Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Massive Boatload of Links

The United States has more prisoners than farmers. That statistic tells you all you need to know about how “successful” globalized corporate capitalism has been.

While the plight of urban decay has been widely publicized in the mainstream press, similar issues facing our country cousins (myself included) -- lack of well-paying jobs, rural brain drain, food deserts, poverty, and lack of access to quality health care -- have either been ignored or largely misunderstood by policy-makers and the press. Today, more rural Americans are on food stamps and face bleaker economic prospects than their urban counterparts, despite the romantic image of small-town life often portrayed in the media.

For the past 50 years, rural America has seen its best, brightest, and most mobile flee the countryside in search of jobs as federal farm, economic, and trade policies have slowly bled family farmers off the land. Since 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, America has lost over 1.7 million family farms -- the backbone of rural economies -- with farmers in the U.S. today now outnumbered by prisoners.

Despite increases in farm productivity and improved planting and harvesting equipment, more insidious economic factors, like increased industry consolidation, poorly designed subsidy programs, and overspecialization in industrial livestock production, with poor contract protections, have hollowed out the countryside. Instead of prosperity, industrial agriculture has created vast profits for corporations at the top of the food chain, but left a growing number of rural America's Main Streets to resemble ghost towns, and its residents poorly prepared to meet the nation's important challenges of the 21st century.

On a related note, how bad is the unemployment situation in the United States?

There are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are people in the state of Illinois, the fifth largest state.

In fact there, there are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are people in 46 of the 50 states, all but Florida, New York, Texas and California.

There are more unemployed than the combined populations of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho and the District of Columbia.

If they were a country, the 13.9 million unemployed Americans would be the 68th largest country in the world...

The reason jobs are disappearing is that most of them were unnecessary in the first place. If some task were really necessary, like growing food and healing the sick, they would get done regardless. Most of our economic tasks were makework to keep people occupied. But automation, efficiency and the addition of billions of laborers to the global wook pool will spell the end of the conventional wage/work system. The problem is, we do not know what to replace it with. 

Farm for the Future, an excellent documentary from the BBC. About 1 hour long. Unfortunately, I missed the screening at Transition Milwaukee. This link is to the posting about it at The Oil Drum – be sure to read the excellent comments below the story.

On Friday the BBC will be broadcasting an excellent peak oil documentary; it focuses on farming. Presenter and co-producer Rebecca Hosking explores the importance of oil in farming and the potential impact of peak oil. The film has a passionate narrative centred on Rebecca’s small family farm in South West England; can she make her farm fit for the future?

The subject mater is top notch. Colin Campbell and Richard Heinberg contribute, permaculture, forest gardens, gardening vs farming, biofuels, biodiversity, industrial farming and no-till farming are all covered. It seems certain that present methods cannot go on feeding Britain as they are highly dependent on fossil-fuel. The film concentrates on the necessity to find a new way to feed the nation.

Have the problems with prefab been solved? Prefab homes are the next logical step, and have been for decades. But a new company is using computers to eliminate some of the disadvantages. These problems and solutions are covered in detail in this terrific article by Lloyd Alter - maybe we’ll see this finally take off and fine modern design return to affordable homebuilding.

America’s motorists are the biggest socialists in America. Somebody tell Scott Walker:

From subsidies given to oil companies to produce cheap oil, to government bailouts/ownership of auto manufacturers, to road construction and maintenance on streets that cost nothing to use, to highly subsidized parking spaces, to government health care costs associated with pollution from automobiles, to the detrimental health that results from sedentary lifestyle that cars promote, to the vast government policing forces required to enforce our streets: it is undeniable that driving places enormous costs on our society, and this cost is highly subsidized by our government.

Composting toilets could save cities millions of dollars in waste processing a year. This article references a lot of good information. If this technology becomes more mature and the legal barriers are removed, we could start doing the logical thing with waste – use it as a resource and stop using precious potable water to wash it away.

10 environmental ideas that are actually interesting. Of course I think most environmental ideas are interesting, but this was a list of some of the less well-known. Of particular note:

In 2009, University of Rochester psychologist Netta Weinstein created a fairly bizarre study. She showed people photos of both natural and urban landscapes, then asked them some questions about their life goals. Those shown the nature photos responded more strongly to community and human-connection goals than the ones shown the urban landscapes. That led Weinstein to conclude that nature “brings individuals closer to others, whereas human-made environments orient goals toward more selfish or self-interested end.”


In the 1970s, people had deep thoughts about what energy meant to society. All kinds of people hoped that decentralizing our energy sources — using lots of individual solar panels, say, instead of one big power plant — would create a society in which political power was also spread farther. Lewis Perelman, however, argued the opposite. He contended that a society running on renewable energy would descend into feudalism that looked like this: “wealth and power based primarily on land holdings, political decentralization, a steady-state economy, and social stratification by class or caste.” And we’d go theocratic, too, after the materialism of our non-capitalist society fell away.

It turns out cicadas are a plentiful and low-fat source of protein. Good stir-fried with garlic mustard, I’ll bet:

If you get this variety, you’d have a big meal:

In the battle of food versus fuel, food is losing worse than ever. Wikipedia has an article specifically about the Food Versus Fuel argument. Wikipedia also ponders the Vegetable Oil Economy.

The power of observation:

For most people, having a open stream of sewage running past your backyard is a problem, not an asset. That how Keshav Tavre, who lives in Bhiwandi, India, saw it, until he decided to set up a homemade filtration system. With a series of walls and layers of soil, he was able to filter the sewage until it was clean enough to use to grow crops. Later, he sold water commercially to local dye industries.

Vertical growing combined with water purification. It’s called a Folkewall (after its Swedish inventor).

Will future supermarkets and restaurants produce their food on site? I can imagine supermarkets growing fresh herbs, for example, on the roof, and restaurants running their own aquaponics systems to produce fresh fish and greens for their diners. You would only need to harvest a handful per day, which would be supplemented by outside deliveries. Maybe urban farms and restaurants will eventually merge.

This is already happening on a small scale – see the FARM:shop in London:

And a TED talk with its initiator, Charlie Price:

Aquaponics and farming bacteria:

You can grow fruit trees with hydroponics. Although it probably doesn’t make sense to do so. Trees can be planted anywhere and are perennials. It makes more sense to grow vegetables off-season in urban locations at a small scale.

Permaculture lawns: 15 Minutes you Don’t want to miss:

Lots of great information and articles on the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia site.

Will North America be the World’s Capital of Energy? From Foreign Policy Magazine. A counterpoint to Peak Oil found on Marginal Revolution. They do not address one of the main concerns of Peak Oil, which is the fact that these new sources of oil in the Americas are much more difficult and take much more energy and investment to recover. Since so much more energy is required to retrieve these fuels and make them fit for use, the actual energy available from them to the overall economy will be less than that from conventional petroleum deposits, which were easier to access. Plus, we’re still trying to feed an ever-growing global economy, meaning whatever we discover will continually be used up faster and faster. Recovery is also dependent on advances in technology that are always assumed, often without evidence. And, after all that, these resources are still finite; even in the best-case scenario they WILL deplete eventually. None of this is dealt with. Here is the Wikipedia article on Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). See also the Khazzoom-Brookes hypothesis – a modern update of the Jevons paradox. Nevertheless, this article convinces me out that our economic systems are less in danger of collapse from a loss of hydrocarbons than a systemic failure of our collective institutions.

For an effective counterpoint, see these posts from Fabius Maximus about urban legends to comfort Americans about Energy:

On a related note: The Industrial Revolution as an Energy Revolution. Peak oil theorists contend that this period of exponential growth was anomalous, and that:

The most fundamental defining feature of the industrial revolution was that it made possible exponential economic growth – growth at a speed that implied the doubling of output every half-century or less. This in turn radically transformed living standards. Each generation came to have a confident expectation that they would be substantially better off than their parents or grandparents. Yet, remarkably, the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries were not merely unconscious of the implications of the changes which were taking place about them but firmly dismissed the possibility of such a transformation. The classical economists Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo advanced an excellent reason for dismissing the possibility of prolonged growth.

Indeed, classical economists assumed only so much growth could occur, because there was only so much land. Once we started using the earth’s solar savings account accrued over millions of years, rather than the earth’s solar income, we were able to break free of those constraints. However, as those supplies deplete, the classical economists’ view – that growth is finite – will once again become true. Exponential growth, which leads to a rapid doubling rate, will no longer be possible. The period in which neoclassical economics reigned, with its notions of infinite growth, was an anomaly.

If banks are essential utilities, why not treat them as such? Better yet, why should they not be publicly-owned? Privatization inevitably leads to an oligarchical concentration of power. I believe that anything that is necessary for society to function should be in the hands of the people, and beyond that is where private industry should take over.

Nobody thinks that utility-operating companies – whether in transport, such as railways, in energy, such as electricity, or telephone or water – are too big to fail. If they lose enough money and go bust, then, if another company cannot be found to take over the franchise, the government steps in to take over the operations. They keep the capital and (most of) the workers to continue running the utility. No one would think that it would make any sense to rip up the railway lines, electricity pylons, or water pipes, to sell them for scrap, and to push the skilled workers into unemployment. Nor is there any worry about utilities being too-big-to-fail.

Why is banking different?

The key reason is that its capital is fungible and can be quickly redeployed, unlike the water pipes, power stations, etc., of the utilities. The real danger with banking is the bankers’ ability to “gamble for resurrection”. With limited downsides from failure but enjoying the spoils from success, it is in the interest of both bankers and their shareholders to take on more risk than is socially desirable, especially when their stake in the business has already been eroded by losses. By the time that the bank has clearly become technically insolvent, it may well have run up far greater losses than any ordinary utility could aspire to emulate.

The Meaning of Utopias. I was struck by this quote from Marcuse at the beginning of the article:

Even among bourgeois economists, there is hardly a serious thinker who will deny that it is possible, by means of currently existing material and intellectual forces of production, to put an end to hunger and poverty, and that the present state of things is due to the socio-political organization of the world.

In a sentence, Marcuse explains why technological innovations won’t save us – we already have invented enough things to live in a state of perpetual comfort. Think about it - we have robots that can build our goods, we can make fuel from plants and harvest electricity from sunlight and wind right now. Two hundred years ago, these would be considered miracles, and in fact, futurists believed they would lead to a utopia for the average man. Instead we live in a global system on the verge of collapse due to dysfunctional social, political and economic systems, particularly an economic system which demands perpetual growth, resource exploitation without bounds, low labor costs and increasing efficiency, concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Riots are breaking out around the world, billions live in poverty, hunger and obesity stand side-by-side, people are forced to work long hours in alienating jobs even as there is massive and endemic unemployment, and a small oligarchy lives in sybaritic luxury and purchases the political system like they purchase corporations. Until that changes, no invention will matter, because it will be introduced into a system that will take any innovation and twist it to become more detrimental than beneficial. Look at the internet, which went from a terrific medium of communication to a cesspool of spam, pornography, gambling, viruses, pop-up ads, spyware, cookies, wipeout screens and censorship. Another example is how all the new digital technology, instead of liberating us, is forcing us to work over our holidays and allowing a massive surveillance state to be constructed around the world, even in ‘free’ countries. Unfortunately, I see no way to change the system aside from outright collapse. Failure is built in to the system.

Somewhat related to that is Ronald Wright’s idea of Progress Traps:

A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.

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