unique to America.

So if can dispense with the inefficiencies of individual car ownership, what would a sensible transportation policy look like?

1. Inter-city travel: bicycling is by far the best - it gives needed exercise, produces no pollution, and gets you from point A to point B. After bikes, car-sharing makes the most sense for city-dwellers, self-driving cars or not. We can reduce the need for parking, which is the least productive use for space imaginable, and re-densify our cities, the way they should be.

Personally, I think this would allow for car electrfication. Changing out entire auto fleet to electric is problematic, but if we eliminate all the needless cars, it could work. Personally, I would like to to see MIT's stackable city car concept take off:


And let's not forget good old-fashioned carpooling (and hitchiking).

2. Public transportation is by far the most efficient way of moving people. There are any number of green options for intra-urban public transport, from biodiesel-powered buses to electric trains. Even monorails are making a comeback.
3. Transport from major clusters of urban areas should ideally be accomplished by trains, as is done in most other countries outside of the United States. Currently, even relatively short inter-urban trips are accomplished by jet airplane (when people from our Minneapolis office come to Milwaukee, they often fly!). This is more efficient than buses or cars, especially if trains were upgraded to more modern versions.

4. Low-density, rural and isolated areas are the only areas where indivdual auto ownership and long-distance gasoline powered vehicles makes sense. By definition, this is only a small fraction of the population. If only these people needed to drive, our oil imports would be a lot more reasonable. Most of the gas we have is wasted in useless commutes that hurt our productivity, make us ill, and even cause social maladies. I can see this small subset of vehicles being powered by ethanol or biodiesel (produced differently than the way it is now, of course). I cannot see the current US auto fleet switching to these fuels - we cannot possibly grow enough corn.

5. Transport of goods should shift back to rail transport. Since it is far more efficient than trucking, it should be cheaper as gas prices rise. A good argument for this is here:


Imagine all the money that goes to insurance, court costs, ambulance-chasing lawyers and interest on car loans instead going to really useful things instead. Imagine a future of intermodal transportation less dependant on oil. But it all starts with how we design our cities. Long-distance trasport of people should be the exception rather than the norm. The most-efficient and low-tech solution is to reactivate our neighborhoods so that we don't need to drive at all. It's the most time and energy-efficient solution of all and it's sustainable forever.


It is a commonplace that most westerners have many more of nearly everything than their community needs - everyone has their own vacuum cleaner, their own lawn mower, their own 2 cars - even if they only need 1 1/2 cars, they don't share. Even people who want to conserve are often uncomfortable entering into a shared relationship with others, and find negotiating such things intimidating. But public resources are different - they are *for* sharing. And creating them means enabling people to do without in a private sense - that is, as the price of energy rises, those who can't afford cars or washing machines are least damaged if their needs can, tosome degree, be met through local, public infrastructure, by say, public buses and laundromats.

Public Resources, Private Resources
i.e. it is more efficient to pool shared resources than for everyone to have something that they need only for brief periods of time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mega Cities and Human Migration

There are many stories written about the slums of the world's exploding mega-cities. There is a new book out called "Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. The movement of humanity into urban areas currently taking place is the single largest migration inour history as a species. The history of the next century will be written in these cities.

More valuable than a dozen articles is an extraordinary film I just watched on al-Jazeera English about Nigeria's sprawling capital Lagos. If you want to see what life is like for much of the world, watch this twenty-five minute film:


Friday, May 27, 2011

America's Catabolic Collapse

As we see America crumbling before our very eyes, it reinforces my belief in John Michael Greer's descriptions of catabolic collapse. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, he has written about it here, here, and the original description for the more technically minded is here. Basically it states that instead of a sudden, rapid collapse, empires enter a period of stepping-down to lower levels of living standards. From fire stations closing down to roads being depaved back into gravel, it is very clear that America is literally falling apart, as all of our productive wealth goes to the top 10 percent of private income, with nothing left for the rest of us and little or nothing being contributed to government (tax receipts are at their lowest level since the 1950's). If a city or state attempt to tax a corporation, they just move out of state (or just set up a mailbox in one). If a national government attempts to levy taxes, corporations just move to another country, or hide their profits offshore. What is the end result? A collapsing nation.

The editorial below appeared in the Kansas City Star and was written in response to Republicans threatening to forego needed assistance to tornado-devastated Joplin Missouri unless other spending cuts acceptable to them are made. And what's an acceptable cut? Why, programs to develop fuel-efficient cars, of course:

... it hardly requires an expert to behold the devastation in Joplin and see that, while charitable resources are essential, private donors will not be able to fund all that is needed. Joplin needs new school buildings, a new power grid, massive work on its hospital. And that's only the beginning.

This brings us to a rather shameful debate now taking place in, of course, Congress.

To its credit, a key House panel has approved an additional $1 billion in federal relief money to respond to a spring of natural disasters. But as soon as cries for help were heard, lawmakers pounced on the chance to make partisan points.

House Republicans are starting to demand that disaster relief funds be balanced with cuts in other areas of federal spending, essentially using human tragedy to advance their political agenda. One suggestion is that we should cut a program encouraging the production of more fuel efficient cars, a program brought about by economic and long-term national security concerns.

Here's the big picture: If the United States is to the point at which helping disaster victims means cutting other needed programs, it's time to rethink the way we're running this country. Today, Americans have the lightest total tax burden they've had since 1958. One result of that low tax burden, and the resulting inadequate federal and state revenue, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency faces a $3 billion shortfall. And that's before the Joplin bills arrive.

Overly optimistic projections during good times brought us to this point. Pandering politicians agreed to tax cuts that this country could not afford. But that's the past. Going forward, we must be able to agree it is un-American to scramble and bicker over priorities every time nature strikes.
Yes, it looks like America won't be able to rebuild the storm-damaged south, just like we haven't been able to rebuild New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, or the hole in the ground left from September 11th after a decade (I guess something is finally getting started there). It is clear that, domestically at least, the nation is literally on its last legs. Here in the rust belt, our silent factories have several decades of being reclaimed by nature under their belt. Buildings that once provided durable goods to the world and gave Americans the world highest living standards lay crumbling. We in the Midwest see these buildings every day; we walk and drive by them constantly, and they are constant reminders of how times have changed. This trend is now going nationwide, as The New York Times reports:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.
Does that sound like "The richest nation on earth" to you, because it doesn't to me. Cities and states are broke from sea to shining sea. Salon commentator Glenn Greenwald, who quoted the above article, went on to say:

UPDATE: It's probably also worth noting this Wall St. Journal article from last month -- with a subheadline warning: "Back to Stone Age" -- which describes how "paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Utah is seriously considering eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. And it was announced this week that "Camden [New Jersey] is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free."

Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights -- or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State -- that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability? Anyway, I just wanted to leave everyone with some light and cheerful thoughts as we head into the weekend.
Glenn Greenwald: What a Collapsing Empire Looks Like.

It's worth quoting that Wall Street Journal article in more detail, since it's so indicative of catabolic collapse:
SPIRITWOOD, N.D.—A hulking yellow machine inched along Old Highway 10 here recently in a summer scene that seemed as normal as the nearby corn swaying in the breeze. But instead of laying a blanket of steaming blacktop, the machine was grinding the asphalt road into bits.

"When [counties] had lots of money, they paved a lot of the roads and tried to make life easier for the people who lived out here," said Stutsman County Highway Superintendant Mike Zimmerman, sifting the dusty black rubble through his fingers. "Now, it's catching up to them."

Outside this speck of a town, pop. 78, a 10-mile stretch of road had deteriorated to the point that residents reported seeing ducks floating in potholes, Mr. Zimmerman said. As the road wore out, the cost of repaving became too great. Last year, the county spent $400,000 on an RM300 Caterpillar rotary mixer to grind the road up, making it look more like the old homesteader trail it once was.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

"I'd rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill," said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman's Bar Café and Gas in Spiritwood.

And speaking of Camden, New Jersey, The Nation magazine ran an amazing story documenting the decay of this industrial city. Surely Camden is simply an advanced look into the future of most of America:

Camden is where those discarded as human refuse are dumped, along with the physical refuse of postindustrial America. A sprawling sewage treatment plant on forty acres of riverfront land processes 58 million gallons of wastewater a day for Camden County. The stench of sewage lingers in the streets. There is a huge trash-burning plant that releases noxious clouds, a prison, a massive cement plant and mountains of scrap metal feeding into a giant shredder. The city is scarred with several thousand decaying abandoned row houses; the skeletal remains of windowless brick factories and gutted gas stations; overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up store fronts.
Camden, like America, was once an industrial giant. It employed some 36,000 workers in its shipyards during World War II and built some of the nation's largest warships. It was the home to major industries, from RCA Victor to the New York Ship Building Corporation and Campbell's Soup, which still has its international headquarters in a gated section of Camden but no longer makes soup in the city. Camden was a destination for Italian, German, Polish and Irish immigrants, who in the middle of the last century could find decent-paying jobs that required little English or education. The city's population has fallen by more than 40 percent from its 1950 level of 120,000. There are no movie theaters or hotels. There are lots with used cars but no dealerships that sell new vehicles. The one supermarket is located on the city's outskirts, away from the endemic street crime.
There are perhaps a hundred open-air drug markets, most run by gangs like the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos and MS-13. Knots of young men in black leather jackets and baggy sweatshirts sell weed and crack to clients, many of whom drive in from the suburbs. The drug trade is one of the city's few thriving businesses. A weapon, police say, is never more than a few feet away, usually stashed behind a trash can, in the grass or on a porch. Camden is awash in guns, easily purchased across the river in Pennsylvania, where gun laws are lax.

Camden is the poster child of postindustrial decay. It stands as a warning of what huge pockets of the United States could turn into as we cement into place a permanent underclass of the unemployed, slash state and federal services in a desperate bid to cut massive deficits, watch cities and states go bankrupt and struggle to adjust to a stark neofeudalism in which the working and middle classes are decimated.
It's not just Camden. According to the Washington Post, we've neglected our infrastructure - the most fundamental thing any society needs to function-so badly that it will take 2 trillion dollars just to make the existing infrastructure whole again, not to mention updating it to the twenty-first century standards of the rest of the world:
The United States is falling dramatically behind much of the world in rebuilding and expanding an overloaded and deteriorating transportation network it needs to remain competitive in the global marketplace, according to a new study by the Urban Land Institute.

Burdened with soaring deficits and with long-term transportation plans stalled in Congress, the United States has fallen behind three emerging economic competitors — Brazil, China and India, the institute said.

The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature. Eventually, the report says, the federal gas tax will be increased; local governments will be allowed to toll interstate highways; water bills will rise to pay for pipe and sewer replacement; property and sales taxes will increase; and private, profit-seeking companies will play a much larger role in funding and maintaining public projects.

“Over the next five to 10 years, public concerns will grow over evident declines in the condition of infrastructure,” the report says. “At some attention-getting point after infrastructure limps along, platforms for reinvesting in America could gain significant traction and public support.”

The report is the latest in a series of studies to conclude that the nation will face dire long-term consequences if major investment in transportation revitalization is postponed.
Study: 2 Trillion Needed for U.S. Infrastructure.

But what does the Urban Land Institute know, anyway? They're probably just a bunch of big-city liberals who like big government. Don't they know spending is bad, and private wealth makes America?

It's amazing that the United States theoretically won the Cold War, yet it's cities look worse that the decaying Magnetogorsks and Traktorgrads of the former Soviet Union, and many of it's people live in desperate poverty. Detroit has been the poster child for this for decades. The very epicenter of the assembly line and the place where moden industrial mass-production was created is a modern-day Roman ruin, complete with goats grazing in the shadow of the Forum:

The reality of Detroit is nearly common knowledge by now. The number of residents has been steadily decreasing since 1950, when at its apex the population was nearly 2 million. Right now, about a third of the city lays vacant. Detroit Free Press writer Stephen Henderson points out that "property tax revenues have fallen $10 million since 2003. Income tax receipts are down $13 million". The Motor City now suffers the highest unemployment rate in the nation, with over 25% of residents out of work. The loss of tax revenue means less money for schools, police and fire protection, and all other municipal services that sustain a city and make it inhabitable.
In response, Detroit has recently begun implementing "planned contraction" initiatives, demolishing houses in the most decimated sections of the city and turning them into agricultural land while relocating the remaining residents. The plan is an effort to co-locate residents and services to make the most efficient use of the city space for the remaining population. Orchards and farms would ostensibly replace urban blight, adding stretches of green landscape between the city core and the suburbs.
Downsizing Detroit: How They Found the Money to Shrink, and What We Can Learn

If you're still not convinced by all of the above that we're a nation undergoing catabolic collapse, please have a look at the following: slide show

In Pictures: Detroit's Abandoned Buildings (via BBC)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

First They Came For...

There is a good article on Naked Capitalism today pointing out the obvious - that high unemployment actually is a good thing for the stockholding classes. For this reason, you can be sure that whatever the unemployment rate is-fifteen percent, twenty percent, sixty percent, it will be declared "the new normal", and politicians will say "government doesn't create jobs", shrug their shoulders and do nothing. Here is the article:

Why The Rich Love Unemployment

In other words, the more of us are unemployed, the better off the elites are. Of course, if you point this out, no one will believe you, or worse, will call you a Communist. The question I have is, what possible incentive could there be to bring down the unemployment rate when every decision Washington makes is designed to benefit the wealthy elites who bankroll the campaigns of both parties?

This why the unemployed are completely forgotten. If you're not one of them - you don't care. Then, when you are, no one cares about you. After all, in America, if you're unemployed, it's obviously you're fault, right? It's like the famous poem from Pastor Martin Niemoller about how the Nazis were able to exterminate entire sections of society right under the noses of German citizens:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

With apologies to Niemoller:

First they came for the factory workers,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a factory worker.

Then they came for the union members,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a union member.

Then they came for the blue-collar workers,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a blue-collar worker.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

This could explain why the corporate-owned media has completely shifted away from covering the unemployment crisis to playing up the deficit as the nation's biggest problem. After all, the deficit concerns the investor class-they may not get back all the interest on those T-Bills they own. The investor class does not have to worry about unemployment, since they do not have jobs-they make their living from "investments", that is, the productivity of the rest of us not lucky enough to be in the investor class. This graph tells the story:

That caused the even the BBC to wonder why the complete and total lack of acknowledgement that there even is an unemployment problem.This article is remarkable not only for its content, but for pointing out that the actual unemployment rate is 20 percent!
I was laid off more than five years ago. Today I work full-time as a freelance - but earn 70% less than I did when I had a staff job.

 Grapes of Wrath producer Darryl Zanuck was no left-winger - nor was director John Ford It is a grave disappointment to Her Majesty's Revenue Collectors and a catastrophe for my family.
There are millions like me: people over 50, professional credentials (and achievements), working as "consultants" and not earning a penny, living on savings, trying to re-train. Where in the unemployment figures do we turn up?
I ask the question because I know the answer. When you include us, the actual number of unemployed in America is closer to 20% than 9%.
Now, that number is eye-popping. So why do writers and artists seem uninterested in the human toll of this terrifying downturn?
The question hit me a couple of weeks ago when by chance I saw director John Ford's classic, The Grapes of Wrath, on a long-haul flight. Where was the equivalent for our time?
The Grapes of Wrath is all the more amazing because it was a product of the Hollywood studio system. Neither Ford nor producer Darryl Zanuck were known as left-wingers. They were quite the opposite.
Yet something about what was happening in their country affected them and they decided to make a film out of John Steinbeck's novel of the same name (now, Steinbeck really was a leftie).
There is a pitiless authenticity to the movie. Ford seems to know these people inside out. Perhaps the distance between those who had everything, like Ford, and the dispossessed, like the Joads, wasn't as great as it is today.
Perhaps it's because the American Midwest was only a generation past wildness and the older actors in the film were for the most part born into that world.
The closest anyone has come in this downturn to dealing with the crisis of losing one's job is the film Up in the Air, a romance about a consultant (George Clooney) brought in to do the dirty work of laying people off.
The film invites more sympathy for Clooney, when his married girlfriend dumps him, than for the folks he has fired.
BBC News: Where are Today's Steinbecks?

Of course, college graduates have their pick of jobs, right?
The individual stories are familiar. The chemistry major tending bar. The classics major answering phones. The Italian studies major sweeping aisles at Wal-Mart.

Now evidence is emerging that the damage wrought by the sour economy is more widespread than just a few careers led astray or postponed. Even for college graduates — the people who were most protected from the slings and arrows of recession — the outlook is rather bleak.

Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is “worth it” after all.

“I have friends with the same degree as me, from a worse school, but because of who they knew or when they happened to graduate, they’re in much better jobs,” said Kyle Bishop, 23, a 2009 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh who has spent the last two years waiting tables, delivering beer, working at a bookstore and entering data. “It’s more about luck than anything else.”
New York Times: Outloook is Bleak, Even for College Graduates

As one pertinent comment reads:

"This is exactly what the corporate elite desire - educated, in debt, in no position to ask for anything. The perfect employee. Why stop here? Let's bring back slavery while we are at it."
Chris, Peoria, AZ

To my mind, any addressing of unemployment must also address the following:

- The lack of decent pay and benefits at the jobs that do exist, like the $7.50 and hour manufacturing jobs.

- The rise of part-time and temporary work with no job security.

- The fact that to get any decent-paying job you need to become a college debt-serf for the rest of your life.

- The fact that job creation is not keeping pace with population growth and hasn't for a long time.

- Outsourcing, insourcing, automation and illegal immigration.

The issues are far more than just the 9% (or whatever) unemployment that the government and elite-owned media are distracting us with. Let's face it, the elite want unemplyment as high as possible and they run the government. Republican, Democrat, it doesn't matter whose ineffective policies are being enacted, since those are the only choices were given by the elites. Now that corporate profits have exceeded their 2008 levels, as far as Washington is concerned, it's Mission Accomplished. The needs of ordinary Americans get nothing more than lip-service and hollow rhetoric. I wonder how bad things will have to get before the average American realizes the truth.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Warm and Windy City

An extraordinary article in The New York Times describes how urban planners in Chicago are taking steps now in anticipation of the city's climate becoming more like today's Birmingham, Alabama than the Windy City of today:
CHICAGO — The Windy City is preparing for a heat wave — a permanent one.

Climate scientists have told city planners that based on current trends, Chicago will feel more like Baton Rouge than a Northern metropolis before the end of this century.

So, Chicago is getting ready for a wetter, steamier future. Public alleyways are being repaved with materials that are permeable to water. The white oak, the state tree of Illinois, has been banned from city planting lists, and swamp oaks and sweet gum trees from the South have been given new priority. Thermal radar is being used to map the city’s hottest spots, which are then targets for pavement removal and the addition of vegetation to roofs. And air-conditioners are being considered for all 750 public schools, which until now have been heated but rarely cooled.

“Cities adapt or they go away,” said Aaron N. Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment. “Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways. We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it. We are on a 50-year cycle, but we need to get going.”
So basically, the fact that we are cooking the planet is being treated as a fait accompli by competent planners and technocrats around the world, and strategies are actively being developed to mitigate the effects. I'm speechless. And in Washington DC, as the article notes, Climate Change is still being denied at the national level by "Conservative" legislators (the better tern would be reactionary). There is a terrific article in Slate about how the Republican Party has basically turned into a movement of almost insane reality denial. The masthead for the article reads:

The Planet isn't warming
The President isn't American
Evolution didn't happen
Have the Republicans lost their minds?

The article begins:
At a press conference last week, someone asked Chris Christie for his views on evolution vs. creationism. "That's none of your business," the New Jersey governor barked in response.

This minor incident, which barely rated as news for a few political blogs, offers a glimpse of Christie's personality, which seems increasingly grumpy and snappish. But it says even more about the current state of the national Republican Party, where magical thinking trumps rationality, and even to acknowledge basic realities about the world we live in runs the risk of damaging one's political future.

Christie is not part of the natural constituency for Darwin-denial. He's an intelligent man, a lawyer, a fiscal rather than a social conservative. But Christie is also someone who might want to run for president someday, or be selected as someone's running mate. For those purposes, he must constantly ask himself the question: Am I about to say something to which a white, evangelical, socially conservative, gun-owning, Obama-despising, pro-Tea Party, GOP primary voter in rural South Carolina might object? By this standard, simple acceptance of the theory of evolution becomes a risky stance. To lie or to duck? Christie chose the option of ducking while signaling his annoyance at being put in this ridiculous predicament.

Moments like this point to a growing asymmetry in our politics. One party, the Democrats, suffers from the usual range of institutional blind spots, historical foibles, and constituency-driven evasions. The other, the Republicans, has moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot
Remember, the Republicans are not some out-there fringe party like the BNP in England of the Communists in Italy. This is one of the United States' two ruling parties. This party controls the House of Representatives, half the Senate, numerous governorships, etc. Is these any other country in the developed world where a candidate must remain mum on whether the world was created in seven days for fear of being unable to attain higher office?

Treehugger also notes the contrast between local governments all over the country, and even the US military making preparations for climate change, and the denialism present in the Republican Party. This feeds in to my thesis that city governments will be the only functioning governments in the future, as national governments lose their funding and legitimacy, or, in the case of the United States, their sanity. City governments are closest to the people, and cannot afford to ignore pressing crises, as national governments have done for decades-they must respond. That is the message of the article.

This continues to turn my interests toward urban planning. If I'm right, this will become the most important administrative job of the next century. I should also not the irony that this article about a tropical Chicago appears when we in Milwaukee have barely experienced temperatures over 55 degrees for the entire month of May. I could go for some of those tropical temperatures myself!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Esto es Lo Que la Democracia Parece

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.
-V for Vendetta

In cultures where the media is less corporate-controlled and where people actually talk to each other rather than passively accept what they see on TV, the citizens are not simply dropping their pants and bending over for the bankers. ¡Viva la revoluci√≥n!

Thousands of people have taken part in protests across Spain's main cities, defying a government ban on political protest ahead of local elections.

In Madrid, some 25,000 protesters occupied a main square. Others gathered in Barcelona, Valencia and Seville.

The protesters are angry with the government's economic policies and the country's high youth unemployment rate.

Spain's electoral commission had ordered those camped out in Madrid to leave ahead of Sunday's elections.

But, as the ban came into effect at midnight, the crowds started cheering and police did not move in.

The protest began six days ago in Madrid's Puerta del Sol as a spontaneous sit-in by young Spaniards frustrated at 45% youth unemployment.

The crowd camping out in the square overnight grew and the protest has spread to other cities across the country.

According to Spanish news agency, Efe, a total of some 60,000 protesters has gathered across Spain, in Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Bilbao as well as the capital.

The protesters, dubbed "los indignados" [the indignant], are demanding jobs, better living standards, a fairer system of democracy and changes to the Socialist government's austerity plans.

"They want to leave us without public health, without public education, half of our youth is unemployed, they have risen the age of our retirement as well," said protester Natividad Garcia.

"This is an absolute attack on what little state welfare we had."


See also:

And how can these supposedly "democratic" governments ban protesters from expression? In every country on earth, it seems, popular democracy has given way to economic tyranny.

Incidentally, Spain is home to the Mondragon Corporation. I learned about this business a while ago. It's interesting to me how this successful, employee-owned and run company is so poorly known. Simply put, there are other models for running a business besides absentee-ownership and executive dictatorships. As Charles Hugh Smith put it recently:

Corporations and government, being quasi-military/top-down/dictatorial in organization, breed mini-dictatorships, fiefdoms and self-glorification as a result of their intrinsic nature. Stripped of public relations happy-talk, Corporate America has a fascist core. This is the ugly truth.

Sounds About Right

The Hasidim see a lot of modern technology as a potential danger, putting at risk the spirit of purity and holiness of the community and threatening the innocent minds of its children.

Television is known as "the Yetzer Hara Box" which roughly translated means the "evil temptation machine". Owning one can be likened to "having an open sewer in the lounge".

Inside Europe's Biggest Hasidic Community

Friday, May 20, 2011

Land Grab

From India:

For more than a day, nobody bothered to tell Ombati Devi that her husband was dead.

When he failed to return home on the day farmers were protesting in their village Bhatta-Parsaul, she was told he had been wounded but that he had been taken to hospital where he was receiving treatment. The following evening the police arrived at her home, revealed the truth and took her to the mortuary where she was confronted with the sight of his corpse, caked with dried blood and ruptured by three bullet wounds. "He got injured in the crossfire while he was trying to flee the trouble spot," she said, her voice breaking off.

Her husband, Rajpal Singh, a farm-hand in these twin villages east of Delhi, was the latest of a number of people to be killed or injured in land disputes that have erupted across the length and breadth of India. As state authorities push the pace of industrialisation and private developers look to buy up agricultural land to build new towns and resorts for a newly wealthy upper-middle class, so clashes have become common. At proposed steel factories in Orissa, nuclear plants in Maharashtra and road projects in Mangalore, clashes have broken out when the authorities have sought to force people to part with their land.

Mr Singh was one of four people killed on 7 May, two of them police officers, when farmers held a protest over the amount they were paid for their land by local authorities who are building a new, 110-mile expressway alongside the Yamuna river to Agra, the city famous for the Taj Mahal. As in similar protests elsewhere in the country, the farmers complained that, while they were forced by the government to sell their land in return for a modest sum in compensation, the land was subsequently sold on to private developers for 10 or 15 times the amount.


From China:

The villagers are involved in a six-year protest against a development company that is trying to requisition their crop land for bag-making factories and residential housing. The farmers say they have been forced to give up their harvests for inadequate compensation.

"The developer hired 200 to 300 thugs to come and fight with us," said a man, who only gave his surname, Gao, because he feared retribution. "I was made to sign away my land. If I hadn't, the gangsters would have beaten me." He said six people had been hospitalised in the clashes in January. Demonstrations continue today.

Stories of forced evictions and bloody protests in rural China have been commonplace in recent years as cities sprawl outwards and more land is needed for industrial parks, housing blocks, roads and railways.

Many farmers believe local officials are in cahoots with developers to cheat them of fair compensation and a share of the surge in the land's value when it is recategorised for commercial use. This is a common complaint among the protesters in Xujiancheng, who have smashed the windows in the developer's office, torn down walls erected round their requisitioned farmland and spread protest banners across fences near the building site. In the fiercest protests in January, they carried two empty coffins to the frontline to show their willingness to die


When China's economic miracle caught up with Mrs Wang's cabbage patch, she was having her hair done in a neighbouring village - too far away to hear the township official's bellowed orders, "You have one hour to harvest your crops and then the bulldozers move in." So by the time she found out what was going on and rushed to the site, the fields her family had farmed for generations were already being churned up by mechanical diggers.

She was distraught. But with hundreds of armed police and security guards surrounding the area, there was nothing that she - and the hundreds of other villagers who lost their land that day - could do, except stand by and watch helplessly as their property was claimed for development. "Many villagers were sobbing. I wanted to cry, too, but the tears wouldn't come out," Mrs Wang recalls. "I was so furious." Six months later, the lame 60-year-old peasant - who had never been in trouble before - was in prison, charged with fomenting social unrest.


...Some things to keep in mind when you hear about the "burgeoning middle class" in these countries. The truth is, globalized corporate capitalism does not raise the fortunes of the poor, it makes those already on the top even richer than they already were. People who were middle class before globalization are the same ones who are middle class after globalization. All that happens is that the gap between the rich and poor widens, and what little the people on the bottom have is transferred upward.

In other news, China's Love Of Pork Means Factory Farms Are Displacing Small Farmers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Media Bias?

Triumphantly proclaimed on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and displayed prominently on JSOnline (if you can make it past all the ads):

Private sector added 3,000 jobs in April; state jobless rate dips to 7.3%

Gee, I wonder of that anything to do with this tidbit  from last month:

The "good" news: McDonalds recently hired 62,000 people for minimum wage, part-time work, which was 24 percent more than they planned. The bad news: Over a million people applied for the jobs, which means at least 938,000 applicants were turned down.

I wonder how many of those 3,000 jobs were part of the 62,000 McDonald's jobs. Oddly enough, the article doesn't say. Also very prominently placed in the print edition and online:

Nine state workers earned more than $65,000 each in overtime

3:00 p.m. | Nine state workers made more than $65,000 in overtime last year, including one who took in about $105,000 in overtime to more than double her salary.

Yup, it's those state workers earning $65,000 dollars that are driving us broke all right! However, I had to initiate an advanced online search to find this article:

Average pay for Wisconsin corporate CEOs up 27% in 2010

For more than a dozen, raises exceeded 100%

The pay of Wisconsin's top corporate executives rose an average of 27% in 2010, a year when unemployment hovered around 8% and pay to the average worker in the state fell.

See how the "Liberal" media works?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Some promising news on the energy front. The Hydrogen Economy is very appealing in theory; hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, is combustible, and when burned produces only water. One of the major hurdles is the fact that hydrogen does not exist in nature. Its simple structure (one proton, one electron), causes it to bind to other elements.

One of the major hurdles is that it takes a good bit of energy to seperate hydrogen from other elements for use. Harvesting hydrogen from water would be very green, but right now it takes electricity to do this, making it a net energy negative. That may be changing, scientists are working on a catalyst to sperate hydrogen from oxygen in water, similar to what plants do in photosynthesis. They are getting closer to making this work:


In other promising news:
New Solar Product Captures Up to 95 Percent of Light Energy
Energy Harvesters Transform Waste Into Electricity

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I'm not a major "hemp will save the world" campaigner, but it seems obvious this valuable material should be grown. It seems like it can be made into anything, and the products that come from it are carbon-neutral. It could also be a useful cash-crop to farmers, who could use the help.

This film was posted on Typer Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution. He writes:

During World War II hemp made a brief comeback as an American crop due to shortages of rope-making stock from other countries. Hemp for Victory is a 1942 US Department of Agriculture film that encourages farmers to grow hemp. It opens with a discussion of the ancient history of hemp (canvas derives from cannabis) and then moves into how it is being farmed in Kentucky and other US states to help in the war effort.

The film has an interesting history. For decades the USDA and the Library of Congress denied that such a thing had ever been made but in 1976 Rastafarians delivered a copy to a reporter in Florida.

There is a building material called hempcrete, which is made from hemp hurds (shives) and lime (possibly including sand, pozzolans, or cement). Hemp ‘hurds’ are the pithy stuff inside the fibrous sheath of the stem. Separating the fiber from the hurd was one of the production challenges that held hemp back and allowed cotton and nylon to rise in prominence. But once separated these silica rich hurds can be mixed with lime and water to make hempcrete. It's not a replacement for structural concrete - it's compressive strength is only 1/20th that of standard concrete, thus it's use is as a wall of flooring material rather than a structural material. Since it is a cellulosic material, I would compare it to wood.

But as a wall material, it has some impressive characteristics. It is seven times lighter than regular concrete, is waterproof (when used above grade), fireproof, and has good insulative properties. But to my mind, what makes it most impressive is that it's actually carbon negative - it can sequester carbon, since, like other plant products, the hemp crop absorbs CO2 gas as it grows, retaining the carbon and releasing the oxygen. It is also 100% recyclable - you can actually grind it up and use it for fertilizer!

Of course all these developments will take place outside the United States due to our laws against growing hemp. Incidentally, the reason it's not grown has less to do with drugs than corporate power. William Randolph Hearst had large holdings of timber which he used to provide the wood pulp for his newspapers, and was afraid that hemp would undemine his business. So he began a media campaign to demonize hemp (and marijuana - the infamous "reefer madness" of the jazz clubs). He was assisted by the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and the DuPont family. Mellon had invested heavily in DuPont's nylon material, and eliminating hemp would provide a huge market for synthetic nylon. So America has a long history of "free market" capitalism being shaped and dictated from oligarchs on high.

More on hempcrete:

World Agriculture Trends

Finally, some good news in agriculture, via The Guardian:
India's struggling farmers are starting to profit from a budding interest in organic living. Not only are the incomes of organic farmers soaring – by 30% to 200%, according to organic experts – but their yields are rising as the pesticide-poisoned land is repaired through natural farming methods.

Organic farming only took off in the country about seven years ago. Farmers are turning back to traditional farming methods for a number of reasons.

First, there's a 10% to 20% premium to be earned by selling organic products abroad and in India's increasingly affluent cities, a move towards healthy living and growing concern over toxic foods and adulteration plaguing the food market.

Second, the cost of pesticides and fertilisers has shot up and the loans farmers need to buy expensive, modified seed varieties are pushing many into a spiral of debt. Crippling debt and the burden of loans are trriggering farmer suicides across the country, particularly in the Vidarabha region of Maharashtra. Organic farming slashes cultivation and input costs by up to 70% due to the use of cheaper, natural products like manure instead of chemicals and fertilisers.

Third farmers are suffering from the damaging effects of India's green revolution, which ushered in the rampant use of pesticides and fertilisers from the 1960s to ensure bumper yields and curb famine and food shortages. Over the decades, the chemicals have taken a toll on the land and yields are plunging.

"Western, modern farming has spoiled agriculture in the country. An overuse of chemicals has made land acidic and hard, which means it needs even more water to produce, which is costly," says Narendra Singh of Organic India. "Chemicals have killed the biggest civilisation in agriculture – earthworms, which produce the best soil for growth."

Umesh Vishwanath Chaudhari, 35, a farmer in the Jalgaon district in Maharashtra, switched to organic farming seven years ago after experiencing diminishing yields from his 8-hectare (20-acre) plot. He came across a book on organic farming techniques using ancient Vedic science. He started making natural fertilisers and pesticides using ingredients such as cow manure, cow urine, honey and through vermicomposting – the process of using earthworms to generate compost. Since then, his yields and income have risen by 40%, and worms have returned to his soil. He sells lime, custard apple and drumsticks to organic stores in Pune, Mumbai and other cities, while his cotton is bought by Morarka, a rural NGO.

He plans to convert another 2 hectares to organic cotton and buy 10 cows to make his own manure, rather than buying it. "Using manure instead of pesticides and fertilisers has cut my costs by half, and I get a premium on these goods," he says. "I used to drive a scooter, but in the past few years I've been able to afford a bike and car – and even two tractors."

Many farmers are reluctant to make the leap because they fear a drop in yields in the initial period; good results tend to show after three years. Moreover, the market is growing by 500% to 1,000% a year, according to Morarka, but it only represents 0.1% of the food market.

Kavita Mukhi organises a weekly organic farmers' market in Mumbai, where producers sell direct to consumers. She is trying to boost awareness about organic food. "The only way you hear about it is if you stumble on an organic shop," she says. "There's no widespread marketing or awareness of the benefits."

Once the awareness increases, organic agriculturalists believe more farmers will join the movement because it's favourable to small farmers. They already have the cows and buffalos needed to recycle biomass at the farm level, which is, essentially, the foundation of organic farming.

"Unlike Europe, India's modern farming revolution is not very old, meaning they still possess the knowhow for cultivation without modern chemical inputs," says Mukesh Gupta of Morarka.

While critics argue that organic farming is not the answer to India's rising food demands, those in favour say it's the only sustainable way out for impoverished farmers.

It's nice to hear some good news for a change. Hopefully, increased information exchange among farmers will help speed these techniques being adopted:
More than half of India's population live in rural areas and off-the-map villages.

Most are remote and too isolated to benefit from the country's impressive economic progress. Yet there's a growing desire among people in rural India to be part of its modernisation process.

"India is a country which has more than 600,000 villages and connecting these areas with internet broadband will have a paradigm shift," says Sachin Pilot, the minister of state for communications and information technology.

Those living in rural areas account for over half of the total population of India Increasingly the government is looking at better ways to reach remote, rural India. And it is hoping that technology will provide a solution.

"It's time for our IT roots to go further inland and make sure that those areas which are tribal, rural and far-off geographically are brought to the ambit of the IT revolution," says Mr Pilot.

"It's the last-mile delivery that's always been a challenge for India."

Meanwhile, in China, where farmers are still relying on toxic chemical-based farming methods:
Fields of watermelons exploded when he and other agricultural workers in eastern China mistakenly applied forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator. The incident has become a focus of a Chinese media drive to expose the lax farming practices, shortcuts and excessive use of fertiliser behind a rash of food safety scandals.

It follows discoveries of the heavy metal cadmium in rice, toxic melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms, and the detergent borax in pork, added to make it resemble beef.

Compared to such cases of dangerous contamination, Liu's transgression was minor, but it has gained notoriety after being picked up by the state broadcaster, CCTV. The broadcaster blamed the bursting of the fruit on the legal chemical forchlorfenuron, which stimulates cell separation but often leaves melons misshapen and turns the seeds white.

The report said the farmers sprayed the fruit too late in the season and during wet conditions, which caused the melons to explode like "landmines".

Environment groups say the overuse of agricultural chemicals is a problem that goes beyond growth stimulants.

Pan Jing of Greenpeace said farmers depended on fertilisers because many doubled as migrant workers and had less time for their crops. This dependency was promoted by state subsidies keeping fertilisers cheap. "The government is aware of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertiliser, but they are also concerned about food output."

Many farmers grow their own food separately from the chemically-raised crops they sell. "I feel there is nothing safe I can eat now because people are in too much of a hurry to make money," said Huang Zhanliang, a farmer in Hebei.

Concerns about food safety have lingered despite government promises to deal with the problem after six babies died and thousands became ill because of melamine-tainted milk in 2008.

In the past week, the People's Daily website has run stories of human birth control chemicals being used on cucumber plants in Xian, China Daily has reported Sichuan peppers releasing red dye in water, and the Sina news portal revealed that barite powder had been injected into chickens in Guizhou to increase their weight.

More alarming still was a study by researchers at Nanjing Agricultural University that estimated a tenth of China's rice may be tainted with the cadmium, a heavy metal that can affect the nervous system. This caused a stir when it was published earlier this year in the pioneering Caixin magazine.

Epilogue: Why this matters: In India a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes because of debt.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Is Greece The Future?

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.
-William Gibson

As you no doubt learned in school, Greece is essentially the birthplace of what we consider Western Culture. Ancient Greece was the foundation of a culture distinct from civilization's origins in the Middle East. Our ideas of government and man's place in the world originate here. Thus I find it supremely ironic that Greece seems to be going first into the darkness that will soon envelop the whole world as our absurdist economic "system" collapses under its own contradictions. It seems we are historically in a period very similar to the transition from the Roman Empire to the Dark Ages (or Late Antiquity, as it is now more accurately termed by historians).

The Gibson quote above is one of my all-time favorites, and it indicates one of the simplest and most accurate ways of forecasting the future. If you want to know the future, all you have to do is find outliers that have all the characteristics of where the trend is going. For example, you could find plenty of areas around the edges of the Roman Empire that had, for all intents and purposes, slipped into the Dark Ages even at a time when the Empire was still a viable political entity. I examined this at length in my post, Is Japan The Future? So let's have a look at Greece, shall we?

Social workers and municipal officials in Athens report that there has been a 25 percent increase in homelessness. At the main food kitchen in Athens, 3,500 people a day come seeking food and clothing, up from about 100 people a day when it first opened 10 years ago.

The average age of those who show up is now 47, down from 60 two years ago, adding to evidence that those who are suffering now are former professionals. The unemployment rate for men 30 to 60 years old has spiked to 10 percent from 4 percent since the crisis began in 2008.

Aris Violatzis, Anargyros D.’s counselor, says that calls to the Klimaka charity’s suicide help line have risen to 30 a day, twice the number two years ago.

“We cannot imagine this,” Mr. Violatzis said. “We were once the 29th-richest country in the world. This is a nation in deep emotional shock.”

Evidence of the emotional and social shock was abundant in Athens last week. Even as I.M.F. and European banking officials worked with Greek officials to hash out the contours of a second bailout package, a nicely dressed middle-aged woman with silver buckles on her shoes sifted through the garbage cans outside the five-star hotels where many of these officials were staying.

At dusk, riot police fired tear gas at rock-throwing protesters as tourists and workers on their way home took cover.

Laid off construction workers have holed up in abandoned villas. A security guard fired by one of the many downsizing Greek companies said he had spent the last year sleeping in the back seat of his battered hatchback. And a chef trained in the premier cooking school in Athens spent 18 months sleeping on park benches after the restaurant where he worked eliminated his job. A homeless charity recently gave him shelter.

While aid workers refer to these people as a new generation of homeless, the Greek government does not officially recognize the homeless as a social category in need of assistance, says Anta Alamanu, who runs a privately financed shelter for Klimaka, the social services group.

As a result there are no government-supported homeless shelters as they exist in other parts of Europe or in the United States.

When Kostas DeLazaris, 47, lost his tourism job on the island of Corfu in 2007, he joined a construction firm in Athens, only to lose that job 10 months ago as the once-buoyant building industry ground to a halt. Now he sleeps on the floor in an abandoned house, sharing the space with two Greek women and a family of Bangladeshi immigrants.

He was a dedicated union man when he worked in tourism, serving as vice president of his local branch. But on the same day last week that his former peers marched on Parliament in protest, he said he would not be joining them.

“I feel betrayed,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “I paid my dues. I was part of the masses, and now I am on the streets.”

He snorts at the possibility of a new deal with Europe.

“That is a dead end,” he said. “There will be an earthquake instead and blood will be spilt.”

Indeed, there are analysts who argue that a social flare-up is in the making, fueled by the divide between the hard-hit private sector and a public work force of about one million strong that so far has not experienced significant job losses.

“This is an explosive situation, and there could well be violence,” said Stefanos Manos, a former economy minister who has advocated more aggressive spending cuts. “Especially as those who lost their jobs were earning 50 percent less than those who kept them.”

Greece may well get the assistance, with strings attached, of course. But whether that will help lift Anargyros D. out of his despondency remains unclear. At age 41, he lives off his father’s monthly pension of 962 euros, which is down from 1,500 euros a year ago, and he must borrow money for the bus from his home in the Peloponnese region to his counseling sessions in Athens.

“Everything was coming up roses,” he said, mashing a cigarette into the ashtray before him. “And then the banks took it all away from us.”


High in the hills of Arcadia, in a big stone house on the edge of this village overlooking verdant pastures and a valley beyond, a group of young Athenians are busy rebuilding their lives.

Until recently Andritsaina was not much of a prospect for urban Greeks. "But that," said Yiannis Dikiakos, "was before Athens turned into the explosive cauldron that it has become. We woke up one day and thought we've had enough. We want to live the real Greece and we want to live it somewhere else."

Piling his possessions into a Land Rover and trailer, the businessman made the 170-mile journey to Andritsaina last month. As he drove past villages full of derelict buildings and empty homes, along roads that wound their way around rivers and ravines, he did not look back.

"Athens has failed its young people. It has nothing to offer them any more. Our politicians are idiots … they have disappointed us greatly," said Dikiakos, who will soon be joined by 10 friends who have also decided to escape the capital.

They are part of an internal migration, thousands of Greeks seeking solace in rural areas as the debt-stricken country grapples with its gravest economic crisis since the second world war.

"It's a big decision but people are making it," said Giorgos Galos, a teacher in Proti Serron on the great plains of Macedonia, in northern Greece. "We've had two couples come here and I know lots in Thessaloniki [Greece's second biggest city] who want to go back to their villages. The crisis is eating away at them and they're finding it hard to cope. If they had just a little bit of support, a little bit of official encouragement, the stream would turn into a wave because everything is just so much cheaper here."

Ironically, it is the medicine doled out under last year's draconian EU-IMF €110bn (£96bn) rescue programme, implemented to modernise a sclerotic economy, that has made their lot worse. Twelve months of sweeping public sector pay and pension cuts, massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have begun to have a brutal effect. GDP is predicted to contract by 3% this year – making Greece's the deepest recession in Europe.

In Athens, home to almost half of Greece's 11 million-strong population, the signs of austerity – and poverty – are everywhere: in the homeless and hungry who forage through municipal rubbish bins late at night; in the cash-strapped pensioners who pick up rejects at the street markets that sell fruit and vegetables; in the shops now boarded and closed and in the thousands of ordinary Greeks who can no longer afford to take family outings or regularly eat meat.

"We've had to give up tavernas, give up buying new clothes and give up eating meat more than once a week," said Vasso Vitalis, a mother-of-two who struggles with her civil servant husband to make ends meet on a joint monthly income of €2,000.

"With all the cuts we estimate we've lost around €450 a month. We're down to the last cent and, still, we're lucky. We've both got jobs. I know people who are unemployed and are going hungry. They ask family and friends for food," she sighed. "What makes us mad is that everybody knew the state was a mess but none of our politicians had the guts to mend it. It was like a ship heading for the rocks and now the rocks are very near."

Greeks also know that with their economy needing another financial lifeline, and few willing to lend to a country in such a parlous state, it will also get much worse before it gets better.

"In the past, the future always implied hope for Greeks but now it implies fear," said Nikos Filis, editor of the leftwing Avgi newspaper. "Until this week people thought that with all the measures the crisis would be over in a year or two. Now with the prospect of yet more austerity for more aid, they can't see an end in sight."

With unemployment officially nudging 790,000 – although believed to be far bigger with the closure of some 150,000 small and medium-sized businesses over the past year – there are fears that Greece, the country at the centre of Europe's worst financial debacle in decades, is slipping inexorably into political and social crisis, too. Rising racist tensions and lawlessness on the streets this week spurred the softly spoken mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, to describe the city as "beginning to resemble Beirut".

A mass exodus of the nation's brightest and best has added to fears that in addition to failing one or perhaps two generations, near-bankrupt Greece stands as never before to lose its intellectual class. "Nobody is speaking openly about this but the prospects for the Greek economy are going to get much worse as the brain drain accelerates and the country loses its best minds," said Professor Lois Lambrianidis, who teaches regional economics at the University of Macedonia.

"Around 135,000, or 9% of tertiary educated Greeks, were living abroad and that was before the crisis began. They simply cannot find jobs in a service-oriented economy that depends on low-paid cheap labour."

Just as in Arcadia where the young are choosing to start anew, Greece, he says, needs to rebuild itself if it is to survive its worst crisis in modern times.


RELATED: As Greeks Abandon Troubled Athens, Are Cities Really Sustainable?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Century of Disasters

Via Slate:

And yet in the coming century, these or other black swans will seem to occur with surprising frequency. There are several reasons for this. We have chosen to engineer the planet. We have built vast networks of technology. We have created systems that, in general, work very well, but are still vulnerable to catastrophic failures. It is harder and harder for any one person, institution, or agency to perceive all the interconnected elements of the technological society. Failures can cascade. There are unseen weak points in the network. Small failures can have broad consequences.

Most importantly: We have more people, and more stuff, standing in the way of calamity. We're not suddenly having more earthquakes, but there are now 7 billion of us, a majority living in cities. In 1800, only Beijing could count a million inhabitants, but at last count there were 381 cities with at least 1 million people. Many are "megacities" in seismically hazardous places—Mexico City, Caracas, Tehran, and Kathmandu being among those with a lethal combination of weak infrastructure (unreinforced masonry buildings) and a shaky foundation.

Natural disasters will increasingly be accompanied by technological crises—and the other way around. In March, the Japan earthquake triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Last year, a technological failure on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to the environmental crisis of the oil spill.

Slate: The Century of Disasters/

What this says is that overpopulation is a driver of disasters, since it forces people to live in areas that are more prone to disasters. Not only does it force people to live there, but in greater numbers, causing the magnitude of such disasters to appear greater. It also forces us to be dependent on more disaster-prone areas for fuel, food, and water to supply the ever-growing population. For example, marginal land in dangerous areas must be brought under cultivation to feed a growing population, oil rigs must be drilled in hurricane-prone areas to get at what few reserves are remaining, and nuclear plants must be built in tsunami-vulnerable areas, because there is nowhere else to go. Finally, the sheer complexity of society makes it ever more likely for things to go wrong, just like it is more likely for a car with 3,000 distinct parts powered by gasoline to have a breakdown than a Radio Flyer pull-wagon.

Ipso facto, if we lived in a simpler society with fewer people, there would be less disasters. There would be fewer of us more spread out, making us less vulnerable to catastrophe, and we would not to rely on marginal and dangerous areas of the globe for food, materials and fuel.

These disasters are a choice. If you want less of them, the drivers must be dealt with - overpopulation and overcomplexity

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Do Computers Mean It's Time To Consider Ornamentation in Architecure Again?

A few weeks ago I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. That visit alone is worthy of several blog posts, but today I'd like to dwell on one specific topic that has been on my mind.

As one exited the exhibit, there was the obligatory shop where you can purchase the usual trinkets - books, T-shirts, postcards, etc. One of the items you could purchase were lasercut screens of Frank's elaborate designs in metal or wood. You see and buy these screens online here:


Laser cutting is defined by Wikipedia this way:

Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to cut materials, and is typically used for industrial manufacturing applications, but is also starting to be used by schools, small businesses and hobbyists. Laser cutting works by directing the output of a high-power laser, by computer, at the material to be cut. The material then either melts, burns, vaporizes away, or is blown away by a jet of gas, leaving an edge with a high-quality surface finish. Industrial laser cutters are used to cut flat-sheet material as well as structural and piping materials.

With the lasercutting technique, a design can be imputed into a computer with microscopic precision, and cut into a variety of materials, including wood, metal, stone and composites (plastics). The pattern only need by inputted once, and it can be repeated essentially infinitely, with no errors. It can be used to create all sorts of patterns which can be mass-produced, from a simple cutout to elaborately shaped pieces which would take large amounts of time to recreate by hand. For an example of lasercutting used extensively in a facade (for better or worse), see the following:


I find the aesthetics here questionable, and the technique rather gimmicky, but it is an example of what can be done with the technology.
Lasercutters are becoming quite common, and they are only the beginning of what promises to be a revolution in the way computers are used to create designs in the real world. One technique that is getting a lot of attention is 3D printing. 3D printing allows a three dimensional shape to be inputted into a computer connected to a 3D printer, which then builds up the object by laying down successive layers of some material until the entire form is built up. The size of the end product is limited only by the size of the printer itself. Some have enthused about the 3D printing of entire buildings, and work has been done in this direction. To me, this is rather bizarre-who would want a building to comprised out of one monolithic material? That seems incredibly boring, not to mention pointless. However, the ability to mass produce shapes, no matter how elaborate, in a variety of materials, is the real intriguing part to me.

Another digital technique is the use of robots in actual construction. There have been a few pilot projects which have used robot bricklayers to lay bricks in elaborate forms that would have been time-consuming and technically difficult for a traditional mason to accomplish by hand, not to mention costly. These elaborate brick layouts point towards methods to derive elaborate shapes that would not have been possible before, and certainly would not have been cost-effective in traditional construction.

The question is - does the use of computers mean it is time to reintroduce a degree of ornamentation in architecture?


Ornament has been a part of human art since before recorded history. It appears to be something innate in the workings of the human mind. In fact, it predates all known architecture. One of the best-loved artifacts in the British Museum is the swimming reindeer sculpture from approximately 13,000 years ago. This stunning work of art was carved from the hard keratin of a woolly mammoth tusk. While maintaining the unique overall shape of the tusk, material is chipped away to depict two swimming reindeer, a male and a female. The carving looks remarkably contemporary, despite the fact it was carved by hunter-gatherers in a time preceeding agriculture, and therefore, civilization.

The same urge would express itself in the hard materials of architecture when cities began to become the new habitat of mankind, thousands of years later. The same active minds that carved the reindeer now carved the hard rock of the stones that made the palaces and temples of the first cities on the banks of the world's great rivers. Ornament would be a universal expression of the human spirit - the building designs of the Americas, completely separated from those of the Old World, would share similar characteristics with their counterparts in Europe, Asia and Africa. Ornament, in one form or another, would be universal in architecture throughout the ages, showing itself in stone, wood, and metal in a vast panoply of styles evolving over thousands of years all over the world and expressing unique regional and cultural characteristics. Often these ornaments served useful functions in the building itself, such as elaborately carved wood screens which shaded the building in Indian and Middle Eastern climates, or the carvings and stained glass windows depicting Bible stories to a largely illiterate Medieval European population.

To cite but one example, the sculptural forms of the swimming reindeer are echoed in one of the most distinctive architectural elements from the classical world - the caryatid. The caryatid is a statue depicting a woman that acts as a column holding a roof lintel. These were used widely in Greek and Roman architecture, most famously at the caryatid porch in the Acropolis. Classical Indian architecture is especially elaborate, with dense carvings over nearly every square foot of facade depicting humans, animals, and other abstract forms often inspired by nature. These buildings were usually built for religious or ceremonial reasons, and for this reason they contained extensive symbolism, since were designed embody specific religious and cultural values into their forms. Before the modern age, these sorts of buildings were the largest enterprises undertaken by humanity*, and thus were undertaken with a particular reverence.

Over time ornamentation styles became as varied as the cultures that spawned them, evolving over time, like the cultures themselves. Such buildings were as much a form of cultural expression as music, poetry, weaving, painting and literature. In the twentieth century, however, ornamentation of any sort, even minimal, was banished from architecture in place of cubical volumes of platonic shapes. Why did this happen?


The philosophy that would strip all ornamentation was most forcefully argued by Viennese architect Adolph Loos, who famously proclaimed that "ornament is a crime!" Loos put forward his argument in his 1908 book Ornament and Crime, which, although it had a profound influence on modern architecture, is rarely read today.

Loos' polemic makes its case on multiple fronts, from the practical to the philosophical. Loos central argument was that ornamentation was degenerate. He believed that societies naturally evolved towards higher states (a common idea at the time), and that the removal of ornament was a natural part of this process. He put forward the example of "primitive" New Guineans, who ornamented everything in their society, including their own bodies with tattoos, in contrast to the more highly evolved Europeans, who stripped such things away. He felt such ornamentation was an attempt to express a latent eroticism, and was therefore, in his view, degenerate. Ornamentation was particularly associated with the upper echelons of society who could afford such ostentation, and therefore the arguments against ornamentation were often linked to larger social criticisms.

Ornamentation was also inherently linked to the style of a particular time period. Europeans, being surrounded by such relics of the past, were impeded in their cultural progress, according to Loos. The ornamentation on buildings would doubtless soon go out of style, turning even new buildings into fossils in short order. By contrast, unadorned objects and buildings, stripped of the latest designer fads and fashions, would be able to withstand the test of time without looking old or dated, never falling out of style. Clearly, such fads were not compatible with the practical, rational nature of industrial society.

Furthermore, ornament served no practical purpose. Ornament was a tragic waste of manpower and materials. Workers were often compelled to add ornamentation without fair remuneration for their efforts. The removal of ornament liberated the workmen to do better things with their time, and freed up materials for more practical uses.

Loos was writing near the end of a long period of cultural upheaval in Europe, where mass production and the factory model had displaced the handicraft production methods that had been the traditional way of creating objects since Medieval times. This craft-oriented production method was inherently linked with ornamentation, and it was logical that a new austere aesthetic would be the logical compliment to mass-production, supplying the philosophical justification for what was already underway. What was happening to everyday objects was logically applied to the new aesthetic of buildings.

The other trend since the beginning of the Enlightenment was toward a society based on logic and reason, as opposed to religion and emotion. Ornamentation, as a pure expression of aesthetics with no practical purpose, was seen as contrary to the values of a society based on rationality. Buildings should express the hyper-rationality that was the basis of modern society, not the fickle and conflicting emotional world depicted by ornamental fads. The gargoyles of Gothic Cathedrals represented superstition and ignorance, and stripped of such ostentation, new buildings would represent reason and progress. The rational world of Europe demanded that the forms also be rational and Platonic, derived from engineering principles and the activities that occurred within them, as expressed succinctly in the modernist dictum, "form follows function."

In opposition to Loos was the English art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin, inspired by the European Romantic movement, arguing that architecture was actually an expression of human desires and emotions. Ruskin argued that buildings were not merely practical, nor should they be - they were an expression of an entire community's hopes, dreams, and cultural institutions. As such, they were also an expression of memory, and memory needed to be preserved to have a healthy culture. Even its crude and "savage" aspects were proof of "the liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure." As Ruskin put it:

"Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are also the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance."

Ruskin lost out. Loos' argument became a central feature of Modern architecture when it was picked up by the highly influential European artistic movement known as the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus movement critiqued bourgeois society, and found ready ammunition in Loos' attack on ornamentation. The movement was fascinated with the utilitarian buildings spawned by industrialism, - the factories with their high ceilings and large, columnless spaces for armies of workmen and machinery, iron bridges whose beauty came from the economy of structure of the iron material, water towers and train sheds, and towering smokestacks. Here was to be found the new aesthetic for a new age - the aesthetic of the machine. This was how buildings should be - the aesthetic should come from the materials themselves and the engineering knowledge that went into them, not from outdated ornamentation which went in and out of style. Such was the aesthetic of rationality! Ornamentation was a useless holdover from that past society of farmers and craftsmen who toiled in squalor. Mass-production could lead to a golden age for the industrial worker, and the removal of all ornamentation expressed that Utopian ideal. French architect Le Corbusier declared the house to be simply "a machine for living". Machines were not the enemy - they were the liberators!

Thus, a form of architecture that had no ornamentation would be beyond style - and yet that would become a style of itself - the International Style. Since it had no ornament - it could go anywhere. It belonged at once everywhere and nowhere. This was the beginning of Modernism.

In the end, Loos may have won out for purely practical reasons. Ornament was costly. A stone carver could only carve a custom piece painstakingly, one piece at a time, and needed to be paid wages for it based on the amount of time he took to do his work. The logic of the money-wage economy made such considerations cost-prohibitive. It took literally years for stonemasons to carve the elaborate portals at Chartres, for example, and in a wage-driven society who was going to pay for that? Assemblages of mass-produced parts were far more cost-effective.

Also, the sheer amount of buildings necessary for industrialism made such considerations unworkable. In agrarian societies with limited energy and materials, putting up a building was a relatively rare occurrence, Most buildings were simple and vernacular, built simply for immediate use - a cottage, a barn, a guild hall, etc. A castle or a Gothic cathedral often took decades to build, and in some cases over a century! By contrast, industrialism required massive amounts of buildings to go up quickly and cheaply. Mass-produced materials - rolled steel shapes, cast-iron forms, fired ceramics, glass panes, precut dimensional lumber, sheet materials and poured concrete were the new materials of choice. These were not hand-crafted like the wood beams of an old half-timbered house - these were cranked out in large quantities and assembled rapidly, then on to the next building. Buildings became standardized, and the factory system eventually displaced the craftsman system in construction as well - each worker did one part of a single specialized task, over and over, leaving the big picture to the architect in his faraway office. "Slow building" it was not.

And besides, the activities taking place within these buildings truly were novel. A factory building's function was not social - it was designed for producing goods, not being beautiful in and of itself. There really was no precedent for a factory or an office building in  history. How should such buildings look? It seemed like the spartan glass boxes of Mies Van Der Rohe made as much sense as an aesthetic basis for the number-crunching temples of capitalist business as any other form. Of what relevance were Gothic cathedrals or Greek temples for these buildings? Of what use ornamentation? Buildings became cheaper and less durable, becoming simply shells for the profit-making enterprises that took place within them. The social value of architecture was abandoned. Modernism had reached its apogee.

The Bauhaus movement was incorporated into the United States as the European designers fled war-torn Europe and came to North America, establishing architecture programs at America's most prestigious universities, and in consequence transforming American architecture from a practical art of building to one of abstract theory. Prominent dissidents of these ideas were the idiosyncratic Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, and the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Wright.


Modernism was embraced wholeheartedly in America - the most modern of countries. America's exponential industrial growth necessitated massive construction - upward of ninety percent of the buildings in North America were built after world War 2. Many older buildings from before the war were mercilessly torn down in the name of progress - often for nothing more than freeways and parking lots for cars.

After decades of unquestioning modernism in the name of progress, something happened. Modernism began to lose its luster. A watershed event was the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis - a project built on the principles of classical modernism - due to the sheer unlivability of the place. The public began to question the sparse, impersonal nature of these buildings, and contrast them with the older buildings that had survived the onslaught of anti-urbanism which had swept the country.

The general public simply liked the older buildings better than what architects were creating in the present. These older buildings adapted themselves remarkably to post-industrial society - old warehouse buildings were converted into art galleries, and as high-income patrons shopped for art, they noticed the high ceilings, open floor plans, and plentiful natural lighting were ideal for other uses - condominiums, offices, boutiques. Moreover, these spaces were inspiring, with their elaborate brick and terra-cotta facades, plaster walls, large double-hung windows, ornate wrought iron banisters and exposed heavy-timber framing. Older industrial urban neighborhoods quickly became the most desirable real estate in the city, and these places became the hip and trendy areas, from Soho in New York to the Pearl District in Portland. Areas which suffered from underinvestment and neglect now had the opposite problem - soaring rents and gentrification pushed out all but the rich from these areas. Ironically, many of these buildings were the very same ones that had inspired European Modernism - warehouses, factories, and office buildings.

The architectural profession, however, remained obsessed with novelty. Modernist buildings became sleek and machine-sculpted assemblages - kits of high-tech parts fitted together, where the aesthetic appeal was intended to come from the massing of abstract geometric forms defining the spaces therein. Forbidden from using ornament, the buildings themselves became the ornament. Architects took their design cues from the geometric forms of abstract painters and sculptors, as well as the gridded modularity of modern manufactured materials. "Honesty in materials" became the catch phrase for many movements including Brutalism, which took it's name from the French word for concrete, but in the public's eye came to embody the more conventional use of the term. For a brief period, a movement called post-modernism emerged, which idiosyncratically pasted historical forms onto modern buildings in an exaggerated and cartoonish manner, in a self-conscious attempt to "reference" historical precedents. It quickly faded. Eventually, two major trends emerged in American architecture - forms becoming ever more sculptural and bizarre - exemplified by Frank Gehry, Daniel Liebeskind and Thom Mayne, and buildings built with no aesthetic whatsoever, as exemplified by the millions of anonymous buildings littering American suburbia. These two trends - paper-thin utilitarian crud vomited across the landscape and expensive and leaky white elephants, were signs of an architecture that has lost its way**.

Yet the old areas of cities were more vibrant than ever. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century buildings, after a period of decline and demolition, were now almost universally beloved and preserved. These pre-modernist buildings did not derive "sculptural" forms from the shape of the building. Their layouts were often simple "alphabet"shapes - L's, O's and E's. They did, however, have ornamentation. The Carson Pirie Scott building in Chicago, by Louis Sullivan, with its elaborate bronze-plated cast-iron ornamental scrollworks decorating the corner entry on the corner of State and Madison, is a classic example. Or consider the exuberant art-deco of the top of the Chrysler Building in New York by William Van Allen - it is one of the most beloved icons and a distinct feature of the city's skyline, especially contrasted against the gridded boxes of postwar skyscrapers. Has any tall building been built in New York since the war that is as universally loved?

Contrast these with works by such modernist icons as Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn, which are reviled by the general public for their aesthetics, performance and usability. To cite but a few examples, the bare hammered concrete of the Yale Art and Architecture building by Paul Rudolph to most outside observers seems cold, harsh, and uninviting. The building was too small from the start, with claustrophobic quarters for painters on top, poor ventilation and bad lighting. Many of Rudolph's works are already being torn down or threatened with demolition. Users of Louis Kahn's buildings talk about the usability problems in the film My Architect, and seem less than enthused with the work. MIT sued Frank Gehry over the pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems caused by the swooping forms at his Stata Center after only a few years of use. The Denver Art Museum, with its jagged shard forms has suffered roof leaks, and its galleries are nearly unusable. Boston City Hall, an icon of modernism built in 1969, is reviled by many citizens, who believe it looks like a bunker or a prison. The mayor has proposed selling it and its adjacent plaza off to developers. In 2008 it was named the world's ugliest building in an online poll.

Clearly stripping all ornamentation, exposing bare materials, and turning the form of the building itself into sculpture have not had the hoped-for results - unworkable spaces, leaky roofs, temperature problems. Unadorned modernist buildings have ended up looking even more dated than their 19th century counterparts, and far less loved by the general public. Will our modern buildings they be as beloved in the next century? Will people be fighting to prevent them from being torn down? Will they provide usable spaces for new future uses? There is no way of knowing for sure, but I doubt it. Why, with all our technical brilliance and our seemingly limitless command of materials, have we not succeeded in making buildings as emotionally rewarding as those of a century earlier?


So to return to our original thesis - are Adolph Loos' arguments valid today? I hardly think so. Even stripped of its racist overtones, It is difficult to think of all ornamentation as degenerate, which would encompass literally all human societies prior to the industrial revolution. Loos made the classic mistake that many intellectuals made as Darwin's ideas spread - the idea that evolution was a directional process, with a fixed beginning and an end result. In fact, as any biologist will tell you, it nothing of the sort. Evolution simply provides different forms, and those that can exploit a particular niche tend to be preserved, otherwise they die out. In that sense it is ornamentation that is evolutionary, since some forms remain and others die out based on public tastes. Ruskin's peacock's tail is a case in point - it is an evolutionary adaptation whose only useful purpose is to secure mates. It appears that modernism may in fact be an evolutionary dead end, as the old buildings of industrial America are preserved even while newer buildings are falling apart or being torn down.

As for the arguments that buildings would reflect a distinct time period, isn't that the point? It is precisely the collection of historical styles that give a city its vitality. A city where every building were new would be sterile and uninviting. It is precisely because of the centuries of historical buildings that tourists flock to European cities, and why they are so admired and loved, even by architects. The history of styles is a living history, encoding memory into the city and expressing the vitality of a culture. Old buildings were hardly torn down when they fell out of fashion as Loos predicted. Victorian and Georgian homes may not be today's "style", but such homes are lovingly preserved and restored by their owners. Will the same be true of today's bloated plywood mansions?

I think the human mind inherently recognizes when an object has been shaped by human intelligence, even on a subcounscious level. Recognizing the intelligence embodied in the object, it responds to it in a positive way, creating a bond between the maker and the user, a bond that stretches across time and embodies a living memory of the past. We humans are creatures that seek stories and connection, and most of all, meaning. Ornamanet serves these functions. Something off an assembly line does not.

Furthermore, the human mind loves complexity, and recoils from simplicity. Clearly, ornament adds a level of complexity, a feeling of handiwork to even a mass-produced object. Different aspects of an object are discovered as one walks around it, alternately revealing and hiding itself from different angles and under different lighting conditions, creating visual, and hence emotional, delight in the observer of the object.

Loos may have been writing in antagonism to Art Nouveau, but the simple fact remains that people liked Art Nouveau. Hector Guimard's elaborate entrances to the Paris Metro are beloved tourist attractions to this day; one cannot imagine them being removed. They became a living part of the city's social fabric. Are their elaborate forms necessary? No. Are they dated by their style? Certainly, and that's part of the charm. Paris today has buildings from the Middle Ages to modern times - from the first Gothic Cathedral at St. Denis to the ultramodern Pomidou Center and modern works by Jean Nouvel and others, with everything in between. It is this variety which makes it one of the world's great cities.

As for the cost and labor issues, now that the computer can put ornamentation in our hands once again, making it cost effective, should we take another look? How will we deploy these amazing tools? Can we not deploy them in the service of an architecture that once again provides sheer delight among the general population, one that will be preserved and loved in the centuries hence? Computers can now produce objects as intricate as any craftsman, in a variety of materials, cheaply and in quantity. Even though it is the computer that is doing the forming, it is the designer's vision and creativity being embodied in the object. The computer, used properly, can open up limitless possibilities to creative architects, ones previously undreamed of.

Am I advocating a return to past forms, where we once again adorn buildings with classical columns and friezes? Absolutely not! We must create an ornament of our time, just as we must create an aesthetic for our time. We can not slavishly imitate the past. No one is interested in creating mere replicas of older buildings, rather we should ask what has made successful buildings in the past, and how can these things point the way to the future. What forms future designs will take is an open question. Maybe the complex mathematics of fractals and Voronoi diagrams will derive algorithmic designs based on the underlying geometric relationships in nature unearthed by modern science - who knows?

But going forward, it is clear that the elaborate sculptural shapes will no longer be effective from a cost or energy standpoint. We will need to look elsewhere for inspiration. perhaps it's time to embrace these tools and incorporate them to infuse beauty into a new aesthetic for a world of resource scarcity.
* with the possible exception of irrigation technology.
** an oversimplification, of course.