Monday, December 3, 2012

TheDepopulation Bomb Goes Off At Home

The depopulation bomb has finally come home: U.S. birthrate plummets to its lowest level since 1920

This is mainly because the vast wave of Hispanic immigration has slowed and the immigrant birth rate is decreasing, falling more in line with the world average. Non-Hispanic births have actually been falling for some time. I wonder if there is something deep in human genetics that causes a pioneering population that moves into foreign territory to reproduce more. It would be consistent with primate behavior. Immigrants always tend to have more children than the native population for some reason. Eventually it levels off. In the nineteenth century, people were fretting about drowning in Irish and Italians. My own immigrant great-grandparents on my mother’s side had 10 kids (and they were German Protestants.)

It’s no surprise why this is happening: The lack of family supporting jobs and sheer awfulness of those that are, crushing debt burdens of college graduates, the lack of class mobility, the poor quality of public schools, higher prices for most things relative to other countries, and a general pessimism about the future. Men would rather stay home and play video games then raise a new generation that can have no realistic ambition higher than stock clerk, and I can’t blame them.

Also, raising kids in America is just bloody awful. I've known so many parents who leave the city and move to a distant isolating exurb once they have a baby just so they can be in "a good school district." This inevitably means buying a very expensive oversized house and the attendant burdensome mortgage. There, separated from everyone else, they not only have lengthy, stressful commutes to their job, but they have to be full-time chauffeurs to their children, who are marooned and helpless. Then their kids are aggressively marketed to since the moment they're born, turning even nice kids into greedy, demanding monsters ready to fly into tantrums at the word "no." Add to that the stratospheric cost of college, which hardly any parent can expect to save enough for anymore on top of all of the above and their own retirement, and the fact that non-college jobs basically consist of checkout clerk and fry cook. Honestly, I don't know how, or why people do it anymore. My coworkers pay thousands in medical bills for every child they have. Theoretically they make about the same as I do, but even with two incomes I don't know how they do it.

America puts more of the burden of child-rearing on the individual that most other industrialized nations as part of our "you're on your own" philosophy with predictable results. This is merely a consequence of the one percenter's utter rout of everyone else in the class war. Now even right-wingers are making noises about government help with child care, so you know they're scared.

This makes me wonder about something. Supposedly it’s the Ayn Randian supermen who make the economy function, with the rest of us parasitically mooching off their greatness. So shouldn’t the right be happy that there are less moochers to suck off their teat? Shouldn't they be happy that there are less water- drinkers instead of carriers, or whatever? Why is it that it's the right that always goes apoplectic at the idea of less breeding going on? After all, the John Galts of the world have more than enough money to have whatever kids they want. I’m confused. Or maybe they really know that they owe their fortunes to being at the top of a Ponzi scheme that requires new members, and population growth is needed to keep wages down.

There is a great hue and cry from the usual suspects. Marginal Revolution calls it the real fiscal cliff. (apparently we must grow forever or else). The biggest doozy however comes from the New York Times columnist Russ Douthat:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
The reason I love this quote so much is that it's almost verbatim the kind of stuff Roman authors were writing at the end of the empire. I'm not enough of a Roman scholar to pick one out, but they sound almost exactly the same in tone and substance. Where would the empire get the soldiers to maintain the frontiers, the scolds wondered. Of course we know where they got them - mercenaries from beyond the border. The immigration solution circa the second century. For a good and funny take on the above quote, see this.

I won't belabor the reason why this is a good thing and the critics are all wet; I already did that in The Depopulation Bomb. Here is an old article from Energy Bulletin that makes a similar point:
Common sense says that continuously increasing population makes it harder to keep everyone employed, not easier. The problem is not too few jobs; it’s too many people. There are already too many people consuming too much and diminishing the earth’s long-run carrying capacity. Economic growth is running into the wall of limited resources on a finite planet. The trends created by economic growth and population growth include higher carbon emissions and climate change, loss of forests, depleted fisheries, soil erosion, species extinctions, toxic contamination, and the possible negative effects of technologies like fracking and genetically modified foods. The path the world is on — economic and population growth — is just as unsustainable as the subprime mortgage market and trillion-dollar federal deficits and will lead to collapse.
Here's my favorite take, though. It points out that not only will we not have enough jobs for people, we won't have enough people for those nonexistent jobs (!):
Yes, things are really dire. Readers of the NYT, Washington Post and other major news outlets have been treated to large numbers of stories in recent months telling us that technology is going to make large segments of our workforce obsolete. According to these stories millions, or even tens of millions, of people will be unable to find jobs in the economy of the future.

But wait, it's getting even worse. Not only are we not going to have enough jobs, the Post now tells us that we will not have enough people. It reports on a new study showing that the United States had the lowest birth rate since 1920 last year. The article tells us:

"The decline could have far-reaching implications for U.S. economic and social policy. A continuing decline would challenge long-held assumptions that births to immigrants will help maintain the U.S. population and provide the taxpaying work force needed to support the aging baby boomer generation."

So there you have it, not only will we not have enough jobs, the Post is telling us that we won't have enough people. It can't get much worse than that!
Horrors: We're Going to Have Both Too Few and Too Many Workers! (Beat the Press)

And this is a good place to include this fascinating pages I found by accident while researching a totally different topic:

Here are some fascinating tidbits from the above:
  • It takes a period of time equal to the average life expectancy (approximately three generations or 73 years in the U.S.) for a reduction in fertility to be manifested as a change in actual population numbers.
  • History shows the U.S. has traditionally allowed relatively small numbers to immigrate, thus allowing for decades of assimilation. After the peak of about 8.7 million in the first decade of the 20th century (the "great wave"), numbers went steadily down. Immigration averaged only 195,000 per year from 1921 through 1970!
  • U.S. overimmigration does not relieve overpopulation problems in third-world countries. Over 4.9 billion people live in countries poorer than Mexico.
  • Historically, post l970 immigrants and their descendants have added between 35 and 45 million people to America's population in less than 30 years. Unfortunately, this flow of people into the U.S. has not relieved population pressures in the countries of origin. During the this period of time the populations of most developing countries (including Central America, Mexico, China and Central America) have continued to grow.
  • Looking toward the future, at least 70% of our projected population growth this century will be caused by mass immigration - that is, by recent immigrants and their descendants.
  • U.S. population has grown by 1.2% per year over the last 50 years. This "low" growth rate means it has taken only 58 years for our population to double. We can expect this doubling to continue, drastically magnified by the impact of unrealistically high levels of mass immigration.

Looking at the above chart, there seems to be an interesting pattern. There are two huge bubbles in immigration - the one after the Civil War to the First World War and the Great Depression, primarily from Central Europe and Ireland, and the one from 1992 to 2008 primarily from Northern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Both ramped up exponentially right before an economic collapse. It seems to me that history is repeating. Immigration is loosened to bring in vast hordes of desperately poor workers to suppress wages. It works - wages plummet, and the economy craters, with now no longer enough jobs to go around. It's a trend-the plutocrat class brings in the poor workers to break the back of working-class wages, then plays the immigrants against each other to get their preferred candidates elected. Note that during the time of America's greatest prosperity and growth, immigration was practically nil. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear how we need mass immigration to "solve" our economic problems. Whose economic "problem" are they solving?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Americans

Reading this article about the neurochemistry of why men cheat, I was struck by this paragraph:
The neurochemical dopamine is motivational. It drives us to act to appease a desire, such as for food or sex, and when we do, we get a reward, typically a burst of endogenous opioids. With experience, we learn just how pleasurable it can be to tickle this reward system.

...Which system shouts the loudest may depend partly on our genes. But one person’s genome is not exactly like another’s. We have variation. As we explain in our book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, that variation can make a lot of difference. When a European team studied monogamous birds called great tits, they found that 13 percent of chicks resulted from extra-pair mating. The birds, both male and female, most likely to fly off to find a paramour tended have “bold” personalities. This gregarious, novelty-seeking personality has been linked to a variation in a gene that holds the recipe for a dopamine receptor called D4, or DRD4 in humans.

A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it’s also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious—people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers.
Did you catch that part about migrant populations? This is the key insight in Peter Whybrow’s American Mania – Americans are dopamine addicts. Why is our wealthy class so greedy and rapacious? Why do they strive for more, at the expense of everyone else, even when they have more than they can spend in a hundred lifetimes, even as it undermines the very society that made them rich in the first place? For the dopamine addict, life is a constant chase for that next hit. And America, composed of migrants attracted to that “reward,” is disproportionately endowed with such people, more than perhaps anywhere else on earth.

Why is addiction is so prevalent in America – food, drugs, alcohol, sex, money, etc? Why do we behave like crazy people?  Why are we obsessed with novelty, and why are we constantly looking to acquire more and more than we can possibly use? Why is there so much infidelity and fornication in a supposedly “Christian” nation? Why are we constantly trying to “keep up with the Joneses?” Why do we trample over people at WaMart in a race to buy the latest electronic toy or bit of plastic? Why do we take out loans for houses that we know we cannot afford? Why do we believe that “whoever dies with the most toys wins?” Why do we “work hard and play hard?”

Notice that the key characteristics of “entrepreneurs” whom Americans idolize as superhuman heroes, are also the key components of a dopamine addict. Notice that the traits of the dopamine addict are identified with “success” in the above paragraph. The “successful” person is not the smartest or most talented, or has the best judgment or ideas. They are merely those with the highest dopamine levels. In fact, it seems to be the only requirement to the upper echelons, not intelligence, creativity, talent, wisdom, good judgment, discernment, prudence, thoughtfulness, intention, etc. Their only “skill” is climbing the ladder and stepping on everyone else. The entire financial industry is a magnet for dopamine addicts. In fact, it seems specifically made for them. And we put this system at the very heart of our society!

“Bold” gregarious and novelty seeking” as the above paragraphs describe the dopamine addict, seem to be the central characteristics of every business “leader” I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. Unfortunately, such leaders also tend to be invariably awful. Self-centered, greedy, narcissistic, and megalomaniacal, they crave constant attention and praise, and surround themselves with carbon copies of themselves putting them in a “bubble” of sycophants and cronies who parrot the leader’s words back at him in a circle-jerk of groupthink. And once these people are on top, they are able to pull the levers from our centrally planned systems to meet their own ends, which is invariably to get more, more, more of everything, consequences be damned. Is it any wonder we’re in crisis with “leaders” like this? I’ve also read that dopamine addicts also have little empathy for others, which also explains the pathological behavior of the American rich class (see Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments). And they promote people just like them, which is why management has become more like a cult than anything else.

Notice also how incompatible this is with the Calvinist heritage of early America that still permeates So we have a population that culturally has been taught to follow the austere self-control and abstemiousness of Calvinism, but whose brains are hard-wired by nature to ceaselessly chase sex, food, alcohol, money, etc. Is it any wonder this country is insane? Is it any wonder that Christian cults churches mine these contradictions as a means of control, dispensing a constant stream of “forgiveness” for the “sinner? (setting up a recurring treadmill of “sin”, “guilt” and “forgiveness”).

The other characteristic of Americans is that the fear center is suppressed. The fear brain is associated with extra “circuits” leading to the amygdala. By contrast, the optimist’s brain has extra circuitry leading to the “reward” center of the brain. In her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain neuroscientist Elaine Fox describes now people with the “sunny” brain are incapable of seeing threats or dangers. They are literally hard wired not to see bad news, or even the possibility of anything “negative” ever happening to them. Certainly this would characterize people making the difficult journey to a foreign land to seek work.

This can also explain why there is no social safety net in America. Bad things can’t happen, and when they do, it’s always to “other” people. So why should I pay for that? Nothing bad will happen to me, says someone with their natural “fear” circuits turned off, like most Americans. "I'll always be able to find another job, not like those unemployed 'losers.'" "I'll be able to find a good-paying job to pay back my student loans". "I wont get a disease that bankrupts me," etc. etc. Remember, the central trait of Americans is “optimism.”

But one thing I found most interesting in Fox’s book is the description of someone who had their amygdala removed to prevent seizures. She had no fear center at all. She was able to function normally, but the central characteristic her husband identified was that she was blindly trusting of anyone. If someone told her that they needed her wallet or ATM number and card, she would gladly give it to them. There was no “protection” against being taken advantage of.

Without the amygdala, we would be at the mercy of people trying to take advantage of us. This reminds me of two other “American” traits – an outgoing personality, free from social fear, and a preponderance of “suckers.” The fact that so many Americans seemed to by such gullible rubes has been noted by many observers including P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken. Presumably, these two had functioning amygdalas. But for Americans as a whole, while their amygdalas are not totally removed as in the woman’s case, they seem to behave in a manner very similar to her. Blindly trusting, and with no “bullshit” filter, is it any wonder why our political class seems comprised of grifters and charlatans who just keep getting reelected over and over again? It’s entirely consistent with American “optimism.” According to the neuroscience. Other societies, for example Nordic ones, probably have people with healthy functioning amygdalas alerting to them to the realistic dangers we all must potentially face (probably necessary for survival in a harsh environment).  Thus they take necessary precautions, have a healthier society, acknowledge threats and deal with them ahead of time, and take care of their own, because they know that time and chance happen to us all, something the optimist is incapable of understanding. Our society is comprised of people who self-selected based on an amygdala that is non-functional. It also might explain why European countries, freed from such people due to the great migration from 1830-1914, were able to construct their modern societies. The Pollyanna rubes all went to America to pursue their dreams.

It also explains why no matter how many threats are piling up, Americans blindly trust that nothing bad will happen and everything will work itself out somehow. They refuse to acknowledge global warming, the massive gap between rich and poor, escalating debts, shrinking jobs, peak oil, resource depletion, and on and on. They just deny it’s happening because they are hard-wired not to because their “rainy brain” is nonfunctional and their “sunny brain” puts them in a constant state of blissful denial. It also puts them at the mercy of the dopamine-addled shuysters who are robbing them blind right under their noses. Unfortunately, the dopamine addicts at the head of every social institution due to their “bold” personalities, are even more oblivious to threats thanks to their hyped up reward centers. It is any wonder a “cult of positivity” and creating reality by wishing has attained cult-like status among America’s leadership class at all levels as detailed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Brightsided. The system is designed to promote “leaders” who by their very nature are blind to the threats we face.

I suspect that the third characteristic of Americans, their bellicose religiosity, also has a genetic basis as well. I suspect these genes also drive an “us versus them” tribalist mentality, a suspicion of outsiders, authoritarianism, and a belief in the status quo, however warped - all traits mined by politicians.

With this “cocktail” caused by immigrant self-selection, we see that America takes on the characteristics of its people form the bottom up, not from the top-down. A hyperactive dopamine center, a suppressed fear center, and an authoritarian/religious impulse are a dangerous cocktail when there is no counterbalance. It is a recipe for a disaster.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Collapse and the Sorites Paradox

Often times those who talk about collapse run into quite a bit of difficulty. It's easy for people to dismiss this sort of talk as foolish rantings since day-to-day activities seem so normal. One way to understand the problems of talking about societal collapse is through a logical thought experiment devised by Ancient Greek philosophers called the Sorites Paradox.

Sorites is the Greek word for "heap." Imagine, for instance, a heap of sand on your desk. A heap contains maybe 1,000,000 grains of sand. If you take away a single grain of sand, is it still a heap? I think most of us would say, "of course it is!" Nothing's changed from any outward appearance, after all. If I take two grains away? Three? Four? Ten? No difference, of course it's still a heap of sand.

The problem is, I can just keep doing this - picking away a grain of sand out of the heap and asking you if it still a heap. Eventually we will be left with a single grain of sand. Is this a heap? Of course it isn't. But exactly when did it stop being a heap? Which grain did I remove to turn it from a heap to something else? Can you point to it? This concept also works with someone who is rich. Clearly if I take a dollar away from someone who is a millionaire, it will make little difference. The rich person is still rich. What if I keep doing it? At what point do they become poor? $100,000? $10,000? $100? $53.76?

A more formal statement of these premises would be: 1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1) A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2).

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grains), eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand (and consequently, if one grain of sand is still a heap, then removing that one grain of sand to leave no grains at all still leaves a heap of sand; indeed a negative number of grains must also form a heap). [Wikipedia]

We can easily see how this applies to societal collapse. The problem arises from vague predicates. How do we define a heap? How do we define a collapse? When does one become the other? When does pre-collapse become post-collapse? What one single thing, when removed, causes the collapse? What one switch causes a pre-collapse society to become a post-collapse one? Is there a phase shift? Can we define such a thing? If not, how can we really define collapse at all? Does the term have any meaning?

This is a point I made previously in Not Collapse - Breakdown. Breakdown is easy to see all around us. When power outages become routine, when the space program is mothballed, when cities curtail their garbage collection, when libraries cut back hours, when flights are routinely delayed and cancelled, when potholes dot the roads, when food prices rise, when strip malls lie empty for years, when the lights go out during an NFL game, when copper is stripped out of abandoned buildings, when cyberattacks shut down Web sites, when schools hold bake sales for necessities, when cities turn to lotteries for revenue; all of these are breakdowns in what we have become used to. But which one of these can be said to constitute a collapse? Like our removal of a single dollar or grain of sand, these changes are small and hardly noticeable. Often, they are merely a minor inconvenience. As I wrote:
Collapse is a good word to describe a contrast between a beginning and end state. It's obvious when you look at Piranesi's etchings of the crumbling ruins of the Roman forum, or photographs of vine encrusted Mayan temples in the Yucatán swallowed up by the jungle, that a collapse has occurred. It had occurred before we got there, and it is final. It is a prior state to whatever state we are in now: the previous state collapsed, and now we're in this "new" state. But to the people actually living though the process, it must have seemed very different, and collapse hardly seems like the right word to describe it...To the people actually in the midst of it, however, it surely must have seemed more like a breakdown.
Yet just as we recognize a single grain of sand as something other than a heap and a poor person from a rich one, we must recognize that at some point we will be in a collapsed state relative to what we were before. To say there is no such thing as collapse would fall into the closely related Continuum Fallacy, in which vague claims are completely rejected because they are not as precise as we would like. Vagueness alone does not make such a concept invalid. It has been said that one indisputable fact about the Roman Empire is that it collapsed. But when? Numerous dates are proposed, from the Crisis of the Third Century all the way until 1453

Complicating matters is the fact that rarely is it a continuous downward slide. There are numerous periods of retrenchment, reorganization and partial recovery. The larger pattern is only evident over a longer period of time.

For example, the Great Depression, with its falling stock market, bankrupt industries, shuttered factories, bank runs, Dust Bowl and twenty-five percent unemployment would be considered a collapse by any definition. Certainly it must have seemed so to people at the time. Yet America’s global empire had not even been established and its period of greatest prosperity lay ahead. Similarly, there were periods in the Roman Empire where it looked like improvements were being made and the system might last indefinitely. Diocletian managed to oversee a reorganization of the Roman economy and political structure. Even after things had started to go permanently downhill for the West in 407, in the period 411-21 under the generalship of Constantius and before his premature death, there was a partial revival of Roman fortunes, with the pacification of Italy and the reassertion of imperial control over southern Gaul and parts of Spain. In 533 Justinian defeated the Vandals and reconquered Italy, also retaking Spain and parts of North Africa before a plague put an end to his expansion.

But it was not to be: the writing was on the wall. It's possible we might experience a similar turnaround. We cannot absolutely rule this out, we can only say that are extremely unlikely given current trends. Is it even possible to recognize a collapse except by hindsight? Often analysts will look at a graph of peaks and troughs and draw a line following roughly the average of the highs and lows, labeling it "trend." This cuts through the highly volatile statistical noise of highs and lows and is either sloping up or down. You can often be on an upswing even if the overall trend is down.

"Follow the trendlines, not the headlines."
What would be the "trend" in the United States since the nineteen-seventies?

Possible Resolutions

Two traditional resolutions to this paradox might be instructive for our purposes: setting a fixed boundary and group consensus.

Setting a fixed boundary in this case means a specific definition of collapse. In other words, when 'X' happens, we have collapsed. This is equivalent to defining a boundary in our example above, say anything over 10,000 granules is a heap and less than that is not. Of course, there is an arbitrariness to this that many find unacceptable; clearly 9999 grains is still a heap for all intents and purposes, whether we choose to define it as such or not. Often this is done with the Roman Empire by picking a specific event and date, say the sack of the city of Rome in 410 by Alaric or the deposition of the last emperor in 476 by Odoacer. Of course, this too falls into the Sorites Paradox: most people living in the years 411 and 477 did probably not think of themselves as living in a situation very much different than the previous year. Nonetheless, if we give specific criteria of what constitutes a collapse, we can clearly see when it happens.

The two big contenders here are either political dissolution or financial crash. Two common examples are the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918 and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 caused by ethnic secessionist movements and political unrest. By this same token, a dissolution of the United States can be said to constitute a collapse. So too could a successful secession of one or more states. Secession petitions are now routinely filed after presidential elections by an increasing number of people, and there are small but active movements in a number of states. If one or more succeeds, do we have our collapse?

Numerous countries have gone through economic collapse. A repudiation of debt and fall of the currency (such as through hyperinflation) are the most likely descriptions of this scenario. The United States repudiating it’s debt would cause the global economy to topple and is nearly unimaginable. A Wall Street crash like October 1929 could also be considered a collapse scenario. Argentina went through a major collapse in 1999 - 2002. Many countries have as well, from Brazil to Mexico to Thailand to Zimbabwe. It should be noted that none of these countries ceased to exist as a result.

Currently the southern fringes of Europe are going through a situation that to all appearances looks like a total financial collapse, with soaring debts, mass unemployment, homelessness, suicides, evictions, foreclosures, hospitals lacking medicine, people rummaging through dumpsters to eat, labor strikes, violent public protests, political extremism, separatist movements, etc. Yet even in those countries, most people still have jobs, most businesses are still open, elections are still held, and most public services still function, albeit at a reduced or subpar level.

So those are our criteria - a state seceding from the union or a financial crash would be a collapse. I think when people use the term collapse in reference to the United States, it is one of these two things they are actually predicting, whether they specify it outright or not. Is there some other definition we could agree on? No more postal delivery? A closing and withdrawal of military bases from overseas locations? No more social security checks? Selling off the national parks? Cancelling football season? Something else? And what if none of these things occur? Have we "avoided" a collapse? Is everything then A-OK?

Group consensus means, in essence, that we’ve collapsed when a majority of people believes that we’ve collapsed. Are we far from that point? Are we, in fact, collapsing?

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City, the largest city in the United States and it's cultural capital, there was a story about how America's satellite system, a technological marvel, had been crippled by decades of mismanagement and neglect, impairing prediction of the storm's path. Three years earlier, in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers, who routinely give a grade of 'D' to nation's aging infrastructure, advised installing surge barriers and tide gates to prevent flooding of the city. They were ignored. It was eerily reminiscent of the flooding of New Orleans years earlier, where the locks on Lake Pontchartrain were routinely cited as being inadequate and had failed to be upgraded for years. In the aftermath, utilities struggled to restore power, and gasoline was rationed based on license plates.

When a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in August 2007 causing fatalities, attention was paid to how decrepit the nation's infrastructure really was. And this was only the most noticeable instance of many local ones which go unreported in the wider media. In my own town, a hunk of concrete fell of a major highway bridge over the mouth of a river (no one was hurt - it was closed and repaired), and pieces of the facade began falling off our city hall. We also had a high-speed rail connection between our two largest cities cancelled by the governor because "we can't afford it." Nor is this unique. One of the largest civil engineering projects in the country, two new rail passages under the Hudson River, was cancelled a few years earlier by the governor of New Jersey, who claimed that the state could not afford it and would be on "a never ending hook" (similar language was used with the rail line here). A report later proved most of the governor's financial claims false.  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out:
Demand for public transit is rising across America, reflecting both population growth and shifting preferences in an era of high gas prices. Yet New Jersey is linked to New York by just two single-track tunnels built a century ago — tunnels that run at 100 percent of capacity during peak hours. How could this situation not call for new investment?
It's not just transit: investment upgrades like a smart DC grid which are necessary for more efficient energy usage and renewable energy are opposed by a combination of stinginess and paranoia. Tighter regulation of our diminishing collective resources is perpetually denounced as "socialism." We must be reminded that this is the country whose engineering marvels were once the envy of the world - the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the Mackinac Bridge, the power plant at Niagara Falls, the Interstate Highway system, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Great Plains Shelterbelt, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the list is endless. Krugman also wrote in 2010:
The lights are going out all over America — literally. Colorado Springs has made headlines with its desperate attempt to save money by turning off a third of its streetlights, but similar things are either happening or being contemplated across the nation, from Philadelphia to Fresno.

Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.

And a nation that once prized education — that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children — is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead.

We’re told that we have no choice, that basic government functions — essential services that have been provided for generations — are no longer affordable. And it’s true that state and local governments, hit hard by the recession, are cash-strapped. But they wouldn’t be quite as cash-strapped if their politicians were willing to consider at least some tax increases.
That same year Americans were shocked by a story in which firemen stood by and let someone's house burn down because they had not paid the requisite fees. Detroit and Flint in Michigan and Cleveland and Youngstown in Ohio (among others) have bulldozed large swaths of the city in order to shrink to a more manageable size. The largest ever municipal bankruptcy was declared by a county in Alabama (eclipsing that of Orange County, one of the nation's wealthiest, in 1994), with others like Stockton, California perennially threatening. A book was recently published by two French photographers called "The Ruins of Detroit," documenting, in the mode of a latter-day Piranesi, the current condition of a city that was once one of the ten richest cities on earth and the very symbol of American Industrial might. America's Internet speed has fallen to twenty-sixth worldwide, just behind Hungary and its rail system is often compared to Eastern Europe, with slow, bumpy, tardy service and rail lines dating back to the era of the Robber Barons. Are we in denial? Those who argue that we were overbuilt in the first place, or that such projects are a "waste" miss the larger point: This is not what nations on the upswing of history do.

Young people today literally cannot remember a time when we weren't "tightening our belts," or "making do with less." They have never lived when times weren't "lean" unlike their parents and grandparents. To them it is simply the way things always were. As another New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, succinctly put it, travelling to the United States from China is like going "from the Jetsons to the Flintstones." A recent commenter to this article said "Flying from Singapore into JFK, you wonder whether you really left the developing world and arrived in the developed -- or did you actually leave the developed world and arrive in the dis-developing (undeveloping? Unraveling?)." When governors regularly campaign on and gain widespread popularity from cancelling, curtailing and shutting down major civic works and public amenities rather than building or expanding them, you know things have changed dramatically in the fortunes of a nation.

A recent report from the census bureau puts the number of Americans in poverty at a record 49.5 million when expenses are taken into account, or over 16 percent of the population, the size of a large country. A similar number lack basic health care. When concepts like "financially fragile" or "living paycheck to paycheck" are used (meaning little or no savings and income just covering expenses), numbers of over 50 percent are common. The amount of unemployed equals the population of Illinois, the nation's fifth largest state, meaning there are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are citizens in all but Florida, New York, Texas and California. The percentage of people actively in the workforce is down to what it was in 1981, before two-income families became the norm. Life expectancy is actually decreasing for the poorest members of society. Doubling up”, or multiple generations living under the same roof (dubbed “reduced household formation” by economists ) has been on the rise, and homeownership is down for the first time in decades. The age of cars on the road is an all-time high. Food banks are regularly overwhelmed with demand. From three to six workers exist for every new job opening, and job fairs regularly attract thousands from all over for just a handful of available jobs.

The U.S. incarcerates more of it's citizens in absolute numbers than anywhere else on earth, even countries with larger populations; in fact, there are more prisoners than farmers. The top 1 percent earns a greater share of the nation's income than the bottom fifty percent. Educational achievement and social mobility are persistently on the bottom of the ranking of OECD nations (referring to advanced industrial economies). The U.S. spends more on the military than the next fifteen nations combined, most of whom are close allies. China is set to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in the next five years. The United States once has the world's largest steel and concrete industry, now China alone accounts for over half the world's concrete production. The United States runs permanent trade deficits, routinely taking in more that in exports. Once the world's largest creditor nation, it is now the world's largest debtor nation. Corporate profits are at historical highs (one single corporation, Apple, has more cash on hand that the U.S. government), while workers' share of profits is at an all-time low. Many American companies pay more to their chief executives in compensation than they remit in taxes to the U.S. government. The nation’s largest employers used to be Ford and General Motors. Now they are McDonald's and Wal-Mart. The median income is no higher now in real terms than in the early 1970's while costs for education and health care have increased on the order of 3-400 percent.

Have enough grains of sand been removed yet?

Of course, none of these things in isolation causes a collapse by any means. But all of them simultaneously? Are they coincidences? Does anyone seriously expect these trends to reverse at some point? These are not blips – these are trends have been going on for decades. The “end” of the recession and the subsequent “recovery” will merely return us to the previous state of affairs which was hardly good to begin with.

Even in the Great Depression there was a sense of forward progress that is all but absent today. I remember hearing from people who lived through that time talking about free zoos, parks, fountains and swimming pools for the public, numerous libraries and public speaking venues, inexpensive movie houses, and a sense of camaraderie. Besides, the Depression was part of a global economic conflagration - everywhere was bad. Today we are treated to constant scenes of new record breaking skyscrapers in China or Dubai, dozens of brand new airports around the world opening every year, entire cities being built from scratch in China, renewable energy investments in Europe, and high-speed maglev trains connecting major cities in Asia.

Drive through any inner city ghetto if you dare and you’ll see crumbling buildings, broken windows, dilapidated houses, beggars on street corners, people with all their worldly goods in shopping carts, and open-air drug markets. Murders are so commonplace they are not even reported in the news anymore. America’s glorious cities have become bombed-out Bantustans out of pre-apartheid South Africa. Her formerly prosperous farm and factory towns and seaside ports resemble the rusted-out tractorgrads and magnetogorsks of the former Soviet Union. Tent cities are springing up outside metropolitan areas from coast to coast. These are not new trends, they have been going on for decades and have just accelerated. Yet we still think things will someday "get back to normal." They will stabilize, no doubt. Sure, there is still food on the shelves and (mostly) gas at the pumps. But does anyone think we will enter a long era of expansion ever again the way did from 1950-1970? And if not, can we not call that a collapse of sorts? Can we yet reach a consensus? This is not what nations on the upswing do. This point cannot be overemphasized.

This is a controversial subject because some economists say that as long as living standards across the board are incrementally better than the remote past, the vast relative differences do not matter. Thus, it does not matter that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer relative to them, all that matters is that a poor person today is better off than a poor person in 1960. After all, today's poor people have cell phones and Internet access. Cell phones! Somehow what is never addressed is that the majority of people several decades ago could support a family with one income, even without an advanced degree. They could amass savings and easily purchase or even build a house. They had guaranteed pensions and their job was probably safe for life unless they chose to move on (I know, this is the story of my grandparents). Education was affordable if no-frills, and jobs were plentiful with room for advancement. Savings were positive and debts were low. Yet we’re to believe that we’re better off today because we have iPods and Facebook? As you can tell, I don’t buy it. And I don't believe payday and car title loan shops, dollar stores, casinos, and cash for gold places were quite so abundant in 1960, either.

What we are seeing is a real reduction or plateau of living standards. While it’s true that most of the gains of the twentieth century such as indoor heating, plumbing, and universal secondary education have been retained by even the very poor, in many other ways we are regressing. New electronic toys can mask the plateau in real living standards for only so long. We have clearly passed a zenith in living standards for most people and the end of a great expansion, and are now on the downward leg. How much will it accelerate? Even in the absence of an abrupt political or economic crisis, years of steady decline in living standards and shrinking government budgets may finally embed the idea of collapse in the public consciousness, causing a consensus that it is a reality, even if no one is quite sure when the bottom will be reached or how to even define a bottom.

The concept of decline seems to have lodged itself in the public’s consciousness and become a part of the zeitgeist as evidenced by the number of articles worldwide about America’s decline (and China’s rise), the popularity of books on collapse (such as Jared Diamond’s), and post-apocalyptic depictions of society in books, movies and on television such as Revolutions, The Road or The Hunger Games.

Countering this will be persistent cheerleading efforts by politicians and the corporate-owned media designed to manipulate the public’s perception of events to keep them quiescent and inflate their expectations for economic reasons. Surely, even if we cannot specifically define collapse, we can recognize when it is happening.


The term collapse is tossed around alot but it is essentially meaningless due to the Sorites Paradox. History is a continuum. If we do not define a specific event in precise terms such as a dissolution of political ties or financial crash, we cannot meaningfully speak of it except in the most generalized terms.

Collapse is more of a long-term trend than a single event. Small, incremental and localized changes often make wider trends unnoticeable for the vast majority of people. Perception filters and cultural inertia will also come into play. Often what is in actuality a collapse may just be rationalized away as the new normal, particularly by a media which is specifically designed to peddle the status quo and demonize alternatives.

Periods of brief recovery relative to a long downward slide can seem like a collapse is ending or even reversing, when in fact they are statistical blips in a long-term trend. We cannot see the future, so we do not know with absolute certainty what future periods of recovery will bring. This means that collapse, like Peak Oil, can only be seen in hindsight.

Hopefully this article has been helpful in describing why so many ideas and theories of collapse are out there, and why there is so little agreement on the topic. This is why even experts on collapse and those who have written entire books on the topic stubbornly (and smartly) refuse to specify an exact date or even give a timeframe. It also might explain why it all too often seems like collapse, like Linus' Great Pumpkin in Peanuts, so often fails to arrive when expected. In fact, the Great Pumpkin has been here all along.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vertical Farms and Lab-Grown Meat: Have We Lost Our Minds?

It seems there have been a lot of articles about the future of food lately. Inevitably these articles in glossy magazines and web sites on major media outlets tout high-tech methods as the solution to coming up with enough food for the projected nine billion-plus people on the planet by 2050. Many of these ideas are already beyond the developmental stage.

In February of this year, as reported by Treehugger, an outfit called Plantagon broke ground on a "vertical farm" in Sweden, a multi-story "plantscraper" designed to grow plants in an urban environment. Vertical farms have become the darlings of the high-tech green movement. Essentially, proponents propose building towering concrete, steel and glass skyscrapers in dense urban areas around the world not to house people or businesses, but to grow plants.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, scientists are growing meat in high-tech laboratories using cells from animals. Here's a description of the process:

It’s made by taking cells from pigs, adding horse fetal serum in petri dishes, and growing it into transparently-thin strips. Petri meat is “fed” a muckture of sugars, fats, amino acids, and other “nutrients”. The sources of these are, presumably, also made in labs. The color is gray, as there is no blood involved, and the texture…well, let’s not go there.

Since the color is gray, artificial coloring has to be added to make it look like "real" meat. According to one of the scientists, "In the beginning it will taste bland. I think we will need to work on the flavour." The cost of a single hamburger? Two hundred thousand pounds (311,200 dollars)! Here are more details:

Professor Post's group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick. They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn. The cost of producing the hamburger will be £200,000 but Professor Post says that once the principle has been demonstrated, production techniques will be improved and costs will come down.

This technique has the high-tech agriculturalists agog, and has been written up everywhere from Slate to Wired. In a similar vein, proponents are touting using genetically engineered salmon, nanotechnology, embedding computer chips to track plant growth, food pills and employing robots to harvest food in a world already awash in surplus labor.

So these sophisticated high-tech and energy-intensive "solutions" are designed to do what man has been doing literally since the stone age using no fossil fuels or technology - grow edible plants and produce meat. And this is what the "experts" are touting as the future of food? This brings to mind only one question:

Have we lost our minds?

There' another way to grow meat. It's called an animal. There's a bright glowing ball in the sky that will provide all the light you need to grow plants for free. Want to grow them indoors? Try a greenhouse. Honestly, are these "innovations" when we're using expensive and complex technologies to do things that even the lowliest peasant could accomplish relatively easily since the neolithic revolution? Really? Is this progress? For example, we need to turn to fish farming because we've toxified, polluted and overfished our oceans. We need to start businesses and design artificial systems to produce what nature used to give us for free. Is this something to get excited about? These ideas are like something out a bad 1970's science fiction flick. What's next, Soylent Green?

Seriously, how technologically-obsessed have we become as a society that these are the only solutions we can envision? These two examples are the best illustrations I can think of for what James Howard Kunstler calls techno-narcissism - the idea that we must always solve every problem by creating new high-tech whiz-bang solutions dependent on large quantities of energy and sophisticated technological know-how to keep the status quo going, rather than asking if the status quo is a good idea in the first place. We refuse to consider overhauling or reforming our dysfunctional systems of economics, politics, business, agriculture, urban design, and pretty much everything else in favor of coming up with new technology to prop up the current system at all costs, rather than just coming up with simpler and less complex solutions that favor human needs, human scale, and the needs of the environment.

Are we surprised this takes place in a country where people drive their SUV’s from work to the gym to spend an hour on the stationary bike?  Where electric can openers are commonly found in the kitchen? Where office buildings are torn down to build parking garages? Where freeways are continually being expanded to alleviate congestion, only to cause more congestion? Where trees are chopped down to give better views of billboards? After all, this is the country that invented the solar-powered tanning salon.

Most of the intelligentsia got that way by climbing the ladder it in today’s technophilic modern economy, so their biases are toward the gee-whiz novelty factor of high-tech farming and meat grown in a lab (even if they’ve never met, much less talked to, an actual ‘regular’ farmer). These technical people know the latest Android model, but don’t know the first thing about agriculture – their food comes from the supermarket (and probably purchased via an iPhone app). If a machine were invented that scrubbed carbon from the atmosphere and turned it into useful food, construction materials, animal feedstocks, and fibers, all while rebuilding topsoil, it would be on the cover of every tech magazine in the world and its inventor would be a celebrity millionaire. Yet I’ve never seen a tree on the cover of Wired.

These technologies have inherent biases embedded in them – centralized control, specialized expertise, control of nature thorough artificial means, complexity, etc. Are not our problems with agriculture caused by these biases? Therefore, why do we assume that the solutions will come out of these biases? Perhaps it is the bias itself which is the problem, and the invention of new technologies along the same lines will not fix anything but merely cause more problems, both environmental and social. But we cannot look beyond them, so locked are we into this world view, so unable are we to see alternatives outside of it. The fundamental problems with agriculture have been caused by an over-reliance on technology, so it is unreasonable to believe that they will be mitigated by them.

What these ‘solutions’ have in common is that they require advanced technological expertise and lots of capital, as opposed to lower-tech alternatives and this is why they are preferred. It is not because lack of alternatives, but the alternatives are often low-tech, distributed, decentralized, work with natural processes, and do not require large amounts of capital or advanced technical knowledge. So when they say this is the future of food – this is the future that the multinational corporations, big finance and governments want for us; it is not better for us or the planet. And the centralized authorities will spend a lot of money, as in the Slate article, convincing us that this is the ‘answer’. The answer, of course, depends on the question you are asking. If the question is how to preserve our dysfunctional society, failing systems, wealth concentration and environmental degradation, than yes perhaps these are the answers. But if we ask different questions, we come up with very different answers. Are these solutions about really solving the problem or about keeping productive land and wealth concentrated in the hands of the few?

We tend to think of innovation solely in terms of technology. Concepts like Permaculture, agroforestry, biochar production, holistic management, food forests, planned rotational grazing and composting are not given the attention they deserve. Similarly, solutions to other problems, like denser urban communities, shorter working hours, or energy conservation are not considered not because they won't work, but because they do not fit the needs of the elites. I'd rather have forty million farmers than one vertical farm.

Blogger Adam Stein of TerraPass writes "fix our horizontal farms before we go vertical." :

"I'm as concerned about food as the next guy — scratch that, I'm more concerned about food than the next guy — which is why I find it somewhat dismaying to see a serious and complicated set of issues turned into a sort of fetish. I really don't know what other word to use to describe the notion of spending "hundreds of millions" of dollars to build weird, poorly sited temples of food production in areas much better suited to dense, green residential and retail space. Brooklyn was once one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States. Manhattan was once home to innumerable factories. There's a reason that farms and factories decamped to more suitable locations. Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that's what New Jersey is for."

Similarly, in an article for Alternet, Stan Cox and David Van Tassel  write:

"Although the concept has provided opportunities for architecture students and others to create innovative, sometimes beautiful building designs, it holds little practical potential for providing food."

For obvious reasons, no one has ever proposed stacking solar photovoltaic panels one above the other. For the same reasons, crop fields cannot be layered one above the other without providing a substitute for the sunlight that has been cut off....As a result, the lion's share of a vertical farm's lighting would have to be supplied artificially, consuming resource-intensive electricity rather than free sunlight. This led us to wonder, "What would be the consequences of a vertical-farming effort large enough to allow us to remove from the landscape, say, the United States' 53 million acres of wheat?"...Our calculations, based on the efficiency of converting sunlight to plant matter, show that just to meet a year's U.S. wheat production with vertical farming would, for lighting alone, require eight times as much electricity as all U.S. utilities generate in an entire year.

The solution to soil and water degradation is not to strip food-producing plants from the landscape only to grow them, deprived of sunlight, in vertical factory farms. Instead, we have to address the Achilles heel of agriculture itself: that it has displaced, on a massive scale, diverse stands of natural perennial vegetation (such as prairies, savannahs, and forests) with monocultures of ephemeral, weakly rooted, soil-damaging annual crops such as corn, soybean, and wheat. So far, the weaknesses of the current food-production system have been compensated for agronomically through greater and greater inputs of fossil fuels and other resources, worsening the ecological impact; vertical farming would extend that trend.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot writes:

[Vertical farm advocate Dickson] Despommier asserts that his system will require “no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers”. Perhaps he has never seen a fungal infestation in a greenhouse. And what does he expect the plants to grow on: water and air alone? He also insists that there will be “no need for fossil-fueled machinery”, which suggests that he intends to farm a 30-storey building without pumps, heating or cooling systems.

His idea, he says, is an antidote to “intensive industrial farming, carried out by an ever decreasing number of highly mechanized farming consortia” but then he calls on Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and IBM to fund it. He suggests that “locally grown would become the norm”, but fails to explain why such businesses wouldn’t seek the most lucrative markets for their produce, regardless of locality. He expects, in other words, all the usual rules of business, economics, physics, chemistry and biology to be suspended to make way for his idea.

But the real issue is scarcely mentioned in his essays on the subject: light. Last week one of my readers, the film maker John Russell, sent me his calculations for the artificial lighting Despommier’s towers would require. ... They show that the light required to grow the 500 grammes of wheat that a loaf of bread contains would cost, at current prices, £9.82. (The current farm gate price for half a kilo of wheat is 6p.) That’s just lighting: no inputs, interest, rents, rates, or labour. Somehow this minor consideration – that plants need light to grow and that they aren’t going to get it except on the top storey – has been overlooked by the scheme’s supporters. I won’t bother to explain the environmental impacts.

And Lloyd Alter points out that:

... the [vertical farm] idea only makes sense if you think of farming as a no-holds battle to the death and when you think of soil as nothing more than an mechanism to hold a plant up. Sami [Grover] has written that "there are more organisms in one teaspoon of soil than there have ever been humans on this planet." Others are trying to build biodynamic, organic, regenerative, or ecological farming communities, where food is grown naturally and is actually good for the soil instead of destroying it. It is a much more attractive and probably better tasting future of food.

As an architect, I have some idea of the difficulty in constructing large buildings; of the legions of experts, the engineering and design, the manpower, the planning, the staging, the legal restrictions, the complex funding instruments and revenue streams. These buildings, as works of civil engineering, are among the largest undertakings we do as a species. The advanced systems of construction, erection, and waterproofing are all based on fossil fuels. The material creation and application for skyscrapers are based on fossil fuels. The maintenance is based on fossil fuels. The systems that make them accessible and inhabitable are based on fossil fuels. And yet these are touted as a solution to fossil fuels use in agriculture?

Buildings require extensive maintenance. If future revenues do not materialize for maintenance, they fall apart, something that is already happening even to newer buildings in municipalities all over the country weighed down by debt. Planning and maintenance must be taken into account, as must be future expansion. This alternative proposal claims to make vertical farming “work” from an energy standpoint, but only at a cost of extremely complex, interconnected, highly technical system requiring delicate balancing, extensive maintenance and vulnerable to breakdown. It aims to mimic nature by recycling resources as much as possible. Why not just use nature instead, instead of trying to duplicate it? This is a complex solution, not a simple one.

As for frankenmeat, it takes a lot of sophisticated technical expertise and access to advanced technology to grow meat in a laboratory. It does not require as much to feed and slaughter a pig or chicken. And one can always breed more pigs and chickens, whereas a meat-growing lab or vertical farm nurtures dependence. The problem is not meat eating. It is too many people and the way we have used our land.

Meat consumption is a complex issue and too involved to go into much detail here. But it is known that a truly natural form of organic agriculture cannot be devoid of animals, and that some regions are much better suited to animal pasturing than annual crops. Proper use of animals in systems like planned, rotational grazing has been shown to reverse desertification and build topsoil. For thousands of years it was known that farming could not be done without animals. Yet we rely on chemical fertilizers while concentrating animals into consolidated animal feedlot operations that effectively torture living creatures, producing meat of lower quality as well as environmental destruction from effluents, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and a host of other ills. If promoting resilience and reducing food miles is the answer, animals must be part of the solution. Joel Salatin’s diversified farm model provides abundant food sustainably, yet Salatin’s methods are considered impossible to implement because farming can only be "profitable" by farming millions of acres of monocrops with machines. As Sharon Astyk writes:

Without petroleum based and industrial fertilizers...there is no such thing as a viable agriculture without animal production. David Montgomery’s wonderful book _Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization_ will give anyone a clear overview of the radical difference between societies that manure ground and those that didn’t – such an agriculture has a long and important history.

Are there places where cows are being raised right this minute that shouldn’t have cows on them? Absolutely. Are there places right now that are being tilled to grow corn and soybeans that shouldn’t be tilled? Absolutely. It is impossible to speak in general terms about what one should do with each piece of arable land – in fact, the difficult and emergent task is to do WHAT IS BEST on each one – best for the land, best for the people who depend on it, best for the wildlife and other creatures who inhabit it.

And in The New York Times, Jay Bost wrote:

What are these “right” and “wrong” ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

Yes, natural meat production is more resource intensive than growing plants which are lower on the food chain. But it needs to be location-specific. No, it does not make sense to chop down the Amazon to grow beef cattle for McDonalds. Yes, CAFOs are an abomination. But it makes more sense to raise dairy cows than grow lentils in Wisconsin, and it makes more sense to pasture bison than grow soybeans in Nebraska. We should not resort to reflexive oversimplifications like "eat less meat" without taking into account what the best type of agriculture for a specific region is and how an integrated approach can be more sustainable in some cases. So yes, perhaps relying less on meat in our diets is part of the solution. But let's make sure we're growing our food in the right places, and integrating animals in an ecologically sustainable manner into our agriculture. Grasslands are enormous biomes that sequester carbon. They also stabilize soil (as the United States found out during the Dust Bowl). Grazing animals on these lands can be a boon. Meat eating doesn't have to be destructive. Shouldn't we fix this first before breaking out the test tubes? Integrating animals in the appropriate places in an environmentally sensitive manner is far more beneficial and less energy intensive than growing it in a lab.

Perplexingly, vertical farming and lab-grown meat are seen as a solutions to the problems with conventional farming, but isn’t the answer for correcting our misuse and abuse of the land to stop misusing and abusing the land, rather than building a skyscraper to grow plants or growing meat in a petri dish? How exactly do they ‘solve’ anything? Backyard gardens like the Victory Garden movement during the second world war grew large amounts of food. The city of Paris grew most of its vegetables locally in the nineteenth century using a series of innovative techniques based in empty lots in the city. French Intensive Gardening used horse manure on raised beds, mulches, human labor, cold frames, and even bell-shaped glass jars to grow food almost year-round at a northern latitude. What about vacant lots? What about rooftop gardens? What about backyard chickens? What about corporate control over the food supply and land consolidation? Maybe we should stop building over our most productive farmland and think about why we build in the first place and how we inhabit the landscape? These are just a few of the alternatives to the high-tech solution proposed by the technophilists. Many cities even in the age of sprawl are surrounded by productive farmland that is underutilized. Transporting food into the cities is hardly a crisis that needs to be solved with skyscrapers; bicycles, or even boats, would do in a pinch. How can we be proposing things like this when small farmers are still going bankrupt and throwing in the towel?

The other unstated assumption is that vertical farms are necessary to continue the global experiment of kicking farmers off the land and forcing them into overcrowded and unsanitary slums to eke out a living making consumer goods for rich countries in sweatshops or earning a living by whatever irregular work they can find. Maybe we should reconsider an economic system relentlessly devoted to sidelining labor in the name of efficiency and driving down costs no matter the consequences. Perhaps it is this policy in need of consideration rather than claiming that vertical farms and lab-grown meat are the answer. We’re breathlessly told that these are the only alternatives to looming disaster without asking how we got to this disaster point in the first place. Perhaps we should question the underlying assumptions that brought us to this point before plowing ahead with new techno-fixes.

Agribusinesses will spend billions of dollars patenting terminator seeds, but naturally breeding higher-yielding varieties of perennial grasses languishes in obscurity. Millions of dollars are being raised for building farming skyscrapers while a Permaculture project that effectively greened the desert using natural systems sits neglected and abandoned in Jordan. Thousands of dollars are given to scientists to grow meat under fluorescent lights but ecological restoration efforts such as returning a buffalo commons to the Great Plains are starved for funds. Farmers practicing organic agriculture and responsible animal husbandry constantly hear complaints about how their food is “too expensive,” yet we’re getting excited about a 300,000 dollar hamburger grown in a lab. Again, have we lost our minds?  Perhaps the fact that there are more cell phones than toilets in India should cause us to question our priorities.

To be clear, I'm not against acquiring new knowledge. I think it's great that we know how to do these things, and I fully support continued research in these areas. Every bit of knowledge is a potential tool, whether we end up using it or not, and I'm glad scientists are working on these things. No, what I'm criticizing are our priorities. We constantly hear laments about how we need more engineers. But why don't we hear as much about needing more farmers? Maybe we should give money to small-scale farmers and soil scientists before investing it in plantscrapers and meat labs.

Donate to the Land Institute

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Donate to the Permaculture Research Institute of USA

Donate to the Holistic Management Institute

Extraenvironmentalist interview with Dr. Michael Huesemann, author of Techno-Fix

The BBC gets in on the act: BBC News -  Future foods: What will we be eating in 20 years' time? Although, I do think the insects and algae ideas have some merit.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Corn-Pone Nazis

We've covered the continuing transformation of capitalist democracy to a totalitarian state many times  here - something we've called authoritarian capitalism. To keep the capitalist project going as living standards start to fall and profits shrink, increasingly drastic measures to keep the citizenry in line  must be taken, just as they were when communism started to fail. I use this term for a couple of  reasons - one to point out that authoritarian repression is just as possible under a capitalist economic  system as it was under a state-controlled economy (some would say more so), and to point out that China  is now not only the model for the new economy, but for the future world political order (unelected  oligarchies beholden to the financial class with no limits or checks on their power). The latest example is a truncheon law being passed hurriedly in Canada to whip Montreal protesters in line. This is used in combination with "kettling" tactics in an increasingly draconian crackdown north of the border in supposedly "enlightened" Canada.

More and more people are starting to  take notice. My colleague Bill Hicks did a two part post on some of the historical aspects of the Nazi regime that are often forgotten:
Though obviously much shorter lived, the German empire built by the Nazis followed a trajectory very similar to our own. Germany in the 1930s went through a period of rapid expansion not all that dissimilar to how America aggressively conquered a continent and then began expanding its reach overseas. The amount of physical territory acquired by Germany didn’t actually peak until 1942, at the time of its greatest advance on the eastern front but well beyond the point where its battlefield successes were going to be sustainable in the long run. Likewise, America’s “Operation Barbarossa” moment came in the wake of 9/11 when the Bush administration decided to double down on America’s planetary hegemony by launching two wars of choice in the Middle East while simultaneously expanding both our military presence around the globe and the national security state here at home. Ten years later, the national debt has nearly tripled in size and we have already passed the point where our “successes” at expanding the reach of the empire during the War on Terror will be sustainable in the long run.

The lesson here is again fairly simple: governments become more repressive during times of national crisis, and that repression increases as the situation becomes more desperate. Looking back at some of the greatest assaults on individual liberties throughout American history—the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1790s, the suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, the imprisonment of antiwar protestors during World War I, the Palmer raids during the first wave of Red scares, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the McCarthy hearings early in the Cold War, the Kent State shootings when the Vietnam War had become a hopeless quagmire and waterboarding, rendition, and warrantless wiretapping during the “War” on Terror—shows that they all occurred at a time when America was either actively at war or feared it was about to be attacked.

The fact is, if you were a non-Nazi “Good German” during this time—law abiding, able bodied, willing to work and not too vociferous in your complaints about the nation’s leadership—the first seven years or so of Hitler’s rule must have seemed like a glorious time to be alive. Even after Hitler launched the war and chronic shortages of nearly every consumer good became endemic, for awhile you could at least take national pride in the seemingly never ending stream of German military successes. In fact, unless you were one of the unlucky souls slogging it out in the brutal combat of the eastern front, it was only after the defeat at Stalingrad and the appearance of American and Royal Air Force bombers overhead with relentless regularity that your quality of life really began to suffer.
People think of fascism as just a man with a silly mustache. Because of their compartmentalized thinking, they cannot accept the tell-tale signs when they are wrapped in pro-America rhetoric. Simply put, people supported Hitler because in the short run things were better, he had the backing of wealthy industrialists, and they were the finest masters of twisting manipulating people's passions the world had yet seen at that point.

Morris Berman has an excellent post in the same vein documenting many of the things we've been talking about here. I urge you to read it in its entirety. He documents six major areas of creeping authoritarianism:
  • I. The creation of a political climate in which the police are out of control, arbitrarily free to  intimidate anyone for virtually anything.
  • II. The persecution of whistleblowers, protesters, and dissenters
  • III. The dramatic expansion of the surveillance of American citizens on the part of the National  Security Agency (NSA)
  • IV. The corruption of the judicial system by means of show trials of Muslim activists
  • V. The construction of political detention centers, also known as Communication Management Units  (CMU’s)
  • VI. The shredding of the Bill of Rights by means of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Some of his points:
In June 2011 the sheriff of Nelson County, North Dakota, called in a Predator B drone from the local Air Force base to capture three men who had stolen some cows. Once the unmanned aircraft located the suspects, police rushed in to make the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with the help of a Predator spy drone. It turns out that predator drones are frequently used for domestic investigations all over the U.S.—by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and by state and local law enforcement officials.

At the height of its insanity, the Stasi in East Germany was spying on 1 out of 7 citizens. The U.S. is now spying on 7 out of 7.

The NDAA, also known as the “indefinite detention bill,”  was signed into law by President Obama on 31  December 2011. It has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by Mr. Obama or any future  president to military detain U.S. citizens.  As in pre-Magna Carta days, you can simply be swept up and  put away forever—disappeared—with no explanation of why, no right to call a lawyer or anybody else, and  no right to a trial.  You can actually be tortured to death, if the government decides it is in the  national interest. The NDAA is probably the greatest rollback of civil liberties in the history of the  United States.

The bottom line, of course, is that if you destroy the judicial system, then finally nobody is safe. The government could wind up railroading anyone they don’t like, and I very much doubt that this possibility is far-fetched.  First they came for the Muslims...

Where do the suspected Muslim terrorists go? It turns out that the government is using secret prison facilities to house inmates accused of non-violent activities, i.e. of allegedly being tied to terrorist groups. As it turns out, these are not just Muslim groups; the CMU’s are also being used to house environmental activists.

Just as an aside, there are, in general, more people under “correctional supervision” in America than there were in the Russian gulag under Stalin, at its height. Writing in the New Yorker on 30 January 2012, Adam Gopnik declared: “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today.”
Berman concludes:
This leads me to my final point. The distinctive characteristic of American democracy, from 1776, was  the protection of the individual and the preservation of individual rights. That no longer exists.  Anyone is a potential terrorist now; anyone can be persecuted, prosecuted, and in effect, destroyed.  Democracy is only  possible if dissent is not only permitted, but also respected. This too is finished.  What does this mean for someone such as myself?, is something I lay awake nights thinking about. I have  published three books, and half a collection of essays, showing where we have gone wrong, predicting  our eventual collapse—indeed, this repression is part of that collapse—and arguing that the U.S. no  longer has a moral compass; that it is spiritually bankrupt. I run a blog that is anything but polite:  it says the U.S. is finished; that it is basically a corporate plutocracy, run by a gangster elite;  that the American people are basically morons, with little more than fried rice in their heads; and  that anyone with half a brain and the means to do so should emigrate before it’s too late. I’m not  really a threat to the U.S. government, largely because I am not a political activist and because it’s  not likely that more than 74 people out of 311 million regularly read my blog (it’s probably more like  24, in fact). But as the definition of terrorism widens in this country, what is to prevent the  creation of a category known as “intellectual terrorism” from arising, and putting folks like myself in  that category? What is to prevent the government from calling such activity a clear and present danger  to national security? As must be obvious by now, the government can do anything it wants to now; as in  Nazi Germany, we now have a government of men, not of laws. Indeed, the “laws” are little more than a  pretext for whatever the government wishes to do.

-When a country puts laws such as torture or indefinite detention or arbitrary assassination on the  books, sooner or later it will use these legal instruments.  They won’t just lie dormant, in other  words. As in the case of technology, once the mechanisms are there, the temptation to employ them  simply becomes too great to resist. That is what is happening today.

-In a world that is politically construed along Manichaean lines—which, as I have argued elsewhere,  America has been doing since Day 1—the first line of attack is against the enemy outside. It doesn’t  matter if we are talking about Protestants or Catholics or al-Qaeda operatives or infidels of any kind,  the first order of business is to go to war with them. But as the British anthropologist Mary Douglas  shows in her book Purity and Danger, or Norman Cohn demonstrates in The Pursuit of the Millennium, if  the war goes on long enough, inevitably the enemy is also seen to be a fifth column, i.e. within the  walls of the body politic itself.  They become Huguenots or Marrano Jews or heretics of whatever  stripe, and as in the case of Goya’s famous painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, the country begins to  eat itself alive.  Everybody becomes an enemy; no one is safe any longer. And so I believe that I, and  you, really do have reason to worry.
Slouching Toward Nuremberg (Dark Ages America)

That last point is one that worries me too. Are we going to have to watch what we say; watch what we do? Is this what the Founding Fathers wanted?

In a similar vein, Naomi Klein writes in The Guardian:
Some have argued that this present "war on women" is a war against progressivism – or a war against feminism, in particular. I would say, looking at the big picture, that it is more serious than that – not that those options are not plenty serious enough. I would say that the call for transvaginal probes, for gagging medical providers, for sending the state to shake a finger for an extra 72 hours at a distressed woman and stand between her and the discussion she is having with her inner-most and private conscience, is all part of the larger crackdown we see on privacy, private space, freedom and personal choice.

It is on the same spectrum of control: the will to gag Bradley Manning or Julian Assange also seek to gag a medical provider in South Dakota. The same impulse to peer into personal emails and listen to private phone calls that has led the NSA to pour billions into surveillance stations in Utah, is the same impulse of panopticon state control that wants to get between the sheets of men and women in consensual sexual decision-making, and monitor or restrict their access to condoms and contraception. And it is the same Big Brother impulse for control that maintains that what a woman does with her own care-provider is a function of state management.

But in fact, the bigger crackdown shows us that it is merely the genderized manifestation of state control. This impulse to mediate and regulate personal choices has been inflamed, I would argue, not by women being particularly uppity – but by people being uppity. The awakening of protesting and demanding behavior of Occupy communities and of Ron Paul supporters, of the unions in Wisconsin, and the students in Montreal, and the rebellious Greeks in Athens, has made the gatekeepers seek every kind of method of control available to them.
If Germany, one of the most intelligent and literate places on earth, with multiple newspapers and an  educated citizenry could not hold off fascism, then how can America, full of cranks, charlatans, opportunists, and zealots, seething with poverty and racial tension, where most people have no access to any  information outside of Fox News, and with no essential cultural connections binding us together, hold off the tide?

I'm surprised, given his recitation of the rollback of civil rights for Jews, Berman did not point out that  the exact same things are being done in the United States today using homosexuals as scapegoats.  Numerous states have taken the time to take legislative action to strip civil rights from gays (while simultaneously  ignoring more pressing issues like mass unemployment and deteriorating infrastructure). And now the corn-pone Nazis are now openly calling  for homosexuals to be rounded up into concentration camps and murdered, every last one. Please watch the following, and feel a chill go up your spine:

Laugh and dismiss these clowns all you like. That's exactly what they did with Hitler and his reprobate followers early on too. Who had  the last laugh there?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What If A Collapse Happened And Nobody Noticed?

Every once and awhile I'll be listening to a podcast with one or the other writers specializing on the subject of Peak Oil or collapse and the subject of timetables will come up. When will the collapse finally be here, the callers ask insistently, almost pleadingly, so that they can finally justify their investments in freeze-dried foods, water purification tablets and solid gold coins. Inevitably the guest will demur, and speak more in general terms. But I'm going to be the first pundit to go out on the limb and assign a timeline for the collapse. Spread it far and wide, and let's see just how good my predictive powers are. Are you ready? Here it is:

Right now.

What do they think a collapse is supposed to look like? It seems people just cannot just cannot get past the "Zombie Apocalypse" theory of collapse. They imagine hordes of disease-ridden folks dressed in rags stumbling around and fighting over cans of petrol and stripping cans of food from shelves. That's not what collapse looks like. It never has been. In fact, there's very little evidence that a Zombie Apocalypse style collapse ever occurred in the historical record. Instead we see subtle patterns of abandonment and decay that unfold over long periods of time. Big projects stop. Population thins. Trade routes shrink and people revert to barter. Things get simpler and more local. Culture coarsens. High art stagnates. People disperse. Expectations are adjusted downward. Investments are no longer made in the future and previous investments are cannibalized just to maintain the status quo. Extend and pretend is hardly a recent invention.

No, what happens in a collapse is very much more subtle than a Zombie Apocalypse. Things tend to look pretty normal for the following reasons:

1.) People and Institutions are resistant to change.
2.) The system has a formidable array of resources to preserve the status quo.
3.) Sheer momentum.
4.) Creeping Normalcy
5.) Denial

This is how history says collapses go down, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Based on recent archaeology, it seems this is how the Roman collapse unfolded was well. Although images of pillaging barbarians looting burning cities sticks in people's imaginations when they think of the fall of the Roman Empire, this was not the experience for most people according to recent scholarship. Big events tended to come down to us in the written record, but for ordinary people, it probably seemed much less dramatic. Yes, there were some famines and plagues, as there had always been. The population declined, but there were no apocalyptic battles or mass starvation. Many of the cities appear to have been continually inhabited. There were no mass graves, ruined cities or signs of malnutrition found in excavations. Most people who survived the plagues lived right through the transition from Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity to the Medieval period with remarkable continuity, just a change of institutions and expectations. But something clearly was happening, because we know it from history. Buildings got plainer. Citizens got poorer. Trade routes shrank. Economies became local. Lawlessness increased. The old Roman Empire had been around since far before anyone could remember, and as it broke down more and more and failed to do things it had once done easily, it must have seen to some people like the world was collapsing in on them. It wasn't, but something was happening. Much depended on who you were, where you were, what your expectations were, and how much you had invested in the status quo, both mentally and in terms of status and resources.

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia's life expectancy fell dramatically. It's birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia:
The savage cuts to Greece's health service budget have led to a sharp rise in HIV/Aids and malaria in the beleaguered nation, said a leading aid organisation on Thursday.

The incidence of HIV/Aids among intravenous drug users in central Athens soared by 1,250% in the first 10 months of 2011 compared with the same period the previous year, according to the head of Médecins sans Frontières Greece, while malaria is becoming endemic in the south for the first time since the rule of the colonels, which ended in the 1970s.

Reveka Papadopoulos said that following health service cuts, including heavy job losses and a 40% reduction in funding for hospitals, Greek social services were "under very severe strain, if not in a state of breakdown. What we are seeing are very clear indicators of a system that cannot cope". The heavy, horizontal and "blind" budget cuts coincided last year with a 24% increase in demand for hospital services, she said, "largely because people could simply no longer afford private healthcare. The entire system is deteriorating".
Greece on the breadline: HIV and malaria make a comeback

Is that not a die-off? What would a collapse look like? What should a collapse look like? Zombies? Mad Max? Or would it look like the following statistics from this article:
In Greece, we now have record unemployment, which includes the majority of young workers. Homelessness is up 20 percent, with soup kitchens in Athens reporting record demand, and the usually low suicide rate having doubled.

Portugal has complied completely with the austerity demands it accepted for its bailout deal, but its debt is growing and its economy is shrinking, its unemployment rate continues to reach new heights, there is a crisis in medical care, and a 40 percent rise in emigration, with the Portuguese government acknowledging its own failure by actually encouraging its citizenry to leave.

In Spain, austerity has  resulted in falling industrial output and deepening debt, with record unemployment and a stunning rate of 50 percent youth unemployment. And the Spanish government's incomprehensible response is to impose even more crushing austerity.

Ireland has fallen back into recession as austerity has led to falling economic output. A better future is being sacrificed, as young workers look for work abroad, "generation emigration" expected to number 75,000 this year.

The success of Italy's wealthy technocrat government was concisely summarized in similar terms:

        Italy's austerity measures are stunting activity in the euro-zone's third-largest economy, recent budget and economic data show, suggesting the steps are backfiring.

Italy's industrial production is falling while its rate of unemployment is at its highest in more than a decade, and its priceless cultural heritage is literally crumbling. But the wealthy technocrats themselves are ensuring that they they don't have to share the suffering.

Even in the Eurozone's stronger economies, such as Holland, austerity is hurting the economy, people, and culture, and risks backfiring even more.

The austerity program of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has led to a stagnant economy, with ten consecutive months of rising unemployment and factory output stalled and business confidence in decline.

Even economic powerhouse Germany, while taking advantage of the new flood of migrant workers fleeing Europe's weaker economies, is facing an austerity backlash.

Outside the Eurozone, the austerity program imposed on Britain by the relentlessly mendacious Cameron government has resulted in an economy that keeps shrinking, with the OECD saying it is back in recession, with unemployment soaring, and the overall brunt being borne by the elderly and minorities and the very young. An additional hundred thousand are predicted to be out of work by autumn.
Greece appears to be just the dress rehearsal for the rest of the world. And Japan has been experiencing diminished expectations, lower wages, deflation and declining birthrates since 1989. And I don't think I need to restate conditions in the United States: municipal bankruptcies, school closings, foreclosures, blackouts, roads being turned back into gravel, etc. And conditions are continuing to deteriorate. See this:
So many corporate-owned politicians in Washington these days seem to be going out of their way to work side by side with the Grim Reaper. They declare unnecessary wars. They tax us (not themselves) right down to the bone. They steal all our safety nets in order to have more money to add to THEIR safety nets. They bust our unions, steal our pension plans, enable Wall Street to invent pyramid schemes that ruin our economy, encourage big health insurance companies to cut us loose just when we need them the most, and allow Monsanto to poison our food, mutilate our seed stock and kill off our bees.

In America, death seems to be coming earlier and earlier to those who vote.

And now GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has come up with an even more sure-fire plan to help out his new BFF, the Grim Reaper. Now Romney wants to not only eliminate most U.S. housing subsidies, he wants to eliminate the entire department of Housing and Urban Renewal as well. That will certainly speed up the Grim Reaper’s efforts for sure.

According to Forbes magazine, “In a closed-door Florida fundraiser for donors tonight, Mitt Romney offered a rare glimpse into his policy plans if elected President. And, as NBC reports, he got quite trigger-happy.”

According to TruthOut, “Romney’s plan to eliminate HUD, assuming he didn’t shuffle its programs to other departments, would bring an end to critical programs like Section 8 housing vouchers and community development block grants. And eliminating housing assistance is even more problematic given the disproportionate percentage of veterans in the homeless population.”

But what does Romney’s latest brilliant idea actually mean in terms of you and me? It means once again that the rich continue to get richer and live longer while the rest of us just conveniently die off too soon — because homeless people have a lot shorter life span than folks happily housed in the Hamptons.

You know that senior housing complex in your town where seniors now get a rent break courtesy of HUD? That will be gone. And without HUD, frail and ailing seniors will soon be wandering the streets of your town, dying in alleyways and hogging up all the space in your cemeteries.

You know those low-income “housing projects” on the other side of your town where all the poor people now live? Those will be gone too. Too bad for them. And now desperate poor folks will be wandering around in your part of town, homeless too. And did I already mention that they will be desperate?

And all those homeless vets? There will be a lot more of them now — also wandering around your city or town.

Remember back in the 1970s when Reagan shut down all those mental institutions and suddenly we had all sorts of crazy people wandering around, hopefully taking their meds but probably not? And if Romney’s latest hot new scheme takes hold, even more of them will be back on your streets.

And physically handicapped people will have no place to live either. They too will be wandering around, trying to elude the Grim Reaper.

And the number of homeless children will dramatically increase. A lot more little kids will be living in cars — if they’re lucky.

And all of these homeless people, millions of them, will be pouring into the streets of your city or town, herded in your direction by both corporate-owned politicians in Washington and the Grim Reaper himself — who also will have a sharp eye out for YOU.
Romney’s new housing policy: Offering the Grim Reaper a big helping hand (FireDogLake)

And this: Austerity In America: 22 Signs That It Is Already Here And That It Is Going To Be Very Painful (Economic Collapse Blog)

This is what a collapse really looks like: The poorest and most vulnerable die first, out of sight, and everyone else just does what they can to survive. Peoples' priorities change: they concentrate on getting by from day-to-day rather than planning for the future. They stop getting married. They have less children or none at all. They live for today. They work harder for less. Taxes go up even as basic services are cut. Long term unemployment has been conclusively linked to greater mortality and susceptibility to illness, physical and mental. Would many of these people not still be alive today if were not for austerity measures and declining middle class opportunity?  Isn't that a die-off? It's been said that having children is a referendum on the future. Based on global birth rates, I think the human race is collectively registering a vote of "no confidence."

Picture the ruin porn of decaying Detroit's vacant buildings, empty fields, shuttered factories, abandoned houses, crumbling overpasses, bursting water mains, rusting cars, and encroaching wilderness. Does this not look like collapse to you? If this had happened over a span of one or two years, would we even have any trouble of recognizing it as such? If you asked people twenty or thirty years ago what a global economic collapse would look like, would they not describe something very similar to what we are now witnessing? Why don't we recognize it? Because it is happening too slowly? Because we believe things will "get back to normal?" What are we waiting for, a sign from heaven?

Who you are and where you are effects this dramatically too. Your position on the hierarchy determines how well insulated you are from collapse. Are you poor already? (not middle class, everyone is middle class) Then you probably won't notice as much difference. Are you filthy rich? (if you're reading this, I doubt it) Then you have enough power to preserve your wealth or enhance it for a while (at our expense, of course). If you are in the technocratic caste that serves global corporate interests, have the privilege of an advanced education, work in certain select industries, have a vast inheritance, or are just plain lucky; you can probably safely hold on to your lifestyle for a long time to come. Your children won't be so lucky, though. For those people who wonder why they don't feel like they are in a collapse, please consider, have you gotten a raise lately? What's your home worth? Has your rent gone up? Taxes and fees? Some people may answer positively to these questions, of course, but that number has a funny way of shrinking over time.

If you live in a big city it also might be easier to get by. Cities have more diverse industries and higher tax bases,  There is more wealth in cites, more social momentum, and more resources to buffer the negative effects of a downturn. For those with social connections closest to the levers of power and the imperial courts, they can manipulate the system to keep the swag coming from their enclaves in Manhattan, Orange Country, suburban D.C., and the Hamptons. Just as in the Roman collapse where the cities were bulwarks of wealth, culture and commerce while countryside became depopulated, rural areas will be hardest hit. Indeed, rural towns that were dependent upon one major industry like farming or steel manufacturing have already become ghost towns, and much of rural America is already a lawless region with little infrastructure; a battleground for drug gangs dotted with marijuana plantations and meth labs.

We have a hard time imagining that in the midst of a collapse everything would seem so normal. That day-to-day life would go one for most of us, seemingly unaffected, and that only after vast stretches of time had passed would we notice anything different. That many of us could hold on to our modern conveniences and familiar things. That many people wouldn't even notice what's going on at all. Short of a plague situation, there are not usually piles of bodies during a collapse. Most people don't die. Here's what really happens: People move in with relatives. They barter services. They defer health care. They stop going to school. They sell off their possessions. They go on the dole, if they can. They stop caring. You see people happy to have food and warmth rather than the latest consumer toy. You see entire households supported by one breadwinner. You see homeless shelters and soup kitchens fill up and food banks empty out. You see people hanging out on streetcorners during the day and living in tents. That's what a collapse looks like. Sound familiar? In fact, much of the world never moved from this mode of  existence in the first place. Even during the worst historical collapses people still ate good food, listened to music, used the latest technology, and drank beer and wine with friends on warm summer evenings.

So then why is the collapse occurring? Is it all about debt, as we've been led to believe? Or is it about something else?

Imagine if you were the leader of one of the world's major industrial nations, with millions of people, economies worth trillions, and huge armies at your command. Now imagine that your top generals and admirals have briefed you and told you that the fundamental substances underlying modern industrial civilization were running out. That there would be shortages. Scarcity.  Resource wars. Dwindling food supplies. Decreased industrial output. A shrinking tax base. Insurrection. What would you do? Panic? Or would you do exactly what world leaders are doing right now: using economic policies to shrink the economy to a lower level and cause a slow die-off? Claim that "there is no alternative", and that once "confidence" is restored, things will be back to normal? Consider:
Last year two military planning organizations went public with studies predicting that serious consequences from oil depletion will befall us shortly. In the U.S. the Joint Forces Command concluded, without saying how they arrived at their dates, that by 2012 surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear and that by 2015 the global shortfall in oil production could be as much as 10 million b/d. Later in the year a draft of a German army study, which went into greater detail in analyzing the consequences of peaking world oil production, was leaked to the press. The German study which was released recently is unique for the frankness with which it explores the dire consequences which may be in store for us.
And see this: Energy Security: an annotated military/security bibliography (2010 update) (Energy Bulletin)

Of course, to assuage the public's anger, governments will promise an imminent return to normalcy. What they mean is, slow collapse down to a slow enough pace that it is less noticeable. And they've been saying this for four years already. Want to bet they'll be saying it four years from now? And four years after that?

Once things did "stabilize" everything would return to a sort of normal and you would be considered a hero by the public. And things will look great, because people only judge things in contrast with the immediate past, not decades before. And in relative terms, after years of "austerity", things will be "recovering." Temporarily at least, until the next crisis hits. But by that time you hope there will be another sucker sitting in the White House, or 10 Downing Street, or the Élysée Palace while you spend your retirement skiing in Zurich or sunning yourself in Monaco. And the cycle begins again. Your family members, as "elites," will be unaffected, of course. Debts can be cancelled. It's just the excuse they need.

Really, austerity makes no sense otherwise. As Steve Keen put it in a recent interview, "they think causing an accelerated economic collapse will make it easier to pay their debts." Indeed. Even some of the world's most renowned economists have declared such policies insane. If even Nobel-prize winning economists think it's crazy, then why are governments doing it? But these economists are in the main, ignorant of Peak Oil, willingly or unwillingly. They can only think in terms of reactivating "growth" in a Keynesian sense. But based on the above, it's clear world leaders know that's not going to happen. What other reason could there be? After all, capitalism requires growth, and only after enough is destroyed can growth begin again. Is what we are witnessing now not a slow destruction? Austerity is a wildfire set by the political/banking elite classes to get rid of the underbrush and start anew.

Certainly they could implement more humane options if they so desired. But most of those would require a diminution in the power of corporations and banks. They need not fear socialist revolution as they did generations ago, because everyone knows that socialism has failed and that wealth redistribution makes everyone poorer (right?). Entire populations can now be effectively controlled by the media apparatus, and if all else fails, you can bust out the tear gas and pepper spray. From now on, all we will be permitted is what we can claw from the impersonal and shrinking market. Social Darwinism has finally been given free reign by the powers that be.

Of course they could just as easily come clean with all this and initiate policies that minimize the pain and suffering of the general population. They could implement policies that allow for graceful and gradual decline and stop spending money on malignant things like prisons, security, war, bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and needless consumerism in favor of public health measures, redistributing wealth, work programs, etc. They could cancel the debts. But today's governments are wholly owned subsidiaries of the banking establishments that control national economies, and they will have none of it. Over our dead bodies they say, we prefer your dead bodies. The real purpose of austerity and neoliberal economic doctrine is to get the remaining wealth of industrial society into their bank accounts before the shit hits the fan so they and their descendants can pick up the pieces in a post oil-crash world. They will continue to have the best of everything. Someone's going to have personalized genetic medicine and android servants, just not you or I. I myself am skeptical, however, that things will go as planned. This is why they need Authoritarian Capitalism.

People often wonder if the Romans knew at the time that their society was collapsing. Even if some  intelligent and literate Romans did recognize it, could they have done anything about it? We who know better at least know that we are on our own to deal with this. You know the truth. You don't have to flee to a bunker, and you don't have to die off either (of course we all will someday, but that's a different story...). Don't wait for politicians to tell you the truth about austerity, because they never will. You can see that this engineered collapse is exactly what we've been fearing all this time. No reason to fear the collapse-look around, you're already living though it even as you read these words, and you're presumably still here. Take a deep breath. Relax. Have a beer. Listen to some music. No Zombies Required.